In “Fathers’ Sons and Brothers’ Keepers” Mr. Blow says we can and must break the cycles of pain for young men of color, building better boys and repairing broken men. Mr. Nocera addresses “The Bitcoin Blasphemy” and says created to avoid government, the virtual currency won’t survive without it. Ms. Collins says “Arizona Sort of Helps Out” and has a question: As gay rights have made great strides lately, why have abortion rights lost ground? Here’s Mr. Blow:
Frederick Douglass once noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
The statement is simple, profound and as true as truth can be. And yet we as a society and as individual families neglect the building, facilitate the breaking and balk at the cost and commitment of the repair.
On Thursday, President Obama took a step toward righting that wrong in regard to young men of color by announcing the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of the nation’s most at-risk young men.
It is a necessary and noble ambition to begin to draw resources together in a common effort to find best practices for addressing stubborn issues, and to better fund and expand those efforts.
This will not be easy. The issues facing many of these men are so complicated and layered with pain that they are incredibly daunting. There is a deficit of hope and a surplus of hurdles — familial, cultural, behavioral and structural.
But we must start somewhere. As the old saying goes, “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”
Programs like this usually focus on the easier part of the problem, the personal, rather than the harder part, the structural.
Youth Guidance, whose Becoming a Man group the president highlighted during his announcement, says that through its program, “Participants learn about and practice impulse control, emotional self-regulation, reading social cues and interpreting intentions of others, raising aspirations for the future and developing a sense of personal responsibility and integrity.”
These are important character traits, to be sure, but it’s hard not to think that ideally they would be transferred from parents — particularly fathers — to sons.
That’s why I was encouraged that the president spent quite a bit of time discussing the role of fathers in boys’ lives.
He said of his father: “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.”
In a previous column, I wrote this of my own father: “I was forced to experience him as a distant form in a heavy fog, forced to nurse a longing that he was neither equipped nor inclined to satisfy.”
When there is an empty space where a father should be, sorrow often grows. The void creates in a child an injury that the child is often unable to articulate or even recognize. And what children miss at home, they will often seek in the street, to ill effect.
Many boys with that empty space lash out and act up, trying to be seen, searching, as people do, for love and affirmation, wanting desperately to be validated. And too many of us, in turn, see them as menaces rather than as boys struggling — often without sufficient instruction and against a tide of systemic inequity — to simply become men. In such a warped world, basic survival can become a metric of success.
As the president put it, “nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”
But sometimes fathers don’t even know how to be the best fathers. Sometimes they simply engage in an intergenerational transference of pain and need. It’s sometimes hard to give what you yourself have not received.
For instance, according to Child Trends, black fathers are substantially less likely than white or Hispanic fathers to hug their children or show them physical affection, or to tell them that they love them.
I don’t scold these fathers; I weep for them and with them. I understand, on a most personal level, that conditioning. Sometimes men don’t see that masculinity is as much about tenderness as about toughness. Sometimes they don’t know how to manage emotions. Sometimes the world has so beaten them and so hardened them that expressing any vulnerability feels like providing an opening for an enemy.
But I also know that being an engaged father can be a reparative therapy — healing your hurt as you protect your progeny. Our children provide a reservoir of the deepest, truest love in a harsh and unforgiving world. They are our respite from the battlefield.
We, as a society, must change our perspective when considering these boys and men, and more fully engage our empathy. That is both a personal and a structural change.
We can and must break these cycles of pain, building better boys and repairing broken men.
Now here’s Mr. Nocera:
Whenever I read a story about bitcoin, the virtual currency that has been so much in the news these days, I think about a man named Dee Hock. In the early 1970s, Hock created the credit card system that we now know as Visa. Hock was a man who liked to think grandiose thoughts. When it came to Visa, and credit cards in general, Hock used to describe them not just as a way to get a short-term loan but as a new kind of payment system, an exchange of value that was on par with, and that competed with, cash.
As it turns out — and the bitcoin experience is helping to illustrate this — Hock’s description of credit cards was more than a little hyperbolic. Yes, you could now use a small plastic card instead of cash to buy something, but that card had value because it connected both the buyer and the seller to a fiat currency. People trusted it because they believed in their country’s currency and financial institutions. The exchange of value was never the credit card itself; it was still the dollar, the pound, the yen.
Bitcoin, on the other hand, is truly a new form of payment system, unconnected to any currency or any government. Its libertarian proponents in Silicon Valley love that about it; they talk about it as a potential disrupter of traditional financial institutions. It has value not because a government has decreed and backed its value — the classic definition of a fiat currency — but because a community of users has decided to give it value. Its current travails, however, suggest that may also be its inherent flaw: that however much we say we mistrust governments and banks, when it comes to our money, we trust them a lot more than we trust some clever lines of computer code.
The Internet, I should note, could really use a digital currency. For starters, it would make transactions on the web much easier while cutting down on the rampant credit card fraud and identity theft that exists online.
It is also true that there have been many unsuccessful attempts to create a digital currency. Bitcoin is by far the most ingenious attempt, and it solves numerous problems. It allows for anonymity, just like cash, while also rendering transactions public, which ensures against double spending (that is, using the same bitcoins for multiple transactions). It is virtually impossible to counterfeit. And, as Felix Salmon pointed out last year, “to all intents and purposes, bitcoins are invisible to law enforcement and the taxman.”
But so far bitcoins have less resembled a currency than a commodity. Up until now, they have mostly been used for pure speculation. Indeed, because there are only a limited number of bitcoins in circulation, the speculative ride has been pretty wild. In February, the bitcoin dropped in value from around $880 to the mid-$5oos.Bitcoin’s gyrations hardly engender trust among potential users. And the recent bitcoin-related news isn’t exactly reassuring either. First, a well-known bitcoin entrepreneur was arrested for allegedly laundering criminals’ money on an underground website called Silk Road, which traffics in, among other things, illegal drugs. Then, Mt. Gox, the leading bitcoin exchange, went out of business — and nobody knows what happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoins it was holding for customers.
The country’s most prominent bitcoin backer, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose firm is funding bitcoin-related start-ups, raced to CNBC to claim that the Mt. Gox failure was just part of the growing pains for bitcoins. And maybe it is. But who in his right mind, whether merchant or customer, is going to engage in commerce with a currency so seemingly unstable, or one that can so quickly disappear?
The great irony of bitcoin is that its anonymous creator (or creators), who goes by the name Satoshi Nakamoto, believed that people would want his new currency because they had learned to mistrust financial institutions. As Salmon notes, when Nakamoto introduced bitcoin, in February 2009, he wrote:
“ ‘The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.’ ”
All of which is true. But however angry we might be at bank compensation or at the role of financial institutions in the financial crisis, we still trust banks to safeguard our money, and we still trust government to back our currency. For bitcoin to succeed, it will have to embrace the one thing it was most intended to avoid: government.
Well, that might make it harder to pay for your drugs and hookers… Now here’s Ms. Collins:
It’s been quite a week in Arizona. First, the Legislature passed a bill that, in effect, gave businesses the right to discriminate against gay couples. The state’s actual business community was horrified. Everybody from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich was ticked off.
Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, pointing out acerbically that the lawmakers had not managed to send her anything whatsoever on critical issues — like, say, the budget — while they labored with remarkable efficiency on behalf of theologically troubled wedding photographers.
Chastened, the very same elected officials trotted back to their posts and immediately took up the subject of surprise inspections of abortion clinics.
Perhaps we should avoid reading too much into Arizona, where politics appears to be in a permanent state of mental collapse. “We do this kind of thing every day,” said Chad Campbell, the long-suffering minority leader of the House.
But here’s my question for today. The gay rights movement has been having some remarkable success lately. Why do abortion rights keep losing ground?
Think about the three great hot-button issues that have propelled the social right for the last several decades. One is guns — a terrible problem for the nation, but currently rather moot in many state legislatures, which have run out of new things to do on behalf of the National Rifle Association.
“I think the only thing left is to make sure it’s mandatory that all kids get a gun when they’re born,” said Campbell.
That leaves two major causes around which the social right can raise money and political temperatures. For a while, state politicians happily busied themselves banning gay marriage. Then the trajectory changed. Gay Americans now not only have support from their families and friends, they have powerful backing from economic leaders, who see them as valuable employees and customers. The national Republican establishment is terrified of being labeled anti-gay.
Not the same story for abortion rights. Last year, 22 states adopted new abortion restrictions, some of which come close to completely eliminating women’s right of choice. There was a dramatic standoff in the Texas State Legislature when Senator Wendy Davis staved off a draconian anti-abortion bill with a one-woman filibuster. People watched enthralled around the country. Davis catapulted onto the national political stage. But the Legislature came right back and passed the bill a few weeks later.
It’s easy to come up with some explanations. Obviously, abortion is an issue that only relates to one gender, at one particular stage in their lives. And it’s never a feel-good option. “I don’t expect the National Football League to be defending abortion rights anytime soon,” said Susan Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute.
There’s also the particular genius of the Arizona State Legislature. A bunch of states have been considering bills like the one that sparked so much outrage in Phoenix. But their sponsors usually talked in vague terms about religious freedom, playing down the part about restricting gay rights. The Arizona lawmakers made it very clear that they were inspired by the terrifying image of a gay couple walking up to a counter and demanding to be served.
“The fight was such a good one because it was such a frontal assault,” said Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood.
When anti-abortion bills come up, they tend to be cloaked as matters of public safety. Make sure the doctors have hospital visiting privileges. Don’t use this drug. Or that one. Let’s have surprise inspections of the abortion clinics. More sonograms and waiting periods.
Voters tended to shrug. But when they are actually asked, straight-out, if they want to ban all abortions, they’ve said no, even in conservative states like Mississippi and South Dakota. And, Susan Cohen of Guttmacher noted, when the Virginia Legislature tried to require women to have invasive transvaginal ultrasounds if they wanted an early-term abortion, it got the public’s unnerved attention. “And other states said — ‘well, maybe we’d better not do that either.’ ”
It’s hard to imagine, but perhaps what this country needs is less subtle state legislators.
The biggest difference between the fortunes of gay rights and abortion rights, however, is that politicians who vote to limit women’s rights to control their own bodies know that, for the most part, they’re only hurting poor people.
Low-income women are five times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy as their most affluent sisters. And the lawmakers who busy themselves throwing up barriers to abortion in their own states realize, deep in their hearts, that if their middle-class constituents want to end a pregnancy, they can get on a plane and go where it’s easy to take care of the problem.
“Folks of wealth have always been able to end an unwanted pregnancy. And they always will be,” said Richards.
We keep looking for new angles on the song, but the tune stays the same. Follow the lack of money.