Archive for the ‘The Cavalcade of Stupid’ Category

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

April 13, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has extruded something called “Diversity and Dishonesty” in which he whines that Mozilla and Brandeis may preach pluralism, but it’s a sham.  “Gemli” from Boston had this to say in the comments:  “There may be a reason that certain institutions “…support diversity, but only as the left defines it.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard the right’s definition of diversity, unless it’s their tendency to treat everyone who doesn’t look like them with equal disdain.”  MoDo, in “A Wit for All Seasons,” says with a quicksilver wit and basic decency, Colbert’s the real deal.  This may be the first column in years where she doesn’t take a gratuitous slap at Obama or Clinton.  The Moustache of Wisdom says “Go Ahead, Vladimir, Make My Day.”  He opines that a Russian gas embargo might be just what the world needs. Seriously.  “Victor” in Cold Spring, NY had this to say:  “Whoa! That’s some pretty tough talk there “Dirty Tommy”. I’m sure you got Vlad shaking in his boots at the prospect of the west going solar in retaliation for a brutal annexation of Ukraine through gas pipeline extortion. This is like some junior high-schooler’s mixed metaphor.”  Mr. Kristof, in “A Loyal Soldier Doesn’t Deserve This,” says here’s a veteran who risked his life and sacrificed his mind for his country. He asks what are we doing for him in return?  Mr. Bruni considers “Women’s Unequal Lot” and says the 77-cent figure so loosely tossed around misrepresents the pay gap and its roots.  Here’s The Putz:

Earlier this year, a column by a Harvard undergraduate named Sandra Y. L. Korn briefly achieved escape velocity from the Ivy League bubble, thanks to its daring view of how universities should approach academic freedom.

Korn proposed that such freedom was dated and destructive, and that a doctrine of “academic justice” should prevail instead. No more, she wrote, should Harvard permit its faculty to engage in “research promoting or justifying oppression” or produce work tainted by “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” Instead, academic culture should conform to left-wing ideas of the good, beautiful and true, and decline as a matter of principle “to put up with research that counters our goals.”

No higher-up at Harvard endorsed her argument, of course. But its honesty of purpose made an instructive contrast to the institutional statements put out in the immediate aftermath of two recent controversies — the resignation of the Mozilla Foundation’s C.E.O., Brendan Eich, and the withdrawal, by Brandeis University, of the honorary degree it had promised to the human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In both cases, Mozilla and Brandeis, there was a striking difference between the clarity of what had actually happened and the evasiveness of the official responses to the events. Eich stepped down rather than recant his past support for the view that one man and one woman makes a marriage; Hirsi Ali’s invitation was withdrawn because of her sweeping criticisms of Islamic culture. But neither the phrase “marriage” nor the word “Islam” appeared in the initial statements Mozilla and Brandeis released.

Instead, the Mozilla statement rambled in the language of inclusion: “Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. … Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions. …”

The statement on Hirsi Ali was slightly more direct, saying that “her past statements … are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” But it never specified what those statements or those values might be — and then it fell back, too, on pieties about diversity: “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”

What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.

The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.

This refusal, this self-deception, means that we have far too many powerful communities (corporate, academic, journalistic) that are simultaneously dogmatic and dishonest about it — that promise diversity but only as the left defines it, that fill their ranks with ideologues and then claim to stand athwart bias and misinformation, that speak the language of pluralism while presiding over communities that resemble the beau ideal of Sandra Y. L. Korn.

Harvard itself is a perfect example of this pattern: As Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame pointed out when the column was making waves, Korn could only come up with one contemporary example of a Harvardian voice that ought to be silenced — “a single conservative octogenarian,” the political philosophy professor Harvey Mansfield. Her call for censorship, Deneen concluded, “is at this point almost wholly unnecessary, since there are nearly no conservatives to be found at Harvard.”

I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.

But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.

And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.

It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.

If anyone knows about lying it’s a Republican…  Here’s MoDo:

I don’t remember much about being on Stephen Colbert’s show.

It all passed in a blur of fear.

I remember him coming into the makeup room to remind me that he was going to be in character as a jerk.

I remember that he held up my book about gender and asked if it was “soft-core porn.”

I remember he asked me if I wanted to hold his Peabody and I told him I did, so he jumped up to grab the TV award from the mantel.

The experience reminded me of a 1937 musical called “A Damsel in Distress,” where Fred Astaire guided Joan Fontaine, clearly not a dancer, around a lawn, soaring for both of them.

Colbert was as quicksilver with his wit as Fred was with his feet. And like Astaire’s more talented partner Ginger Rogers, who had to dance backward and in heels, Colbert was doing two things at once that were very hard. He was dazzling as a satirist and improv comedian while mimicking a buffoonish right-wing broadcaster.

Jon Stewart once described the level of difficulty to me this way: “It’s as though you’re doing your show in Portuguese.”

The reason “The Colbert Report” worked, Stewart said, when I interviewed the two comics for Rolling Stone in 2006, was that Colbert could act like an obnoxious egoist, but his “basic decency can’t be hidden.”

Colbert is witty and a good interrogator without being twisted, as Johnny Carson was.

He’s inventive, like the comic genius he will replace, but not tortured like David Letterman.

In person, Colbert is a nice guy, but not as monologue-monomaniacal as Jay Leno. Colbert has lived the life of a suburban soccer dad and Catholic Church-going Sunday school teacher in Montclair, N.J., with a beautiful wife he’s nuts about, Evie McGee, and three kids.

He’s not an ingratiating boy next door, like Jimmy Fallon, or a scorchingly candid curmudgeon, like Letterman.

No one, including the CBS president, Les Moonves, and the host himself, is sure what his new show will be like because we’ve so rarely seen Colbert when he wasn’t playing a character.

And it’s a sad double blow, after all. It’s not only Letterman who’s retiring, but the blowhard doppelgänger of Colbert.

Carson was the Walter Lippmann of comedy, wielding enormous influence over the reputations of politicians he mocked. Stewart and Colbert took it a step further. They became Murrow and Cronkite for a generation of young viewers.

It was a measure of how seriously Washington viewed Colbert that in 2007, Rahm Emanuel, then the Democratic Caucus chairman, told freshman Democrats to stay off Colbert’s show. And Colbert has to be the only person who testified before Congress as a bit.

Rush Limbaugh and some other conservatives bristled at news that Colbert was moving to the more mainstream network platform; they know he can be brilliantly effective about the absurdity and doublespeak of politics.

“CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America,” Limbaugh said.

Colbert said in the Rolling Stone interview that his agenda was humor, not social change, noting: “Peter Cook was once asked if he thought that satire had a political effect. He said, ‘Absolutely, the greatest satire of the 20th century was the Weimar cabaret, and they stopped Hitler in his tracks.’ ”

Except for supporting J.F.K., Colbert’s parents were not very political or liberal. Colbert kept a Nixon poster above his office desk. “Nixon was the last liberal president,” he told me. “He supported women’s rights, the environment, ending the draft, youth involvement, and now he’s the boogeyman?”

After his famous appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, where he sliced W. so surgically that the speech, which fell flat in the room, went viral on liberal websites, Colbert looked shaken.

“I didn’t want to be subversive,” he told me. “I just wanted to be funny.” He said he was not trying to throw a Molotov cocktail, as a critic charged. He agreed with one of his writers, who told him, “You threw a bottle of grape soda that happened to have a lit rag in the neck, and the room was soaked with gasoline.”

He describes himself as “an omnivore,” who loves everything from “A Man for All Seasons” to “Jackass,” from hip-hop to Ovid in the original Latin.

He had 10 older siblings. But after his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash when he was 10 and the older kids went off to college, he said, he was “pretty much left to himself, with a lot of books.”

He said he loved the “strange, sad poetry” of a song called “Holland 1945” by an indie band from Athens, Ga., called Neutral Milk Hotel and sent me the lyrics, which included this heartbreaking bit:

“But now we must pick up every piece

Of the life we used to love

Just to keep ourselves

At least enough to carry on. . . .

And here is the room where your brothers were born

Indentions in the sheets

Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

So the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?

Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe. Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.

“Clean energy is at an inflection point,” explains Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation. “The price reductions in the last five years have been nothing less than spectacular: Solar cells, for example, have dropped in cost by more than 80 percent in the last five years. This trend is underway, if a bit less dramatically, for wind, batteries, solid state lighting, new window technologies, vehicle drive trains, grid management, and more. What this means is that clean energy is moving from boutique to mainstream, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities.”

New houses in California now use one-fourth of the energy they used 25 years ago, added Harvey. Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford are in a contest to make the most efficient pickup — because their customers want to spend less on gasoline — so they are deploying new engines and lighter truck bodies. Texas now has enough wind to power more than 3 million homes. New Jersey generates more solar watts per person than California.

And check out Opower, which just went public. Opower works with utilities and consumers to lower electricity usage and bills using behavioral economics, explained Alex Laskey, the company’s co-founder, at their Arlington, Va., office. They do it by giving people personalized communications that display in simple, clear terms how their own energy usage compares with that of their neighbors. Once people understand where they are wasting energy — and how they compare with their neighbors — many start consuming less. And, as their consumption falls, utilities can meet their customers’ demand without having to build new power plants to handle peak loads a few days of the year. Everybody wins. Opower just signed up the Tokyo Electric Power Company and its 20 million homes.

Putting all its customers together since it was founded in 2007, said Laskey, Opower has already saved about “4 terawatt hours of energy” and expects to be soon saving that annually. The Hoover Dam produces about 4 terawatts hours of energy a year. So we just got a new Hoover Dam — for free — in Arlington, Va.

A gas embargo by Putin would also reinforce the message of the United Nations’ latest climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned with greater confidence than ever that human-created carbon emissions are steadily melting more ice, creating more dangerous sea level rise, stressing ecosystems around the globe and creating more ocean acidification, from oceans absorbing more C02, posing “a fundamental challenge to marine organisms and ecosystems.”

Sunday, at 10 p.m. Eastern time, Showtime will begin airing a compelling nine-part series, called “Years of Living Dangerously,” about how environmental and climate stresses affect real people. The first episode features Harrison Ford confronting Indonesian officials about the runaway deforestation in one of their national parks, Don Cheadle following evangelicals in Texas wrestling with the tension between their faith and what is happening to their environment, and this columnist exploring how the prolonged drought in Syria contributed to the uprising there. The ninth episode is an in-depth interview with President Obama on environment and climate issues.

I asked Harrison Ford, a longtime board member of Conservation International, whether working on the documentary left him feeling it was all too late. “It isn’t too late; it can’t be too late,” he said. “Is it too late to teach our kids the difference between right and wrong? If we are not ready to redress something happening on our watch, how can we expect our kids to do something about it?” Remember, he added, “nature will be just fine without us. Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature. That is why we can’t save ourselves without saving nature.”

Ford is right. We can still do this. We are closer to both irreversible dangers on climate and scale solutions on clean tech than people realize. Just a little leadership now by America — or a little scare by Putin — would make a big difference.

Correction: April 12, 2014

I have no idea what the correction is or was, as the Times neglected to actually put it on the web site.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

The only reason he is alive, says Mike Yurchison, is his girlfriend, Leigh Anna Landsberger. She sits with him through endless waits at Veterans Affairs, whispering that he’s smarter than she is even if his brain is damaged. She helps him through his seizures, and she nags him to overcome drug addiction.

Leigh Anna gave Mike, 34, something to live for after his brother, an Iraq veteran confronting similar torment, died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide. She talked him through his grief after the suicide of another Army buddy, Jake, the one who persuaded them to move to Dallas from their native Ohio.

“If it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead right now,” Mike told me. “It was her that got me to start feeling human.”

Yet the shadow of war is difficult to escape, and a United States veteran still kills himself (or, sometimes, herself) almost once each hour. A few weeks ago, Leigh Anna returned the ring Mike had given to her and called off their engagement. She says she still loves Mike, but she is 26 and full of dreams, and he’s a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury that, for all his intelligence, leaves him speaking slowly and sometimes sounding punch drunk. He muddles his age, forgets his address, struggles to hold a job, and he isn’t getting much help from Veterans Affairs.

“I want a family, and I want a lot of things girls want,” Leigh Anna told me, crying softly. “There are things I’m giving up.”

Leigh Anna has stood by Mike for three and a half years, but how much does a girlfriend sign on for? She isn’t sure what to think now. “I’m taking it a day at a time,” she said.

Iraq is but a fading memory for most Americans, and Afghanistan may soon recede as well. But for countless others like Mike and Leigh Anna, the war continues and will for decades to come.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that it has made progress in reducing its backlog in processing disability compensation claims, but critics say that is because of the way it defines the backlog — and many hundreds of thousands of veterans are still awaiting decisions.

Likewise, the V.A. has improved suicide prevention work, but, by all accounts, it’s not enough, so that veterans are dying unnecessarily.

Mike signed up to join the Army a month after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as an act of patriotism. “I wanted to go to war and do my part,” he said. I first wrote about him two years ago in a column about the apparent suicide of his younger brother, Ryan Yurchison, who had looked up to Mike and signed up for the Army after he did.

Then a bit more than a month ago, I heard from Cheryl DeBow, the mother of Ryan and Mike.

“I am fearing I may lose my other son as well,” Ms. DeBow tells me, speaking of Mike. “It it’s becoming déjà vu and truly scares me.”

When Mike went to war he was, like Ryan, strong and healthy. So when he returned, Ms. DeBow couldn’t believe the difference. “When he got off the plane from Iraq, his body was shaking and so stiff when I went to hug him,” she said. “It’s as if he wasn’t there.”

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. (Of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been treated by the V.A., 55 percent have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.) He says that military doctors prescribed anxiety medication and painkillers that left him addicted to opiates.

Mike suffers from occasional seizures, in which his mouth foams and he becomes as stiff as a board, stops breathing and turns blue. He never had these before the war, and doctors can’t explain them.

Although his mom and girlfriend worry about suicide risks, Mike told me that the thought has barely crossed his mind. I don’t know whether to believe him. He also said: “This is probably going to sound weird, but with my brother dying, then Jake, I keep feeling death is, like, closing in on me. It’s a horrible feeling. It’s almost like this war had a curse, and if you didn’t die there, you’ll die at home. I don’t know why so many veterans are dying at home.”

Mike is also haunted by a particular incident. On an officer’s order in Iraq, he shot a young girl who the officer feared was wearing a suicide vest. The girl died, blood was everywhere, there was no suicide vest — and Mike was shattered.

So the Iraq war goes on in Mike’s head.

The Department of Veterans Affairs rates him 30 percent disabled and pays him a monthly stipend. Mike is stoical and reluctant to complain, saying he knew the risks when he signed up. He has appealed for a higher fraction of disability payment because he is struggling economically.

That’s common. The unemployment rate for veterans who joined the service after 9/11 is higher than the civilian rate, and the homelessness rate for such veterans is significantly higher than for other adults.

Mike periodically visits V.A. doctors but finds them unhelpful, and he gave up on an addiction program because of a long waiting list. An outside doctor prescribes him medicine to help wean him off opiates (and his family says he is making progress), but he has to pay for the doctor and medicine himself.

As for his mental health, he’s not hopeful. “In a lot of ways, it’s getting worse,” he said.

So the pain lingers in Mike, in Leigh Anna, in Ms. DeBow’s fears for her son — and in so many homes across America. These are the families that sometimes wish the injuries were the obvious ones, the amputations or scars that the public recognizes and honors, rather than mental health concerns that are stigmatizing.

Mike agreed to share his story and be photographed, despite embarrassment and innate reluctance, in hopes that the attention might help other veterans in need of assistance.

There are no simple answers, of course, but we as a country can do so much more for these veterans and their loved ones. If we have the wherewithal to repair armored vehicles, we can at least try to repair the people like Pvt. Mike Yurchison who served in them. “My heart is breaking not just for a second son I could lose,” said Ms. DeBow, “but for all those we will lose as well due to government apathy.”

The goddamn Republicans howl about “supporting the troops” while they cut the budgets that actually might.  To say nothing of sending them off to be cannon fodder because of a pack of lies.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

I dropped in on my sister last week. As usual, I was amazed.

I work a single job; she works three or four. There’s her paid one at an executive search firm, finding and screening candidates for corner offices in the retail industry. Then there are the others.

She spends many hours daily as a combined chauffeur, drill sergeant, cheerleader and emotional nursemaid for her two children and two stepchildren. During my visit, on Wednesday night, our chat was interrupted repeatedly so that she could tangle with her son about an unfinished school essay or field questions from her daughter about softball.

She’s the vice president of her New Jersey township’s board of education, because she feels an obligation to better the community in which her kids live. And she’s hosting our family’s Easter celebration, when 20 of us will descend on her. I could see the extra stress settling in. Like too many women, she frets that the smoothness with which she pulls off a holiday is a verdict on her character, her femininity.

Her husband’s a champ. He pitches in, lavishly. But the buck really does stop with her.

Although she’s had enormous professional success, being a woman has surely constrained her. She chose employment that allows her to telecommute frequently, a necessary aspect of her juggling act.

It’s also entirely possible that some of the positions she has held would have paid her more if she were a man.

But the disparities that she faces are so much more complicated than her salary. Decades into the discussion about how to ensure women’s equality, we have a culture that still places a different set of expectations and burdens on women and that still nudges or even shames them into certain roles.

There was too little recognition of that last week at the White House, where President Obama practiced the timeless political art of oversimplification, reducing a messy reality into a tidy figure and saying that working women make only 77 cents for every dollar that working men earn. He left the impression that this was principally the consequence of direct discrimination in the form of unequal pay for the same job.

Some of it is, and that’s flatly unacceptable.

But most of it isn’t. And the misuse of the 77-cent statistic could actually hurt the important cause of giving women a fair shake, because it allows people who don’t value that goal a way to discredit those of us who do, and because it gives short shrift to dynamics that must be a part of any meaningful, truthful, constructive discussion.

The 77-cent figure speaks to the earnings of all women and all men classified as full-time workers. But it doesn’t adjust for the longer hours that such men generally work. It doesn’t factor in the paychecks of the many men and women who are employed part time.

When all of that comes into play and hourly income is calculated, women make 84 cents for every dollar that men do, according to the Pew Research Center. Even that 16-cent difference, though, isn’t entirely about women earning less money for the same work. It’s influenced by many factors, including the greater percentage of women who slow down their careers because of child-rearing responsibilities and fall behind.

To wit: Among younger women, many of whom have yet to hit that pause button, the hourly “wage gap” is 93 cents on the dollar, according to Pew’s number crunching. Other analyses reach similar conclusions.

In the White House, women made 88 cents for every dollar that men did last year, according to a review by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and salaries there are determined by hierarchical rank, not managerial discretion. What created the gap wasn’t unequal pay for equal work; it was a concentration of women in lower positions. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, explained this as if it were some sort of exoneration, when it merely raises other, bigger questions. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere, why are so many women at the bottom?

PATRIARCHIES, like old habits, die hard. In many arenas, we’re simply accustomed to being led by men. It’s our default, our fallback. With Stephen Colbert’s appointment last week to replace David Letterman, we’ve continued a period of intense shuffling of the late-night chairs, and each one that belonged to a man went to another man. Chelsea Handler is ending her own show; the days when Joan Rivers was a guest host for Johnny Carson are long gone; and on the major networks around midnight, it’s a boys’ club. Women get to tuck in the children, but not the national television audience.

By suggesting that the chief culprit for women’s inferior earnings is discriminatory pay, the 77-cent figure lets too many men off the hook, not forcing them to confront their culpability as bosses who care too little for women’s advancement, as husbands who prioritize their own careers and as fathers who don’t participate fully around the house.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, the sociologist who examined the burden of working women in the book “The Second Shift,” told me that since its publication 25 years ago, men have improved — but not enough. Back then, she said, “If you put a woman’s paid and unpaid labor beside her husband’s, and they both worked full time and had kids under 6, she was working an extra month.” Now, she said, it’s an extra two weeks.

That situation, she cautioned, pertains largely to affluent women. For less affluent ones, the issue is often men who are entirely absent. Equal-pay legislation doesn’t begin to address what these women need.

If we’re concerned about them, if we’re concerned about all working women, we have to talk about child care, flexible hours, paid leave. We have to talk about gender stereotypes and whether they steer women into professions with lower compensation. We have to talk about the choices that women make and which of those they feel muscled into.

Obama acknowledged that much only after he dwelt on the 77 cents. “We got to make it possible for more women to enter high-paying fields,” he said, going on to note, “Fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm.”

Being at the helm would probably push my sister over the edge. I checked in with her on Friday at noon, by which point she had driven her son to school, attended a board of education meeting elsewhere, returned to her son’s school for a conference and then gone to the doctor to deal with a case of conjunctivitis — in both of her eyes — and a sore throat. She had hoped, but failed, to get her broken eyeglasses fixed somewhere along the way.

“How can I place senior executives when I’m facing my son’s headmaster with glasses at a 45-degree angle on my head and pinkeye?” she said, with the kind of laugh that’s a sob in drag. “I look like a total hot mess.” Or a cautionary tale. Or, to me, a superhero.

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.

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

January 19, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz is having visions, or maybe fever dreams.  In “At Last, Conservative Reform” he gurgles that it’s not just that new ideas are popping up. There are also some real live politicians go to with them.  The rising stars he’s hanging his hopes on?  Marco Rubio and Mike Lee.  Nothing else needs to be said.  MoDo has a question in “Peeling Away the Plastic:”  Despite the brutal endurance tests of campaigns, do we ever really know the people we put in the Oval Office?  Just the question that MoDo should be asking, right?  The Moustache of Wisdom has decided that he has “Obama’s Homework Assignment.”  He says that as he prepares his State of the Union address, he might get some inspiration from his secretary of education.  Mr. Kristof unveils his ” ‘Neglected Topic’ Winner: Climate Change.”  He says the winner of his neglected topic contest is climate change. And there is a lot to discuss!  Mr. Bruni considers “The Cruelest Pregnancy” and says a Texas law has turned a brain-dead woman into an incubator. How does that honor life?  Here’s The Putz:

In American life, political ideas that lack partisan champions are regarded suspiciously, like an attempt to cheat at cards or pay for dinner with counterfeit cash. Because we have only two parties, because those parties are ideologically disciplined, and because everyone is obsessed with the other side’s unrighteousness, there’s a sense that if you aren’t fully on board with an existing partisan agenda, you don’t have any business getting mixed up in the debate.

There is an exception for rich people who wish Michael Bloomberg could be president: they get to have gushing articles written about their boring, implausible third-party fantasies every four years. Everyone else is out of luck. If you’re a consistent libertarian, Naderite left-winger or social conservative who’s also an economic populist, it isn’t enough to make the case for your ideas; you must perpetually explain why, in the absence of a Libertarian Party or a Socialist Party or a Mike Huckabee presidential run, anyone should even care that you exist.

And for the last few years, this same suspicion has attached itself to what had heretofore been a more mainstream group: conservative policy thinkers.

The conservative policy larder was genuinely bare by the end of the Bush presidency. But that changed, reasonably swiftly, across President Obama’s first term. A new journal, National Affairs, edited by Yuval Levin, began incubating alternatives to a re-ascendant liberalism. The older magazines and think tanks were reinvigorated, and played host to increasingly lively policy debates. And a new generation of conservative thinkers coalesced: James Capretta and Avik Roy on health care, Brad Wilcox and Kay Hymowitz on social policy, Ramesh Ponnuru on taxes and monetary policy, James Pethokoukis on financial regulation, Reihan Salam on all of the above, and many others.

By 2012, it was possible to discern the outlines of a plausible right-of-center agenda on domestic polity — a new “reform conservatism,” if you will.

But the Republican Party simply wasn’t interested.

Reform conservatism did have one partial champion in Paul Ryan, who co-sponsored the only plausible Obamacare alternative in Congress, and whose evolving Medicare proposal drew on ideas Levin and others had proposed. But Ryan was defined (and mostly defined himself) as Mr. Austerity rather than Mr. Reform. The rest of the party, meanwhile, was consumed by a Tea Party vs. Establishment rivalry that had a policy substrate but was just as often about posturing and score-settling.

And then came the Romney campaign, about whose substance the less said the better.

So a question has hovered over the would-be conservative reformers: If their ideas lack Republican champions, do they actually matter? Are they even worthy of debate? Or is reform conservatism basically a curiosity, an irrelevancy, a kind of center-right Naderism?

Which is why the most consequential recent development for the G.O.P. might not actually be Chris Christie’s traffic scandal. It might, instead, be the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.

The first is Mike Lee, the junior Senator from Utah, who has pivoted from leading the defund-Obamacare movement to basically becoming a one-stop shop for provocative reform ideas: in the last six months, his office has proposed a new family-friendly tax reform, reached across the aisle to work on criminal justice issues and offered significant new proposals on transportation and higher education reform.

The second is Marco Rubio, whose speech two weeks ago on the anniversary of the declaration of the war on poverty called for two major changes to the safety net: first, pooling federal antipoverty programs into a single fund that would allow more flexibility for state experiments; and second, replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.

Taken together, Lee’s and Rubio’s proposals are already more interesting and promising than almost anything Republicans campaigned on in 2012 — and there may be more to come, from them and perhaps from Ryan as well.

Of course these ideas coexist, as liberals have been quick to point out, with a congressional party that’s still wedded to opposition, austerity and not much else. But the Republican Party’s problems were never going to be solved from the House of Representatives, any more than House Democrats could rescue their party from its Reagan-era wilderness. The more likely solution for the G.O.P. has always required a two-step process: rising-star politicians coalesce around a new agenda; then a winning presidential candidate puts it into effect.

Which may not happen in this case — because the party’s base may be too rejectionist, because Hillary Clinton may actually be unstoppable no matter what her rival’s platform says, because two senators do not a reformist moment make.

But for conservative policy reformers, there’s an unfamiliar feeling in the air: It’s as if, for the first time in many years, their perspective actually exists.

Poor, poor Putzy, having to hang all his hopes on such slim reeds…  Now here’s MoDo:

It’s hard to imagine anything more painful than going through the presidential campaign all over again with Mitt Romney.

Unless it’s going through two presidential campaigns with Mitt Romney.

But, yes, that’s the narrative of a new buzzed-about documentary that had its world premiere here on Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

Those who have seen “Mitt” — which debuts on Netflix on Friday — are agog that filmmaker Greg Whiteley has accomplished what Romney himself, the gleaming, ever-replicating Romney clan and the candidate’s high-priced political strategists could not: Willard Mitt Romney seems all too human.

He wells up. He prays with his family, kneeling on the floor of hotel rooms, and plays with them in the snow. He refers to himself sardonically as “the flipping Mormon” and frets that he could become a loser like Michael Dukakis, who “can’t get a job mowing lawns.” He daringly steam irons the French cuffs on a formal shirt while it’s on his body, just before he goes down in tails to the Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf. He stays calm when he learns Obama is winning re-election: “Wow, that’s too bad,” he tells an aide on the phone. “All those states, huh?”

Drawn no doubt by word of the miraculous cinematic oil can for the Tin Man, Mitt came to see “Mitt” for the first time last Friday night. Maybe Romney sees the film less as a eulogy than a prologue. There are rumors in Republican circles that he’s thinking about another run.

A Republican fund-raising operative even told BuzzFeed that donors are so worried about 2016 now, many tell him, “I think we need Mitt back.”

It seems preposterous that we’d go through a third Romney run, but with Chris Christie imploding and Barbara Bush denouncing dynasties and shooing Jeb out of the race, maybe the 66-year-old sees an opening. Maybe he no longer feels, as he tells his family in the film on election night in 2012, stoically writing his concession speech, “My time on the stage is over, guys.”

The movie spans from Christmastime 2006, with the family gathered to make a decision on whether Mitt should run in 2008, to after the 2012 election, when he says goodbye to his Secret Service detail and returns to his empty suburban Boston home, sadly staring out the window.

I dread to think what was going through Romney’s mind as he watched a movie that made him more appealing than any of his campaign ads or his own convention, even though he paid Stuart Stevens and his other 2012 advisers ridiculously more than the winning politicos who delivered a second term for Barack Obama were paid.

But Whiteley, a charming 44-year-old Mormon documentarian who brought along his adorable blond kids — 12-year-old son, Henry, and 10-year-old daughter, Scout — to his press interviews, was trying to reveal Mitt, while Romney’s handlers were trying to obscure Mitt.

“Stuart Stevens’s feeling was that Mitt Romney was a fish out of water,” Alex Castellanos, a 2008 Romney adviser who crossed swords with Stevens in that campaign, told me. “He was a Northerner in a Southern party. He was a centrist in a conservative party. He was an elite in a rural party. Stuart didn’t think he could sell Mitt Romney in the primaries.

“Stuart thought that every day spent talking about Mitt Romney was a losing day and every day spent talking about Barack Obama was a winning day. It was criminal.”

Romney was able to relax around his fellow Mormon, Whiteley, enough to seem less awkward and strange, but he’s still in the bubble of his faith and family, seemingly cloistered from the world of average Americans.

The film glosses over one of the turning points in the campaign, the 47 percent fiasco. “I was insecure about that,” Whiteley admitted to me, noting that Romney didn’t give him a more lucid explanation than he gave the press.

It also glides over the bad symbolism of building a four-car garage elevator at his La Jolla house, which Stevens told Romney would be fine.

And while Romney offers a portrait of a man reluctantly drawn into politics because he thinks it is his duty to save the nation from people like Obama, who “have not been in a setting where you’re trying to make it,” he never really explains how he would save it or gives any clue to the Vision Thing, except murmuring about high taxes on small businesses.

In the end, despite all the campaign artifice and the brutal process, we do get to know the candidates in some primal way.

The fact that Romney allowed his strategists to keep a fence around him and his faith, which is so central to his life, the fact that he basically had nothing to say about where he wanted to lead the country, the fact that the private equity leecher spoke so dismissively about the 47 percent of people he regarded as moochers, the fact that this supposedly top-notch businessman did not seem to realize his campaign was using 20th-century technology — all of this spoke to a certain tentativeness, obtuseness and callousness.

But there’s always 2016.

God spare us Mittens again.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Here’s a scary fact about America: We’re much more likely to believe that there are signs that aliens have visited Earth (77 percent) than that humans are causing climate change (44 percent).

That comes to mind because a couple of weeks ago, I asked readers for suggestions of “neglected topics” that we in the news business should cover more aggressively in 2014. Some 1,300 readers recommended a broad range of issues, which I look forward to pilfering (with credit!) — and many made a particularly compelling case for climate change.

A reader from Virginia quoted James Hansen, the outspoken climate scientist: “Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth. That is the equivalent of what we face now.”

Another reader, Daria, acknowledged that the topic isn’t sexy but added: “Whether we ‘believe in it’ or not, all species on Earth are being subject to frightening disruptions in our weather, food supply, land.”

You would think that we would be more attentive, with the federal government a few days ago declaring parts of 11 states disaster areas because of long-term drought. More than 60 percent of California is now in extreme drought.

Yet we in the news media manage to cover weather very aggressively, while we’re reticent on climate. Astonishingly, coverage of climate has actually declined in mainstream news organizations since peaking in 2007, according to the count of researchers at the University of Colorado. (Coverage did increase last year after a low in 2012.)

The proportion of Americans who say they believe that global warming is real has fallen since 2007 as well, and climate beliefs have fallen victim to political polarization. In 1997, there was no significant gap between Republicans and Democrats in thinking about climate change. These days, 66 percent of Democrats say human activity is the main cause of global warming; 24 percent of Republicans say so.

My take is that when Democrats, led by Al Gore, championed climate change, Republicans instinctively grew suspicious. Yet the scientific consensus is stronger than ever. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in September raised its confidence that human activity is the main cause of warming from 90 percent probability to 95 percent or higher.

When we have this disjunction between scientific consensus and popular perception — well, that should light a fire under those of us in the news media.

An excellent basis for discussion is the new book “The Climate Casino” by William Nordhaus, a Yale University economist. Professor Nordhaus is a moderate whose work has been cited by climate deniers, yet he concludes: “Global warming is a major threat to humans.”

Nordhaus acknowledges uncertainty but sees that as a problem: “The outcome will produce surprises, and some of them are likely to be perilous.”

For all the uncertainty, Nordhaus cites several areas of strong agreement among experts: Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere exceed those observed for at least the last 650,000 years; hurricanes will grow more intense; the Arctic will become ice free in summer; oceans will rise up to 23 inches by 2100 (more if there were major melting of ice sheets); and the global temperature will likely be 3.5 degrees to 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit higher in 2100 than in 1900.

A 7.5 degree difference in average temperature may not sound like much. But it’s about the differential by which Arizona is warmer than New Jersey.

Nordhaus warns that “the pace of global warming will quicken over the decades to come and climate conditions will quickly pass beyond the range of recent historical experience.”

Perhaps the greatest risk is various discontinuities and feedback loops that are difficult for climate models to account for. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet is typically predicted to add only a few inches to sea level rise by 2100, Nordhaus says. But ice dynamics are still poorly understood, and that matters a great deal. If the whole Greenland ice sheet disintegrated, that would raise sea level by 24 feet.

Climate change is hugely exacerbated by changing patterns of how we choose to live, often in danger zones such as extremely vulnerable coastal zones — from New Jersey to the Philippines. This enormously increases the economic and human costs of hurricanes, rising seas and changing weather patterns.

In politics and the military, we routinely deal with uncertainty. We’re not sure that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, but we still invest in technologies and policies to reduce the risks. We can’t be sure that someone is going to hijack a plane, but we still screen passengers.

So, readers, you’re right! This is a neglected topic. We need to focus more on climate change, and perhaps that can help nudge our political system out of paralysis to take protective action to reduce the threat to the only planet we have.

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

What would Marlise Munoz have made of all of this?

We’ll never know. She can no longer form words. Can no longer form thoughts. It’s arguable that we shouldn’t even be referring to a “she,” to a “her,” because if she’s brain-dead, as her family has consistently said, then she meets the legal criteria for death in all 50 states, and what’s been tethered to machines in a hospital in Fort Worth for the last seven weeks isn’t exactly a mother. It’s an artificially maintained ecosystem, an incubator for a fetus that has somehow been given precedence over all other concerns: the pain of Marlise’s husband and parents; their wishes to put an end to this; their best guess about what her desires would have been; her transformation, without any possibility of her consent, into a mere vessel.

“A host,” her father, Ernest Machado, called her in an interview with Manny Fernandez of The Times. He used equally chilling language to describe her stillness and the rubbery feel of her skin, saying that she reminded him of “a mannequin.”

Is her fate really what we mean when we speak of “valuing life” or “the sanctity of life,” to summon two phrases tossed around too quickly and simplistically? It seems to me that several lives are being devalued in the process, and that while there are no happy outcomes here, there’s also no sense or dignity on the chilling road that this Texas hospital is taking us down.

In late November, Marlise, 33, was found unconscious on the kitchen floor by her husband, Erick. She had apparently suffered a pulmonary embolism. At the hospital, according to Erick’s subsequent statements, it was determined that she was brain-dead, and he requested that she be disconnected from the machines that keep her vital organs functioning. He and she had both worked as paramedics and had discussed such end-of-life decisions, he said, and so he knew that she wouldn’t have wanted any extraordinary measures taken. The woman he loved was gone. It was time to come to bitter terms with that, and to say goodbye.

Hospital officials, supposedly acting on behalf of the state, won’t let him. They went ahead with extraordinary measures, because Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant, and while that fell well within the window when abortion is legal, a Texas law compels hospitals to provide life support for terminally ill patients with fetuses developing inside them.

There’s considerable dispute about whether this law in fact covers Marlise’s situation: about whether someone brain-dead qualifies as a patient and can be said to be receiving life support. Hospital officials have not formally confirmed that she’s brain-dead, explaining that her husband hasn’t granted them dispensation to discuss specifics of her condition. Lawyers representing him told CNN on Friday that her medical records indeed document brain death.

But regardless of the law and whether it applies to Marlise’s case, the treatment of her and her family isn’t just or right, for many reasons.

It’s not at all clear, for starters, that the fetus has a good chance of surviving inside the womb or of flourishing outside of it. In a study of a few dozen cases of continued pregnancies inside brain-dead women, only one of the five fetuses that were between 13 and 15 weeks at the time of the mother’s brain death was successfully delivered — by cesarean section — and kept alive, though the study tracked the boy only until 11 months after his birth.

I talked last week with two prominent obstetricians, both of whom said that it was impossible, until relatively late in a pregnancy, to get any real sense of how much neurological damage a fetus may have already suffered as a result of a maternal embolism and of any oxygen deprivation that occurred. They also said that a pregnancy dependent on artificial organ maintenance entails an array of dangers to the fetus beyond ordinary ones, including the mother’s susceptibility to infections.

“It’s extremely risky for fetal development,” said Mary D’Alton, the head of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. But, she added, “If the family is willing and it’s something they want, it’s something I would attempt — and have attempted.” She said that she was involved in two such pregnancies. In one, the fetus died in utero at 27 weeks. In the other, a child was born, but with problems.

She dwelt on the part about the family’s will, focusing on a simple truth that the Texas situation sweeps to the side. “They will live with the impact,” D’Alton said.

From what’s been reported about Marlise’s case, the hospital, executing the will of the state, has been making all of the calls about the care of the fetus, now about 21 weeks along. (The threshold for viability is generally considered to be 24 weeks.) But if there’s a premature birth and quick death, Marlise’s husband and parents will presumably be expected to deal with that.

And if a baby is born with severe and enduring ailments, Marlise’s husband and parents will presumably inherit the effort to give that child a decent quality of life, which is a concept that goes strangely missing in too many disputes over the unborn.

In other words they’ll possibly confront a slew of decisions “downstream from a decision that they already made and that got overruled,” the one to remove her from machines, said Hyagriv Simhan, the chief of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It’s quite complex.”

That’s one word for it. Cruel is another.

Marlise apparently didn’t leave any advance medical directive covering the particular scenario of artificial organ maintenance for a fetus well shy of viability. How many women do? In the absence of such instructions, her physicians should have done what they would have if there’d been no fetus — looked to, and heeded, her obvious surrogates, her next of kin. In her instance there’s a husband and two parents all certain of what to do and all on the same page. Still it doesn’t matter, because of a Texas statute that’s too far-reaching, too ambiguous and at strange odds with the state’s abortion laws.

While Texas, like other states, has been trying to make it harder and harder to obtain abortions, it cannot ultimately prevent a woman who is still able to speak for herself from ending a pregnancy in the early stages. How, then, can it prevent a family who speaks legitimately for her from taking that same step? Especially in a circumstance like this, so riddled with risks, questions and heartbreak? Marlise’s husband and parents may not be able to ask her what she’d make of it. But they’re the ones left to behold and grieve over what’s been made of her.

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

January 5, 2014

In “DeBlasio’s Long Odds” The Putz thinks he can ‘splain why liberals won’t be able to win their war on inequality.  It’s a typical Putzian screed.  “John Murphy” from NH had this to say about it:  “Funny how your “most research indicates” link goes to an article completely lacking citations on a site full of conservative-slanted articles and not, say, to actual research papers.”  What a surprise…  MoDo has a question in “The Commish, the 2nd Time Around:”  Can Bill Bratton, the old and new police commissioner, stop the “Bonfire of the Vanities” predicted by the Bloombergians?  In “Compromise: Not a 4-Letter Word: The Moustache of Wisdom says there is a sensible path forward on America’s biggest challenges if Congress would only do the right thing and take it.  Right, Tommy.  You go and explain that to Louie Gohmert.  I’ll wait…  Mr. Kristof gives us “First Up, Mental Illness.  Next Topic Is Up to You.”  He has a question for Times readers: What neglected topics would you like to see explored in 2014?  In “One Marine’s Dying Wish” Mr. Bruni says the military found dishonor in Hal Faulkner’s homosexuality. He didn’t want that senseless verdict to survive him.  Here, FSM help us, is The Putz:

This much can be said for Bill de Blasio’s inauguration, which featured a concentration of left-wing agitprop unseen since the last time Pete Seeger occupied a stage alone: If the waning years of Barack Obama’s presidency are going to be defined by a liberal crusade against income inequality, there’s no more fitting place to kick it off than New York City.

It’s fitting because a glance at New York’s ever-richer 1 percent, its priced-out middle class and its majestic skyscrapers soaring above pockets of squalor makes it easy enough to understand left-wing populism’s appeal.

But it’s fitting, as well, because New York also illustrates the tensions that make the war on inequality hard to wage, and suggests reasons to question whether it’s actually worth fighting in the first place.

Those tensions start with the fact that despite a run of non-Democratic mayors, the five boroughs have hardly been a laboratory for Social Darwinists in the last two decades. Instead, de Blasio’s “tale of two cities,” one ever-richer and one struggling to keep up, has been unspooling in a liberal metropolis in a liberal state surrounded by a mostly liberal region, where many obvious anti-inequality policy levers are already being pulled.

This doesn’t mean inequality is immune to policy responses, especially when you leap to the national level — a leap, of course, that liberal populists want to see de Blasio’s message make.

But the new mayor’s political coalition also provides a clue as to why a comprehensive policy response may never actually be tried. In his primary upset, de Blasio enjoyed strong backing from the city’s college-educated upper middle class. He even did slightly better among voters making between $100,000 and $200,000 than he did among the poor.

In a way, this shows the potential breadth of populism’s appeal. But while upper-middle-class voters are happy to support higher taxes on 1 percenters — not least because they’re tired of trying to compete with them for schools and real estate — they don’t necessarily want a program that would require their own taxes to rise substantially.

And this is a problem for the populist left, because to build the kind of welfare state — European, Scandinavian — that seems to really level incomes, you need lots of tax dollars from the non-rich. Yet the current Democratic coalition has been built on a promise to never raise taxes on anyone making under $250,000 … or maybe $400,000 … or possibly $500,000, the threshold de Blasio chose.

That promise has made it safe for many well-off voters, in New York and elsewhere, to cast votes for liberal populism. But it’s also made it impossible for the populist war on inequality to ever actually be won.

But should we even want that war to be fought? Here, too, New York’s experience raises difficult questions for egalitarians. Of all the arguments for reducing inequality, the most potent is the claim that a more unequal society is one with fewer opportunities to rise, and that a hardening of class lines in America is intimately connected to growing fortunes at the top.

This makes some intuitive sense, and there is international data — dubbed “the Great Gatsby curve” by the economist Alan Krueger — suggesting a link between inequality and immobility. But within the United States, that link turns out to be much less readily apparent.

Using data from an ambitious research project on social mobility, the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship and the Heritage Foundation’s Donald Schneider recently tried to recreate the “Gatsby curve” for U.S. job markets. Instead, they found little-to-no correlation between inequality and mobility across different regions of the country.

And New York illustrates their point, because the city’s extreme income inequality hasn’t led to extreme immobility. In fact, compared with nationwide trends, New Yorkers born into poverty have an above-average chance of rising into the middle class. (And New Yorkers born into affluence have an above-average chance of dropping to the bottom.)

Now it’s true that whatever the link between mobility and equality, there are potential policy moves — an expansion of housing stock, for instance, to make expensive cities more affordable — that would probably address both issues at once.

De Blasio’s signature proposal, universal pre-K, is a more ambiguous case. Most research indicates that early childhood education doesn’t have the benefits to children’s prospects that its advocates suggest. But it’s possible the program could increase the mobility of parents, by lowering costs and stress for two-earner and single-parent households.

But there’s also a pessimistic scenario, in which the growing cost of New York’s existing welfare state means that de Blasio’s crusade ultimately just devolves into interest-group featherbedding, in which the rich are squeezed to benefit a well-compensated public sector and preserve bureaucracies that ought to be reformed.

And that outcome — a populism that marginally inconveniences the richest without meaningfully changing life for anyone else — would be less a model for the post-Obama Democrats than a cautionary tale.

Now that we’ve survived that it’s time to plow through MoDo:

Bill Bratton’s biggest problem right now might not be stop-and-frisk.

It might be stop-and-sulk.

Given a new mayor who catapulted into office by castigating the police, given a City Council that passed two punitive bills related to the police and racial profiling, given the prospect of federal oversight on stop-and-frisk, given the overshadowing of the stunning drop in crime by the open sore of racial insensitivity, New York police may decide to engage in, as police call it, de-policing.

If morale sinks too low, one former New York City police official suggests, officers may not go after criminals “in the most aggressive fashion.”

“Right now, police in New York are not happy,” the new commissioner conceded in his conference room at police headquarters Friday evening, surrounded by walls of video screens tracking crime around the city. “They’re frustrated because their good work really did get banged around in the campaign.”

There was a record decline in crime and a record increase in tourism, Bratton said, and “cops aren’t feeling the residual benefit of that.”

He said “the most angst” was being caused by a City Council bill expanding the ability to sue over racial profiling by officers, because police see it as a risk to themselves and their families.

He said New York has “a crisis of confidence on the part of the cops about what it is that we can do” and “a crisis of confidence in the public about what the cops have been doing.”

Bratton, always very popular with the police who work for him, has been through it before. When he went to head the L.A. force in 2002, he said, police were so demoralized by cascading troubles and bad leadership that some sank into a “drive by and wave” mode.

While diplomatically praising his old rival Ray Kelly, Bratton also noted that there were missed opportunities to curb stop-and-frisk.

“The shame of it,” he said, “is it probably could have been addressed a year or two years ago but for the intransigence of Mayor Bloomberg. I hesitate to describe it as intransigence because I really do believe that both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly, both good men, both committed to keeping this city safe, really deeply believed that the reason crime was going down, the reason there was less gun violence, the reason there were fewer guns being taken off the street, was because of the increasing numbers of stop-question-frisk.

“And eventually because of that unwillingness to step back from that posture, it became a rallying cry for a number of the mayoral candidates, including Mayor de Blasio, who was able to most successfully use it as a platform.”

Police, he said, “need clear guidelines, clear guardrails, and we don’t have that right now.” They are comfortable re-engaging, he said, when they have those guardrails.

In Bloomberg’s final years as mayor, Bratton said, “Cops themselves felt that they were in a no-win position. They had an administration, Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Kelly, who were demanding more and more and more. And the cops themselves felt, you know, it’s too much. And the community was saying it’s too much. It’s like a doctor giving too much chemotherapy: ‘Doctor I’m feeling better but you’re giving me all this chemo and I’m feeling worse again.’ ”

In L.A. in 2002, Bratton faced a crisis where morale was low after a corruption scandal and after the city was crowned the murder capital of America, and an inspector general was on hand for oversight. “We got the cops out of their cars,” he said. “They got back to making arrests. They got back to doing stop-question-frisk. But they were also doing it in a way that was focused.”

His initiatives focusing on gangs and crime data, he asserted, allowed the police an appropriate structure “so that every black kid that was wearing a long white T-shirt with shorts wasn’t thought of as a potential suspect.”

The last time Bill Bratton became police commissioner of New York, in 1994, his mission was to take back the city. Now his mission is to back off — to rein in the force enough so that minorities do not feel hounded. The last time he was Top Cop, his boss was Mr. Law and Order, and Bratton was the tip of Rudy Giuliani’s spear. This time, he’s working for a liberal populist mayor who got elected thrashing the excesses of stop-and-frisk, and he’s supervising police officers who are trepidatious about working for a man who won office by stoking the fires of public opinion against them. (Dante de Blasio did a potent ad for his father noting that he might be a likely candidate for stop-and-frisk.)

Trying to help Christine Quinn (tepidly) and stop de Blasio during the mayoral primary, Michael Bloomberg’s aides fed the paranoia that under de Blasio, New York would flame into “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Bratton must be the affirmative answer to all the jittery New Yorkers asking “Is it safe?,” fearing that fiends are going to start climbing out of manholes if the new mayor goes all flower power on crime. And he must be the affirmative answer to the minority community’s demand for more sensitivity.

After 20 years of news conferences touting crime declines and a safer city, if crime stops going down — let alone if it goes up — it will be a political catastrophe for City Hall.

Even for a master at shaping perception like Bratton, it’s going to require exquisite balance. Skeptics on both sides of the spectrum, from Al Sharpton to former Mayor Bloomberg, suggest the changes on stop-and-frisk may be cosmetic.

On the eve of leaving office, Bloomberg, defensive about the scar on his legacy, noted to Capital New York that in L.A. Bratton — considered the godfather of the sort of aggressive policing tools that have come under fire — was just as much a proponent of stop-and-frisk as Kelly was. “Bratton did more stop and frisks per capita than Kelly did,” Bloomberg said. “They’ll call it ‘frisk and stop’ instead of stop-and-frisk.”

Bratton mulled that his specialty had been coming in to lead police departments “in total crisis” and, in a way, he violated his own philosophy by following someone so successful.

But he believes he can resolve the problems with stop-and-frisk and shaky morale. “I didn’t come back to New York to fail,” he said flatly, dapper as ever in a Hermès tie with elephants and a blue Rolex watch his wife gave him.

Bratton said he wants to bring in a language expert, as he did back in 1994, to train police on the best ways to use language to “calm down incidents” by being respectful rather than ratchet them up by being confrontational.

Noting that you have to use stop-and-frisk “with skill,” he said: “We have an expression in policing that it’s not the use of force that gets cops in trouble, it’s the use of language.”

He said an officer who says, “Sir, can I speak to you?,” rather than “Hey, you, get over here,” will be more productive. They also need exit strategies, he said, to depart from encounters without “demeaning” people.

He knows he has a super-healthy ego but says it just reflects confidence. He notes that his famously fractious relationship with Giuliani — Rudy grew envious of Bratton’s glowing press as “America’s Top Cop” and forced him out — taught him a good lesson. He plans to meet with Mayor de Blasio once a week — “no matter what” — to encourage transparency, so that gossip doesn’t “fester.”

He said everything was going well so far, even though they are only on the third day of their relationship.

His experience with Rudy and two mayors in L.A. has taught him this: “You’ve got to keep them informed. Try to have no surprises, if you will.”

With that, he headed off through the snowy streets for a meeting with the mayor.

Next up we’ve got The Moustache of Wisdom:

Former Senator Alan Simpson likes to say that if you can’t learn to compromise on issues without compromising yourself, you should not be in Congress, be in business or get married. It is amazing how many people violate that rule, but especially in Congress and especially among the Tea Party types, where calling someone a “deal maker” is now the ultimate put down. What makes it crazier is that in American education, innovation and commerce today, “collaboration” is being taught and rewarded as the best way to do anything big, important and complex. Indeed, in Silicon Valley, a “collaborator” means someone with whom you’re building something great. In D.C., it means someone committing political treason by working with the other party. And that is why Silicon Valley is now the turbo-engine of our economy and D.C. is the dead hand.

To be sure, in politics compromise is not a virtue in and of itself. There are questions of true principle — civil rights, for instance — where compromise might kill the principled choice. But there has been an inflation of “principles” lately that is inhibiting compromise. A certain tax rate or retirement age is not a principle. It’s an interest that needs to be balanced against others. Today, we would be best served in meeting our biggest challenges by adopting a hybrid of the best ideas of left and right — and the fact that we can’t is sapping our strength.

For instance, on the debt/spending issue, Congress should be borrowing money at these unusually low rates to invest in a 10-year upgrade of our crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, telecom, ports, airports and rail lines) and in a huge funding increase for our national laboratories, research universities and institutes of health, which are the gardens for so many start-ups. Together, such an investment would stimulate sustained employment, innovation and the wealth creation to pay for it.

But this near-term investment should be paired with long-term entitlement reductions, defense cuts and tax reform that would be phased in gradually as the economy improves, so we do not add to the already heavy fiscal burden on our children, deprive them of future investment resources or leave our economy vulnerable to unforeseen shocks, future recessions or the stresses that are sure to come when all the baby boomers retire. President Obama has favored such a hybrid, but it was shot down by the Tea Party wing, before we could see if he could really sell it to his base.

We should exploit our new natural gas bounty, but only by pairing it with the highest environmental extraction rules and a national, steadily rising, renewable energy portfolio standard that would ensure that natural gas replaces coal — not solar, wind or other renewables. That way shale gas becomes a bridge to a cleaner energy future, not just an addiction to a less dirty, climate-destabilizing fossil fuel.

In some cities, teachers’ unions really are holding up education reform. But we need to stop blaming teachers alone. We also have a parent problem: parents who do not take an interest in their children’s schooling or set high standards. And we have a student problem: students who do not understand the connection between their skills and their life opportunities and are unwilling to work to today’s global standards. Reform requires a hybrid of both teacher reform and a sustained — not just one speech — national campaign to challenge parents and create a culture of respect and excitement for learning. Obama has failed to use his unique bully pulpit to lead such a campaign.

Finally, the merger of globalization and the information-technology revolution has shrunk the basis of the old middle class — the high-wage, middle-skilled job. Increasingly, there are only high-wage, high-skilled jobs. This merger of globalization and I.T. has put capitalism — and its core engine of creative destruction — on steroids. That’s why Republicans are wrong when they oppose raising minimum wages and expanding national health care. These kinds of social safety nets make the free market possible; otherwise people won’t put up with creative destruction on steroids.

But it is capitalism, start-ups, risk-taking and entrepreneurship that make these safety nets affordable, which is why we need more tax incentives for start-ups, the substitutions of carbon taxes for payroll and corporate taxes, and more cuts to regulations that burden business. Unfortunately, promotion of risk-taking and risk-takers is disappearing from the Democratic Party agenda. Its energy and excitement is focused much more today on wealth redistribution than wealth creation. On immigration, Senate Democrats and Republicans forged a sensible hybrid solution, but Tea Partiers in the House are blocking it.

These hybrid solutions are not how to split the difference. They’re how to make a difference. But they only get forged if Republican leaders take on the Tea Party — which transformed the G.O.P. into a far-right party, uninterested in governing — and remake the G.O.P. into a center-right party again. If that happened, I’m certain that a second-term Obama, who is much more center-left than the ridiculous G.O.P. caricatures, would meet them in the middle. Absent that, we’re going to drift, unable to address effectively any of our biggest challenges or opportunities.

We’ll try to draw the veil of charity over the fact that he started off by invoking Simpson.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Those of us in the pundit world tend to blather on about what happened yesterday, while often ignoring what happens every day. We stir up topics already on the agenda, but we falter at calling attention to crucial-but-neglected issues.

So here’s your chance to tell us what we’re missing. I invite readers to suggest issues that deserve more attention in 2014. Make your suggestions on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground. I hope to quote from some of your ideas in a future column.

My own suggestion for a systematically neglected issue: mental health. One-quarter of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, including depression, anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder and more, according to the National Institutes of Health. Such disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, the N.I.H. says.

A parent with depression. A lover who is bipolar. A child with an eating disorder. A brother who returned from war with P.T.S.D. A sister who is suicidal.

All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues, but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out. These mental health issues pose a greater risk to our well-being than, say, the Afghan Taliban or Al Qaeda terrorists, yet in polite society there is still something of a code of silence around these topics.

We in the news business have devoted vast coverage to political battles over health care, deservedly, but we don’t delve enough into underlying mental health issues that are crucial to national well-being.

Indeed, when the news media do cover mental health, we do so mostly in extreme situations such as a mass shooting. That leads the public to think of mental disorders as dangerous, stigmatizing those who are mentally ill and making it harder for them to find friends or get family support.

In fact, says an Institute of Medicine report, the danger is “greatly exaggerated” in the public mind. The report concluded: “although findings of many studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small.”

Put simply, the great majority of people who are mentally ill are not violent and do not constitute a threat — except, sometimes, to themselves. Every year, 38,000 Americans commit suicide, and 90 percent of them are said to suffer from mental illness.

One study found that anorexia is by far the most deadly psychiatric disorder, partly because of greatly elevated suicide risk.

Mental illness is also linked to narcotics and alcoholism, homelessness, parenting problems and cycles of poverty. One study found that 55 percent of American infants in poverty are raised by mothers with symptoms of depression, which impairs child rearing.

So if we want to tackle a broad range of social pathologies and inequities, we as a society have to break taboos about mental health. There has been progress, and news organizations can help accelerate it. But too often our coverage just aggravates the stigma and thereby encourages more silence.

The truth is that mental illness is not hopeless, and people recover all the time. Consider John Nash, the Princeton University mathematics genius who after a brilliant early career then tumbled into delusions and involuntary hospitalization — captured by the book and movie “A Beautiful Mind.” Nash spent decades as an obscure, mumbling presence on the Princeton campus before regaining his mental health and winning the Nobel Prize for economics.

Although treatments are available, we often don’t provide care, so the mentally ill disproportionately end up in prison or on the streets.

One example of a cost-effective approach employs a case worker to help mentally ill people leaving a hospital or shelter as they adjust to life in the outside world. Randomized trials have found that this support dramatically reduces subsequent homelessness and hospitalization.

Researchers found that the $6,300 cost per person in the program was offset by $24,000 in savings because of reduced hospitalization. In short, the program more than paid for itself. But we as a society hugely underinvest in mental health services.

Children in particular don’t get treated nearly often enough. The American Journal of Psychiatry reports that of children ages 6 to 17 who need mental health services, 80 percent don’t get help. Racial and ethnic minorities are even more underserved.

So mental health gets my vote as a major neglected issue meriting more attention. It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t involve Democrats and Republicans screaming at each other, but it is a source of incalculable suffering that can be remedied.

Now it’s your turn to suggest neglected issues for coverage in 2014. I’ll be back with a report.

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni, writing from Fort Lauderdale:

We don’t get any say about the kind of world we’re born into — about whether it’s prepared for the likes of us, whether it will open its arms. Hal Faulkner certainly didn’t get the world he deserved. It was needlessly cruel to him, senselessly judgmental. For the most part, he made peace with that.

But over the last few months, with cancer spreading fast through his body and time running out, his thoughts turned to one aspect of that landscape that he could perhaps revisit, one wrinkle he might be able to revise, a wrong he had a chance of righting before his death.

Back in 1956, when he was 22, he was discharged from the Marines after more than three years of proud service. There were no real blots on his record. No complaints of incompetence or laziness or insubordination. There was only this: A man with whom Hal had spent some off-duty time informed Hal’s commanding officer that Hal was gay. The commanding officer suspected that this was true and, on that basis, determined that Hal had to go. The discharge was classified as “other than honorable.”

“It wrecked me,” Hal told me when I visited him on Friday at his home here on the 16th floor of a high-rise with a panoramic view of the Atlantic. The morning was gloriously sunny, but tears streamed down his cheeks. Although more than half a century has passed since that harsh judgment — he’s 79 now — it has always stayed with him, a tight, stubborn knot of sadness and anger.

“They gave up on me,” he said, referring to the Marines. “I never forget it.” He was haunted in particular by those three words — “other than honorable” — and wanted more than anything to have them excised from his epitaph. That became his dying wish: that those words not outlive him.

Before federal law was changed in 2011, more than 110,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual people were discharged from the United States military over time because of their sexual orientation. And until the 1990s, when the policy tweak known as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” vaguely softened the prohibition against gays in the armed services, it was common for such discharges to be dishonorable ones that barred gay veterans from receiving any benefits and sometimes disqualified them from civilian jobs they later sought.

But now that the military accepts gays, there is also a process that permits those who were dishonorably discharged to appeal for reclassifications of those dismissals as honorable. A military spokesman said last week that he didn’t know how many veterans had sought to take advantage of it, or with what success. But Hal caught wind of it, and knew that he had to try.

He grew up on a cattle ranch in northern Florida, in a strict Southern Baptist family. He was one of eight children. His father died when he was 7, and his family struggled financially afterward. Although Hal (a nickname for Alfred) graduated from high school, college wasn’t in the cards.

He enlisted in 1953 and attended boot camp in South Carolina from June to August, “the hottest months of the year,” as he said in an email in September to OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group for gay service members. He was telling them his story in the hopes of rallying them to his cause.

He rose in the Marines from private first class to corporal and then to sergeant, and he landed a plum assignment in the Philippines. “I would have ascended to the top,” he told me. “And yet I couldn’t be what I wanted to be.”

He prospered nonetheless. In a company that sold heavy construction and road-making equipment, he worked his way up to an executive sales position. “I helped build Walt Disney World,” he said.

But he grew increasingly conflicted about his hand in paving so much of Florida and switched courses, joining a firm that made tools and technology for guarding against environmental degradation.

He lived well: expensive cars, world travel, a collection of Native American art.

But the bigotry that ended his military career followed him beyond that point, and so did the fear of it. He lost another treasured job, he said, because of his sexual orientation. And from the 1950s through at least the 1970s, he felt that financial security and success hinged on a certain degree of secrecy. Had he been more open about being gay, he said: “I wouldn’t be here today. I’d probably be on the street.”

It wasn’t until 2005 that he finally brought Charles, his longtime partner and “the love of my life,” to a big family gathering. A few years later, Charles died, and Hal now lives alone, with round-the-clock help from a home health care attendant.

When he received a diagnosis of cancer in his lungs, liver and adrenal glands a year ago, he was given about six months to live. He’s at least 50 pounds thinner than he once was and moves through his apartment on a tiny scooter. He’s almost deaf, his speech is labored and his thoughts are sometimes confused. To piece together his story, I relied heavily on two nieces who visit him regularly, Michelle and Deborah, and on Anne Brooksher-Yen, the New York lawyer who took on his discharge appeal.

The case came to her only two months ago, when doctors were saying that Hal might have only weeks left. She was racing the clock. She pressed the military for an expedited decision. It arrived in a letter in mid-December, and she traveled all the way to Fort Lauderdale for a gathering on Friday afternoon at which the letter was presented to Hal.

John Gillespie, a member of OutServe-SLDN’s board of directors, traveled here, too, from Mississippi, and he arranged for two local Marines, in uniform, to be on hand to congratulate Hal, who’d been told what the letter said and would now get a special moment to savor it.

“He lived his entire adult life with this shame and this stain on his honor,” John said to me, explaining why he insisted on creating that moment. “The world has changed so much that with the stroke of a pen, that stain and that shame are gone.”

At the gathering, in a penthouse apartment a few floors above Hal’s, he was given a red Marine cap, but when he tried to put it on, he screamed. There are painful nodules on his scalp from the rapidly spreading cancer.

“They hurt so bad,” he said to John, Anne, his two nieces and several friends from the building. But he wasn’t complaining. He was making clear that he wasn’t being discourteous by not wearing the gift.

John read from the letter, including its assurance that Hal’s military record would “be corrected to show that he received an honorable discharge.” When Hal took the letter from him, he didn’t hold it so much as knead it, pressing tighter and tighter, maybe because he was visibly fighting tears.

“I don’t have much longer to live,” he said, “but I shall always remember it.” He thanked Anne. He thanked his nieces. He thanked the Marines. He even thanked people in the room whom he had no reason to thank.

Someone went off to mix him a Scotch-and-soda, and he finally gave in. He sobbed.

“It’s often said that a man doesn’t cry,” he said. “I am a Marine and I am a man. So please forgive me.”

His remarks hung there, because he’d used the present tense. Am a Marine. And because he was saying he was sorry, this veteran whose country owed him an apology for too long.

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

November 24, 2013

In “Puddleglum and the Savage” The Pasty Little Putz whines that two deaths were overshadowed by the death of J.F.K.  (He’s talking about C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley, and of course uses the opportunity to do his best to trash JFK.)  Commenter “Bryan Barrett” from Malvern, PA, with whom I usually adamantly disagree, had this to say about The Putz’s piece of crap:  “As one who, as an adult in his twenties lived through the Kennedy era, and who did not adhere to his political philosophy, it is my pleasure to inform you that you have misjudged the era, the times, the President, his character and his backbone, and those of us who experienced a sublime moment in US history when JFK epitomized the American spirit and American exceptionalism of his tragic Presidency, were proud of his accomplishments, long before 11/22/1963.”  MoDo, FSM help us, is trying to wrap her head around science.  It ain’t pretty.  In “Why the Y?” she babbles that in a battle of the sexes 200 million years in the making, the willful Y chromosome fights to hold its ground.  The Moustache of Wisdom is still in Dubai.  In “Oh, Brother!  Big Brother Is Back” he says deal-making with Iran is quite a shock to the whole Middle East system.  Mr. Kristof says “Danger Lurks in That Mickey Mouse Couch” and outlines the corporate boondoggle that may threaten the health of our children.  Mr. Bruni has a question:  “Are Kids Too Coddled?”  He says tougher education standards like the Common Core may require a tough love that some parents and educators don’t like.  Here, unfortunately, is The Putz:

They died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.

It’s too soon to reclaim Nov. 22, 1963, for Huxley and Lewis, and reassign John F. Kennedy to a lower rung of historical significance, where some of us suspect his presidency belongs. But pausing amid this month’s Kennedy-anniversary coverage to remember the two British-born writers offers a useful way to think about the J.F.K. mythos as well.

Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.

For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.

For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.

In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.

Two passages from their work illustrate this point — that comfort purchased by sacrificing transcendence might not be worth the cost. The first comes from Lewis’s Narnia novel “The Silver Chair,” in which a character named Puddleglum confronts a queen who has confined the heroes in an underground kingdom, and lulled them with the insistence that the underground world is all there is — that ideas like the sun and sky are dangerous wishful thinking, undermining their immediate contentment.

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things,” Puddleglum replies — “trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones … We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”

The second comes from the end of “Brave New World,” when a so-called “Savage” raised outside the dystopia confronts its presiding “Controller,” Mustapha Mond. The Savage lists everything that’s been purged in the name of pleasure and order — historical memory, art and literature, religion and philosophy, the tragic sense. And Mond responds that “these things are symptoms of political inefficiency,” and that the comforts of modern civilization depend on excluding them.

“But I don’t want comfort,” the Savage says. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Which brings us back to that notorious sinner John F. Kennedy. What exhausts skeptics of the Kennedy cult, both its elegiac and paranoid forms, is the way it makes a saint out of a reckless adulterer, a Camelot out of a sordid political operation, a world-historical figure out of a president whose fate was tragic but whose record was not terribly impressive.

But in many ways the impulses driving the Kennedy nostalgists are the same ones animating Lewis’s Puddleglum and Huxley’s Savage — the desire for grace and beauty, for icons and heroes, for a high-stakes dimension to human affairs that a consumerist, materialist civilization can flatten and exclude.

And one can believe J.F.K. is a poor vessel for these desires, and presidential politics the wrong place to satisfy them, without wishing they would disappear.

“It is a serious thing,” Lewis wrote, describing the implications of his religious worldview, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship.”

It is obviously a serious mistake, from this perspective, to deify someone prematurely or naively, as too many of Kennedy’s admirers have done.

But it’s a much greater mistake, the two writers who entered eternity with J.F.K. would argue, to seek a brave new world with no heights or depths, no room for divinity or heroism anymore.

He has such a problem with the “deification” of JFK, but has never had a word to say about the Cult of Reagan…  Here’s MoDo, all tangled up in science:

Even sitting in an M.I.T. classroom made me feel smarter.

But I was still struggling with the difference between meiosis and parthenogenesis.

Dr. David Page, the zippy evolutionary biologist teaching a class Wednesday called “Are Males Really Necessary?,” had helpfully laid out some props to illustrate gene swapping — bananas, apples and heads of lettuce arranged on a table covered with a flowery white tablecloth.

“Since only females can give birth, why is it of any advantage to the species to have a second sex?” he asked. “Why should nature bother with males?”

He told the packed classroom about the ingenious genetic feat of the Laredo striped whiptail lizards in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Mexico.

“This species is a Girls Only club, and the girls reproduce by cloning themselves,” Dr. Page said. “In the species with males, life is pretty routine. The females produce eggs, the males produce sperm, fertilization occurs and the male-inclusive life cycle is completed. In species without males, life has a different texture. The females produce eggs, but the eggs do not need sperm. That’s parthenogenesis, which is a big word that means we understand absolutely nothing about how this works.”

He said old-fashioned fertilization (meiosis) beats cloning (parthenogenesis) because, as genes mutate, “males provide females with spare parts.”

It had been eight years since I’d talked to Dr. Page, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, about doomsday predictions that we were hurtling toward a planet without men in a mere 100,000 to 10 million years.

The Y chromosome was shedding genes and wilting into a mere remnant of its once mighty structure. Y declinists were arguing that, from sperm count to social status, men were vanishing, Snapchat-style.

The Y had shrunk to a fraction of the size of its partner, the X chromosome. (Obviously, Stephen Colbert told Dr. Page, it had just gotten out of the pool.)

The Y-sky-is-falling predictions mirrored Hanna Rosin’s thesis in “The End of Men,” showing that women are consolidating power — as graduates, breadwinners, single mothers, consumers.

Indeed, former Clinton money guy Terry McAuliffe would not be the new governor of Virginia if his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, had not scared off single women by belonging to a state party crew that was chasing women around with wands, trying to do transvaginal probes.

Even back when I first talked to Dr. Page — known as Mr. Y — he cast himself as “the defender of the rotting Y chromosome.”

He painted a picture of the Y as “a slovenly beast,” sitting in his worn armchair, surrounded by boxes and pizza crusts.

“The Y wants to maintain himself but doesn’t know how,” he said. “He’s falling apart, like the guy who can’t manage to get a doctor’s appointment or clean up the house or apartment unless his wife or girlfriend does it.”

But, as it turned out, it was a mistake to underestimate a chromosome that had for centuries madly attacked, annexed, enslaved, pillaged, plundered, inseminated and thrust forward to create great art, architecture and literature.

Driven no doubt by lust and ego, the Y heroically revived.

“The Y chromosome did essentially fall asleep at the wheel about 200 to 300 million years ago, not long after we parted evolutionary company with birds, while we were still pretty close to our reptilian ancestors,” Dr. Page tells me now. “And then, at the last minute before the car veered off the cliff, the Y chromosome woke up and got with the program and said, ‘I don’t have a lot left, but what I have left I’m going to keep.’”

Dr. Page and Dr. Jennifer Hughes led a team that decoded the Y chromosome of rhesus monkeys, which share a common ancestor with humans, and discovered that the Y’s gene shedding leveled off about 20 to 30 million years ago. In the Y’s cliffhanger, the chromosome used its toolbox to repair some of its genes and became fastidious about not allowing the other genes to be damaged.

As The Times’s Nicholas Wade sanguinely noted, “There are grounds for hope that the Y chromosome has reached a plateau of miniaturized perfection and will shrivel no more.”

While the Y was shrinking, the “buxom” X, as Wade dubbed it — formerly considered “a staid, pristine relic,” as Dr. Page says — was growing larger and stronger, acquiring new bunches of genes, some of which play roles in producing sperm.

But just when the Y thought it was safe to go back in the water, a new American study in the journal Science shows that mice, with only two Y chromosome-derived genes, can produce cells capable of joining with an egg to make a new mouse.

“Scientists have practically obliterated the ultimate symbol of maleness in DNA, the Y chromosome,” the BBC reported, “and believe they may be able to do away with it completely.”

Which brings us to a recent Sarah Silverman tweet: “Dear Men, Just b/c we don’t need you anymore doesn’t mean we don’t WANT you! Love forever, Women.”

Heaven only know what’s in her water cooler, giving her ideas for columns.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve never been in a big earthquake, but I know what one feels like now, having spent this past week in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The American-led interim negotiations in Geneva to modestly loosen some sanctions on Iran in return for some curbs on its nuclear program — in advance of talks for an end to sanctions in return for an end to any Iranian bomb-making capability — has hit the Sunni Arab world (and Israel) like a geopolitical earthquake. If and when a deal is struck, it could have a bigger impact on this region than anything since the Camp David peace treaty and Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the 1970s combined to reorder the Middle East.

Why? When Iran had its Islamic Revolution in 1979, it was, emotionally speaking, like a big brother who walked out, slamming the door behind him. Everyone in the family got used to his being gone. Somebody took his bedroom; somebody else took his bicycle; and everyone enjoyed the undiluted attention and affection of Uncle Sam — for 34 years. Now, just the thought of big brother, Iran, being reintegrated and having its own direct relationship with the United States has set all of America’s Sunni Arab allies — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan — on edge, especially at a time when Iran is malignly meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain.

The signs of that nervousness range from the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last week that killed 23 people to a recent essay in Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper by one of the Arab Gulf’s leading journalists, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, who wrote: “From a theoretical, political and military perspective, Saudi Arabia will have to protect itself from the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, either with a nuclear weapon or via agreements that will maintain the regional balance of power and protect Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.” Yikes.

There are so many layers to this: Iran is big — 85 million people; Saudi Arabia is small — 20 million people. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil and gas reserves in the Middle East — and Iran is right behind. If sanctions are fully eased one day, will Iran take market share away from Gulf Arabs? The Arab Gulf is primarily Sunni; Iran is Shiite. The Iranians are developing indigenous nuclear technology; the Sunni Arabs have none.

The Geneva talks are exposing the different interests that America and its regional allies have vis-à-vis Iran, which the sanctions regime had been masking. All the years of sanctions allowed diverse parties with diverse interests — the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Arabs, Europe, Russia and China — to “pretend to be having the same discussion about Iran strategy, while disagreeing about the ultimate goal of negotiations and the role that sanctions could play in getting us there or not,” notes Daniel Brumberg, a Georgetown University professor and Middle East expert.

If the United States is to maintain its relationships out here, and ensure that the Iran nuclear agreement doesn’t fuel more instability, the interim and final deals have to be good ones. Sanctions should only be finally removed if we can impose on Iran a rollback of its enriched fuels and enrichment technologies, along with sufficient intrusive inspections, to make an undetectable Iranian breakout to a nuclear bomb impossible.

But even if the Iranians agree to such a deal, it will be a hard sell to our allies. American officials believe that, ultimately, the only way to defuse an Iranian threat to the region is both to defuse its nuclear program and change the character of the regime, and that the two are related. Unlike our allies here in the Gulf, we believe that there is real politics inside Iran and differences within the leadership and between the leadership and the people. But those differences have been largely choked off — and the hard-liners given a monopoly on power — as a result of Iran’s isolation from the world. If we can get an airtight nuclear deal that also opens the way for Iran’s reintegration into the global economy, American officials hope that different interest groups — including more stakeholders in engagement with the U.S. and the West — will be empowered inside Iran and start to change the character of the regime.

It may not work, but it’s a worthy bet because the only real security for Iran’s neighbors can come from an evolutionary change in the character of that regime. So, if Iran’s nuclear capabilities are curbed, we can live with that bet on evolutionary change — especially since it would likely facilitate an end to the U.S.-Iran cold war, which has hampered our cooperating on regional issues. Our allies, by contrast, do not trust Iran at all and therefore don’t believe in evolutionary change there. They want Iran stripped of all nuclear technology until there is regime change.

We can’t close that gap. We can only manage it by being very clear about our goals: to unleash politics inside Iran as much as possible, while leashing its nuclear program as tightly as possible, while continuing to protect our Arab and Israeli allies. That’s why, in addition to Secretary of State John Kerry, we may also need a “Secretary of State Just for the Middle East.” Because restoring the U.S.-Iran relationship and bringing it in from the cold after 34 years is such a wrenching shock to the Middle East system, it will require daily consultation and hand-holding with all our Arab and Israeli friends.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Researchers this summer purchased 42 children’s chairs, sofas and other furniture from major retailers and tested them for toxic flame retardants that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q.’s and other problems.

In a study released a few days ago, the Center for Environmental Health reported the results: the toxins were found in all but four of the products tested.

“Most parents would never suspect that their children could be exposed to toxic flame-retardant chemicals when they sit on a Mickey Mouse couch, but our report shows that children’s foam furniture can carry hidden health hazards,” a co-author of the study, Carolyn Cox, said in releasing the report.

These flame retardants represent a dizzying corporate scandal. It’s a story of corporate greed, deceit and skulduggery, powerfully told in a new HBO documentary, “Toxic Hot Seat,” that is scheduled to air on Monday evening.

This is a televised window into political intrigue and duplicity that makes “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad” seem like a Sunday school picnic.

The story goes back to the 1970s, when the tobacco industry was under pressure to make self-extinguishing cigarettes because so many people were dying in fires caused by careless smokers. The tobacco industry didn’t want to tinker with cigarettes, so it lobbied instead for requiring flame retardants in mattresses and couches.

This became a multibillion-dollar boondoggle for the chemical industry, but studies showed that flame retardants as actually used in sofas don’t prevent fires. This is easy to test: Just set a cushion on fire. The documentary shows that it will burn right up.

The chemical industry has cited the work of a fire safety scientist, Vytenis Babrauskas, as showing that flame retardants do limit fires. But Babrauskas says in the HBO documentary that chemical companies misrepresented his findings “in an exceedingly blatant and disgraceful way.”

Babrauskas says that, in fact, retardants provide little if any delay for a fire, and then lead to much more toxic fumes. “You get the worst of both possible worlds,” he says.

One risk is to firefighters, who are coming down with rare cancers. The larger danger is to people sitting on those couches. Retardants are released as dust from the foam and accumulate on the floor. The greatest risk is probably to pregnant women and to small children, who are also more likely to be on the floor.

These chemicals are frequently endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones, and mounting evidence links them to cancer, reproductive problems and other ailments. One positive step: California announced new standards on Thursday that will lead to the sale of flame-retardant-free furniture there.

It’s often impossible to know whether a particular couch contains retardants. The Center for Environmental Health suggests that parents avoid foam and choose furniture made of wood, or upholstered with cotton, down, wool or polyester fiberfill.

Arlene Blum, a California scientist whose research led to certain flame retardants being banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s, recounts her horror when she found that those same chemicals were still being used in couches that children sleep on.

As the evidence grew about the danger of flame retardants, legislation was proposed in California, Maine and elsewhere to curb these chemicals. That’s when a mysterious organization called Citizens for Fire Safety Institute began running commercials defending the chemicals.

“The California Legislature is considering a bill that will endanger our children,” the group warned in one commercial. Another cautioned that without flame retardants, household furniture would spread fire through a home.

“Say no to laws that put our children in danger,” the group warned.

So who are these Citizens for Fire Safety? Their website once showed an image of children in front of a fire station and described the group as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”

“Toxic Hot Seat” follows a group of Chicago Tribune reporters as they dig into Citizens for Fire Safety. Their excavation of public records revealed that this “coalition” has just three members — a trio of giant companies manufacturing flame retardants. The organization was a lie, meant to deceive politicians and voters.

(These days the website has been mostly dismantled and simply refers visitors to the chemical lobby, the American Chemistry Council, which has set up a website responding to the HBO documentary: flameretardantfacts.com.)

Let’s be clear. The companies stonewalling safety regulation include giants like Exxon, BASF, DuPont and Dow Chemical, and I hope their executives squirm on Monday evening as they watch “Toxic Hot Seat.”

They won’t because they’re making a buck.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

At a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.

So administrators moved to ban the clothing.

They explained, in a letter to parents, that “while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,” the students without it “tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.” What an ordeal.

Many parents favored the ban, a prophylactic against disappointment.

Some did not, noting that life would soon enough deal the kids much worse blows along these lines. And one observer, in a Facebook thread, said this, according to a local TV station’s report: “Perhaps they should dress the children in Bubble Wrap and tie mattresses to their backs so they don’t get hurt.”

I assume that’s facetious.

But these days, you never know.

I occasionally flash on that anecdote as I behold the pushback against more rigorous education standards in general and the new Common Core curriculum in particular. And it came to mind when Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently got himself into a big mess.

Duncan, defending the Common Core at an education conference, identified some of its most impassioned opponents as “white suburban moms” who were suddenly learning that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good.”

It was an impolitic bit of profiling. Gratuitous, too. But if you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.

The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states. In instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate.

What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.

Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?

Apparently not, to judge from some reactions to the Common Core in New York, which has been holding hearings on the guidelines.

One father said that while his 8-year-old son was “not the most book-smart kid,” he was nonetheless “extremely bright.” With the new instruction, however, too many kids were “being made to feel dumb.” There was “no room for imagination or play,” the father groused. “All the kids are stressed out.”

A social worker testified that she’d been receiving calls and referrals regarding elementary-school students on the psychological skids. “They said they felt ‘stupid’ and school was ‘too hard,’ ” she related. “They were throwing tantrums, begging to stay home and upset even to the point of vomiting.” Additional cases included insomnia, suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation, she said, and she wondered aloud if this could all be attributed to the Common Core.

A teacher on Long Island did more than wonder, speaking out at a forum two weeks ago about what she called the Common Core Syndrome, a darkly blooming anxiety among students that’s “directly related to work that they do in the classroom.”

“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” she thundered, to wild applause. Then she endorsed the idea of parents’ exempting kids from Common Core-related tests. “The mommies in New York,” she concluded, “don’t abuse their children.”

If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.

There are sports teams and leagues in which no kid is allowed too much more playing time than another and in which excessive victory margins are outlawed. Losing is looked upon as pure trauma, to be doled out gingerly. After one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach.

It used to be that trophies went to victors; now, in many leagues, they go to everybody — for participation. Some teams no longer have one or two captains, elected by the other players, but a rotating cast, so that nobody’s left out.

Some high schools have 10, 20 or 30 valedictorians, along with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes. Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment.

And praise itself is promiscuous, though there are experts with profound reservations about that approach. They say it can lessen motivation and set children up to be demoralized when they invariably fail at something.

“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.”

David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, told me that he’s all for self-esteem, but that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work.”

“Students will not enjoy every step of it,” he added. But if it takes them somewhere big and real, they’ll discover a satisfaction that redeems the sweat.

And they’ll be ready to compete globally, an ability that too much worry over their egos could hinder. As Tucker observed, “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”

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

November 10, 2013

The Pasty Little Putz is all excited, and he took pixels to screen to write a letter to The Jersey Whale.  In “Dear Governor Christie” he offers up a don’t-do list for a possible presidential run in 2016.  Of course he left off “don’t go ballistic and scream at people,” so the debates should be fun…  MoDo is sharpening her claws on Hillary again [yawn], and in “Funny Girl” she hisses that as Hillary takes Hollywood, Sarah Silverman offers a piece of advice. (And it’s not even funny.)  Since she’s obviously completely in awe of Hollywood maybe the Times should switch her to TV and movie reviews.  In “Why I (Still) Support Obamacare” The Moustache of Wisdom says in a world where middle-class work is in transition, we need a strong health care safety net.  Mr. Kristof is in Tulsa, and sends in “Oklahoma! Where the Kids Learn Early.”  He says if America wants a national model for early education, it should look to what is being achieved in Oklahoma.  Mr. Bruni considers “Violence, Greed and the Gridiron” and says with its savage culture and wrecked bodies and minds, America’s most popular sport may also be its least conscionable.  Here’s The Putz:

I know, governor, I know: It’s still too early for presidential speculation, you’re just focused on the job at hand and any talk of 2016, while flattering, is purely hypothetical.

But just in case you do have some faint, slight, extremely modest interest in parlaying your landslide re-election into a presidential bid, here are four 2016 “don’ts” to keep in mind:

Don’t be Jon Huntsman. This sounds easy enough, but obvious pitfalls are still worth pointing out. For the next two years, you’re going to be hailed up and down the Acela Corridor as the Great Moderate Hope, the anti-Tea Party candidate, the Man Who Is Not Ted Cruz. But you can’t actively embrace that part, or give off the impression — as Huntsman did, obviously and fatally — that you agree with the media that your party’s full of rubes and cranks.

As a would-be nominee, you have to woo base voters, not run against them, and make them feel respected even when they disagree with you. This doesn’t mean muzzling yourself, or pandering to every right-wing interest group. But it means persuading conservatives that you like them, that you understand them and that as president you’re going to be (mostly) on their side.

Don’t be Rudy Giuliani. You probably think you wouldn’t have Rudy’s problems in a Republican primary. Yes, you’re both combative Northeasterners from the party’s moderate flank, but unlike the former mayor you aren’t a social liberal with a public history of adultery (and a few drag performances thrown in).

But what felled Giuliani in 2008 wasn’t just “values” issues. It was the former mayor’s apparent belief that being a national hero was a sufficient qualification to be president — that he could just show up, be “Rudy,” and the rest would take care of itself.

As another charismatic politician defined by your handling of a catastrophe, you’re vulnerable to the same temptation: the belief that you, personally, are the solution to the Republican Party’s many problems, and that you can just run on your own awesomeness without specifying where you would take the country if you won. That act wears thin in a long campaign, and it’s likely to wear especially thin in a party that needs a new agenda as badly as Republicans do today. Which brings us to …

Don’t assume that what worked in Jersey will work nationally. In state-of-the-party arguments, you and your fellow Republican governors love to contrast your successes with the national party’s struggles. But those successes have been made possible by crucial differences between state-level issues and national ones.

In New Jersey, for instance, you’ve been able to successfully isolate public-sector unions, portraying them as drains on middle-class tax dollars and enemies of the common good. But in national budget debates, the biggest issues are popular entitlement programs, not teacher salaries or bureaucrats’ health benefits. And you probably aren’t going to win the presidency wagging your finger at Social Security recipients, or painting the poor and elderly as dangerous special-interest groups. You need a different way to convince voters that you’re on the middle class’s side, and you won’t find it unless you …

Don’t always listen to your donors. As a standard-bearer for pragmatic, non-apocalyptic Republicanism who also hails from a state where lots of rich Wall Streeters sleep at night, you’re going to be awash in money, and with it will come lots of unsolicited advice. Some will be good: the Republican donor class has a better handle on certain political realities than the Tea Party. But some will be terrible, because the right’s donors are loath to acknowledge that their party’s biggest problem isn’t gay marriage or immigration or even the disastrous government shutdown. It’s a brand identity, cemented by Mitt Romney’s persona and “47 percent” remark, as the handmaiden of Big Business and the rich.

To alter that identity, you’ll need substance as well as regular-guy style: a tax plan that doesn’t play just as a giveaway to the 1 percent, a health care plan that isn’t just a defense of the pre-Obamacare status quo, an approach to spending that targets corporate welfare as well as food stamps.

The good news is that you already have populist politicians like Utah’s Senator Mike Lee leading the charge into this territory, so you can follow without worrying too much about being attacked as a RINO sellout squish. The bad news is that you’ll have a lot of big bundlers cornering you to explain that actually it’s much more important to cut capital-gains taxes or preserve the carried-interest loophole for hedge funds, and why can’t you move to the center on social issues and stick with upper-bracket tax cuts, because after all they worked in the Reagan era …

Which they did — in a completely different economic and political landscape. So if you want to have an era of your own, you’ll need to nod politely, crush your well-heeled advice-giver with a handshake, and then take a different path.

And now here’s MoDo, God help us:

As Hollywood bowed down to Hillary Clinton, who swept through on a state visit with Chelsea on Friday, there seemed to be only one person here with any reservations.

“I want her to take a voice class,” Sarah Silverman said, as she curled and uncurled like a cat on the gray couch of her modest West Hollywood apartment decorated with taped-up pictures of her family.

“She’s so smart and has so much to say and can change the world but she’s” — here Silverman goes fortissimo — “TALKING LIKE SHE’S YELLING AT YOU. She sounds like a mom who’s yelling at you. And it triggers a response.”

What response does Ted Cruz trigger?

“Terrifying,” she says. “He’s disgusting, and one day I Wikipedia-ed him and I’m like four days older than him and it made me so depressed.”

She does credit conservatives with being deviously effective at naming things. “Citizens United,” she says. “What sounds more beautiful than that?”

The comedian says she’s “not smart enough” about politics, and in an HBO special, airing Nov. 23, she sticks to her usual sweet depravity with jokes about rape, porn, Jews and her family. But she became a hilarious viral force in the last two elections.

In 2008, she did the “Great Schlep” video urging Jews with grandparents in Florida to withhold visits to “bubbie” and “zadie” unless they agreed to vote for Barack Obama.

In 2012, she offered Sheldon Adelson “an indecent proposal” involving a bikini bottom and a lesbian sexual treat if he would give $100 million to Obama instead of Mitt Romney.

She teased Mitt on Twitter, asking about his sexual proclivities. And she quickly got a million views for her video slamming voter ID laws.

When a rabbi wrote to JewishPress.com to criticize Silverman’s “Let My People Vote” campaign, suggesting that she should “channel” her passion into marriage and children, her dad defended her with a few of the off-color words he taught Sarah when she was a toddler.

But Silverman, whose persona has always been that of the adorable, pigtailed child-woman, defended herself recently after some younger male comics mocked her as a crone, in Hollywood terms. She admitted to W. Kamau Bell on his TV show, “Totally Biased,” that it took a couple of days to recover her self-esteem.

At a Comedy Central roast of James Franco, Jonah Hill said, “Sarah is a role model for every little girl out there. I mean, every little girl dreams of being a 58-year-old single stand-up comedian with no romantic prospects on the horizon. They all dream of it, but Sarah did it.” (Silverman is 42 and dates comedian Kyle Dunnigan.)

Hill also offered this shot: “People say it’s too late for Sarah to become successful in movies at her age. I again do not agree. It’s not impossible. I mean, it’s not like they’re asking you to bear children or anything like that.”

Roast Master Seth Rogen introduced her as “No. 29 on Maxim’s Hot 100 — in the year 2007.”

Silverman told Bell that “as soon as a woman gets to an age where she has opinions and she’s vital and she’s strong, she’s systematically shamed into hiding under a rock. And this is by progressive pop-culture people!”

Looking like a lithe college girl in a blue and white striped T-shirt, sweatpants, sneakers and no makeup, she stressed to me that “everything goes” at a roast and that she brutally dishes it out — she leveled fat jokes at Hill at the roast — so she has to take it.

And her philosophy is that women should not get special favors but just be the best at what they do. “That’s what makes strides for women,” she says. “Be undeniable.”

Still, the taunts hit a chord. You can be the toughest girl on the block and still be vulnerable, as Hillary learned in New Hampshire in 2008, when she got emotional.

Silverman said she was up for a role recently, and “it was between me and a 25-year-old to play the love interest of the 50-year-old man and I lost it.” She laughs ruefully.

“These issues always come up when an actress hits a certain age and has a voice she can use,” she says. “It’s not any kind of new notion. It’s just new for me, you know what I mean? I love all those guys. Still, I think it was O.K. to admit that it cut me. We’re just made of feelings.”

She adds that jokes about appearance play differently: “Look, Jonah Hill can be fat, guys can be fat and still deserve love in this society. You know? In white America, overweight women don’t deserve love.”

The gender divide comes up again when I ask her about having kids, given her riff in the HBO special about how much she loves them.

“Maybe I would have had kids if I had a wife,” she says. “I have a lot of guy comic friends who have families because they have wives and they raise the kids. And I’m on the road all the time, and I date other people who are on the road. But I guess I really just was never ready. I still don’t feel like I’m ready. My plan is to adopt and be like young Grandma age.”

Really.  She’d be a great TV reviewer, and the perfect balance to all those accusations about “liberal” Hollywood…  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

At the recent New York Times forum in Singapore, Eleonora Sharef, a co-founder of HireArt, was explaining what new skills employers were seeking from job applicants, but she really got the audience’s attention when she mentioned that her search firm was recently told by one employer that it wouldn’t look at any applicant for a marketing job who didn’t have at least 2,000 Twitter followers — and the more the better. She didn’t disclose the name of the firm, but she told me that it wasn’t Twitter.

At a meeting with students at Fudan University in Shanghai a few days earlier, I was struck by how anxious some of the Chinese students were about the question: “Am I going to have a job?” If you’re a software engineer in China, you’ll do fine, also a factory worker — but a plain-old college grad? The Times reported earlier this year that in China today “among people in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education.”

Stories like these explain why I really hope that Obamacare succeeds. Say what?

Here’s the logic: The Cold War era I grew up in was a world of insulated walls, both geopolitical and economic, so the pace of change was slower — you could work for the same company for 30 years — and because bosses had fewer alternatives, unions had greater leverage. The result was a middle class built on something called a high-wage or a decent-wage medium-skilled job, and the benefits that went with it.

The proliferation of such jobs meant that many people could lead a middle-class lifestyle — with less education and more security — because they didn’t have to compete so directly with either a computer or a machine that could do their jobs faster and better (by far the biggest source of job churn) or against an Indian or Chinese who would do their jobs cheaper. And by a middle-class lifestyle, I don’t mean just scraping by. I mean having status: enough money to buy a house, enjoy some leisure and offer your kids the opportunity to do better than you.

But thanks to the merger of globalization and the I.T. revolution that has unfolded over the last two decades — which is rapidly and radically transforming how knowledge and information are generated, disseminated and collaborated on to create value — “the high-wage, medium-skilled job is over,” says Stefanie Sanford, the chief of global policy and advocacy for the College Board. The only high-wage jobs that will support the kind of middle-class lifestyle of old will be high-skilled ones, requiring a commitment to rigorous education, adaptability and innovation, she added.

But will even this prescription for creating enough jobs with decent middle-class incomes suffice, asks James Manyika, who leads research on economic and technology trends at the McKinsey Global Institute. While these prescriptions are certainly “correct,” notes Manyika, they “may not be enough to solve for the scale and nature of the problem.” The pace of technologically driven productivity growth, he said, suggests that we may not need as many workers to drive equivalent levels of output and G.D.P.

As the M.I.T. economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee show in their book “Race Against the Machine,” for the last two centuries productivity, median income and employment all rose together. No longer. Now we have record productivity, wealth and innovation, yet median incomes are falling, inequality is rising and high unemployment remains persistent.

To be sure, notes Manyika, a similar thing happened when we introduced technology to agriculture. We did not need as many people to produce food, so everybody shifted to manufacturing. As the same thing happened there, many people shifted to services.

But now, adds Manyika, “a growing share of high-paying services and knowledge work is also falling prey to technology.” And while new companies like Twitter are exciting, they do not employ people with high-paying jobs in large numbers. The economy and the service sector will still offer large numbers of jobs, but many simply may not sustain a true middle-class lifestyle.

As a result, argues Manyika, how we think about “employment” to sustain a middle-class lifestyle may need to expand “to include a broader set of possibilities for generating income” compared with the traditional job, with benefits and a well-grooved career path. To be in the middle class, you may need to consider not only high-skilled jobs, “but also more nontraditional forms of work,” explained Manyika. Work itself may have to be thought of as “a form of entrepreneurship” where you draw on all kinds of assets and skills to generate income.

This could mean leveraging your skills through Task Rabbit, or your car through Uber, or your spare bedroom through AirBnB to add up to a middle-class income.

In the end, this transition we’re going through could prove more exciting than people think, but right now asking large numbers of people to go from being an “employee” to a “work entrepreneur” feels scary and uncertain. Having a national health care safety net under the vast majority of Americans — to ease and enable people to make this transition — is both morally right and in the interest of everyone who wants a stable society.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Liberals don’t expect Oklahoma to serve as a model of social policy. But, astonishingly, we can see in this reddest of red states a terrific example of what the United States can achieve in early education.

Every 4-year-old in Oklahoma gets free access to a year of high-quality prekindergarten. Even younger children from disadvantaged homes often get access to full-day, year-round nursery school, and some families get home visits to coach parents on reading and talking more to their children.

The aim is to break the cycle of poverty, which is about so much more than a lack of money. Take two girls, ages 3 and 4, I met here in one Tulsa school. Their great-grandmother had her first child at 13. The grandmother had her first at 15. The mom had her first by 13, born with drugs in his system, and she now has four children by three fathers.

But these two girls, thriving in a preschool, may break that cycle. Their stepgreat-grandmother, Patricia Ann Gaines, is raising them and getting coaching from the school on how to read to them frequently, and she is determined to see them reach the middle class.

“I want them to go to college, be trouble-free, have no problem with incarceration,” she said.

Research suggests that high-poverty parents, some of them stressed-out kids themselves, don’t always “attach” to their children or read or speak to them frequently. One well-known study found that a child of professionals hears 30 million more words by the age of 4 than a child on welfare.

So the idea is that even the poorest child in Oklahoma should have access to the kind of nurturing that is routine in middle-class homes. That way, impoverished children don’t begin elementary school far behind the starting line — and then give up.

President Obama called in his State of the Union address this year for a nationwide early education program like this, for mountains of research suggests that early childhood initiatives are the best way to chip away at inequality and reduce the toll of crime, drugs and educational failure. Repeated studies suggest that these programs pay for themselves: build preschools now, or prisons later.

Because Obama proposed this initiative, Republicans in Washington are leery. They don’t want some fuzzy new social program, nor are they inclined to build a legacy for Obama. Yet national polling suggests that a majority of Republicans favor early-education initiatives, so I’d suggest that Obama call for nationwide adoption of “The Oklahoma Project” and that Republicans seize ownership of this issue as well.

It’s promising that here in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?

“This isn’t a liberal issue,” said Skip Steele, a Republican who is a Tulsa City Council member and strong supporter of early education. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”

Teachers, administrators and outside evaluators agree that students who go through the preschool program end up about half a year ahead of where they would be otherwise.

“We’ve seen a huge change in terms of not only academically the preparation they have walking into kindergarten, but also socially,” said Kirt Hartzler, the superintendent of Union Public Schools in Tulsa. “It’s a huge jump-start for kids.”

Oklahoma began a pilot prekindergarten program in 1980, and, in 1998, it passed a law providing for free access to prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds. Families don’t have to send their children, but three-quarters of them attend.

In addition, Oklahoma provides more limited support for needy children 3 and under. Oklahoma has more preschools known as Educare schools, which focus on poor children beginning in their first year, than any other state.

Oklahoma also supports home visits so that social workers can coach stressed-out single moms (or occasionally dads) on the importance of reading to children and chatting with them constantly. The social workers also drop off books; otherwise, there may not be a single children’s book in the house.

The Oklahoma initiative is partly a reflection of the influence of George B. Kaiser, a Tulsa billionaire who searched for charitable causes with the same rigor as if he were looking at financial investments. He decided on early education as having the highest return, partly because neuroscience shows the impact of early interventions on the developing brain and partly because careful studies have documented enormous gains from early education.

So Kaiser began investing in early interventions in Oklahoma and advocating for them, and, because of his prominence and business credentials, people listened to the evidence he cited. He also argues, as a moral issue, that all children should gain fairer access to the starting line.

“Maybe the reason that rich, smart parents had rich, smart children wasn’t genetics,” Kaiser told me, “but that those rich, smart parents also held their kids, read to them, spent a lot of time with them.”

I tagged along as a social worker from Educare visited Whitney Pingleton, 27, a single mom raising three small children. They read to the youngest and talked about how to integrate literacy into daily life. When you see a stop sign, the social worker suggested, point to the letters, sound them out and show how they spell “stop.”

Some of the most careful analysis of the Oklahoma results comes from a team at Georgetown University led by William T. Gormley Jr. and published in peer-reviewed journals. The researchers find sharp gains in prereading, prewriting and prearithmetic skills, as well as improvements in social skills. Some experts think that gains in the ability to self-regulate and work with others are even more important than the educational gains — and certainly make for less disruptive classes. Gormley estimates that the benefits of Oklahoma’s program will outweigh the costs by at least a ratio of 3 to 1.

So how about it, America?

Can we embrace “The Oklahoma Project” — not because it’s liberal or conservative, but because it’s what is best for our kids and our country?

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

While Tony Dorsett described the collision, CNN played the footage, from 1984.

There’s Dorsett, the great former running back for the Dallas Cowboys, carrying the ball fast downfield. And there, suddenly, is a Philadelphia Eagles defender, shooting toward him like a burly rocket. The defender’s helmet lands in the crook of Dorsett’s neck; Dorsett’s head snaps back so far that you’d swear it’s connected to the rest of him by nothing more than taffy.

“A freight train hitting a Volkswagen,” Dorsett said, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in the interview last week what the moment of impact must have been like. He can’t specifically recall it.

There’s so much he forgets these days. On a flight recently to the Los Angeles medical center where they studied his brain, he grew confused about his destination, about the reason for the trip. His memory, his emotions: They’re jumbles, pieces of a puzzle in disarray. The doctors at the center confirmed why. Dorsett, 59, has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease that has now been found in dozens of former pro football players. It’s most likely caused by big hits like the one in 1984 and little hits that happen on every play, a constant thwack-thwack-thwack of a player’s head against his helmet. This is the reliable, unremarkable percussion of the sport. This is its very rhythm.

“Would I do it all over again?” Dorsett said to Blitzer, beating his questioner to the punch. “Yes.” The damage, in other words, is worth the thrills, and not just to Dorsett, who can’t alter the terms of the trade-off at this befogged point. Team owners and coaches have made the same calculation. So have the money-mad executives in the National Football League, and so, too, have we fans. All of us have entered into a compact, a conspiracy. For the pleasure the sport gives us, we’ll tuck away our reservations about its culture of violence. We’ll turn a blind eye to the wreckage.

That wreckage isn’t just physical, as news last week about the vicious, racist hazing of a young Miami Dolphins lineman showed. The lineman was so shaken that he fled the team. And when his departure came to light, what did other Dolphins and players around the N.F.L. have to say about it? Nothing terribly empathetic. Most of the comments I saw questioned his machismo and defended the taunts and threats as jocks being jocks — or, even worse, as a sanctioned strategy to toughen up a wimpy newbie.

“The coaches know who’s getting picked on and in many cases call for that player to be singled out,” wrote Lydon Murtha, a former Dolphin, in a post on the Sports Illustrated website. “This is a game of high testosterone, with men hammering their bodies on a daily basis. You are taught to be an aggressive person.” Aggression is central to the brutal ballet that we fans have grown accustomed to. It’s also the path to victory, and thus the road to riches. It’s recruited. Rewarded.

To have our football and our fun, we delete what we learned about the New Orleans Saints: that the squad had put bounties on rivals, promising thousands in cash to any defensive player who knocked an opposing team’s quarterback out of the game. We look past how many quarterbacks — and cornerbacks and linebackers and wide receivers — wind up prostrate on the gridiron, a circle of trainers and doctors hovering over them, one of the sport’s most familiar tableaus. In last Monday night’s contest between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, the Packers’ star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, fractured his collarbone; he’ll be out for several weeks, just as the Bears’ star quarterback, Jay Cutler, has been. In this era of bigger bodies, blunter force and rampant casualties, championships don’t necessarily go to the best teams, but to the ones with the most men standing.

We brush that aside, as we do the substance abuse and each bulletin about the latest arrest. Aaron Hernandez isn’t playing tight end for the New England Patriots this year because he’s on trial for murder. If it’s not one alleged felony, it’s another, the on-field aggression traveling off-field to dogfights, fistfights, sexual assault: the high jinks of American idols in their idle time.

We minimize the relentlessness with which the sport is pursued and its message that nothing — nothing — matters more than winning. Is it coincidence that two head coaches were hospitalized this month, or is it the wages of a workaholic ethos? John Fox, of the Denver Broncos, had emergency heart surgery. Gary Kubiak, of the Houston Texans, had what’s sometimes called “a warning stroke.” The commentators wished them well and the game went on. It always does.

We minimize the tyranny of money, money, money. Money is surely why Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, won’t change the team’s name: What if too many fans were irked and too many of their dollars withheld? Money is certainly why there’s now a prime-time game every Thursday night, though the teams playing it get just four days of recovery from their Sunday matches, an abbreviation of down time that’s a potential force multiplier of injuries. Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, won’t be thrown off his financial goal, sketched out in a chilling profile of him by Don Van Natta Jr. in ESPN’s magazine last March. Within 15 years, Goodell wants to boost annual revenues to $25 billion from $10 billion.

THAT would be jeopardized if the N.F.L. took responsibility for the prevalence of brain disease like Dorsett’s and like that of several former players, including the San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, whose suffering drove them to suicide. (The recent $765 million settlement of a lawsuit by more than 4,500 players and their families was paltry in the context of all the lives ruined.) The league’s sustained refusal to confront this situation seriously and honestly is documented in “League of Denial,” a book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru that was published last month.

Such a reckoning would pose “an existential problem,” Steve Fainaru told me last week, saying that if there’s a definitive determination that “the game itself can cause this devastating disease in a huge number of players, it can’t help but cause you to think: What exactly am I rooting for?”

He and I were talking as two people struggling with our love of the sport. He said: “Who wants to believe that all the joy that Junior Seau gave us led him to become completely unrecognizable to his family? How do we reconcile that as football fans? Some people have suggested, jokingly, that the book should have been called ‘Nation of Denial.’ ”

He mentioned a visit that he’d made to the Colosseum in Rome, where gladiators once fought. At least in pro football, he observed, “They’re not sacrificing people at the end of the game.”

I thought of Seau and of Dorsett, and said: “No, not at the end of the game. They’re just delaying it.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

October 20, 2013

The Pasty Little Putz cackles like a chicken with a new egg in “Obamacare, Failing Ahead of Schedule.”  He calls it a surprising tech disaster from Team Obama.  He’s terrified that it will work, so he bitches about the programming glitches.  MoDo has found yet another new derogatory term for President Obama.  In “Cat on a Hot Stove” she hisses that Sir Lecturealot admonishes the Mad Tea Party Hatters who turned America blue (emotionally and politically).  You’d think she’d get tired of dishing up the same old crap week after week after week after week…  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “From Beirut to Washington,” says covering the Middle East is helpful in explaining American politics.  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Are Chicks Brighter Than Babies?”  He says that chickens may be better at math than toddlers, and that they don’t deserve to be tortured.  Here’s The Putz:

This is not the column about the Obamacare rollout I expected to write.

If you had told me, months ago, that weeks after the health care law’s coverage expansion went into effect I would be writing about the problems its launch had exposed, I would have assumed I’d be writing about rate shock, rising premiums and the disappearance of many cheap insurance plans — basically, all the problems conservatives have worried will make Obamacare a ruinously expensive failure if they play out as we fear they might.

I may be writing about those issues soon enough. But for now there is a more pressing subject: The online federal health care exchange, the heart of the Obamacare project, is such a rolling catastrophe that it may end up creating a major policy fiasco immediately rather than eventually.

This fiasco has always been a possibility, for reasons inherent in the architecture of the law. When The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, the most rigorous defender of the entire reform project, wrote up his “five Obamacare anxieties” in May, the first one was structural: The system’s sustainability depends on getting enough healthy people to sign up, he pointed out, and if they don’t then insurers “will have to raise everyone’s premiums,” which “could create what actuaries call a ‘death spiral’: Rising premiums prompt people to drop out, causing premiums to increase even more.”

Cohn thought such a death spiral was unlikely, and frankly so did I. Between the stick of the mandate, the carrot of subsidies and the planned P.R. blitz, it seemed as if enough Americans would sign up to at least postpone the cost problem and get the system off the ground.

But it seemed that way because it was hard to imagine the Obama White House botching the design and execution of its national health care exchange. Building Web sites, mastering the Internet — this is what Team Obama does!

Except this time Team Obama didn’t. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the White House seems to have invaded the health insurance marketplace with woefully inadequate postinvasion planning, and let the occupation turn into a disaster of hack work and incompetence. Right now, the problems with the exchange Web site appear to be systemic — a mess on the front end, where people are supposed to shop for plans, and also a thicket at the back end, where insurers are supposed to process applications.

The disaster can presumably be fixed. As Cohn pointed out on Friday, many of the state-level exchanges are working better than the federal one, and somewhere there must be a tech-world David Petraeus capable of stabilizing HealthCare.gov. And the White House has some time to work with: weeks before the end-of-year enrollment rush, and months before the mandate’s penalty is supposed to be levied.

But if the fix-it effort moves too slowly, it’s possible to envision a worst-case scenario unfolding. If the Web site doesn’t work soon, even liberals concede that the mandate would have to be delayed, because you can’t very well fine people for failing to buy a product they can’t access. And that combination — a hard-to-navigate online portal and no penalty for staying uninsured — could effectively discourage all but the most desperate customers from shopping, which in turn would create an unsustainably expensive insurance pool, driving prices up and driving people away, and potentially wrecking the entire individual insurance market in short order.

If this happens, there will be a lot of schadenfreude on the right at the spectacle of technocratic failure. But the wreck of the exchanges may actually be worse for conservative policy objectives than a more successful rollout would have been.

That’s because while conservatives think the Obamacare exchanges are overregulated and oversubsidized, they are actually closer to the right-of-center vision for health care reform than the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which is happening no matter what transpires with Healthcare.gov. So if the exchanges fail and the Medicaid expansion takes effect (and, inevitably, becomes difficult to roll back), we’ll be left with an individual market that’s completely dysfunctional and a more socialized system over all.

In that scenario, the Democratic Party would probably end up pushing, not for the pipe dream of true single payer, but for a further bottom-up/top-down socialization, in which Medicare is offered to 55- to 65-year-olds and Medicaid is eventually expanded even more.

Meanwhile, the task for serious conservative reformers — already not the most politically effective bunch — might actually become harder, because they would have to explain how their plan to build an effective, exchange-based marketplace differed from the Obama White House’s exchange fiasco.

So while Republican politicians may be salivating over a potential Obamacare crisis, the conservative policy thinkers I know are not. They’re hoping, as I’m hoping, that this isn’t as bad as it looks. The chance to say “I told you so” is always nice, but not if the price is a potentially irrecoverable disaster.

Just once I’d like one of Putzy’s crowd to come up with a viable policy alternative that could be debated.  Just once.  Here, FSM help us, is MoDo:

President Obama won big.

So why did the moment feel so small?

At his victory scold in the State Dining Room on Thursday, the president who yearned to be transformational stood beneath an oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln and demanded . . . a farm bill. He also couldn’t resist taking a holier-than-thou tone toward his tail-between-their-legs Tea Party foes. He assumed his favorite role of the shining knight hectoring the benighted: Sir Lecturealot.

“All of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict,” he sermonized. (We have met the enemy and they are . . . bloggers?)

Certainly, the House Republicans who held their breath until the country turned blue acted like foolhardy children on what John McCain called “a fool’s errand.”

The country agreed. So it probably wasn’t necessary for papa to preach, overacting the role of weary parent watching the irresponsible kids make their mistakes.

Sir Lecturealot, who hates selling and explaining and negotiating and cajoling and knocking noggins, always manages to convey tedium at the idea that he actually has to persuade people to come along with him, given the fact that he feels he’s doing what’s right.

Obama says he will now work for an immigration bill and a budget deal with deficit cuts. But as Peter Nicholas and Carol E. Lee pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, the president did not mention his more ambitious goals: hiking the minimum wage, widening access to preschool education, and shoring up bridges and roads.

“Those efforts require bipartisan consensus that may be even more elusive amid the ill will carried over from the budget fight,” they wrote.

Senator McCain, who excoriated the Tea Party zanies and voted with the president, indicated to The Journal that the president had poisoned the well. “A lot of us are resentful that he didn’t negotiate as hard as we think he could have or should have,” he said. He told CNN that if Obama does not “engage” with his adversaries, “obviously you’re not going to be a successful president.”

Democrats, too, chided the president for being the diffident debutante.

“This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you have the right answers,” Leon Panetta, the former congressman, Clinton chief of staff, C.I.A. director and defense chief, pointedly told Washington reporters. “You’ve got to roll up your sleeves, and you’ve got to really engage in the process.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein also urged presidential leadership, noting that Obama “stepped back” partly because he felt “burned” by all the scabrous budget fights. But as Mark Twain said, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

And if Obama is anything, he’s a cold cat on a hot stove.

Washington is surpassingly nutty right now, but the founding fathers did build a system designed for factional warfare. When sweet reasonableness doesn’t work, Obama’s default position is didactic disdain. He underuses the fear and charm cards. When he first saw the White House movie theater, he was surprised there were so many seats beyond what the first family would need. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, probably would have built a balcony and auctioned off seats, if he could have.

As Valerie Jarrett told David Remnick in “The Bridge,” Obama’s “uncanny” abilities need to be properly engaged, or he disengages. “He’s been bored to death his whole life,” she said. “He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”

Matt Viser wrote in The Boston Globe that, while Obama soared talking about getting past blue-and-red slicing and dicing, the blue states are getting bluer and the red states redder. In his stateside travel schedule, political meetings, staffing and legislative accomplishments, Obama has cleaved to the blue side more than he has tried to reach out to the red side, Viser wrote.

After Sir Lecturealot admonished both parties on their divisiveness in his 2010 State of the Union address, Viser said, the president did not have his first one-on-one with John Boehner for another year and a half, and has only met individually with Mitch McConnell twice.

When the president says “we’ve all got a lot of work to do,” he means Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Obamacare should really be called Pelosicare, as the historian Niall Ferguson noted. And an unyielding Reid made sure Obama didn’t cave as in the past, which had emboldened Republicans to challenge the president this time. Obama is the anti-Lyndon Johnson.

He thinks he can come down from above, de haut en bas, and play the great reconciler, but you can’t reconcile in absentia. You have to be there. You’ve got to be all over these people.

The paradox of Obama is that he believes in his own magical powers, but then he doesn’t turn up to use them.

There’s nothing wrong with a president breaking a sweat somewhere beyond the basketball court.

What a truly poisonous bitch she is.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve spent most of my career covering Middle East politics. I always thought it was its own unique field. But, in the last few weeks, I’ve felt myself to be at a real advantage trying to explain American politics. You see, it turns out that all those years covering Sunnis and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, tribal conflicts and “Parties of God” have been the best preparation for covering today’s Washington, D.C., and particularly the Tea Party. Seriously, you’d get a much better feel for Washington politics today by reading “Lawrence of Arabia” than the Federalist Papers. This is not good news.

Let me start by recalling a column I recently wrote from Kansas that noted the parallel between monocultures and polycultures in nature and politics. It began with the scientist Wes Jackson, the president of The Land Institute, explaining that the prairie was a diverse wilderness, with a complex ecosystem that naturally supported all kinds of wildlife, until European settlers plowed it up and covered it with single-species crop farms, mostly wheat, corn or soybeans. Today, noted Jackson, we now use high-density fossil fuels — in the form of gasoline-powered tractors, pesticides and fertilizers — to sustain these single-species, annual monoculture crops, which are much more susceptible to disease and are exhausting the nutrient-rich topsoil that is the source of all prairie life. During the Dust Bowl years of the ’30s, Jackson reminded, the monoculture crops died but the polyculture prairie, with its diverse ecosystem, survived.

What is going on in the Arab world today, I argued, is a relentless push, also funded by fossil fuels, for more monocultures. It’s Al Qaeda trying to “purify” the Arabian Peninsula. It’s Shiites and Sunnis, each funded by oil money, trying to purge the other in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The more these societies become monocultures, the less they spark new ideas and the more susceptible they are to diseased conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies. It is no accident that the Golden Age of the Arab/Muslim world was when it was a thriving polyculture between the 8th and 13th centuries.

The same is true of the Republican Party in America today. Tea Party conservatives funded by the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel donors are trying to wipe out whatever is left of the Republican Party’s polyculture and turn it into a monoculture. When Senate Republicans last week first offered their compromise proposal to end the shutdown, Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party congressman from Kansas, warned that, “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as a Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger” from the Tea Party. In short: They’d be purged in favor of a monoculture.

When the G.O.P. was more of a polyculture, it gave us ideas as diverse as the Clean Air Act (Richard Nixon), daring nuclear arms control (Ronald Reagan), cap-and-trade to curb acid rain (George H.W. Bush) and a market-based health care plan (“Romneycare” in Massachusetts). The purge being mounted by the ultraconservative, oil-funded monoculturalists in the G.O.P. today will kill the Republican Party if continued. They will wipe out “all of its topsoil,” all of its rich nutrients, said the environmentalist Hal Harvey.

That is, unless the G.O.P. can avoid another lesson of Mideast politics: Extremists go all the way and moderates tend to just go away. With the feeble House speaker, John Boehner, and majority leader, Eric Cantor, consistently appeasing the Tea Party extremists, it is no wonder the party went over a cliff and almost took the country with it. But here’s another lesson I learned in the Middle East: It is not enough to just stop extremists from acting extreme. You have to take on and take down their ideas. After 9/11, Arab governments were more willing to arrest their violent fundamentalists, but few, if any, were willing to really take on and take down their ideas in public and offer moderate alternatives. Only Muslim moderates can take down Muslim extremists; only mainstream conservatives can take down Tea Party extremists.

It’s striking how much the Tea Party wing of the G.O.P. has adopted the tactics of the P.O.G. — “Party of God” — better known as Hezbollah. For years, Lebanese Shiites were represented by the mainstream Amal party. But in the 1980s, a more radical Shiite militia emerged from the war with Israel: Hezbollah. Under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah began to run for seats in the Lebanese Parliament in 1992 to change its brand. But it still refused to give up its weapons to the Lebanese Army, arguing that they were needed for “resistance” against Israel. Ultimately, Hezbollah could only win a minority of seats, but today it uses its arms and pro-Syrian allies in Parliament to block any policy it doesn’t like. As Hanin Ghaddar, the Lebanese Shiite writer who edits NowLebanon.com put it to me: “Hezbollah’s rule is: if we win, we rule, but if you win, you’ll think you rule, but we will do anything and everything to hinder you, and then we rule.”

The Tea Party is not a terrorist group. It has legitimate concerns about debt, jobs and Obamacare. But what was not legitimate was the line it crossed. Rather than persuading a majority of Americans that its policies were right, and winning elections to enact the changes it sought — the essence of our democratic system — the Tea Party threatened to undermine our nation’s credit rating if the Democrats would not agree to defund Obamacare. Had such strong-arm tactics worked, it would have meant that constitutionally enacted laws could be nullified if determined minorities opposed them. It would have meant Lebanon on the Potomac.

Which brings up one last parallel: Hezbollah started a war against Israel in 2006, without knowing how to end it. It didn’t matter whether it won or lost. All that mattered was that it “resisted the Zionists.” Hezbollah’s tacit motto was: “I resist, therefore I am.” Early in that 2006 war, Nasrallah boasted of Hezbollah’s “strategic and historical victory,” by holding Israel to a draw. But, in the end, the Israeli Army dealt a devastating blow to Hezbollah’s neighborhoods and Lebanon’s infrastructure. After the smoke cleared, Nasrallah admitted that it was a mistake.

The Tea Party started this war on Obamacare with no chance of success and no idea how to end it — similarly intoxicated by a self-image of heroic “resistance.” And just like Nasrallah, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas engaged in magical thinking, declaring that the House vote to defund Obamacare — although rejected by the Senate — was “a remarkable victory.” But most of his Republican colleagues aren’t buying it. They see only ruin.

If nothing else comes out of this crisis than the fact that such Hezbollah-like tactics have been discredited in our politics, then the pain of the last few weeks will have been worth it.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof, wringing his hands over chickens:

Some Americans are wondering whether to eat chicken in the aftermath of the latest salmonella outbreak.

But there’s another reason to avoid poultry, and that’s the inhumane way birds are often raised. We tend to feel more sympathy for calves with large, cute eyes, but, as an Oregon farmboy, I have to say that poultry are far from the nitwits we assume — and of the two-legged folk I’ve met over the decades, some of the most admirable have been geese.

Even as a boy, I was struck that our geese mated for life, showing each other tenderness and support without obvious marital squabbles or affairs. If there are philandering geese, I have never met one.

I remember being impressed by the way our geese shared family obligations. A mother goose would sit on her nest, while her mate would set out into the fields and find, say, an overlooked stash of corn kernels. Instead of sneaking a few for himself, he would rush them back to his “wife.”

The nobility of geese was most on display at execution time. My job as an 11-year-old when we beheaded the geese was to capture a bird and take it to the chopping block as my dad wielded the ax.

So I would rush at the terrified flock and randomly grab an unlucky goose. The bird in my arms would honk in terror and try to escape, and the other geese would cower in the corner of the barn.

Then one goose would emerge from the flock and walk tremulously toward me, terrified but unwilling to abandon its mate. It would waddle after me toward the chopping block, trying to honk comfort to its mate.

Even as a child, I was awed. This was raw courage and fidelity — and maybe conjugal love, although it sounds hokey to say so — that made me wonder if these animals were actually our moral superiors.

Maybe my farmboy recollections reflect anthropomorphism or soggy sentimentality. But, in the last decade or so, scientists have conducted experiments that tend to confirm the notion that poultry are smarter and more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

For starters, hens can count — at least to six. They can be taught that food is in the sixth hole from the left and they will go straight to it. Even chicks can do basic arithmetic, so that if you shuffle five items in a shell game, they mentally keep track of additions and subtractions and choose the area with the higher number of items. In a number of such tests, chicks do better than toddlers.

A lengthy study this year from the University of Bristol in Britain, “The Intelligent Hen,” lays out the evidence for the chicken as an intellectual. The study also notes that hens are willing to delay gratification if the reward is right.

Researchers in one study gave hens the option of two keys, one of which would wait two seconds and then give the hen three seconds of food, and the other would force a wait of six seconds but offer 22 seconds of food. After learning that trade-off, 93 percent of hens preferred the delay with more food.

Chickens communicate with different calls to warn about ground predators and birds of prey. Still other calls signal food.

Hens are social animals, preferring the companionship of those they know to strangers. They recover more quickly from stress when they are with an acquaintance.

Their brains are good at multitasking, for the right eye looks out for food, while the left watches for predators and potential mates. Poultry watch television, and, in one experiment, learned from watching birds on TV how to find food in particular bowls.

Look, farmbirds are not Einsteins. But evidence is mounting that they’re smarter than we have assumed, and just because they don’t have big brown eyes doesn’t mean that they should be condemned to spend their lives jammed into tiny cages in stinking, fetid barns, with bodies of dead birds sometimes left rotting beside live ones.

I don’t know myself where to draw the lines. I eat meat, so this entire column may be braised in hypocrisy. But just as we try to protect dogs and cats from undue suffering, without necessarily considering them our equals, it makes sense to minimize animal suffering more broadly when we can. So even when there are no salmonella outbreaks, there are good reasons to keep away from wretched birds raised in factory farms.

For my part, whenever I’m offered goose, I think back to my childhood and see those brave birds stepping forward, gallantly trying to console their mates. Whatever we make of these animals, we needn’t scorn them as “birdbrains.”

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

September 22, 2013

The Pasty Little Putz has decided to explain “Good Populism, Bad Populism.”  He gurgles that the most innovative ideas in the Republican Party are coming from the same contingent that’s pushing the pointless budget brinkmanship.  Yeah.  Fer shur.  All their budget crap was “innovative” at one point too.  See Ryan, Paul.  “Gemli” in Boston sums it up at the end of his/her comment:  “Douthat often uses rhetorical tricks to create distinctions where there are none. Here he does it with Republicans, cheering for the merely disturbed because they’re not bat guano crazy.”  MoDo is pining for “America’s Billionaire.”  She’s trapped in the capital with the Republican gargoyles preaching nihilism, and yearning for the grandfatherly Warren Buffett preaching optimism.  In “Mother Nature and the MIddle Class” the Moustache of Wisdom says Here’s why the same old, same old is gone for good in Iran and Egypt.  Mr. Kristof tells us about “The Boy Who Stood Up to Syrian Injustice.”  He says after suffering extreme conditions at home, refugees are fleeing Syria and straining its neighbors, and there are steps we can take to help.  Mr. Bruni considers “The Pope’s Radical Whisper.”  He says the Catholic leader’s tone and words are a counterpoint to the arrogance and self-aggrandizement that define so much of modern life.  Here’s The Putz:

Here’s the good news for Republicans: The party now has a faction committed to learning real lessons from the 2012 defeat, breaking with the right’s stale policy consensus and embracing new ideas on a range of issues, from foreign policy to middle-class taxes, the drug war to banking reform.

Here’s the bad news for Republicans: The party also has a faction committed to a reckless, pointless budget brinkmanship, which creates a perpetual cycle of outrage and disillusionment among conservatives and leaves Washington lurching from one manufactured crisis to the next.

Here’s the strange news for Republicans: These two factions are actually one and the same.

The media tend to assume that moderation and reform are essentially synonymous. But ever since Mitt Romney lost last November, most of the genuine policy innovation on the right has come from the party’s populist, Tea Party-affiliated wing. The key figure has been Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose antiwar conservatism has kicked off a post-Iraq foreign policy debate that the party desperately needed, and whose forays into issues like sentencing reform and drug policy have raised the possibility of a national Republican Party that’s smart as well as tough on crime.

But it hasn’t just been Paul turning populism into policy. This spring, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, nobody’s idea of a moderate, became the Republican face of a financial reform effort aimed at addressing the problem of “too big to fail” banks. And then just last week, Paul’s frequent ally Mike Lee, the junior senator from Utah, took the floor at the American Enterprise Institute to offer a tax-reform proposal that would actually help middle-class families rather than mostly cut taxes on the investor class.

The Lee proposal is a particularly noteworthy breakthrough. Its centerpiece, a large expansion of the child tax credit, is an example of how social conservatism could seek to assist families instead of just lecturing them — by addressing the rising cost of child rearing, the stress wage stagnation puts on parents, and the link between family instability and socioeconomic disarray. This makes it the first major Republican tax proposal in years that actually seems tailored to contemporary challenges rather than to the economic climate of 1979.

But despite the best efforts of the Lee tax plan’s admirers, the party’s populists didn’t make headlines last week on that issue. Instead, Lee and Paul were in the news — with the ubiquitous, less innovative junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz — because they’re part of the so-called “defund Obamacare” effort, an elaborate game of make-believe in which Republicans are supposed to pretend, for the sake of political leverage, that they’ll actually shut down the government if the president refuses to go along with the repeal of his own signature legislative achievement. (How Republicans gain leverage by threatening a shutdown they’d be blamed for has never been adequately explained.)

Except that the game isn’t make-believe to the many conservative voters who have been suckered into actually believing that the health care law could be rolled back tomorrow if only Republicans would just stop “surrendering” and use the power of True Conservatism to bend the White House to their will. This is what makes the defund movement’s style of populism so depressing: In addition to throwing sand into the gears of government for no clear purpose, it’s effectively deceiving precisely the voters that it claims to represent.

Hence the widespread view — shared by concerned liberals, chin-stroking moderates, and many Congressional Republicans, I’m sure — that Cruz and Paul and Lee and their compatriots need to be crushed for the Republican Party to become effective and responsible again.

But the trouble is that if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell could somehow crush the populists (and they can’t), they would also be crushing the best hope for conservative policy reform. That’s because, for now at least, the same incentives that shape the “bad populism” of the defund movement are also shaping the “good populism” that wants to end farm subsidies or reform drug sentencing or break up banks or cut taxes on families.

Their willingness to engage in theatrical confrontations with President Obama, for instance, is part of what lends figures like Paul and Lee and Vitter the credibility to experiment with ideas from outside the Reagan-era box. And their arm’s-length relationship to Wall Street and K Street makes them both more irresponsible on issues like a government shutdown and more open to new ideas on taxes, financial reform, corporate welfare, etc.

Obviously Republicans should be seeking a way to have the good without the bad: the innovation without the risky brinkmanship, the fresh ideas without the staged confrontations.

But for now, they’re stuck dealing with a populism that resembles Homer Simpson’s description of his beloved beer: It’s both the cause of, and the solution to, all of their problems.

And now we get to MoDo, pining for billionaires:

When you’re trapped in a city with House Republican gargoyles who don’t understand math or history, much less reality, sometimes you crave a dose of grandfatherly wisdom.

Speaker John Boehner, trapped under the thumb of Tea Party anarchists, called Friday’s vote to defund Obamacare and invite a government shutdown, “a victory for common sense.”

More like a triumph of nonsense.

The victory for common sense last week was not in Congress, but at Georgetown University. Speaking to an excited crowd of students and others Thursday night beneath soaring stained-glass windows, the 83-year-old Warren Buffett offered inspiring lessons in patriotism and compassion — traits sorely missing here as Republicans ran headlong toward a global economic cataclysm and gutted the food stamp program.

“I am sorry I’m late,” Nancy Pelosi murmured sardonically, as she arrived at the Buffett event. “We were busy taking food out of the mouths of babies.”

Questioned by Brian Moynihan, the C.E.O. of Bank of America, and later students, Buffett seemed happy to be back in one of his hometowns, where, as the son of an investor from Omaha who became a congressman, he had once worked as a waterboy for the Redskins and a paperboy for Georgetown Hospital.

His taste for making money was whetted when his customers at the hospital would give him bet suggestions for the numbers racket, big in Washington in those days.

“They would tell me if there was a woman that had given birth to a baby that was, say, 8 pounds, 11 ounces,” he said, or the time of the birth.

The C.E.O. of Berkshire Hathaway said he began investing at age 11 in 1942, a couple months after Pearl Harbor, after spending five years saving up $120.

He even joked that he had fond thoughts of 1929 because it was when he was conceived: “my dad was a stock salesman and after the crash he didn’t have anything to do.”

I wrote about Buffett in 1996, when Ted Turner upbraided fellow billionaires like Buffett and Bill Gates as “ol’ skinflints” for not loosening up “their wads” because they were afraid to fall off the Forbes 400 List. Back then, Buffett said he would wait until after he and his wife died, when he planned to give the bulk of his $15 billion to population control (even though, of course, every moment counts on that cause).

But then, about five years ago, Buffett said at Georgetown, he and Gates began plotting about philanthropy and now they have enrolled 115 plutocrats pledging a majority of their net worth.

“I’ve been dialing for dollars,” he said, adding that when billionaires resist, he gives them a warning: “If I’m talking to some 70-year-old, I say, ‘Do you really think your decision-making ability is going to be better when you’re 95 with some blonde on your lap, or now?’ ”

He calls the Fed “the greatest hedge fund in history,” and observed of the moment America nearly went off the cliff: “I give enormous credit to Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and frankly, even though I didn’t vote for him, President Bush.”

W.’s “great insight,” one worthy of Adam Smith, he said, was expressed in 10 words in September 2008: “He went out there from the White House and he said, ‘If money doesn’t loosen up this sucker could go down.’ ”

The populist voice of the 1 percent stressed that “inequality is getting wider” and that we must figure out how to “share the bounty.”

“We’ve got something that works and we don’t want to mess that up,” he said. There will be periodic recessions and the occasional panic, he noted, advising that those times are good to buy stock at “silly prices.”

“It’s very hard to write regulations that will keep people from acting foolishly, particularly when acting foolishly has proven very profitable over the preceding few years,” he said. “Humans, they all think they’re Cinderella at the ball, and they think, as the night goes along, the music gets better and the drinks flow, they all think they’re going to leave at two minutes to 12 and of course there’s no clocks on the wall and they’re still dancing, so it will happen again.”

“But,” he added slyly, “buy when it happens.”

He doesn’t worry about keeping up with modern technology. He buys what he knows, like Coca-Cola, which he drank all evening. Evoking Ted Williams “waiting for the right pitch,” he counseled that: “You don’t need 20 decisions to get very rich. Four or five will probably do it over time.”

Being a successful investor is not about having a high I.Q., he said, “but it does take a temperament that’s willing to step up and actually act. I always tell people, if they’re going in the investment business and you’ve got a 160 I.Q., sell 30 points to somebody else because you won’t need it.”

Or sell some to the House Republicans.

For some reason MoDo didn’t mention the fact that Warren, that astute investor, is busily dumping stocks that rely on Americans buying stuff.  So maybe he’s not all that thrilled with the economy…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

If you fell asleep 30 years ago, woke up last week and quickly scanned the headlines in Iran and Egypt you could be excused for saying, “I didn’t miss a thing.” The military and the Muslim Brotherhood are still slugging it out along the Nile, and Iranian pragmatists and ideologues are still locked in a duel for control of their Islamic Revolution.

So go back to sleep? Not so fast. I can guarantee that the next 30 years will not be the same old, same old. Two huge new forces have muscled their way into the center of both Egyptian and Iranian politics, and they will bust open their old tired duopolies.

The first newcomer is Mother Nature. Do not mess with Mother Nature. Iran’s population in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution occurred was 37 million; today it’s 75 million. Egypt’s was 40 million; today it’s 85 million. The stresses from more people, climate change and decades of environmental abuse in both countries can no longer be ignored or bought off.

On July 9, Iran’s former agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, an adviser to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke to this reality in the Ghanoon newspaper: “Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran,” said Kalantari. “It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. … Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.”

He continued: “I am deeply worried about the future generations. … If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.” Kalantari added: “All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others.” Kalantari concluded that the “deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. … If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

In Egypt, soil compaction and rising sea levels have already led to saltwater intrusion in the Nile Delta; overfishing and overdevelopment are threatening the Red Sea ecosystem, and unregulated and unsustainable agricultural practices in poorer districts, plus more extreme temperatures, are contributing to erosion and desertification. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing Egypt 5 percent of gross domestic product annually.

But just as Mother Nature is demanding better governance from above in both countries, an emergent and empowered middle class, which first reared its head with the 2009 Green revolution in Iran and the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, is doing so from below. A government that just provides “order” alone in either country simply won’t cut it anymore. Order, drift and decay were tolerable when populations were smaller, the environment not so degraded, the climate less volatile, and citizens less technologically empowered and connected.

Both countries today need “order-plus” — an order that enables dynamism and resilience, and that can be built only on the rule of law, innovation, political and religious pluralism, and greater freedoms. It requires political and economic institutions that are inclusive and “sustainable,” in both senses of that word. Neither country can afford the old line that Hosni Mubarak used for so many years when addressing American leaders: “After me comes the flood, so you’d better put up with my stale, plodding but stable leadership, otherwise you’ll get the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That is so 1970s. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, puts it: In the Middle East today “it’s no longer ‘After me, the flood’ — Après moi, le déluge — but ‘After me, the drought.’ ” Syria’s revolution came on the heels of the worst drought in its modern history, to which the government failed to respond.

Iran’s Islamic leadership seems to realize that it cannot keep asking its people to put up with crushing economic sanctions to preserve a nuclear weapons option. Mother Nature and Iran’s emergent middle classes require much better governance, integrated with the world. That’s why Iran is seeking a nuclear deal now with Washington.

And that’s why two of the most interesting leaders to watch today are President Rouhani of Iran and Egypt’s new military strongman, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Both men rose up in the old order, but both men were brought into the top leadership by the will of their emergent middle classes and newly empowered citizens, and neither man will be able to maintain order without reforming the systems that produced them — making them more sustainable and inclusive. They have no choice: too many people, too little oil, too little soil.

And pay attention: What Mother Nature and these newly empowered citizens have in common is that they can both set off a wave — a tsunami — that can overwhelm their systems at any moment, and you’ll never see it coming.

And no doubt we’ll have to bomb the crap out of them for that too.  It’s easier than rationally addressing climate change or actually, you know, talking to them.  Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Mafraq, Jordan:

As in the fairy tale, in Syria it was the children who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Syria’s civil war began in March 2011 with demands for freedom from schoolchildren in the provincial town of Dara’a — kids like Muhammad, a skinny seventh grader. He still hasn’t recovered from the torture he endured, and he and his parents asked that his last name not be published.

Muhammad, now part of the growing Syrian refugee diaspora in Jordan, still weighs less than 100 pounds and looks like a shy middle schooler. It’s hard to imagine him confronting a playground bully, let alone the nation’s tyrant.

Maybe the story of these children’s courage can help build spine in world leaders, who for two and a half years have largely averted their eyes from the humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria. The agreement on chemical weapons may be a genuine step forward, but it does not seem particularly relevant to Syrians suffering from more banal methods of mass murder.

Muhammad was not a part of the first group of child activists, who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Dara’a. The government, with knee-jerk brutality, arrested and tortured them.

That’s when other citizens, Muhammad included, poured out on the streets to demand the students’ release. The authorities opened fire on some protesters and arrested others, including Muhammad. Police officers beat the boy, then just 11 years old, with rubber hoses; he says that even when the soles of his feet were whipped, he didn’t divulge the names of activist schoolmates.

After four days, Muhammad’s father, Adnan, paid a $1,000 bribe to get the boy freed. The father and mother say that they warned the boy not to protest because his activities could get his father fired from his job.

Muhammad defied his parents and marked his 12th birthday by continuing to protest. At one demonstration, police detained him and clubbed him with the butt of a rifle until his knee was shattered.

A doctor, Kathem Abazeid, treated Muhammad and others injured by security forces. The secret police later executed Dr. Abazeid for treating protesters, the family says.

Muhammad also faced a more mundane challenge: How could he take his seventh-grade final exams without getting arrested when he showed up for them? His school principal sympathized and arranged for Muhammad to take the exams secretly; the principal was later executed as well, the family says.

By now, Muhammad’s parents were so repulsed by the government’s brutality that they shifted positions. “At this point, we started siding with our son,” Adnan says.

When the security forces couldn’t find Muhammad to arrest him, according to the family, they punished his parents by burning down the family home, with all their possessions inside. They also detained Adnan, who says interrogators suspended him for nine days by his wrists, broke his arm and several ribs, and tortured him with electric shocks.

What kept Adnan from revealing his son’s location were thoughts of another boy detained in Dara’a: Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, 13. When Hamza’s body was returned to his parents, it had burn marks and smashed kneecaps, and it had been sexually mutilated.

So despite unbearable pain, Adnan gave up nothing; a father’s love prevailed over unbearable torture. When he was released after six weeks, the family fled to Jordan.

The International Rescue Committee has been helping Muhammad and his family. The family has medical records documenting the abuse, and both Adnan and Muhammad still suffer from their injuries.

These days, Muhammad is one of one million Syrian child refugees abroad, according to the United Nations. Like most of them, he doesn’t attend school. Children like him, uneducated and unskilled, will constitute a Syrian lost generation.

Neda Radwan, a psychologist for the International Rescue Committee, counsels the refugees and sees constant signs of survivor torment.

“I’ve tried art therapy with the children,” she said. “They refuse to draw anything but dead bodies.”

She showed me some of the drawings. They brim with bombs and blood, windows into the minds of children overwhelmed by violence.

I fear we’re heading down an unspeakable path: a war in Syria that may continue for years and claim hundreds of thousands of lives, the risk of the collapse of King Abdullah’s government in Jordan, and growing spillover of violence in Lebanon and Iraq.

There are no simple fixes to the Syrian tragedy, but there are steps we can take that might help. We can bolster moderate rebel groups with weapons, training and intelligence. Like many Syrians, I favor missile strikes on President Bashar al-Assad’s air force to reduce his capacity to bomb civilians, although few Americans agree with me. Certainly we can push much harder for humanitarian access to aid needy Syrians. We can also do more to educate refugee children like Muhammad.

Above all, let’s not just shrug and move on. If a scrawny seventh grader can stand up to a despot, so can we.

And now we finally get to Mr. Bruni:

It’s about time. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has surveyed the haughty scolds in its ranks, noted their fixation on matters of sexual morality above all others and said enough is enough. I’m not being cheeky with this one-word response. Hallelujah.

But it wasn’t the particulars of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking message in an interview published last week that stopped me in my tracks, gave fresh hope to many embittered Catholics and caused hardened commentators to perk up.

It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture. It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term “infallible” is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naïve, worried that he’d been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.

What a surprising portrait of modesty in a church that had lost touch with it.

And what a refreshing example of humility in a world with too little of it.

That’s what stayed with me, not the olive branch he extended to gay people or the way he brushed aside the contraception wars but his personification of a virtue whose deficit in American life hit me full force when I spotted it here, in his disarming words. Reading and then rereading the interview, I felt like a bird-watcher who had just stumbled upon a dodo.

I’m hardly the first to flag this pope’s apparent humility or the fact that it extends beyond his preference for simple dress over regal costumes, for a Ford Focus over a papal chariot, for modest quarters over a monarch’s suite. Less than two months ago, when he answered a question about gay priests with a question of his own — “Who am I to judge?”— the self-effacement in that phrase was widely and rightly celebrated. Was a pope really acting and talking like this?

But Francis’ tone so far is interesting not just as a departure for the church but as a counterpoint to the prevailing sensibility in our country, where humility is endangered if not quite extinct. It’s out of sync with all the relentless self-promotion, which has been deemed the very oxygen of success. It sits oddly with the cult of self-esteem.

Humility has little place in the realm of social media, which is governed by a look-at-me ethos, by listen-to-me come-ons, by me, me, me. And humility is quaintly irrelevant to the defining entertainment genre of our time, reality television, which insists that every life is mesmerizing, if only in the manner of a train wreck, and that anyone is a latent star: the housewife, the hoarder, the teen mom, the tuna fisher. Just preen enough to catch an audience’s eye. Just beckon the cameras close.

Politics is most depressing of all. It rewards braggarts and bullies, who muscle their way onto center stage with the crazy certainty that they and only they are right, while we in the electorate and the news media lack the fortitude to shut them up or shoo them away. They disgust but divert us, or at a minimum wear us down. Maybe we get the showboats we deserve.

FOR a textbook case of humility gone missing, consider right-wing Republicans’ efforts to derail Obamacare by whatever crude and disruptive means necessary. The health care law has its flaws, some of them profound, but it was legitimately passed, in accordance with the rules, and to stray outside them in order to make it go away is to believe that they don’t apply to you, that your viewpoint trumps the process itself. It’s the summit of arrogance.

Humility doesn’t work in the cross-fire of our political combat. Certainty and single-mindedness are better fuels.

How exactly does President Obama fit in? While his Syria reversals may well have diminished him, they had a sort of humility to them, reflected a willingness to yield to the strong feelings of others and deserve some acknowledgment along those lines. Leadership, more art than science, should be a mix of rallying people to your cause and recognizing when you stand too far away from them.

But in Obama there’s a recurrent deflection of criticism and a refusal to abide certain political customs and efficiencies — the stroking, the rewarding, the mantra-style repetition of a simplified argument for a distracted populace — that work against his success and smack of excessive pride. He could take a page from this pope.

I never expected to write that. For too many years I watched the chieftains of the church wrap themselves in lavish pageantry and prioritize the protection of fellow clergy members over the welfare of parishioners. They allowed priests who sexually abused children to evade accountability and, in many cases, to abuse again. That cover-up was the very antithesis of humility, driven by the belief that shielding the church from public scandal mattered more than anything else.

For too many years I also watched and listened to imperious men around the pope hurl thunderbolts of judgment from the Olympus of Vatican City. But in his recent interview, Francis made a plea for quieter, calmer weather, suggesting that church leaders in Rome spend less energy on denunciations and censorship.

He cast himself as a struggling pastor determined to work in a collaborative fashion. He characterized himself as a sinner. “It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre,” he clarified. “I am a sinner.”

He didn’t right past wrongs. Let’s be clear about that. Didn’t call for substantive change to church teachings and traditions that indeed demand re-examination, including the belief that homosexual acts themselves are sinful. Didn’t challenge the all-male, celibate priesthood. Didn’t speak as progressively — and fairly — about women’s roles in the church as he should.

But he also didn’t present himself as someone with all the answers. No, he stepped forward — shuffled forward, really — as someone willing to guide fellow questioners. In doing so he recognized that authority can come from a mix of sincerity and humility as much as from any blazing, blinding conviction, and that stature is a respect you earn, not a pedestal you grab. That’s a useful lesson in this grabby age of ours.

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Keller

June 30, 2013

MoDo and Frank Bruni are off today, so I guess that’s why we get Keller.  The Pasty Little Putz has fallen down the rabbit hole.  In “Democrats Get a Gift From the Roberts Court” he actually tries to ‘splain to us how the voting rights decision could help sustain the Obama majority.  It’s apparently supposed to so outrage “overheated liberals” that we’ll try extra, extra, extra hard to vote.  “Karen Garcia” from New Palz, NY has become one of my favorite NYT commenters.  She begins her comment on this POS thusly:  “I have to hand it to Ross Douthat. He is very skilled at advancing the racist cause of the American Right Wing under the guise of a sensible-sounding pep talk.  Reading between the lines, here’s what he seems to be saying:  Minority people have been rising above their station, actually getting off their butts and voting. And winning. No fair!”  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Takin’ It to the Streets:”  What’s behind so many popular street revolts in democracies?  Go ask a cab driver, Tommy.  In “Mandela and Obama” Mr. Keller thinks he knows what America’s president might have learned from South Africa’s hero.  Here, FSM help us, is Putzy:

Back in the days when Republicans were reading polls through rose-colored glasses and imagining a Mitt Romney landslide, one of their most plausible arguments was that many pollsters were simply misreading the likely composition of the electorate. There was no way, this theory ran, that core Democratic constituencies would turn out at the same rates as in 2008, when Obamamania was at its peak. Instead, 2012 was set up to be what the conservative writer Ben Domenech called an “undertow election,” in which reduced turnout among young voters and minorities would drag the incumbent down to defeat.

This expectation turned out to be wrong on two counts. First, Republicans faced an unexpected (though in hindsight, predictable) undertow of their own, as many conservative-leaning, working-class white voters looked at what Mitt Romney had to offer and simply stayed home.

Second, instead of declining as expected after the history-making election of 2008, African-American turnout may have actually risen again in 2012. When the Census Bureau released its turnout analysis last month, it showed blacks voting at higher rates than whites for the first time in the history of the survey.

If you believe Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s more overheated liberal critics, last week’s Supreme Court decision invalidating a portion of the Voting Rights Act is designed to make sure African-American turnout never hits these highs again. The ruling will allow a number of (mostly Southern) states to change voting laws without the Justice Department’s pre-approval, which has liberals predicting a wave of Republican-led efforts to “suppress” minority votes — through voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting and other measures.

These predictions probably overstate the ruling’s direct impact on state election rules, which can still be challenged under other provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other state and federal laws. But it is possible that the decision will boost the existing Republican enthusiasm for voter ID laws, and hasten the ongoing, multistate push for their adoption.

If so, though, the Roberts Court may have actually handed the Democratic Party a political gift.

How so? Well, to begin with, voter identification laws do not belong to the same moral or legal universe as Jim Crow. Their public purpose, as a curb to fraud, is potentially legitimate rather than nakedly discriminatory, and their effects are relatively limited. As Roberts’s majority opinion noted, the voter registration gap between whites and blacks in George Wallace’s segregationist Alabama was 50 percentage points. When my colleague Nate Silver looked at studies assessing the impact of voter ID laws, he estimated that they tend to reduce turnout by around 2 percent — and that reduction crosses racial lines, rather than affecting African-Americans exclusively.

A 2 percent dip is still enough to influence a close election. But voter ID laws don’t take effect in a vacuum: as they’re debated, passed and contested in court, they shape voter preferences and influence voter enthusiasm in ways that might well outstrip their direct influence on turnout. They inspire registration drives and education efforts; they help activists fund-raise and organize; they raise the specter of past injustices; they reinforce a narrative that their architects are indifferent or hostile to minorities.

This, I suspect, is part of the story of why African-American turnout didn’t fall off as expected between 2008 and 2012. By trying to restrict the franchise on the margins, Republican state legislators handed Democrats a powerful tool for mobilization and persuasion, and motivated voters who might otherwise have lost some of their enthusiasm after the euphoria of “Yes We Can” gave way to the reality of a stagnant, high-unemployment economy.

So a lengthy battle over voting rules and voting rights seems almost precision-designed to help the Obama-era Democratic majority endure once President Obama has left the Oval Office. As Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has pointed out, for all the talk about how important Hispanics are to the conservative future, the Republican Party could substantially close the gap with Democrats in presidential elections if its post-Obama share of the African-American vote merely climbed back above 10 percent — a feat achieved by Bob Dole and both Bushes. If that share climbed higher still, the Democratic majority would be in danger of collapse.

Such a turn of events wouldn’t just be good news for Republicans. It would be good news for black Americans, as it would mean that both parties were competing for their votes.

But for now, our politics is headed in the opposite direction. Liberal demagogy notwithstanding, voter ID laws aren’t a way for Republicans to turn the clock back and make sure that it’s always 1965. But they are a good way for Republicans to ensure that African-Americans keep voting like it’s always 2008.

It really is time for the Times to come up with a “conservative columnist” who has his medication successfully regulated.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The former C.I.A. analyst Paul R. Pillar asked this question in a recent essay in The National Interest: Why are we seeing so many popular street revolts in democracies? Speaking specifically of Turkey and Brazil, but posing a question that could be applied to Egypt, Israel, Russia, Chile and the United States, Pillar asks: “The governments being protested against were freely and democratically elected. With the ballot box available, why should there be recourse to the street?”

It is an important question, and the answer, I believe, is the convergence of three phenomena. The first is the rise and proliferation of illiberal “majoritarian” democracies. In Russia, Turkey and today’s Egypt, we have seen mass demonstrations to protest “majoritarianism” — ruling parties that were democratically elected (or “sort of” in Russia’s case) but interpret their elections as a writ to do whatever they want once in office, including ignoring the opposition, choking the news media and otherwise behaving in imperious or corrupt ways, as if democracy is only about the right to vote, not rights in general and especially minority rights.

What the protesters in Turkey, Russia and Egypt all have in common is a powerful sense of “theft,” a sense that the people who got elected are stealing something more than money: the people’s voice and right to participate in governance. Nothing can make a new democrat, someone who just earned the right to vote, angrier.

Here is what the satirist Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, wrote in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk last week, on the first anniversary of the election of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party: “We have a president who promised that a balanced constituent assembly would work on a constitution that everyone agrees on. We have a president who promised to be representative, but placed members of his Muslim Brotherhood in every position of power. We have a president and a party that broke all their promises, so the people have no choice but to take to the streets.”

A second factor is the way middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market. For so many years, workers were told that if you just work hard and play by the rules you’ll be in the middle class. That is just not true anymore. In this age of rapid globalization and automation, you have to work harder, work smarter, bring more innovation to whatever job you do, retool yourself more often — and then you can be in the middle class. There is just so much more stress on people in, or aspiring to be in, the middle class, and many more young people wondering how they’ll ever do better than their parents.

Too few leaders are leveling with their people about this shift, let alone helping them navigate it. And too many big political parties today are just vehicles for different coalitions to defend themselves against change rather than to lead their societies in adapting to it. Normally, this would create opportunities for the opposition parties, but in places like Turkey, Brazil, Russia and Egypt the formal opposition is feckless. So people take to the streets, forming their own opposition.

In America, the Tea Party began as a protest against Republicans for being soft on deficits, and Occupy Wall Street as a protest against Democrats for being soft on bankers. In Brazil, a 9 cent increase in bus fares set off mass protests, in part because it seemed so out of balance when the government was spending some $30 billion on stadiums for the Olympics and the World Cup. Writing in The American Interest, William Waack, an anchorman on Brazil’s Globo, probably spoke for many when he observed: “Brazilians don’t feel like their elected representatives at any level actually represent them, especially at a time when most leaders fear the stigma of making actual decisions (otherwise known as leading). … It’s not about the 9 cents.”

China is not a democracy, but this story is a sign of the times: In a factory outside Beijing, an American businessman, Chip Starnes, president of the Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, was held captive for nearly a week by about 100 workers “who were demanding severance packages identical to those offered to 30 recently laid-off employees,” according to Reuters. The workers feared they would be next as the company moved some production from China to India to reduce costs. (He was released in a deal on Thursday.)

Finally, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook and blogging, aggrieved individuals now have much more power to engage in, and require their leaders to engage in, two-way conversations — and they have much greater ability to link up with others who share their views to hold flash protests. As Leon Aron, the Russian historian at the American Enterprise Institute, put it, “the turnaround time” between sense of grievance and action in today’s world is lightning fast and getting faster.

The net result is this: Autocracy is less sustainable than ever. Democracies are more prevalent than ever — but they will also be more volatile than ever. Look for more people in the streets more often over more issues with more independent means to tell their stories at ever-louder decibels.

Tommy, decibels can’t get louder.  Sounds get louder, and decibels measure that.  Sheesh…  And now we have Mr. Keller’s ruminations:

Gathering valedictory material on Nelson Mandela as he faded in a Pretoria hospital the other day, I came across a little book called “Mandela’s Way.” In this 2010 volume, Rick Stengel, the ghostwriter of Mandela’s autobiography, set out to extract “lessons on life, love and courage” he had learned from three years of immersion in Mandela’s life.

Stengel, who is the managing editor of Time magazine, could not resist comparing his hero to another tall, serene, hope-bearing son of Africa: Barack Obama.

“Obama’s self-discipline, his willingness to listen and to share credit, his inclusion of his rivals in his administration, and his belief that people want things explained, all seem like a 21-century version of Mandela’s values and persona,” he wrote. “Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage.”

A bit much, yes? Well, Stengel was hardly alone back then in awarding the American president a stature he had scarcely begun to earn. The Nobel Committee, which had awarded its peace prize to Mandela for ending the obscenity of apartheid, bestowed that honor on Obama merely for not being George W. Bush.

Different men, different countries, different times. Perhaps even Mandela — who was more successful liberating South Africa than governing it — could not have lived up to the inflated expectations heaped on Obama. But it is interesting to imagine how Obama’s presidency might be different if he had in fact done it Mandela’s way.

Mandela, in his time on the political stage, was a man of almost ascetic self-discipline. But he also understood how to deploy his moral authority in grand theatrical gestures. Facing capital charges of trying to overthrow the state in the Rivonia Trial, he entered the formal Pretoria courtroom dressed in a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to dramatize that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction. And then he essentially confessed to the crime.

In 1995, Mandela, newly elected president of a still deeply divided country, single-handedly turned the Rugby World Cup — the whitest sporting event in South Africa, long the target of anti-apartheid boycotts — into a festival of interracial harmony. He was, in short, the opposite of “no drama.”

Obama’s sense of political theater peaked at his first inaugural. He rarely deploys the stirring reality that he is the first black man to hold the office. As my Times colleague Peter Baker notes, “Obama’s burden as he sees it, different from Mandela’s, is to make the fact that he’s black be a nonissue. Only then will his breakthrough be truly meaningful.” Still, I think Mandela would have sought a way to make a more exciting civic bond out of the pride so many Americans felt in this milestone.

Mandela understood that politics is not mainly a cerebral sport. It is a business of charm and flattery and symbolic gestures and eager listening and little favors. It is above all a business of empathy. To help win over the Afrikaners, he learned their Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. For John Boehner, he’d have learned golf and become a merlot drinker. “You don’t address their brains,” Mandela advised his colleagues, and would surely advise Obama. “You address their hearts.”

Mandela was a consummate negotiator. Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. I don’t envy Obama’s having to deal with intransigent Republicans or his own demanding base, but Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. By comparison, the Tea Party is, well, a tea party.

Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he was discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: this is fun. We’ve had joyful presidents — Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan. Obama more often seems to regard the job as an ordeal.

Mandela, above all, had a clear sense of his core principles: freedom, equality, the rule of law. He changed tactics, shifted alliances (one day the Communist Party, another day the business oligarchs) but never lost sight of the ultimate goal. In fairness to Obama, Mandela had a cause of surpassing moral clarity. The American president is rarely blessed with problems so, literally, black and white. And if Obama leaves behind universal health care and immigration reform — two initiatives that have consistently defeated previous presidents — that will be no small legacy. But tell me, do you have a clear sense of what moral purpose drives our president?

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

May 5, 2013

The Pasty Little Putz has decided to tell us all “What Health Insurance Doesn’t Do.”  He tries to convince us that there are probably better ways to improve people’s lives.  I’ll bet you two things:  First, this little asshole isn’t about to give up his own health insurance and, second, he doesn’t read Krugman’s blog although he really should.  (As an added bonus Putzy uses Megan “Can’t Keep Track of Decimal Points” McArdle and Slate as his authoritative links.)  MoDo has a question in “In a Gaudy Theme Park Jay-Z Meets Jay-Gatz:”  Why are we borne back ceaselessly to West Egg and Gatsby swag?  Bread and circuses, that’s why.  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question in “This Ain’t Yogurt:”  Just what would it take to put Syria on a path toward democracy?  Beats the fck out of me, but I will tell you that we do not need to be meddling militarily in the region again.  Mr. Bruni, in “Sexism and the Single Murderess,” says Amanda Knox’s story is just one example of our continued quickness to heap scorn and slurs on women seen as sexually bold.  Here’s The Putz:

In one of the most famous studies of health insurance, conducted across the 1970s, thousands of participants were divided into five groups, with each receiving a different amount of insurance coverage. The study, run by the RAND Corporation, tracked the medical care each group sought out, and not surprisingly found that people with more comprehensive coverage tended to make use of it, visiting the doctor and checking into the hospital more often than people with less generous insurance.

But the study also tracked the health outcomes of each group, and there the results were more surprising: With a few modest exceptions, the level of insurance had no significant effect on the participants’ actual wellness.

Needless to say, experts have been arguing about what the RAND results mean ever since. But the basic finding — that more expensive health insurance doesn’t necessarily lead to better health — just received a major boost. The state of Oregon expanded its Medicaid program via lottery a few years ago, and researchers released the latest data on how health outcomes for the new Medicaid users differed from those for the uninsured. The answer: They didn’t differ much. Being on Medicaid helped people avoid huge medical bills, and it reduced depression rates. But the program’s insurance guarantee seemed to have little or no impact on common medical conditions like hypertension and diabetes.

As liberals have been extremely quick to point out, these findings do not necessarily make a case against the new health care law, which includes a big Medicaid expansion as well as subsidies for private insurance. After all, the first purpose of insurance is economic protection, and the Oregon data shows that expanding coverage does indeed protect people from ruinous medical expenses. The links between insurance, medicine and health may be impressively mysterious, but staving off medical bankruptcies among low-income Americans is not a small policy achievement.

This is true. But it’s also true that the health care law was sold, in part, with the promise (made by judicious wonks as well as overreaching politicians) that it would save tens of thousands of American lives each year. There was so much moral fervor on the issue, so much crusading liberal zeal, precisely because this was not supposed to be just a big redistribution program: it was supposed to be a matter of life and death.

But if it turns out that health insurance is useful mostly because it averts financial catastrophe — which seems to be the consensus liberal position since the Oregon data came out — then the new health care law looks vulnerable to two interconnected critiques.

First, if the benefit of health insurance is mostly or exclusively financial, then shouldn’t health insurance policies work more like normal insurance? Fire, flood and car insurance exist to protect people against actual disasters, after all, not to pay for ordinary repairs. If the best evidence suggests that health insurance is most helpful in protecting people’s pocketbooks from similar disasters, and that more comprehensive coverage often just pays for doctor visits that don’t improve people’s actual health, then shouldn’t we be promoting catastrophic health coverage, rather than expanding Medicaid?

Liberals don’t like catastrophic plans because, by definition, they’re stingier than the coverage many Americans now enjoy. But this is where the second critique comes in: If the marginal dollar of health care coverage doesn’t deliver better health, isn’t this a place where policy makers should be stingy, while looking for more direct ways to improve the prospects of the working poor? Some kind of expanded health security is clearly a good thing — but if we want to promote economic mobility as well, does it really make sense to pour about a trillion dollars into a health care system that everyone agrees is deeply dysfunctional, when some of that money could be returned to Americans’ paychecks instead?

There are a variety of ways this could be accomplished — a bigger child tax credit for struggling families, a payroll tax cut to boost workers, an expanded earned-income tax credit to raise wages at the bottom, health savings accounts that roll over money left unspent. In each case, the goal would be to help people rise by giving them more money and more options for what to do with it, rather than just expanding 1960s-vintage programs that pay medical bills and only medical bills.

It’s to the Republican Party’s great discredit that these policies and goals don’t have enough conservative champions at the moment. But it’s to liberals’ discredit that they remain wedded to the dream of a health care bureaucracy that pays and pays and pays, when in all likelihood we could be spending much less with similar results, and finding better ways to help the poor.

Yeah, Putzy, by all means let’s not let them have health insurance, because it doesn’t prevent illness.  You stupid jackass.  Here’s MoDo:

When I started out in journalism, I spent five long years as a reporter in Montgomery County, Md., a cosseted suburb of Washington.

I felt suffocated, as though I’d never escape to the blazing, gritty larger world I dreamed of covering.

Driving to work every day, I passed a small cemetery connected to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville. I would always look up and give a silent salute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was buried there in the Fitzgerald family plot. His modest headstone features the indelible final line of “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

There was something both incongruous and congruous in the final resting spot for the shimmering American chronicler of corrosive glamour and crushed dreams: next to a busy highway peppered with tacky strip malls.

When Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at 44 after a failed stint as a screenwriter, a losing struggle with alcoholism and a relationship with the Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham, his Hollywood funeral attracted only 30 people, including his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and required hired pallbearers. For 35 years, Fitzgerald was buried in a Protestant cemetery two miles from St. Mary’s, until the Catholic Church got over the idea that his decadence precluded a Catholic burial and let him and Zelda in.

Surveying his own crushed dreams once, Fitzgerald — who sold the movie rights to “The Great Gatsby” for $16,666 in the 1920s, sparking a long succession of green lights for his enchanted green-light saga — famously said that there are no second acts in American life. For someone who wrote an iconic American novel (as Lionel Trilling observed, “Gatsby, divided between power and dream, comes inevitably to stand for America itself”) it was a bad miscalculation. Americans love sin and redemption and reinvention almost as much as they love stuff.

Fitzgerald is not only having a glittering second act, he’s having it in the third dimension.

All over Manhattan, in anticipation of the opening of Baz Luhrmann’s $104.5 million 3-D theme-park ride of a “Great Gatsby,” with its hip-hop-studded soundtrack and gorgeous Prada dresses, Fitzgerald is being celebrated with starry parties; Tiffany’s jazz-baby windows; Brooks Brothers boaters, bow ties and canes; and a Vogue cover of the latest Daisy Buchanan, Carey Mulligan, gleaming in diamonds and pearls, looking as if she would sound like money.

“She’s in her own TV show,” Mulligan said of her character. “She’s like a Kardashian.”

In this gaudy, blingy, frenzied version that puts the roaring in Roaring Twenties, gin bottles, bits of the novel’s text and Gatsby’s passel of pastel shirts come flying off the screen right at you.

“It will be interesting,” Robert Redford wryly told me, “to see how many in the audience grab for a shirt.”

The 3-D glasses, though, just get in the way of seeing the more subtle elements of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece: the decay of souls, the crumbling mythology and the dark side of social mobility.

Some at screenings last week muttered at how appalled they were that “Gatsby” was being treated like a Disney pirate movie. One woman said the dizzying kaleidoscope made her long to see a small black-and-white version of the film. But the Australian director argues that Fitzgerald was a modernist who was fascinated with new cinematic techniques and jazz when it was dangerous, so he would have been intrigued by 3-D and rap.

Luhrmann told The Wall Street Journal that when he met with Jay-Z about scoring the soundtrack and showed him a rough cut, that Jay, who started as Shawn Carter, immediately connected with the other Jay, who started as James Gatz: “Jay turns to me and goes, ‘It’s an aspirational film. You know, the thing about this story is that it’s not a question of how Gatsby made his money, it’s is he a good person or not? Is there meaning in his life? And all these characters, do they have a moral compass?’ ”

Robert Evans, the legendary producer, was running Paramount when the studio made the 1974 “Gatsby” for $6.4 million with Redford and Mia Farrow, a commercial success despite being pronounced “as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool” by The Times’s Vincent Canby. Evans said he spent some time with Luhrmann before Baz started the film and warned him not to overcommercialize and overpublicize the movie. (In vain, given the movie’s high-end tie-ins and the swag online, including “I party with Jay Gatsby” tank tops, Dr. T. J. Eckleburg laptop decals, and green-light pendants.)

“The trouble we had with our ‘Gatsby’ was that everything was Gatsbyized from your toes to your hats, from your stockings to your pants,” Evans told me. “It took it away from a work of art to a work of commerce.”

He believes the movie was damaged by a 1974 Time cover on the hype involved in selling “Gatsby,” a story that started with this Evans quote: “The making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century.”

The most successful rendering of the novel was the most literal, unadorned one: “Gatz,” the Public Theater’s seven-hour reading of the novel by actors.

John Collins, the director of “Gatz,” who says he has listened to the novel read more than 200 times, was generous about the “contemporary sensibilities” of the latest iteration, even big changes like having the narrator, Nick Carraway, end up in a sanitarium because of his “morbid alcoholism.” That’s where Luhrmann’s Nick writes the novel and narrates the movie.

“The movie is almost kind of a comic book idea of ‘The Great Gatsby,’” Collins said. “I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. It’s an imaginative project.”

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, understands that we’re drawn back to “Gatsby” because we keep seeing modern buccaneers of banking and hedge funds, swathed in carelessness and opulence. “But what most people don’t understand is that the adjective ‘Great’ in the title was meant laconically,” he said. “There’s nothing genuinely great about Gatsby. He’s a poignant phony. Owing to the money-addled society we live in, people have lost the irony of Fitzgerald’s title. So the movies become complicit in the excessively materialistic culture that the novel set out to criticize.”

He noted that Gatsby movies are usually just moving versions of Town and Country or The Times’s T magazine, and that filmmakers “get seduced by the seductions that the book itself is warning about.”

A really great movie of the novel, he argues, would “show a dissenting streak of austerity.” He thinks it’s time for a black Gatsby, noting that Jay-Z might be an inspirational starting point — “a young man of talents with an unsavory past consumed by status anxiety and ascending unstoppably through tireless self-promotion and increasingly conspicuous wealth.”

The problem with the “Gatsby” movies, he said, “is that they look like they were made by Gatsby. The trick is to make a Gatsby movie that couldn’t have been made by Gatsby — an unglossy portrait of gloss.”

All you really need to see are the promos for this POS on the TV to see that it will be crap.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

An Arab friend remarked to me that watching the United States debate how much to get involved in Syria reminded him of an Arab proverb: “If you burn your tongue once eating soup, for the rest of your life you’ll blow on your yogurt.”

After burning our tongues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and watching with increasing distress the aftermath of the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, President Obama is right to be cautious about getting burned in Damascus. We’ve now seen enough of these Arab transitions from autocracy to draw some crucial lessons about what it takes to sustain positive change in these countries. We ignore the lessons at our peril — especially the lesson of Iraq, which everyone just wants to forget but is hugely relevant.

Syria is Iraq’s twin: an artificial state that was also born after World War I inside lines drawn by imperial powers. Like Iraq, Syria’s constituent communities — Sunnis, Alawite/Shiites, Kurds, Druze, Christians — never volunteered to live together under agreed rules. So, like Iraq, Syria has been ruled for much of its modern history by either a colonial power or an iron-fisted autocrat. In Iraq, the hope was that once the iron-fisted dictator was removed by us it would steadily transition to a multisectarian, multiparty democracy. Ditto for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

But we now see the huge difference between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab world in 2013. In most of Eastern Europe, the heavy lid of communist authoritarian rule was suppressing broad and deeply rooted aspirations for democracy. So when that lid was removed, most of these countries relatively quickly moved to freely elected governments — helped and inspired by the European Union.

In the Arab world, in contrast, the heavy lid of authoritarianism was suppressing sectarian, tribal, Islamist and democratic aspirations. So, when the lids were removed, all four surfaced at once. But the Islamist trend has been the most energetic — helped and inspired not by the European Union but by Islamist mosques and charities in the Persian Gulf — and the democratic one has proved to be the least organized, least funded and most frail. In short, most of Eastern Europe turned out to be like Poland after communism ended and most of the Arab countries turned out to be like Yugoslavia after communism ended.

As I said, our hope and the hope of the courageous Arab democrats who started all these revolutions, was that these Arab countries would make the transition from Saddam to Jefferson without getting stuck in Khomeini or Hobbes — to go from autocracy to democracy without getting stuck in Islamism or anarchism.

But, to do that, they need either an external midwife to act as a referee between all their constituent communities (who never developed trust in one another) as they try to replace sectarianism, Islamism and tribalism with a spirit of democratic citizenship or they need their own Nelson Mandela. That is, a homegrown figure who can lead, inspire and navigate a democratic transition that is inclusive of all communities.

America, we all know, played that external referee role in Iraq — hugely ineptly at first. But, eventually, the U.S. and moderate Iraqis found a way back from the brink, beat back both Sunni and Shiite violent extremists, wrote a constitution and held multiple free elections, hoping to give birth to that Iraqi Mandela. Alas, they got Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite who, instead of building trust with other communities, is re-sowing sectarian division. Decades of zero-sum politics — “I’m-weak-how-can-I-compromise/I’m-strong-why-should-I-compromise” — are hard to extinguish.

I believe if you want to end the Syrian civil war and tilt Syria onto a democratic path, you need an international force to occupy the entire country, secure the borders, disarm all the militias and midwife a transition to democracy. It would be staggeringly costly and take a long time, with the outcome still not guaranteed. But without a homegrown Syrian leader who can be a healer, not a divider, for all its communities, my view is that anything short of an external force that rebuilds Syria from the bottom up will fail. Since there are no countries volunteering for that role (and I am certainly not nominating the U.S.), my guess is that the fighting in Syria will continue until the parties get exhausted.

Meanwhile, wherever we can identify truly “good” rebels, we should strengthen them, but we should also be redoubling our diplomatic efforts to foster a more credible opposition leadership of reconciliation-minded Syrians who can reassure all of Syria’s communities that they will have an equitable place at a new cabinet table. (Never underestimate how many Syrians are clinging to the tyrannical Bashar al-Assad out of fear that after him comes only Hobbes or Khomeini.) That way, when the combatants get exhausted and realize that there can be no victor and no vanquished — a realization that took 14 years in Lebanon’s civil war next door — a fair power-sharing plan will be in place. Even then, Syrians will almost certainly need outside help to reassure everyone during the transition, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

Here’s the one alternative that won’t happen: one side will decisively defeat the other and usher in peace that way. That is a fantasy.

Lastly we have Mr. Bruni:

“Sex game gone wrong,” “sex game gone awry,” “sex-mad flatmate,” “sex-crazed killer.”

That’s from just the first three minutes of the ABC News special on Amanda Knox last week, a veritable drumbeat of sexual shaming that leaves no doubt about what elevated a college student accused of murder into an object of international fascination, titillation and scorn.

It wasn’t the crime itself. It was the supposed conspiracy of her libido, cast as proof that she was out of control, up to no good, lost, wicked, dangerous. A girl this intent on randy fun was a girl who couldn’t be trusted and got what was coming to her, even if it was prison and even if there was plenty of reason — as the eventual reversal of her initial conviction made clear — to believe that she might not belong there.

“Knox knew, it seemed, no boundaries, leaving a vibrator in a transparent washbag and enjoying one-night stands,” wrote Tobias Jones in a 2011 article in the British newspaper The Observer. One-night stands? How could she?!? Of course if a guy has one of those, it’s a triumph: all the pleasure, none of the commitment. And boys, after all, will be boys.

We’ll never know precisely what happened on the night in Perugia, Italy, in 2007 when Meredith Kercher, 21, was killed. Knox, her housemate, was found guilty, then acquitted and will soon, despite the profoundly flawed case against her, face another trial. The Italian judicial system works about as smoothly as the Italian government.

But we know this: the double standard concerning men’s versus women’s sexuality not only survives but thrives, manifest in the enduring notoriety of “Foxy Knoxy,” whose memoir was published on the same day last week that the ABC News special aired. Keep the rest of her story the same but make her a man in the midst of erotic escapades abroad. Are we still gawking? Is ABC trumpeting Diane Sawyer’s exclusive sit-down with the lascivious pilgrim?

Similar questions can be asked about Jodi Arias, 32, whose murder trial in Arizona was winding down last week. The Arias case hasn’t made quite the leap from the tabloids into the mainstream that Knox’s did. But HLN, the cable network on which Nancy Grace fulminates, has enjoyed a ratings bonanza with its saturation coverage of the courtroom proceedings.

Arias has admitted to stabbing, shooting and slashing the throat of a former lover: an act of self-defense, she unpersuasively claims. And while his death was certainly grisly enough to explain a baseline of media interest, the amount of attention it has received stems from the courtroom juxtaposition of the defendant, outfitted in nerdy eyeglasses and a frumpy hairstyle, and evidence of what a steamy, pliable playmate she was. It stems from pictures of her genitalia that she let her lover take, audiotapes of the phone sex that the two of them had — and that she recorded. It stems from the shock and censure of such potent female desire.

Knox and Arias aren’t just women accused of murder. They’re minxes accused of murder, sitting in their courtroom seats with scarlet letters emblazoned on their chests, no jury needed to pronounce them guilty of wantonness at the very least. For men, lust is a tripwire. For women, it’s a noose.

I’ve heard quite a bit lately about David Petraeus’s road to redemption. I’ve heard less about Paula Broadwell’s. Yes, he’s the more public figure, but the disparity also reflects the way their affair was often portrayed in the first place. He strayed; she preyed. He was weak; she was wily. He was the fly, she the spider.

Let’s bring a few other recent news stories into this. Let’s indulge in a few hypotheticals.

What if it had been Antonia Weiner who took to Twitter and there had been a different architecture to the image she tweeted? Would she be able even to entertain the idea of a political comeback? And would the spouse standing dutifully by her be seen as a brave and magnanimous stalwart, the way Huma Abedin is viewed in some quarters, or dismissed by one and all as a pitiable pushover?

Had a Southern governor named Marcia Sanford been entangled with a Latin lover when reputedly hiking the Appalachian Trail, would she today be her party’s nominee for an open Congressional seat? We know the answer, and we know that Wilhelmina Clinton and Newtina Gingrich wouldn’t have rebounded from their infidelities as robustly as Bill and Newt did.

Men get passes, women get reputations, and real, lasting humiliation travels only one way. The size and scope of that mortification, despite many decades of happy talk about dawning gender equality, are suggested by recent news stories of one teenage girl in California and another in Nova Scotia who hanged themselves after tales or cellphone pictures of their sexual violation circulated among peers. It’s impossible not to wonder if shame drove them to suicide, and it’s impossible not to ask what sort of world allows the victims of such assaults to feel more irredeemably branded — more eternally damned — than their accused assailants by all appearances do.

I’ll tell you what sort: a world in which there’s a cornucopia of synonyms for whore and slut and no comparably pejorative vocabulary for promiscuous or sexually rapacious men. A world in which Knox’s vibrator and the lingerie she was said to have bought in a Perugia store were presented not just as newsworthy but as germane to the charge of murder against her: referendums on her character, glimmers of her depravity, clues to precisely how a good girl went bad. A world in which her erotic appetite made her a “man eater,” as the Italian press wrote and as the rest of the world more or less parroted. A world in which her tally, scribbled on a sheet of paper in her prison cell, of seven sexual partners in all of her life was seen as sensational. A similar count for a guy in his early 20s would provoke not derision but disagreement: swordsman or slacker?

When we chart and lament the persistence of sexism in society, we look to the United States Congress, where women are still woefully underrepresented. We look to corporate boardrooms, where the glass ceiling hasn’t really shattered. But we needn’t look any further than how perversely censorious of women’s sex lives we remain, and how short the path from siren to slut and from angel to she-devil can be.


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