Archive for the ‘The Moustache of Wisdom’ Category

Dowd and Friedman

July 30, 2014

In “Night at the Opera?” MoDo says as the clock ticks down on union negotiations, the Met plays out its most painful opera.  In “ ‘Maybe in America’ ” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that Madagascar is an example of a combination of global pressures coming to the fore.  Here’s MoDo:

Peter Gelb still recalls the sting. “In second grade, my report card said I couldn’t take criticism, and I remember being devastated by that,” he said.

So it’s easy to believe the 60-year-old general manager of the Metropolitan Opera when he says that this is the most stressful week of his life, with his career and the Met’s future “at stake.” Hurtling toward a lockout, Gelb sees a fresh vitriolic insult from a union negotiator every time he checks the news on his phone. And with the planned production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” Gelb is also attracting protesters and even some death threats.

“They come by email — the convenient modern delivery system for death threats,” he said, taking a break from marathon negotiations to have a pork chop dinner at a Lincoln Center restaurant. Gelb refused to cancel the production. But after speaking with Jewish leaders, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who hasn’t seen the opera but worried it could fuel anti-Semitism abroad, he called off the Live in HD broadcast.

“I had no idea four years ago when I set this up that it would suddenly be juxtaposed with the events in the Middle East,” he said, denying that he unSolomonically split the baby of artistic freedom. “I think what I did was protect the baby.”

I never expected to get any closer to the Met than reading about opera in Edith Wharton’s Belle Epoch, club boxes filled with “these chosen specimens of old New York gentility.”

But Peter Gelb’s late father, Arthur, was my editor and mentor at The Times. And when Peter threw open the doors to the musty, fusty institution — “an isolated island, disconnected from the mainland,” he called it — trying to lure younger patrons and beaming the hugely successful Live in HD productions around the world, I ventured into the Met and was instantly enchanted.

So it makes me sad, seeing the magical Met family tear itself apart.

Gelb, a Yale dropout who worked as a teenage usher at the Met and an office boy for the impresario Sol Hurok, comes across as smooth, tailored and cerebral. But he admits he’s made mistakes and tried to develop a tougher skin. Now, he says, he tries to figure out if he’s hurt and right, or hurt and wrong. “You know, I’m a neurotic Jew,” he said. “I’m constantly thinking did I screw this thing up or what could I have done differently or better.”

Criticized by Met workers for having too many productions, he cut back for the last season and for the next from seven to six. He has also toned down the hype.

The fortissimo battle between Met management and workers — full of acrimony, jealousy and demonizing — seems like opera. But Gelb says it’s more like “lurid melodrama” or “chaos.”

The unions have personalized the fight, sniping at Gelb and expensive productions that have not panned out, while Gelb is sticking to the bottom line of unsustainable labor costs. His job has been compared to that of a lion tamer, but now he says, with a rueful smile, “I’m the lion tamer who may be eaten. But I have to not flinch. As one union leader told me years ago, the employees only believe the employer’s telling the truth when he goes out of business.”

The workers say he needs to take some of his grandiosity out of grand opera. He says they have “gold leaf syndrome.”

“They’re surrounded by too much gold leaf,” Gelb says of the 15 unions — from wigs and makeup to a union consisting of one house painter. “It’s delusional. Economically, they’ve been calling the shots for decades. And I have to break that up for the Met to survive. We have to go big, but do it in a way that’s economically small. Even in the Met, you can see the gold leaf’s chipping off the ceiling.”

Doubtless, the Met workers have Nibelungen fatigue. The two central symbols of their argument that Gelb is a spendthrift are the 45-ton machine of movable planks in a $19 million “Ring” production (a mil had to be spent simply reinforcing the stage) and the $169,000 poppy field in “Prince Igor.”

“We’re being told that our livelihoods and our lives are not as important as the machine and the poppies,” said Jessica Phillips Rieske, a clarinetist and negotiator for the orchestra union who objects to Gelb presenting himself as the savior of “a dinosaur” art form. “We’re saying, let’s all trim our belts.”

Gelb says he regrets that the “Ring” machine was “creaky” but isn’t sorry about “pushing the envelope,” and he says he was “naïve about understanding the risk of replacing Zeffirelli’s ‘Tosca.’ ”

Anthony Tommasini, The Times’s chief classical music critic, says there have been mistakes on both sides. “The union heads have made Gelb seem so incompetent, even artistically, that if the talks are resolved, then what is the public to think? ‘Great, another season courtesy of that know-nothing,’ ” he said. “Gelb has made some bad calls, especially by giving us Robert Lepage’s ‘Ring,’ which is a show about a set. But he has had some milestone productions as well, most recently the new ‘Falstaff’ and the revelatory ‘Prince Igor.’ The union heads have to stop complaining about silk poppy fields. That’s not the cause of the Met’s budget woes.”

As the clock ticks down, I’m rooting for Valhalla, not Götterdämmerung.

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Antananarivo, Madagascar:

I’ve been arguing that the big divide in the world these days is between the world of order and a growing world of disorder. If you’re keeping score at home, the world of disorder just added another country: Libya. America quietly folded up its embassy in Libya last week and left, leaving behind a tribal/militia war of all against all. Not good.

There will be more of this. It’s not easy being a country anymore. There is no more Cold War to prop up, arm and finance frail states. More important, the combined pressures of the market (globalization and the speed with which investment can flow into countries doing the right things and out of those doing bad things), Moore’s Law (the steady rise in computing power that makes every good job today require more education) and Mother Nature (climate change, biodiversity loss, erosion and population growth) have all passed certain tipping points. Together, the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are stressing out developed countries and helping to blow up weak ones.

For me, the movie line that perfectly captures this moment was uttered by the leader of the Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship in “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks. The pirate nicknames the Boston-bred Phillips “Irish.” In a critical scene, Hanks tries to reason with the Somali hijacker, saying to him: “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.”

To which the hijacker replies, “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”

It has been instructive to see all these pressures up close here in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world. The globalization of illicit trade has left Madagascar exposed to Chinese merchants working with corrupt officials here to illegally import everything from valuable rosewood timber to rare tortoises. Some global textile manufacturers set up factories then quit when the politics turned too unstable. Mandatory education here is only through age 15, and it’s in the local Malagasy language. That makes it hard to compete in a world where some developed countries are teaching computer coding in first grade.

And then there’s Mother Nature: the population of Madagascar is exploding, and the forests and soils are eroding. The soil for agriculture here is iron rich, nutrient poor and often very soft. Since 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests have been chopped down for slash-and-burn agriculture, timber, firewood and charcoal over the last century, most hillsides have no trees to hold the soil when it rains. Flying along the northwest coast, you can’t miss the scale of the problem. You see a giant red plume of eroded red soil bleeding into the Betsiboka River, bleeding into Mahajanga Bay, bleeding into the Indian Ocean. The mess is so big that astronauts take pictures of it from space.

“The more you erode, the more people you have with less soil under their feet to grow things,” said Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, who’s been working in Madagascar to help preserve its environment since 1984 and has been showing me around. “When I first came here in 1984, the population was nine or 10 million. It is now approaching 23 million.”

When countries have rapidly growing populations and rapidly diminishing natural capital, the leadership required to match the scale of the problems they face is nothing less than herculean. After 50 years of mostly bad leadership, Madagascar has democratically elected a new, post-coup president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina. He seems to want to do the right things. We can only hope he has some Hercules in him.

Nothing he does will be more important than preserving what is left of Madagascar’s pristine beaches, forests and plant and animal species (particularly its lemurs), among the most rare and diverse in the world. Parks and reserves have been set aside by the government — and even with the destruction there’s still a ton to see — but they will only be sustainable if they are supported by ecotourist lodges and guides who are drawn from local communities and incentivized to protect their natural capital. But that takes a government able to expand protected areas, build proper roads (rural roads here have more potholes than pavement), crack down on illegal logging and provide credit to rural communities.

Serge Rajaobelina is the founder of Fanamby, a local nonprofit that supports villagers starting ecotourist sites, like Camp Amoureux, situated in western Madagascar amid spectacular giant baobab trees. We stayed there. Of the 25 locals working there, 22 were women. “Involving communities in ecotourism is the key,” said Rajaobelina. “The people who are always in the field are the communities, and they are the best conservationists and guides.” But, he added, they need help with capacity building: training, access to credit and infrastructure.

There are already too many people walking around the world saying, “Maybe in America, but not here.” We don’t need more. Keeping Madagascar out of the world of disorder has to start by preserving its ecosystems, which are vital for sustaining its people and attracting tourism. But that requires good leadership, and good leaders today — anywhere — are the rarest species of all.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

July 27, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “Up From Greenwich:” Can the G.O.P. stop being the party of the rich? Once my cats stopped laughing they pointed out what “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had to say in the comments: “ ‘the Republicans could finally — and deservedly — shake their identity as a party that cares only about the rich.’ And the sun could rise in the west.” In “Angell in the Outfield” MoDo tells us that from Babe to Jeter, Roger Angell has taken his readers out to the old ballgame. This is the kind of writing she’s capable of, and I wish she’d do more of it. The Moustache of Wisdom asks “What Is News?” He tells us that Madagascar, one of the world’s greatest ecosystems, is on the edge. Mr. Kristof tells us about “The World’s Coolest Places.” He says if we’re looking for a summer escape here are some suggestions for adventure way beyond a scintillating beach read. Here’s The Putz:

When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, he did so in an unusual way for a Democrat: As the candidate of the rich. He raised more in large-dollar donations than any of his rivals and raked in more cash from Wall Street than John McCain. In November, he won the upper class’s votes: By 52 percent to 46 percent, according to exit polls, Americans making more than $200,000 cast their ballots for Obama.

There were several reasons for this shift, some specific to 2008 (elite exhaustion with the Bush presidency, the power of Obamamania) and some reflecting deeper trends: The Republican Party’s post-1970s gains among white working-class voters; the Democratic Party’s post-1980s attempts to shed its anti-business reputation; the increasing cultural liberalism of the affluent; and the rise of the so-called “liberal rich.”

In the wake of Obama’s ’08 victory, these trends confronted Republicans with an interesting dilemma: Should they seek to actively win back the Aspen-Greenwich vote, or embrace their increasingly populist coalition and try to rebuild from the middle out?

Across the first Obama term, they mostly tried the first approach. There was an incredibly strong populist mood on the right — hence the Tea Party’s anti-Washington fervor, the rumblings against Wall Street from figures like Glenn Beck. But the populists marched into blind alleys on policy and rallied round never-gonna-happen standard bearers, while the mainstream of the party mostly stuck to a more generic script — job creators good, class warfare bad, you built that and now the 47 percent are living off your hard work …

Sure enough, in 2012, Mitt Romney won back the over-$200,000 vote, mostly by regaining ground in the suburbs around New York City. But what he didn’t win was the actual election, mostly because voters outside Greenwich and New Canaan decided that a G.O.P. obsessed with heroic entrepreneurs didn’t have their interests close to heart.

So haltingly at first, and then with increasing seriousness, Republicans began to look for a different path back to power — one tailored to the party’s growing dependence on working-class votes, and one designed to deliver populist substance as well as style.

Thus far they have circled around two broad approaches. One, dubbed “reform conservatism,” seeks to make the welfare state and tax code more friendly to work and child-rearing and upward mobility — through larger wage subsidies, bigger child tax credits, and a substantial clearing-out of the insider-friendly subsidies and tax breaks and regulations that drive up costs in health care, real estate, energy and higher education.

The other, “libertarian populism,” is even more zealous about attacking rent-seeking and crony capitalism, while also looking for other places — criminal justice reform, notably — where a libertarian approach to public policy might benefit people lower on the economic ladder.

These two approaches substantially overlap (with the main difference being a skepticism among the libertarians about targeting tax cuts and subsidies specifically to parents and the poor). And together, they provide the foundation on which a number of prominent Republicans — Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul — have built policy proposals over the last year.

Now that list includes Paul Ryan, who last week released a blueprint that folds together many of the strongest reformist and libertarian ideas: There’s a larger earned-income tax credit, proposed cuts to corporate welfare, a call for sentencing reform for nonviolent offenses, a critique of “regressive regulations” like licensing requirements, and much more.

This kind of agenda has a long way to go before we can call it the official Republican program. It could face opposition in 2016 from donors who were pretty happy with the Romney approach, and from activists who regard anything save deep austerity as a sellout to the left.

 But if the G.O.P. fully embraces the ideas its younger-generation leaders are pursuing, the Democrats could suddenly find themselves in a difficult spot. Liberals can theoretically outbid a limited-government populism, yes — but given the fiscal picture, they would need to raise taxes significantly to do so, alienating their own donors, the middle class or both. And the immediate liberal critique of Ryan’s new plan — that it’s too paternalistic, too focused on pushing welfare recipients to work — harkened back to debates that the Democratic Party used to lose.

Meanwhile, Obama-era liberalism has grown dangerously comfortable with big business-big government partnerships. It’s a bad sign when even the tribune of left-wing populism, Elizabeth Warren, feels obliged to defend, against libertarian populist attacks, an icon of crony capitalism like the Export-Import Bank.

So there’s a scenario — still unlikely, but much more plausible than a year ago — in which the pattern of 2012 could be reversed: A deepening association with big money and big business could suddenly become an albatross for Democrats, and the Republicans could finally — and deservedly — shake their identity as a party that cares only about the rich.

Oh, don’t you just hope and pray that’ll happen, Putzy…  Here’s MoDo:

 Roger Angell takes off his brown J. Press sports coat and blue cap, yanks out his hearing aids, stashes his cane, and sits down for a shave and haircut at Delta barbershop at 72nd and Lex., the same spot he’s patronized for 40 years. “I don’t see Henry Kissinger doing any interviews in a barbershop,” he says dryly.

The 93-year-old New Yorker writer has come down from his house in Maine to get spruced up for the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony this weekend. The old man who has lovingly described so many young men playing the game is getting the sport’s highest writing honor, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, unprecedented recognition for “a drop-in writer,” as he calls himself, whose leisurely deadlines prevented him from becoming a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

In 1962, he says, he took the advice of New Yorker editor William Shawn to try writing about something exotic, like baseball, describing Shawn’s red-cheeked excitement when Angell explained to him what a double play was.

Baseball writing was a part-time gig for Angell, who served for many years as the magazine’s fiction editor, following in the footsteps of his mother, Katharine Angell White, who left his father to marry her colleague E. B. White. When Angell moved into his mother’s old New Yorker office, he chuckles, his shrink called it the “biggest single act of sublimation in my experience.”

The lover of books and words — who else would use “venery” in a story and write the world’s longest palindrome? — crisply shepherded John Updike, Donald Barthelme and William Trevor, as he himself became so luminous that Sports Illustrated compared him to Willie Mays, the player Angell calls so thrilling he “took your breath away.” It’s refreshing that a sport that has become tarnished by the desire to amp itself up — on steroids, merchandise and video — should honor someone so unamped.

In person, the writer is less “Angellic” — the adjective coined to describe his beguiling writing — than astringent. He has spent most of a century, from Ruth to Jeter, passionately tracking the sport as a fan, but he also proclaims himself a “foe of goo.” He much prefers the sexy “Bull Durham” to the sentimental “Field of Dreams.” He sniffs at being called “the poet laureate of baseball” and winces at a recent reverential Sports Illustrated profile. “It made me sound like the Dalai Lama,” he says. “My God, I’m just a guy who happened to live on for a long time. I’d rather be younger and writing than all this stuff.”

When I ask him if the Jacques Barzun quote “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” was outmoded, he scoffs: “I didn’t write about baseball because I was looking for the heart and soul of America. I don’t care if baseball is the national pastime or not. The thing about baseball is, it’s probably the hardest game to play. The greatest hitters are only succeeding a third of the time. If you take a great athlete who’s never played baseball and put him in the infield, he’s lost.”

Many in our A.D.D. nation may find baseball soporific now, but not Angell.

“Baseball is linear — it’s like writing,” he says. “In other sports, there’s a lot going on at the same time. You can’t quite take it all in.”

Could soccer ever take over as the national pastime? “I don’t know,” he replied. “I felt I was being waterboarded by The New York Times with the World Cup.”

Do American men focus as much on baseball? “Baseball used to be really attractive for men because the guys that played it were normal size, they had winter jobs as truck drivers or beer salesmen,” he said. “So it was easy to think with a little bit of luck that could have been me. Now the athletes are clearly so much bigger and stronger and vastly more talented.”

Should steroid-tainted players be in the Hall of Fame?

“Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame,” he said, expressing sympathy for players who get worn down playing every day. “There’s been a lot of cheating, if you want to call it that, particularly about home runs,” he said. “If Ted Williams had had a short right field in Fenway Park, he would have been much better than Babe Ruth, probably.”

We drop by a Ralph Lauren store. He wants to buy a cotton sweater for Cooperstown but doesn’t see anything he likes. “It’s hard to be old and shop,” he says. “The sales staff is probably terrified that I’m changing the age demographic. And I’m no longer sure what I want.”

He said the instructions for Cooperstown were “like D-Day,” but noted mordantly, “Anything I do is O.K. because they’ll say, ‘He’s old. What do you expect? He’s 93. He’s hopeless.’ ”

He wrote a swell New Yorker story about the vicissitudes of old age, talking about how he memorizes poems and writes blogs to stay sharp.

Most surprising, the widower — his beloved wife, Carol, died two years ago — extolled the virtues of sunset sexuality, ratifying Laurence Olivier’s line “Inside, we’re all 17, with red lips.”

He asked me to mention his “fiancée and closest companion, Peggy Moorman,” adding, “Everybody has been so weepy about me and Carol, but Peggy looks after me and is the center of my life.” As he wrote in “This Old Man,” “I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach.”

At least somebody around here knows how to play this game.

Next up we’re faced with The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar:

With the world going crazy, I tried running away from the news. It didn’t work.

I’ve been doing an eco-survey of Madagascar, the island nation off the east coast of Africa that contains the highest percentage of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth — all of them now endangered to one degree or another. My tour guide is Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International and one of the world’s leading primatologists. We saw something the other day that even Mittermeier, who’s been coming here for 30 years, hadn’t seen before. We were trekking through the Berenty Reserve, one of the last remaining slices of Madagascar’s southern spiny desert, an ecosystem characterized by tall, thin, cactus-like plants exclusive to Madagascar. This forest is home to Sifaka lemurs: white, fluffy primates, with very long hind limbs that enable them to bound from tree to tree like forest kangaroos. How these lemurs are able to leap from one sharply spiked vertical tree to another without impaling themselves is a mystery.

After walking through the forest for hours, spotting a lemur here and there, we came upon a particularly dense grove and looked up. There, about 30 feet off the forest floor, were nine Sifaka lemurs huddling together for warmth in two groups — four on one limb, five on another — staring directly down at us. They looked as if they were drawn there by a Disney artist: too cute, too white, too fluffy to be other than the products of a toy factory. “I’ve seen two or three huddled together,” said Mittermeier later that night, “but I’ve never seen a whole group like that. I could have taken a whole chip full of pictures. I didn’t want to leave.”

None of us did. But it wasn’t just because we’d never seen such a thing before. It was because we knew we may never see such a thing again — that no one would, particularly our kids. Why? Just look at the trends: Madagascar has already lost more than 90 percent of its natural vegetation through deforestation, most of it over the last century, particularly the past few decades, said Mittermeier. “What remains is heavily fragmented and insufficiently protected, despite the fact that Madagascar has an essential national network of parks and reserves.”

And that brings me to the question: What is news?

I’ve visited and written a lot about Ukraine and the Middle East lately. The tragic events happening there are real news, worthy of world attention. But where we in the news media fall down is in covering the big trends — trends that on any given day don’t amount to much but over time could be vastly more significant than we can now imagine.

Too bad we’ll never see this news story: “The U.N. Security Council met today in emergency session to discuss the fact that Madagascar, one the world’s most biodiversity-rich nations, lost another percentage of its plant and animal species.” Or this: “Secretary of State John Kerry today broke off his vacation and rushed to Madagascar to try to negotiate a cease-fire between the loggers, poachers, miners and farmers threatening to devour the last fragments of Madagascar’s unique forests and the tiny group of dedicated local environmentalists trying to protect them.”

Because that won’t happen, we have to think about how this one-of-a-kind natural world can be protected with the limited resources here. We know the answer in theory — a well-managed national system of parks and reserves is vital because, given the current trends, anything outside such protected zones would be devoured by development and population growth. For Madagascar, this is particularly vital because, without its forests, neither its amazing plants nor animals will survive — which are a joy unto themselves and also attract critical tourist income for this incredibly poor country — and the people won’t survive either. These forests maintain the clean and sustainable water supplies and soils that Madagascar’s exploding population requires.

“We have to preserve this natural environment,” Hery Rajaonarimampianina, Madagascar’s president, told me in an interview. “One of my major policies is to develop eco-tourism. This can bring a lot of jobs. The problem is the poverty of the people that lead them to destroy the environment. That is very sad.”

Madagascar’s ecological challenge parallel’s the Middle East’s political challenge. The struggle here is all about preserving Madagascar’s natural diversity so its people will have the resilience, tools and options to ensure a decent future. A diverse system in nature is much more resilient and adaptable to change. Monocultures are enormously susceptible to disease. They can be wiped out by a single pest or weather event in a way that a poly-culture cannot.

In the Middle East today, though, the last remnants of poly-cultural nation states and communities are being wiped out. Christians are fleeing the Arab-Muslim world. Islamist jihadists in Syria and Iraq are beheading those who won’t convert to their puritanical Islam. Jews and Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis keep forcing each other into tighter and tighter ghettos. So a human rain forest once rich with ethnic and religious diversity is becoming a collection of disconnected monocultures, enormously susceptible to disease — diseased ideas.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Travel season is here, when so many Americans decamp to Cape Cod or the Jersey Shore. All of which is wonderful, and some day I plan to do a 10-part series on the world’s best beaches.

But travel can also be an education, a step toward empathy and international understanding. So for those with an adventurous streak who want to get beyond the madding crowd this summer, here are a few little-known travel spots that I recommend.

These just might be the world’s coolest places.

Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. This coral island in the Pacific Ocean was the site of American nuclear weapons tests in the 1940s and 1950s, but after decades left to itself it is now dazzlingly beautiful in a way that belies its history. Radiation has dissipated, and the deserted white-sand beaches are lined with coconut palms and scattered with seashells and an occasional giant sea turtle — which will hurriedly call to its friends: Look, there’s a rare sight, a human! The island is a reminder of the redemptive power of time and nature.

Potosí, Bolivia. Perhaps no country in Latin America is more picturesque than Bolivia, and the most memorable Bolivian city may be Potosí. European explorers discovered a huge silver mountain here in the 1540s, and, in the 1600s, this was one of the major cities in the world. Tourists can descend the silver mines, and it is a searing and unforgettable experience. You go down hundreds of feet in tiny, sweltering tunnels thick with dust, talk to some of the miners, and get a glimpse of what life is like for the many Bolivians who work each day in the mines. After a couple of hours deep underground, sometimes struggling to breathe and fretting about cave-ins, you may have new empathy for the laborers responsible for silver bowls and cutlery.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Maybe our best family trip started at Victoria Falls, which drenches you with spray and is so vast that it makes Niagara Falls seem like a backyard creek. Then we rented a car and made our way to Hwange National Park, which was empty of people but crowded with zebras, giraffes, elephants and more. Zimbabwe has far fewer tourists than South Africa or Kenya, and there’s less crime as well.

Amritsar, India. The Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, is in northwestern India near the Pakistani border, and it is a delightful place to contemplate the draw of faith. A four-century-old temple set in a lake, it attracts Sikhs from around the world. It is much less visited by tourists than the Taj Mahal, yet it is just as serene, grand and unforgettable. You walk the circuit of the lake barefoot, with your head covered, and, for the full experience, you can sleep and eat in temple buildings.

Tanna, Vanuatu. This remote island in the South Pacific is notable for its live volcano that you can climb at night. From the lip, you look down and see the fires and molten lava. It’s a natural fireworks display. The people of Tanna are also likely to invite you to drink kava, the local intoxicant, or perhaps join a village dance. The local faith tradition is a cargo cult. People believe in a god they call John Frum, perhaps based on an American military officer around the time of World War II who gave islanders their first glimpse of industrial products. One theory is that he introduced himself as “John from America,” but only the first two words survived and became his name.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam. Follow a guide in wriggling on your stomach underground through these tunnels dug by Vietcong soldiers who used them and even lived in them during the Vietnam War. The tunnels are now widened to accommodate portly Americans, and they are still a tight fit. After a couple hundred feet of crawling in the tunnels, you’re desperate to come up again, and you understand that military victory is sometimes not about weaponry but about commitment.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a delicious week at the beach with a pile of books. But if you’re hankering to escape the crowds this summer, encounter new worlds and come back with a tale, think about some of these destinations. The tourism infrastructure may not be great, but the people (or elephants) will make up for it.

When I visited the Pacific island country of Kiribati years ago, I made a reservation by phone to make sure I would have a place to stay. The man at the hotel agreed to hold me a spot, but he skipped the details.

“I don’t need the name,” he said. “If there’s an American at the airport, I’ll recognize him.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

July 20, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  In “The Parent Trap” The Putz tells us that you must over your children or the neighborhood busybodies and the police may step in.  MoDo, in “A Popular President,” sniffs that Bill — not Barry or Hillary — has the heat.  Standard MoDo crap, but as “Debra” formerly from NYC points out in her comment “… quoting Bill O’Reilly answering Geraldo Rivera to make your point is really….well, I don’t know how to describe that one.”  It’s called grasping for straws, Debra.  The Moustache of Wisdom is banging on his “sharing economy” tin drum again.  In “And Now For a Bit of Good News …” he babbles that from taxi rides to overnight stays, the sharing economy is growing rapidly, and creating a village where your reputation is everything.  “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say in the comments:  “This column again shows Mr. Friedman’s somewhat simplistic cheerleading for the “hyper-connected world” and the wonders of social media. After being shown wrong with his predictions of all the wonderful things social media would do for the “Arab Spring”, he is still on a roll.”  Mr. Kristof asks “Who’s Right and Wrong in the Middle East?”  He says with Israeli troops in Gaza again, there’s a symmetry in the rhetoric by partisans on both sides of the conflict.  Here’s The Putz:

When I was about 9 years old, I graduated to a Little League whose diamonds were a few miles from our house, in a neighborhood that got rougher after dark. After one practice finished early, I ended up as the last kid left with the coach, waiting in the gloaming while he grumbled, looked at his watch and finally left me — to wait or walk home, I’m not sure which.

I started walking. Halfway there, along a busy road, my father picked me up. He called my coach, as furious as you would expect a protective parent to be; the coach, who probably grew up having fistfights in that neighborhood, gave as good as he got; I finished the season in a different league.

Here are two things that didn’t happen. My (lawyer) father did not call the police and have the coach arrested for reckless endangerment of a minor. And nobody who saw me picking my way home alone thought to call the police on my parents, or to charge them with neglect for letting their child slip free of perfect safety for an hour.

Today they might not have been so lucky. For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar.

Or (I’m just getting warmed up) like the mother of four, recently widowed, who left her children — the oldest 10, the youngest 5 — at home together while she went to a community-college class; her neighbor called the police, protective services took the kids, and it took a two-year legal fight to pry them back from foster care. Or like the parents from two families who were arrested after their girls, two friends who were 5 and 7, cut through a parking lot near their houses — again without the parents’ knowledge — and were spotted by a stranger who immediately called the police.

Or — arriving at this week’s high-profile story — like Debra Harrell, an African-American single mother in Georgia, who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked a shift at McDonald’s, and who ended up shamed on local news and jailed.

Some of these cases have been reported, but some are first-person accounts, and in some the conduct of neighbors and the police and social workers may be more defensible than the anecdote suggests.

But the pattern — a “criminalization of parenthood,” in the words of The Washington Post’s Radley Balko — still looks slightly nightmarish, and there are forces at work here that we should recognize, name and resist.

First is the upper-class, competition-driven vision of childhood as a rigorously supervised period in which unattended play is abnormal, risky, weird. This perspective hasn’t just led to “the erosion of child culture,” to borrow a quote from Hanna Rosin’s depressing Atlantic essay on “The Overprotected Kid”; it has encouraged bystanders and public servants to regard a deviation from constant supervision as a sign of parental neglect.

Second is the disproportionate anxiety over child safety, fed by media coverage of every abduction, every murdered child, every tragic “hot car” death. Such horrors are real, of course, but the danger is wildly overstated: Crime rates are down, abductions and car deaths are both rare, and most of the parents leaving children (especially non-infants) in cars briefly or letting them roam a little are behaving perfectly responsibly.

Third is an erosion of community and social trust, which has made ordinary neighborliness seem somehow unnatural or archaic, and given us instead what Gracy Olmstead’s article in The American Conservative dubs the “bad Samaritan” phenomenon — the passer-by who passes the buck to law enforcement as expeditiously as possible. (Technology accentuates this problem: Why speak to a parent when you can just snap a smartphone picture for the cops?)

And then finally there’s a policy element — the way these trends interact not only with the rise of single parenthood, but also with a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

Otherwise we’ll be throwing up defenses against big government, while ignoring a police state growing in our midst.

Next up we have MoDo:

The thing about him is, he just keeps going.

At 67, he continues to be, as Anna Quindlen once wrote, like one of those inflatable toys with sand weighting the bottom — you knock him over and he pops back up.

As Hillary stumbles and President Obama slumps, Bill Clinton keeps getting more popular.

The women, the cheesy behavior, the fund-raising excesses, the self-pity, the adolescent narcissism, the impeachment, the charges of racially tinged insults against Obama in 2008, the foundation dishabille — all that percussive drama has faded to a mellow saxophone riff for many Americans.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg center poll showed that Clinton was, by a long shot, the most admired president of the last quarter-century. A new YouGov poll finds that among the last eight elected presidents, Clinton is regarded as the most intelligent and W. the least.

(Clinton and W. both should have been more aggressive in catching Osama. But certainly, if Clinton had been president post-9/11, there would have been no phony invasion of Iraq, and Katrina would have elicited more empathy.)

A Washington Post/ABC News poll in May found Bill’s approval ratings rebounding to the highest they had been since early in his presidency.

Even some who used to mock his lip-biting have decided that warmth, even if it’s fake at times, beats real chilliness.

Speaking at the 92nd Street Y last month, Bill O’Reilly was asked by Geraldo Rivera whether the country would have been better off electing Hillary instead of Barack Obama.

“With Hillary you get Bill,” O’Reilly replied. “And Bill knows what’s going on. You may not like him but he knows what’s going on. Hillary doesn’t understand how the world works.”

Except for L.B.J. and Nixon, ex-presidents tend to grow more popular. Yet Bill Clinton, wandering the global stage as a former president who may return to the White House as the husband of a president, plays a unique role in American history. (Newly released Clinton library documents revealed that Bill, believing it punchier, preferred to use “America” and “Americans” in speeches rather than “the United States” and “people of the United States.”)

But why is he burning brighter now, when the spotlight should be on his successor and his wife?

Do we miss the days when the National Debt Clock was retired? Are we more accepting that politicians have feet of clay? Are we tired of leaders who act as burdened as Sisyphus? Do we miss having a showman and a show?

“Maybe they admire his vegan body,” said David Axelrod impishly, before replying seriously: “He’s the most seductive character that we’ve seen in American politics in our lifetime. He just has this unbelievably resilient and seductive personality.”

James Carville noted dryly: “People are confused. They don’t know which one they like more, the peace or the prosperity.” He calls Clinton the “anti-Putin,” someone who did not exercise power to harm people but to help them.

42 had greater strengths and greater weaknesses than the average pol.

Rand Paul accused Clinton of “predatory” behavior. Liz Cheney told Politico’s Mike Allen that she trusts Hillary more than she trusts Bill, implying that was because of Monica Lewinsky. And Todd “legitimate rape” Akin defended himself on Fox News this past week by hitting Clinton’s “long history of sexual abuse and indecency.”

But G.O.P. pollster Kellyanne Conway said the words “Monica” and “liberal” rarely come up when she polls about Bill Clinton. The words “global” and “philanthropic” come up. She said that after Clinton, people “shrugged their shoulders at what had once made them raise their eyebrows.”

“He was a good ambassador for the baby boomer generation,” she said. “Who hasn’t screwed up? Who hasn’t had a third and fourth chance?”

Perhaps, given the tribal wars in Washington and dark tides loose in the world, there’s a longing for Bill’s better angels: the Happy Warrior desire to get up every day and go at it, no matter how difficult; the unfailing belief that in the future things will be better; the zest in the hand-to-hand combat of politics and policy, the reaching out to Newt Gingrich and other Republicans — even through government shutdowns and impeachment — and later teaming up with Bush Senior. “There’s a suspicion among a lot of people that Obama doesn’t much care for politics,” Carville said. “It’s amazing that a man can be so successful at something he really doesn’t like. It’s like if you found out that Peyton Manning didn’t like to play football.”

Mike Murphy, the Republican strategist, said that Obama’s fade has been “the best Clinton rehab.”

Murphy noted the irony that first, Bill had to use his extroverted personality, his talent as Explainer in Chief and his “empathy ray gun” to help Obama get re-elected, and now he will need to use those skills to push another clinical, cerebral candidate — his wife — up the hill.

“The one guy he can’t help elect is himself because of that pesky Constitution,” Murphy said. “But of course, that’s what he’d love to do.”

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

From Ukraine to the Middle East, some bad actors — Hamas, Vladimir Putin and Israeli settlers to name but a few — are trying to bury the future with the past and divide people. Instead of focusing on them even more, I prefer to write about a company that is burying the past with the future, and actually bringing strangers together.

Last year, I interviewed Brian Chesky, one of the co-founders of Airbnb.com, about the emerging sharing economy, led by companies like the on-demand taxi app Uber and Airbnb, which provides a platform for people to rent their spare rooms, homes, castles and yurts to strangers with the same ease you can book a room at Marriott. We just got together again, and Chesky laid out the growth spurt his company has experienced in the last 12 months — a spurt so fast that it’s telling you this new sharing economy is the real deal and will increasingly be a source of income for more and more people.

Chesky offered this sample of Airbnb’s latest metrics:

• “We have over 3,000 castles, 2,000 treehouses, 900 islands and 400 lighthouses available to book on the site. On a recent night, over 100 people were staying in yurts.”

• “Fifty-six percent of guests staying on Airbnb on a recent weekend were doing so for their first time. Last week, guests left reviews for hosts in 42 different languages. Over 17 million total guests have stayed on Airbnb. It took Airbnb nearly four years to get its first million guests. Now one million guests stay on Airbnb every month.”

• “Roughly 120,000 people stayed in Brazil in Airbnb-rented rooms for the World Cup, including travelers from over 150 different countries. Airbnb hosts in Brazil earned roughly $38 million from reservations during the World Cup. The average host in Rio earned roughly $4,000 during the monthlong tournament — about four times the average monthly salary in Rio. And 189 German guests stayed with Brazilians on the night of the Brazil/Germany World Cup semifinal match.”

• July 5, 2014, was Airbnb’s biggest night ever. “Its platform hosted over 330,000 total guests staying around the world — in thousands of cities and over 160 different countries,” said Chesky. In Paris, nearly 20,000 people were staying in Airbnb rooms on July 5. In 2012, that number was under 4,000.

What’s the secret? Who knew so many people would rent out rooms in their homes to strangers and that so many strangers would want to stay in other people’s spare bedrooms?

The short answer is that Airbnb understood that the world was becoming hyperconnected — meaning the technology was there to connect any renter to any tourist or businessperson anywhere on the planet. And if someone created the trust platform to bring them together, huge value could be created for both parties. That was Airbnb’s real innovation — a platform of “trust” — where everyone could not only see everyone else’s identity but also rate them as good, bad or indifferent hosts or guests. This meant everyone using the system would pretty quickly develop a relevant “reputation” visible to everyone else in the system.

Take trusted identities and relevant reputations and put them together with the Internet and suddenly you have 120,000 people staying in Brazilians’ homes instead of hotels at the World Cup. Obviously, there are exceptions and bad apples, and Airbnb provides $1 million in damage coverage for such cases, but the numbers say the system is working for a lot of people.

“I think we’re going to move back to a place where the world is a village again — a place where a lot of people know each other and trust each other … and where everyone has a reputation that everyone else knows,” said Chesky, 32. “On Airbnb, everyone has an identity.”

You can’t rent a room from someone or to someone unless you create a profile. And the more information you put into your profile — license, passport, Facebook page and reviews of people who have stayed with you — the more customers are likely to come. And the better reputation you earn from reviews, “the more other people want to work with you,” Chesky added. “All the social friction because of a lack of trust gets removed.” In the process, “you unlock all this value and the world starts to feel like a community again.”

But what happens to “ownership?”

“There used to be a romanticism about ownership, because it meant you were free, you were empowered,” Chesky answered. “I think now, for the younger generation, ownership is viewed as a burden. Young people will only want to own what they want responsibility for. And a lot of people my age don’t want responsibility for a car and a house and to have a lot of stuff everywhere. What I want to own is my reputation, because in this hyperconnected world, reputation will give you access to all kinds of things now. … Your reputation now is like having a giant key that will allow you to open more and more doors. [Young people] today don’t want to own those doors, but they will want the key that unlocks them” — in order to rent a spare room, teach a skill, drive people or be driven.

But what will this mean for traditional jobs?

Today, said Chesky, “you may have many jobs and many different kinds of income, and you will accumulate different reputations, based on peer reviews, across multiple platforms of people. … You may start by delivering food, but as an aspiring chef you may start cooking your own food and delivering that and eventually you do home-cooked meals and offer a dining experience in your own home.” Just as Airbnb was “able to find use for that space you never found use for, it will be the same for people. That skill, that hobby that you knew was there but never used it,” the sharing economy will be able to monetize it.

How fast that happens will depend, in part, on regulators and tax collectors in different cities — not all of whom like people turning their spare bedrooms into hotels or their kitchens into pop-up restaurants. The sharing economy can complement the existing one, and make the pie bigger. But the bigger the Ubers and Airbnbs get, the more incumbents will resist them. This will be a struggle between the 20th-century economy and the 21st’s.

The 20th-century economy was powered by big corporations that standardized everything because they never really knew their customers, argued Chesky. “The 21st-century economy will be powered by people” — where the buyers all have identities and the producers all have personal reputations — “so I will be able to sell something directly to you and delight you and surprise you, and the selection you’ll be able to choose from won’t be 4 but 4,000,000.”

I don’t know if that’s how it will play out, but given Airbnb’s rapid growth, Chesky’s argument definitely has my attention.

And don’t forget that you’re supposed to take your gently used designer duds to the consignment shop…  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

With Israeli troops again invading Gaza and the death toll rising, some of the rhetoric from partisans on each side is oddly parallel. Maybe it’s time to correct a few common misconceptions among the salvos flying back and forth.

This is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise, and we had no choice but to act.

On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.

Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.

Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.

Just because the underlying conflict is between two peoples who each have plenty of right, that’s not to say that there are no villains. Hamas is violent, not only toward Israel, but toward its own people, and, in contrast to Israel, it doesn’t seem to try to minimize civilian casualties — its own or Israel’s. Hamas is not as corrupt as the Palestinian Authority, but it is far more repressive, and my impression from my visits to Gaza is that it’s also unpopular at home. Hamas sometimes seems to have more support on certain college campuses in America or Europe than within Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Israeli right undermines the best partner for peace Israel has had, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel’s settlements are a gift to Palestinian extremism. These days, in both Gaza and Jerusalem, hawks are in charge, and they empower each other.

The other side understands only force. What else can we do but fight back when we are attacked?

Israeli leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, think that the way to protect their citizens is to invade Gaza and blow up tunnels — and, if Gazan civilians and children die, that’s sad but inevitable. And some Gazans think that they’re already in an open-air prison, suffocating under the Israeli embargo, and the only way to achieve change is fire rockets — and if some Israeli children die, that’s too bad, but 100 times as many Palestinian children are dying already.

In fact, we’ve seen this movie before: Israel responded to aggression by invading Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2008; each time, hawks cheered. Yet each invasion in retrospect accomplished at best temporary military gains while killing large numbers of innocents; they didn’t solve any problems.

Likewise, Palestinian militancy has accomplished nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people. If Palestinians instead turned more to huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns, the resulting videos would reverberate around the world and Palestine would achieve statehood and freedom.

Some Palestinians understand this and are trying this strategy, but too many define nonviolence to include rock-throwing. No, that doesn’t cut it.

What would you do if your family were in Gaza/Israel, at risk of being killed. You wouldn’t just sit back and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ would you?

If any of us were in southern Israel, frightened sick by rockets being fired by Hamas, we, too, might cheer an invasion of Gaza. And if any of us were in Gaza, strangled by the embargo and losing relatives to Israeli airstrikes, we, too, might cheer the launch of rockets on Tel Aviv. That’s human nature.

That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel. For Israel, this is a chance to use diplomacy to achieve what gunpowder won’t: the marginalization of Hamas. Israel might suggest an internationally supervised election in Gaza with the promise that the return of control to the Palestinian Authority would mean an end to the economic embargo.

Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.

Dowd and Friedman

July 16, 2014

In “Where’s the Oval Avatar?” Ms. Dowd babbles that the day may come when a candidate’s hologram could appear in your kitchen and talk about education issues.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Order vs. Disorder, Part 2,” says the Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today.  Here’s MoDo:

The White House likes to use a phrase of tingling adventure to describe the president’s recent penchant for wandering the country talking to people: “The bear is loose.”

There are three problems with this unbearable metaphor: Barack Obama is not in captivity, he’s not a bear, and he’s not loose. As Voltaire said of the Holy Roman Empire, it was “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

When our whippetlike president travels on Air Force One from staged photo-op to staged photo-op and then to coinciding fund-raiser to coinciding fund-raiser, encased by the White House travel behemoth and press centipede, that’s kind of the opposite of breaking loose.

Somehow, I thought that the tech revolution in campaigns would usher in fresh ways for presidents to communicate. In the age of Snapchat, I didn’t think presidents would still be crisscrossing the country to do hokey snaps of chats.

As David Plouffe wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week, “With advancements in artificial intelligence, you could soon have holograms of presidential candidates at your door, interacting with you and asking and answering questions.” He noted that Narendra Modi used holograms to extend his reach during his successful campaign to become the Indian prime minister.

So where’s the Oval Office holodeck?

Besides the fact that the posed pictures end up on Twitter as well as in the paper, prescreened and sanitized political tableaus seem stuck in the 20th century. 44 does rallies and round tables and has Kabuki sit-downs with people in coffee joints just the same way 41 did.

In the sixth year of his presidency, the White House is still trying to cast Barack Obama as a regular guy, playing pool and drinking beer (even though he only took a few sips) in Denver with Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado. This, when the one thing we know, and that Obama wants us to know, is that he’s no regular guy.

As Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote in The Times on Tuesday, the president has been seeking out the intellectual, artistic and tech elite at private dinners around the globe.

“Sometimes stretching into the small hours of the morning, the dinners reflect a restless president weary of the obligations of the White House and less concerned about the appearance of partying with the rich and celebrated,” Davis wrote.

In Dallas last week, Obama did a short round table with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas on the border imbroglio followed by a barbecue D.C.C.C. fund-raiser with five round tables of fat cats. Explaining why he was staying away from the heart-wrenching scene on the border, the president said, “This isn’t theater. This is a problem,” adding, “I’m not interested in photo-ops. I’m interested in solving a problem.”

Yet, even as the world is roiling, the president’s desk is clean. As he flees gridlock and a Boehner lawsuit in Washington, the best news for Democrats is that Republicans are talking impeachment. The Democrats can actually make money on that. Obama seems fixated on both the photo-ops he’s doing and the ones he’s not doing.

He didn’t go to the L.B.J. play on Broadway and meet its Tony-winning star, Bryan Cranston, after Cranston suggested that if he went, he might learn some methods for getting his way with Congress. And the president doesn’t want to be pictured on the border in shots that look as if he’s welcoming children, many fleeing violence in Central America, who are illegally entering the country, even though Pope Francis has advised that “the humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected.”

By now, Americans are so habituated to stagy things, it’s hard to imagine that many people don’t see the president’s roving photo-ops as posed and theatrical.

But Plouffe, who helped devise Obama’s technologically groundbreaking campaign, contends that such events are more important than ever because for younger people, if you don’t have the visual with the words, it’s almost as though it doesn’t exist.

“People like to see their president or their governor or their mayor out mixing it up in the community and not behind the ivory gates,” he told me, adding that he could see a day when a campaign could have a candidate’s hologram materialize in the kitchen of a swing voter in Lorain, Ohio, to talk education.

“It’s not going to be a 2016 thing,” he said. “But it could be a 2020 or a 2024 thing.”

(Microsoft’s Jaron Lanier waggishly suggests that political avatars be saved for fund-raising, where their algorithms could be fine-tuned to deliver individual, if hypocritical, pitches that would get the maximum donations.)

“My suspicion,” Plouffe said, “is that unless the Republicans shed some of their intolerance, Hillary Clinton will get all the great tech talent.”

The president’s odysseys are meant to illustrate that he’s still relevant. But do they actually underscore irrelevance by conveying his view that if Republicans in Congress are going to keep blocking him, he may as well go fishin’?

What a waste of oxygen that broad is…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve argued for a while now that it is always useful to study the Israeli-Arab conflict because it is to the wider war of civilizations what Off Broadway is to Broadway. A lot of stuff starts there and then goes to Broadway. So what’s playing Off Broadway these days? The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the “world of order” and the “world of disorder.”

Israel faces nonstate actors in civilian clothes, armed with homemade rockets and drones, nested among civilians on four of its five borders: Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. And what is most striking about this play is that the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective. Israel, a mini-superpower, keeps pummeling the ragtag Islamist militias in Gaza with its modern air force, but the superempowered Palestinian militants, leveraging cheap high-tech tools, keep coming back with homemade rockets and even a homemade drone. You used to need a contract with Boeing to get a drone. Now you can make one in Gaza.

What to do? For starters, it would be great if the big powers of the world of order — the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Union — were able to collaborate more in stemming the spread of the world of disorder. That is certainly necessary. But the prospects for that are limited. No power these days wants to lay hands on the world of disorder because all you win is a bill. And even if they did, it would not be sufficient.

In my view, the only way Israel can truly curtail the Hamas rocket threat is if the Palestinians of Gaza demand that the rockets stop. Sure, Israel can inflict enough pain on all of Gaza to get a cease-fire, but it never lasts. The only sustainable way to do it is by Israel partnering with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank to build a thriving state there, so Gaza Palestinians wake up every day and say to the nihilistic Hamas: “We want what our West Bank cousins have.” The only sustainable controls are those that come from within.

That is how the U.S. military defeated the earlier version of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, when the jihadists largely took over Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2006-7. The U.S. partnered with the Sunni Muslim tribal leaders who didn’t want puritanical Islam, or their daughters to be forced to marry fundamentalists, or to give up their whiskey. But we did not just arm them. We brokered an agreement of shared guns, shared power and shared values — about the future of Iraq — between those Sunni tribesmen and Iraq’s ruling Shiite president, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. That is what ended the jihadist disorder there in 2007.

And then what did Maliki do as soon as we left Iraq? He stopped paying the Sunni tribal militias and tried to arrest moderate Sunni politicians. Rather than building on the foundation we laid of power-sharing, Maliki uprooted it. That is why ISIS found it so easy to move in. Iraqi Sunnis weren’t going to fight for Maliki’s government. No trust, no power-sharing — no order.

Jewish settlers in Israel have done all they could to build more settlements and undermine Palestinian trust that Israel will ever share sufficient power for a West Bank Palestinian state to emerge. And the moderate, secular Palestinian leadership in the West Bank all too often has shown too little courage to compromise at crunchtime. So no compelling West Bank alternative to Hamas’s nihilism exists. Israel, the moderate Palestinians and Maliki all wasted the quiet of the last few years. And Maliki and Israel’s leaders now insist on wiping out the military threats they face from radicals — before rebuilding or reconsidering any of the political alternatives that they themselves helped to scuttle. That won’t work.

Patrick Doherty, author of “A New U.S. Grand Strategy” in Foreign Policy magazine, argues that if you look at the traditional responses to the world of disorder by both American and other leaders, you notice that there are a lot of  “controllers and disrupters but no builders. Our leaders were trained in the control tactics of the Cold War — a.k.a. ‘crisis management.’ So it’s no surprise that we are using our power only to hedge risk and preserve a failing status quo. But now we need our leaders to be builders with enough foresight to shape a sustainable international order — and to support regional leaders committed to the same.” Control, notes Doherty, is surely better than chaos. But as we have seen with the controllers America has tended to adopt in Egypt, Iraq and Israel, their brand of control “tends toward stagnation and excesses, as power is concentrated to counter the forces of chaos.”

When all the old means of top-down control are decreasingly available or increasingly expensive (in a world of strong people and strong technologies, being a strongman isn’t what it used to be), leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust. Leadership will be about how to cultivate that kind of order. Yes, yes. I know that sounds impossibly hard. But when isolated Gazans can make their own drones, order doesn’t come easy anymore.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

July 13, 2014

In “Look Homeward, LeBron” The Pasty Little Putz says the quest for community leads a superstar back to Ohio.  MoDo is back to banging away on one of her favorite little tin drums.  In “Isn’t It Rich?” she hisses that for the Clinton clan, it’s like father, like mother, like daughter.  Oddly enough, in this diatribe about a political dynasty, the name “Bush” appears nowhere…  The Moustache of Wisdom has decided to tell us all about “The World of Maxwell Smart, Part 1.”  He says “Get Smart” was ahead of its time. The world today is cleaving into “Control” and “Kaos.”  In “Those Girls Haven’t Been Brought Back” Mr. Kristof says leaders love to talk a good game on promoting education, but they don’t deliver.  Here’s The Putz:

One of the more significant migrations in recent American history doesn’t involve pioneers heading West, refugees seeking sanctuary, or Joad-like families rambling in search of work. It involves the trajectory of our nation’s most talented citizens, who since the 1970s have been clustering ever more densely in certain favored cities, and gradually abandoning the places in between.

In a mid-2000s piece for The Atlantic, Richard Florida, long a booster of “creative class” conurbations, noted that in 1970 college graduates were distributed pretty evenly around the country, but that three decades later they were much more concentrated. A few regions (the BosWash Northeast, the Bay Area, etc.) were destinations of choice for the well educated, and large swaths of the country emphatically were not. In Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, he noted, half the population had college degrees; for Detroit and Cleveland, the figures were 11 percent and 14 percent.

This migration has happened for understandable personal and professional reasons (said the pundit writing from a coffee shop in northeastern Washington, D.C.), and the dense professional networks it has created have arguably been good for certain kinds of economic dynamism.

But elite self-segregation, and what Charles Murray has dubbed the “coming apart” of the professional and working classes,  has also contributed to America’s growing social problems — hardening lines of class and culture, adding layers of misunderstanding and mistrust to an already polarized polity, and leaching brains and social capital from communities that need them most.

Which brings us to the fascinating story of LeBron James.

The basketball superstar’s trajectory up until Friday looked like the entire migration of the talented in miniature (well, a 6-foot-8 miniature). A child of depressed northeastern Ohio, with its struggling cities and declining population, James grew up to be drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, played for his home-state team for seven brilliant but championship-free seasons, and then famously bolted for a richer, more glamorous locale.

And why? Not just for the money and amenities, but for the professional network. Like superstars in less-athletic fields, James felt that his productivity would be magnified by the right partnerships — in his case, by sharing a court with fellow stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. And four N.B.A. finals appearances and two rings later, it’s clear he judged correctly.

But now he’s making the migration in reverse, returning to the battered Midwestern city he famously betrayed. And strikingly, his statement announcing the move doubled as a kind of communitarian manifesto, implicitly critiquing the values underlying elite self-segregation in America:

My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio … to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business… Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.

Now I don’t want to make too much of an exhortation that is, of course, partially just a rich athlete’s brand-managing P.R. Especially since homecomings are fraught, complicated undertakings — for superstars even more than ordinary mortals, perhaps — and this one is as likely to end with LeBron feuding with ownership or forcing a trade as with a championship.

Moreover, even if everything goes smoothly on the court, LeBron’s “hard work” will be rather more richly rewarded than the typical Ohioan’s, and he’ll be “coming home” while still living, really, in the secure and gilded bubble of the rich and famous. So for a future college graduate deciding between staying on the Acela Corridor or coming back to Akron or Youngstown to raise a family, LeBron’s example is symbolically inspiring without being terribly relevant to the hazards of real life.

But with all those caveats, there will be a spillover effect of some sort from his decision. Even if it only happens on the margins, LeBron really did just make a down-at-the-heels part of America a slightly better place to live and work and settle.

And the return of the King is also a reminder that social trends, like careers, aren’t arrows that fly in one direction only. As real estate prices rise insanely on the coasts, as telecommuting becomes more plausible for more people, as once-storied cities hit bottom and rebound … well, there could be more incentives for less-extraordinary professionals to imitate this heartland native’s unexpected return.

At the very least there’s nothing written that says we have to come apart forever. Or that some Americans with less extraordinary but still substantial gifts can’t find a way, like LeBron, to take those talents home again.

Next up we have MoDo’s screed:

Chelsea Clinton never acted out during the eight years she came of age as America’s first daughter.

No ditching of her Secret Service detail. No fake IDs for underage tippling. No drug scandal. No court appearance in tank top and toe ring. Not even any dirty dancing.

Despite a tough role as the go-between in the highly public and embarrassing marital contretemps of her parents, Chelsea stayed classy.

So it’s strange to see her acting out in a sense now, joining her parents in cashing in to help feed the rapacious, gaping maw of Clinton Inc.

With her 1 percenter mother under fire for disingenuously calling herself “dead broke” when she left the White House, why would Chelsea want to open herself up to criticism that she is gobbling whopping paychecks not commensurate with her skills, experience or role in life?

As the 34-year-old tries to wean some of the cronies from the Clinton Foundation — which is, like the Clintons themselves, well-intended, wasteful and disorganized — Chelsea is making speeches that go into foundation coffers. She is commanding, as The Times’s Amy Chozick reported, up to $75,000 per appearance.

Chozick wrote: “Ms. Clinton’s speeches focus on causes like eradicating waterborne diseases. (‘I’m obsessed with diarrhea’ is a favorite line.)”

There’s something unseemly about it, making one wonder: Why on earth is she worth that much money? Why, given her dabbling in management consulting, hedge-funding and coattail-riding, is an hour of her time valued at an amount that most Americans her age don’t make in a year? (Median household income in the United States is $53,046.)

If she really wants to be altruistic, let her contribute the money to some independent charity not designed to burnish the Clinton name as her mother ramps up to return to the White House and as she herself drops a handkerchief about getting into politics.

Or let her speak for free. After all, she is in effect going to candidate school. No need to get paid for it, too.

There was disgust over Politico’s revelation that before she switched to a month-to-month contract, Chelsea was getting wildly overpaid at $600,000 annually — or over $25,000 per minute on air — for a nepotistic job as a soft-focus correspondent for NBC News.

Chelsea is still learning the answer to a question she asked when she interviewed the Geico gecko: “Is there a downside to all this fame?”

The Clintons keep acting as though all they care about is selfless public service. So why does it keep coming back to gross money grabs? It’s gone from two-for-the-price-of-one to three-for-the-price-of-20.

Hillary’s book — which feels like something she got at Ikea and had someone put together — is drooping because it was more about the estimated $13 million advance and the campaign ramp-up than the sort of intriguing self-examination and political excavations found in the memoirs of Timothy Geithner and Bob Gates. If she had had something to say, the book might have been shorter.

Hillary doesn’t see the disconnect between expressing grave concern about mounting student loan debt while scarfing six-figure sums from at least eight colleges, and counting. She says now that she’s passing the university money to the foundation but, never Ms. Transparency, has refused to provide documentation of that. (She’s still pocketing other huge fees for speeches like her April talk in Las Vegas to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.)

Chozick estimated that the lucrative family speechmaking business has generated more than $100 million for the former president and first lady, whose fees range from $200,000 to $700,000 per appearance. Bill alone earned $17 million last year doing what he likes to do best — talking.

“The issue is that the philanthropic beneficiary of the speeches is a foundation, structured as a public foundation but clearly synonymous with and controlled by the Clinton family,” Rick Cohen writes in The National Philanthropy Quarterly, adding: “Donors and institutions that are paying them and their daughter huge sums for their speeches may very well be buying recognition and face time with powerful political leaders who they hope will be able to deliver political favors in the future.

“It is troubling when corporate donors give to political charities with a more or less obvious expectation that softer and gentler treatment will ensue in the future. It is also troubling when some of the payers are public or nonprofit entities themselves such as colleges and universities, converting taxpayer funds and tax-exempt donations into signals that could end up in positive treatment when these institutions are themselves seeking access and favors, even if it is only a good word put in by one of the Clintons to a federal agency providing funding or to a regulator who might be taking a critical look at university tuitions and endowment payouts.”

The Clintons were fiercely protective of Chelsea when she was a teenager, insisting on respect from the media and getting it. They need to protect their daughter again, this time from their wanton acquisitiveness.

And now we come to The Moustache of Wisdom:

In the 1960s, there was a popular sitcom  — “Get Smart” — about a hapless secret agent named Maxwell Smart, played by Don Adams. Smart went by the code name “Agent 86.” “Get Smart” famously introduced the shoe phone to American audiences, but the show also introduced something else: its own version of the bipolar world. Do you remember the name of the intelligence agency Maxwell Smart worked for? It was called “Control.” And do you remember the name of Control’s global opponent? It was called “Kaos” — “an international organization of evil.”

 The creators of “Get Smart” were ahead of their time. Because it increasingly appears that the post-post-Cold War world is cleaving into the world of “order” and the world of “disorder” — or into the world of “Control” and the world of “Kaos.”

How so? First, we said goodbye to imperialism and colonialism and all their methods of controlling territory. Then we said goodbye to the Cold War alliance system, which propped up many weak and newly independent states with money to build infrastructure and to buy weapons to control their borders and people — because the stability of every square in the global chessboard mattered to Washington and Moscow.

And, lately, we’ve been saying goodbye to top-down, iron-fisted monarchies and autocracies, which have been challenged by massively urbanized, technologically empowered citizens.

So, today, you have three basic systems: order provided by democratic, inclusive governments; order imposed by autocratic exclusivist governments; and ungoverned, or chaotically governed, spaces, where rickety failed states, militias, tribes, pirates and gangs contest one another for control, but there is no single power center to answer the phone — or, if they do, it falls off the wall.

Look around: Boko Haram in Nigeria kidnaps 250 schoolgirls and then disappears into a dark corner of that country. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a ragtag jihadist militia, carves out a caliphate inside Syria and Iraq and boasts on Twitter of beheading opponents. NATO decapitates Libya’s regime and sets loose a tribal-militia war of all against all, which, when combined with the crackup of Chad, spills arms and refugees across African borders, threatening Tunisia and Morocco. Israel has been flooded with more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees, who crossed the Sinai Desert by foot, bus or car looking for work and security in Israel’s “island of order.”

And, just since October, the U.S. has been flooded with more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. “They’re fleeing from threats and violence in their home countries,” noted Vox.com, “where things have gotten so bad that many families believe that they have no choice but to send their children on the long, dangerous journey north.”

Why is this happening now? Well, just as I’ve argued that “average is overfor workers, now “average is over for states,” too. Without the Cold War system to prop them up, it is not so easy anymore for weak states to provide the minimums of security, jobs, health and welfare. And thanks to rapid advances in the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change plus ecological destruction) and Moore’s Law (computing power), some states are just blowing up under the pressure.

Yes, we blew up Iraq, but you can’t understand the uprising in Syria unless you understand how a horrendous four-year drought there, coupled with a demographic explosion, undermined its economy.

You can’t understand Egypt’s uprising without linking it to the 2010 global wheat crisis and soaring bread prices, which inspired the anti-Hosni Mubarak chant: “Bread, Freedom, Dignity.” You also can’t understand Egypt’s stress without understanding the challenge that China’s huge labor pool poses in a globalized world to every other low-wage country. Go into a souvenir shop in Cairo, buy a Pyramids ashtray and turn it over. I’ll bet it says, “Made in China.” Today’s globalization system rewards countries that make their workers and markets efficient enough to take part in global supply chains of goods and services faster than ever — and punishes those who don’t more harshly than ever.

You can’t understand the spread of ISIS or the Arab Spring without the relentless advance in computing and telecom — Moore’s Law — creating so many cheap command-and-control Internet tools that superempower small groups to recruit adherents, challenge existing states and erase borders. In a flat world, people can see faster than ever how far behind they are and organize faster than ever to protest. When technology penetrates more quickly than wealth and opportunity, watch out.

The combined pressures of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are creating the geopolitical equivalent of climate change, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Road to Global Prosperity,” and “some familiar species of government can’t survive the stress.”

So, please spare me the “it’s all Obama’s fault.” There are plenty of reasons to criticize Obama, but everything is not about what we do. There are huge forces acting on these countries, and it will take extraordinary collaboration by the whole world of order to contain them. I’ll address this on Wednesday.

Oh, goody…  Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

It has been almost three months since Islamic militants in northern Nigeria attacked a school that was giving exams and kidnapped more than 250 girls — some of the brightest and most ambitious teenagers in the region.

Their captors have called them slaves and threatened to “sell them in the market.” The girls were last seen, looking terrified, in a video two months ago.

“We are asking for help,” pleaded Lawan Zanah, father of one missing girl, Ayesha, who is 18 and appeared in that video. “America, France, China, they say they are helping, but on the ground we don’t see anything.”

He told me that he and the other parents don’t even know if their daughters are alive. The parents spend their time praying that God will intervene, since the Nigerian government and others don’t seem to be. “We hope God will feel our pain,” he said.

The principal of the school, Asabe Kwambura, told me that 219 girls are still missing and lamented that the international campaign to help — #BringBackOurGirls — is faltering as the world moves on.

“Continue this campaign,” she urged. “Our students are still living in the woods. We want the international community to talk to the government of Nigeria to do something, because they are doing nothing.”

The Nigerian government’s most obvious response has been to hire an American public relations firm for a reported $1.2 million. That money could be better used to pay for security at schools.

Global leaders talk a good game about education, but they don’t deliver. Sad to say, that includes President Obama. When he was running for president in 2008, he announced a plan for a $2 billion global fund for education — and if you’ve forgotten about that, don’t worry, because he seems to have as well. Indeed, Obama is requesting 43 percent less in international aid for basic education in 2015 than the peak that Congress provided in 2010.

Aid to education worldwide from all donor countries has fallen 10 percent since 2010, according to Unesco.

If President Obama wants to support a global fund for education, there is one. It’s called the Global Partnership for Education, and it has offices in Washington. It is strongly supported by other donor countries, but its chairwoman, Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, notes that the United States has, so far, provided about only 1 percent of the budget for it.

“The United States is not 1 percent of the world’s population,” she said dryly.

To his credit, Obama is upping the sums, offering $40 million this year and more in the future. Representatives Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and Dave Reichert, a Washington Republican, are also co-sponsoring an Education for All Act that would promote aid for schooling some of the 58 million kids worldwide who aren’t attending primary school.

One group has been responsive: Times readers. After I wrote about the Nigerian girls in May and mentioned a group called Camfed that sends girls to school in Africa, Times readers donated nearly $900,000 to Camfed. Thank you, readers!

Camfed says the money will help 3,000 girls continue in high school across Africa — girls like Katongo, a 16-year-old math whiz in Zambia. Katongo is an orphan who had to drop out of school for lack of money for fees, but she is now on track to become the first person in her family to finish school. She plans to become a nurse.

But while private donations help, they won’t solve the education gap. Neither will aid dollars, although they, too, will help. Ultimately, governments in poor countries need to step up and make education a priority — for what is needed is not just money but also a kick in the pants.

In Mali, 92 percent of children at the end of second grade were unable to read a single word, according to Unesco. In Zambia, 78 percent of third-graders couldn’t read a single word. In Iraq, 61 percent of second-graders couldn’t answer a single subtraction question correctly.

Conditions are often deplorable. Teachers in Africa and Asia often don’t show up at school because they are paid by a government bureaucracy even if they are perennially absent. Of low-income children in Malawi, only 3 percent manage to complete primary school and learn the basics of education — perhaps partly because the average class size in first grade in Malawi is 130 students. In Cameroon, there is only one math book for every 13 second-graders. How can kids possibly learn that way?

Yet we’ve also learned that done right, education changes almost everything. Evidence suggests that educating girls increases productivity, raises health standards, reduces birthrates and undermines extremism.

Drones and missiles can fight terrorism, but an even more transformative weapon is a girl with a book, and it’s one that is remarkably cost-effective. For the price of a single Tomahawk cruise missile, it’s possible to build about 20 schools.

Many of the world’s poor understand the power of education. I’ve seen children in Liberia who lack lights at home do their homework at night under street lamps. I’ve been moved by parents in India and Pakistan going hungry to pay school fees for their children.

A fierce ambition to study explains why those 219 girls in northern Nigeria showed up to take their final exams even though they knew the risks of terrorism. Some of those girls dreamed of becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers — and now they may be enslaved in a forest and perhaps married off to Islamic militants.

I hope we’re doing everything possible to locate and recover those girls: This is a rare case where, if the Nigerian government asked for our help, the world would applaud us for assisting in a raid. So let’s #BringBackOurGirls. But let’s not stop there.

For almost all of history, the great majority of humanity has been illiterate, and now that is changing with stunning rapidity. Lant Pritchett, an education expert at Harvard, notes that schooling has increased much more in the last 60 years than it did in all the centuries from Plato’s Academy until 1950. Education is an escalator that can change the world, and we are now on the cusp of wiping out global illiteracy for good — if we sustain the effort.

Boko Haram is assassinating teachers, attacking schools and kidnapping students because it knows that literacy is the enemy of extremism. Terrorists understand the power of education. Do we?

Dowd and Friedman

July 2, 2014

In “My Head’s Exploding” MoDo says as Iraq descends into chaos, again, Dick Cheney & Co. dust off the megaphone.  The Moustache of Wisdom considers “People of Influence” and tells us that the future of Ukraine is now in the hands of its own people.  Here’s MoDo:

W. cut off Dick Cheney.

Why can’t we?

Who would have thought that Iraq imploding would give the mountebanks who tricked us into war a chance to rear their heads and seek rehabilitation — somehow grabbing onto the hellish spiral as proof that they were right in their original wrongness?

But, then, they did always create their own reality spun from grandiosity.

They are shamefully showcased on cable TV, which has so much airtime to fill that it doesn’t care if it’s hot air. They are once more pounding on the fear button and warning that America needs to attack or risk being emasculated by Middle Eastern terrorists. Doesn’t Vice know that most Americans, especially the Bushes, cannot stand his demented scaremongering anymore? Even Fox News anchors are now pressing him with skeptical questions about the war.

Asked by Fox’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck if he thought we “could be on track for something worse than 9/11,” Cheney replied, “I think that’s a possibility.”

He’s always busy predicting another 9/11. Too bad he and W. ignored warnings about the first one. Cheney is not only responsible for Iraq melting down and Afghanistan being mucked up. He can also claim credit for so exhausting John Wayne’s America that a skeptic on military intervention, Rand Paul, is a credible candidate for the G.O.P. nomination.

That causes the man without a pulse to pulsate with bile. Shooting Paul in the face, Cheney told Fox: “The Republican Party traditionally has had the reputation as the go-to guys with respect to national security, and we want to reclaim that mantle for the party.”

Darth Vader is campaigning for validation with his cowboy hat and “Sith apprentice,” as Jon Stewart calls Liz Cheney. Liz acted in her failed Wyoming Senate bid as Dick did with the globe: swaggering and pre-emptorally blowing off allies and foes. So she has her own fences to mend if she wants a career in politics.

Their idea of a charm offensive is to growl and spit and create something called The Alliance for a Strong America, a group demanding a more chesty foreign policy in a statement redolent of the manifesto that neocons and other Republicans waved back during the Clinton administration. Speaking to Fox News’s Megyn Kelly and to conservative radio host Chris Salcedo, Liz blamed President Obama for the chaos wrought by her father and W., basely claiming that he was intentionally trying to weaken America.

When Bill Clinton said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it was “unseemly” for Dick Cheney to attack the Obama administration “for not doing an adequate job of cleaning up the mess that he made,” the venomous Liz tweeted “@billclinton calls Dick Cheney ‘unseemly.’ Well, I guess he would know.” (Not much of a denial by Liz.)

The creepy comeback scenario is playing out with the Cheneys, Paul Wolfowitz (who absurdly rejects the moniker of “architect,”) Bill Kristol, Paul Bremer, Robert Kagan (who prefers the term “liberal interventionist” to “neocon”) and Elliott Abrams (who actually had the chutzpah to write a Politico Magazine piece about Obama titled “The Man Who Broke the Middle East”).

As a cherry on top of our $3 trillion disaster, there on the front page of The Times on Tuesday was Ahmad Chalabi, the neocons’ cagey partner in fakery and initial choice to replace Saddam Hussein.

“He took millions of dollars from the C.I.A., founded and was accused of defrauding the second-biggest bank in Jordan and sold the Bush administration a bill of goods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Rod Nordland wrote. Yet now Chalabi is a serious candidate for prime minister.

In his book about Chalabi, “Arrows of the Night,” Richard Bonin, a “60 Minutes” producer, wrote this about the secular Shiite who managed to manipulate Washington into getting rid of Saddam, thinking he could return and take his place: “There has never been a foreigner more crucially involved in a decision by the United States to go to war than Chalabi.”

When Bonin asked Chalabi who used whom, in his unholy alliance with the neocons who later scorned him, he answered: “It was a commonality of interest, a convergence of conceptions about the future.”

Just when you thought our wreck in Iraq could not get any more sulfurous, The Times’s James Risen revealed that a State Department inquiry into the out-of-control Blackwater protection brigade was stifled by U.S. diplomats in Baghdad and then abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager threatened “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq.”

Asked on HuffPost Live on Tuesday whether Cheney was immoral or amoral, Lawrence Wilkerson, the regretful former aide to Colin Powell, replied amoral.

“Immorality is something that can be ferreted out, checked and balanced,” he said. “Amorality is an altogether different affair, especially when you’re exploiting the politics of fear in order to carry out state purposes, which is what Dick Cheney’s forte is.”

At least the neocons finally found the W.M.D. — warped mouthy discourse.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

You can’t make this up. The Guardian reported on Sunday that Ukrainians have crowdfunded the first “people’s drone” to help their army stem infiltration by Russian-supported rebels in Ukraine’s eastern provinces that border Russia. “Last week, Ukraine’s crowdfunding site ‘The People’s Project’ said that it had received enough donations to fund a drone,” The Guardian reported. “The organizers had originally hoped to buy a state-of-the-art Israeli drone — for $165,000 — or a cheaper American one costing $120,000. In the end, however, they managed to build the drone for just $35,000. A designer and other volunteers built the airframe, with a Ukrainian military institute chipping in technical equipment.”

Good for them. The fate of Ukraine matters — as much, if not more, as Syria and Iraq. We don’t have to search for “moderates” in Ukraine. Millions there have already both fought for and voted to align their country with the free markets and free people of the European Union.

In Brussels, on Friday, the newly elected Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, signed a trade pact with the European Union that will lower tariffs on Ukrainian exports to the 28-nation E.U. market in return for Ukraine implementing anti-corruption, transparency and quality-control reforms designed to bring its economy up to Western standards. It was the same deal that Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign last November under pressure from President Vladimir Putin of Russia. That set off the revolution in Kiev’s main square that eventually toppled Yanukovych and ignited a rebellion by Putin-directed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Which is why only hours after the deal was signed, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as ominously warning that the E.U.-Ukraine accord would have “serious consequences.”

Really? Think about that. One nation threatening another for signing a trade pact in hopes of elevating the incomes of its people, which have badly lagged those of its neighbors, like Poland, who joined the European Union after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I get that the Russians would not want Ukraine to join NATO, a defense alliance still aimed at containing Russian power. I opposed NATO’s expansion at the end of the Cold War and would not support it now. But a trade deal that doesn’t even lead to automatic E.U. membership? Is this how Russia maintains its power status? By keeping its neighbors poor and energy starved?

I had argued in May that Putin had “blinked” when, in the wake of Western sanctions and the threat of more, he pulled back troops from Ukraine’s border where he had massed them — hoping first to block Poroshenko’s election and then the signing of the E.U. deal. But maybe Putin just winked. While he did not invade, he has shoveled arms and proxies into eastern Ukraine to foment separatism in Russian-speaking areas. Today, Poroshenko — fed up with Putin’s Goebbels-quality lying — moved forces to regain control of eastern Ukraine and his country’s right to choose its future. Putin is clearly afraid of more sanctions. It is time the U.S. and E.U. imposed them.

In denying Ukrainians the right to choose their own economic and political path, Putin shows how dumb and clever he is at the same time. He is dumb in believing that, in this connected world of newly empowered citizens, he can enjoy the same “sphere of influence” that Russia had in Central Europe in the days of the czars. Sorry. If a leader wants to have a sphere of influence today — in this age of “people of influence” — he either has to earn it by how he behaves or take it all by force. In Ukraine, Putin is in incapable of the former and — for now — doesn’t dare do the latter. The czars never had to deal with people of influence who could crowdfund their own drone.

But Putin is also clever. Or as the Russian analyst Vladimir Frolov put it in The Moscow Times: “President Vladimir Putin may fail to secure his goal of derailing Ukraine’s association agreement with the E.U., but at home he has already cashed in on his Ukrainian political strategy by completely resetting Russia’s national conversation. His principal achievement has been to eliminate any meaningful debate on alternative futures for Russia. Less than a year ago, there was still political space to advance democratic alternatives to Putin’s system.”

However, the Russian seizure of Crimea and its proxy war in Ukraine, added Frolov, “transformed the national conversation from a healthy debate on Putin’s presidential performance into a toxic discussion on war and Russia’s enemies. Moscow’s propaganda has successfully painted Ukraine’s popular uprising against state capture by a corrupt clique as a ‘U.S.-sponsored fascist coup.’ ” Therefore, if Putin “is fighting Nazis in Ukraine, then by extension anyone who disagrees with him could be a Nazi collaborator and an enemy of Russia. This closes the political space for all alternative visions for Russia except as a revisionist empire hostile to the West.”

•

Correction: In my June 25 column about Arab governing models, I misinterpreted “takfiris.” They are Muslim extremists who declare others to be apostates.

Seeing as in that column he had defined them as apostates it would appear he’s not quite the huge authority on all things Middle East that he would have us believe…

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

June 29, 2014

MoDo and Mr. Bruni are off today.  The Pasty Little Putz thinks he knows something about “Stopping Campus Rape.”  He tells us that there are changes colleges could make in campus life that would address the root causes of sexual assaults.  He’d love to regress to the 50s, when I guess he thinks rape never happened.  In “Arsonists and Firefighters” The Moustache of Wisdom says some argue that it is not inevitable that the Middle East erupt in sectarian conflagration.  In ” ‘Jane’ Didn’t Get the Help She Needed” Mr. Kristof says “Jane Doe” has a life story at the age of only 16 that is a good example of how the juvenile justice system is failing many of those most in need.  Here’s The Putz:

In the debate over sexual violence on college campuses, two things are reasonably clear. First, campus rape is a grave, persistent problem, shadowing rowdy state schools and cozy liberal-arts campuses alike.

Second, nobody — neither anti-rape activists, nor their critics, nor the administrators caught in between — seems to have a clear and compelling idea of what to do about it.

The immediate difficulty is that what many activists want from colleges — a disciplinary process that leads to many more expulsions for sexual assault — is something schools are ill equipped to offer. As Michelle Goldberg acknowledges in a judicious article for The Nation, dealing with serious crimes in a setting that normally handles minor infractions risks a worst-of-both-worlds scenario: a process whose lack of professionalism leaves victims more “devastated than vindicated,” even as its limited protections for the accused lead to endless lawsuits claiming kangaroo-court treatment.

The deeper problem, which applies for courts of law as well, is that even with a near-perfect justice system, sexual assault on campus often happens in a context that by its nature defies easy adjudication. Most campus assaults involve incapacitation, usually involving alcohol, rather than brute force; most involve friends and acquaintances and partners and exes; and most women assaulted while under the influence do not themselves use the word “rape” to describe what happened. As long as these patterns persist, it is difficult to see any disciplinary or legal change that would inspire substantially more formal accusations, let alone clear and airtight verdicts.

But this does not mean our society is helpless against sexual violence on campus. Rather, we’re searching ineffectively for better after-the-fact responses because we aren’t willing to deal with some of the root causes, or upset the underlying legal and cultural status quo.

As examples, here are three shifts I suspect would, in combination, do more to reduce the rate of sexual assault than any disciplinary change being contemplated. The first would require action by legislators; the other two, by administrators. Probably none of them will happen; all of them, in theory, could.

First, our lawmakers could reduce the legal drinking age to 18 from 21. The key problem in college sexual culture right now isn’t drinking per se; it’s blackout drinking, which follows from binge drinking, which is more likely to happen when a drinking culture is driven underground.

Undoing the federal government’s Reagan-era imposition of a higher drinking age is probably too counterintuitive for lawmakers to contemplate. And obviously it wouldn’t eliminate the lure of the keg stand or tame the recklessness of youth. But it would create an opportunity for a healthier approach to alcohol consumption — more social and relaxed, less frantic and performative — to take root in collegiate culture once again.

Second, college administrators could try to break their schools’ symbiotic relationship with the on-campus party scene. This is not an easy task, mostly for financial reasons: The promise of Blutarskian excess often attracts the kind of well-heeled kids whose parents pay full freight, and the “party pathway” through academe involves two intertwined phenomena — big-time sports and wild Greek life — that basically define college for many deep-pocketed alums.

But what Murray Sperber has dubbed the “beer and circus” atmosphere around college athletics, combined with what Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Atlantic article terms “the dark power” of (some) fraternities, are the deep forces shaping the vulnerable trajectory of many campus nights. Weaken those forces, rein in their often-misogynistic excesses, and what’s lost in alumni dollars would probably be gained in lower rates of sexual violence, and a safer campus over all.

Finally, colleges could embrace a more limited version of the old “parietal” system, in which they separated the sexes and supervised social life. This could involve, for instance, establishing more single-sex dorms and writing late-night rules that apply identically to men and women. Bringing a visitor to your room after 10 p.m. or midnight might require signing in with an adult adviser, who would have the right to intervene when inebriation seemed to call consent and safety into question.

This need not represent a return to any kind of chastity-based ethic. The point would be to create hurdles for predators, clearer decision points for both sexes and —  in the event that someone sneaked an intended partner in, and the encounter ended badly  —  a reason short of a rape conviction to discipline or expel.

Colleges have gestured in this direction with programs encouraging bystanders to step in if a pairing-off seems to be turning sour or violent. But taking on a formal, chaperone-like role themselves would cut against the ideological spirit of the modern university, and no doubt would be widely denounced as puritanical, heteronormative, reactionary.

Embracing such a role, though, would probably make the typical campus a place of greater safety than it is today.

So as this debate continues, it’s an alternative worth pondering. There are ways, apart from ineffective tribunals, to reduce sexual violence on campus. We just aren’t ready to embrace them.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

What’s the real fight in the Middle East today? Is it just sectarian (Sunnis versus Shiites) and national (Israelis versus Palestinians and Arabs versus Persians)? Or is it something deeper? I was discussing this core question with Nader Mousavizadeh, a former senior United Nations official and the co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical advisory firm, and he offered another framework: “The real struggle in the region,” he said, “is between arsonists and firefighters.”

There is a lot of truth in that. The sectarian and nationalist fires you see burning around the Middle East are not as natural and inevitable as you may think.

“These are deliberate acts of arson,” argues Mousavizadeh, “set by different leaders to advance their narrow and shortsighted political, economic and security objectives.” In the West, he warns, “a mix of fatigue and fatalism is in danger of creating a narrative of irreversible Sunni-Shia conflict. This is historically false and releases the region’s leaders from their responsibility to wield power in a legitimate and accountable way.”

To be sure, he added, the sectarian divides are real, but it is “not inevitable” that the region erupt in sectarian conflagration. It takes arsonists to really get these sectarian fires blazing, and, “unless they set them and fan them and give them fuel,” they will more often than not die out.

How so? Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, is an arsonist. When confronted with a nonviolent, grass-roots protest against his tyrannical rule, he opened fire on the demonstrators, hoping that would provoke Syria’s Sunni majority to respond with violence against his Alawite/Shiite minority regime. It worked, and now Assad presents himself as the defender of a secular Syria against Sunni fanatics.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is an arsonist. The minute America left Iraq, he deliberately arrested Sunni leaders, deprived them of budgets and stopped paying the Sunni tribesmen who rose up against Al Qaeda. When this eventually triggered a Sunni response, Maliki ran in the last election as the defender of the Shiite majority against Sunni “terrorists.” It worked.

Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt launched a violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, killing, wounding and arresting many hundreds, and then he ran for president as the defender of Egypt against Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists.”

The Palestinian extremists who recently kidnapped three Israeli youths were arsonists, aiming to blow up any hope of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to embarrass Palestinian moderates. But they had help. Radical Jewish settler supporters in the Israeli cabinet, like Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, are arsonists. Ariel deliberately announced plans to build 700 new housing units for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem — timed to torpedo Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy. And they did.

There are firefighters in all these places — people like Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres in Israel, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Mohammad Javad Zarif in Iran and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq — but they are now overwhelmed by the passions set loose by the arsonists.

It is hard for people who have not lived in the Arab world to appreciate that Shiites and Sunnis in places like Iraq, Lebanon or Bahrain often intermarry. Those that do are jokingly called “Sushi.” Sectarian massacres are not the norm. A poll just released by Zogby Research Services, conducted in seven Arab countries, found that “strong majorities in every country favor U.S. policies that support a negotiated solution to the conflict [in Syria], coupled with more support for Syrian refugees. Majorities in all countries oppose any form of U.S. military engagement” or arming of opposition groups.

I recently gave the commencement address at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in Kurdistan. Its student body is 70 percent Kurdish, and the rest are mostly Shiites and Sunnis from across Iraq. With the right leadership, people in the region can and do get along. It is why for all the talk of breaking Iraq into three parts, it is has never been the preferred choice of most Iraqis.

As one of my Kurdish hosts remarked to me, “The Shiites of Basra still long for the famous yoghurt of Erbil,” Kurdistan’s largest city. “When Ramadan comes, the Kurds will feel deprived if they cannot break the daily fast with the famous dates of Basra.” And Kurds have come to enjoy “shisha,” smoking water pipes, which are a tradition they got from the Arabs. There are more ties that bind than don’t. You actually have to work at burning them up.

To be sure, harmony between different sects requires order, but it does not have to be iron-fisted. Iraqis just last April held fair elections on their own. They can do it. These societies need to go from being governed by iron fists “to iron institutions that are legitimate, inclusive and accountable, and strong enough to hold the frame of society together,” argued Mousavizadeh.

That requires the right leadership. “So when the region’s leaders come to Washington to plead for engagement and intervention, ask for money or ask for arms,” he added, “Let them first answer the question: Are you an arsonist or are you a firefighter?”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

If you want to understand just how miserable a childhood can be, 16-year-old “Jane Doe” is a good place to start.

That’s what the authorities in Connecticut call her to protect her identity. She was removed a few days ago from an adult prison where she had been confined by herself for two months — not as punishment but because the state said it had nowhere else to put her that would be safe.

Now Jane is in a girls’ detention center in Middletown, Conn. She’s one of almost 70,000 American youths incarcerated on any given day — and a reminder of how ineffective our programs for troubled children are.

Like many detained kids, Jane has been through hell. Because her father was in prison and her mother was a drug abuser, she was raised by relatives. At age 8, she says in an affidavit provided to the courts, her cousin began to rape her anally, causing her to lose control of her bowels.

“My grandfather made me sleep outside on the porch for two days because I couldn’t hold my stool and had an accident,” she recounts. “He told me, ‘only animals do that,’ and if I didn’t stop he would treat me like one.”

A history of abuse is common for troubled kids. One study of 2,500 people sentenced to life imprisonment while juveniles found that almost half had been physically abused. Among girls, 77 percent reported sexual abuse.

More than 60 percent of incarcerated youths in America are confined for nonviolent offenses. Two-thirds are children of color.

Jane, who is Hispanic, seems to have had little help as a young child, when social services are most effective. But at 12, she says in the affidavit, she was placed by state authorities in a school for troubled youths. Even after coming under state supervision, she recounts repeated sexual abuse by staff, relatives and other youths.

Jane was particularly vulnerable because she is transgender. She was born male but identifies as female.

At 15, Jane was living on the streets. A pimp sold her for sex, she says; she eventually escaped but continued to sell sex herself.

“All I wanted was someone to tell me they loved me, that everything would be all right,” she says in the affidavit. “But that never happened.”

She was periodically violent to staff and girls in the youth centers she was sent to, court documents show. Connecticut cited that history of violence, and a need to protect others, in isolating Jane in an adult prison beginning in April. “It was devastating for her,” says her lawyer, Aaron J. Romano. (Connecticut officials deny that it was so grim and say that she had educational opportunities.)

Now that Jane is out of prison and in youth detention, the aim is to provide her care that, both her advocates and the state say, would ideally lead to placement in a loving foster-care family, with outside support to help the transition.

“We’re already looking for an appropriate foster family,” Joette Katz, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, told me.

Through her lawyer, Jane answered questions I sent to her. She was scornful of the juvenile justice system: “It doesn’t work,” she said flatly. But she spoke poignantly of her desire to become a nurse and a mentor for other transgender children. “I would love to be a role model for young trans kids,” she said.

The larger lesson is the way we systematically over-rely on the criminal justice toolbox to deal with youths, rather than on social services or education. The United States incarcerates children at a rate that is 10 or 20 times higher than in some other industrial countries.

A generation ago, perhaps it was plausible that the shock of juvenile detention would scare a kid back to the straight-and-narrow path. Now that’s not tenable. Robust research shows that incarcerating kids often just turns them into career criminals.

The cost of detaining a youth is about $100,000 a year. And one study found that the cost to society of a high-risk 14-year-old who doesn’t straighten out is at least $3.2 million over his lifetime.

Thus it would be economically efficient, as well as humane, to invest in interventions from the beginning of life that reduce delinquency. That means home visitation to at-risk families, lead abatement, early education, and schools for low-income children that are as good as those for the middle class.

As a result partly of costs, youth detention rates are dropping since peaking in about 1995. But we still fail systematically to invest adequately in children like Jane, who is a reminder that it’s much easier to help a child at 6 than at 16.

“Everyone thinks I am some kind of wild animal,” she wrote despairingly from prison last month. “If this is helping me, then I’m all set with being helped.”

Friedman, solo

June 25, 2014

The good news is that MoDo is off.  The bad news is that The Moustache of Wisdom isn’t.  In “ISIS and SISI” he’s decided to tell us why two Arab governing models are doomed.  “Robert Eller” had this to say in the comments:  “How ironic that Thom Friedman, an American, and Orit Perlov, an Israeli, are pointing fingers at hyper-religious and hyper-militaristic states like Iraq and Egypt, and predicting their doom.”  Here’s TMOW:

The past month has presented the world with what the Israeli analyst Orit Perlov describes as the two dominant Arab governing models: ISIS and SISI.

ISIS, of course, is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the bloodthirsty Sunni militia that has gouged out a new state from Sunni areas in Syria and Iraq. SISI, of course, is Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the new strongman/president of Egypt, whose regime debuted this week by shamefully sentencing three Al Jazeera journalists to prison terms on patently trumped-up charges — a great nation acting so small.

ISIS and Sisi, argues Perlov, a researcher on Middle East social networks at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, are just flip sides of the same coin: one elevates “god” as the arbiter of all political life and the other “the national state.”

Both have failed and will continue to fail — and require coercion to stay in power — because they cannot deliver for young Arabs and Muslims what they need most: the education, freedom and jobs to realize their full potential and the ability to participate as equal citizens in their political life.

We are going to have to wait for a new generation that “puts society in the center,” argues Perlov, a new Arab/Muslim generation that asks not “how can we serve god or how can we serve the state but how can they serve us.”

Perlov argues that these governing models — hyper-Islamism (ISIS) driven by a war against “takfiris,” or apostates, which is how Sunni Muslim extremists refer to Shiite Muslims; and hyper-nationalism (SISI) driven by a war against Islamist “terrorists,” which is what the Egyptian state calls the Muslim Brotherhood — need to be exhausted to make room for a third option built on pluralism in society, religion and thought.

The Arab world needs to finally puncture the twin myths of the military state (SISI) or the Islamic state (ISIS) that will bring prosperity, stability and dignity. Only when the general populations “finally admit that they are both failed and unworkable models,” argues Perlov, might there be “a chance to see this region move to the 21st century.”

The situation is not totally bleak. You have two emergent models, both frail and neither perfect, where Muslim Middle East nations have built decent, democratizing governance, based on society and with some political, cultural and religious pluralism: Tunisia and Kurdistan. Again both are works in progress, but what is important is that they did emerge from the societies themselves. You also have the relatively soft monarchies — like Jordan and Morocco — that are at least experimenting at the margins with more participatory governance, allow for some opposition and do not rule with the brutality of the secular autocrats.

“Both the secular authoritarian model — most recently represented by Sisi — and the radical religious model — represented now by ISIS — have failed,” adds Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan and author of “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.” “They did because they have not addressed peoples’ real needs: improving the quality of their life, both in economic and development terms, and also in feeling they are part of the decision-making process.  Both models have been exclusionist, presenting themselves as the holders of absolute truth and of the solution to all society’s problems.”

But the Arab public “is not stupid,” Muasher added. “While we will continue to see exclusionist discourses in much of the Arab world for the foreseeable future, results will end up trumping ideology. And results can only come from policies of inclusion, that would give all forces a stake in the system, thereby producing stability, checks and balances, and ultimately prosperity. ISIS and Sisi cannot win. Unfortunately, it might take exhausting all other options before a critical mass is developed that internalizes this basic fact. That is the challenge of the new generation in the Arab world, where 70 percent of the population is under 30 years of age. The old generation, secular or religious, seems to have learned nothing from the failure of the postindependence era to achieve sustainable development, and the danger of exclusionist policies.”

Indeed, the Iraq founded in 1921 is gone with the wind. The new Egypt imagined in Tahrir Square is stillborn. Too many leaders and followers in both societies seem intent on giving their failed ideas of the past another spin around the block before, hopefully, they opt for the only idea that works: pluralism in politics, education and religion. This could take a while, or not. I don’t know.

We tend to make every story about us. But this is not all about us. To be sure, we’ve done plenty of ignorant things in Iraq and Egypt. But we also helped open their doors to a different future, which their leaders have slammed shut for now. Going forward, where we see people truly committed to pluralism, we should help support them. And where we see islands of decency threatened, we should help protect them. But this is primarily about them, about their need to learn to live together without an iron fist from the top, and it will happen only when and if they want it to happen.

Friedman, solo

June 18, 2014

The good news is that MoDo is off today.  The bad news is that The Moustache of Wisdom has more “ideas.”  In “What To Do With the Twins?” he’s weighing all the options and the complicated dynamics at play in Iraq and Syria.

There is much talk right now about America teaming up with Iran to push back the coalition of Sunni militias that has taken over Mosul and other Sunni towns in western Iraq and Syria. For now, I’d say stay out of this fight — not because it’s the best option, but because it’s the least bad.

After all, what is the context in which we’d be intervening? Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top-down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalist kings and dictators.

Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.

Tunisia and Kurdistan have done the best at this transition. Egyptians tried and found the insecurity so unbearable that they brought back the army’s iron fist. Libya has collapsed into intertribal conflict. Yemen struggles with a wobbly tribal balance. In Syria, the Shiite/Alawite minority, plus the Christians and some Sunnis, seem to prefer the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad to the anarchy of the Islamist-dominated rebels; the Syrian Kurds have carved out their own enclave, so the country is now a checkerboard.

In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the U.S. in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.

So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.

What to do? It was not wrong to believe post-9/11 that unless this region produced decent self-government it would continue to fail its own people and deny them the ability to realize their full potential, which is why the Arab Spring happened, and that its pathologies would also continue to spew out the occasional maniac, like Osama bin Laden, who could threaten us.

But the necessary turned out to be impossible: We didn’t know what we were doing. The post-Saddam generation of Iraqi leaders turned out to be like abused children who went on to be abusive parents. The Iranians constantly encouraged Shiite supremacy and frustrated our efforts to build pluralism. Mosques and charities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar continued to fund preachers and fighters who promoted the worst Sunni extremism. And thousands of Muslim men marched to Syria and Iraq to fight for jihadism, but none marched there to fight for pluralism.

I could say that before President Obama drops even an empty Coke can from a U.S. fighter jet on the Sunni militias in Iraq we need to insist that Maliki resign and a national unity cabinet be created that is made up of inclusive Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. I could say that that is the necessary condition for reunification of Iraq. And I could say that it is absolutely not in our interest or the world’s to see Iraq break apart and one segment be ruled by murderous Sunni militias.

But I have to say this: It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration — too late because whatever trust there was between communities is gone, and Maliki is not trying to rebuild it, and too early because it looks as if Iraqis are going to have to live apart, and see how crazy and impoverishing that is, before the different sects can coexist peacefully.

In the meantime, there is no denying that terrorism could be exported our way from Iraq’s new, radicalized “Sunnistan.” But we have a National Security Agency, C.I.A. and drones to deal with that now ever-present threat.

Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogeneous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey. It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

June 15, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz, in “The End of Iraq,” babbles that the facts on the ground are shredding the official maps of Iraq and the region.  In the comments “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had this to say:  “That’s a mighty strange timeline from Douthat.  Sykes-Picot, 9/11, and a succession of maps, 2006-2013. Wasn’t there an invasion in 2003? Oh, wait, there was that oblique reference to “recklessness”, as if it were the moral equivalent of “neglect” by the current administration.  The proper lesson to be learned is that more neglect and less intervention and recklessness in the middle east on the part of the west would have been to the mutual benefit of both.  The “stability” train left the station the minute shock-and-awe was launched in Baghdad, and it’s no use pretending otherwise.”  MoDo is riding one of her favorite hobby horses.  In “When Will Hillary Let It Go?” she snarls that America is entranced with the frozen kingdoms of two polarizing queens.  The Moustache of Wisdom has seen fit to present “5 Principles for Iraq” in which he tells us there are many questions that need answering before the U.S. considers intervening.  Lest we forget exactly who and what Friedman really is, here’s a reminder.  Mr. Bruni, in “Naked Confessions of the College-Bound,” says the raw and relevatory admissions essay reflects the blinding competition to get into elite schools.  Here’s The Putz:

Every so often, in the post-9/11 era, an enterprising observer circulates a map of what the Middle East might look like, well, after: after America’s wars in the region, after the various revolutions and counterrevolutions, after the Arab Spring and the subsequent springtime for jihadists, after the Sunni-Shiite struggle for mastery. At some point, these cartographers suggest, the wave of post-9/11 conflict will necessarily redraw borders, reshape nation-states, and rub out some of the lines drawn by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in a secret Anglo-French treaty almost 100 years ago.

In 2006, it was Ralph Peters, the retired lieutenant colonel turned columnist, who sketched a map that subdivided Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and envisioned Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite republics emerging from a no-longer-united Iraq. Two years later, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg imagined similar partings-of-the-ways, with new microstates — an Alawite Republic, an Islamic Emirate of Gaza — taking shape and Afghanistan splitting up as well. Last year, it was Robin Wright’s turn in this newspaper, in a map that (keeping up with events) subdivided Libya as well.

Peters’s map, which ran in Armed Forces Journal, inspired conspiracy theories about how this was America’s real plan for remaking the Middle East. But the reality is entirely different: One reason these maps have remained strictly hypothetical, even amid regional turmoil, is that the United States has a powerful interest in preserving the Sykes-Picot status quo.

This is not because the existing borders are in any way ideal. Indeed, there’s a very good chance that a Middle East that was more politically segregated by ethnicity and faith might become a more stable and harmonious region in the long run.

Such segregation is an underappreciated part of Europe’s 20th-century transformation into a continent at peace. As Jerry Muller argued in Foreign Affairs in 2008, the brutal ethnic cleansing and forced migrations that accompanied and followed the two world wars ensured that “for the most part, each nation in Europe had its own state, and each state was made up almost exclusively of a single ethnic nationality,” which in turn sapped away some of the “ethnonational aspirations and aggression” that had contributed to imperialism, fascism and Hitler’s rise.

But this happened after the brutal ethnic cleansing that accompanied and followed two world wars. There’s no good reason to imagine that a redrawing of Middle Eastern borders could happen much more peacefully. Which is why American policy makers, quite sensibly, have preferred the problematic stability of current arrangements to the long-term promise of a Free Kurdistan or Baluchistan, a Greater Syria or Jordan, a Wahhabistan or Tripolitania.

This was true even of the most ambitious (and foolhardy) architects of the Iraq invasion, who intended to upset a dictator-dominated status quo … but not, they mostly thought, in a way that would redraw national boundaries. Instead, the emphasis was on Iraq’s potential for post-Saddam cohesion, its prospects as a multiethnic model for democratization and development. That emphasis endured through the darkest days of our occupation, when the voices calling for partition — including the current vice president, Joe Biden — were passed over and unity remained America’s strategic goal.

But now that strategy has almost failed. De facto, with the shocking advance of militants toward Baghdad, there are now three states in what we call Iraq: one Kurdish, one Shiite and one Sunni — with the last straddling the Iraq-Syria border and “governed” by jihadists.

This means that Iraq is now part of an arc, extending from Hezbollah’s fiefdom in Lebanon through war-torn Syria, in which official national borders are notional at best. And while full dissolution is not yet upon us, the facts on the ground in Iraq look more and more like Peters’s map than the country that so many Americans died to stabilize and secure.

What’s more, we pretty clearly lack both the will and the capacity to change them. It is possible, as The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins has argued, that a clearer Obama administration focus on Iraq, and a more effective attempt to negotiate a continued American presence three years ago, could have prevented this unraveling. (Little about this White House’s recent foreign policy record inspires much confidence in its efforts in Iraq.)

But now? Now our leverage relative to the more immediate players is at a modern low point, and the progress of regional war has a momentum that U.S. airstrikes are unlikely to arrest.

Our basic interests have not altered: better stability now, better the Sykes-Picot borders with all their flaws, than the very distant promise of a postconflict Middle Eastern map.

But two successive administrations have compromised those interests: one through recklessness, the other through neglect. Now the map is changing; now, as in early-20th-century Europe, the price of transformation is being paid in blood.

It’s like he’s studying to be Bloody Billy Kristol, whose chair he took over at the Times…  Here’s tiresome old MoDo:

No one wrote about blondes like Raymond Chandler.

“There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare,” he wrote in “The Long Goodbye.” “There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home.”

There’s the pale, anemic, languid blonde with the soft voice. “You can’t lay a finger on her,” Chandler notes, “because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading ‘The Waste Land’ or Dante in the original.” And when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith, he writes dryly, “she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.”

None of his descriptions, however, conjures the two regal blondes transfixing America at the moment: Hillary and Elsa.

Those close to them think that the queen of Hillaryland and the Snow Queen from Disney’s “Frozen” have special magical powers, but worry about whether they can control those powers, show their humanity and stir real warmth in the public heart.

Just as Elsa’s coronation suddenly became fraught, so has Hillary’s. Like Arendelle, America is frozen: The war still rages in Iraq, the Clintons still dominate the political scene and Hillary still obsesses about money, a narrative thread that has existed since she was thwarted in her desire to build a pool at the governor’s mansion in poor Arkansas and left the White House with a doggie bag full of sofas, rugs, lamps, TVs and china, some of which the Clintons later had to pay for or return. Even Chelsea was cashing in, getting a ridiculous, $600,000-a-year scion salary from NBC, far greater than that of many of the network’s correspondents.

As a Clinton White House aide once explained to me, “Hillary, though a Methodist, thinks of herself like an Episcopal bishop who deserves to live at the level of her wealthy parishioners, in return for devoting her life to God and good works.”

After feeling stifled at times and misunderstood, after suffering painful setbacks, the powerful and polarizing Elsa and Hillary proclaim from their lofty height that they’re going to “let it go” and go for it. (Although Elsa’s wolves are not as fierce as the Fox predators after Hillary.)

“I don’t care what they’re going to say,” Elsa sings at the climactic moment when she decides to let down her hair, ratchet up her star power and create her glittering ice palace. “Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway!”

Hillary had a similar cri de coeur in her interview with Diane Sawyer. When Sawyer asked her about the focus on her appearance that once kept her so “scripted, cautious, safe,” Hillary replied: “When you’re in the spotlight as a woman, you know you’re being judged constantly. I mean, it is just never-ending. And you get a little worried about, O.K., you know, people over on this side are loving what I am wearing, looking like, saying. People over on this side aren’t.

“You know, your natural tendency is how do you bring people together so that you can better communicate? I’m done with that. I mean, I’m just done.” She continued: “I am over it, over it. I think I have changed; not worried so much about what other people are thinking.” She vowed to now “say what I know, what I believe, and let the chips fall.”

It would make a great Idina Menzel anthem, but it’s not believable that Hillary Rodham Clinton will suddenly throw caution and calculation to the wind. Having market-tested the gender-neutral model in 2008, this time Hillary is presenting herself as a woman who has suffered the slings and arrows of sexism.

Her apology for being “wrong” about voting to authorize W. to invade Iraq took 11 years to spit out, and she told the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday that she “could not have predicted” the success of Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents in seizing control of Iraqi cities. If some bold voices had fought going into a patently unnecessary war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 — a war, waged ignorantly for silly, macho reasons, that was never properly debated or planned in the White House — America would not be in a global crouch now, and Iraq would not be a killing field.

Hillary’s new memoir, like her last one, is a testament to caution and calculation. It doesn’t feel written so much as assembled by a “Hillary for President” algorithm. All this excitement is being ginned up, but nothing exciting is happening. There isn’t one surprising or scintillating or provocative word in the whole book. “Hard Choices” is inert, a big yawn.

In her “If they’d listened to me” mode, she is distancing herself from the president on Syria, Russia and the Bergdahl trade because she does not, as Republican strategist Matthew Dowd puts it, want to be defeated by Obama twice.

The opening of her book tour/presidential campaign has featured some stumbles, causing some commentators to wonder if she has grown rusty and tone-deaf, isolated in the ice palace she erected to keep out the loathed press.

No one doubts that Hillary is tough and knowledgeable. But the question of how scarred and defensive she is, given all the fights and rough times she has gone through, and how that affects her judgment now, is a legitimate one.

Has she given up the my-way-or-the-highway imperiousness that doomed her health care efforts? Has she toned down the defensiveness that exacerbated the Whitewater affair? Has she modified the ends-justify-the-means mind-set that allowed her to participate in the vivisection of young women she knew Bill had been involved with? Has she tempered the focus on political viability that led her to vote to allow W. to scamper into a vanity war? Has she learned not to surround herself with high-priced mercenaries like Mark Penn and Dick Morris?

In the last few days, two women interrogators have rattled Hillary’s ice palace gates with questions that were obvious and reasonable.

With Sawyer, Clinton said she hadn’t known enough to know the Benghazi outpost was unprotected, despite what Ambassador Chris Stevens had called “never-ending security threats.”

On NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Clinton grew testy when Terry Gross pressed her on whether the decision to finally publicly embrace gay marriage was a personal evolution or a political “calculus” — now that it’s not as much of a political liability and now that the court has dismantled the dreadful Defense of Marriage Act, which her husband cravenly signed into law in 1996. Clinton said she couldn’t do it as secretary of state. But the vice president was not constrained from saying what was in his heart and pushing the president in the right direction.

What Elsa discovers at the end of “Frozen” is that her powers can actually be used for good, once her heart is filled with love. She escapes from her prison, leaves behind the negative things that held her back, and leads her kingdom to a happy and prosperous future.

Can Hillary?

In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “If it’s a choice between any Republican and Hillary, well, there’s really no choice. It won’t matter if Hillary is flawed, manufactured, calculating, tainted by big money and a reformed Bush enabler. But it’s a sad commentary on the Democratic party that the bench is so shallow that Hillary is the only option. There isn’t a passionate, untainted voice out there, with the possible exception of Elizabeth Warren. At least she seems to stand up for her beliefs, and for the middle class, without equivocating, or finessing the message.”  Amen.  Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom, eponymous creator of the Friedman Unit:”

The disintegration of Iraq and Syria is upending an order that has defined the Middle East for a century. It is a huge event, and we as a country need to think very carefully about how to respond. Having just returned from Iraq two weeks ago, my own thinking is guided by five principles, and the first is that, in Iraq today, my enemy’s enemy is my enemy. Other than the Kurds, we have no friends in this fight. Neither Sunni nor Shiite leaders spearheading the war in Iraq today share our values.

The Sunni jihadists, Baathists and tribal militiamen who have led the takeover of Mosul from the Iraqi government are not supporters of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq, the only Iraq we have any interest in abetting. And Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has proved himself not to be a friend of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq either. From Day 1, he has used his office to install Shiites in key security posts, drive out Sunni politicians and generals and direct money to Shiite communities. In a word, Maliki has been a total jerk. Besides being prime minister, he made himself acting minister of defense, minister of the interior and national security adviser, and his cronies also control the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry.

Maliki had a choice — to rule in a sectarian way or in an inclusive way — and he chose sectarianism. We owe him nothing.

The second principle for me derives from the most important question we need to answer from the Arab Spring. Why is it that the two states doing the best are those that America has had the least to do with: Tunisia and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq?

Answer: Believe it or not, it’s not all about what we do and the choices we make. Arabs and Kurds have agency, too. And the reason that both Tunisia and Kurdistan have built islands of decency, still frail to be sure, is because the major contending political forces in each place eventually opted for the principle of “no victor, no vanquished.”

The two major rival parties in Kurdistan not only buried the hatchet between them but paved the way for democratic elections that recently brought a fast-rising opposition party, that ran on an anti-corruption platform, into government for the first time. And Tunisia, after much internal struggle and bloodshed, found a way to balance the aspirations of secularists and Islamists and agree on the most progressive Constitution in the history of the Arab world.

Hence my rule: The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them — when they take ownership of reconciliation. Please spare me another dose of: It is all about whom we train and arm. Sunnis and Shiites don’t need guns from us. They need the truth. It is the early 21st century, and too many of them are still fighting over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad from the 7th century. It has to stop — for them, and for their kids, to have any future.

Principle No. 3: Maybe Iran, and its wily Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, aren’t so smart after all. It was Iran that armed its Iraqi Shiite allies with the specially shaped bombs that killed and wounded many American soldiers. Iran wanted us out. It was Iran that pressured Maliki into not signing an agreement with the U.S. to give our troops legal cover to stay in Iraq. Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: “This Bud’s for you.” Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.

We still want to forge a nuclear deal that prevents Iran from developing a bomb, so we have to be careful about how much we aid Iran’s Sunni foes. But with Iran still under sanctions and its forces and Hezbollah’s now fighting in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, well, let’s just say: advantage America.

Fourth: Leadership matters. While in Iraq, I visited Kirkuk, a city that has long been hotly contested between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. When I was there five years ago, it was a hellish war zone. This time I found new paved roads, parks and a flourishing economy and a Kurdish governor, Najimaldin Omar Karim, who was just re-elected in April in a fair election and won more seats thanks to votes from the minority Arabs and Turkmen.

“We focused on [improving] roads, terrible traffic, hospitals, dirty schools,” and increasing electricity from four hours a day to nearly 24 hours, said Dr. Karim, a neurosurgeon who had worked in America for 33 years before returning to Iraq in 2009. “People were tired of politics and maximalism. We [earned] the confidence and good feelings of Arabs and Turkmen toward a Kurdish governor. They feel like we don’t discriminate. This election was the first time Turkmen and Arabs voted for a Kurd.”

In the recent chaos, the Kurds have now taken full military control of Kirkuk, but I can tell you this: Had Maliki governed Iraq like Karim governed Kirkuk, we would not have this mess today. With the right leadership, people there can live together.

Finally, while none of the main actors in Iraq, other than Kurds, are fighting for our values, is anyone there even fighting for our interests: a minimally stable Iraq that doesn’t threaten us? And whom we can realistically help? The answers still aren’t clear to me, and, until they are, I’d be very wary about intervening.

“ScottW” from Chapel Hill, NC has a question for Tommy in the comments:  “Any thoughts of ever admitting you were wrong in cheerleading the U.S. to invade and destroy Iraq back in 2003?”  [crickets]  And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

The Yale applicant had terrific test scores. She had fantastic grades. As one of Yale’s admissions officers, Michael Motto, leafed through her application, he found himself more and more impressed.

Then he got to her essay. As he remembers it, she mentioned a French teacher she greatly admired. She described their one-on-one conversation at the end of a school day. And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself.

“Her point was that she was not going to pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating conversation just to meet a physical need,” said Motto, who later left Yale and founded Apply High, a firm that guides students through the admissions process.

And his point in bringing her story up during a recent interview? The same as mine in passing it along:

When it comes to college admissions, our society has tumbled way, way too far down the rabbit hole, as I’ve observed before. And in the warped wonderland where we’ve landed, too many kids attach such a crazy degree of importance to getting into the most selective schools that they do stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out. The essay portion of their applications can be an especially jolting illustration of that.

It’s an illustration of something else, too: a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome, among kids who’ve grown up in the era of the overshare. The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet, producing autobiographical sketches like another that Motto remembers reading at Yale, this one from a male student.

“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.

But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction. Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the Jerry Springer-ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.

Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic vomiting syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?

Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.

Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.

“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”

She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.

Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.

“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.

He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult pregnancy, with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”

“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.

THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.

“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”

Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.

In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.

The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in New Haven lay beyond them.


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