Archive for the ‘STFU’ Category

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 8, 2014

Bobo has taken it upon himself to tell us “What Suffering Does.”  He gurgles that in a culture obsessed with happiness, we should remember that coming to terms with suffering is instructive to the soul.  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “It’s hard to know exactly what Mr. Brooks is selling in this sermonette, but whenever conservatives wax philosophical about the benefits of suffering, I feel a little uneasy.”  As well you should, gemli, as well you should.  Mr. Nocera considers “G. M.’s Cobalt Crisis” and says how the company handles all the recalls and inquiries will show if anything has changed.  In “The Water Cooler Runs Dry” Mr. Bruni says with so much to watch and read and listen to, we have fewer cultural experiences in common.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.

I’ll just bet he “found himself in a bunch of conversations.”  More likely he wrenched a bunch of conversations in the direction he wanted them to go.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The Chevrolet Cobalt is in many ways the perfect representation of the bad, old days of General Motors, when quality didn’t much matter, market share was more important than profitability, and financial decisions came before design and even safety decisions.

First manufactured in 2004, the car was a clunker from the start. “Owners complained about power steering failures, locks inexplicably opening and closing, doors jamming shut in the rain — even windows falling out,” according to Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz, writing in The Times last week.

And then there was the ignition defect that could cause the power to shut down, which led to a huge recall two months ago — and has spiraled the company into crisis. The more we learn about it — and with a handful of investigations underway, there is much that is not yet known — the worse G.M. looks.

The company apparently knew about the defect as far back as 2001, when it discovered the problem during testing of the Saturn Ion. It saw the problem again in 2004, as the Cobalt was about to be rolled out with the same ignition system. According to documents obtained in congressional investigations, engineers came up with a proposed fix, but it was nixed on the grounds that it was too expensive and would take too much time.

Finally, in 2006, engineers at General Motors appeared to have fixed the problem, but they did so without changing the part number, which is a shocking violation of engineering protocol, wrote Micheline Maynard at Forbes.com. It makes G.M. appear to have been engaged in subterfuge, hiding the fact that its ignition had been defective all those years.

Meanwhile, at least 13 people died in accidents that were clearly the result of the faulty ignition design. There are also another 140 people who died in accidents involving the Cobalt in which the cause is unknown. Yet for more than a decade, General Motors did nothing.

What makes this a particularly difficult crisis for G.M. is that it comes at a time when the company is trying to prove to the world that the old G.M. is dead. With a new chief executive in Mary Barra, 52, and a handful of newly designed cars, G.M. wants the world to believe that it has emerged from its bankruptcy as a smarter, nimbler, more transparent company. And maybe it has. But the Cobalt fiasco does not instill confidence; rather, it reminds people why General Motors had to be saved by the government in the first place.

On the one hand, Barra has met with the families of people who were killed in Cobalt accidents, something the old management would never have done. She has also hired Kenneth Feinberg, who has become famous for parceling out money to victims of 9/11 and the BP oil spill. He has been brought on to help the company figure out how to compensate victims and their families — a tricky bit of business since the company is legally off the hook for any accidents that took place prior to the 2009 bankruptcy. Of the many investigations into the Cobalt, one has been ordered by Barra herself, an internal review aimed at, among other things, answering the question of why General Motors took so long to order a recall. These are all gestures aimed at reinforcing the idea that this G.M. is a different kind of company.

On the other hand, Barra was forced to acknowledge before Congress that she hadn’t even known about the problem until the end of January — just a few weeks after she became the chief executive — when she was informed that the company planned a recall. She told Congress that General Motors was a place that had “silos,” and that information was too often not shared. She said so little of substance during her two days of congressional testimony last week that she came across as stonewalling at times. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, accused her of presiding over “a culture of cover-up.” These are the kinds of moments that make you wonder if General Motors really has changed.

The Cobalt crisis will eventually fade. Feinberg will figure out how to pay victims. Plaintiffs’ lawyers will sue and settle. The investigations will be completed and the results announced. Presumably some heads will roll.

It is what happens over the ensuing months and years that will tell the tale of whether General Motors is truly a different company or whether this has all been for show. The government has sold its stake in G.M. The company is making money now. It is unquestionably a leaner, less bureaucratic place.

What it now needs to prove is that it makes cars that will cause us all to forget about the Cobalt. That’s when we’ll really know if it has changed.

What should happen is some folks who knew about the faulty switches being indicted for voluntary manslaughter.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

If you’re closing in on 50 but want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now, at 49, and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era.

Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

And these are young women and men bright and diligent enough to have gained admission to Princeton University, which is where our disconnect is playing out.

The bulk of that disconnect, obviously, is generational. Seemingly all of my students know who Gwyneth Paltrow is. And with another decade or two of reading and living and being subjected to fossils like me, they’ll assemble a richer inventory of knowledge and trivia, not all of it present-day.

But the pronounced narrowness of the cultural terrain that they and I share — the precise limits of the overlap — suggests something additional at work. In a wired world with hundreds of television channels, countless byways in cyberspace and all sorts of technological advances that permit each of us to customize his or her diet of entertainment and information, are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?

Both literally and figuratively, the so-called water-cooler show is fading fast, a reality underscored by a fact that I stumbled across in last week’s edition of The New Yorker: In the mid-1970s, when the sitcom “All in the Family” was America’s top-rated television series, more than 50 million people would tune in to a given episode. That was in a country of about 215 million.

I checked on the No. 1 series for the 2012-13 television season. It was “NCIS,” an episode of which typically drew fewer than 22 million people, even counting those who watched a recording of it within a week of its broadcast. That’s out of nearly 318 million Americans now.

“NCIS” competes against an unprecedented bounty of original programming and more ways to see new and old shows than ever, what with cable networks, subscription services, YouTube, Apple TV and Aereo. Yahoo just announced that it was jumping into the fray and, like Netflix and Amazon, would develop its own shows.

In movies, there’s a bevy of boutique fare that never even opens in theaters but that you can order on demand at home. In music, streaming services and Internet and satellite radio stations showcase a dizzying array of songs and performers, few of whom attain widespread recognition. In books, self-publishing has contributed to a marked rise in the number of titles, but it doesn’t take an especially large crowd of readers for a book to become a best seller. Everyone’s on a different page.

With so very much to choose from, a person can stick to one or two preferred micro-genres and subsist entirely on them, while other people gorge on a completely different set of ingredients. You like “Housewives”? Savor them in multiple cities and accents. Food porn? Stuff yourself silly. Vampire fiction? The vein never runs dry.

I brought up this Balkanization of experience with Hendrik Hartog, the director of the American studies program at Princeton, and he noted that what’s happening in popular culture mirrors what has transpired at many elite universities, where survey courses in literature and history have given way to meditations on more focused themes.

“There’s enormous weight given to specialized knowledge,” he said. “It leaves an absence of connective tissue for students.” Not for nothing, he observed, does his Princeton colleague Daniel Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history, call this the “age of fracture.”

It has enormous upsides, and may be for the best. No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway. A person can find an individual lens and language through which his or her world comes alive.

And because makers of commercial entertainment don’t have to chase an increasingly apocryphal mass audience, they can produce cultish gems, like “Girls” on HBO and “Louie” on FX.

But each fosters a separate dialect. Finding a collective vocabulary becomes harder. Although I’m tempted to tell my students that they make me feel like the 2,000-year-old man, I won’t. I might have to fill them in first on Mel Brooks.

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

April 6, 2014

In “Health Care Without End” The Pasty Little Putz babbles that Americans will still be arguing about Obamacare in 2030.  He’s wrong again, but that’s nothing new.  MoDo squeals “Bring Me My Dragons!”  She’s been watching TV again, and of course manages to get in her de rigeur slap at Obama.  Same old, same old…  In “Sheldon: Iran’s Best Friend” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us how Sheldon Adelson and Iran are both trying to destroy Israel.  Mr. Kristof tells us of a young woman with a lesson for graduates about the meaning of life in “Her First, And Last, Book.”  Mr. Bruni ponders “The New Gay Orthodoxy” and says the ouster of Mozilla’s chief executive suggests a shrinking room for debate.  Here’s The Putz:

So you think it’s finished? So you think now that enrollment has hit seven million, now that the president has declared the debate over repeal “over,” now that Republican predictions of a swift Obamacare unraveling look a bit like Republican predictions of a Romney landslide, we’re going to stop arguing about health care, stop having the issue dominate the conversation, and turn at last to some other debate instead?

You think it’s over? It’s never over.

I mean, O.K., it will be over in the event of a nuclear war, or a climate apocalypse, or if the robots eventually rise up and overthrow us. (Our capacity for self-destruction is a pre-existing condition that no insurance plan will touch.)

But for the foreseeable future, the health care debate probably isn’t going to get any less intense. Instead, what we’ve watched unfold since 2009 is what we should expect for years, decades, a generation: a grinding, exhausting argument over how to pay for health care in a society that’s growing older, consuming more care, and (especially if current secularizing trends persist) becoming more and more invested in postponing death.

In the near term, this debate will go on because Obamacare has stabilized itself without fully resolving any of its internal problems. The liberal victory lap last week was half-earned: It really was a victory, given the initial website catastrophe, to arrive at seven million enrolled, and that success almost certainly establishes a new coverage baseline for any future overhaul.

But that baseline won’t be anything like universal coverage, and it may fall short of universality by a much larger margin than the law’s supporters hoped. Around a million of the seven million probably won’t make their payments, and many had insurance previously. So even with the new Medicaid enrollees and the twentysomethings added to their parents’ plans, the number of newly insured could end up around three or four or even five million short of the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office predicted for Obamacare’s first year.

At the same time, the law’s internal structure has been rendered extremely rickety by the administration’s attempts at damage control. Nobody knows what will happen with the various suspended and hollowed-out provisions — whether the employer mandate will ever take effect, whether the individual mandate will be enforced along the lines that its architects argued was necessary for the law to work. And nobody is sure what the pool of enrollees looks like (in terms of age and average health), and what it will mean for premiums next year and beyond.

These realities make it very likely that whatever position Republicans end up taking on a potential Obamacare replacement or reform, by the next presidential election there will be increasingly vocal Democratic constituencies for change — moderates who want to be seen as doing something about rate shock, and liberals looking for a reform (ahem, single payer) that doesn’t leave 30 million Americans uninsured.

Repeal may really be a dead letter, in other words, but don’t be surprised to wake up in 2020 to endless arguments about a reform of the reform of the reform.

And don’t be surprised, either, if the debate over Obamacare is merging, by then, into the yet-more-toxic argument about how to pay for Medicare.

The Medicare debate has been postponed, to some extent, by the recent fiscal consolidation and a slowdown in health care cost inflation. But inflation should rise again as the Obamacare money sluices into the system, and even with a lower rate it would be hard to envision a future for Medicare that doesn’t involve some combination of price controls, benefit reductions and tax increases — all on a much larger scale than the numbers involved in recent debates.

What’s more, the political salience of this debate will rise for the same reason that the costs of Medicare will be rising: because the country will be older over all, and health policy inevitably matters more to the old than to the young.

Which means that the future almost certainly holds more cries of “death panels,” more ads featuring Paul Ryan clones pushing seniors over a cliff, and no doubt as-yet-undreamt-of forms of demagogy. And it means, as well, that if it’s hard to get Washington to focus on other issues now — tax reform, education, family policy, you name it — just wait awhile: It will get much worse.

It’s important to note, of course, that this “worse” will be the result of betterment: our political debates will be consumed by health care because of all that medicine can do for us, and we’ll be arguing about how to sustain what earlier generations would have regarded as a golden age.

But there’s a reason that golden ages can diminish into twilight — because the demands of the present can crowd out the needs of the future, and because what’s required to preserve and sustain is often different, in the end, from what’s required to grow.

He’s such a putz, and so very, very, very predictable.  Now, FSM help us, here’s MoDo:

I’d been hoping to get the flu.

I hadn’t had it in years, and there were so many TV series I’d never seen — “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” “True Detective” — that required an extended convalescence.

When I finally succumbed to a fever and crumpled in bed a couple of weeks ago with saltines and Gatorade, I grabbed the clicker, murmuring, “Alright, alright, alright.” The only celebrated series I had no interest in was “Game of Thrones.”

I’m not really a Middle-earth sort of girl.

I’d read about George R. R. Martin, the author of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the fantasy epic about a medieval-style land of Seven Kingdoms and beyond that is the basis of the HBO show. The bearded, portly 65-year-old, raised in Bayonne, N.J., and living in a modest house in Santa Fe, N.M., has been dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time.

I had no interest in the murky male world of orcs, elves, hobbits, goblins and warrior dwarves. If I was going to watch a period drama, I usually favored ones with strong women in intriguing situations, like “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Masters of Sex.”

Besides, “Game of Thrones” sounded too dense and complicated for someone suffering from zombie brain.

How could I fathom the agendas and plotlines of all the plotting lords and ladies and whores and bastards and sellswords of Westeros when even Martin himself has had to sometimes check with one of his superfans to make sure he’s keeping the feuding factions straight?

A 2011 New Yorker profile described the nutty passion of Martin’s fans, how they mercilessly mock him on Web forums for not writing faster, and how they keep track of every word to the point where the author has become paranoid about mistakes, such as when a character’s eyes shift from green to blue.

“My fans point them out to me,” he told the magazine. “I have a horse that changes sex between books. He was a mare in one book and a stallion in the next, or something like that.” He added, “People are analyzing every goddamn line in these books, and if I make a mistake they’re going to nail me on it.”

But after I finished tromping around the bayou with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, I decided to watch one “Game of Thrones” to see what the fuss was about. It is not only the most pirated show on the Internet, but one of President Obama’s favorites — although he hasn’t picked up any good tips about ruthlessly wielding power, either from “Game” or from Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham on “Downton Abbey,” another show he raves about.

After a marathon of three seasons of “Game” and the beginning of the fourth, starting this Sunday, I’m ready to forgo reality for fantasy.

Who wants to cover Chris Christie’s petty little revenge schemes in New Jersey once you’ve seen the gory revenge grandeur of the Red Wedding?

Who wants to see W.’s portraits of leaders once you’re used to King Joffrey putting leaders’ heads on stakes?

Who wants to hear Hillary Clinton complain about a media double standard for women once you’ve gotten accustomed to the win-don’t-whine philosophy of Cersei, Daenerys, Melisandre, Margaery, Ygritte, Brienne and Arya? As it turns out, the show not only has its share of strong women, but plenty of lethal ones as well.

It all seems so tame and meaningless in Washington after Westeros. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul wouldn’t survive a fortnight in King’s Landing. Charles Dance’s icy Tywin Lannister, ruling over a kingdom more interested in dismemberment than disgruntled members, would have the Rains of Castamere playing as soon as he saw those pretenders to the throne. As for House Republicans, or should that be the House of Republicans, life would be mercifully short.

I fell so deeply into the brocaded, overripe, incestuous universe — dubbed “ ‘Sopranos’ meets Middle-earth” by showrunner David Benioff — I couldn’t climb out.

I fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

When friends would ask me what they could get me in the way of sustenance while I was sick, I would yell: “BRING ME MY DRAGONS!”

I even toyed with the idea of getting the flying, fire-breathing dragon on the cover of the new Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. The description is irresistible: “This is the remote controlled jet-powered dragon that soars through the air at up to 70 m.p.h. and belches propane-powered flame when on the ground. Proving its prowess before takeoffs or after successful raids, the dragon’s LED eyes can be commanded to glow red while it emits a fiery 3-foot blast of flame from a cleverly concealed propane tank and igniter built into its toothy maw. A miniature turbine engine built into the beast’s chest provides thrust that exits the rear at 500 m.p.h., and uses 1/2 gallon of jet aircraft fuel or kerosene for 10 minute flights. With a head that swivels in the direction of turns, the dragon can climb and dive via wing ailerons and elevators built into its V-tail rudder.”

Of course, no one who knows me thinks I should be in possession of propane gas. And the other impediment to joy, and bar to being the khaleesi and mother of dragons, was the price tag: $60,000. As Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in The New York Review of Books, “People often talk about Tolkien as Martin’s model, but the deep, Christianizing sentimentality of the worldview expressed in ‘Lord of the Rings’ is foreign to Martin, who has, if anything, a tart Thucycididean appreciation for the way in which political corruption can breed narrative corruption, too.”

Martin’s larger Hundred Years’ War theme echoes Shakespeare. As he has pointed out, “Believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets.” And as Mendelsohn writes, it is “the way in which the appetite for, and the use and abuse of, power fragments societies and individuals; in a world ruled by might, who is ‘right’?”

When a flattering adviser warns Cersei, the queen regent, that “knowledge is power,” she makes a feint

to cut the man’s throat and then informs him, “Power is power.”

In the new season, Tywin Lannister explains to his grandson what makes a bad king: spending all your time whoring, hunting and drinking; being so gullible you don’t recognize the evil around you; being so pious you fast yourself into an early grave; and assuming that winning and ruling are the same thing.

“A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t,” Tywin explains to the boy. “You’re young. A wise young king listens to his councilors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. The wisest of kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.”

Words to die by.

Don’t ask me why she (or the Times) put in that paragraph break in the middle of a sentence…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

It occurred to me the other day that the zealously pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually have one big thing in common. They are both trying to destroy Israel. Adelson is doing it by loving Israel to death and Khamenei by hating Israel to death. And now even Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey inadvertently got drawn into this craziness.

What’s the logic? Very simple. Iran’s leaders want Israel destroyed but have no desire, in my view, to use a nuclear bomb to do it. That would expose them to retaliation and sure death. Their real strategy is more subtle: Do everything possible to ensure that Israel remains in the “occupied territory,” as the U.S. State Department refers to the West Bank, won by Israel in the 1967 war. By supporting Palestinian militants dedicated to destroying any peace process, Tehran hopes to keep Israel permanently mired in the West Bank and occupying 2.7 million Palestinians, denying them any statehood and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state that might recognize Israel and live in peace alongside it. The more Israel is stuck there, the more Palestinians and the world will demand a “one-state solution,” with Palestinians given the right to vote. The more Israel resists that, the more isolated it becomes.

Iran and its ally Hamas have plenty of evidence that this strategy is working: Israel’s 47-year-old occupation of the West Bank has led it to build more settlements there and in doing so make itself look like the most active colonial power on the planet today. The 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank reinforce that view by claiming their presence in the West Bank is not about security but a divinely inspired project to reunite the Jewish people with their biblical homeland.

The result is a growing movement on college campuses and in international organizations to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state because of this occupation. This “B.D.S. movement” — to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — is gaining adherents not only among non-Jews on American campuses but even within some Hillels, campus Jewish centers.

Iran could not be happier. The more Israel sinks into the West Bank, the more it is delegitimized and isolated, the more the world focuses on Israel’s colonialism rather than Iran’s nuclear enrichment, the more people call for a single democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

And now Iran has an ally: Sheldon Adelson — the foolhardy Las Vegas casino magnate and crude right-wing, pro-Israel extremist. Adelson gave away some $100 million in the last presidential campaign to fund Republican candidates, with several priorities in mind: that they delegitimize the Palestinians and that they avoid any reference to the West Bank as “occupied territories” and any notion that the U.S. should pressure Israel to trade land for peace there. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney took the money and played by Sheldon’s rules.

In case you missed it, the R.J.C., the Republican Jewish Coalition, held a retreat last weekend at an Adelson casino in Las Vegas. It was dubbed “the Sheldon Primary.” Republicans lined up to compete for Adelson’s blessing and money, or as Politico put it: “Adelson summoned [Jeb] Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin to Las Vegas. … The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two — explains both the eagerness of busy governors to make pilgrimages to Las Vegas, and the obsession with divining Adelson’s 2016 leanings.”

Adelson personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel’s today — swaggering oligarchs, using huge sums of money to try to bend each system to their will.

Christie, in his speech, referred to the West Bank as “occupied territories” — as any knowledgeable American leader would. This, Politico said, “set off murmurs in the crowd.” Some Republican Jews explained to Christie after he finished that he had made a terrible faux pas. (He called something by its true name and in the way the U.S. government always has!) The West Bank should be called “disputed territories” or “Judea and Samaria,” the way hard-line Jews prefer. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he misspoke and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

Read that sentence over and contemplate it.

I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will. But I know this: If Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic state, it should be doing everything it can to nurture such a partner or acting unilaterally to get out. Because, I’m certain that when reports about the “Adelson primary” reached the desk of Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran, a big smile crossed his face and he said to his aides: “May Allah grant Sheldon a long life. Everything is going according to plan.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Two years ago, Marina Keegan’s life brimmed with promise. She was graduating with high honors from Yale University, already a precocious writer about to take up a job at The New Yorker.

She had a play that was about to be produced. She had sparked a national conversation about whether graduates should seek meaning or money.

In keeping with that early promise, Keegan’s first book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is scheduled to be published in a few days. The title comes from an essay that she wrote in the graduation issue of the Yale newspaper; it was viewed online more than one million times.

The book is a triumph, but also a tragedy — for it’s posthumous.

“I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short,” Keegan wrote in one of her poems. As a senior, she wrote an aching protest on the website of The New York Times about the rush of students into well-paying jobs on Wall Street — not because of innate interest but because that route was lucrative and practical. One-quarter of Yale graduates entering the job market were going into finance or consulting, and Keegan saw this as a surrender of youthful talents and dreams to the altar of practicality.

“Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn’t find a single student aspiring to be a banker, but at commencement this May, there’s a 50 percent chance I’ll be sitting next to one,” she wrote. “This strikes me as incredibly sad.”

Keegan recalled being paid $100 to attend a recruiting session at Yale by a hedge fund: “I got this uneasy feeling that the man in the beautiful suit was going to take my Hopes and Dreams back to some lab to figure out the best way to crush them.”

For my part (and Keegan probably would have agreed), I think that we need bankers and management consultants as well as writers and teachers, and there’s something to be said for being practical. Some financiers find fulfillment, and it’s also true that such a person may be able to finance far more good work than a person who becomes an aid worker. Life is complicated.

Yet Keegan was right to prod us all to reflect on what we seek from life, to ask these questions, to recognize the importance of passions as well as paychecks — even if there are no easy answers.

A young man named Adam Braun struggles with similar issues in another new book that complements Keegan’s. Braun began working at a hedge fund the summer when he was 16, charging unthinkingly toward finance, and after graduation from Brown University he joined Bain Consulting.

Yet Braun found that although he had “made it,” his heart just wasn’t in his work. He kept thinking of a boy, a beggar who had never been to school, whom he had met on a trip to India. Braun asked the boy what he wanted most in the world.

The boy replied, “a pencil.”

Braun quit his job to found Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds schools around the world. His new book, “The Promise of a Pencil,” recounts “how an ordinary person can create extraordinary change.”

I hope this year’s graduates will remember the message in the books by Keegan and Braun about seeking fulfillment, zest and passion in life. This search for purpose in life is an elemental human quest — yet one we tend to put off. And we never know when time will run out.

For Marina Keegan, that was just five days after graduation. Her boyfriend was driving her to her father’s 55th birthday party on Cape Cod. Though he was neither speeding nor drinking, he fell asleep at the wheel. They both were wearing seatbelts, but her seat was fully reclined so that the seatbelt was less effective.

The car hit a guard rail and rolled over twice. The boyfriend was unhurt; Keegan was killed.

Her mother, Tracy Keegan, combed the wreckage. Marina’s laptop had been smashed, but the hard drive was extracted to mine the writings so important to her — and now preserved in her book.

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

The book has been lovingly edited by Anne Fadiman, who taught Keegan writing at Yale. “Every aspect of her life,” Fadiman says, “was a way of answering that question: how do you find meaning in your life?”

Fadiman says that Marina would be “beyond thrilled” at having a book published, but would add: “Please pay attention to my ideas. Don’t read this book just because I’m dead.”

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

To appreciate how rapidly the ground has shifted, go back just two short years, to April 2012. President Obama didn’t support marriage equality, not formally. Neither did Hillary Clinton. And few people were denouncing them as bigots whose positions rendered them too divisive, offensive and regressive to lead.

But that’s precisely the condemnation that tainted and toppled Brendan Eich after his appointment two weeks ago as the new chief executive of the technology company Mozilla. On Thursday he resigned, clearly under duress and solely because his opposition to gay marriage diverged from the views of too many employees and customers. “Under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader,” he said, and he was right, not just about the climate at Mozilla but also, to a certain degree, about the climate of America.

Something remarkable has happened — something that’s mostly exciting but also a little disturbing (I’ll get to the disturbing part later), and that’s reflected not just in Eich’s ouster at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox, but in a string of marriage-equality victories in federal courts over recent months, including a statement Friday by a judge who said that he would rule that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

And the development I’m referring to isn’t the broadening support for same-sex marriage, which a clear majority of Americans now favor. No, I’m referring to the fact that in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.

Even beyond these circles, the debate is essentially over, in the sense that the trajectory is immutable and the conclusion foregone. Everybody knows it, even the people who still try to stand in the way. The legalization of same-sex marriage from north to south and coast to coast is merely a matter of time, probably not much of it at that.

There will surely be setbacks, holdouts, tantrums like the one in Arizona, whose Legislature in February passed a bill that would have allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians on religious grounds. (Mississippi enacted a vaguely similar measure last week.) Arizona’s governor of course vetoed the legislation, after being pressured by corporate leaders, and their lobbying underscored the larger and more lasting story. At least beyond the offices of Chick-fil-A, it’s widely believed — no, understood — that being pro-gay is better for business than being antigay. Hence the inclusion of a same-sex couple in the famous faces-of-America commercial that Coca-Cola unveiled during the Super Bowl. Hence a more recent television spot, part of the Honey Maid food company’s “This is Wholesome” ad campaign. It showed two dads cuddling their newborn.

The Mozilla story fits into this picture. Eich was exiled following not just employee complaints but signs and threats of customer unrest: The online dating site OkCupid was urging its users to boycott Firefox.

The business community has in fact been a consequential supporter of marriage equality. Wall Street firms lined the coffers of the campaign for marriage equality in New York, and 20 major financial service companies pay substantial membership dues to belong to and underwrite Out on the Street, an industry group that advocates for L.G.B.T. equality.

“You want to talk about a sea change?” Todd Sears, the group’s founder, said to me. “Fourteen financial services companies signed onto an amicus brief in the Edie Windsor case.” That was the one that asked the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which the court essentially did last June.

The language in the high court’s ruling “demolished every argument put forward to justify marriage discrimination,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. And that ruling, he added, helped to pave the way for all the court victories — in Utah, in Oklahoma, in Texas — since. This coming Thursday, the United States circuit court in Denver will hear an appeal of the decision by a federal judge in Utah to allow gay and lesbian couples there to wed. The case could have a sweeping effect on a region of the country not typically considered progressive. It could also wind up at the Supreme Court and give the justices a chance to do what they stopped short of last year: decree marriage equality nationwide.

Wolfson noted a fascinating angle of the recent court rulings and of the blessing that Eric Holder gave in February to state-level attorneys general who didn’t want to defend bans on gay marriage. Both invoked racial discrimination in the country’s past, casting bans on same-sex marriage in that context.

Increasingly, opposition to gay marriage is being equated with racism — as indefensible, un-American. “What was once a wedge issue became wrapped in the American flag,” said Jo Becker, a Times writer whose sweeping history of the marriage-equality movement, “Forcing the Spring,” will be published this month. Becker mentioned what she called a rebranding of the movement over the last five years, with two important components. First, gay marriage was framed in terms of family values. Second, advocates didn’t shame opponents and instead made sympathetic public acknowledgment of the journey that many Americans needed to complete in order to be comfortable with marriage equality.

There was no such acknowledgment from Mozilla employees and others who took to Twitter to condemn Eich and call for his head. Writing about that wrath in his blog, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan said that it disgusted him, “as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society.” A leading supporter of gay marriage, Sullivan warned other supporters not to practice “a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else.”

I can’t get quite as worked up as he did. For one thing, prominent gay rights groups weren’t part of the Mozilla fray. For another, Mozilla isn’t the first company to make leadership decisions (or reconsiderations) with an eye toward the boss’s cultural mind-meld with the people below him or her. And if you believe that to deny a class of people the right to marry is to deem them less worthy, it’s indeed difficult to chalk up opposition to marriage equality as just another difference of opinion.

But it’s vital to remember how very recently so many of equality’s promoters, like Obama and Clinton, have come around and how relatively new this conversation remains. It’s crucial not to lose sight of how well the movement has been served by the less judgmental posture that Becker pointed out.

Sullivan is right to raise concerns about the public flogging of someone like Eich. Such vilification won’t accelerate the timetable of victory, which is certain. And it doesn’t reflect well on the victors.

Crap, Mr. Bruni.  He was shit-canned because he was bad for business.  He’s still perfectly free to exercise his rights of free speech to decry same sex marriage.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

April 4, 2014

Bobo seems to have lost what passed for his mind.  In “Party All the Time” he actually tells us that the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision strengthens democracy by enabling the parties to take back power from major donors.  “Eric Flatpick” of Ohio sums the thing up succinctly:  “What pigheaded sophistry.”  Mr. Flatpick had more to say about it, but the summation says it all.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “In Search of Home:”  If you had a few weeks to live, where would you go?  In “Rube Goldberg Survives” Prof. Krugman tells us why those seven million enrollments in Obamacare matter.  Here’s Bobo’s delayed April Fools Day POS:

Over the last several decades, the United States has adopted a series of campaign finance reform laws. If these laws were designed to reduce the power of money in politics, they have failed. Spending on political campaigns has exploded. Washington booms with masses of lobbyists and consultants.

But campaign finance laws weren’t merely designed to take money out of politics; they were designed to protect incumbents from political defeat. In this regard, the laws have been fantastically successful.

The laws rigged the system to make it harder for challengers to raise money. In 1972, at about the time the Federal Election Campaign Act was first passed, incumbents had a campaign spending advantage over challengers of about 3 to 2. These days, incumbents have a spending advantage of at least 4 to 1. In some election years, 98 percent of the incumbents are swept back into office.

One of the ways incumbents secured this advantage is by weakening the power of the parties. They imposed caps on how much donors can give to parties and how much parties can give directly to candidates. By 2008, direct party contributions to Senate candidates accounted for only 0.18 percent of total spending.

The members of Congress did this because an unregulated party can direct large amounts of money to knock off an incumbent of the opposing party. By restricting parties, incumbents defanged a potent foe.

These laws pushed us from a party-centric campaign system to a candidate-centric system. This change has made life less pleasant for lawmakers but it has made their jobs more secure, and they have been willing to accept this trade-off.

Life is less pleasant because with the parties weakened, lawmakers have to do many campaign tasks on their own. They have to do their own fund-raising and their own kissing up to special interests. They have to hire consultants to do the messaging tasks that parties used to do.

But incumbents accept this because the candidate-centric system makes life miserable for challengers. With direct contributions severely limited and parties defanged, challengers find it hard to quickly build the vast network of donors they need to raise serious cash. High-quality challengers choose not to run because they don’t want to spend their lives begging for dough.

The shift to a candidate-centric system was horrifically antidemocratic. It pushed money from transparent, tightly regulated parties to the shadowy world of PACs and 527s. It weakened party leaders, who have to think about building broad national coalitions, and gave power to special interests.

Then came the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which managed to make everything even worse. It moved us from a candidate-centric system to a donor-centric system. Donors were unleashed to create their own opaque yet torrential money flows outside both parties and candidates. This created an explosion in the number of groups with veto power over legislation and reform. It polarized politics further because donors tend to be more extreme than politicians or voters. The candidate-centric system empowered special interests; the donor-centric system makes them practically invincible.

Then along came the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision this week. It has been greeted with cries of horror because it may increase the amount of money in politics. But this is the wrong metric. There will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise. The crucial question is where is the money flowing.

The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and “super PACs.” It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.

In their book “Better Parties, Better Government,” Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora propose the best way to reform campaign finance: eliminate the restrictions on political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates; loosen the limitations on giving to parties; keep the limits on giving to PACs.

Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks. They foster coalition thinking. They are relatively transparent. They are accountable to voters. They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one. Strengthened parties will make races more competitive and democracy more legitimate. Strong parties mobilize volunteers and activists and broaden political participation. Unlike super PACs, parties welcome large numbers of people into the political process.

Since the progressive era, campaign reformers have intuitively distrusted parties. These reformers seem driven by a naïve hope that they can avoid any visible concentration of power. But their approach to reform has manifestly failed. By restricting parties, they just concentrated power in ways that are much worse.

Sweet baby Jesus on a tricycle…  I guess Bobo missed the spectacle of pretty much all the Republican “front runners” prostrating themselves before the loathsome Sheldon Adelson.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

In a fascinating recent essay in The London Review of Books, called “On Not Going Home,” James Wood relates how he “asked Christopher Hitchens, long before he was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live. Would he stay in America? ‘No, I’d go to Dartmoor, without a doubt,’ he told me. It was the landscape of his childhood.”

It was the landscape, in other words, of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.

That question is worth repeating: If I had only a few weeks to live, where would I go? It is a good way of getting rid of the clutter that distracts or blinds. I will get to that in a moment.

In the essay, Wood, who grew up in England but has lived in the United States for 18 years, explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.

He speaks of existences “marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end.”

This is a widespread modern condition; perhaps it is the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety. Wood does not focus on the psychological effects of what he calls “a certain outsider-dom,” but if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: displacement anguish.

Wood describes looking at the familiar life of his Boston street, “the heavy maple trees, the unkempt willow down at the end, an old white Cadillac with the bumper sticker ‘Ted Kennedy has killed more people than my gun,’ and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there — just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: How did I get here?”

Having spent my infancy in South Africa, grown up and been educated in England, and then, after a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, found my home in New York, I understand that how-did-I-get-here panic. But Wood and I differ. He has no desire to become an American citizen.

He quotes an immigration officer telling him, “‘A Green Card is usually considered a path to citizenship,’ and continues: “He was generously saying, ‘Would you like to be an American citizen?’ along with the less generous: ‘Why don’t you want to be an American citizen?’ Can we imagine either sentiment being expressed at Heathrow airport?”

No, we can’t. And it’s that essential openness of America, as well as the (linked) greater ease of living as a Jew in the United States compared with life in the land of Lewis Namier’s “trembling Israelites,” that made me become an American citizen and elect New York as my home. It’s the place that takes me in.

But it is not the place of my deepest connections. So, what if I had a few weeks to live? I would go to Cape Town, to my grandfather’s house, Duxbury, looking out over the railway line near Kalk Bay station to the ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. During my childhood, there was the scent of salt and pine and, in certain winds, a pungent waft from the fish processing plant in Fish Hoek. I would dangle a little net in rock pools and find myself hypnotized by the silky water and quivering life in it. The heat, not the dry high-veld heat of Johannesburg but something denser, pounded by the time we came back from the beach at lunchtime. It reverberated off the stone, angled into every recess. The lunch table was set and soon enough fried fish, usually firm-fleshed kingklip, would be served, so fresh it seemed to burst from its batter. At night the lights of Simon’s Town glittered, a lovely necklace strung along a promontory.

This was a happiness whose other name was home.

Wood writes: “Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness,’ which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: It is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”

Yes, being not quite home, acceptance, which may be bountiful, is what is left to us.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Holy seven million, Batman! The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start. As the March 31 deadline for 2014 coverage approached, there was a surge in applications at the “exchanges” — the special insurance marketplaces the law set up. And the original target of seven million signups, widely dismissed as unattainable, has been surpassed.

But what does it mean? That depends on whether you ask the law’s opponents or its supporters. You see, the opponents think that it means a lot, while the law’s supporters are being very cautious. And, in this one case, the enemies of health reform are right. This is a very big deal indeed.

Of course, you don’t find many Obamacare opponents admitting outright that 7.1 million and counting signups is a huge victory for reform. But their reaction to the results — It’s a fraud! They’re cooking the books! — tells the tale. Conservative thinking and Republican political strategy were based entirely on the assumption that it would always be October, that Obamacare’s rollout would be an unremitting tale of disaster. They have no idea what to do now that it’s turning into a success story.

So why are many reform supporters being diffident, telling us not to read too much into the figures? Well, at a technical level they’re right: The precise number of signups doesn’t matter much for the functioning of the law, and there may still be many problems despite the March surge. But I’d argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees.

The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. The biggest risk to reform has always been that the scheme would founder on its complexity. And now we know that this won’t happen.

Remember, giving everyone health insurance doesn’t have to be hard; you can just do it with a government-run program. Not only do many other advanced countries have “single-payer,” government-provided health insurance, but we ourselves have such a program — Medicare — for older Americans. If it had been politically possible, extending Medicare to everyone would have been technically easy.

But it wasn’t politically possible, for a couple of reasons. One was the power of the insurance industry, which couldn’t be cut out of the loop if you wanted health reform this decade. Another was the fact that the 170 million Americans receiving health insurance through employers are generally satisfied with their coverage, and any plan replacing that coverage with something new and unknown was a nonstarter.

So health reform had to be run largely through private insurers, and be an add-on to the existing system rather than a complete replacement. And, as a result, it had to be somewhat complex.

Now, the complexity shouldn’t be exaggerated: The basics of reform only take a few minutes to explain. And it has to be as complicated as it is. There’s a reason Republicans keep defaulting on their promise to propose an alternative to the Affordable Care Act: All the main elements of Obamacare, including the subsidies and the much-attacked individual mandate, are essential if you want to cover the uninsured.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration created a system in which people don’t simply receive a letter from the federal government saying “Congratulations, you are now covered.” Instead, people must go online or make a phone call and choose from a number of options, in which the cost of insurance depends on a calculation that includes varying subsidies, and so on. It’s a system in which many things can go wrong; the nightmare scenario has always been that conservatives would seize on technical problems to discredit health reform as a whole. And last fall that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

But the nightmare is over. It has long been clear, to anyone willing to study the issue, that the overall structure of Obamacare made sense given the political constraints. Now we know that the technical details can be managed, too. This thing is going to work.

And, yes, it’s also a big political victory for Democrats. They can point to a system that is already providing vital aid to millions of Americans, and Republicans — who were planning to run against a debacle — have nothing to offer in response. And I mean nothing. So far, not one of the supposed Obamacare horror stories featured in attack ads has stood up to scrutiny.

So my advice to reform supporters is, go ahead and celebrate. Oh, and feel free to ridicule right-wingers who confidently predicted doom.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work ahead, and we can count on the news media to play up every hitch and glitch as if it were an existential disaster. But Rube Goldberg has survived; health reform has won.

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

March 30, 2014

MoDo is off, so the day is getting off to a good start.  The Pasty Little Putz has seen fit to lecture us about “The Christian Penumbra.”  He ponders and ponders, and asks his question:  Is religion good for American society?  He seems to have decided that it depends.  “Gratianus” from Moraga, CA had this to say:  “Though I have great respect (and some envy) for the solace and confidence that religion can provide to the faithful, I’d rather live in a world that sacrificed those goods if it meant that we also did away with the intolerance, ignorance and arrogance that seem inextricably woven into much of the American evangelical mindset. Frankly, the social virtues that Douthat ascribes to active Christians are just as widely found among well-educated, financially secure atheists and agnostics.”  The Moustache of Wisdom is all agog.  He’s on a submarine!  He’s excited!  In “Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle” he fizzes that on a nuclear submarine deep under the ice, the view was quite stunning.  In “A Quiz: Do You Speak Dictator?” Mr. Kristof says after the recent actions of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, it’s time to test your dictator skills.  Here’s The Putz:

Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.

Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

Part of this paradox can be resolved by looking at nonreligious variables like race. But part of it reflects an important fact about religion in America: The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s “Christian penumbra,” the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.

Consider, as a case study, the data on divorce. Earlier this year, a pair of demographers released a study showing that regions with heavy populations of conservative Protestants had higher-than-average divorce rates, even when controlling for poverty and race.

Their finding was correct, but incomplete. As the sociologist Charles Stokes pointed out, practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates, and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than the secular and unaffiliated.

But the lukewarmly religious are a different matter. What Stokes calls “nominal” conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month, have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious. And you can find similar patterns with other indicators — out-of-wedlock births, for instance, are rarer among religious-engaged evangelical Christians, but nominal evangelicals are a very different story.

It isn’t hard to see why this might be. In the Christian penumbra, certain religious expectations could endure (a bias toward early marriage, for instance) without support networks for people struggling to live up to them. Or specific moral ideas could still have purchase without being embedded in a plausible life script. (For instance, residual pro-life sentiment could increase out-of-wedlock births.) Or religious impulses could survive in dark forms rather than positive ones — leaving structures of hypocrisy intact and ratifying social hierarchies, without inculcating virtue, charity or responsibility.

And it isn’t hard to see places in American life where these patterns could be at work. Among those working-class whites whose identification with Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics, for instance. Or among second-generation Hispanic immigrants who have drifted from their ancestral Catholicism. Or in African-American communities where the church is respected as an institution without attracting many young men on Sunday morning.

Seeing some of the problems in our culture through this lens might be useful for the religious and secular alike. For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.

For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold.

But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.

The problems in the penumbra also have an unacknowledged place in our current controversies over religious liberty, from the debates (which reached the Supreme Court last week) over the scope of religious exemptions from the health care law’s contraceptive mandate, to the legal questions raised by the advance of same-sex marriage.

These arguments turn on constitutional issues, competing visions of freedom, the scope of pluralism versus the rights of gays and women. But they’re also partially about what kind of institutions are best equipped to address social problems in an individualistic age, and whether we should want the Christian penumbra to be reclaimed for religion or become more thoroughly secularized instead.

Among religious conservatives, not surprisingly, the hope is that traditional forms of faith — if left to build, or re-build, without being constantly disfavored, pressured and policed — can make a kind of comeback, and fill part of the void their own decline has left.

On the secular side, though, there’s a sense that there’s a better way — that a more expansive state can offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form. And if delivering these benefits requires co-opting or constraining religious actors — be they charities and schools or business owners — well, that’s either a straightforward win-win, or a relatively modest price to pay.

In this sense, the Christian penumbra isn’t just a zone of social disorder. It’s a field of ideological battle.

I want one Talibangelical, just once, cite me an example of “traditional forms of faith” being “pressured and policed.”  Other, of course, than whining that they sometimes get laughed at, and not everyone agrees with them and equating that with religious persecution.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from aboard the USS New Mexico in the Arctic:

I never thought I’d ever get to see what the Arctic ice cap looks like from the bottom up.

It’s quite stunning — blocks of blue ice tumbling around in a frigid sea amid giant, jagged ice stalactites. I was afforded that unique view while surfacing from beneath the Arctic Circle last weekend aboard the U.S.S. New Mexico, an attack submarine. I had spent the night on the sub as part of a group accompanying Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, who was observing the Navy’s submarine arctic warfare exercise.

We had flown into the Arctic by small plane and landed on a snow airstrip at the Navy’s ice research station Nautilus, 150 miles north of the North Slope of Alaska. When we got there, the New Mexico, which had been patrolling the waters below, had already found an opening of thin ice and slushy water. The sub used its conning tower, or sail, to smash through to the surface, then “parallel park,” as one officer put it, between two floating islands of thick ice, and pick us up.

As we slipped back under water, the ship’s upward-looking camera (specially installed for underice travel where you can’t raise the periscope) carried a view of all the ice that had frozen around the sub in its few hours on the surface, which then cracked into huge chunks as we headed down. With the sub’s officers constantly checking the sonar and camera — and barking out speeds and directions to the two pilots steering the sub with a joystick and digital readouts that glowed in the dark control room — we gently submerged. The trick was to avoid the ice keels — forests of ice stalactites that extended down from the thicker surface ice into the arctic waters. Once we safely descended about 400 feet, we proceeded on our way. Watching these officers maneuver an 8,000-ton nuclear sub, 377 feet long, through islands of unstable Arctic ice — we surfaced the same way — was a breathtaking and breath-holding experience.

But this wasn’t tourism. Climate scientists predict that if warming trends continue, the Arctic’s ice cap will melt enough that — in this century — it will become a navigable ocean for commercial shipping year round, and for mineral and oil exploration. Russia has already made extensive claims to the Arctic, based on the reach of its continental shelf, beyond the usual 12 miles from its coastline; these are in dispute. To prepare for whatever unfolds here, though, the U.S. Navy keeps honing its Arctic submarine skills, including, on our trip, test-firing a virtual torpedo at a virtual enemy sub, studying how differences in water temperatures and the mix of freshwater from melted ice and saltwater affect undersea weapons and the sounds a sub makes (vital for knowing how to hide), as well as mapping the Arctic’s seabed topography.

“In our lifetime, what was [in effect] land and prohibitive to navigate or explore, is becoming an ocean, and we’d better understand it,” noted Admiral Greenert. “We need to be sure that our sensors, weapons and people are proficient in this part of the world,” so that we can “own the undersea domain and get anywhere there.” Because if the Arctic does open up for shipping, it offers a much shorter route from the Atlantic to the Pacific than through the Panama Canal, saving huge amounts of time and fuel.

You learn a lot on a trip like this, starting with the fact that I’m not claustrophobic. Sleeping in the middle rack of three stacked beds, appropriately called coffins, I now know that.

More important, you learn how crucial acoustics are when operating deep under ice with no vision and no GPS satellite to guide you. Or, as the New Mexico’s captain, Todd Moore, 40, put it: It’s like every day “engaging in a knife fight in a dark room: the only thing you can do is go after what you hear.” You can’t see the adversary. You can’t see the ice keels, but you can hear enemy subs, surface ships, whales, calving icebergs, schools of fish and bounce sound waves off them with sonar to measure distances. The New Mexico not only carries supersensitive sonar but also tows a giant electronic ear 1,000 feet behind it that can listen to the ocean without interference from the sub’s own engine noise.

“We can hear shrimp crackling 200 feet under water,” explained Lt. Cmdr. Craig Litty. They can also hear someone drop a wrench in the engine room of a Russian sub several miles away.

You certainly learn how self-contained a sub is. The New Mexico repairs its own broken parts, desalinates its own drinking water, generates its own nuclear power and makes its own air by taking purified water, zapping it with electricity, separating the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, then discharging the hydrogen and circulating the oxygen. The only thing that limits them is food-storage capacity and the sanity of the 130 crew; 90 days underwater is no problem.

My strongest impression, though, was experiencing something you see too little of these days on land: “Excellence.” You’re riding in a pressurized steel tube undersea. If anyone turns one knob the wrong way on the reactor or leaves a vent open, it can be death for everyone. This produces a unique culture among these mostly 20-something submariners. As one officer put it: “You become addicted to integrity.” There is zero tolerance for hiding any mistake. The sense of ownership and mutual accountability is palpable.

And that is why, said Adm. Joseph Tofalo, the Navy’s director of undersea warfare, who was also on the trip, “There is no multiple-choice exam for running the sub’s nuclear reactor.” If you want to be certified to run any major system on this ship, he added, “everything is an oral and written exam to demonstrate competency.”

Late at night, I was sipping coffee in the wardroom and a junior officer, Jeremy Ball, 27, came by and asked me if I could stay for Passover. He and two other Jewish sailors were organizing the Seder; the captain and several other non-Jewish shipmates said they’d be happy to join, but there was still room. Ball said he’d been storing “a brisket in the freezer” for the holiday and would pick up matzo when they surfaced in Canada.

Thanks, I said, but one night’s enough for me. But I had to ask: How do all of you stand being away from your families for so long underwater, receiving only a two-sentence “family-gram” once a week?

“Whenever you board this submarine in port, that American flag is flying and you salute that flag,” said Ball. “And every time I salute that flag, I remember the reason I joined the Navy: service to country, being part of something bigger than myself and in memory for the attacks of 9/11.”

Remind me again what we’re doing in Washington these days to deserve such young people?

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

With President Vladimir V. Putin thuggishly stealing Crimea from Ukraine, and serious concern about whether he will also invade eastern Ukraine, a debate is unfolding about whether President Obama is doing enough to stand up to tyranny. That leads me to offer a quiz, so test your skills: Do you speak dictator?

MARCH 29, 2014

1. Putin’s most lethal policy has been

  • The invasion of Crimea

  • Warfare in Chechnya

  • Attacks on dissidents, gays and Pussy Riot

2. Which leader has the higher domestic approval rating?

  • Putin, after stealing Crimea, increasing his leverage

  • Obama, after achieving quasi-universal health care, giving us leverage

  • They now are about the same: Putin’s popularity tanked because of concern about the economic impact of sanctions

3. Which dictatorship has a speaker on the wall of private homes, issuing propaganda to wake people up each morning and put them to bed at night?

  • Turkmenistan

  • North Korea

  • Cuba

4. Which country has perpetuated war in eastern Congo, the most lethal conflict since World War II?

  • Pro-American Rwanda, with military support to rebels

  • China, with military support to both sides

  • Russia, by purchasing minerals, providing cash for munitions

5. The countries with the highest incarceration rates are:

  • North Korea and the United States

  • Russia and China

  • Uzbekistan and Iran

6. Which leader has slaughtered the largest number of his own citizens?

  • Putin

  • Bashar al-Assad in Syria

  • Omar al-Bashir in Sudan

7. One parallel with Russia’s invasion of Crimea is Morocco’s seizure of Western Sahara, which led to vigorous protests by:

  • The Arab League, for Morocco’s violation of an Arab people’s right to self-determination

  • The United States, for Morocco’s use of force and torture to suppress a people

  • Almost nobody

8. The United States imprisons people without trial in Guantánamo because

  • It costs only $900,000 per prisoner per year. Oh, never mind.

  • Republicans don’t want to give Obama the satisfaction of closing the prison, and Obama hasn’t tried very hard himself to close it.

  • Waterboarding is permissible under Cuban law

9. Which countries have suffered the most casualties this year?

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan

  • Ukraine, Russia and Moldova

  • Central African Republic, Syria and South Sudan

10. Equipment from which country is primarily used to suppress the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain?

  • Iran

  • India

  • United States

11. If the United States wants to curb human rights abuses, we would have greatest impact on:

  • Russia, because of its dependence on oil and gas exports

  • Cuba, because it is small and nearby

  • Countries like Bahrain, Israel, Morocco and Ethiopia, because they are allies who care about what we think, say and do

12. In sum, we should vigorously protest Putin’s invasion of Crimea and make clear that ferocious sanctions will be imposed if there is any invasion of eastern Ukraine. But a more surefire way to inject moral values into international relations is to:

  • bully small nations, because they have no choice but to agree

  • bomb rogue states into better behavior

  • demand better of allies and ourselves

 

The answer key:  1B, 2A, 3B, 4A, 5A, 6C, 7C, 8B, 9C, 10A, 11C, 12C

Posted in Douthat, Friedman, Kristof, STFU, The Moustache of Wisdom, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 16, 2014

In “The Age of Individualism” The Pasty Little Putz asks a question:  Will the millennials come back to community?  The best comment I could find was from “RDeanB” from Amherst, MA:  “There’s nothing to be learned here, except that the writer is a conservative who employs circular reasoning. But we knew that.”  MoDo has taken the opportunity to do a hit piece on two of her favorite targets.  In “Dems in Distress” she gleefully hisses that compared to the aloof Barry, desperate Democrats see the triangulating Bill Clinton as Mother Teresa.  She really needs to go off and cover the fashion shows in Paris…  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question in “The Three Faces of President Obama:”  As Vladimir Putin’s Crimean adventure plays out, what is the West to do?  In “Go West, Young People! And East!” Mr. Kristof says every college in America should make it a requirement to study abroad. Why study Spanish in a classroom in Indiana when you could learn it in Bolivia?  Here’s The Putz:

In the future, it seems, there will be only one “ism” — Individualism — and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide — and the greatest of these will probably be Facebook.

That’s the implication, at least, of what the polling industry keeps telling us about the rising American generation, the so-called millennials. (Full disclosure: I am not quite one of them, having entered the world in the penultimate year of Generation X.) A new Pew survey, the latest dispatch from the land of young adulthood, describes a generation that’s socially liberal on issues like immigration and marijuana and same-sex marriage, proudly independent of either political party, less likely to be married and religious than earlier generations, less likely to identify as patriotic and less likely — by a striking margin — to say that one’s fellow human beings can be trusted.

In political terms, the millennials are liberals on the surface, which is why the Pew report inspired a round of discussion about whether they’re likely to transform electoral politics in the short run (no, because cohort replacement is slow, and it’s Generation X that’s actually moving into positions of influence right now), whether they will push our political debates leftward in the long run (probably, because youthful voting patterns tend to persist across the life cycle), and whether this gives the Democratic Party a hammerlock on the future (it doesn’t, because political coalitions always adapt and fracture in unexpected ways).

But the millennials’ skepticism of parties, programs and people runs deeper than their allegiance to a particular ideology. Their left-wing commitments are ardent on a few issues but blur into libertarianism and indifferentism on others. The common denominator is individualism, not left-wing politics: it explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread.

So the really interesting question about the millennials isn’t whether they’ll all be voting Democratic when Chelsea Clinton runs for president. It’s whether this level of individualism — postpatriotic, postfamilial, disaffiliated — is actually sustainable across the life cycle, and whether it can become a culture’s dominant way of life.

One can answer “yes” to this question cheerfully or pessimistically — with the optimism of a libertarian who sees such individualism as a liberation from every form of oppression and control, or the pessimism of a communitarian who sees social isolation, atomization and unhappiness trailing in its wake.

But one can also answer “no,” and argue that the human desire for community and authority cannot be permanently buried — in which case the most important question in an era of individualism might be what form of submission it presages.

This was the point raised in 1953 by Robert Nisbet’s “Quest for Community,” arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology. (I wrote the introduction when it was reissued.) Trying to explain modern totalitarianism’s dark allure, Nisbet argued that it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism.

In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis — conformism, submission and control.

You don’t have to see a fascist or Communist revival on the horizon (I certainly don’t) to see this argument’s potential relevance for our apparently individualistic future. You only have to look at the place where millennials — and indeed, most of us — are clearly seeking new forms of community today.

That place is the online realm, which offers a fascinating variation on Nisbet’s theme. Like modernity writ large, it promises emancipation and offers new forms of community that transcend the particular and local. But it requires a price, in terms of privacy surrendered, that past tyrannies could have only dreamed of exacting from their subjects.

This surrender could prove to be benign. But it’s still noteworthy that today’s vaguely totalitarian arguments don’t usually come from political demagogues. They come from enthusiasts for the online Panopticon, the uploaded world where everyone will be transparent to everyone else.

That kind of future is far from inevitable. But as Nisbet would argue, and as the rising generation of Americans may yet need to learn, it probably cannot be successfully resisted by individualism alone.

Having survived another of Putzy’s offerings, next we have MoDo’s ravings:

Scott Brown, the Republican who admitted he wore pink leather shorts on his first date with his wife-to-be, is back.

And Democrats are scared to death.

It’s not that Democrats are particularly scared that the 54-year-old former Massachusetts senator is going to get elected as a New Hampshire senator — although it’s conceivable that a charming, carpetbagging, middling politician could jump across the border and unseat Jeanne Shaheen.

But Shaheen is popular, and strategists don’t think that flinty “Live Free or Die” voters will welcome the Boston transplant with open arms.

This is what’s really freaking out Democrats: They know that Brown, after making some real money working for Fox News since his loss to Elizabeth Warren two years ago, wouldn’t even be getting into the race if the political environment weren’t so toxic for Democrats.

Republicans have been white-hot for Brown to get in, and he finally pulled the trigger Friday, establishing an exploratory committee and asserting that “the Obamacare Democrats are on the wrong side” of a big political wave.

G.O.P. leaders think that even if Brown can’t win, he will force Democrats to spend a bunch of money in New Hampshire and curtail what they can spend in other more crucial races like Colorado, Alaska, Montana, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Michigan.

Brown jumping in was just one blast of bad news for Democrats. They also lost a special election last Tuesday in Florida by a hair, a defeat David Plouffe called “a screaming siren.” Alex Sink, a promising candidate, sunk after she could not overcome the blast of ads linking her to President Obama and his health care law.

Republicans had been so worried about losing the Florida election that they prematurely trashed their own candidate, a former lobbyist named David Jolly, telling Politico that his campaign was a Keystone Kops operation. Then they ended up swearing him in on Thursday, murmuring “bygones.”

So now Democratic panic has set in.

With the health care sign-up period coming to an end this month, Democrats in Congress are looking over at the White House and realizing that the president is not only incapable of saving them, but he looks like a big anchor tied around their necks.

The president is still a good fund-raiser for Democrats. But while the Koch brothers are pounding the party’s Senate candidates and a few House candidates around the country, congressional Democrats are wondering when Obama’s vaunted powerhouse national advocacy network, Organizing for Action, will finally step in with some money to offset the wave of outside spending by the Republicans.

The state of relations between congressional Democrats and the administration has been deteriorating every week, but now it’s hitting a new bottom — and not only with the extraordinary open feud between the C.I.A. and the Senate intelligence committee. Hill Democrats are seething at Obama, fearing that the onetime messiah is putting them in a slough that will last until — or through — 2016.

Top Democrats who were fans of the president and prone to giving him the benefit of the doubt now say they’ve completely lost confidence in the White House’s ability to advance an agenda and work with them in a way that’s going to give Democrats a fighting chance in November.

At the heart of all this, really, is that the White House totally blew the rollout of the health care law and Democrats have not recovered. It provided a huge opening for Republicans, who had just shut down the government and were tanking in the polls and in despair themselves.

Now there’s a lot of spring in the step of Republicans as spring approaches.

It’s not just congressional Democrats who are kvetching. Mark Zuckerberg called the president to vent about government incursions on privacy. And the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, talked to The New Republic about Obama’s “locutions,” his habit of going, “On the one hand. On the other hand. That is to say.”

“On the other hand, excuse me,” Remnick said, laughing, “I wish I could hear a lot more from him about, say, Ukraine, than I have, other than just ‘We are keeping out.’ ”

Obama’s approval ratings will shape the midterms, and some Hill observers compare his crumpling numbers to an illness. The president didn’t do the basic things to take care of himself, and now he’s gone terminal and contagious.

The closest the president came to getting a leg up on mounting a defense was on Friday when he told Ryan Seacrest in a radio interview that he had been unfairly maligned for his mom jeans: “Generally, I look very sharp in jeans.”

Due to the inability of the president and congressional Democrats to move their agenda through Congress, the president is having to govern through executive order and revising federal regulations.

Republicans have latched on to this to make the case around the country that Obama is a dictator and an imperial president. But governing through executive order isn’t a sign of strength. It’s a sign of weakness.

And it’s that weakness that has Democrats scared to death.

It’s time she had her meds adjusted again…  Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Barack Obama is surely the first president to be accused of acting in foreign policy like Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger in the same month.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Crimea, conservatives have denounced President Obama as a man who doesn’t appreciate what a merciless, Hobbesian world this really is. He’s a Pollyanna — always looking for people’s good side. Meanwhile, liberals have been hammering Obama for what they say is his trigger-happy drone habit, having ordered the targeted killing by air of hundreds of individuals; he’s John Wayne, seeking vigilante justice against those who have harmed, or might be planning to harm, the United States. And, just to round things out, Obama has been accused by critics on the left and right of being a Kissingerian hyperrealist who is content to watch the Syrian regime crush its people, because, as tragic as that is, American interests there are minimal.

It can’t be easy being Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger all at once. So who is Obama — really — on foreign policy? I’d say less Pollyanna than his critics claim, more John Wayne and Henry Kissinger than he’d admit, but still undefined when it comes to the greatest leadership challenges in foreign policy — which go beyond Crimea but lurk just over the horizon.

If Obama has been a reluctant warrior in Crimea, it’s because it’s long been part of Russia and home to a Russian naval base, with many of its people sympathetic to Russia. Obama was right to deploy the limited sanctions we have in response to Putin’s seizure of Crimea and try to coolly use diplomacy to prevent a wider war over Ukraine — because other forces are at play on Putin. Do not underestimate how much of a fool Putin will make of himself in Crimea this weekend — in front of the whole world — and how much this will blow back on Russia, whose currency and stock markets are getting hammered as a result of Vladimir’s Crimean adventure.

Putin has organized, basically overnight, a secession referendum on Crimea’s future — without allowing any time for the opposition to campaign. It’s being held under Russian military occupation, in violation of Ukraine’s Constitution, with effectively two choices on the ballot: “Vote 1 if you want to become part of Russia,” or “Vote 2 if you really want to become part of Russia.” This is not the action of a strong, secure leader. By Monday, it should have its own Twitter hashtag: #Putinfarce.

And if Obama has been a Kissingerian realist in his reluctance to dive into the Syrian civil war, or Ukraine, it’s because he has learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that the existence of bad guys in these countries doesn’t mean that their opponents are all good guys. Too many leaders in all these countries turned out to be more interested in using their freedom to loot rather than liberate. Where authentic reformers emerge in Syria or Ukraine we should help them, but, unlike Senator John McCain, most Americans are no longer willing to be suckers for anyone who just sings our song (see dictionary for Hamid Karzai), and they are now wary of owning the bailouts and gas bills of countries we don’t understand.

As for John Wayne Obama, “the quickest drone in the West,” every American president needs a little of that in today’s world, where you now have legions of superempowered angry people who wish America ill and who have access to rockets and live in ungoverned spaces.

So I have no problem with Obama as John Wayne or Henry Kissinger. If you want to criticize or praise him on foreign policy, the real tests fall into two categories: 1) How good is he at leading from behind on Ukraine? And 2) How good is he at leading from in front on Russia, Iran and China?

There is probably no saving Crimea from Putin in the short term, but we do not want to see him move beyond Crimea and absorb the parts of eastern Ukraine where the Russophones reside. We should be ready to offer arms to the Ukraine government to prevent that. But let us never lose sight of the fact that the key to keeping more of Ukraine out of Russia’s paws will depend on the ability of Ukrainians to come together in a way that is inclusive of both the majority that sees its future with the European Union and the minority of Russophones who still feel some affinity for Russia.

If the Ukraine drama pits a united Ukraine — seeking a noncorrupt democracy tied to Europe — against a Putin trying to forcibly reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian empire, Putin loses. But if Ukrainians are divided, if hyper-nationalist parties there dominate and pro-Russians are alienated, Putin will discredit the Ukraine liberation movement and use the divisions to justify his own interventions. Then our help will be useless. We can’t help them if they won’t help themselves. Ukrainians have already wasted a quarter-century not getting their act together the way Poland did.

The big three issues where Obama must lead from the front are: changing the character of Russia’s government, preventing Iran from getting a nuke and preventing a war in the South China Sea between Beijing and Tokyo. I will save China and Iran for later.

But regarding Russia, I vehemently opposed NATO expansion because I held the view then, and hold it today, that there is no big geopolitical problem that we can solve without Russia’s cooperation. That requires a Russia that does not define its greatness by opposing us and recreating the Soviet empire, but by unleashing the greatness of its people. It is increasingly clear that that will never be Putin’s Russia, which stands for wholesale corruption, increasing repression and a zero-sum relationship with the West. Putin is looking for dignity for Russia now in all the wrong places — and ways. But only Russia’s people can replace Putinism.

The way the United States and European Union help, which will take time, is by forging new energy policies that will diminish Europe’s dependency on Russian gas — the mother’s milk of Putinism. But we Americans also have to work harder to make our country a compelling example of capitalism and democracy, not just the world’s cleanest dirty shirt when it comes to our economy and not just the best democracy money can buy when it comes to our politics.

The most important thing we could do to improve the prospects of democracy in the world “is to fix our democracy at home,” said Larry Diamond, a democracy specialist at Stanford University. “The narrative of American decline and democratic dysfunction damages the luster of democracy in the world and the decisions of people to feel it is a model worth emulating. That is in our power to change. If we don’t reform and repair democracy in the United States, it is going to be in trouble globally.”

Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

I’m delighted to announce that the winner of my 2014 “win-a-trip” contest is …

Oh, hang on. Maybe I should first exhort students to travel on their own — and cite Utah.

Utah may well be the most cosmopolitan state in America. Vast numbers of young Mormons — increasingly women as well as men — spend a couple of years abroad as missionaries and return jabbering in Thai or Portuguese and bearing a wealth of international experience.

More than 130 languages are spoken daily in commerce in Utah, according to the University of Utah, and that’s one reason it sometimes tops the Forbes list of best states to do business. The state is a center for trade and for global companies.

American universities should also be sending people abroad, but they are still quite insular. The number of Americans studying abroad has tripled over the last 20 years, but, still, fewer than 10 percent of college students study overseas during undergraduate years. Three times as many foreigners study in America as the other way around.

(A shout-out goes to Goucher College in Baltimore, which requires students to study abroad. Others should try that.)

All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.

It’s also more effective. I have a one-question language test that people who have lived abroad do better on than those who studied in a classroom. Try my test yourself: In a foreign language you’ve studied, how do you say “doorknob”?

As you’re looking blank and thinking of those four wasted years studying French (poignée de porte) or Spanish (pomo), consider this joke: If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and a person who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is a person called who speaks no foreign language at all?

Answer: An American.

One of the aims of higher education is to broaden perspectives, and what better way than by a home stay in a really different country, like Bangladesh or Senegal? Time abroad also leaves one more aware of the complex prism of suspicion through which the United States is often viewed. If more Americans had overseas experience, our foreign policy might be wiser.

That’s partly why I started my win-a-trip contest. I wanted to encourage American students to engage more with the world and with the issue of global poverty. So I’m pleased to announce that my win-a-trip winner, from the University of Notre Dame, is … But wait! First, a personal aside.

I took a gap year myself after high school and worked on a farm near Lyon, France. I stayed with the Vallet family, picked and packed fruit, and discovered that red wine can be a breakfast drink. That led to further travel as a university student. I slept on the floor of Indian temples and rode on the tops of Sudanese trains, and the experiences changed me by opening my eyes to human needs and to human universals.

Gap years are becoming a bit more common in the United States and are promoted by organizations like Global Citizen Year. Colleges tend to love it when students defer admission to take a gap year because those students arrive with more maturity and less propensity to spend freshman year in an alcoholic haze.

Here’s a suggestion: How about if colleges gave students a semester credit for a gap year spent in a non-English-speaking country?

There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent. There are lots of free options (and some paid ones) at idealist.org, which lists volunteering opportunities all over the world. It’s also often possible to make money teaching English on the side.

So go west, young men and women! And go east! Y al norte y al sur!

Back to my win-a-trip contest: I’m delighted to announce that my winner is Nicole Sganga, a 20-year-old from Long Island and the University of Notre Dame. Nicole is a junior majoring in political science and film and has already worked for CBS News in Washington and London.

I’m not sure yet where we’ll travel for our reporting together on neglected issues. Perhaps Congo. Maybe Myanmar. I welcome your suggestions on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, for places to go and themes to cover.

Thanks to the Center for Global Development for helping screen applications, and to all the students who applied. If you didn’t win, I hope you’ll go out and win your own trip!

Posted in Douthat, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof, MoDo, STFU, The Moustache of Wisdom, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Kristof

March 9, 2014

Putzy must have been just thrilled by CPAC, because he’s seeing things through rose-colored glasses.  In “Four Factions, No Favorite” he tells us that it’s not just the Tea Party vs. the establishment this time, and, in fact, it never was.  He’s full of optimism, poor soul…  MoDo lurves her some Pooty-Poot it would appear, or at least she’s grateful to him for another opportunity to castigate the President.  In “Little R-S-P-E-C-T” she crows that Pooty-Poot and his own party are socking it to Bam.  She’s become a caricature of herself by this point.  In “To End the Abuse, She Grabbed a Knife” Mr. Kristof says violence in the home is quietly killing American women. It’s time to start talking about it.  Oooh, better not do that, Nick.  The Talibangelicals say we’re all supposed to be supporters of “traditional marriage,” doncha know…  Here’s Putzy:

This is a season of possibility for Republican politicians. Their party is poised to do well in November. Their Democratic opponents are stuck in neutral — waiting for Hillary, praying for Obamacare. And thanks to a few strategically placed traffic cones, there is no front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination in 2016, which means that more prominent Republicans than usual are dreaming the presidential dream.

Quite a few of them brought those dreams to the just-concluded Conservative Political Action Conference, jostling for the attention of activists, chasing cameras or being chased by them, trading compliments and subtle digs. A few, like the still-in-damage-control Chris Christie, were just there to pay their respects. But most were trying to ace CPAC’s big audition, and prove that they could play the One True Conservative in the 2016 race.

The question is whether that role will actually exist. We’re accustomed to a narrative of Republican politics that pits the Tea Party against the establishment, the right against the center right. But that has always been an oversimplification, and in a wide-open presidential campaign, it’s likely to fit political reality more poorly than usual.

A better framework is suggested by Henry Olsen, writing in The National Interest, who argues that Republican presidential campaigns are usually defined by four factions rather than two. One faction is centrist (think John McCain’s 2000 supporters, or Jon Huntsman’s rather smaller 2012 support), one is moderately conservative (think the typical Mitt Romney or Bob Dole voter), one is socially conservative (think Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum backers), and one is very conservative but more secular (think Gingrich voters last time, or Steve Forbes voters much further back).

The moderately conservative faction holds the balance of power, which is why the party usually flirts with ideologues but settles down with a safer, establishment-endorsed choice. But different campaigns take very different paths to this result.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan basically worked from the right to the center, consolidating secular and religious conservatives and then wooing enough moderate conservatives to win.

In 1996, Bob Dole relied on moderate conservatives to fend off a centrist (Lamar Alexander), a social conservative (Pat Buchanan) and a secular conservative (Forbes).

In 2000, George W. Bush used support from moderate conservatives and religious conservatives to defeat both McCain’s centrist insurgency and Forbes’s lesser challenge from the right.

In 2008, McCain combined his original centrist base with enough moderate conservatives to win the nomination — a trick Romney basically imitated in 2012.

Before the traffic problems in Fort Lee, Christie seemed poised to follow in Romney’s and McCain’s footsteps, uniting moderates and moderate conservatives and then trying to outlast whichever challengers emerged from the religious and nonreligious right.

But with Christie weakened, there are suddenly almost as many paths as there are plausible candidates.

The New Jersey governor could still follow McCain’s 2008 path to victory, but he could also be marginalized, Huntsman-style, as a “centrists only” candidate — especially if a Scott Walker, a Paul Ryan or a Jeb Bush consolidated the support of moderate conservatives.

Then there’s the potential Ted Cruz coalition, which could look like Reagan redux: secular conservatives plus religious conservatives to start, and then just enough moderate conservatives to win. But Cruz would need to consolidate the religious faction early, which is why he should be hoping that Huckabee and Santorum decide to forgo another run.

And then there is the fascinating case of Rand Paul, who has a potentially formidable base in two factions that don’t usually ally — moderates who like his social libertarianism and secular conservatives who like his economic views.

Confused yet? Imagine being a Republican strategist or donor, trying to figure out where to place your bets. And I haven’t even given you the Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal and John Kasich scenarios!

But let me conclude with one that seems a little more likely: a rerun of Bush’s 2000 path, in which Marco Rubio wins by uniting religious and moderate conservatives.

Rubio had a tough 2013, thanks to his unsuccessful immigration push, and he lacks the ideologically committed support of a Paul or Cruz or Huckabee. But his domestic-policy forays (first on poverty, soon on taxes) have gotten smarter since the immigration debacle, and events in Venezuela and Crimea may be making his hawkish foreign policy vision more appealing to conservatives.

Moreover, as much as the party and the country have changed since the Bush era,  the best way to unify the G.O.P. is still to build bridges between religious conservatives and moderate conservatives  —  in effect, to seem relatable to Santorum voters while reassuring Romney voters.  And Rubio, in affect and background and positioning, may be the right politician for that task.

Remember, I said “may.” He’s not the front-runner, because there is no front-runner. There are only factions waiting for their champion, and a party waiting for its biggest fight in years.

The Teatard-inspired primary process ought to be tons of fun to watch.  Buy popcorn futures.  Next up we have MoDo, FSM help us:

If you can’t spell it, you can’t get it.

President Obama pulled a Quayle Thursday night at a White House performance by the women of soul and muffed the title of Aretha Franklin’s anthem. “R-S-P-E-C-T,” he said, looking a bit confused and eliciting laughter.

When Patti LaBelle took the stage, she told Obama, “Baby, you’ve got swag.”

Swag and respect are exactly what the president needs. He’s got a swag gap with Russia. His administration, after belatedly figuring out what was going on in Ukraine, is improvising as the uber-swaggering Vladimir Putin once more rolls in with tanks anywhere he likes.

But the president is severely constrained in how he can respond, given that the Europeans are reluctant to be very punitive because they’re worried about their energy supplies and have to play nice with the bully on their borders.

He’s doing what seems appropriate at this point — putting a ban on U.S. visas, imposing financial sanctions on “individuals and entities” responsible for Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and trying to horse-whisper the Botoxed, bare-chested man on horseback whose eyes read “K.G.B.,” as John McCain likes to say.

 President Obama, who is usually ultra-smooth, hit a rough patch Thursday night when he misspelled Aretha Franklin’s signature song during the “Women of Soul” concert at the White House. He dropped the first “E,” and it came out “R-S-P-E-C-T.” Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

rest here

The right wing seems risible, swooning over Pooty-Poot, as W. dubbed Putin. They gleefully claim the Russian strongman is Carterizing Obama and act huffy that the only one parachuting into Kiev is John Kerry. “What are you going to do, send the 101st Airborne into Crimea?” says Terry McCarthy, the president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. “The way Republicans are dumping on the president, saying anything short of Armageddon shows that he’s weak, is silly. It’s kind of shocking that foreign policy, which used to be nonpartisan, now becomes partisan so quickly.”

Speaker John Boehner said congressional Republicans were “trying to give the president tools that he might employ that would strengthen his hand in dealing with this very difficult problem.”

More calculating conservatives pounced. Trying to rehabilitate himself, Marco Rubio told a CPAC audience here that America must “stand up to the spread of totalitarianism.”

Sarah Palin, who seems ever more viperish, deployed her Yoda syntax with Sean Hannity: “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

Actually, the jeans the president wore in the Oval Office, talking to Putin on the phone last weekend, looked good.

And his Russia response is a positive contrast with Syria, where Obama came across as naval-gazing and feckless when he dithered and then drew a “red line” against Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons. He was still explaining to the press why he had decided on military action while Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Brits were yanking the rug out from under him.

The place where Obama really looks weak right now is at home.

Even after Democrats changed the filibuster rule and rigged the game in the Senate to get nominees through on a majority vote, the White House got whacked over its nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

Bryan Cranston has said he hopes Obama comes to see his new L.B.J. play on Broadway to learn a little about horse-trading. The sooner, the better. The president and Harry Reid upended the entire Senate to get people like Debo Adegbile through, and they couldn’t get him through — and in the area of civil rights, so crucial to Obama’s legacy.

Obama called the defeat “a travesty,” but the White House seemed oblivious to the fact that they were putting Democratic senators in red states in a squeeze between the Fraternal Order of Police and civil rights groups. Adegbile had worked on an N.A.A.C.P. legal team that filed a Supreme Court brief in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a writer and former Black Panther convicted in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal called himself a political prisoner and turned into such an international cause célèbre that a Paris suburb named a street for him.

If Obama was determined to choose Adegbile, his team needed to sell him adeptly and promptly. But Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said there were still “open wounds” about Faulkner in his state, and by the time Casey and six other Democrats began to run away, it was too late.

It also didn’t help Obama’s swag that Reid and Nancy Pelosi peremptorily declared the president’s trade agenda D.O.A. for this session, showing that he doesn’t have the juice to override them on a key part of his economic plan. If the president doesn’t get it together, he’s headed for a big, bad midterm “thumpin’ ” in the memorable word of W., who experienced one six years into his reign.

It’s tricky for Democrats: Obama is unpopular, so they want to distance themselves from him in the tough races in red states. But the more they run away from him, the weaker he looks and the more unpopular he gets. (Gallup has his approval rating dropping to 41 percent, a danger zone for Democrats running for re-election.)

If the Republicans win the Senate, they’ll get in and find out they can’t pass legislation either. Then they’ll look bad just in time to help make a Democratic presidential candidate look good.

Sooner or later she’ll poison herself with her own bile, and that day can’t come soon enough.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

What strikes one American woman in four and claims a life in the United States every six hours?

This scourge can be more unsettling to talk about than colonoscopies, and it is so stigmatizing that most victims never seek help.

Paula Denize Lewis, an executive assistant here in Atlanta, was among those who kept quiet about domestic violence, for that’s what I’m talking about. She tried to cover up the black eyes and bruises when she went to work, and when she showed up with her arm in a sling she claimed that she had fallen down the stairs.

Then one evening, she says, her alcoholic boyfriend was again beating her, throwing beer cans at her and threatening to kill her. She ran for a telephone in the kitchen to call 911, but he reached it first and began clubbing her on the head with it.

Lewis reached frantically into a kitchen drawer for something to defend herself with. “I grabbed what I could,” she said.

What she had grabbed turned out to be a paring knife. She stabbed her boyfriend once. He died.

Lewis was jailed and charged with murder. With the help of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter and she was sentenced to probation.

That episode underscores the way our silence and squeamishness about domestic violence hurts everyone. If there had been earlier intervention, Lewis might have avoided years of abuse and a felony conviction — and her boyfriend might still be alive.

Domestic violence deserves far more attention and resources, and far more police understanding of the complexities involved. This is not a fringe concern. It is vast, it is outrageous, and it should be a national priority.

Women worldwide ages 15 to 44 are more likely to die or be maimed as a result of male violence than as a consequence of war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. Far more Americans, mostly women, have been killed in the last dozen years at the hands of their partners than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer, and the abuse is particularly shattering because it comes from those we have loved.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever loved,” Ta’Farian, 24, said of her husband, whom she met when she was an 18-year-old college student. He gradually became violent, she says, beating her, locking her up in a closet, and destroying property.

“My family was like, ‘He’s your husband. You can’t leave him. How would you support yourself?’ ”

Still, she says, it became too much, and she called 911. Police arrested him. But she says that the day before the trial, her husband called and threatened to kill her if she testified against him, so she says that out of a mix of fear and love she refused to repeat in court what had happened. Her husband was let off, and she was convicted of false reporting of a crime.

Ta’Farian is now in hiding, fearful of her husband as well as of the courts; she dissolved into tears as she was telling her story, partly out of fear that her conviction could cost her the custody of her son. Ayonna Johnson, who works for the Women’s Resource Center, comforted her, saying: “You should not have gotten punished for trying to stay alive.”

Domestic violence is infinitely complex in part because women sometimes love the men who beat them: they don’t want the man jailed; they don’t want to end the relationship; they just want the beatings to end.

Women can obtain temporary protective orders to keep violent boyfriends or husbands away, but these are just pieces of paper unless they’re rigorously enforced. Sometimes the orders even trigger a retaliatory attack on the woman, and police officers around the country don’t always make such a case a priority — until it becomes a murder investigation.

One way of addressing that conundrum is mandated classes for abusers, like one run by the group Men Stopping Violence. One session I sat in on was a little like Alcoholics Anonymous in its confessional, frank tone, but it focused on domestic abuse. The men were encouraged to be brutally honest in examining their shortcomings in relationships; it’s surely more effective than sending abusers to jail to seethe at their wives and wallow in self-pity.

Sometimes there’s a perception that domestic violence is insoluble, because it’s such a complex, messy problem with women who are culprits as well as victims. Yet, in fact, this is an area where the United States has seen enormous progress.

Based on victimization surveys, it seems that violence by men against their intimate partners has fallen by almost two-thirds since 1993. Attitudes have changed as well. In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.

A generation ago, police didn’t typically get involved. “We would say, ‘don’t make us come back, or you’re both going to jail,’ ” recalled Capt. Leonard Dreyer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. In contrast, sheriff’s officers now routinely arrest the aggressor.

Three steps are still needed. First, we must end the silence. Second, we must ensure that police departments everywhere take the issue seriously before a victim becomes a corpse. Third, offenders should be required to attend training programs like the one run by Men Stopping Violence.

A young mom named Antonya Lewis reflects the challenges. She stayed with a violent boyfriend for years, she said, because he was the father of her daughters and was always so apologetic afterward — and also because that was what she had been told was a woman’s lot in life.

“My mom always told me to suck it up,” she said. But then her boyfriend beat her up so badly that he broke a bone near her eye and put her in the hospital. She told him that she was done with him, and when he continued to stalk her and threaten to kill her, she called the police — repeatedly — with little effect. Now she has moved to a new city and is starting over.

“I didn’t want my daughters to see him beat me,” she said. “I didn’t want them to think this is what a man can do to a woman.”

That, too, is progress.

Posted in Another pile of crap, Douthat, Dowd, Kristof, MoDo, STFU, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 2, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has produced a turd called “The Terms of Our Surrender” in which he asks a question:  What comes after the inevitable ruling on same-sex marriage?  He’s hyperventilating and wringing his hands, of course.  His typical tell?  This sentence:  “I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.”  I find it telling that the Times is not allowing comments on this piece of crap.  MoDo says you should “Brace Yourself for Hillary and Jeb,” and she also has a question:  America has 320 million people, so how do we keep ending up with the same two surnames running things?  It’s interesting that in this particular hit piece, allegedly about two families, the Bushes take no incoming fire.  In “From the Pyramid to the Square” The Moustache of Wisdom says an Oscar-nominated documentary about the revolution in Egypt has resonated with protesters from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev.  Mr. Kristof has a question in “The Compassion Gap:”  Why didn’t readers of a column on the need for early-childhood interventions see a caring mom instead of her old tattoos?  Here’s The Putz:

It now seems certain that before too many years elapse, the Supreme Court will be forced to acknowledge the logic of its own jurisprudence on same-sex marriage and redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states.

Once this happens, the national debate essentially will be finished, but the country will remain divided, with a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage.

So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.

In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”

But there’s another possibility, in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion. In this scenario, the unwilling photographer or caterer would be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business — which is the intent of recent legal actions against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, and a baker in Colorado.

Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power. Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.) Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.

In the past, this constant-pressure scenario has seemed the less-likely one, since Americans are better at agreeing to disagree than the culture war would suggest. But it feels a little bit more likely after last week’s “debate” in Arizona, over a bill that was designed to clarify whether existing religious freedom protections can be invoked by defendants like the florist or the photographer.

If you don’t recognize my description of the bill, then you probably followed the press coverage, which was mendacious and hysterical — evincing no familiarity with the legal issues, and endlessly parroting the line that the bill would institute “Jim Crow” for gays. (Never mind that in Arizona it’s currently legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation — and mass discrimination isn’t exactly breaking out.) Allegedly sensible centrists compared the bill’s supporters to segregationist politicians, liberals invoked the Bob Jones precedent to dismiss religious-liberty concerns, and Republican politicians behaved as though the law had been written by David Duke.

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.

But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Now we get to MoDo:

Oy.  By the time the Bushes and Clintons are finished, they are going to make the Tudors and the Plantagenets look like pikers.

Before these two families release their death grip on the American electoral system, we’re going to have to watch Chelsea’s granddaughter try to knock off George P.’s grandson, Prescott Walker Bush II. Barack Obama, who once dreamed of being a transformational president, will turn out to be a mere hiccup in history, the interim guy who provided a tepid respite while Hillary and Jeb geared up to go at it.

Elections for president are supposed to make us feel young and excited, as if we’re getting a fresh start. That’s the way it was with J.F.K. and Obama and, even though he was turning 70 when he got inaugurated, Ronald Reagan.

But, as the Clinton library tardily disgorged 3,546 pages of official papers Friday — dredging up memories of a presidency that was eight years of turbulence held steady by a roaring economy and an incompetent opposition, a reign roiled by Hillarycare, Vince Foster, Whitewater, Webb Hubbell, Travelgate, Monica, impeachment, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Marc Rich — the looming prospect of another Clinton-Bush race makes us feel fatigued.

Our meritocratic society seems increasingly nepotistic and dynastic. There was a Bush or a Clinton in the White House and cabinet for 32 years straight. We’re Bill Murray stuck at 6 a.m. in Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece, “Groundhog Day.” As Time’s Michael Crowley tweeted on Friday, “Who else is looking forward to potentially TEN more years of obsessing about Hillary Clinton’s past, present and future?”

The Clintons don’t get defeated. They get postponed.

Just as Hillary clears the Democratic field if she is healthy and runs, a major Romney donor told The Washington Post that “if Jeb Bush is in the race, he clears the field.” Jeb acknowledged in Long Island on Monday, referring to his mom’s tart comment that “if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly,” that “it’s an issue for sure.” He added, “It’s something that, if I run, I would have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way. Let’s keep the same standards for everybody.”

We’ve arrived at the brave new world of 21st-century technology where robots are on track to be smarter than humans. Yet, politically, we keep traveling into the past. It won’t be long before we’ll turn on the TV and see Lanny Davis defending President Clinton (the next one) on some mishegoss or other.

When the Clintons lost to Obama, they simply turned Obama’s presidency into their runway. Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and a passel of other former Obama aides, are now helping Hillary. And Bill is out being the campaigner-in-chief, keeping the Clinton allure on display in 2014.

The new cache of Clinton papers is benign — the press seems more enamored of speechwriters’ doodles than substance — but just reading through them is draining. There are reams of advice on how to steer health care, which must have filled the briefing binders Hillary famously carried. But did she absorb the lessons, given that health care failed because she refused to be flexible and make the sensible compromises suggested by her husband and allies? She’s always on listening tours, but is she hearing? As one White House health care aide advised in the new document dump, “We need to be seen as listening.”

Just as in the reminiscences compiled by Hillary’s late friend, Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas — some of which were printed in the Washington Free Beacon three weeks ago — the new papers reflect how entangled the Clintons’ public and private lives were in the White House.

In a 1995 memo, Lisa Caputo, the first lady’s press secretary, sees an opportunity for the upcoming re-election campaign by “throwing a big party” for the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary.

“We could give a wonderful photo spread to People magazine of photos from the party coupled with old photos of their honeymoon and of special moments for them over the past 20 years,” Caputo wrote, adding that they could turn it into “a nice mail piece later on.”

Both sets of papers are revealing on the never-ending herculean struggle about how to present Hillary to the world, how to turn her shifting hairstyles and personas into one authentic image.

“Be careful to ‘be real,’ ” media adviser Mandy Grunwald wrote to her before the launch of her listening tour at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s farm in upstate New York. “You did this well in the Rather interview where you acknowledged that of course last year was rough. Once you agree with the audience’s/reporters’ reality like that, it gives you a lot of latitude to then say whatever you want.”

Grunwald advises the first lady to “look for opportunities for humor” and “Don’t be defensive.”

It’s hard to understand why so many calculations are needed to seem “real,” just as it’s hard to understand how Hillary veers from feminist positions to un-feminist ones.

In the Blair papers, Hillary’s private view of the Monica Lewinsky affair hewed closely to the lame rationales offered by Bill and his male friends.

“HRC insists, no matter what people say,” Blair said, after talking to Hillary on the phone, “it was gross inappropriate behavior but it was consensual (was not a power relationship) and was not sex within any real meaning (standup, liedown, oral, etc.) of the term.” The president dallying with a 22-year-old intern was not “a power relationship” and certain kinds of sex don’t count?

Like her allies Sidney Blumenthal and Charlie Rangel, Hillary paints her husband’s mistress as an erotomaniac, just the way Clarence Thomas’s allies painted Anita Hill. A little nutty and a little slutty.

“It was a lapse,” Blair wrote, “but she says to his credit he tried to break it off, tried to pull away, tried to manage someone who was clearly a ‘narcissistic loony toon’; but it was beyond control.”

The cascade of papers evoke Hillary’s stressful brawls — with her husband, the press, Congress and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. And they evoke the issue about her that is so troubling and hard to fathom. She is an immensely complex woman with two sides. She is the tireless and talented public servant. And she is the tired warrior who can be insecure and defensive, someone who has cleaved to a bunker mentality when she would have been better served getting out of her defensive crouch.

Talking to her pal Blair, Hillary had a lot of severe words for her “adversaries” in the press and the G.O.P. Blair also said Hillary was “furious” at Bill for “ruining himself and the presidency” by 1994.

Hillary may have had a point when she said in 1993, after criticism of the maladroit firing of the veteran White House travel office staff, that the press “has big egos and no brains.” But it speaks to her titanic battles and battle scars.

Hillary has spent so much time searching for the right identity, listening to others tell her who to be, resisting and following advice on being “real,” that it leaves us with the same question we had when she first came on the stage in 1992.

Who is she?

A better woman than you are, MoDo, even though I don’t want her to run.  And for what it’s worth, the next time you decide to write a hit piece about two families running things you might include the Bushes in your field of fire.  Bitch.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Egyptian strongman Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was recently in Moscow visiting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Putin reportedly offered Sisi $2 billion in arms — just what a country like Egypt, where half the women can’t read, needs. The whole meeting struck me as so 1960s, so Nasser meets Khrushchev — two strongmen bucking each other up in the age of strong people and superempowered individuals. Rather than discuss arms sales, Sisi and Putin should have watched a movie together.

Specifically, Sisi should have brought a copy of “The Square” — the first Egyptian film ever nominated for an Oscar. It’s up this year. Sisi has a copy. Or, to be more precise, his film censor’s office does. For the last few months, the Egyptian authorities have been weighing whether to let the film — an inspiring and gripping documentary that follows six activists from the earliest days of the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by Sisi in 2013 — to be shown in Egypt.

“The Square,” about the revolution in Egypt, might be a good movie for Vladimir Putin and other strongmen to see. Credit Netflix/Noujaim Films, via Associated Press

Meanwhile, pirated and downloaded copies of the film, which is also on Netflix, have spread virally across Egypt and been viewed by many Egyptians in homes and coffeeshops and discussed on social media. What’s more, it was recently dubbed into Ukrainian and downloaded (some 300,000 times) by protesters there and shown in the Maidan, which also means the Square, in Kiev. A dubbed version is now spreading in Russia, too, said the film’s director Jehane Noujaim, who also directed “Control Room.”

“This is the globalization of defiance,” Noujaim said to me. “With cheap, affordable cameras and Internet connections, anyone now can change the conversation” anywhere. It’s true.

The film resonates with those who gathered in squares from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev, added the film’s producer, Karim Amer, because it captures an increasingly universal phenomenon: average people uniting and deciding “that the Pharaoh, the strongman, won’t protect us” and the religious sheikh “won’t cleanse us.” We can be and must be “authors of our own story.” It has long been said, added Amer, that “history is written by the victors. Not anymore.” Now versions can come from anywhere and anyone. Power is shifting “from the pyramid to the square” — from strongmen to strong people — “and that is a big shift.”

And that’s why Putin and Sisi need to see the film. (Disclosure: the filmmakers are friends of mine, and I have been discussing their project with them for two years.) It captures some of the most important shifts happening today, starting with fact that in today’s hyperconnected world wealth is getting concentrated at the top, but, at the same time, power is getting distributed at the bottom and transparency is being injected everywhere. No palace will remain hidden by high walls, not even the giant one reportedly being built for Putin on the Black Sea.

But people now can’t just see in, they can see far — how everybody else is living. And as Tahrir and Kiev demonstrate, young people will no longer tolerate leaders who deprive them of the tools and space to realize their full potential. The Square has a Facebook page where Egyptians are invited to answer questions, including: “Who would you most like to watch this movie with?” One answer, from Magda Elmaghrabi, probably spoke for many: “I would watch it with my dad who passed away 9 years ago. He emigrated to the States not for lack of wealth, but for his fears of what would happen in the future for Egypt and whether there would be opportunities for my 2 older brothers. I would love to have discussed what occurred and see his emotional reaction as the Egyptians stood up for what they believed in.”

Another reason Putin, Sisi and all their protesters need to see “The Square” is that it doesn’t have a happy ending — for anyone, not yet. Why?

The Egyptian protesters got sidelined by the army, because while they all wanted to oust the Pharaoh, they couldn’t agree on a broader reform agenda and translate that into a governing majority. But Putin and Sisi will also lose if they don’t change, because there is no stable progress without inclusive politics and economics. I understand the need and longing by those not in the squares for “stability” and “order.” Putin and Sisi both rose to power on that longing for stability after so much revolutionary ferment. But both men have to be asked: Stability to do what? To go where? To jail not just real terrorists, but, in Sisi’s and Putin’s cases, legitimate journalists and opposition and youth leaders? Many Asian autocrats imposed order, but they also built schools, infrastructure and a rule of law that nurtured middle classes that eventually delivered democracy.

So the protesters are long on idealism but short on a shared political action plan. Sisi and Putin are long on stability but short on a politics of inclusion tied to a blueprint for modernity (and not just rising oil prices). Unless they each overcome their deficiencies, their countries will fail to fulfill their potential — and all their “squares” will be stages for conflict, not launching pads for renewal.

Last up today is Mr. Kristof:

Some readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”

To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.

Truffles Weethee has her son, Johnny, 3, in a Save the Children reading program. When her photo appeared in a column a week ago, readers saw reasons to criticize her instead of seeing the caring mom that she is. Credit Audrey Hall/Show of Force

There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.

To break cycles of poverty, we have the tools to improve high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancies and increase employment. What we lack is the will to do so.

There may be neurological biases at work. A professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.

Likewise, psychology experiments suggest that affluence may erode compassion. When research subjects are asked to imagine great wealth, or just look at a computer screen saver with money, they become less inclined to share or help others. That may be why the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.

The generosity of the poor always impresses me. In West Virginia, I visited a trailer that housed eight people and sometimes many more. A woman in the home, Lynmarie Sargent, 30, was once homeless with a month-old baby, and that discomfort and humiliation seared her so that she lets other needy families camp out in her trailer and eat. Sometimes she houses as many as 17.

Sargent is an unemployed former addict with a criminal record, struggling to stay clean of drugs, get a job and be a good mom. She has plenty to learn from middle-class Americans about financial planning, but wealthy people have plenty to learn from her about compassion.

A Pew survey this year found that a majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is “lack of effort on his or her part.”

It’s true, of course, that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible. So are the rich, with less consequence.

Critics note that if a person manages to get through high school and avoid drugs, crime and parenting outside of marriage, it’s often possible to escape poverty. Fair enough. But if you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.

So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.

Researchers also find that financial stress sometimes impairs cognitive function, leading to bad choices. Indian farmers, for example, test higher for I.Q. after a harvest when they are financially secure. Alleviate financial worry, and you can gain 13 points in measured I.Q.

The tattoos that readers saw on Truffles are mostly old ones, predating Johnny, and she is passionate about helping him. That’s why she enrolled him in a Save the Children program that provides books that she reads to him every day. In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.

Posted in Another pile of crap, Douthat, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof, MoDo, STFU, Teh Stoopid, The Moustache of Wisdom, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

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

February 16, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has given us a fine whine today.  In “Parental Pity Party” he sniffles that first comes the baby, and then all the whining starts about how impossible it all is.  “Dana Lawrence” from Davenport, LA had this to say:  “Don’t worry, Mr. Douthat. You were a whiner long before the baby arrived.”  MoDo is in Paris.  In “Marry First, Then Cheat” she says in France, it’s O.K. to cheat if you’re married, but not if you’re single.  The Moustache of Wisdom is back on his regular “let’s all of you be entrepreneurs” kick.  In “Start-Up America: Our Best Hope” he says the contrast between the vibe in Silicon Valley and the obstruction in Washington is quite telling.  Mr. Kristof says “Professors, We Need You!”  He says academics are some of the smartest minds in the world, and then asks a question:   So why are they making themselves irrelevant?  Mr. Bruni says “Let Our Lawmakers Hide!”  He wants us to behold the costume party that is Congress, where members wear faces at odds with their souls.  Here, unfortunately, is the Putz:

When I became a father, I expected to change in all the predictable ways — to become more responsible and more exhausted, to lose contact with friends and lean more heavily on relatives, to grow steadily balder of head and softer of belly.

What I didn’t expect is that parenthood would make me such a whiner.

I’m not sure I’ve contributed personally to the Internet’s ever-expanding Book of Parental Lamentations — what Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, calls the “endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting.” But in private conversation, I’m often the sort of parent Graham complains is scaring her away from motherhood — all too eager to Tell It Like It Really Is, and enumerate all the horrible aspects of the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.

Coming from the financially secure and happily married, this whining can feel unseemly, self-indulgent and unfair to one’s kids. In my own case, it’s also philosophically problematic, since a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.

But a not-so-quiet desperation can seem pervasive among parents, and it’s worth trying to understand why.

Fortunately, Jennifer Senior’s new book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” is an excellent primer on possible explanations for the great parental pity party. It ranges across the problems with family policy in the United States (basically, we don’t have one), the changing role of children (who went, she notes, “from being our employees to our bosses”), the unsettling of gender roles, the “having it all” stresses inherent in the maternal quest for work-life balance, and the way economic uncertainty and technological change make it hard for parents to figure out what kind of world they’re supposed to be preparing their children for.

But Senior’s most insightful emphasis, I think, is on the gap that’s opened — thanks to our society’s extraordinary wealth and libertarian social ethic — between the lifestyles and choices available to nonparents and the irreducible burdens still involved in raising children.

As she puts it, parenthood is “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” In this sense, it isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations. Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways — because babies still need what babies need — while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.

This has two consequences for young, reasonably affluent Americans. First, it creates an understandable reluctance to give up the pleasures of extended brunches and long happy hours, late nights and weekend getaways, endless hours playing Grand Theft Auto or binge-watching “New Girl.” Second, it inspires a ferocious shock when a child arrives and that oh-so-modern lifestyle gives way to challenges that seem almost medieval, and duties that seem impossibly absolute. And the longer the arrival is delayed, the greater that shock — because “postponing children,” Senior points out, can make parents “far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.”

“Welcome,” a colleague emailed me after our first daughter was born, “to unavoidable reality.” Which is exactly right: In parts of American society, death and children’s diapers are the only unavoidable realities left.

Unless, of course, you avoid the diapers by avoiding the children altogether, as the developed world’s inhabitants are increasingly inclined to do.

In an earlier column, I described this retreat from childbearing as (in part) a symptom of cultural decadence, in which modern comforts crowd out intergenerational obligations. This idea was not well received by many readers, but I think it’s actually the unacknowledged worldview behind a lot of the parental griping you find online and elsewhere: The “look how impossible my life has become since I had kids” genre is a way of passing judgment, not all that subtly, on people who have opted out of the parental mission altogether.

And though I agree with the implicit message — that parenting is tough, necessary and praiseworthy — a brag disguised as a whine about your own un-decadent hardships is probably not the best way to hold decadence at bay. Better for parents to be cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding — rather than judgment infused with envy — to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.

Which is what I pledge to do from here on out. Enjoy your lingering brunches, my childless friends, and I’ll enjoy my rushed meals and puree-stained fingers. Dirty diapers for me, dirty martinis for thee! Let peace and tolerance prevail!

And no, of course my angels had nothing whatsoever to do with that stain on your favorite sweater.

It must be béarnaise sauce.

The idea that he’s spawned is horrifying…  Next up we have MoDo, frolicking in Paris:

Only the French could have an etiquette scandal.

Let Americans get in a lather over peccadillos of state. The French are lamenting the state of propriety. No one in the land of Napoleon is following the code. And it is putting the citoyens of this once luminous empire in a dark mood. They are less concerned about their president’s slamming-door farcical adventures in amour than they are about the blow to their amour-propre. They fret that their image is more Feydeau than Rousseau.

On this Saint-Valentin weekend, as people join un kiss flash mob at the Louvre, we face another Gallic paradox, like the one about red wine and foie gras keeping you thin.

“The whole problem with this Hollande scandal is that he is not married,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, the French novelist. “Had he been married, this affair would never have been revealed.”

He observed that, as an “elected monarch,” the president has to maintain appearances. “In France, having a mistress is not considered cheating,” he says. “We are not a puritanical country. France is Catholic. We accept sin and forgiveness.”

It’s bad enough to hide under a helmet and dismiss your security and go incognito on an Italian scooter to have a tryst in an apartment that is a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace and has some tenuous connection to the Corsican Mafia. But everyone here except François Hollande seems to agree: You do not install one mistress at the Élysée when you have another mistress. That is simply bad form.

Why should the tabloids stick to the rule of the French press to ignore the private lives of presidents if Hollande breaks the rule of French presidents to lead an “exemplary” public life, which means having a real wife to cheat on?

Many now suspect the 59-year-old Hollande, a.k.a. The Living Marshmallow, allowed Mistress No. 1, beautiful 48-year-old Paris Match writer Valérie Trierweiler, to play the role of first concubine to distract her from his affair with Mistress No. 2, gorgeous 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet. Gayet is a committed Socialist who worked on Hollande’s campaign, making kittenish support videos and sporting an “I only date Super Heroes” T-shirt.

To assuage Trierweiler for being dubbed “a concubine” in the press, the Rottweiler — as she’s known for her aggressive moves in person and on Twitter — got Élysée offices, a staff of four and a monthly budget of $27,000.

But that created some mal de mer among the French, even before the White House had to destroy all its invitations with Valerie’s name when she squared off with her rival, went to the hospital with a case of “the blues,” and was dumped by Hollande in a terse press “communiqué” two weeks before his visit to Washington.

“The concept of the first lady doesn’t exist in France, and even less the first mistress,” sniffed Olivier de Rohan, a vicomte and head of a foundation that protects French art. “The protocol in France is very strict. It is not a question of choice or pleasure. The wife of the president of the republic was always seated as the wife, never paraded as the first lady. I don’t care with whom Hollande sleeps. But the whole thing is totally ridiculous, the head of a great state exhibiting mistresses, one after the other.”

Or as one French journalist murmured, “All this, in the place where de Gaulle was.”

Over good wine and small portions across Paris, there was appalled discussion that Stephen Colbert, who had filleted Hollande’s shenanigans on his show, was seated to the right of Michelle Obama at the state dinner, in the magic circle with the president where Trierweiler would have been, had she not been trundled off to the love guillotine.

“In France, it would be extremely rude to do that,” Rohan said about Colbert. “The Americans have no protocol.”

Before the dinner, Colbert joked that if the first lady were just the last person you slept with, America’s would have been Monica Lewinsky in 1998. He later crowed about the significance of his placement, yelling “I’m the first lady of France! Merci!” as he was showered with roses. His project, he said, would be “bringing Jean Valjean to justice.”

The nation that once worshipped Jerry Lewis was flummoxed by this “terrible faux pas,” as it was dubbed. (Even though Colbert shares a name with a top adviser to Louis XIV, many harbor dark suspicions that he’s Irish.) They wondered how a late-night comic outranked Christine Lagarde, a possible contender to succeed Hollande? Why were more French luminaries not invited? Why did Mary J. Blige sing for Hollande “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a famous Jacques Brel chanson begging a lover not to leave?

Did Michelle, Le Point snarked, think she was providing Colbert with “fresh material” for another searing sketch?

The French have spent centuries making fun of us for our puritanism, and now they feel the unbearable sting of our mockery, as our press and comedians chortle at a mediocre pol caught up in a melodrama with all the erotic charge of week-old Camembert. (Maybe that’s why the French got so swept up in the ridiculous but glamorous rumor about Obama and Beyoncé.)

All those French expressions we siphon because English isn’t nuanced enough — finesse, etiquette, savoir-faire, rendezvous, je ne sais quoi, comme il faut — Hollande flouted.

In the minds of many here, the French president is a loser because he’s so unrefined he might as well be American.

She’s such a bitch…  Next up we’re faced with The Moustache of Wisdom. who’s in Palo Alto:

The most striking thing about visiting Silicon Valley these days is how many creative ideas you can hear in just 48 hours.

Jeff Weiner, the chief executive of LinkedIn, explains how his company aims to build an economic graph that will link together the whole global work force with every job being offered in the world, full-time and temporary, for-profit and volunteer, the skills needed for each job, and a presence for every higher education institution everywhere offering a way to acquire those skills.

Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, explains how his online storage and collaboration technology is enabling anyone on any mobile device to securely upload files, collaborate, and share content from anywhere to anywhere. Laszlo Bock, who oversees all hiring at Google, lays out the innovative ways his company has learned to identify talented people who have never gone to college. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, explains how his start-up has, in the blink of an eye, become one of the biggest providers of overnight rooms in the world — challenging Hilton and Marriott — without owning a single room. Curt Carlson, the chief executive of SRI International, which invented Siri for your iPhone, recalls how one leading innovator just told him that something would never happen and “then I pick up the paper and it just did.”

What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: “What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?” They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination. No idea here is “off the table.”

Then, after you’ve been totally energized by people inventing the future, you go back to your hotel room and catch up with the present: the news from Washington. Two headlines stand out like flashing red lights: House Speaker John Boehner says immigration reform in 2014 is off the table and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the “fast track” legislation we need to pass vital free-trade agreements with the European Union and some of our biggest trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region is off the table. Forget about both until after the 2014 midterm elections, if not 2016.

Summing this all up, The Associated Press reported on Feb. 9 something that you could not make up: “WASHINGTON (AP) — Little more than a week after Groundhog Day, the evidence is mounting that lawmakers have all but wrapped up their most consequential work of 2014, at least until the results of the fall elections are known.”

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

True, some libertarians in Silicon Valley cheer Washington’s paralysis. But it is not so simple. There is a certain “league minimum” that we need and are entitled to expect from Washington, especially today. America just discovered huge deposits of energy and gold at the same time. That is, thanks to advances in drilling technology we have unlocked vast new sources of natural gas, which — if extracted with environmentally sound practices — will give us decades of cheap, cleaner energy and enable America to restore itself as a center of manufacturing.

At the same time, the dominance of American companies in cloud computing, and the “Internet of Things” — billions of devices with sensors — have given us a huge lead in the era of Big Data, where the winners will be those who are best at amassing, analyzing and protecting that data and use software to quickly apply what they learn from the data to improve any product or service. These data mountains and the tools to exploit them are the new gold. And we’ve got it.

In such an era, one of the two most valuable things Washington can do to create more good jobs and wealth is to open more export markets. The other is to have an immigration policy that not only provides a legal pathway to citizenship for those here illegally but enables America to attract the best brainpower and apply that talent to the data mountains and software opportunities we’re creating.

But Washington these days won’t even do the league minimum. As The Economist observed in an essay entitled “When Harry Mugged Barry,” both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with big Asian markets like Japan, which is almost done, and the U.S.-European Union trade deal, which is being negotiated, are “next generation” agreements that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.

“Studies suggest that proposed deals with Asia and Europe could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America,” The Economist added. “And that understates the benefits, since the deals would spur competition in the market for services, which make up most of rich countries’ output but are seldom traded across borders. Opening industries like finance and transport to greater competition could bring great savings to consumers.”

The U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, told me that if we’re able to conclude these two trade deals, America would have free trade with “two-thirds of the world.” If you combine that with our lead in cloud computing, social media, software and natural gas for low-cost manufacturing — plus our rule of law and entrepreneurial cultural — you understand, says Froman, why one European C.E.O. told him that America will be the “production platform of choice” for manufacturers all over the world to set up their operations and export to the world.

But it will all have to wait at least until after 2014 when we might have a week to legislate before we get ready for 2016. God forbid either party should challenge their respective bases who oppose freer trade or immigration. That would actually require leadership.

We cannot and should not abolish politics, but sometimes we can’t afford politics as usual. And this time, with rising inequality, is one of them. We need to be doing everything we know how to do to create good jobs and growth. “When your mind-set isn’t about creating abundance,” says Carlson of SRI, “you go into extractive mode, which is a death spiral.”

Start-up America is our best hope. Sure, we’re doing better than most everyone else, but just being the “cleanest dirty shirt” has never been the American dream.

Here’s what “MetroJournalist” in the NY area had to say about that:  “Here we go again. Start a new company. Have Thomas Friedman shill for it. Wash. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.”  Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published.

My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.

“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

Universities have retreated from area studies, so we have specialists in international theory who know little that is practical about the world. After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.

In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

Well, at least we have Prof. Krugman, the voice crying in the wilderness.  And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

An idea for the Senate: brown paper bags. You know, the kind in which you cut little holes for your eyes and your nose and a bigger, wider hole for your mouth. Senators could wear these in the chamber, so that the C-Span cameras and the outside world wouldn’t know precisely who’s supporting what. Or maybe ski masks, though those wreak havoc on hairdos. Alternately, the lawmakers could communicate in code: anything to obscure their actions and make it easier for them to actually cast votes in line with their best judgment and consciences. Oh, you thought they always did that? Well then I won’t spill the beans on Santa or the Easter bunny, either.

Last week was a doozy, and not in the usual way. The nation didn’t lurch toward another cliff; the suffixes -geddon and -pocalypse didn’t come out to play; the air didn’t grow thick with dire “s” words like stalemate, standoff and the direst of all, shutdown. No, last week ended with Congress’s having steered clear of disaster by passing a measure to lift the debt ceiling. Congress functioned, more or less. And yet — here’s the clincher — it looked as ugly as usual, if not uglier.

At issue was the way it functioned, a dysfunction of its own. Over in the House, Republican leaders brought the lifting of the debt ceiling to a vote so that they and a smattering of their party colleagues could pass the measure with the help of nearly all of the Democrats. You might naïvely wonder how this wouldn’t estrange the leaders from their caucus. But you’d be failing to take into account that many members of that caucus wanted the measure to succeed, recognizing that this was in the nation’s interest, but wanted at the same time to vote no, so as not to draw attacks from party extremists. In Congress, this isn’t considered a contradiction. It’s not even considered undignified. It’s considered canny self-preservation. (You serve, above all, to get re-elected.) The phenomenon is common enough that in a recent story in The Times, my colleagues Ashley Parker and Jonathan Weisman assigned it a name: Vote No, Hope Yes.

In a given chamber of Congress, the majority party usually takes responsibility for raising the debt ceiling, while the minority is permitted to balk and rail theatrically about wanton government spending. In fact Barack Obama did such balking and railing when he was in the Democratic minority of the Senate. Now Democrats run the show there, and they were poised to provide the necessary support to get the ceiling lifted. But the inimitable and irrepressible Ted Cruz insisted on a 60-vote threshold to allow the measure to be taken up, and getting past this hurdle required at least five Republicans to side with Democrats.

If the Republicans in the Senate had really cared to doom the measure, this was their big chance. But their true and ardent desire was to appear adamantly opposed without being so, and thus to appease party loudmouths without actually letting those loudmouths get their way.

This was where the brown paper bags would have come in very handy, because to avoid a filibuster and let the measure ultimately succeed, some Republicans had to step up and actually cast a vote in favor of its consideration. Their solution: to conduct this first, procedural vote in silence — an extremely rare and exceedingly curious thing — so that it wasn’t immediately clear to observers which Republicans were effectively helping to make sure the debt ceiling got raised. The theory, presumably, was that by the time it did become clear, those same Republicans would have proceeded to cast a subsequent “no” vote against the raise itself, whose passage required only the simple majority of votes that Democrats alone could provide.

The world’s greatest deliberative body at work! Make sure the children are watching! Inspiring civic lessons for all!

This isn’t just about the debt ceiling. On too many other fronts, the gulf between how lawmakers know they should behave and what they have the political courage to do is painfully wide. This has happened with Hurricane Sandy relief, with the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with budgetary matters.

The week before last, immigration reform fell apart, and not because of the number of lawmakers who think it’s a horrid idea, but because of the number who think it’s probably a good idea but don’t want to commit to that and confront any blowback.

And last week the Senate, in a 95-3 vote, and the House, by a 326-90 margin, reversed a portion of a budget agreement that would have limited cost-of-living increases in many military veterans’ pensions to 1 percent below the rate of inflation.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator and a veteran, told me that the limit, which the Pentagon endorsed, was utterly reasonable and absolutely necessary, and he assured me that most lawmakers knew this. But they worried that if they stood by that conviction, veterans groups would succeed in branding them enemies of the nation’s heroes.

“It’s all about inoculating yourself against the sound bite,” he said. “And now it’s more than a sound bite. It’s also what’s trending on Twitter.” Most lawmakers, he added, believe that the failure to rein in Medicare and Social Security represents a serious threat to the country’s future, but they’re too politically timid to reflect that in their votes.

SUCH cowardice and self-interest aren’t new. But certain wrinkles are. Kerrey mentioned Twitter and, indeed, complaints and catcalls circulate with unprecedented efficiency and reach. It’s quicker for interest groups and opponents to fasten targets on lawmakers’ backs. It’s easier to rouse the rabble.

“With the ability to use computers, it’s worsened,” Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican who served in the House for nearly two decades, said. He added that websites and social media, not to mention cable TV and talk radio, have turned the political atmosphere more broadly and instantaneously caustic. “You have that constant carping. It has made Congress a more difficult place to achieve the greater good.”

Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, noted that in the past, some votes in Congress wouldn’t even be recorded by individual lawmakers’ names. There was also more hidden back-room dealing. “That kind of insularity allowed legislators to take positions that might not be politically great but were the right thing to do,” he said.

I asked Kerrey: Do the politicians who frequently buck their own consciences at least feel misgivings about that? Struggle with it?

“Now you’re presuming that they’re in contact with their consciences on a regular basis,” he said. “I haven’t actually met many human beings who are. That’s a tough transaction: looking out for your conscience.”

Here’s what “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had to say:  “A better idea for the Senate (and the House): compulsory uniforms bearing the logos each of their top twenty direct and indirect contributors, whether they be corporations, superpacs, lobby groups or just plain folks who happen to be billionaires.”  Amen.

Posted in Another pile of crap, Bruni, Douthat, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof, MoDo, Navel gazing, STFU, The Moustache of Wisdom, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

Brooks and Krugman

February 14, 2014

In “The Refiner’s Fire” Bobo has decided to tell us that one personal take on what it really feels like to be a politician shows politics as a hard and noble calling.  Since I can still access comments at the Times on one browser (IE, ewww…) “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “David Brooks never disappoints. He continues his role as spokesman for the party with nothing to say with this rhetorical Trojan horse, hiding a defense of Republican dysfunction in the well-meaning incompetence of a liberal Canadian academic. ”  In “Inequality, Dignity and Freedom” Prof. Krugman asks a question:  Who really honors work and liberty? He says it’s probably not the 1 percent or the Republican Party.  Here’s Bobo:

In 2005, Michael Ignatieff left a teaching job at Harvard to enter politics in his native Canada with hopes of becoming prime minister.

He quickly came to understand how politics is different from academia. In academia, you use words to persuade or discover; in politics, you use words to establish a connection. Academia is a cerebral enterprise, but politics is a physical enterprise, a charismatic form of athletics in which you touch people to show you care.

In academia, the goal is to come up with a timeless truth. In politics, timing is everything, knowing when the time is ripe for a certain proposal. In academia, the idea is to take a stand based on what you believe; in politics, the idea is to position yourself along a left-right axis in a way that will differentiate you from your opponents and help you win a majority.

In academia, a certain false modesty is encouraged; in politics, you have to self-dramatize a fable about yourself — concoct a story to show how your life connects to certain policies. In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion. In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.

Naturally, Ignatieff found the transition to politics more difficult than he imagined. He started his career well enough. He was elected to Parliament. Within a year, he was a deputy party leader and, within a few years, he was leader of Canada’s Liberal Party.

But he was in over his head and the victim of inexorable historical trends. He was not an effective opposition leader. In his first national election, he and his party were crushed. Ignatieff even lost his own parliamentary seat. It was a humiliating failure, which ended his political career.

Fortunately, he did not return with empty hands. His memoir, “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,” is the best book about what it feels like to be a politician since Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.”

Ignatieff was first invited to run for office by some backstage power brokers, even though he hadn’t lived in his country for 30 years. He agreed but wasn’t initially sure why he wanted to do it beyond some vague sense that it would honor his parents.

He was betrayed by old friends. He endured unearned and lofty condescension from political columnists. In Parliament, he became a total partisan, putting, as one must, loyalty to the group above loyalty to truth. He had no friends who were not in his own party. He loathed the other side. “We never wasted a single breath trying to convince each other of anything,” he recalls.

He learned that when you are attacking your opponent, you have to hit his strengths because his weaknesses will take care of themselves. Political discourse, he came to see, is not really a debate about issues; it is a verbal contest to deny your opponents of standing, or as we would say, legitimacy. “Of the three elections that I fought, none was a debate on the country’s future. All were vicious battles over standing.”

During the course of his career he endured the character tests that all honest politicians face. “Politics tests your capacity for self-knowledge more than any profession I know,” he writes. He would look at himself in the mirror, wearing the suits that the image crafters had selected, and feel as though he had been taken over by some strange new persona he barely recognized. He went through each day completely dependent on the reaction of other people, minute by minute, second by second, to validate his performance. After poor showings at question time, he’d go to the washroom, no longer sure he was up to the job, confronting the mistakes that suggested he wasn’t. “I had never been so well-dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow.”

But Ignatieff ultimately delivers a strong defense of politics. Politicians should never imagine themselves superior to the process they are engaged in. Politicians bind people together into communities and nations, he argues. To be a politician is to be “worldly and sinful and yet faithful and fearless at the same time. You put your own immodest ambitions in the service of others. You hope that your ambitions will be redeemed by the good you do.”

Politics, as Max Weber famously said, is the necessary work of strong and slow boring through hard boards. People who do it out of a sense of selfishness and vanity, often give up, because the life can be miserable. The people who sustain are usually motivated by a sense of service, and by evidence of the good that laws and programs can do. Ignatieff failed at politics, but through the refiner’s fire of the political climb, he realized what a tainted but worthwhile calling it can be.

Keller is finally gone.  Maybe now it’s time for Bobo to find happier employment.  And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Now that the Congressional Budget Office has explicitly denied saying that Obamacare destroys jobs, some (though by no means all) Republicans have stopped lying about that issue and turned to a different argument. O.K., they concede, any reduction in working hours because of health reform will be a voluntary choice by the workers themselves — but it’s still a bad thing because, as Representative Paul Ryan puts it, they’ll lose “the dignity of work.”

So let’s talk about what that means in 21st-century America.

It’s all very well to talk in the abstract about the dignity of work, but to suggest that workers can have equal dignity despite huge inequality in pay is just silly. In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. Given that kind of disparity, can anyone really believe in the equal dignity of work?

In fact, the people who seem least inclined to respect the efforts of ordinary workers are the winners of the wealth lottery. Over the past few months, we’ve been harangued by a procession of angry billionaires, furious that they’re not receiving the deference, the acknowledgment of their superiority, that they believe is their due. For example, last week the investor Sam Zell went on CNN Money to defend the 1 percent against “envy,” and he asserted that “the 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society.” Dignity for all!

And there’s another group that doesn’t respect workers: Republican politicians. In 2012, Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, infamously marked Labor Day with a Twitter post celebrating … people who start their own businesses. Perhaps Mr. Cantor was chastened by the backlash to that post; at a recent G.O.P. retreat, he reportedly urged his colleagues to show some respect for Americans who don’t own businesses, who work for someone else. The clear implication was that they haven’t shown that kind of respect in the past.

On the whole, working Americans are better at appreciating their own worth than either the wealthy or conservative politicians are at showing them even minimal respect. Still, tens of millions of Americans know from experience that hard work isn’t enough to provide financial security or a decent education for their children, and many either couldn’t get health insurance or were desperately afraid of losing jobs that came with insurance until the Affordable Care Act kicked in last month. In the face of that kind of everyday struggle, talk about the dignity of work rings hollow.

So what would give working Americans more dignity in their lives, despite huge income disparities? How about assuring them that the essentials — health care, opportunity for their children, a minimal income — will be there even if their boss fires them or their jobs are shipped overseas?

Think about it: Has anything done as much to enhance the dignity of American seniors, to rescue them from the penury and dependence that were once so common among the elderly, as Social Security and Medicare? Inside the Beltway, fiscal scolds have turned “entitlements” into a bad word, but it’s precisely the fact that Americans are entitled to collect Social Security and be covered by Medicare, no questions asked, that makes these programs so empowering and liberating.

Conversely, the drive by conservatives to dismantle much of the social safety net, to replace it with minimal programs and private charity, is, in effect, an effort to strip away the dignity of lower-income workers.

And it’s something else: an assault on their freedom.

Modern American conservatives talk a lot about freedom, and deride liberals for advocating a “nanny state.” But when it comes to Americans down on their luck, conservatives become insultingly paternalistic, as comfortable congressmen lecture struggling families on the dignity of work. And they also become advocates of highly intrusive government. For example, House Republicans tried to introduce a provision into the farm bill that would have allowed states to mandate drug testing for food stamp recipients. (A commenter on my blog suggested mandatory drug tests for employees of too-big-to-fail financial institutions, which receive large implicit subsidies. Now that would really cause a panic.)

The truth is that if you really care about the dignity and freedom of American workers, you should favor more, not fewer, entitlements, a stronger, not weaker, social safety net.

And you should, in particular, support and celebrate health reform. Never mind all those claims that Obamacare is slavery; the reality is that the Affordable Care Act will empower millions of Americans, giving them exactly the kind of dignity and freedom politicians only pretend to love.

Posted in Bobo, Brooks, Krugman, STFU | 1 Comment »

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

February 4, 2014

Bobo has a question in “What Machines Can’t Do:”  What human skills will become more valuable as computers take over more and more duties?  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say in the comments:  “This is one of Mr. Brooks’ favorite themes. His dystopian conservative visions always seem to end up with a few people of exceptional creative power running the show, while the rest of us polish their silver.”  And I guess the people running the show will always need someone like Bobo to carry water for them, and fawn over them.  Mr. Cohen, in “The Talks, Round Two,” says neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have fully embraced peace, but Kerry is making progress.  In “The Gun Report, 1 Year Later” Mr. Nocera says when you track gun violence every day, a few things really stand out.  Mr. Bruni ponders “Love, Death and Sochi” and says let these Olympics be a lesson. For too many gays, the heart is a prison.  Here’s Bobo:

We’re clearly heading into an age of brilliant technology. Computers are already impressively good at guiding driverless cars and beating humans at chess and Jeopardy. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out in their book “The Second Machine Age,” computers are increasingly going to be able to perform important parts of even mostly cognitive jobs, like picking stocks, diagnosing diseases and granting parole.

As this happens, certain mental skills will become less valuable because computers will take over. Having a great memory will probably be less valuable. Being able to be a straight-A student will be less valuable — gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests. So will being able to do any mental activity that involves following a set of rules.

But what human skills will be more valuable?

In the news business, some of those skills are already evident. Technology has rewarded sprinters (people who can recognize and alertly post a message on Twitter about some interesting immediate event) and marathoners (people who can write large conceptual stories), but it has hurt middle-distance runners (people who write 800-word summaries of yesterday’s news conference). Technology has rewarded graphic artists who can visualize data, but it has punished those who can’t turn written reporting into video presentations.

More generally, the age of brilliant machines seems to reward a few traits. First, it rewards enthusiasm. The amount of information in front of us is practically infinite; so is that amount of data that can be collected with new tools. The people who seem to do best possess a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity. Maybe they started with obsessive gaming sessions, or marathon all-night study sessions, but they are driven to perform extended bouts of concentration, diving into and trying to make sense of these bottomless information oceans.

In his book, “Smarter Than You Think,” Clive Thompson describes the work of Deb Roy, who wired his house with equipment so he and his team could monitor and record every word he and his wife uttered while his son was learning to speak. That is total commitment and total immersion in an attempt to understand the language learning process.

Second, the era seems to reward people with extended time horizons and strategic discipline. When Garry Kasparov was teaming with a computer to play freestyle chess (in which a human and machine join up to play against another human and machine), he reported that his machine partner possessed greater “tactical acuity,” but he possessed greater “strategic guidance.”

That doesn’t seem too surprising. A computer can calculate a zillion options, move by move, but a human can provide an overall sense of direction and a conceptual frame. In a world of online distractions, the person who can maintain a long obedience toward a single goal, and who can filter out what is irrelevant to that goal, will obviously have enormous worth.

Third, the age seems to reward procedural architects. The giant Internet celebrities didn’t so much come up with ideas, they came up with systems in which other people could express ideas: Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc. That is to say they designed an architecture that possesses a center of gravity, but which allowed loose networks of soloists to collaborate.

One of the oddities of collaboration is that tightly knit teams are not the most creative. Loosely bonded teams are, teams without a few domineering presences, teams that allow people to think alone before they share results with the group. So a manager who can organize a decentralized network around a clear question, without letting it dissipate or clump, will have enormous value.

Fifth, essentialists will probably be rewarded. Any child can say, “I’m a dog” and pretend to be a dog. Computers struggle to come up with the essence of “I” and the essence of “dog,” and they really struggle with coming up with what parts of “I-ness” and “dog-ness” should be usefully blended if you want to pretend to be a dog.

This is an important skill because creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.

In the 1950s, the bureaucracy was the computer. People were organized into technocratic systems in order to perform routinized information processing. But now the computer is the computer. The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind.

Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Munich:

For six months now Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, led respectively by Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, have been tied up in U.S.-mediated peace negotiations. For a few minutes at the Munich Security Conference participants caught a glimpse of how stormy those talks can be.

The catalyst was a little phrase from Erekat. “I wish the Israelis would stop running without being chased,” he said. “Am I a threat to you?”

Erekat’s an amiable fellow who has been jaw-jawing about a Middle East peace for so long he mumbles “Area C” in his sleep, but Livni was not about to let him have that one. Pulling her hair back she let him have it, a guttural volley about Palestinian rockets from Gaza on Sderot, terrorists in the West Bank, the perennial Israeli insecurity.

Then she was on to narrative — that overused word for the events, real or imagined, that define the nationhood of warring peoples — and warning Erekat that if there ever is a final-status, two-state peace ending all claims, “Don’t call Haifa by its Palestinian name” or give hope of return there to those “with keys around their necks” in Palestinian refugee camps.

This infuriated Erekat. Proclaiming himself a proud son of 10,000-year-old Jericho, he declared, “I’m not going to change my narrative, guys.” He demanded of Livni why she demanded of him that Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people when Egypt and Jordan made peace without doing so.

And on we go, enmeshed in the claims and counterclaims and neuroses of two peoples eyeing the same small scarred patch of Biblical land — Israelis convinced after the Second Intifada and the experience of the Gaza withdrawal that living in security beside a Palestinian state is near impossible, Palestinians convinced after almost a half-century of occupation that the Israeli boot on their heads will never be withdrawn. The claws of the past are tenacious; Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to prize them loose.

He has made a little headway. Something more unexpected was in the air between the two sides at Munich, a familiarity, a rejection of failure, a sense of modest momentum, all summed up by Livni when she said the current opportunity could not be missed because “the cost of not having an agreement is greater than the cost of having an agreement.” Kerry has now kept the two sides in the room long enough to reduce the room for — and raise the price of — leaving. Ehud Barak, the former Israeli defense minister, told me that “Kerry’s obsession is the most important thing.”

Within the next several weeks the United States will produce a framework setting out the broad terms of a peace agreement. This will reflect the work done and provide the scaffolding for an extension of the talks beyond the initial nine months, a deadline up in late March. I expect Israelis and Palestinians to agree, with serious caveats, to this American proposal and negotiations to proceed through most, if not all, of 2014.

Kerry and his envoy Martin Indyk have recently indicated, in public and leaked remarks, what will be in the framework. The elements include what Kerry has called “a full, phased, final withdrawal of the Israeli Army;” security arrangements in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere that leave Israel “more secure, not less;” a “just and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee problem;” mutual recognition of “the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the nation-state of the Jewish people;” and a compromise for Jerusalem enabling the city to embody “the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Borders established through equitable land swaps around the 1967 lines would place most settlers inside Israel, perhaps more than 70 percent of them, but the fates of the big settlements of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim are deeply contentious.

This is not rocket science. The core elements of any two-state deal are well known. But neither side has been ready to embrace the suboptimal middle ground where peace is made. What is needed now are “pull factors” that begin to allay the core fears of both sides.

Palestinians need to feel the Israeli vise is loosening — that, for example, in the Israeli-controlled “Area C,” which accounts for some 60 percent of the West Bank, investment, construction and free movement become possible, creating jobs and stirring growth. Israelis need proof that their concerns about security are being heard. Palestinian agreement to a five-year phased Israeli withdrawal is a start, but Gaza under Hamas is a huge problem going forward. A Palestinian election is overdue; without one Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, lacks the authority to deliver the peace he seeks.

In Munich, Henry Kissinger growled to Indyk: “Martin, you have a job for life.” He’s probably right. Nobody ever lost money betting against a Middle Eastern peace; I’ve done so myself. But Kerry has moved the ball.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

It has been a year since my assistant, Jennifer Mascia, and I started publishing The Gun Report, an effort to use my blog to aggregate daily gun violence in America. Our methodology is pretty simple: We do a Google News search each weekday morning for the previous day’s shootings and then list them. Most days, we have been finding between 20 and 30 shootings; on Mondays, when we also add the weekend’s violence, the number is usually well over 100.

From the start, we knew we were missing a lot more incidents than we found. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after all, says that nearly 32,000 people are killed by guns each year. Slate, the online magazine, which tried to tally every gun death in the year after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., arrived at a number of 12,042, far higher than ours. (We include gun injuries as well as gun deaths.)

Part of the issue, as Slate has noted, is that it is impossible to track suicides using news media accounts — and suicides, according to the C.D.C., account for some 60 percent of gun deaths. But it was also obvious that a Google News search was bound to miss plenty of examples; that’s just the nature of the beast. Comprehensiveness was never really the point, though. Mostly we were trying to get a feel for the scale and scope of gun violence in America. A year later, it seems like a good time to take stock.

First, the biggest surprise, especially early on, was how frequently either a child accidentally shot another child — using a loaded gun that happened to be lying around — or an adult accidentally shot a child while handling a loaded gun. I have written about this before, mainly because these incidents seem so preventable. Gun owners simply need to keep their guns locked away. Indeed, one pro-gun reader, Malcolm Smith, told me that after reading “about the death toll, especially to children” in The Gun Report, he had come to believe that some gun regulation was necessary. He now thinks gun owners should be licensed and “should have to learn how to store guns safely.” No doubt he’ll be drummed out of the National Rifle Association for expressing such thoughts.

Second, the N.R.A. shibboleth that having a gun in one’s house makes you safer is demonstrably untrue. After The Gun Report had been up and running for a while, several Second Amendment advocates complained that we rarely published items that showed how guns were used to prevent a crime. The reason was not that we were biased against crime prevention; it was that it didn’t happen very often. (When we found such examples, we put them in The Gun Report.) More to the point, there are an increasing number of gun deaths that are the result of an argument — often fueled by alcohol — among friends, neighbors and family members. Sadly, cases like the recent shooting in a Florida movie theater — when one man killed someone who was texting during the previews — is not all that uncommon.

Third, gang shootings are everywhere. You see it in the big cities, like Chicago, Detroit and Miami, and you see it in smaller cities in economic decline like Flint, Mich., and Fort Wayne, Ind. Drive-by shootings are prevalent in California, especially Los Angeles and Fresno. As often as gang members shoot each other, they kill innocent victims, often children who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Among the readers who post daily comments to The Gun Report are a number of gun rights advocates. What has been astonishing to me is the degree to which they tend to dismiss inner-city violence, as if to say that such killings are unavoidable. The code word they often use is “demographics.”

It is unquestionably true that the most gun homicides occur in the inner cities — the anecdotes we collect in The Gun Report are confirmed by such studies as a May 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. And, yes, plenty of them are the result of gang violence. But why should that make them any less lamentable, or preventable?

There are an estimated 300 million guns in America, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But to read The Gun Report is to be struck anew at the reality that most of the people who die from guns would still be alive if we just had fewer of them. The guys in the movie theater would have had a fistfight instead of a shooting. The momentary flush of anger would pass. The suicidal person might have taken a pause if taking one’s life were more difficult. And on, and on. The idea that guns, on balance, save lives — which is one of the most common sentiments expressed in the pro-gun comments posted to The Gun Report — is ludicrous.

On the contrary: The clearest message The Gun Report sends is the most obvious. Guns make killing way too easy.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

There are few moments sweeter, more humbling or more thrilling than telling someone you love how you feel.

As soon as Roger Mbede did that, he was damned.

This happened in Cameroon, which, like many African countries, treats homosexuality as if it were a curse, a scourge. He lost sight of that, and made the mistake of sending several text messages that were too candid, too trusting.

“I’m very much in love with you,” one of them said, and the man who got it, apparently worried that he was being set up, turned Roger in. Law enforcement officers scrutinized all of his correspondence for suggestions of sexual activity with people of the same gender, which can lead to a prison sentence of five years.

One of his lawyers, Alice Nkom, told me that they also made him strip so that they could examine his anus, as if the ultimate proof would be there. This isn’t unusual in such interrogations, she said, and it was just the start of his degradation after his March 2011 arrest. The end came last month, when he died at 34.

I’ll come back to that. But first, the reason I’m sharing his story.

On Thursday the Olympics begin. Worldwide attention will turn to Sochi, Russia, and there will be a spike in commentary about Russia’s dangerously homophobic climate, which has already prompted discussion and protest.

But while this will be an important reminder of the kind of persecution that L.G.B.T. people endure in a country openly hostile to them, it will also be an incomplete one. Russia’s hardly the worst.

Although it has an easily abused and utterly ridiculous law against so-called gay propaganda, it doesn’t technically criminalize same-sex activity. About 75 other countries do, and by the laws or customs of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Sudan and certain parts of Nigeria and Somalia, such activity is even punishable by death. Gays, it turns out, are handy scapegoats, distracting people from the grave problems that really hold them back.

In Nigeria, the president signed new legislation last month that establishes 14-year prison sentences for anyone who enters into a same-sex union and 10-year sentences for people who publicly display same-sex affection or who simply participate in gay groups. There have since been accounts of gay people being rounded up. A man in northern Nigeria was publicly whipped for having had sex with another man seven years earlier. A BBC reporter described how the man screamed during the 20 lashes.

L.G.B.T. people in Jamaica live in fear, despite a fresh, hopeful push by some Jamaicans to repeal a law that permits long prison sentences for sodomy. Mobs there have chased people believed to be gay, and last year a transgendered teen was reportedly killed — stabbed, shot and run over with a car — in a hate crime.

Strains of Russia’s florid bigotry can be found in its neighbors, too: Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, Ukraine. Ty Cobb, the director of global engagement for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which is about to publish a world report, noted that many traditionalists in these countries cast L.G.B.T. people as the emblems and agents of a decadent Western culture.

Human Rights Watch recently examined Kyrgyzstan and found that while the country doesn’t criminalize same-sex activity, the police there detain, taunt and shame gay men routinely and with impunity.

The group also investigated Cameroon, where it says a gay rights activist was killed last summer after being tortured with a hot iron. Over the last three years, according to the group, at least 28 people in Cameroon have been prosecuted for homosexual conduct.

Two men were hauled in for questioning because lubricant and condoms had been found in their house. Another two men aroused suspicion because of their feminine dress and beverage choice. They drank Baileys Irish Cream.

Nkom was involved in their case, as she was with Roger, whose story she and another of his lawyers, Michel Togue, fleshed out for me.

In prison, where he spent more than a year, he was apparently roughed up. Raped, too. He got sick, and while news reports mentioned a hernia, Nkom told me that he also had testicular cancer. He didn’t get proper treatment, she said, not even after his release, partly because he went into hiding, terrified of being put away again.

His relatives didn’t intervene in his medical care. They spurned him, she said, contributing to the isolation that hastened his deterioration.

Back before the text message, back before the dread label of homosexual was hung on him, Roger had confidence. He had respect. He studied philosophy at a local university, with an eye on a teaching career.

“He was the hope of the family,” Nkom told me. “He was the one who had a future.”

Then he shared what was in his heart. And that future was gone.

Posted in Bobo, Brooks, Bruni, Cohen, Nocera, STFU | Leave a Comment »


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