Archive for the ‘The Pasty Little Putz’ Category

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

April 20, 2014

In “Marx Rises Again” The Putz says old ideas are having a comeback in the new Gilded Age.  In “Still Getting Wolf Whistles at 50″ MoDo says Ford repeats a King Kong of a stunt with its iconic Mustang.  In “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2″ The Moustache of Wisdom says new graduates may be intrigued by a hiring guru’s advice.  In “In Dad’s Hometown, European Souls” Mr. Kristof says in a village in southwest Ukraine, the kids may know how to speak Russian, but they say they’d rather sing to Taylor Swift.  In “Tolstoy and Miss Daisy” Mr. Bruni says on the eve of Easter, his family’s happy journey came into focus.  Here’s The Putz:

In the season of resurrection, it’s fitting that he’s with us once again — bearded, prophetic, moralistic, promising to exalt the humble and cast down the mighty from their thrones.

Yes, that’s right: Karl Marx is back from the dead.

Not on a Soviet-style scale, mercifully, and not with the kind of near-scriptural authority that many Marxists once invested in him. But Marxist ideas are having an intellectual moment, and attention must be paid.

As Timothy Shenk writes in a searching essay for The Nation, there are two pillars to the current Marxist revival. One is the clutch of young intellectuals Shenk dubs the “Millennial Marxists,” whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism. The M.M.’s have Occupy Wall Street as a failed-but-interesting political example; they have new-ish journals (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1) where they can experiment and argue; they are beginning to produce books, two of which Shenk reviews and praises.

What they lack, however, is a synthesis, a story, of the kind that Marx himself offered. This is where the other pillar rises — Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a sweeping interpretation of modern economic trends recently translated from the French, and the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.

Piketty himself is a social democrat who abjures the Marxist label. But as his title suggests, he is out to rehabilitate and recast one of Marx’s key ideas: that so-called “free markets,” by their nature, tend to enrich the owners of capital at the expense of people who own less of it.

This idea seemed to be disproved in the 20th century, by the emergence of a prosperous, non-revolutionary working class. But Piketty argues that those developments were transitory, made possible mostly by the massive destruction of inherited capital during the long era of world war.

Absent another such disruption, he expects a world in which the returns to capital permanently outstrip  —  as they have recently  —  the returns to labor, and inequality rises far beyond even today’s levels. Combine this trend with slowing growth, and we face a future like the 19th-century past, in which vast inherited fortunes bestride the landscape while the middle class fractures, weakens, shrinks.

Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess. But it also relies on straightforward analysis of recent trends in Western economies, and here a little doubt-raising is in order.

In particular, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has pointed out, Piketty’s data seems to understate the income gains enjoyed by most Americans over the last two generations. These gains have not been as impressive as during the post-World War II years, but they do exist: For now, even as the rich have gotten much, much richer, the 99 percent have shared in growing prosperity in real, measurable ways.

Winship’s point raises the possibility that even if Piketty’s broad projections are correct, the future he envisions might be much more stable and sustainable than many on the left tend to assume. Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.

This possibility might help explain why the far left remains, for now, politically weak even as it enjoys a miniature intellectual renaissance. And it might hint at a reason that so much populist energy, in both the United States and Europe, has come from the right instead — from movements like the Tea Party, Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front and others that incorporate some Piketty-esque arguments (attacks on crony capitalism; critiques of globalization) but foreground cultural anxieties instead.

The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.

And somewhere in this pattern, perhaps, lies the beginnings of a  more ideologically complicated critique of modern capitalism — one that draws on cultural critics like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch rather than just looking to material concerns, and considers the possibility that our system’s greatest problem might not be the fact that it lets the rich claim more money than everyone else. Rather, it might be that both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.

Which is to say that while the Marxist revival is interesting enough, to become more relevant it needs to become a little more … reactionary.

Here’s MoDo:

It’s weird to be jealous of your car.

But I am.

Men look at my car with such naked lust, their eyes devouring the curves and chrome, that I often feel as though I’m intruding on an intimate moment. Women like it, too. They sometimes grin and give it a thumbs up as it growls by, and one girlfriend fondly refers to it as “the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Goddess car.”

But the icon evokes a special feeling in men. It’s the Proustian madeleine of cars, stirring old dreams and new. Guys sometimes follow in the American beauty’s dreamy wake, by car or by bike, and leave mash notes on the windshield with their numbers, pleading for me to sell it.

I won’t. Even though it’s hard on the ego to chauffeur such an object of universal desire, and even though I can rarely put down the top because I’m prone to sunburn, I love my ’65 Mustang convertible. Still sexy at 50, it is midnight blue with a white top and white bucket seats. Bob Marley, ’60s French girl groups and, of course, Wilson Pickett wail from the CD player.

The pony car was launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 with a $2,368 sticker price, and some collectors look for “1964 1/2s,” as the first Mustangs off the Ford assembly line are called. But the debut cars were all designated 1965, and mine was produced in that first batch.

It quickly became the fastest-selling new car in history, landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek with Lee Iacocca and showing up in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” It sold even faster when Ford executives pulled a King Kong of a stunt in October 1965 and parked a pony on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.

Once Ford engineers determined that lowering a car by helicopter onto the world’s tallest building would be too dangerous, they spent an hour cutting a white Mustang convertible into sections that would fit into elevators and then reassembled the car on high.

Bill Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman, great-grandson of Henry Ford and No. 1 Mustang fan, replicated the icon-on-icon caper Wednesday for the first day of the New York Auto Show — this time disassembling a bright yellow 2015 Mustang convertible into five parts and reassembling it 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.

Later, after driving through the car show in one of Ford’s 1,964 50th anniversary, retro Mustangs that come in the car’s original Wimbledon white or Kona blue, the chairman reminisced about his first car, a 1975 electric green Mustang. “Mustang is my all-time favorite car,” he said, noting that it signified fun and freedom in an affordable package.

The car was conceived as “a working man’s Thunderbird” by the late Don Frey and muscled up by Carroll Shelby. Frey, an engineer, had been teased by his kids about how boring the Ford models were.

As USA Today recounted, Frey’s favorite story was getting a letter from a Texas janitor who bought one of the first Mustangs. He wrote Frey: “I’ve been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Bill Clinton said leaving his bright blue ’67 Mustang behind in Arkansas was the hardest part of moving to the White House.

The brand almost became extinct after it devolved to a smaller version on top of the Ford Pinto chassis in the mid-’70s — losing its cool image. I had a red one in those days, and it broke down so much, I started calling it the Mustake.

The lame pony, USA Today recalled, was rescued in the early ’90s by engineer John Coletti and other Mustang aficionados at Ford, a group called the Gang of Eight. They slaved away in their spare time in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse in Michigan, coming up with a niftier design.

I always think of my Mustang as the Steve McQueen of cars, given the star’s stunning, sometimes airborne 10-minute chase scene in “Bullitt” through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, driving a green 1968 Mustang GT 390 in pursuit of a black Dodge Charger.

With his Mustang, Jacqueline Bisset and existential angst, McQueen defined hip in the 1968 classic — despite the atrocious paisley print pj’s he wore in the film.

In 2011, Marc Myers wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal retracing the chase route gingerly in a new Mustang with McQueen’s stunt double, Loren Janes. Janes, then 79, said he did about 90 percent of the driving in the movie and McQueen, though a good driver, did only the close-ups.

Janes told Myers that at the end of filming “Bullitt,” McQueen offered him one of the three tricked-out Mustangs used in the movie, but he passed, afraid he would always want to drive it too fast.

“Besides, I already had this,” Janes said, showing Myers a 1964 Rolex Submariner with the inscription: “To the best damn stuntman in the world. Steve.”

Now that’s cool.

Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

How’s my kid going to get a job? There are few questions I hear more often than that one. In February, I interviewed Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of all hiring at Google — about 100 new hires a week — to try to understand what an employer like Google was looking for and why it was increasingly ready to hire people with no college degrees. Bock’s remarks generated a lot of reader response, particularly his point that prospective bosses today care less about what you know or where you learned it — the Google machine knows everything now — than what value you can create with what you know. With graduations approaching, I went back to Google to ask Bock to share his best advice for job-seekers anywhere, not just at Google. Here is a condensed version of our conversations:

You’re not saying college education is worthless?

“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”

Once there, said Bock, make sure that you’re getting out of it not only a broadening of your knowledge but skills that will be valued in today’s workplace. Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job.

What are those traits? One is grit, he said. Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: “I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer.”

Or, he added, think of this headline from The Wall Street Journal in 2011: “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.” This was an article about a student who switched from electrical and computer engineering to a major in psychology. She said she just found the former too difficult and would focus instead on a career in public relations and human resources. “I think this student was making a mistake,” said Bock, even if it meant lower grades. “She was moving out of a major where she would have been differentiated in the labor force” and “out of classes that would have made her better qualified for other jobs because of the training.”

This is key for Bock because the first thing Google looks for “is general cognitive ability — the ability to learn things and solve problems,” he said. In that vein, “a knowledge set that will be invaluable is the ability to understand and apply information — so, basic computer science skills. I’m not saying you have to be some terrific coder, but to just understand how [these] things work you have to be able to think in a formal and logical and structured way.” But that kind of thinking doesn’t have to come from a computer science degree. “I took statistics at business school, and it was transformative for my career. Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.”

A lot of work, he added, is no longer tied to location. “So if you want your job tied to where you are, you need to be: A) quite good at it; and B) you need to be very adaptable so that you have a baseline skill set that allows you to be a call center operator today and tomorrow be able to interpret MRI scans. To have built the skill set that allows you to do both things requires a baseline capability that’s analytical.”

Well, what about creativity?

Bock: “Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn. One of the things that makes people more effective is if you can do both. … If you’re great on both attributes, you’ll have a lot more options. If you have just one, that’s fine, too.” But a lot fewer people have this kind of structured thought process and creativity.

Are the liberal arts still important?

They are “phenomenally important,” he said, especially when you combine them with other disciplines. “Ten years ago behavioral economics was rarely referenced. But [then] you apply social science to economics and suddenly there’s this whole new field. I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields. To pursue that, you need expertise in both fields. You have to understand economics and psychology or statistics and physics [and] bring them together. You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”

How do you write a good résumé?

“The key,” he said, “is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”

What’s your best advice for job interviews?

“What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ ” And here is how it can create value. “Most people in an interview don’t make explicit their thought process behind how or why they did something and, even if they are able to come up with a compelling story, they are unable to explain their thought process.”

For parents, new grads and those too long out of work, I hope some of this helps.

And here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Karapchiv, Ukraine:

To understand why Ukrainians are risking war with Russia to try to pluck themselves from Moscow’s grip, I came to this village where my father grew up.

The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America.

“We feel our souls are European,” Margaryta Maminchuk, 16, told me. “That is why we are part of Europe’s future.” The village school, which is in my great-uncle’s old family mansion, invited me to speak to an assembly, and I asked the students how many identified as European. Nearly all raised their hands.

These villagers aren’t “important” and claim no sophisticated understanding of international events. But it’s average Ukrainians like them who are turning this country around, defying President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his military, quite simply, because they dream to the West.

On past visits to this village, which my family fled in the 1940s, it seemed impossibly backward. It was near the Romanian border, a world apart from Kiev, the capital, and even a decade ago many houses lacked electricity and plumbing. Horses did the plowing. Nobody spoke English. If people went abroad it was to Russia.

Yet Ukraine has changed and opened up. Almost everyone now has electricity, plumbing and television, and many young men and women have traveled to Italy to find jobs. There is bewilderment that Poland is now so much richer than Ukraine — and resentment at Moscow for holding Ukrainians back.

I asked Margaryta, the girl with the European soul, whether she could speak Russian. Everyone in the village can speak it, she acknowledged, but she added primly: “I will not speak Russian. I am a patriot.”

Granted, significant numbers of Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country feel deep bonds with Moscow and want more autonomy. In the short term, despite a diplomatic accord reached with Russia and Ukraine that aims to defuse the crisis, President Putin may succeed in dismembering Ukraine. But, in the long run, he is both undermining his own economy and also driving Ukrainians forever into a Western orbit, as surely as the Soviets propelled Czechs to the West when they invaded in 1968.

Even here in the village, Ukrainians watch Russian television and loathe the propaganda portraying them as neo-Nazi thugs rampaging against Russian speakers.

“If you listen to them, we all carry assault rifles; we’re all beating people,” Ilya Moskal, a history teacher, said contemptuously.

For people with such fondness for American culture, there is disappointment that President Obama hasn’t embraced Ukraine more firmly. “The U.S. is being very slow and cautious,” said Anatoly Marinchuk, a retiree, scolding gently. “You should be firmer, and quicker with financial assistance.”

He’s right, I think.

It’s not just Ukrainians who are watching, and Putin himself, but all the world. We don’t have great tools, but we can do more.

As Wesley Clark and Phillip Karber, two American military experts, suggested in a report to the Obama administration, the United States can do a far better job supplying nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, in part to deter Russia. We can make clearer that Russia would face devastating banking sanctions if it invades Ukraine. We can send more officials on visits, and Obama would warm hearts if he found a way to quote the national poet and hero, Taras Shevchenko.

We should take heart from the recognition that backing Ukraine places us on the right side of history. Ukraine has had wretched national leaders, so today leadership is coming from ordinary people who are driven by deep popular aspirations like those reverberating in my family’s ancestral village.

Without moving an inch, this village has been an ever-changing place. When my father was born, it was Austria-Hungary. Throughout his childhood, it was Romania. In the 1940s, it became the Soviet Union. In 1991, it became the Republic of Ukraine.

And, in 2014, by popular will, it is becoming part of the West.

Ukrainians hope to avoid a war with Russia that they know they would lose. But many believe deeply that their futures depend on reorienting their country to the West. That they won’t compromise on.

Ukraine faces difficult times ahead, but tectonic forces are propelling it westward. In the battle between Putin and Taylor Swift, I bet on Swift.

“We love your culture, and we want to be part of you,” one man from Donetsk told me, almost beseechingly. “If you abandon us, we will never forgive you.”

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

If you were on I-85 near Atlanta on Wednesday morning or I-95 near Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, there’s a chance you spotted them. You’d remember, especially if she was driving when they lumbered by. It’s not often that you see an 18-year-old girl behind the wheel of a gold-colored Cadillac so enormous, so archaic. And it’s not usually a 79-year-old man you find beside her, her lone companion on the long road.

What an odd-looking couple they must have been. But what a sweet affirmation. They were proof, these two, that a family can pass its painstakingly nurtured closeness down through the generations, and that there comes a moment when the values impressed on the youngest members of the brood — the values imposed on them, really — become the values they actually elect.

The 79-year-old is my father. Every year around this time, just before Easter, he migrates north from Georgia, where he spends the cold months, to New York, for the warm ones. He drives, and that makes my three siblings and me increasingly nervous, because he doesn’t have the energy he once did, because we’re worrywarts and because we’re determined to hold on to him for as long as we can.

We were especially concerned this year, when his wife, whom he met and married many years after our mother died, couldn’t join him for the ride. He was going to be piloting that grand and gleaming relic of his all alone.

Over email and phone, my brothers, my sister and I huddled, strategized: Could one of us cancel a few commitments, take two or three days off, figure out a way to tag along with him? Could we persuade him to let that happen?

My niece Leslie, the eldest of his nine grandchildren, caught wind of the conversation and piped up. She’d do it, she said. She’d go. She was in the final weeks of high school and, like most graduating seniors, just biding her time. She had no crucial exams to study for. No more standardized tests to take. And there wasn’t a chance in hell that Grandpa was going to turn her down.

She hopped on a plane from Los Angeles, where my brother Harry and his family live, to Atlanta, where the Cadillac idled. She climbed in and buckled up.

I called to check on her and Dad during the first leg of their two-day, 16-hour trip. He answered. He’d already ceded the driver’s seat, already grown accustomed to being chauffeured.

“You’re a veritable Miss Daisy,” I told him, and he passed the observation along to Leslie. She had no idea what we meant.

He said to me: “My firstborn granddaughter, come all this way to drive me. Can you believe it?”

I can, because he set this up to happen. Leslie is the return on an investment that he made across many decades, with so much of his time and so much of his heart.

He, my mother, my own grandparents and my aunts and uncles always taught my siblings and me to carve out space for family no matter what, to put relatives at the head of the line, to find gestures large and small by which you communicated that you cared and you never left that in doubt.

They methodically infused our get-togethers with a sense of occasion and an even more profound sense of gratitude, advertising and even amplifying their feelings about family as a way of bequeathing them. They wanted the compact that they’d established — the covenant that they’d built — to endure.

Tolstoy wasn’t on the mark. Not all happy families are alike. But all happy families — or, more accurately, all close ones — have this in common: Their bond is forged not by accident but by intent. They make a decision.

And their actions follow their resolve.

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t just take the four of us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. They took us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. The event had emotional italics; it was teased and promoted, like a new “Star Trek” movie.

That was true as well of visits to my aunts and uncles, and these relatives returned our excitement with exuberant welcomes and extravagant meals, sending the message that we were the most cherished creatures on earth. The prosciutto and the pasta and the cannoli had no end. The hugging went on and on.

My siblings and I wanted the same for their children — nine in all, starting with Leslie. This hasn’t been easy to pull off. We’re scattered across the map, so connecting the kids with their grandfather, with one another and with their aunts and uncles has often meant expensive flights, exhausting car rides.

This Easter weekend, my brother Mark and his children will drive nearly five hours each way between the Boston area and Princeton, N.J., for a 24-hour stay. I once flew from Rome to Boston just for a big birthday party for Mark. Everyone does whatever’s necessary for an annual beach week in June when we’re all together. We’re blessed to have the resources for it, and we’re determined that everything else on the calendar yield to it. It’s the priority.

And the kids are subjected to the precise molding and coaching that my siblings and I were. They get the same italics. Uncle Frank is picking a movie for you all to watch. Aunt Adelle is taking you snorkeling. Uncle Mark rented a boat.

And the most glittering promise, the ultimate prize: Grandpa is taking you to dinner.

Grandpa took Leslie to a Waffle House on the first day of their drive and then again on the second. They share, along with genes, an affinity for breakfast foods and carbohydrates.

They don’t share musical tastes, so for most of their trip, they left the radio off and just talked, treating the highway as memory lane. Grandpa told Leslie stories about the woman he still mourns: the grandmother she never got to know, whose first name she inherited. At one point he realized that he had a collection of greatest hits by the Platters with him, and he put it in the CD player, telling Leslie: This was the soundtrack of our romance.

They pulled into his driveway in the suburbs of New York City early Thursday evening, in time to freshen up and head out to a movie together. Afterward I got Leslie on the phone and asked her how it all went. She was still dumbstruck by the heft of Grandpa’s car.

“It’s like a boat,” she said. “It took me a while to realize that if I wanted to stop, I had to start braking really, really far in advance.”

In the background, Grandpa chimed in: “She’s a terrific little driver!”

I asked her about her plans for the next day, and whether she’d have dinner with me in Manhattan and stay over at my place. I was braced for rejection, or a grudging acceptance: An 18-year-old has better ways to spend a Friday night, and she’d surely overdosed on family by this point.

I underestimated her. I underestimated all of us.

“I’m seeing a friend in the city,” she told me, “but I’ll cut it off in time to meet you at the restaurant and spend the night with you,” she told me, sounding genuinely eager.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Totally,” she said. “This is more important.”

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

April 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all passed in a blur of fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But now we must pick up every piece

Of the life we used to love

Just to keep ourselves

At least enough to carry on. . . .

And here is the room where your brothers were born

Indentions in the sheets

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

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correction: April 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 6, 2014

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

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

You think it’s over? It’s never over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d been hoping to get the flu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words to die by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read that sentence over and contemplate it.

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

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy replied, “a pencil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

March 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

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

MARCH 29, 2014

1. Putin’s most lethal policy has been

  • The invasion of Crimea

  • Warfare in Chechnya

  • Attacks on dissidents, gays and Pussy Riot

2. Which leader has the higher domestic approval rating?

  • Putin, after stealing Crimea, increasing his leverage

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

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

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

  • Turkmenistan

  • North Korea

  • Cuba

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

  • Pro-American Rwanda, with military support to rebels

  • China, with military support to both sides

  • Russia, by purchasing minerals, providing cash for munitions

5. The countries with the highest incarceration rates are:

  • North Korea and the United States

  • Russia and China

  • Uzbekistan and Iran

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

  • Putin

  • Bashar al-Assad in Syria

  • Omar al-Bashir in Sudan

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

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

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

  • Almost nobody

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

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

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

  • Waterboarding is permissible under Cuban law

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

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan

  • Ukraine, Russia and Moldova

  • Central African Republic, Syria and South Sudan

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

  • Iran

  • India

  • United States

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

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

  • Cuba, because it is small and nearby

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

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

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

  • bomb rogue states into better behavior

  • demand better of allies and ourselves

 

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

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Collins

March 23, 2014

Apparently The Putz thinks he’s qualified to tell us all about “Russia Without Illusions.”  He says after Crimea, what’s needed is a more realistic assessment about Russian intentions and Western leverage.  MoDo allegedly is writing about Gov. Jerry Brown, but of course the first sentence brings up Hillary.  It takes her until the second sentence to use the phrase “Slick Willie.”  She must be slipping, however, since the first jab at Obama doesn’t come until the 12th sentence.  The thing is called “Palmy Days for Jerry, and she gurgles about Moonbeam through a new prism: A more mellow Jerry Brown gets ready to make California history.  Mr. Kristof, in “He Was Supposed to Take a Photo,” says after being forced into child pornography by her parents at age 4, Raven Kaliana is now fighting against child abusers.  Ms. Collins says “This is What 80 Looks Like,” and that Gloria Steinem occupies a singular place in American culture as the very face of feminism.  Here’s The Putz:

Since the end of the Cold War, America’s policy toward Russia has been shaped by two dangerous illusions.

The first was the conceit that with the right incentives, eyes-to-soul presidential connections and diplomatic reset buttons, Russia could become what we think of, in our cheerfully solipsistic way, as a “normal country” — at peace with the basic architecture of an American-led world order, invested in international norms and institutions, content with its borders and focused primarily on its G.D.P. Not the old Russian bear, and not an “Upper Volta with rockets” basket case, but a stable, solid-enough global citizen — Poland with an Asian hinterland, Italy with nukes.

The second illusion was the idea that with the Cold War over, we could treat Russia’s near abroad as a Western sphere of influence in the making — with NATO expanding ever eastward, traditional Russian satellites swinging into our orbit, and Moscow isolated or acquiescent. As went the Baltic States, in this theory, so eventually would go Ukraine and Georgia, until everything west and south of Russia was one military alliance, and its western neighbors were all folded into the European Union as well.

On the surface, these ideas were in tension: One was internationalist and the other neoconservative; one sought partnership with Russia and the other to effectively encircle it. But there was also a deep congruity, insofar as both assumed that limitations on Western influence had fallen away, and a post-Cold War program could advance smoothly whether the Russians decided to get with it or not.

Now both ideas should be abandoned. After Crimea, as Anne Applebaum wrote last week, it’s clear that Putin’s Russia “is not a flawed Western power,” but “an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics.” It may not be America’s No. 1 geopolitical problem, as a certain former candidate for president suggested. (Don’t sleep on the Chinese.) But it is a geopolitical threat — a revisionist, norm-violating power — to a greater extent than any recent administration has been eager to accept.

But at the same time, after Crimea there should also be fewer illusions about the West’s ability to dictate outcomes in Russia’s near abroad. Twice in this era — in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine — Russian troops have crossed alleged red lines in conflicts with countries that felt they had some sort of Western protection: Ukraine through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which supposedly guaranteed its territorial integrity, and Georgia because of our support for its potential entry into NATO. And in both cases the limits of Western power have been laid bare — the disorganization and disunity of “European” foreign policy, and the fact that even the most bellicose U.S. politicians aren’t ready to say that South Ossetia or Simferopol is worth the bones of a single American Marine.

What’s needed, after these illusions, is a more realistic assessment of both Russian intentions (which are plainly more malign than the Obama administration wanted to believe) and Western leverage (which is more limited than Obama’s hawkish critics would like to think).

Such an assessment should yield a strategy intended to punish Putin, in the short and longer run, without creating new flash points in which the West ends up overstretched.

So yes, for today, to sanctions on Putin’s cronies and economic assistance for Ukraine. Yes, as well, to stepped-up cooperation with those former Soviet satellites — the Baltic States, the “Visegrad battle group” quartet of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — with which we actually have binding commitments and mostly stable partners. Yes, in the long run, to a shift in U.S. energy policy that would use our exports to undercut Russia’s petro-power.

But no to sudden overcommitments that would give Putin exactly what his domestic propaganda effort needs — evidence of encirclement, justifications for aggression. Unless we expect an immediate Russian invasion of Estonia, for instance, we probably don’t need a sweeping NATO redeployment from Germany to the Baltics. Unless we’re prepared to escalate significantly over the fate of eastern Ukraine, we shouldn’t contemplate sending arms and military advisers to the unsteady government in Kiev. Unless we’re prepared to go to war for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we shouldn’t fast-track Georgia’s NATO membership.

And unless the European Union wants to make its current problems that much worse, its economic accord with Ukraine shouldn’t be a prelude to any kind of further integration.

The key here is balance — recognizing that Russia is weak and dangerous at once, that the West has been both too naïve about Putin’s intentions and too incautious in its own commitments, and that a new containment need not require a new Cold War.

When illusions are shattered, it’s easy to become reckless, easy to hand-wring and retrench. What we need instead is realism: to use the powers we have, without pretending to powers that we lack.

And now we get to MoDo’s unrelenting crusade against Hillary, thinly disguised as a piece about Jerry Brown:

I ask Jerry if he’s ready for Hillary.

Back in 1992, when he ran for president against Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown was remorseless in taking on “Slick Willie,” as he called him, and his wife, pelting them with accusations of corruption and conflicts-of-interest in Arkansas. In one seething exchange on the debate stage, Clinton snapped: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.”

In the governor’s office over coffee, I ask a more mellow Brown how he would feel about a Hillary coronation. “The polls say that she’s in an extremely strong position,” he says. “So prominent in her husband’s administration, then a senator, then secretary of state. Those are powerful milestones. I don’t see anyone challenging her at this point.”

So how does he reconcile what he said in 1992 and now? Have the Clintons changed, or has Brown changed?

He crosses his arms and gives me a flinty look, finally observing: “In retrospect, after we see all the other presidents that came afterwards, certainly, Clinton handled his job with a level of skill that hasn’t been met since.”

Take that, President Obama.

And could he see his old nemesis Bill, who endorsed Gavin Newsom for governor instead of Brown in 2009, as First Lad? “Wherever he is, he will fill up the room, that’s for sure,” he replies. “He has a lot of political energy.”

It’s an astonishing thing, but the prickly Jerry Brown has, at long last, become something of a diplomat. He’s 75, balding and gray. But he’s still slender and fit, and remains an eclectic party of one.

Two weeks ago Brown ended up on the opposite side of two key planks in the California Democrats’ platform — banning fracking and legalizing pot.

Like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Brown is wary about legalized pot and wants to chart the evolution of the revolution. As he said on “Meet the Press,” “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”

I ask the man formerly known as Governor Moonbeam if he ever smoked pot. “We’re dealing with the seventh largest economy in the world and I’m not going to deal with these marginal issues,” he said primly. Actually, it’s the eighth, but maybe he is anticipating a move up.

His lieutenant, Gavin Newsom, told Ronan Farrow on MSNBC that Brown was wrong on the pot issue and should not use words like “potheads,” “stoners” and “hippies.” But Brown says that his remarks to David Gregory were “more of a wry comment” than “a policy pronouncement.”

I asked the governor if he had read Linda Ronstadt’s memoir, in which she praised her former beau as “smart and funny, not interested in drinking or drugs.” She made note of his famous frugality, recalling that once, when they were going to dinner at Rosemary Clooney’s, Jerry wanted to take a box of roses that had been sent to Ronstadt, remove the card and give it to Clooney.

At first Brown clams up, but then he relents. “I visit her at Christmastime” sometimes, he said. “She’s thoughtful and has a lot to say.”

As he raises a ton of money to run for an unprecedented fourth term, which he first announced in a casual tweet, the famous rebel seems strangely content.

He’s never seen “Chinatown,” but he’s trying to deal with the drought by fixing the state’s unsustainable water transport system, which his dad helped put in place and he himself tried to fix 30 years ago. And he’s still fighting for his dream of a high-speed train from Sacramento to San Diego, a project bogged down in lawsuits. He takes a white model of the train from the window and lovingly places it in the middle of a big picnic table, noting that he has liked trains since he was a kid.

He said he wasn’t upset when Newsom joined the opposition last month. “I don’t think he has repeated the comment, do you?” he asked an aide.

His office is full of black-and-white pictures of his father, the former governor of California — two with a stunningly young-looking J.F.K. just before he became president. The onetime Jesuit seminarian is low-key about his role in bringing California back from $27 billion in the red three years ago to a budget surplus of several billion.

“I had a good hand,” he murmurs, “and I played it reasonably well.” He says he thinks his dad would have “enjoyed” seeing his son’s success, achieved partly by belatedly adopting some of Pat Brown’s more social ways with lawmakers.

I ask Brown what he thinks about the young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have complained that the homeless are ruining the aesthetic of San Francisco.

“There’s not a lot of people who like homeless on the street,” he said. “I wouldn’t tie that to Silicon Valley.”

We’re meeting the same day that Rand Paul is making a speech at Berkeley warning about the N.S.A.’s “assault” on privacy, and Brown says he also worries about that. “There’s a tendency to totalism, total information, and once you have total information you’re making it easier for total control,” he said.

He also finds Tea Party obstructionism “extremely ominous and dangerous.”

Asked what he has done for fun lately, the looser Governor Brown replies that he helped his wife and adviser, Anne Gust Brown, pick out some clothes, noting: “I like elegance, more classic, not too flamboyant with colors.”

Interesting that she uses scare quotes around “assault.”  I guess she’s all in favor of the NSA hoovering up her phone records.  And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

One of Raven Kaliana’s first, hazy memories is of her parents taking her to a professional photo studio, telling her to be good, and then leaving her with a child pornographer. In front of a camera, a man raped her.

She thinks she was 4 years old.

Throughout elementary school in the American West, Kaliana’s parents took her to studios during vacations or over three-day weekends. Her parents said that these forays paid the bills, and that she’d get over it.

“Around the time I was 11, my value started going down because I was beginning to look more like an adult,” Kaliana recalls. “So they started putting me in more dangerous films, things involving torture or gang rape or extreme fetishes.”

Yet Kaliana triumphed: She says that in college she escaped her parents’ control, changed her name and began fighting child abuse. She has produced a puppet play and short film, “Hooray for Hollywood,” based on her own traumatic experiences.

Now living in Britain, Kaliana is trying to use the film — which employs puppets and is not at all explicit — to raise awareness about child sexual abuse, and to encourage frank talk about the problem.

“This happens all over the world; it happens in America,” she said during a visit to New York. “It’s not necessarily children being kidnapped and swept away. A lot of times it’s someone the child trusts: family members or a minister or a coach.”

The child pornography industry is a facet of child abuse that has exploded with the rise of the Internet, and it’s widely misunderstood.

A Justice Department study reports that 21 million unique computer I.P. addresses were tracked while sharing child pornography files in 2009, more than 9 million of them in the United States. It’s not clear how many individuals that represented because some people may have used multiple computers.

It’s also not clear how many children are abused to generate child pornography, but, in 2011, law enforcement authorities in the United States turned over 22 million such images and videos to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to try to identify the victims.

With enormous frustration, police watched one girl they called Vicky being abused year after year; she grew up in wrenching images on their screens. Finally, she was located and her father was arrested for exploiting her.

There’s sometimes a perception that child pornography is about teenage girls pulling off their tops. That’s not remotely what we’re talking about.

“If we were starting over, we wouldn’t call it child pornography,” says Ernie Allen, president of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “This is different. This is not pornography. These are crime scene photos. These are photos of the abuse of a child.”

Of the images the national center has examined, 76 percent involve prepubescent children with no signs of sexual maturation. One in 10 are infants or toddlers.

More than three-quarters of image series involve sexual penetration, and 44 percent involve bondage or sadomasochism.

“People don’t have an understanding of the kind of content and how horrific it is,” said Julie Cordua, executive director of Thorn, an organization that uses digital strategies to fight sex trafficking. “This is the documentation of the worst kinds of abuse against a child.”

Law enforcement has made progress, and child pornography is no longer readily available for sale on the Internet or easy to find in web searches or on public websites. Instead it is typically traded on peer-to-peer networks or inside password-protected chat rooms. To try to keep out investigators, sometimes the only way to get access is to provide a new photo in which the abuser has written his name on the child.

Just a few days ago, authorities made 14 arrests in connection with a password-protected child pornography website that had 27,000 members. More than 250 children, the youngest 3 years old, were identified in 39 states as having been abused in photos on the site.

I’m also sympathetic to the anonymous hacker who recently took over an entry site to the “dark web” — used for all kinds of illicit purposes — and scrubbed it of child pornography links.

While it’s important to punish perpetrators, it’s also critical to offer help to pedophiles who want it, so as to prevent abuse. Germany has public service announcements advertising a phone number for pedophiles to call to get counseling, and that’s worth trying here.

As for Kaliana, she is no longer in touch with her parents, for whom she has complex feelings that include fear.

“When I was a child, I loved them very much even though they did awful things to me,” she said. “They were in denial. I feel compassion for them.”

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

On Tuesday, Gloria Steinem turns 80.

Do not bother to call. She’s planning to celebrate in Botswana. “I thought: ‘What do I really want to do on my birthday?’ First, get out of Dodge. Second, ride elephants.”

Very few people have aged as publicly. It’s been four decades since she told a reporter, “This is what 40 looks like.” Back then many women, including Steinem herself, fudged their age when they left their 20s, so it was a pretty revolutionary announcement. A decade later she had a “This is what 50 looks like” party at the Waldorf for the benefit of Ms. Magazine. Steinem, who has frequently said that she expects her funeral to be a fund-raiser, has been using her birthdays to make money for worthy causes ever since. Before heading off to Botswana, she, along with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, was feted at a “This is what 80 looks like” benefit for the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

Ever the positive thinker, Steinem composed a list of the good things about starting her ninth decade. A dwindling libido, she theorized, can be a terrific advantage: “The brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things.”

“I try to tell younger women that, but they don’t believe me,” she said in a pre-Botswana interview. “When I was young I wouldn’t have believed it either.”

Her famous hair is colored, but otherwise, there’s been no outside intervention. She likes to recall a friend who proudly reported having rebutted the feminist-got-a-face-lift rumors by announcing: “I saw Gloria the other day and she looked terrible.”

Actually, she doesn’t look terrible at all. She looks great. She looks exactly the way you would want to imagine Gloria Steinem looking at 80.

Steinem occupies a singular place in American culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, the whole concept of women’s place was transformed — discrimination was outlawed, hearts and minds were opened. In the history of our gender, this might have been the grandest moment. There were all kinds of reasons that the change happened at that particular time, and a raft of female leaders who pushed the movement along. But when people think about it, Gloria Steinem is generally the first name that pops up. She’s the face of feminism.

“It’s a big gift to be recognizable as part of something that matters to people, but that’s not the same as being responsible for something,” she said mildly.

There are two reasons that Steinem turned out to be the image of the women’s liberation movement. One did indeed have to do with her spectacular physical appearance. For young women who were hoping to stand up for their rights without being called man-haters, she was evidence that it was possible to be true to your sisters while also being really, really attractive to the opposite sex. (An older generation tended to be less enthusiastic. The Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire once called her “the miniskirted pinup girl of the intelligentsia.”)

“I think for her as an individual, in one sense aging has been a relief,” says her friend Robin Morgan. “Because she was so glamorized by the male world and treated for her exterior more than her interior.”

But the interior always mattered. The other thing that made Steinem unique was her gift for empathy. Women who read about her or saw her on TV felt that if they ran into her on the street, they would really get along with her. And women who actually did run into her on the street felt the same way. More than a half-century into her life as an international celebrity, she remains stupendously approachable, patient with questions, interested in revelations. When she goes to events, young women flock around her. All celebrities draw crowds, of course. The difference is that when Steinem is at the center, she’s almost always listening.

Ruchira Gupta, a journalist and activist, recently toured India with Steinem to publicize “As if Women Matter,” a collection of Steinem’s writings repurposed for an Indian audience. The lines of people wanting to take pictures, ask questions and share stories overwhelmed Gupta, who is 30 years younger. “I would say: ‘I can’t do it, Gloria. This is too much. Why are you giving so much time?’ ” Gupta recalled. Steinem, she said, told her: “This is the only opportunity you might have for human contact with this person. So how can you not engage?”

Steinem still spends most of her life on the move. (The word “still,” she said wryly, now has a tendency to enter into conversations with some regularity.) Today Botswana, tomorrow India, Los Angeles a week from tomorrow. Gupta says there are new invitations for book tours in Bhutan and Bangladesh. Steinem has never taken up sports and gets her exercise, she says, “just running around airports and cities.”

MOST of what she does involves moving the movement forward. Speech to meeting to panel to fund-raiser. She frequently travels alone but it’s not lonely, she says: “On the plane I have my flying girlfriends, who are called flight attendants.” (Flight attendants play a large role in Steinem’s life. Sometimes they get her first-class meals when she’s flying coach. We will now stop to contemplate the fact that Gloria Steinem is 80 and still flying coach.)

She has a network of friends around the world, some of whom she has known from the early days on the barricades. “I’ve noticed that we all of us sort of cling to each other more,” says Robin Morgan. “We say ‘I love you’ at the end of conversations. We call to say, ‘It’s very cold out — did you wear an extra scarf?’ There’s a lot of tenderness.”

Her intimate circle is mainly female. But in her good-things-about-80 list, Steinem wrote about the advantages of turning former boyfriends into friends: “Your old lovers get to be your really old lovers, and you can’t remember who broke up with who, or who got mad at who — just that the two of you remember things that no one else in the world does.” But she’s not planning on adding to their number. Recently, she recalled, she met a young man in her travels and thought, “If I was younger, we’d have had a great passionate affair for two years and been friends the rest of our lives.”

It wasn’t a wistful thought, she says. It was an observation. “I didn’t regret it. That’s the advantage of shifting hormones.”

She has no bucket list of unvisited countries. Asked if there are any people she’s always wanted to meet, she pauses, thinks for a while, and suggests Marleen Gorris, a Dutch film director, and Sven Lindqvist, the author of a book on genocide. Many women, if stumped, would just blurt out something like George Clooney. “That’s funny you mention that,” she said. “I just talked with George Clooney yesterday.”

Age is definitely on her mind. When she was in her 20s, Steinem tried to get publishers interested in a project called “The Death Book,” which she planned as a compendium of “great stories and last words and other anecdotes about dying” that would help readers cheerfully come to grips with their own finale. “Needless to say, I couldn’t sell it.” Now she’s seeing the issue on a more immediate basis.

“Fifty was a shock, because it was the end of the center period of life. But once I got over that, 60 was great. Seventy was great. And I loved, I seriously loved aging. I found myself thinking things like: ‘I don’t want anything I don’t have.’ How great is that?” But, she added, “80 is about mortality, not aging. Or not just aging.”

IT’S a challenge she’s actually wrestled with before. One of the interesting things about being Gloria Steinem is that so many of her casual musings are transcribed by reporters. It turns out that on her 70th birthday she told Time, “This one has the ring of mortality.” Obviously, she got over that and it’s very easy to imagine Gloria Steinem being interviewed at 90 and saying that turning 80 was stupendous, but now it’s time to get seriously serious.

Robin Morgan sees Steinem at 80 as a continually evolving work. “She is a better organizer now than she ever has been. She’s a better persuader. She’s a better writer than she ever has been if she’d give herself the time to sit down and write.”

That last — Steinem’s longstanding battle with writer’s block — weighs on her. She’s been working for more than a decade on a book about life on the road, and it has resisted all her efforts to get it finished, including four stints at a writers’ colony. When asked whether she has any regrets, Steinem says: “Well, actually it’s not so much what I would have done differently. It’s that I would have done it much faster.”

Steinem has always been such a positive cheerleader for the future that we really do expect, on one level, to hear her come up with some strategy for standing up to mortality. She’s always had a victory in mind, a vision of a better tomorrow where there would be no hierarchy of gender or race or income, where life flows as seamlessly as it seems to do in the stories she tells about the early Iroquois or Cherokee.

You do sort of count on her having a plan for the next stage. “We’re so accustomed to narratives, we expect there’s going to be a conclusion, or explanation or answer to the secret,” she said. “And probably the answer is, there isn’t.”

But there’s always an elephant to ride.

Posted in Collins, Douthat, Dowd, Kristof, MoDo, The Pasty Little Putz | Leave a Comment »

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Democrats are scared to death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now Democratic panic has set in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer: An American.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Kristof

March 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rest here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, too, is progress.

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

March 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we get to MoDo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is she?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last up today is Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

February 23, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has seen fit to try to tell us all about “The Games Putin Plays.”  He says the events in Ukraine offer a lesson in the limits of Russia’s grand strategy.  MoDo tells us that “Christie Puts the Gloves On,” and that as Chris Christie returns to his forum of choice, the bully is on his best behavior.  The Moustache of Wisdom tells us “How to Get a Job at Google.”  He has a hint: Getting hired is not about your G.P.A. It’s about what you can do and what you know.  Sure it is, Tommy, sure it is…  In “When Even the Starting Line is Out of Reach” Mr. Kristof says one little boy’s story illuminates how we can build opportunity for all.  Here’s The Putz:

The last time geopolitics intruded into an Olympics, during the 2008 Beijing Games, Vladimir Putin was the crisis’s winner: his military delivered a decisive spanking to Russia’s neighbor Georgia, whose government had fatally overestimated the West’s willingness to intervene on its behalf. The mini-war sent a clear message: after a long period of retrenchment, the Russian bear still had an appetite for power politics, and the claws to satisfy it.

Today the Olympics are on Russian soil, and violence is convulsing another nation in Moscow’s traditional orbit. But the crisis in Ukraine is sending a rather different message. So far, events in Kiev have been a lesson in the limits of Russian influence, and the implausibility of Putin’s claim to offer a rival civilizational model to the liberal democratic West.

That such a rivalry is Putin’s goal seems clear enough. After a century in which Russia styled itself a revolutionary power fighting the West’s reactionary capitalists, the former K.G.B. man has sought a return to the ideological role his nation played under the czars — as a conservative bulwark against the West’s revolutionary liberals.

As The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty has pointed out, this back flip has been visible across the post-9/11 era. But it’s been thrown into relief by Putin’s recent domestic gambits — the blasphemy trial for Pussy Riot, the crackdown on gay rights, the rhetoric contrasting Russia’s “traditional values” with American and Western European relativism.

Crucially, this rhetoric isn’t just for domestic consumption: it’s also pitched to the developing world. In the British Spectator, Owen Matthews argues that just as it did in the Communist era, “Moscow is again building an international ideological alliance,” with Putin offering himself up as a potential leader for “all conservatives who dislike liberal values,” no matter what country they call home.

But there is a vast difference between Putin’s grand strategy and both its Czarist and its Soviet antecedents.

The czars sought a “Holy Alliance” to defend a still-extant ancien régime — a rooted, hierarchical system that still governed many 19th-century European societies. But today’s Russia, brutalized by Communism and then taken over by oligarchs and grifters, is not a traditional society in any meaningful sense of the term, and the only thing it has in common with many of its potential developing-world allies is a contempt for democratic norms. In the Romanov era, the throne-and-altar idea still had a real claim to political legitimacy. But there is no comparable claim Putin can make for his own authority, and no similar mystique around his client dictators, be they Central Asian strongmen or Bashar al-Assad.

The Soviets’ claim to be in history’s vanguard, meanwhile, earned them allies and fellow travelers not only in Latin America, Asia and Africa, but among the best and brightest of the liberal West. No comparable Western fifth column seems likely to emerge to enable Putin’s goals. A few voices on the American right have praised his traditionalist rhetoric — but only a few. As beleaguered as America’s social conservatives sometimes feel, we’re a long distance from signing up as useful idiots for a thuggish, obviously opportunistic “family values” crusade.

Which is not to say that Putin’s geopolitical approach is all folly. On the contrary, he often plays the great game far more effectively than his European and American counterparts.

But the weakness of Russia, its government’s corruption and the unattractiveness of its alleged traditionalism all combine to foreclose his grandest ambitions.

This is basically what we’re watching happen in Ukraine. Despite the blunders of the European Union — which courted Kiev without seeming to realize that Russia might make a counteroffer — Putin is struggling to win a battle for influence in a country that both the Romanovs and the Soviets dominated with ease.

And the struggle is particularly telling given that the Great Recession exposed the E.U. as a spectacularly misgoverned institution, whose follies consigned many of its member states to economic disarray. Yet even that record hasn’t persuaded the majority of Ukrainians to warm to Moscow’s embrace instead. It takes much more than mere misgovernment to make the European project less attractive than Putin’s authoritarian alternative.

For an interesting parallel to Putinism’s problems, consider what’s happening halfway around the world, in Venezuela, where the laboratory Hugo Chávez built for “Bolivarian Revolution” is descending into the same kind of violence as in Ukraine.

Like Putin’s traditionalism, Chávez’s neosocialism was proposed as an ideological challenger to the American-led world order. (And Chávez had more American cheerleaders than does Putin.) But like Putinism, Chavismo lacks basic legitimacy absent the threat of violence and repression.

The lesson in both cases is not that late-modern liberal civilization necessarily deserves uncontested dominance.

But 25 years after the Cold War, from Kiev to Caracas, there is still no plausible alternative.

Next up we have MoDo, writing from Port Monmouth, NJ:

There’s nothing more amusing than a bully forced to be on his best behavior.

Chris Christie may be cutting back on his butter, but it wouldn’t melt in his mouth at a town hall here Thursday.

For the first time since his revving ambition stalled in a traffic jam, he returned to the forum that helped vault him to the head of the pack.

The New Jersey governor, depicted in The New Republic as Tony Soprano in his underwear getting his paper from the driveway, toned down his tough-guy Jersey act.

The fist-pumping and finger-jabbing were gone at his 110th town hall. As were the swagger, flashes of temper and glossy self-promotional videos. The chastened governor didn’t call anyone a “jerk,” an “idiot” or “stupid.” He even let one guy grab back the microphone that he had confiscated when the question went on too long.

Christie pitched his voice in a warm, helpful tone and, in an instamacy Instagram moment, took a knee to high-five a 3-year-old named Nicole Mariano who keened that Sandy broke her house.

He stayed dispassionate even on the most passionate topic. When a military veteran named Joe Williams urged him to destroy his Springsteen CDs — given the Boss’s tart parody of Christie’s bridge woes with Jimmy Fallon — the governor smiled and said he had the rocker on his iPhone.

Noting that he had been to 132 Springsteen concerts, he said rather wistfully, “Hey, listen, I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. This is it for me, O.K.? It’s all I got. I still live in hope that someday, even as he gets older and older, he’s gonna wake up and go like, ‘Yeah, he’s all right. He’s a good guy. It’s all right. We can be friends.’ ”

The governor’s exit music was Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.”

I tend to agree with Bill Maher that Christie is “350 pounds of toast,” and that he should have run for president in 2012 when he had “that new candidate smell” because “the longer you stay in the more likely some bad thing will stick to you.”

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill, already fed up with Christie’s grandstanding on Sandy and his election-eve embrace of President Obama, are casting about for a different presidential contender. The newly constrained Christie is taking a pass on dinner at the White House this Sunday, the better to avoid another photo op with the president.

Americans are so disgusted by political polarization that the minute Christie hugged Obama, he seemed like a white knight.

But in The New Republic, Alec MacGillis argues that the image of Christie as an independent bull in a china shop was never accurate. MacGillis’s reporting shows that Christie worked within the state’s political machinery at the same time as he was setting himself against it — that his strategy all along was to use his power as a corruption-busting prosecutor to bring down many Democratic officials, even as he cultivated bonds with the Democratic bosses left standing, with their influence enhanced.

As long as there’s no smoking traffic cone, there’s always the possibility that Christie can muster enough of the old bonhomie and bombast to clamber back to a rarefied perch as a presidential front-runner. His millionaire pals are sticking to him for the moment, and he can keep his new position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association as long as he continues to rake in the dough for the group, no matter how low-key he gets.

To start his comeback, Christie chose a safely red pocket nestled on Sandy Hook Bay in this blue state.

And the Jersey residents obliged over the nearly two-hour session by not taking “the governor of New Jersey out for a walk,” as Christie calls being confrontational. Questioners stayed mostly on Sandy recovery, tossing out some compliments, and never once directly mentioned the pesky matter of the vindictive lane closures and vivisection of staff.

If you ignored Elizabeth Brady, a Rutgers student and intern for the Monmouth County Democrats, who was outside holding a sign that read “Bruce Springsteen hates you!” and just surveyed the crowd lost in their own issues in the VFW hall, it reminded you of Iowa. And that felt like the point of the exercise, as all the national press swarmed in to see if Christie could escape the house falling on him and resume skipping down the yellow brick road to Iowa.

The governor was a beneficiary of America’s desperate hunger for genuine leadership. You can blame Obama for the Christie tulip craze. The president has been so wan, he confused people into thinking that bluster was clarity. In a climate with no leadership, the bully looks like a man. If you’ve only been drinking water, Red Bull tastes like whiskey.

Obama’s ethereal insipidity made Christie’s meaty pugilism attractive; Obama’s insistence on the cerebral made voters long for the visceral, even the gracelessly visceral.

George W. Bush was the Decider who engaged in thoughtless action. So America veered toward Obama, who engaged in thoughtful inaction. Then they careered toward Christie, another practitioner of thoughtless action.

When all you have is leading from behind, there’s a place in your heart for in-your-face.

“V” from Los Angeles had this to say about MoDo’s efforts today:  “Only you, Maureen Dowd, can take a column denigrating Christie and turn it into a column denigrating Obama and his “ethereal insipidity?” Well, you, and David Brooks, and Ross Douthat.”  And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Last June, in an interview with Adam Bryant of The Times, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

Don’t get him wrong, Bock begins, “Good grades certainly don’t hurt.” Many jobs at Google require math, computing and coding skills, so if your good grades truly reflect skills in those areas that you can apply, it would be an advantage. But Google has its eyes on much more.

“There are five hiring attributes we have across the company,” explained Bock. “If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

The second, he added, “is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

What else? Humility and ownership. “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.”

And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock, it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.” It is why research shows that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” said Bock.

“They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved. … What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.

The least important attribute they look for is “expertise.” Said Bock: “If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ ” Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer, added Bock, “because most of the time it’s not that hard.” Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.

To sum up Bock’s approach to hiring: Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many nontraditional ways today, hiring officers have to be alive to every one — besides brand-name colleges. Because “when you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.” Too many colleges, he added, “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics, like G.P.A. For most young people, though, going to college and doing well is still the best way to master the tools needed for many careers. But Bock is saying something important to them, too: Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

“MetroJournalist” from the NY Metro Area has this to say:  “With all due respect, Mr. Friedman, this is the sort of babble that all executives like to spew. It doesn’t really mean anything.”  Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Point Pleasant, WV:

Johnny Weethee, a beautiful and beaming child who at the age of 3 still struggles to speak, encapsulates the shortcomings of our approach to poverty.

As an infant, Johnny was deaf but no one noticed or got him the timely medical care he needed to restore his hearing. He lives in a trailer here in the hills of rural Appalachia with a mom who loves him and tries to support him but is also juggling bills, frozen pipes and a broken car that she can’t afford to fix.

“We weren’t aware of his hearing problems,” said his mother, Truffles Weethee. It was Save the Children, the aid group, that discovered Johnny’s deafness in a screening when he was 18 months old. That led to medical treatment that restored most of his hearing, but after such a long period of deafness in infancy, it’s unclear if he will fully recover his ability to communicate.

Johnny is a happy, friendly child, and it’s infuriating that lapses in infancy may hold him back for the rest of his life — but that’s often how disadvantage works.

One reason American antipoverty efforts over the last half-century haven’t been more effective is that they mostly treat symptoms, not causes. To put it another way, we don’t invest nearly enough in helping children in the first few years of life as their brains are developing. If we miss that window, then adult interventions like higher minimum wages can never be fully effective.

Almost one-fifth of children here in West Virginia are born with drugs or alcohol in their systems, one study found. Those kids may never reach their potential as a result.

What would make a difference? We need an integrated set of early interventions, starting with family planning to help women and girls avoid unwanted pregnancy (four out of five births to teenagers are unplanned or unwanted). We need outreach efforts to help pregnant women curb use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, as well as free at-home help for new moms who want to breast-feed.

Let’s push for home visitation programs that encourage parents to speak to children and read to them; many low-income homes don’t have a single kid’s book. We also need initiatives to reduce exposure to lead and other toxins. Finally, how about screenings for problems like hearing and visual impairment — all followed by a good prekindergarten.

Rigorous evidence suggests that these kinds of interventions save money because the costs of failure are so great. Yet most kids don’t get such help.

Johnny’s deafness may have been congenital. But there are also preventable causes of hearing loss. Most low-income moms here would like to breast-feed, but only one-third do so — partly because there is no free help available when they run into troubles, according to Tonya Bonecutter, a local Save the Children caseworker. Research suggests that formula-fed babies are 70 percent more likely to get ear infections, and that’s a special concern for low-income families with only haphazard access to medical care.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University professor who is president of the Children’s Health Fund, notes that untreated ear infections can lead to deafness. This comes on top of a well-known finding that low-income children hear 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 than the children of professionals.

“Poor kids are already at a disadvantage,” Dr. Redlener said. “Add chronic, untreated ear infections and you have extreme risk of insufficient language development — inevitably leading to increased rates of learning challenges and school failure.”

Dr. Redlener says that all young children should have a primary care physician who screens them for eight barriers to learning: vision problems, hearing deficits, undertreated asthma, anemia, dental pain, hunger, lead exposure and behavioral problems.

Poverty isn’t just a lack of money, but sometimes a complex web of challenges that keep children from ever reaching the starting line. One home I visited was a trailer jammed with eight people, and some nights it has double that. None of the adults has a job, and most are former drug addicts or alcoholics whose addictions began when they were children. Two are convicted felons, which makes job-hunting difficult. Several dropped out of school. Only one can drive.

They have lofty dreams for their children, but those kids face struggles that middle-class children don’t. Breaking the cycle of poverty means helping those kids get a solid start.

Johnny’s fortunes were transformed by the screening, and now that he can hear again he’s trying to speak. I watched him attend his first day of preschool. Johnny dashed around the classroom, giddily playing with toys and books, trying to repeat words. He beamed.

Let’s broaden the conversation about opportunity, to build not just safety nets for those who stumble but also to help all American kids achieve lift-off.

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

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

February 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must be béarnaise sauce.

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

Only the French could have an etiquette scandal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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