Archive for the ‘MoDo’ Category

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

November 2, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz tells us all about “How Obama Lost America.”  He insists there are four explanations for the Democrats’ biggest problem heading into the midterms.  MoDo, in “A Cup of G.I. Joe,” says Howard Schultz of Starbucks says America is good at sending people to war but bad at bringing them home. He has a plan to help.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Flying Blind in Iraq and Syria.”  He asks with no reporters inside ISIS territory to document the war, how do we know what’s happnening on the ground?  Gee, Tommy, you’re a reporter and I’m sure you have a passport…  Mr. Kristof tells us “Teenagers Stand Up to Backpage,” and that some brave girls who say they were sold for sex on Backpage.com are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.  Mr. Bruni considers “The Pitiful Wimper of 2014″ and says voters abhor the status quo.  He also has a question:  When will someone present them with anything truly different? Here’s The Putz:

The midterms have featured many variables and one constant. Whether they’re running as incumbents or challengers, campaigning in blue or red or purple states, Democratic candidates have all been dragging an anchor: a president from their party whose approval ratings haven’t been north of 45 percent since last October.

The interesting question is why. You may recall that Mitt Romney built his entire 2012 campaign strategy around the assumption that a terrible economy would suffice to deny Barack Obama a second term. Yet throughout 2012, with the unemployment rate still up around 8 percent, Obama’s approval numbers stayed high enough (the mid-to-upper 40s) to ultimately win. Whereas today the unemployment rate has fallen to 6 percent, a number Team Obama would have traded David Axelrod’s right kidney for two years ago, but the White House hasn’t benefited: The public’s confidence is gone, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back.

So when and how was it lost? When President Bush’s second-term job approval numbers tanked, despite decent-at-the-time economic numbers, the explanation was easy: It was Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. But nothing quite so pat presents itself in Obama’s case, so here are four partial theories instead.

He gets blamed for Republican intransigence. This is the explanation that many Obama partisans favor, because it lets him mostly off the hook. The theory is that with the country as polarized as it is, and with the public inclined to blame the president for gridlock, the natural state for presidential approval ratings is a kind of regression toward the low 40s. This regression can be interrupted only by either some major unforeseen event or the emergence of a challenger — Romney for Obama, John Kerry for George W. Bush — who reminds voters that they dislike the other party more. But once the challenger is beaten, the process resumes: Just as Bush’s post-9/11 ratings declined steadily except when Kerry was on the scene, so too Obama’s numbers were doomed to decay once he won a second term.

It’s the economy — yes, still: This explanation raises an eyebrow at the last one and says, come on: If the economy were enjoying a 1990s-style boom, surely Obama would have a decent chance at Clinton-level approval ratings, gridlock or no gridlock! But even with the improving employment picture this recovery is still basically a disappointment, especially for the middle class. So the contrast between Obama’s position in 2012 and his weaker one today isn’t necessarily a case study in the economy not mattering. It’s an example of voter patience persisting for a while, and finally running out.

It’s Obamacare — yes, still. This is the closest equivalent to Bush and the Iraq War: The health care law is Obama’s signature issue, it remains largely unpopular (even if support for full repeal is weak), and its initial stumbling coincided with the sharpest second-term drop in the president’s approval. Fixing the website may have stabilized the system, but by design Obamacare still creates many losers as well as winners, and a persistent dissatisfaction with shifts in coverage and costs could be the crucial drag keeping Americans dissatisfied with their president as well.

It’s foreign policy — and competence. One of the interesting features of the 2012 campaign was that as much as the economy made Obama’s sales pitch challenging, he had an edge that Democratic politicians often lack: The public trusted him on foreign policy. But that trust began to erode with the Edward Snowden affair, it eroded further during our non-attack on Bashar al-Assad last fall, and recent events in Ukraine and Iraq have essentially made Obama’s position irrecoverable: His approval rating on foreign policy is around 35 percent in most recent polling.

But this harsh judgment probably isn’t explicitly ideological: The public isn’t necessarily turning neoconservative or pining for the days of Bush. Instead, it mostly reflects a results-based verdict on what seems like poor execution, in which the White House’s slow response to ISIS is of a piece with the Obamacare rollout and the V.A. scandal and various other second-term asleep-at-the-tiller moments. It’s a problem of leadership that reflects badly on liberalism but doesn’t necessarily vindicate conservatism.

And it’s because it isn’t explicitly ideological that the Democrats still have a chance in many states on Tuesday. From North Carolina to New Hampshire to Georgia, their candidates are being tugged downward by the Obama anchor, but they’re still bobbing, still only half-submerged, waiting for undecideds to break (or just stay home).

In many ways, Republicans have enjoyed in 2014 the kind of landscape they expected in 2012: a landscape in which nobody save Democratic partisans particularly supports President Obama anymore. What we’re about to find out is whether, amid that disillusionment, just being the not-Obama party is enough.

Next up we have MoDo:

When I close my eyes, I can easily flash back to a time when it was cool to call people in uniform “pigs” and “baby killers.”

If you had any family members in the police or military in the Vietnam era, you know how searing that was.

Now we give our veterans respect, early boarding at airports and standing ovations at ballgames. Yet it’s becoming clear that it’s not enough.

With no draft and fewer than 1 percent volunteering to serve, most Americans have no personal connection to anyone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan. There’s a schism between the warriors and the people they were fighting for.

Instead of ticker-tape parades, the veterans returned to find Americans in a crouch, wishing they could forget the military adventures of the last decade. Hollywood was turning out movies showcasing heroic veterans, but they were from World War II. And scandals scarred Walter Reed and an ill-prepared Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The government does a very good job of sending people to war,” Howard Schultz, the C.E.O. of Starbucks, told me in New York this past week, “and a very poor job of bringing them home.”

Schultz was more conversant with espresso shots than rifle shots when he was invited to speak to West Point cadets about leadership in 2011.

His father had served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II but never spoke of it. As a teenager, he sat in front of the TV with his mother when it was announced that young men with draft numbers from 1 to 125 were going to Vietnam.

“When I tell my story to my kids, they think I’m making it up: ‘What do you mean there was a lottery?’ ” he said. “And I remember it was literally a lottery where they picked out balls. And my number was 332, so I didn’t go. But I would have.”

After touring what he called “the sacred ground” of the military academy, he started to speak and choked up.

“It is I who should be learning from you,” he told the cadets. “You are the true leaders.”

It is good to cast your company in a patriotic glow, of course. But Schultz is also a man of open sentimentality, obsession with transformation and ferocious enthusiasms — be it for coffee, mermaids, basketball, biking, Israel or China. His epiphany at West Point led to an odyssey with veterans, a mission to get Americans to have more “skin in the game.”

“Before going to West Point, I had never even spoken to anyone in uniform,” he shares in a new book he wrote with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post war correspondent. “As I look back, I’m embarrassed.”

He put former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the Starbucks board, committed $30 million from his family foundation to projects including research on post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, and he visited the Pentagon, Walter Reed and military bases. He and Chandrasekaran produced “For Love of Country: What our veterans can teach us about citizenship, heroism, and sacrifice,” a slender volume with harrowing and heroic stories of war and coming home. Schultz’s proceeds will go to the Onward Veterans fund, which was created by the Schultz Family Foundation.

The coffee czar joined a growing list of corporations getting good P.R. by pledging to hire a million veterans, even though there are only about 200,000 post-9/11 veterans out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Schultz has hired 1,000 vets and spouses and committed to give jobs to 9,000 more by 2019.

He has organized a Concert for Valor on the Mall on Veterans Day, featuring stars from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem to Rihanna, a way to celebrate soldiers and urge the public to get involved with veterans’ groups vetted by Gates and Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The free concert, put on by Starbucks, HBO and JPMorgan Chase, will be shown live on HBO, even for those without subscriptions.

Schultz said that many vets he talked to had lost “a sense of core purpose.” He writes that tens of thousands of vets have grave injuries that will require a huge financial commitment and that healthy vets eager to join the work force “are too often viewed as damaged goods.”

There is a discernible P.T.S.D. bias among employers. Veterans Affairs estimates that 11 percent to 20 percent of the more than 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from P.T.S.D. I wondered if it was harder because of the sour view of the two wars. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey in April, 50 percent of the vets polled didn’t believe that Iraq was worth fighting and 41 percent didn’t believe Afghanistan was worth it.

Pfc. James Cathcart — suffering from P.T.S.D. and looking for work in Colorado in January — expressed his anguish to The Times’s Richard Oppel Jr. after ISIS raised its black flag over Falluja, Iraq, where so many Marines and soldiers died and were wounded capturing the city twice: “Lives were wasted, and now everyone back home sees that. It was irresponsible to send us over there with no plan, and now to just give it all away.”

But Schultz said that in his private chats with vets, “I never had one conversation where anyone brought up the politics. What I did hear, countless times, is, ‘I want to go back.’ ”

Chandrasekaran said that we need to weave the vets, recovering from the strain of multiple tours and terrains strewn with I.E.D.s, back into the American narrative.

“In 1946, if your neighbor was watering the street at night because he was kind of crazy from shell shock, you knew that everyone coming back wasn’t crazy because your brother or son or husband had served and was successfully transitioning,” he said. “We don’t have that common understanding anymore. So if someone goes and shoots up Fort Hood, there are all those people who think all vets are a bunch of killers-to-be. And that’s not the case. So the aperture needs to widen.”

Schultz produced glossy film clips for the concert. One shows the macchiato mogul, wearing an Army-green down vest, greeting troops with his blonde wife, Sheri, as heart-tugging piano music plays. I note that it is bound to make viewers wonder if he’s partly motivated by a desire to run for president.

“I have an interest in trying to make a difference,” he said. “I don’t know where that’s going to lead.” He believes that “the country is longing for leadership and for truth with a capital T.”

The American dream is frayed, he says, adding: “We’ve lost our collective and individual responsibility, and to a large degree our conscience, and that has to be addressed. And that is linked to a dysfunctional government and a lack of authentic, truthful leadership. Am I depressing you?”

If the people who send troops off to war aren’t risking their own children as well it’s easier.  Bring back the draft.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has accompanied its brutal takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria with the kidnapping and beheading of journalists. Any Western journalists who would dare to venture into ISIS territory today would be risking their lives every second. So the United States is now involved in the first prolonged war in the modern Middle East that American reporters and photographers can’t cover firsthand on a daily basis, with the freedom to observe and write what they please and with the sustained presence to offer perspective on how the story is evolving. That is not good.

But it gets worse. The Times reported last week that ISIS had one of its British hostages act as a combat reporter in a propaganda video from the Syrian town of Kobani, “forecasting that the town is about to fall to militants despite waves of American airstrikes,” and suggesting that ISIS was getting even more savvy in promoting its cause by adopting the techniques of a 24-hour news channel. “ ‘Hello, I’m John Cantlie,’ the hostage says in the video, dressed in black, ‘and today we are in the city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. That is, in fact, Turkey right behind me.’ ”

And it will get even worse. Dylan Byers, Politico’s media reporter, wrote on Oct. 23 that the F.B.I. had sent a bulletin to news organizations warning that ISIL had identified reporters and media personalities as “legitimate targets for retribution attacks” in response to the U.S.-led airstrikes.

What are we missing by not having reporters permanently present inside ISIS territory? A lot. We can’t answer for ourselves important questions: How is our bombing campaign being perceived? Is it drawing ISIS fighters and local Iraqi Sunnis closer together or pushing them apart? How is ISIS governing, running schools and the justice system, and how is this perceived by Iraqis and Syrians under its rule? What motivates so many losers and lost souls to join this jihadist movement? Do we have the right message directed at them? I could go on.

Retiring Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns recently authored a piece in Foreign Policy magazine with his parting advice to American diplomats. He quoted Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News giant, advising incoming diplomats that the “really critical link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.”

The same is true for reporters and photographers. Sure, polls, graphs and Twitter feeds are important. They are one form of data. But interviewing another human being about hopes and dreams, fears and hatreds, is also a form of data collecting and analysis — something the best diplomats, journalists and historians rely upon. You can’t capture in numbers a raised eyebrow or a wry smile or the fear in a refugee’s eyes or the regret in a militiaman’s voice. Sometimes just listening to someone’s silence speaks volumes.

I often reflect on interviews I did with Egyptian women at an all-female voting station in the poorest neighborhood in Cairo in the 2012 election that brought a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the presidency. Almost all of them had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. But when I asked why, not a single one cited religion. Instead they said that Morsi would bring jobs, security, sidewalks, better living conditions and an end to corruption — in short, better governance. Morsi was eventually toppled for bringing none of those, not because he was impious.

Recently, Vice News used the veteran Al Jazeera and Arabic photojournalist Medyan Dairieh to produce a compelling documentary from Syria, called “The Islamic State.” But that was a one-shot deal done with “conditions in order to get in and get out with your life,” Jason Mojica, the Vice News editor in chief, told a panel at N.Y.U., according to The Huffington Post.

I asked Mina al-Oraibi, assistant editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, how an Arabic daily covered ISIS:

“We have our correspondents supported by a few local stringers who risk their lives by being in touch with us from Iraq. However, we have a blackout from ISIS-controlled areas in Syria, especially Raqqa. In Iraq, our use of phones and emails to get information leaves us worried about the safety of these reporters, and often they are working without knowing how they will eventually get paid. … Having said that, our coverage is enriched by networks of Iraqis and Syrians reaching out to tell us their stories, in addition to relations with Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs who have either interacted with some ISIS militants or had relations with them when they were under other banners.”

But the reality, she added, “is that much of what we know is either from ISIS militants, or anecdotal stories from observers or people with families in places controlled by ISIS.”

Indeed, ISIS is telling us what it wants us to know through Twitter and Facebook, and keeping from us anything it doesn’t want us to know. So be wary of what anyone tells you about this war — good, bad or indifferent. Without independent reporting on the ground, we’re in for some surprises. If you don’t go, you don’t know.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

If prostitution of children is illegal, why is it that we allow an estimated 100,000 underage girls and boys to be sold for sex in America each year — many on a single American website, Backpage.com?

That’s a reflection of law enforcement priorities, but several brave girls who allege that they were pimped on Backpage are trying to change them. They are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.

Two young women who say they were each sold on Backpage at age 15, and raped hundreds of times as a result, are suing the company in Boston in federal court. Another suit is winding its way through Washington State courts, pursued by three girls who say they, too, were sold for sex on Backpage — in the case of two of them, when they were 13 years old.

The girls in the federal suit are represented pro bono by a major Boston law firm, Ropes & Gray, which has five lawyers on the case. The suit charges that Backpage has “perfected a business model that profits substantially from aiding and participating with pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children.”

“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike,” says one of the girls who is a plaintiff in the federal suit. “Men would view their options, and if I seemed like the best one, they would call.”

Now 17, she says she was sold for sex on Backpage when she was 15 and 16; she estimates that she was raped 1,000 times as a result. She is seeking damages and whatever injunctions the court finds appropriate, but she is not explicitly seeking to close down the entire Backpage site.

Some readers may scoff that this is about censorship of free speech. No, it’s about human rights — because one of the most searing rights abuses in America is the sexual exploitation of children.

Nor is the issue prostitution. Whatever one thinks of legalizing sexual transactions among adults, we should all be able to agree that children shouldn’t be peddled like pizzas.

The federal suit lays out what it says is a pattern of Backpage blocking efforts by police or families to trace missing girls and boys. According to the suit, Backpage systematically scrubs photos in sex ads of metadata that would allow authorities to track down people in them.

Backpage also makes it hard to search for missing girls by allowing scrambled phone numbers in sex ads. If you sell a dog on Backpage in the pet section, you must post a numeric phone number; sell sex with a girl, and you can use a nonsearchable version — such as zero12-345-six78nine — that makes it more difficult for police or family members to locate a missing child with a simple Internet search.

Likewise, Backpage allows ads to be paid for with untraceable credit cards or even with Bitcoin. It doesn’t require any age verification or real names.

I first wrote about Backpage a few years ago when it was used to advertise a 13-year-old girl being enslaved in Brooklyn. One day the pimp dropped her off at an apartment building and waited at the entrance to make sure she did not run. She hurt too much to endure another rape, so instead of going to the apartment that had ordered her, she randomly pounded on another door and begged to use the telephone. She called her mother, and then dialed 911. The pimp is now in prison, but Backpage profited on the ad — as it always does.

Attorneys general from 48 states have written a joint letter to Backpage, pleading with it to stop exploiting children.

Liz McDougall, the lawyer for Backpage, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuits, but she told me: “We remain committed to effective measures of prevention and successful prosecution of this heinous crime.”

That’s absurd. Backpage claims to report possible sex-trafficking cases, but Yiota Souras, the general counsel of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says that “Backpage’s reporting is not conducted in good faith.” Souras says that if parents report to Backpage that their teenage daughters are being sold on the site, the company doesn’t always remove the ads or prevent new ads for the children from being posted.

The lawsuit says Backpage floods the authorities with reports of possible underage girls to pretend to be helpful, while actually impeding the effort. Meanwhile, Backpage refuses to use screening software that might actually detect ads for underage girls.

Americans rightly waxed indignant at the way the Roman Catholic Church or Penn State turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of minors. But our entire society does the same thing.

Isn’t it time to stop?

Lastly we get to Mr. Bruni:

Imagine a house ablaze. Now picture a team of firefighters pulling up to it. They behold the flames shooting through its roof. They feel its heat on their faces. And they get in position to fight it.

With squirt guns.

That house is America, and those rescuers are the candidates in these misbegotten midterms.

We’re living through a chapter of uncommonly durable and pronounced pessimism, when a majority of adults don’t think their kids will have as many opportunities as they did; when there’s waning faith in social mobility and a widening gap between rich and poor; when our standing in the world is diminished and our sense of insecurity has intensified accordingly; when the environment itself is turning on us and demanding the sorts of long-term adjustments we’ve seldom been good at.

And yet nothing about the discussion during these long months of campaigning has fully reflected that or been scaled to it. None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep. No one has stepped forward with originality, authenticity and a pledge to tear up the dreary political script of recent years and lead us into a future that we’re ceasing to believe in.

In Iowa, Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley talked of Harleys, hogs and chickens. In Florida, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott bickered over a fan. In Colorado, Mark Udall’s focus was more womb-centric than “The Handmaid’s Tale.” While I believe strongly in reproductive freedom and salute him for defending it, I also wish I could tell you, without intensive research, what sort of script he has for restoring this country’s confidence.

But I don’t know the answer — for him or for just about any of the other 2014 candidates. I know where they stand on the minimum wage and maybe on immigration reform, though there’s been a whole lot of waffling there. I know that they think the Islamic State is evil and Ebola scary.

But a visionary plan? A detailed route back to the optimism at the core of the American character? I didn’t catch those, so I’d be wary of any party leader or pundit who tells you that there’s a clear moral to the outcome of Tuesday’s voting, a bold lesson. After a sometimes breathtakingly cynical campaign bereft of big ideas, few Americans will actually be voting for anything or anyone, at least in the congressional contests.

The midterms have had too little real substance to have too much predictive relevance.

In The Los Angeles Times a month ago, the columnist Doyle McManus drew attention to a poll that “asked voters if they intended their choices to send a message to Washington.”

“Only 13 percent said they would be voting in support of Republican policies,” McManus wrote. “An even smaller number said they would be voting in favor of Democratic ideas. The largest group of all, 42 percent, said they didn’t have a bigger message in mind at all.”

Many of them won’t even like whichever politician they wind up voting for. In Senate race after Senate race, they’re choosing between the lesser of evils. At least as many voters have unfavorable as favorable views of both the Democratic and Republican candidates in Iowa, in North Carolina, in Georgia and in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell, the Republican, marveled recently at a sinkhole that had opened up in the state’s moist earth. I think of that maw as nature’s response to the election, its attempt to wipe the slate clean, or rather swallow it whole and start from scratch.

It was in Kentucky that the Democratic aspirant, Alison Lundergan Grimes, provided the election’s defining moment, refusing to say whether she’d voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. With an eye toward whatever calibrations might constitute a winning formula, she tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side.

Analysts of this election have cast it as a referendum on competence, a referendum on Obama, a referendum on an economic recovery that’s been slow and spotty. There’s some truth to each of those observations, and to the sum of them.

But if Republicans wrest control of the Senate, it will mostly reflect the particularities of the individual races and states themselves, and the larger takeaway, to the extent that there is one, will be the same as the takeaway from most of the last five elections. The turnover in the chamber will be a retort to the status quo, which is a Democratic Senate majority, along with a Democratic president.

For more than a decade, consistently, more Americans have said that the country is on the wrong track than have said it’s on the right one. This is remarkable.

And in almost every election during that span, the party in control of the White House, the Senate or the House of Representatives has changed. It’s been a nearly constant seesaw, with a sustained message from voters: What we have isn’t working. Give us different.

If you’re the candidate of continuity and sameness, whether a Republican or a Democrat, you’re quite likely vulnerable. That’s why Udall’s aides raised a stink when his opponent, Cory Gardner, ran a TV commercial underscoring the generations of politicians in the Udall family. Udall said it represented an out-of-bounds personal attack, which was ridiculous. What it did was weld Udall to the status quo, and that rightly spooked him.

Being welded to the status quo obviously spooks Hillary Clinton as well, and that’s why, if she runs for president, she’ll bang the “first woman ever” drum in a manner that she didn’t last time around. It’s a way to argue that putting another Democrat in the White House after Obama isn’t mere perpetuation.

The leaders of whichever party fares better than expected or at least better than the other in the midterms will talk a lot about 2016, claiming not just victory but a proven connection with the zeitgeist and what Americans really want.

Your correct response to this inevitable aria of self-congratulation will be laughter, or maybe tears, because what Americans crave and fantasize about is difference of a magnitude and a passion — you might even say an audacity — that was absent from this election cycle.

Here’s a wager for 2016, based not on 2014 but on our trudge through the doldrums and government sclerosis of so many years now: The spoils will go to the candidate who comes to the conflagration with more than a toy and a piddling amount of water.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Bruni

October 19, 2014

It’s a quiet day today since The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Kristof are off.  In “The Ebola Scare” The Putz gurgles that sometimes incompetence can be a lot more frightening than any conspiracy theory.  MoDo has been watching TV again.  In “An Affair to Remember, Differently” she squeals that infidelity is as fascinating as ever, just ask the co-creator of Showtime’s “The Affair.”  Mr. Bruni, in “The Virus of Cynicism,” says Ebola is Obama’s presidency — and the efficacy of government — in a petri dish.  Here’s The Putz:

I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, but I did: While flying from D.C. to Dallas last week, just after the news came out that an Ebola-infected nurse had been allowed to fly while running a fever, I went back and read the opening pages of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

In King’s epic, perhaps his finest, a superflu with a 99.4 percent fatality rate accidentally escapes from a desert laboratory and lays waste to civilization. King being King, supernatural developments ensue for the survivors. But the book is at its most terrifying in the unraveling with which it opens, when the only bogeyman that matters is a hacking cough that spreads and spreads and spreads.

To reread these pages now — in a time of national, well, not panic but least disquiet over the handling of Ebola inside our borders — is to be struck both by parallels and by crucial differences between the scenario King conjured and what we fear today.

The parallels lie, not surprisingly, in the realm of official incompetence. King’s superflu escapes because various computerized safeguards fail; it spreads because of interagency chaos in chasing down patient zero; it compromises a C.D.C. facility whose safeguards turn out to be insufficient. The chaos swirling around the Dallas Ebola infections has followed this kind of pattern: the patient sent home undiagnosed; the unprepared hospital and the infected nurses; the C.D.C.’s weird slowness in taking over; the confident governmental assurances giving way to blame-shifting, double talk and the appointment of a political hack as Ebola princeps … er … sultan … er, czar.

But the differences are interesting as well. King’s novel, infused with 1970s-era paranoia, imagines a government that blunders constantly but is also malignantly competent — brilliant enough to design a superflu capable of killing 99 percent of humanity, tyrannical enough to suppress media reports with martial law and murder, ruthless enough to swiftly spread the superflu behind the Iron Curtain to make sure our enemies go down with us.

This part of the novel’s vision is of a piece with all of modern conspiracy culture, which requires a certain level of omnicompetence to sustain its theories about covered-up alien landings or 9/11 inside jobs.

But conspiracy culture, while always resilient, has had a tough go of it of late. From the Iraq war to Hurricane Katrina and various Obama-era debacles, the public has been steadily conditioned to fear government incompetence much more than it fears secret conspiracies against the public good. Instead of the Bilderbergers and the Trilateralists and the cigarette-smoking man, it’s Mike “heckuva job” Brown and George “slam dunk” Tenet and whoever was allegedly in charge of the V.A. hospital system who haunt our collective unconscious these days. People still indulge the occasional “House of Cards”-style fantasy of all-powerful political puppetmasters, but what actually scares us is the idea of the Ebola epidemic being managed by the gang from “Veep.”

I suspect that’s part of why Obama-era scandals that may actually involve secret government machinations — from the N.S.A. revelations to the harassment of journalists and the politicized overreach of Lois Lerner’s I.R.S. division — haven’t fixed themselves in the public imagination, at least among people who don’t have an explicit ideological or political interest at stake. Wisely or not, Americans have trouble imagining the White House that gave us the HealthCare.gov rollout micromanaging partisan I.R.S. chicanery, or the national security bureaucracy that couldn’t see 9/11 or the Islamic State coming doing anything all that Machiavellian with a firehose’s worth of online data.

Likewise with Ebola: Of course you can find wild conspiracy theories, but the idea of a successful government cover-up — secret body bags, muzzled journalists — is basically laughable. Instead, the baseline anxiety is all about bureaucratic incompetence exacerbated by insouciance, with conservatives fearing that a liberal administration won’t be willing to go far enough — in terms of travel restrictions and quarantines — to effectively contain the disease’s spread.

Because plausible arguments have been offered for and against a travel ban, the administration’s actual response will be an interesting case study. As much as the authorities have fouled up so far, we’ve only had a few infections. If the White House continues to resist calls for more dramatic measures, and we manage to contain Ebola domestically, then the president and his appointees will look more competent and levelheaded than their critics — a result that’s all too rare these days.

Given the track record, however, it’s easy to imagine somewhat less fortunate results, and travel restrictions increasingly seem like an appropriate hedge against ongoing domestic incompetence.

But it would be welcome, and then some, to watch a competent strategy unfold that rendered that opinion obsolete.

And then, our faith in government’s effectiveness partially restored, we can all get back to worrying about what’s being secretly cooked up in the Nevada desert.

Faith in government effectiveness will only be possible after all of the current crop of Republicans have been voted out of office.  Next up we have MoDo’s fizzing:

We live in a world awash in unreliable narrators.

Officials at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital were unreliable narrators on Ebola. The Internet is bristling with unreliable narrators who prefer their takes to the truth. The unsavory husband and wife in the thriller “Gone Girl” are such chillingly unreliable narrators that they easily beat out the undead unreliable narrator, Dracula, at the box office. And let’s not even start on Fox News.

So now comes the riveting “Rashomon” in Montauk, Showtime’s “The Affair,” with Ruth Wilson and Dominic West offering alternating he recalls-she recalls versions of the same story in each show, as they get swept up in sexual infidelity and a serious crime during a shimmering summer.

I went to Brooklyn to talk to West — the British actor who played the raffish Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire” on HBO — and the show’s co-creator, Sarah Treem, as they shot scenes at a school there.

West’s character, Noah, is a novelist and teacher who lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with his wife, played by Maura Tierney, and four kids. He’s happily married but feeling insecure about the lackluster performance of his first novel. It gets worse when his wife giggles at his facial expression during lovemaking, and he’s taunted by his arrogant father-in-law, a famous fiction writer who owns the oceanfront mansion in the Hamptons where the family is spending the summer.

When West meets Wilson’s comely Alison, a diner waitress and Montauk native who is also married to someone she loves (Joshua Jackson) and also feeling uncertain and anxious, the chase is on.

But who’s chasing whom? In West’s memory, Alison is sultry and curvy, wearing sexy outfits and seducing him. In Alison’s version, she’s wan and withdrawn, still mourning the drowning death of her small son and dubious about Noah’s aggressive blandishments.

Treem, a playwright and “House of Cards” writer, created “The Affair” with Hagai Levi, with whom she also worked on HBO’s “In Treatment.”

Treem said the new show uses sex to illustrate that the characters are “trying to connect and they fail at it all the time. I think we have a lot of sex in this show, but in terms of the sex where they’re actually unified, that happens very rarely.”

Treem is a newlywed. In June, she married Jay Carson, a former campaign spokesman for Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton who is a producer on “House of Cards” and the father of Treem’s nearly 2-year-old son. Yet the brainy, alluring 34-year-old has an intriguingly jaded philosophy of romance.

“I have this belief that, in all relationships, there’s this long erotic moment that happens at the beginning of the relationship,” she said. “It’s like the pole of a tetherball court, and then everything else is just basically that damn ball going around, winding and unwinding around that one erotic moment, and you’re trying to always get back to that incredible moment of connection with somebody, and it’s gone forever.”

She said they put up a quote by the poet Robert Hass in the writers’ room, the final line of a passage where he describes the sensation of making love to a woman: “I felt a violent wonder at her presence like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat, muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her. Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.”

I tell her that Carson asked me if he should be worried, given how knowingly his wife writes about infidelity.

She laughed, replying, “I wrote the show when I was still single at 31, so at that point in your life you see a lot of infidelity. You have married men coming on to you. You see your friends already in affairs. From my perspective at that point, infidelity was all over the place. Now, being married, I would like my marriage to work. I love him, and I want to be faithful to him, and I want him to be faithful to me.” But, she adds matter-of-factly, “you probably have a 20 percent chance, maybe a 10 percent chance, of actually getting through an entire marriage with no infidelity.”

When I ask her if she thinks that men are more prone to cheat, she instantly replies: “Yes, I do.”

West agrees that the show may be “a shag-a-thon,” as he merrily put it, but its real subject is meant to be marriage.

“When you have four kids, inevitably your sex life suffers,” said West, himself a father of four. “But, for me, in my 20s and 30s, the stakes are much higher if you’re unfaithful. I feel, as you get older, the stakes get a lot lower. I don’t think infidelity would bother either me or my wife so much as if anything happened to our children, for instance. It ceases to be the primary anxiety.”

When I mentioned that it was interesting how, in Noah’s remembrance, Alison has fuller breasts, West’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Does she?” he said, laughing. “Is that right? Well spotted.”

The actor said that, after playing Iago and the English serial killer Fred West, he yearned for a more heroic role.

“I was really keen to play a good guy,” he said, with a wry smile. “So this is the good guy I’m playing — a cheating husband.”

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

We have no clue at this point how far Ebola could spread in the United States — and no reason for panic.

But one dimension of the disease’s toll is clear. It’s ravaging Americans’ already tenuous faith in the competence of our government and its bureaucracies.

Before President Obama’s election, we had Iraq, Katrina and the meltdown of banks supposedly under Washington’s watch. Since he came along to tidy things up, we’ve had the staggeringly messy rollout of Obamacare, the damnable negligence of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the baffling somnambulism of the Secret Service.

Now this. Although months of a raging Ebola epidemic in West Africa gave the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sufficient warning and ample time to get ready for any cases here, it was caught flat-footed, as its director, Tom Frieden, is being forced bit by bit to acknowledge. Weeks ago he assured us: “We are stopping Ebola in its tracks in this country.” Over recent days he updated that assessment, saying that “in retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight,” federal officials could and should have done more at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

President Obama made his own assurances and then corrections. He said back in mid-September that “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.”

Well, we weren’t wholly prepared, and the event was never unlikely: This country is a potent magnet for travelers, with a proudly (and rightly) open posture toward the world. People stream in all the time. And a federally funded study published in early September calculated a nearly 20 percent “probability of Ebola virus disease case importation” within three weeks. Within four, Thomas Duncan, the Liberian man who was initially (and inexplicably) turned away from the Dallas hospital, was at last admitted and treated for Ebola.

After that screw-up by hospital officials, Frieden told us that the right protocols were in place. But it now appears that Duncan wasn’t immediately put in isolation; that nurses attending to him were confused about the proper use of protective garb; and that the clothing they wore may have left bits of skin exposed.

We’ve learned of the C.D.C.’s bizarrely permissive attitude toward the hospital workers who came in contact with Duncan or his lab samples. While they should have been on restricted movement, one took flightsafter first calling the C.D.C. for a green light — from Texas to Ohio and back. Another boarded a cruise ship. By Monday, will we find out about a C.D.C.-approved game of Twister in the hospital staff room?

This is bad, not because it means that a large number of Americans are at risk of infection but because it confirms the sloppiness of the very institutions in which we place the most trust. It’s spreading the virus of cynicism.

And the C.D.C.’s missteps have much different implications from the errors made by the Secret Service and by Veterans Affairs. Individual Americans don’t fear that the Secret Service’s lapses will endanger them personally, and many of them aren’t directly affected by the wrongdoing of hospitals for veterans. But they can imagine themselves on one of those flights or in some other closed space with an infected person. They feel vulnerable.

Because the Ebola response deepens doubt about the current government, it almost certainly hurts incumbents in the midterm elections and favors change. That’s unhappy news for Democrats as they fight to retain control of the Senate, and by the end of last week, they were spooked. I heard that not only in my conversations with party strategists but also in the statements of Democratic candidates themselves.

Bruce Brayley, locked in a tight Senate race in Iowa, publicly upbraided the Obama administration for what he characterized as a sluggish response. Al Franken, running for re-election in Minnesota, said there should at least be serious consideration of the sorts of flight restrictions that Obama has dismissed. Even Jay Carney, the president’s former spokesman, mentioned such restrictions as potentially wise policy.

Rationally or not, this is one of those rare moments when Americans who typically tune out so much of what leaders say are paying rapt attention, and Obama’s style of communication hasn’t risen fully to the occasion. Even as he canceled campaign appearances and created a position — Ebola czar — that we were previously told wasn’t necessary, he spoke with that odd dispassion of his, that maddening distance.

About the ban, he said, “I don’t have a philosophical objection necessarily.” About the czar, he said that it might be good to have a person “to make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward.” He’s talking theory and calligraphy while Americans are focused on blood, sweat and tears.

Ebola is his presidency in a petri dish. It’s an example already of his tendency to talk too loosely at the outset of things, so that his words come back to haunt him. There was the doctor you could keep under his health plan until, well, you couldn’t. There was the red line for Syria that he didn’t have to draw and later erased.

With Ebola, he said almost two weeks ago that “we’re doing everything that we can” with an “all-hands-on-deck approach.” But on Wednesday and Thursday he announced that there were additional hands to be put on deck and that we could and would do more. The shift fit his pattern: not getting worked up in the early stages, rallying in the later ones.

It’s more understandable in this case than in others, because when it comes to statements about public health, the line between adequately expressed concern and a license for hysteria is thin and not easily determined. Still, he has to make Americans feel that he understands their alarm, no matter how irrational he deems it, and that they’re being leveled with, not talked down to, not handled. And he has a ways to go.

“If you were his parent, you’d want to shake him,” said one Democratic strategist, who questioned where Obama’s passion was and whether, even this deep into his presidency, he appreciated one of the office’s most vital functions: deploying language, bearing, symbols and ceremony to endow Americans with confidence in who’s leading them and in how they’re being led.

Right now in this country there’s a crisis of confidence, and of competence, and that’s the fertile ground in which the Ebola terror flowers. That’s the backdrop for whatever steps Obama and Frieden take from here. With the right ones, they can go a long way toward calming people who are anxious not just about Ebola but about America. I don’t even want to think about the wrong ones.

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

October 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting Superman is super hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask any general — or gardener.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 28, 2014

In “The Cult Deficit” the Putz tries to ‘splain why a creative society needs fringe groups and gurus.  In “From Pen and Phone to Bombs and Drones” MoDo says in needing Arab allies to help in the fight against ISIS, we turn a blind eye to their record on women.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  “Who Had it Easier, Reagan or Obama?”  He says the final answer will have to come from historians years from now, but he seems to think a look at several critical areas offers some hints.  Mr. Kristof considers “Stranger Danger and Guns,” and also has a question:  Is knocking on a stranger’s door dangerous? If so, maybe that’s because we tolerate a society in which unregulated guns are prevalent.  In “The Wilds of Education” Mr. Bruni says the landscape that students romp across shouldn’t be too tame.  Here’s the Putz:

Like most children of the Reagan era, I grew up with a steady diet of media warnings about the perils of religious cults — the gurus who lurked in wait for the unwary and confused, offering absolute certainty with the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.

Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on. Some strange experiments have aged into respectability, some sinister ones still flourish, but over all the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms. Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.

Twice in the last few months I’ve encountered writers taking note of this shift, and both have made a similar (and provocative) point: The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.

The first writer is Philip Jenkins, a prolific religious historian, who argues that the decline in “the number and scale of controversial fringe sects” is both “genuine and epochal,” and something that should worry more mainstream religious believers rather than comfort them. A wild fringe, he suggests, is often a sign of a healthy, vital center, and a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack “a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry” as well.

The second writer is Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, venture capitalist and controversialist, who includes an interesting aside about the decline of cults in his new book, “Zero to One” — officially a book of advice to would-be entrepreneurs, but really a treatise on escaping what he regards as the developed world’s 40-year economic, technological and cultural malaise.

The implications of Jenkins’s argument are specific to religion. Cults can be dangerous, even murderous, but they can also be mistreated and misjudged (as Koresh’s followers were, with fatal consequences); moreover, spiritual experiments led by the charismatic and the zealous are essential to religious creativity and fruitful change. From the Franciscans to the Jesuits, groups that looked cultlike to their critics have repeatedly revitalized the Catholic Church, and a similar story can be told about the role of charismatic visionaries in the American experience. (The enduring influence of one of the 19th century’s most despised and feared religious movements, for instance, is the reason the state of Utah now leads the United States on many social indicators.)

Thiel’s argument is broader: Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.

This means that every transformative business enterprise, every radical political movement, every truly innovative project contains some cultish elements and impulses — and the decline of those impulses may be a sign that the innovative spirit itself is on the wane. When “people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known,” Thiel writes, there was more interest in groups that claimed access to some secret knowledge, or offered some revolutionary vision. But today, many fewer Americans “take unorthodox ideas seriously,” and while this has clear upsides — “fewer crazy cults” — it may also be a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.”

Thiel’s view of our overall situation is hotly contested, not surprisingly, on his own Silicon Valley turf. The Internet is cluttered with debates (some friendly, some less so) between Thiel and his peers over whether innovation has actually slowed down, whether recent technological progress is actually as disappointing as he frequently suggests.

But in the intellectual realm, the stagnation he identifies seems readily apparent, since whole swaths of political, ideological and religious terrain that fascinated earlier generations have been mostly written off in ours. As Mark Lilla noted in a recent New Republic essay, it’s not just that alternatives — reactionary, radical, religious — to managerial capitalism and social liberalism are no longer much embraced; it’s that our best and brightest no longer seem to have any sense of why anyone ever found alternatives worth exploring in the first place.

Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists.

Or maybe the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk.

Next up we have MoDo:

The president was at the United Nations on Wednesday urging young people across the Muslim world to reject benighted values, even as America clambers into bed with a bunch of Middle East potentates who espouse benighted values.

President Obama has been working hard to get a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates because they provide cover in the fight against the brutal, metastasizing threat of the Islamic State, a “network of death” known as ISIS, that our blunders — both of action and inaction — helped create.

He and Secretary of State John Kerry have cajoled this motley crew for the coalition — American warplanes are doing most of the airstrikes in Syria — even though in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, powerful elements are financing some of the same terrorists that their governments have been enlisted to fight.

At the U.N. on Tuesday, in a scene in a fancy-old New York hotel that evoked Marlon Brando making the peace with the heads of the five families in “The Godfather,” President Obama offered a tableau of respect to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“This represents partners and friends in which we have worked for very many years to make sure that security and prosperity exists in the region,” he said.

When American presidents rain down bombs on Muslim countries, they use the awful treatment of women in the Middle East as one of their justifications.

In his speech at the United Nations, President Obama said he wanted “to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world” and urged them to create “genuine” civil societies.

“Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed,” he said. “And that’s why we support the participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and the economy.”

Yet, because we need the regressive rulers in the Persian Gulf to sell us oil and buy our fighter jets and house our fleets and drones and give us cover in our war coalitions, we don’t really speak out about their human rights violations and degradation of women as much as we should. The Obama administration was sparked to action by the videos of ISIS beheading two American journalists. Yet Saudi Arabia — wooed to be in the coalition by Kerry with a personal visit this month — has been chopping off heads regularly, sometimes for nonlethal crimes such as drugs or sorcery.

The president should just drop the flowery talk and cut to the chase. Americans get it. Let’s not pretend we’re fighting for any democratic principles here.

America failed spectacularly in creating its democratic model kitchen with Iraq. So now we have to go back periodically and cut the grass, as they say in Israel, to keep our virulent foes in check.

It is pre-emption. But the difference with President Obama’s pre-emption is that there is an actual threat to the globe from a vicious, maniacal army. President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice made up a threat to America from a contained and diminished Saddam Hussein to justify pre-emption and serve their more subterranean purposes.

Eight months ago, the president was reduced to threatening to act without Congress, warning: “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”

Now he’s brandishing bombs and drones on a scale he’s never done before. The ex-community activist elected on a peace platform has grown accustomed to coldly ordering the killing of bad guys.

“It’s hard to imagine that in his wildest dreams — or nightmares — he ever foresaw the in-box he has,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But, as Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, said once, when asked what disrupted his best-laid plans: “Events, dear boy, events.”

As the U.S. woos the Arab coalition, Arab leaders are not speaking out against the atrocities of ISIS against women.

“It is the obligation and duty of Arab countries, where men always feel so possessive about their mother, their wife, their daughter, to condemn ISIS’s violence against women,” said Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. “Why don’t they say a word?

“I’ve been working with women in the Middle East for 40 years, and I’ve never seen such brutality, such barbarism as that which ISIS is committing against women. It is unbelievable.”

We are so far from where the dunderheads of the Bush administration were in 2003, with George W. Bush bragging about his cakewalk of weakening dictators, forging democracies and recognizing the rights of women. As it has rampaged like a flesh-eating virus through the region, ISIS has been targeting professional women. An Iraqi lawyer who worked to promote women’s rights was grabbed from her home last week after she posted complaints on her Facebook page about ISIS’s “barbaric” destruction of mosques and shrines in Mosul. Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy was tortured for days; then a masked firing squad executed her on Monday and then told her family she could not have a funeral.

In a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “ISIS’s Cruelty Toward Women Gets Scant Attention,” Esfandiari toted up a litany of horrors, including the tragic story of a woman who was tied to a tree, naked, and repeatedly raped by ISIS fighters, who are “rewarded” with droit du seigneur as they assault and pillage their way toward an Islamic caliphate.

She noted that even though ISIS propaganda emphasizes protecting the morality of women, it has taken little girls playing with dolls and married them off to fighters three times older, set up “marriage bureaus” in captured Syrian towns to recruit virgins and widows to marry fighters, and tied together women with a rope as though “they were being led to a makeshift slave market.”

She told me that “it’s a strategy to shame women and undermine their families. In our part of the world, a woman who has been raped, whether once or 50 times, feels ashamed, her family feels ashamed. Some commit suicide. Others become pregnant and are ostracized by their family and community, with no fault at all of their own.”

Haass noted that one of the lessons we should have learned in fighting halfway around the world, from Vietnam to Iraq, is “the power of local realities.”

“One of the things we’ve learned is that we can’t deliver fundamental social and cultural transformation in this part of the world,” he said. “Our ability to influence the position or status of women in the Arab or Muslim world is limited.”

He said the Arab coalition is necessary because “our priority has got to be to push back and weaken ISIS.

“Even if we’re not in a position to give women the better life they deserve,” he concluded, “we are in a position to save many of them from what ISIS would do to them. And that’s significant.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ken Adelman’s fascinating history “Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War.” Adelman, who led Reagan’s arms control agency, was an adviser at Reagan’s 1986 Iceland summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Using some newly declassified documents, Adelman fills out the extraordinary dialogue between the two leaders that set in motion a dramatic cut in nuclear arms.

You learn a lot about Reagan’s leadership in the book. For me, the most impressive thing was not Reagan’s attachment to his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative, which is overrated in ending the Cold War. What is most impressive about Reagan is that he grasped that Gorbachev was a radically different kind of Soviet leader — one with whom he could make history — long before his intelligence community did. That made a big difference.

These days there is a lot of “if-only-Obama-could-lead-like-Reagan” talk by conservatives. I’ll leave it to historians to figure out years from now who was the better president. But what I’d argue is this: In several critical areas, Reagan had a much easier world to lead in than Obama does now.

“Easier world, are you kidding?” say conservatives. “Reagan was up against a Communist superpower that had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at us! How can you say that?”

Here’s how: The defining struggle in Reagan’s day was the Cold War, and the defining feature of the Cold War was that it was a war between two different systems of order: Communism versus democratic capitalism. But both systems competed to build order — to reinforce weak states around the world with military and economic aid and win their support in the Cold War. And when either Moscow or Washington telephoned another state around the world, there was almost always someone to answer the phone. They even ensured that their proxy wars — like Vietnam and Afghanistan — were relatively contained.

Obama’s world is different. It is increasingly divided by regions of order and regions of disorder, where there is no one to answer the phone, and the main competition is not between two organized superpowers but between a superpower and many superempowered angry men. On 9/11, we were attacked, and badly hurt, by a person: Osama bin Laden, and his superempowered gang. When superempowered angry men have more open space within which to operate, and more powerful weapons and communication tools, just one needle in a haystack can hurt us.

Most important, Reagan’s chief rival, Gorbachev, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for doing something he never wanted to do: peacefully letting go of Eastern Europe. Obama’s foes, like the Islamic State, will never win the Nobel Peace Prize. Reagan could comfortably challenge Gorbachev in Berlin to “tear down this wall” because on the other side of that wall was a bad system — Communism — that was suppressing a civilization in Eastern and Central Europe, and part of Russia, that was naturally and historically inclined toward democratic capitalism. And there were leaders there — like Lech Walesa, another Nobel Peace Prize winner — to lead the transition. We just needed to help remove the bad system and step aside.

“The countries of Eastern and Central Europe were forcibly part of a Communist empire but culturally were always part of Western civilization,” explained Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist and author of “The Road to Global Prosperity.” “They never saw themselves as Communist, but rather as Westerners who had been kidnapped.” After Gorbachev, under pressure from Reagan and the West, released them, “they ran as fast as they could to embrace Western institutions.”

In the Middle East, which has consumed so much of Obama’s energy, the people tore down their walls — their systems — but underneath was not a civilization with the suppressed experience, habits and aspirations of democracy and free markets. Instead it was a toxic mix of Islamism, tribalism, sectarianism and an inchoate aspiration for democracy.

Reagan’s leadership challenge was to bring down a wall and then reap the peace dividends by just letting nature take its course. Obama’s challenge is that on the other side of the wall that the Arabs took down lies the world’s biggest nation-building project, with a civilization that is traumatized, divided and often culturally hostile to Western values and institutions. It’s an enormous job that only the locals can lead.

The one time that Reagan faced the miniversion of Obama’s challenge was in Lebanon. After Israel toppled the Palestinian ministate there, Reagan hoped it would unleash a naturally democratic order, with just a little midwifing help from American Marines. But after 241 U.S. servicemen were blown up in Beirut in 1983, Reagan realized that the civilization there was a mix of Islamists, sectarian Christians, Syrians, Shiite militias, Palestinian refugees and democrats. It required a lot more than us just standing guard. It required nation-building. And what did Reagan do? He left.

I was there to wave goodbye to the last Marines on the beaches of Beirut.

So comparing Reagan with Obama in foreign policy is inevitable. But when you do, also compare their respective contexts. The difference is revealing.

And let’s not forget that the grinning, senile old B-movie actor didn’t have to deal with virulent racism at home and an opposition party that had completely lost its mind.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Earlier this month, my iPhone vanished.

I looked up its location on an app called Find My Friends that my wife and I use, and I had a shock: The app said my phone was in a house 15 miles away, in a neighborhood that I’d never visited.

I drove there. It was night. The house looked creepy.

My wife stayed in the car, cellphone in hand, ready to summon the cavalry. I walked to the front door and rang the doorbell.

Nothing. The lights were on, so I rang again and knocked hard. I spent five minutes ringing the doorbell and pounding on the door. Finally, a man emerged.

“I think you have my phone,” I explained tautly.

“Your phone?” he asked.

“YOU HAVE MY PHONE!”

“Oh,” he said, “your phone.” He pulled it out, still with my name, email address and office phone number pasted on it, and meekly handed it over.

I left, no questions asked.

Full of myself, I posted about the adventure on social media — and provoked a firestorm. A typical comment on Facebook, from Glenna: “Are you insane?”

Many followers scolded me, while others — particularly those abroad — expressed bewilderment that it should be dangerous to knock on a door and ask for one’s property. Heidi asked: “What kind of society do we live in when knocking on someone’s door to retrieve a lost iPhone becomes perceived as life-threatening?”

Put aside the question of whether I was a knucklehead. Isn’t there a larger question of why we tolerate a society so bristling with guns that such a quest may be perilous? Aren’t we all knuckleheads for tolerating such a threat?

About one-third of American households have guns, according to a Pew survey (a bit more, Gallup says), and these firearms kill 32,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just last month, a Detroit man, Theodore Wafer, 55, was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride, 19, who apparently knocked on his door seeking help after she was in a car accident.

When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I encountered bewilderment at the fate of a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student in Louisiana who had been invited to a Halloween party. The boy, Yoshihiro Hattori, mistakenly went to the wrong address and rang the bell.

The homeowner, Rodney Peairs, came out with a gun and shouted, “Freeze.” Yoshihiro didn’t understand. Peairs shot him in the chest, killing him. We, as a country, should be ashamed that this prompted the Japanese government to teach its citizens traveling to the United States the word “freeze.”

As for Peairs, he had to live with himself. He was later quoted as saying that he would never again use a gun.

We turn to guns in the belief that they will make us safer. Nonsense!

Sure, there are cases where guns are successfully used for self-defense, but a study in the journal Injury Prevention found that the purchase of a handgun was associated with 2.4 times the risk of being murdered and 6.8 times the risk of suicide. Several other studies confirm that a gun in the house significantly increases the risk that a person in the home will be murdered or commit suicide.

Partly that’s because we misperceive the risks. We imagine a home invasion, but a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that 76 percent of homicide victims knew their assailant. That study also said that men with guns in the home are 10 times as likely to commit suicide in the home as men without a gun. Look, there are no simple solutions when we already have 300 million guns circulating in America. It’s also fair to note that any single gun is not much of a danger (statistically, a child is more likely to die from a swimming pool at a house than from a gun in the house).

But, with so many guns, often kept loaded without trigger locks, the collective toll is enormous. Just since 1968, it has been calculated, more Americans have died from gunfire than have died in all the wars in our country’s history.

The simplest baby step forward would be to institute universal background checks before gun purchases, to prevent sales to criminals. That was favored by 92 percent of Americans in a poll last year, as well as by three-quarters of members of the National Rifle Association. Yet the N.R.A. leadership is so extreme that it fights even such a step, and craven politicians buckle to its will.

I may have been a fool for trying to reclaim my phone. But we’re all idiots for accepting a society where knocking on a door is a deadly risk.

Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

When it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want and need our schools to be as safe as possible.

But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?

Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?

Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation? And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?

Not in the view of an unacceptable number of Americans. Not in too many high schools and on too many college campuses. Not to judge by complaints from the right and the left, in suburbs and cities and states red and blue.

Last week was Banned Books Week, during which proponents of unfettered speech and intellectual freedom draw attention to instances in which debate is circumscribed and the universe sanitized. As if on cue, a dispute over such censorship erupted in the affluent Dallas-area community of Highland Park, where many students pushed back at a recent decision by high school administrators to suspend the teaching of seven books until further review. Some parents had complained about the books.

Their titles? That was the strangest part. The seven offenders included the young adult novel “An Abundance of Katherines,” by John Green. It was deemed too sexually frank. Also “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” by David K. Shipler. It has references to rape and abortion. “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir, was tagged for its portraits of alcoholism and mental illness. And “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein, dared to include a scene in which a teenage girl under the age of consent comes on to an older man. In several sentences, her breasts are described.

It’s not exactly “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I mean, its narrator is a Labrador-terrier mix.

“It’s the dog book,” Stein marveled when I reached him by telephone in Seattle, where he lives. “My book’s the dog book.” In it an animal who expects to be reincarnated as a person puzzles over humanity — and prepares for it — by studying his master, a racecar driver.

“It’s full of life lessons: about responsibility, about self-reliance, about perseverance,” Stein said. Apparently, nipples trump all of that.

The events in Highland Park brought to mind other stories, including one in the Denver area that received national attention last week: A newly conservative board for the Jefferson County School District, which is Colorado’s second-largest, raised the possibility of pruning the curriculum of books and material that could be seen to exalt civil disobedience and promote unpatriotic thoughts. Where does that leave the civil rights movement? Vietnam?

Late last spring, during commencement season, students at one college after another succeeded in warding off scheduled speakers and honorary-degree recipients whose politics they disagreed with. Condoleezza Rice felt compelled to back out of a speech at Rutgers University. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, canceled an appearance at Smith College, where students were circulating a petition that charged the I.M.F. with the “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Brandeis University reacted to faculty and student protests there by rescinding its invitation to the writer and women’s rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had made strongly negative statements about Islam.

Around that same time, there were movements on scattered college campuses to attach so-called trigger warnings to texts whose evocations of, say, anti-Semitism or rape might prompt emotional turmoil in students. This echoed moves years earlier by officials at some elementary, middle and secondary schools to prune standardized tests of words that might distress students, either by summoning life’s harshness, reminding them of their deprivation or making them feel excluded. “Poverty,” “slavery,” “divorce,” “hurricanes” and “birthdays” were on a list drawn up by New York City educators, who later abandoned the plan.

While these efforts differ greatly, they overlap in their impulse to edit the world to the comfort of students, and that’s especially troubling in this day and age, when too many people use technology and the Internet to filter a vast universe of information and a multitude of perspectives into only what they want to hear, a tidy, cozy echo chamber of affirmation.

The efforts are also inextricable from subtler, more pervasive dynamics of caution and conformity in our classrooms and schools, where “failure” and “disappointment” are sometimes dirty words. When teachers inflate grades, they’re making education a feel-good enterprise rather than a feel-rattled one. When high-school students obsessed with getting into elite colleges avoid any courses that play to their weaknesses, they’re treating education in precisely the wrong way, no matter how understandable their motivation.

And when students at those colleges march in lock step toward certain majors (economics, for example) and certain professions (finance and consulting), they’re missing out. That’s what the recent best seller “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, noted and rued: the treatment of hallowed universities as placid pastures for contented grazing rather than majestic landscapes to romp and rage across, their bruising pitfalls redeemed by their exhilarating peaks.

Education is about growing bolder and larger. It’s about expansion, and that can’t happen if there’s too strong an urge and a push to contract the ground it covers, to ease the passage across it, to pretty up the horizon.

“You’re only diminishing a young person’s ability to go off into the world and interface with people from all walks of life,” Stein said. Thinking back to his own childhood in the suburbs of Seattle and then his years at Columbia University, he said, “The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who stand up in front of the class and wave their arms and say provocative things that students then react to.”

He recalled that in the eighth grade, he read a book, recommended by a school librarian, in which bullies tormented a kid by pulling off his shoes and urinating in them. It upset him, because it was a situation alien to his own experience. That’s also why he needed to be exposed to it, he said.

“It showed me that this happens,” he explained, with a note of gratitude in his voice. “It made me understand.”

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

September 21, 2014

In “Grand Illusion in Syria” The Putz tells us that the White House is trying a cheaper version of what didn’t work in Iraq.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston says “The only thing we might take away from this quandary, as we circle the drain, is to never again elect the ignorant, the pandering, the sanctimonious and the deluded to positions of power. Not in November, and not in 2016.”  In “Two Redheaded Strangers” MoDo tells us that, on the Honeysuckle Rose, Willie Nelson and Maureen talk pot, politics and a certain trip to the White House in the Carter years.  In “Three Cheers for Pluralism Over Separatism” The Moustache of Wisdom explains why the no vote in Scotland was a good thing.  Mr. Kristof sends us “Alicia Keys Asks: Why Are We Here?”  He says Alicia Keys wants to galvanize an infantry that moves from being frustrated about the world to improving it.  In “Up From Pain” Mr. Blow says he had to stop hating his abuser to start loving himself. He had to let go of his past so that he could step into his future.  Mr. Bruni takes a look at “The Vain and the Desperate” and says our political process repels many leaders who might do us good and leaves us with a sometimes motley crew.  Here’s The Putz:

Across years of war and at an extraordinary cost, the United States built an army that was supposed to prevent jihadists from gaining a sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East. It had American-trained leaders, American-made weaponry and 250,000 men under arms — far more troops and firepower than any insurgent force that might emerge to challenge it.

That army was the Iraqi Army, and we know what happened next: The Syrian civil war spilled over into Iraq, jihadists first found a foothold and then led an insurgency against the Iraqi military, and the jihadists won. American-organized units were routed; American-trained soldiers fled; American-made weapons fell into the hands of the Islamic State, the self-declared caliphate with which we ourselves are now at war.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a lesson here about how hard it is to conjure up reliable allies amid the chaos of the current Middle East. But if so, we seem determined not to learn it, since our official strategy for fighting the Islamic State involves basically trying the same thing again, this time on the cheap: inventing allies, funneling them money and weaponry, and telling ourselves that it will all work out.

Those allies are the “moderate” and “vetted” — euphemisms for “not as scary as the other guys” — rebels in Syria, whom Congress voted last week to finance and train and arm. As fighting forces go, they promise to be rather less impressive than the last army we trained, since if all goes well just 5,000 rebels will be ready for the fight this year, or about one-sixth as many fighters as ISIS now has under arms. (And those odds get even longer when you consider that the rebels intend to use our weapons to fight the Assad regime as well.)

If our failure to build an army capable of stabilizing Iraq after our departure looks like a pure tragedy, then the arm-the-rebels gambit in Syria has more than a whiff of farce. But really it’s a studied evasion, a way for this administration to pretend that we don’t face a set of deeply unpleasant options in our quest to contain or crush the caliphate.

The first realistic, non-farcical option is the one that the president seemed to choose initially, when he launched limited airstrikes to rescue the embattled Kurds last month. This would basically be a strategy of containment and attrition, oriented around the current lines of battle in Iraq, in which we see if the Kurds and those Iraqi Army units that didn’t collapse can push the front westward, see if a post-Maliki government can woo local Sunni leaders, and use our air power to degrade the caliphate’s fighting capacity while letting its internal weaknesses degrade it from within.

The trouble with containment is that it would leave the Islamic State in control of a great deal of territory (with more beheading videos, no doubt) for months and years to come. Hence the administration’s pivot to Syria; hence the strategic dream palace that is our arm-the-rebels strategy.

The cold reality, though, is that defeating ISIS outright in Syria will take something more substantial than dropping a few bombs in support of a few U.S.-trained moderates. Either the American military will have to intervene in force (including with substantial ground troops) or we’ll have to ally, in a very un-American display of machtpolitik, with Bashar al-Assad. Both options may have supporters within the Republican Party. Many hawks seem ready to send in ground forces, and John McCain has explicitly argued that we should be willing to go to war with both Assad and the Islamists at once. From Rand Paul, meanwhile, you hear what sounds like a version of the ally-with-Assad approach, albeit couched in somewhat ambiguous terms.

The White House would clearly prefer not to choose either path, either escalation. But its current approach seems likely to drift more in McCain’s direction, with a gradual ramping-up (today bombing, tomorrow special forces, the next day … ?) in Syria that makes a clash with Assad and a multifront war steadily more plausible.

There is still time for the president to reconsider, to fall back on the containment-and-attrition strategy in Iraq and avoid a major commitment inside Syria. That strategy does not promise the satisfaction of the Islamic State’s immediate elimination. But neither does it require magically summoning up a reliable ally amid Syrian civil strife, making a deal with the region’s bloodiest dictator, or returning once again to ground warfare and nation-building in a region where our efforts have so often been in vain.

It does not traffic, in other words, in the fond illusions that we took with us into Iraq in 2003, and that hard experience should have disabused us of by now.

But some illusions are apparently just too powerful for America to shake.

Next up we have MoDo:

When Willie Nelson invites you to get high with him on his bus, you go.

The man is the patron saint of pot, after all, and I’m the poster girl for bad pot trips.

It seemed like a match made in hash heaven.

When Nelson sang at the 9:30 club in D.C. one recent night, I ventured onto the Honeysuckle Rose, as his tour bus and home-away-from-home is called.

I was feeling pretty shy about meeting him. The 81-year-old Redheaded Stranger is an icon, one of America’s top songwriters and, as Rolling Stone said, “a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.” The Smithsonian wants his guitar, “Trigger.”

I needed a marijuana Miyagi, and who better than Nelson, who has a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and a first-degree black belt in helping Norml push for pot legalization?

In a Rolling Stone cover piece last month on “America’s Most Beloved Outlaw,” Nelson told writer Patrick Doyle that he had read my column on having a bad reaction to a marijuana-infused candy bar while I was in Denver covering the pot revolution in Colorado.

“Maybe she’ll read the label now!” he said, laughing, adding that I was welcome to get high on his bus “anytime.”

So that’s how I found myself, before Nelson’s show here, sitting opposite him in a booth on the bus as he drank black coffee out of a pottery cup, beneath a bulletin board filled with family photos.

His eyes were brass-colored, to use Loretta Lynn’s description. His long pigtails were graying. His green T-shirt bore the logo of his son’s band, Promise of the Real.

So, Sensei, if I ever decide to give legal pot a whirl again, what do I need to know?

“The same thing that happened to you happened to me one or two times when I was not aware of how much strength was in whatever I was eating,” Nelson said, in his honeyed voice. “One time, I ate a bunch of cookies that, I knew they were laced but I didn’t worry about it. I just wanted to see what it would do, and I overdid it, naturally, and I was laying there, and it felt like the flesh was falling off my bones.

“Honestly, I don’t do edibles,” he continued. “I’d rather do it the old-fashioned way, because I don’t enjoy the high that the body gets. Although I realize there’s a lot of other people who have to have it that way, like the children that they’re bringing to Colorado right now for medical treatments. Those kids can’t smoke. So for those people, God bless ’em, we’re for it.”

Eager not to seem like a complete idiot, I burbled that, despite the assumption of many that I gobbled the whole candy bar, I had only taken a small bite off the end, and then when nothing seemed to be happening, another nibble.

Nelson humored me as I also pointed out that the labels last winter did not feature the information that would have saved me from my night of dread.

Now, however, Colorado and Washington State have passed emergency rules to get better labeling and portion control on edibles, whose highs kick in more slowly and can be more intense than when the drug is smoked. Activists are also pushing to make sure there are stamps or shapes to distinguish pot snacks — which had, heretofore, been designed to mimic regular snacks — so that children don’t mistakenly ingest them.

Trying to prevent any more deaths, emergency-room trips or runaway paranoia, the Marijuana Policy Project has started an educational campaign called “Consume Responsibly.”

Its whimsical first billboard in Denver shows a bandjaxed redhead in a hotel room — which is far too neat to be mine — with the warning: “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation. With edibles, start low and go slow.”

Bill Maher also offered Colorado, “the Jackie Robinson of marijuana legislation,” some tips, including having budtenders talk to customers “like a pharmacist would,” curtail pot products that look like children’s candy, and don’t sell novices kief, superconcentrated crystals so potent that they’re “harvested directly from Willie Nelson’s beard.”

I asked Nelson about Jerry Brown’s contention that a nation of potheads would threaten American superiority.

“I never listened to him that much,” he said, sweetly.

He showed me his pot vaporizer, noting: “Everybody’s got to kill their own snakes, as they say. I found out that pot is the best thing for me because I needed something to slow me down a little bit.” He was such a mean drunk, he said, that if he’d kept drinking heavily, “there’s no telling how many people I would have killed by now.”

I asked him about the time he was staying in the Carter White House — on bond from a pot bust — and took a joint up to the roof.

“It happened a long time ago,” he said, adding slyly, “I’m sure it happened.”

Did he also indulge in the Lincoln Bedroom?

“In what?” he replied, mischievously. “I wouldn’t do anything Lincoln wouldn’t have done.”

Given all the horrors in the world now, I said, maybe President Obama needs to chill out by reuniting the Choom Gang.

“I would think,” Nelson said, laughing, “he would sneak off somewhere.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Madrid:

This was an interesting week to visit Britain and Spain — first to watch the Scottish separatists push for independence and then to watch Basque and Catalan separatists watching (with disappointment) the outcome of the vote. One reaction: I’m glad a majority of Scots rejected independence. Had they not, it would have clipped the wing of America’s most important wingman in the world: Britain. Another reaction: God bless America. We have many sources of strength, but today our greatest asset is our pluralism — our “E pluribus unum” — that out of many we’ve made one nation, with all the benefits that come from mixing cultures and all the strengths that come from being able to act together.

As I’ve asked before: Who else has twice elected a black man as president, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, who first defeated a woman and later defeated a Mormon? I’m pretty sure that I will not live long enough to see an ethnic Pakistani become prime minister of Britain or a Moroccan immigrant president of France. Yes, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., reminds us that we’re still a work in progress in the pluralism department. But work on it we do, and I’ll take the hard work of pluralism over the illusions of separatism any day.

Why is pluralism such a big advantage today? Two reasons: politics and innovation. Before I explain, though, it’s worth recalling: What is pluralism? I like the definition that the Pluralism Project at Harvard offers on its website: “pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity” because “mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.” A society being “pluralistic” is a reality (see Syria and Iraq). A society with pluralism “is an achievement” (see America).

Pluralism, it also notes, “does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind. … It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” And, it posits that real pluralism is built on “dialogue” and “give and take, criticism and self-criticism” — and “dialogue means both speaking and listening.”

That pluralism is more important than ever is easily divined by just looking at the Middle East. Iraq and Syria were pluralistic societies that lacked pluralism. Their diversity — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Alawites — was something to be controlled from the top down by iron-fisted Ottomans, then the British and French and finally by local kings and colonels. Society was kept stable by a strongman.

But the diffusion of communication technologies and globalization is making all forms of top-down, autocratic control weaker, obsolete or more expensive in blood, money or arrests. Either these countries develop an ethic of pluralism — so they can govern themselves horizontally through social contracts forged among equal citizens — or they’ll stay in violent turmoil.

It’s no accident that the two democratizing Middle East entities doing best today are Tunisia and Kurdistan. Neither has fully mastered pluralism yet, but they’ve mastered its necessary precursor for self-governance, which was the principle used in 1989 to settle the Lebanese civil war: “No victor, no vanquished” among the major players. Everyone’s interests have to be balanced. Iraq is now struggling to get there; Syria is not even close.

Social networks and hyperglobalization are also increasing the economic returns from pluralism. After all, where does innovation come from? It comes from mashing up different perspectives, ideas and people. Google began as a mashup between Larry Page and Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant. The more pluralism your society has, the more trust it has, and trust plus pluralism enables people to collaborate, spark new ideas and businesses, and to comfortably reach out anywhere in the globe for the best co-creators. Sure, melting pots can boil over, but, when fueled by a pluralistic ethic, the energy they provide is undeniable. The Economist reported in April 2013 that some “40 percent of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children.”

Democratic Spain in the last decade has impressively absorbed more than four million immigrants — mostly from Ecuador, Romania and Morocco — or 10 percent of its population. They came during the economic boom and have triggered no anti-immigrant party (yet). No wonder Spain’s national leaders today expressed relief at the no vote in Scotland. But the Catalan regional government insists it will proceed with its own nonbinding separatist referendum in November.

That will meet headwinds. To manage its diversity, Spain already awards a lot of autonomy to its 17 regions — a process called “coffee for all” — and many Spaniards “don’t want” to be pressed into a deeper breakup, explained José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “You go to Barcelona and people are hanging the Catalan independence flag on their balcony. If you’re not, it means you’re not in favor of independence, but I don’t want to fight you by hanging the Spanish flag.” Many people here think you can be “a good Spaniard, good Catalan and good European” all at once.

The other danger of all these separatist movements, added Torreblanca, is that they “change the axis” of the political debate. “Politics should be about left and right — how to grow and how to redistribute.” Historically in Europe, he said, right-wing parties come in and create growth and inequality and left-wing parties come in and redistribute — and back and forth. “But the net result is that you end up with societies that are both competitive and cohesive.” All these separatist movements take you off that track, he said, and put you onto one of “identity politics,” which is precisely why places like Syria and Iraq can’t make progress.

America has always been “a country of citizens,” which made its pluralism relatively easy, noted Torreblanca. “The Europe Union is a country of nation states,” and it is trying to get more pluralistic by integrating those states ever more tightly into a super-state, called the European Union. But that is stalled now because the next level of integration requires not just giving up your currency but sovereignty, so there can be a truly common economic policy. In Syria and Iraq today, you have neither citizens nor states, but rather clans, sects and tribes, which now need to reorganize themselves into voluntary states, as opposed to those imposed by colonial powers, so they can be real citizens.

This is why America has such an advantage with its pluralism, and why — if Scots are brave enough to preserve theirs, and Spaniards are struggling to keep theirs and Iraqis are groping to find theirs — we should have the wisdom to pass an immigration reform bill that enriches ours.

Next up on the roster today we have Mr. Kristof:

Alicia Keys is a superstar singer who has mostly kept her clothes on and gossip off. So what is she doing in this photo, dressed only in a peace sign?

Her answer has to do with the purpose of life. Last month, as she was sickened by grim news — from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to the toll in Gaza and Syria — a friend of hers lobbed a provocative question about the meaning of our existence: Why are you here?

“Nobody had asked me that question before,” Keys recalled. It got her thinking about her mission in life, her legacy. She is one of the world’s best-known singers, but many of her songs have been about love or heartbreak. She has 35 million fans on Facebook and almost 20 million followers on Twitter, but she wasn’t leveraging that audience for some broader purpose.

So she is now starting a We Are Here movement to channel her music and her fans to social justice causes, from stricter gun laws to criminal justice reform, from gay rights to global girls’ education.

“I want to gather an army,” Keys told me. She wants to galvanize that infantry of fans from feeling frustrated about the world to improving it.

Keys is expecting her second child in December — the movement arises partly from her concern about the world that the child will inherit — so she decided to be photographed nude with a peace sign on her belly as an image of amity to kick off the effort.

“It’s time to get people’s attention,” she said. “People won’t be able to ignore this visual.”

She plans to kick off the We Are Here Movement on Sunday at the Social Good Summit, a grass-roots version of the annual United Nations General Assembly.

Keys says she will encourage her fans to support 12 specific groups: All Out, a gay rights organization; CARE, the aid group; Equal Justice Initiative, which combats racial inequity in the criminal justice system; the Future Project, which empowers high school students in America; Girl Rising, which supports girls’ education around the world; Keep a Child Alive, which helps children affected by H.I.V. and AIDS; Moms Rising, which supports universal prekindergarten, maternal leaves and tighter gun laws; Oxfam, which fights global poverty; Partners in Health, which tackles disease worldwide; the Trevor Project, which prevents suicide among gay and lesbian youths; the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which fights racial profiling; and War Child, which supports children in conflict areas.

To get the effort started, Keys is donating $1 million of her own money, to be divided among the 12 groups, and she hopes that her fans will make their own donations directly to the charities. A website, WeAreHereMovement.com, provides information.

There is, of course, a tradition of socially conscious musicians, and Bono has done as much as anybody to highlight the challenges of global poverty. Keys seems less inclined to lobby at Group of 8 summit meetings; rather, she says, she wants to work with fans at the grass-roots level.

As a theme for the effort, Keys released a new song, “We Are Here.” She says that her songs henceforth will do more to address racism, injustice and poverty; she aspires to be a moral voice as well as a musical one.

Keys is biracial, the daughter of a white mother and black father, and she says she has black relatives and friends who have been unjustly imprisoned. But her concerns far transcend race and gender.

So what will her fans think of her advocating on hot-button issues like stricter gun laws? On the whole, she thinks her audiences welcome such direction. Many are frustrated about social inequities, she says, but feel helpless to make a difference.

“We’re in the same head space. We think the same things,” she said. “This is bothering us, so how can we take that to the next step and do something about that, as opposed to just being angry?”

The next steps, she says, will include petitions, rallies, protests and public awareness efforts, as well as fund-raising. She also hopes to bring other artists into the effort, and she has already reached out to some.

I don’t know whether a youthful musical audience can be easily deputized into a posse for social justice. But Dr. Helene Gayle, the president of CARE, is optimistic.

“Whether or not it’s a huge financial gain, who knows?” Dr. Gayle told me. “What she’s able to do is get people to pay attention to these issues. I can talk about these issues until I’m blue in the face and do cartwheels, and I can’t get people to pay as much attention as she can. This is a huge opportunity to raise visibility.”

In an unusual appearance on Sunday here’s Mr. Blow:

I was away at college doing much of nothing, just pushing back against sorrow as it pressed down. My mother called. She told me someone wanted to speak to me. There was a silence on the line, and then words: “What’s going on, boy?”

It was an older cousin, whom I’ll call Chester. He was at my mother’s house, our house. It had been years since I had heard that voice. “What’s going on, boy?” as if nothing had ever happened, as if everything was buried and forgotten. But betrayal doesn’t work that way. Even when it’s buried, it doesn’t stay buried. It’s still alive down there, scratching its way back to the surface.

I don’t recall saying anything or even hanging up. I flung myself down the stairs of the apartment, wearing only pajama pants and a T-shirt. I burst out of the door and bolted to the car.

I was engulfed in an irrepressible rage. Everything in me was churning and pumping and boiling. All reason and restraint were lost to it. I was about to do something I wouldn’t be able to undo. Bullets and blood and death. I gave myself over to the idea.

The scene from the night when I was 7 years old kept replaying in my mind: waking up to him pushed up behind me, his arms locked around me, my underwear down around my thighs. The weight of the guilt and grieving that followed. The years of the bullying designed to keep me from telling — and the years of questioning my role in his betrayal.

I jumped in the car, grabbed the gun from under the car seat. It was a .22 with a long black barrel and a wooden grip, the gun my mother had insisted I take with me to college, “just in case.”

The ridges of the gas pedal pressed into the flesh of my foot as I raced down Interstate 20 toward my mother’s house, 25 miles away. I had driven this lonely stretch of north Louisiana road from Grambling State to my hometown, Gibsland, a hundred times. It had never gone so slowly; I had never driven so fast.

Bawling and with the heat of my anguish being released into the winter air, I reviewed my simple plan: walk into the house, find Chester, and shoot him in the head as many times as possible. No arguing. No explanation. Done.

Then I thought about who I was now, and who I could be. Seeing him in a pool of his own blood might finally liberate me from my past, but it would also destroy my future.

I had to make a choice: drive forward on the broad road toward the unspeakable or take the narrow highway exit. I don’t know which chose, my head or my hand, but I exited and drove through my college campus, thinking about all that I had accomplished. Me. With my own mind and grit. I had reinvented and improved myself. I was a man — a man with a future. I couldn’t continue to live my life through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.

That night, I forced myself to come to terms with some things. Chester had done damage, but he didn’t deserve to die for what he had done, and I deserved to live in spite of it.

I had to stop hating Chester to start loving myself. Forgiveness was freedom. I simply had to let go of my past so that I could step into my future.

Yes, the mark that Chester’s betrayal had left on my life was likely to be permanent, but blaming him for the whole of the difference in my emerging sense of sexual identity, while convenient, was most likely not completely accurate. Abusers don’t necessarily make children different, but rather, they are diabolically gifted at detecting difference, often before the child can see it in him or herself. It is possible that Chester glimpsed a light in me, and that moved the darkness in him.

In addition to being attracted to women, I could also be attracted to men. There it was, all of it. That possibility of male attraction was such a simple little harmless idea, but I had allowed it to consume and almost ruin my life. The attraction and my futile attempts to “fix it” had cost me my dreams. The anguish, combined with a lifetime of watching hotheads brandishing cold steel, had put me within minutes of killing a man.

My world had told me that there was nothing worse than not being all of one way, that any other way was the same as being dead, but my world had lied. I was very much alive. There was no hierarchy of humanity. There was no one way to be, or even two, but many. And no one could strip me of my value and dignity, because no one had bestowed them. These things came into the world with me.

I had done what the world had signaled I must: hidden the thorn in my flesh, held “the demon” at bay, kept the covenant, borne the weight of my crooked cross. But concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it.

DARING to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do, because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked you are vulnerable.

But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one.

I had to stop romanticizing the man I might have been and be the man that I was, not by neatly fitting into other people’s definitions of masculinity or constructs of sexuality, but by being uniquely me — made in the image of God, nurtured by the bosom of nature, and forged in the fire of life.

I had spent my whole life trying to fit in, but it would take the rest of my life to realize that some men are just meant to stand out. I would have to learn to simply relax and be: complex, betwixt and between, and absolutely all right.

I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me.

That would include attempts at male intimacy.

The first time I tried ended disastrously. I had worked up the nerve to go to a gay bar, thinking that if male intimacy was something my body wanted, I might as well know it.

It was a world apart from the one I knew. Instead of feeling a sense of belonging, I felt apart. The bar was brimming with sameness — not the locker room, frat house kind I was familiar with, full of ego-measuring and distance-keeping, but a different and disorienting kind. I was the object of considerable attention. I was young and tall and fit and new. I was being watched. I knew it, and I liked it. So I sat alone at the end of the bar and took long sips of my drink as I soaked up pensive admiration.

Soon a man sidled up to me and began making small talk. He was unremarkable in appearance and seemed slightly older than me. He said he was a shoe importer. He sounded smart and seemed kind, and he smiled a lot. He invited me to his apartment for more drinks. I said, “Why not?” In my mind, the moment I had walked through the door of the bar, I had passed the point of no return.

When we arrived at his place, he poured a glass of wine, but I was too nervous to drink it. He talked more about his business and showed me shoe samples — ugly, rough-cut sandals that I couldn’t imagine anyone with even a dash a style deigning to wear.

Then, without warning, the mood shifted. The man disrobed, walked toward his bedroom, and beckoned me to follow. But the sight of him naked caused whatever attraction I might have had to collapse. His body looked sculpted, the way a body looks after years of proper eating and unstinting exercise, but I wasn’t drawn to it. My body went limp and cold.

I could in no way imagine us intertwined. I found the idea of it all immensely unsettling. I was surprised by my reaction — embarrassed by it — but my feeling was unambiguous: I wasn’t interested. So I grabbed my jacket, and ran out of the apartment.

I figured then that if I could indeed go both ways, one way didn’t quite prefer to go all the way.

I would come to know what the world called people like me: bisexuals. The hated ones. The bastard breed. The “tragic mulattos” of sexual identity. Dishonest and dishonorable. Scandal-prone and disease-ridden. Nothing nice.

And while the word “bisexual” was technically correct, I would only slowly come to use it to refer to myself, in part because of the derisive connotations. But, in addition, it would seem to me woefully inadequate and impressionistically inaccurate. It reduced a range of identities, unbelievably wide and splendidly varied, in which same-gender attraction presented itself in graduated measures, from a pinch to a pound, to a single expression. To me it seemed too narrowly drawn in the collective consciousness, suggesting an identity fixed precisely in the middle between straight and gay, giving equal weight to each, bearing no resemblance to what I felt.

In me, the attraction to men would never be equal to the attraction to women — for men, it was often closer to the pinch — but it would always be in flux. Whenever someone got up the gumption to ask me outright, “What are you?” I’d reply with something coy: “Complicated.” It would take many years before the word “bisexual” would roll off my tongue and not get stuck in my throat. I would have to learn that the designation wasn’t only about sexual histories or current practice, but capacity.

Few people would be open to the idea of men like me even existing, in any incarnation. Even the otherwise egalitarian would have no qualms about raising questions and casting doubt. Many could conceive of bisexuality only in the way it existed for most people willing to admit to it: as a transitory identity — a pit stop or a hiding place — and not a permanent one. Whatever the case, folks would never truly understand me, nor I them.

To me, their limits on attraction would seem overly broad and arbitrary. To them, I would be a man who walked up to the water’s edge and put only one foot in, out of fear or confusion or indecision. I would be the kind of man who wanted it all — clinging to the normative while nodding to difference.

But that’s not the way it works within me. I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide.

I wouldn’t always get things right. I wouldn’t always find the courage to tell people the whole truth about myself, or do so before their love had already reached through my secret and touched my shame, but at least I learned to move in the right direction. I wouldn’t lay the weight of my shame down all at once, but a bit at a time over many years, like forks of hay pitched from the back of a pickup truck, until the bales dwindled and the load was made light.

I would get married fresh out of college — to my college sweetheart, the love of my young life — after we both stopped pretending there was any other we would rather be with. I confessed, though not as soon as either of us would have preferred, to her my past and my proclivities, as fully as I understood them at the time, including the story of my encounter with the shoe importer. We figured that our love was greater than my complexity. We had three beautiful children — first a boy and then girl-boy twins — in rapid succession, but the marriage didn’t survive the seventh year. Still, the marriage confirmed for me that extended fidelity was in fact possible, not by denying part of my nature, but by submitting the whole of my heart. Monogamy was a choice. That was a side I could pick.

AFTER my wife and I split, I decided to give male intimacy another try. The male attraction was still there, running alongside the female one — not equal, but there. I assumed my first failure might have been the result of youth and nerves and a mixed match. But now, again, my body sometimes failed to respond. Other times I was able to engage more fully, but almost always with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol, which left me barely able to remember the encounters and often wanting to forget them. This felt fraudulent to me, and opportunistic, and dangerous.

Still, no matter how much I drank, no matter how altered my consciousness, I couldn’t completely rid myself of the unease of being intimately close to another man’s body, hard and hairy and muscular and broad at the shoulders, more stem than flower — too much like my own.

In those moments I was acutely aware that I missed the tug of the female form, the primary sensation and the peripheral ones. The look of soft features and the feel of soft skin. The graceful slopes of supple curves. The sweet smells. The giggles. The thing in me that yearned for those sensory cues from a woman wouldn’t quietly accept a substitute.

I had to accept a counterintuitive fact: my female attraction was fully formed — I could make love and fall in love — but my male attraction had no such terminus. To the degree that I felt male attraction, it was frustrated. In that arena, I possessed no desire to submit and little to conquer. For years I worried that the barrier was some version of self-loathing, a denial. But eventually I concluded that the continual questioning and my attempts to circumvent the barrier were their own form of loathing and self-flagellation.

I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

In case you missed it, our nation’s officeholders, current and former, have been working overtime to make us proud.

Ted Cruz threw a histrionic hissy fit in front of Arab Christians. Sarah Palin went to a birthday party where her family reportedly got into a brawl. Mark Sanford emitted a self-pitying aria of romantic angst. Debbie Wasserman Schultz compared some Republicans to wife beaters.

Somewhere in there, I sank into a newly deep funk about the kinds of people drawn to politics these days.

Then I burrowed into Matt Bai’s new book and I hit rock bottom.

It’s called “All the Truth Is Out,” it will be published later this month and it’s about Gary Hart. Remember him: the presidential contender who rode a boat named Monkey Business into a media whirlpool? You should, as the book, which is excerpted in The Times Magazine this weekend, makes clear.

And the reason isn’t so much the scandal that swallowed him or his particular exit from the political arena. It’s the warning that his story sounded — about a new brutality on the campaign trail, about uncharted frontiers of media invasiveness and about the way both would wind up culling the herd, not in favor of the strongest candidates but in favor of those so driven or vacuous that the caress of the spotlight redeems the indignities of the process.

Has running for public office become less attractive than ever? Does it frighten off potential leaders who might benefit us and clear a path for aspirants with less to offer?

Bai’s book suggests as much, and he points a finger at political journalism, which, he writes, is “now concerned almost entirely with exposing lies and unearthing character flaws, sexual or not.”

“Hart’s downfall,” Bai continues, “was the thing that tipped the scales completely, the catalyst that made it O.K. — even necessary — for all aspiring political reporters to cast themselves as amateur P.I.s and psychotherapists. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would have been: We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”

“All the Truth Is Out” has fascinating tidbits, in particular about friendships that bloomed between Hart and Mikhail Gorbachev and Hart and Bill Clinton, his descendant in the annals of sexual scandal.

It also has a few belly laughs — painful ones. Bai writes that when the media was consumed by Hart’s sex life, Johnny Carson joked that “the nomination would fall into Hart’s lap — if there was any room left there. On the highly rated sitcom ‘Golden Girls,’ one of the little old ladies commented of another character, ‘She’s Gary Hart’s campaign manager. It doesn’t pay much, but you don’t have to get out of bed to do it.’ ”

Those jokes serve a point: Hart was reduced to a single trait, and everything else he had to say was muffled by it. And the same questionable fate befell many politicians after him, as privacy perished and the media’s insistence on a certain sort of juicy narrative intensified.

“It’s just getting worse,” Stuart Stevens, the veteran Republican strategist who spearheaded Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told me. “It’s the most grueling process imaginable.”

As CNN’s Peter Hamby noted in a study he wrote during a fellowship at Harvard last year, the accelerated news cycle of the social-media age demands meaningless scoops, trumpets dubious gaffes and turns the reporters trailing a candidate into “one giant, tweeting blob.”

That blob suffocates its quarry, often at the prodding of his or her rivals, who supply opposition research (or “oppo”) that strays from serious byways down silly cul-de-sacs. This was captured in a story about the Senate elections that was splashed across the top of the Politico website Friday afternoon.

The headline blared, “GOTCHA! How oppo took over the midterms.” And the story began, “Why would anyone want to talk about immigration, terrorism, gun control or the national debt, when there’s Alison Lundergan Grimes’ bus, John Walsh’s thesis, Bruce Braley’s chickens and Pat Roberts’ recliner? Gotcha stories — ranging from those tangentially related to issues of the day to the completely ephemeral and even absurd — have been front and center in an abnormally large number of top races this year.”

Everything’s a teapot, primed for a tempest. Although Joe Biden has a famously spastic tongue and there’s no reason to believe he is anti-Semitic, he makes an indecorous reference to “Shylocks” and the outrage machinery cranks into gear. The content-ravenous blogosphere lights up.

BUT the hysteria of the present media climate isn’t the only problem or turnoff. There’s the extended duration of a political race. There’s the ceaseless fund-raising, the burden of which was spelled out in an internal memo that leaked from Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign in Georgia. It decreed that drumming up money should consume 80 percent of her time in the first quarter of 2014, declining to 70 percent in the third.

The memo identified Jews as a “tremendous financial opportunity,” so long as Nunn struck the right position on Israel, still to be finessed. Ah, the heartfelt conviction that animates today’s candidate!

Writing about the memo in The Times Magazine, Mark Leibovich said that his main takeaway was “that a political campaign today is a soul-killing pursuit.” He presumes a soul to take.

Seriously, who’s attracted to this ordeal? Some people with only the best intentions and motivations, yes. But also plenty like Sanford, whose 2,346-word Facebook post about his postmarital woes signaled a Newt-caliber neediness. Or like Wasserman Schultz, an intemperate warrior who, if Politico’s profile of her last week got it right, is consumed by self-centered ambition. Or like Cruz, with his lust for attention, even if it’s negative.

Or like Palin. She’s clearly on Bai’s mind when he writes that the “post-Hart climate” of estrangement between politicians and the press — and of shallow campaign pageantry — made it easier for candidates with little policy expertise or insight into governance, because no one expected any candidate to say anything too detailed or deep.

“A politician could duck any real intellectual scrutiny simply by deriding the evident triviality of the media,” Bai writes.

It’s odd and funny that the conservative writer Charles Krauthammer sought to vilify President Obama last week by calling him, of all things, a narcissist. When this came up on “The View” and narcissism was explained to Rosie O’Donnell as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self and their own importance and a deep need for admiration,” she replied, “That’s every celebrity I know, including me.”

It’s a lot of politicians, too. The process guarantees it.

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.

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.

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, just Dowd

August 13, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today.  In “It’s the Loyalty, Stupid” MoDo tells us about how the Clintons will kick you when you’re down, and other unofficial slogans in politics.  Here she is:

I talked to Robin Williams once, about breasts.

In 1993, when he played a prim British nanny in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” I went to interview him at his Pacific Heights house.

“It’s great to be this blue-mouthed old lady hitting on somebody,” he said, in his character’s soft Scottish burr, “opening your blouse and saying, ‘What about these? Behold my dirty pillows, my fun bags. Come nurse at the fountain of bliss.’ ”

He was 42 then, wearing his Popeye outfit, a blue-striped T-shirt and black baggy jeans. Surrounded by kids, a rabbit and an iguana, we talked about everything from John Belushi to his father, a stern Ford Motor Company executive.

As our interview ended, I was telling him about my friend Michael Kelly’s idea for a 1-900 number, not one to call Asian beauties or Swedish babes, but where you’d have an amorous chat with a repressed Irish woman. Williams delightedly riffed on the caricature, playing the role of an older Irish woman answering the sex line in a brusque brogue, ordering a horny caller to go to the devil with his impure thoughts and disgusting desire.

I couldn’t wait to play the tape for Kelly, who doubled over in laughter.

So when I think of Williams, I think of Kelly. And when I think of Kelly, I think of Hillary, because Michael was the first American reporter to die in the Iraq invasion, and Hillary Clinton was one of the 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize that baloney war.

The woman who always does her homework, the woman who resigned as president of Wellesley College’s Young Republicans over the Vietnam War, made that vote without even bothering to read the National Intelligence Estimate with its skimpy evidence.

It was obvious in real time that the Bush crew was arbitrarily switching countries, blaming 9/11 on Saddam so they’d get more vivid vengeance targets and a chance to shake up the Middle East chessboard, and that officials were shamelessly making up the threat as they went along. For me to believe that Hillary would be a good president, I would need to feel that she had learned something from that deadly, globe-shattering vote — a calculated attempt to be tough and show that, as a Democratic woman, she was not afraid to use power.

Yet, she’s still at it.

With the diplomatic finesse of a wrecking ball, the former diplomat gave an interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a hawk, in a calculated attempt to be tough and show that, as a Democratic woman, she’s not afraid to use power.

Channeling her pal John McCain, she took a cheap shot at President Obama when his approval rating on foreign policy had dropped to 36 percent, calling him a wimp just as he was preparing to order airstrikes against ISIS.

As one Democrat noted, citing the callous Clintonian principle that unpopular things make foolish investments: “If Obama was at 63 instead of 36, she’d be happy to be Robin to his Batman.”

It’s not that she’s too old, despite nasty cracks on conservative websites like the Washington Free Beacon. It’s that she’s too old-think, thrusting herself forward as a hawk at a time when hawks — in the season of Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul — aren’t so cool. Americans are sick of the idea that we should plunge in and plant our flag in the ground and work out the details later. It’s a complicated world, where you cross the border from Syria to Iraq and your allies are the enemy.

Hillary booed the president, who has been boosting her at the expense of his own vice president, and said that, as secretary of state, she had wanted to do more to help the Syrian rebels. She said that Obama’s “failure” in Syria led to the rise of ISIS and sniped about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Saying you can’t live by slogans is rich, coming from someone whose husband’s presidency was built on “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Besides, a Times article by Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt demonstrated that “at every turn” the rise of ISIS’s self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — putting the ball of blame back in Hillary’s court.

The neocon Weekly Standard gleefully printed her remarks with her byline under the headline: “Special Guest Editorial: Obama’s Foreign Policy Failures.”

David Axelrod tartly tweeted: “Just to clarify: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.”

Hillary may know that she seemed unseemly. She called Obama to assert that she wasn’t attacking him, trying to avoid an awkward encounter when they both attend a Vernon Jordan party Wednesday night at the Martha’s Vineyard golf course where the president has been relaxing while the world explodes.

After buoying Hillary, Obama is learning the truth of another unofficial slogan in politics: “The Clintons will be there when they need you.”


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