Archive for the ‘WTF?’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

July 6, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today.  The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “A Company Liberals Could Love.”  He babbles that Hobby Lobby and religious organizations serve the common good. So why not encourage, rather than obstruct, them?  Cripes, where to begin…  In the comments “LES” from Southgate, KY also has a question:  “This is a ridiculous argument. Religion is being used as a way around a government mandate. Period. Where is the separation of church and state?”  MoDo is in the dumps.  In “Who Do We Think We Are?” she whines that as Americans celebrate the Fourth of July in blazing red, white and blue, the emphasis this year is on the blue.  Mr. Kristof writes about “When They Imprison the Wrong Guy” and says this legal thriller isn’t a John Grisham tale. It’s a Texas man’s life story. And his perspective on the criminal justice system was unjustly earned.  Mr. Bruni asks “Is Joe Riley of Charleston the Most Loved Politician in America?”  He says in an era of cynicism and stasis, Charleston’s indefatigable mayor talks about how government can and should function.   Here’s the Putz:

For a generation now, liberals have bemoaned the disappearance of the socially conscious corporation, the boardroom devoted to the common good. Once, the story goes, America’s C.E.O.s recognized that they shared interests with workers and customers; once wages and working hours reflected more than just a zeal for profits. But then came Reagan, deregulation, hostile takeovers, and an era of solidarity gave way to the age of Gordon Gekko, from which there’s been no subsequent escape.

There are, however, exceptions: companies that still have a sense of business as a moral calling, which can be held up as examples to shame the bottom-liners.

One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1, for its successful suit against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and potential abortifacients.

But this isn’t just a point about the company’s particular virtues. The entire conflict between religious liberty and cultural liberalism has created an interesting situation in our politics: The political left is expending a remarkable amount of energy trying to fine, vilify and bring to heel organizations — charities, hospitals, schools and mission-infused businesses — whose commitments they might under other circumstances extol.

So the recent Supreme Court ruling offers a chance, after the hysteria cools and the Taliban hypotheticals grow stale, for liberals to pause and consider the long-term implications of this culture-war campaign.

Historically, support for religious liberty in the United States has rested on pragmatic as well as philosophical foundations. From de Tocqueville’s America to Eisenhower’s, there has been a sense — not universal but widespread — that religious pluralism has broad social benefits, and that the wider society has a practical interest, within reason, in allowing religious communities to pursue moral ends as they see fit.

But in the past, tensions over pluralism’s proper scope usually occurred when a specific faith — Catholicism and Mormonism, notably — unsettled or challenged the mostly Protestant majority. Today, the potential tensions are much broader, because the goals of postsexual revolution liberalism are at odds with the official beliefs of almost every traditional religious body, be it Mormon or Muslim, Eastern Orthodox or Orthodox Jewish, Calvinist or Catholic.

If liberals so desire, this division could lead to constant conflict, in which just about every project conservative believers undertake is gradually threatened with regulation enforcing liberal norms. The health coverage offered by religious employers; the activity of religious groups on college campuses; the treatments offered by religious hospitals; the subject matter taught in religious schools … the battlegrounds are legion.

And liberals seem to be preparing the ground for this kind of expansive conflict — by making sharp distinctions (as the White House’s mandate exemptions did) between the liberties of congregations and the liberties of other religious organizations, by implying that religion’s “free exercise” is confined to liturgy and prayer, and by suggesting (as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in her Hobby Lobby dissent) that religious groups serve only their co-believers, not the common good.

That last idea, bizarre to anyone who’s visited a soup kitchen, could easily be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Insist that for legal purposes there’s no such thing as a religiously motivated business, and you will get fewer religiously motivated business owners — and more chain stores that happily cover Plan B but pay significantly lower wages. Pressure religious hospitals to perform abortions or sex-reassignment surgery (or some eugenic breakthrough, down the road), and you’ll eventually get fewer religious hospitals — and probably less charity care and a more zealous focus on the bottom line. Tell religious charities they have legal rights only insofar as they serve their co-religionists, and you’ll see the scope of their endeavors contract.

But this is not a path liberals need to choose — not least because the more authentically American alternative does not require them to abandon their policy goals. (Obamacare’s expansion of contraceptive coverage, for instance, will be almost as sweeping if some religious nonprofits and businesses opt out.)

Rather, it just requires a rediscovery of pluralism’s virtues, and the benefits of allowing different understandings of social justice to be pursued simultaneously, rather than pitted against each other in a battle to the death.

Next up we have MoDo’s whinging:

America’s infatuation with the World Cup came at the perfect moment, illuminating the principle that you can lose and still advance.

Once our nation saw itself as the undefeatable cowboy John Wayne. Now we bask in the prowess of the unstoppable goalie Tim Howard, a biracial kid from New Jersey with Tourette’s syndrome.

With our swaggering and sanguine image deflated by epic unforced errors, Americans are playing defense, struggling to come to grips with a world where we can no longer dictate all the terms, win all the wars and lead all the charges.

“The Fourth of July was always a celebration of American exceptionalism,” said G.O.P. pollster Frank Luntz. “Now it’s a commiseration of American disappointment.”

From Katrina to Fallujah, we’re less the Shining City Upon a Hill than the House of Broken Toys.

For the first time perhaps, hope is not as much a characteristic of American feelings.

Are we winners who have been through a rough patch? Or losers who have soured our sturdy and spiritual DNA with too much food, too much greed, too much narcissism, too many lies, too many spies, too many fat-cat bonuses, too many cat videos on the evening news, too many Buzzfeed listicles like “33 Photos Of Corgi Butts,” and too much mindless and malevolent online chatter?

Are we still the biggest and baddest? Or are we forever smaller, stingier, dumber, less ambitious and more cynical? Have we lost control of our not-so-manifest destiny?

Once we had Howard Baker, who went against self-interest for the common good. Now we have Ted Cruz. Once we had Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner whose fortitude in a Japanese P.O.W. camp was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken.” Now we’ve broken Iraq, liberating it to be a draconian state run on Sharia law, full of America-hating jihadists who were too brutal even for Al Qaeda.

We’re a little bit scared of our own shadow. And, sadly, we see ourselves as a people who can never understand one another. We’ve given up on the notion that we can cohere, even though the founders forged America by holding together people with deep differences.

A nation of immigrants watched over by the Statue of Liberty — with a government unable to pass immigration reform despite majority support — sees protesters take to the streets to keep Hispanic children trying to cross the border from being housed in their communities.

Andrew Kohut, who has polled for Gallup and the Pew Research Center for over four decades, calls the mood “chronic disillusionment.” He said that in this century we have had only three brief moments when a majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going: the month W. took office, right after the 9/11 attacks and the month we invaded Iraq.

The old verities seem quaint. If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll lose out to those guys who can wire computers to make bets on Wall Street faster than the next guy to become instant multimillionaires. Our quiet traditional virtues bow to our noisy visceral divisions, while churning technology is swiftly remolding the national character in ways that are still a blur. Boldness is often chased away by distraction, confusion, hesitation and fragmentation.

Barack Obama vowed to make government cool again, but young people, put off by the dysfunction in our political, financial, military and social institutions, are eschewing government jobs. Idealism is swamped by special interests. The middle class is learning to do more with less. The president, sort of the opposite.

“The world sees us as having gone from a president who did too much to a president who does too little,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

David Axelrod, the president’s Pygmalion, mused: “Reagan significantly changed the trajectory of the country for better and worse. But he restored a sense of clarity. Bush and Cheney were black and white, and after them, Americans wanted someone smart enough to get the nuances and deal with complexities. Now I think people are tired of complexity and they’re hungering for clarity, a simpler time. But that’s going to be hard to restore in the world today.”

Young people are more optimistic than their rueful elders, especially those in the technology world. They are the anti-Cheneys, competitive but not triumphalist. They think of themselves as global citizens, not interested in exalting America above all other countries.

“The 23-year-olds I work with are a little over the conversation about how we were the superpower brought low,” said Ben Smith, the editor in chief of Buzzfeed. “They think that’s an ‘older person conversation.’ They’re more interested in this moment of crazy opportunity, with the massive economic and cultural transformation driven by Silicon Valley. And kids feel capable of seizing it. Technology isn’t a section in the newspaper any more. It’s the culture.”

Ben Domenech, the 32-year-old libertarian who writes The Transom newsletter, thinks many millennials are paralyzed by all their choices. He quoted Walker Percy’s “The Last Gentleman”: “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” He also noted that, given their image-conscious online life in the public eye, millennials worry about attaching themselves with a click to the wrong clique or hashtag: “It heightens the level of uncertainty, anxiety and risk aversion, to know that you’re only a bad day and half a dozen tweets from being fired.”

Jaron Lanier, the Microsoft Research scientist and best-selling author, thinks the biggest change in America is that “technology’s never had to shoulder the burden of optimism all by itself.”

And that creates what Haass calls a tension between “dysfunctional America vs. innovative America.”

Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute and author of the best-selling “Steve Jobs,” agreed that “there’s a striking disconnect between the optimism and swagger of people in the innovative economy — from craft-beer makers to educational reformers to the Uber creators — and the impotence and shrunken stature of our governing institutions.”

Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,” which depicts the Patriots, warts and all, warns against gilding the past. “They weren’t better than us back then; they were trying to figure things out and justify their behavior, kind of like we are now,” he said. “From the beginning to the end, the Revolution was a messy work in progress. The people we hold up as paragons did not always act nobly but would then later be portrayed as always acting nobly. It reminds you of the dysfunction we’re in the middle of now.

“The more we can realize that we’re all making it up as we go along and somehow muddling through making ugly mistakes, the better. We’re not destined for greatness. We have to earn that greatness. What George Washington did right was to realize how much of what he thought was right was wrong.”

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

On the day after his 32nd birthday, Michael Morton returned from work to find his home in Austin, Tex., surrounded by yellow police tape.

Morton jumped out of his car and raced to the door. “Is Eric O.K.?” Morton asked, thinking that something might have happened to his 3-year-old son. The sheriff said Eric was fine.

What about Chris, Morton’s wife?

“Chris is dead,” the sheriff answered.

Morton reeled after learning that Chris had been bludgeoned in their bed, and then the police arrested him for the murder.

Eric had told his grandma that he actually saw a “monster with the big mustache” hit his mother, but police suppressed this and other evidence. The jury deliberated two hours before convicting Morton of murder in 1987, and he received a sentence of life in prison.

“It seemed as if the word guilty was still ringing through the courtroom when I felt the cold steel of the cuffs close on my wrists — a sensation that in the next quarter-century would become as familiar as wearing a wristwatch,” Morton writes in a stunning memoir to be published on Tuesday.

Chris’s family turned on him, assuming him to be the killer. Eric was raised by Chris’s sister and her husband, and Eric eventually changed his name to match theirs. At age 15, he wrote his dad to say he would stop visiting him.

“I crumpled onto the bunk and just lay there,” Morton writes, “clenching and unclenching my fists, feeling hot tears forming and then falling, clutching the letter to my chest as if I were trying to squeeze all the hurt out of it.”

A great deal has been written about the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system, but perhaps nothing more searing than Morton’s book, “Getting Life.” It is a devastating and infuriating book, more astonishing than any legal thriller by John Grisham, a window into a broken criminal justice system.

Indeed, Morton would still be in prison if the police work had been left to the authorities. The day after the killing, Chris’s brother, John, found a bloodied bandanna not far from the Morton home that investigators had missed, and he turned it over to the police.

Morton had advantages. He had no criminal record. He was white, from the middle class, in a respectable job. Miscarriages of justice disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men, but, even so, Morton found himself locked up in prison for decades.

Then DNA testing became available, and the Innocence Project — the lawyers’ organization that fights for people like Morton — called for testing in Morton’s case. Prosecutors resisted, but eventually DNA was found on the bandanna: Chris’s DNA mingled with that of a man named Mark Alan Norwood, who had a long criminal history.

What’s more, Norwood’s DNA was also found at the scene of a murder very similar to Chris’s — that of a young woman with a 3-year-old child, also beaten to death in her bed, just 18 months after Chris’s murder.

“The worst fact about my being convicted of Chris’s murder wasn’t my long sentence,” Morton writes. “It was the fact that the real killer had been free to take another life.”

With the DNA evidence, the courts released Morton, after 25 years in prison, and then soon convicted Norwood of Chris’s murder. Ken Anderson, who had prosecuted Morton and later became a judge, resigned and served a brief jail term for misconduct.

As for Morton, he’s rebuilding his life. He and Eric have come together again, and he is happily married to a woman he met at church.

“Life’s good now, even on my bad days,” Morton told me, laughing. “Perspective is everything.”

Morton has a measured view of lessons learned. Most of the people he met in prison belonged there, he says, but the criminal justice system is also wrongly clogged with people who are mentally ill. As for complete miscarriages of justice like his own, he figures they are rare but still more common than we would like to think.

My take is that our criminal justice system is profoundly flawed. It is the default mental health system, sometimes criminalizing psychiatric disorders. It is arbitrary, and the mass incarceration experiment since the 1970s has been hugely expensive and grossly unfair. Prisons are unnecessarily violent, with some states refusing to take steps to reduce prison rape because they say these would be costly. And the system sometimes seems aimed as much at creating revenue for for-profit prisons as at delivering justice.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Michael Morton is able to deliver this aching and poignant look at the criminal justice system only because he didn’t get a death sentence. When Morton was finally freed from prison, some of his first words were: “Thank God this wasn’t a capital case.”

Last up we have Mr. Bruni:

The custom here is for a mayor’s portrait to be hung in the City Council chamber only after he leaves office. But in 2007, folks got tired of waiting for Joe Riley to make his exit, and he was put on the wall while still on the job. He’d been running Charleston for more than 31 years.

It’s almost 39 at this point: a period long enough that he can’t remember the color of his hair, now white, when he first took office, in December 1975.

“Brownish-blond, I guess?” he said.

It’s equally hard for many people to recall what Charleston looked like back then. Its center wasn’t the beautifully manicured, lovingly gentrified showpiece it is today.

That transformation helps explain why voters have elected Riley 10 times in a row. They adore the man, or at least many of them do, as I witnessed firsthand when I ambled around town with him last week. More than once, someone spotted him — he vaguely resembles Jimmy Stewart, only lankier — and then followed him for a few blocks just to shower him with thanks.

These admirers had to hustle to catch up with him, because even at 71 he moves fast, unflustered by his new hip and unbothered by the South Carolina summer heat.

Politicians around the country speak of him reverently, casting him as the sagacious Obi-Wan Kenobi (or maybe Yoda) of local government and noting that no current mayor of a well-known city has lasted so long.

“To maintain enormous popularity in your city and equal reservoirs of respect professionally among your peers — I don’t think there’s anyone who’s been able to do that like he has,” Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, told me.

I had to visit him. I was exhausted with all the cynicism, including my own, about politics and politicians, and I craved something and someone sunnier. I was curious about the perspective of a leader who had clearly gotten a whole lot right.

What makes for good governance? Riley’s observations warranted attention.

Almost as soon as we sat down together, he talked up the annual Spoleto performing-arts festival, a renowned Charleston event that has bolstered the city’s profile. I wasn’t sure why he was choosing to focus on it or how it factored into any political philosophy.

Then he explained his reasons for pushing for it back before it was first held in 1977. “It forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class,” he said.

Yes, he wanted the tourists who would flow into the city and the money they’d spend. Sure, he wanted the luster.

But he was also staging a kind of experiment in civic psychology and doing something that he considered crucial in government. He was raising the bar, and Spoleto was the instrument. It simultaneously brought great talent to Charleston and required great talent of Charleston.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” he said, “and the arts expose you to that.”

He has fumbled balls and ruffled feathers, drawing censure for the city’s response to a 2007 blaze that killed nine firefighters, and warring with preservationists and environmentalists.

But he has been careful not to pick abstract and unnecessary battles, and he has deliberately concentrated on visible, measurable realities: the safety, beauty and vibrancy of streets; the placement of parks; the construction of public amusements; the availability of housing.

What people want from government, he stressed to me, isn’t lofty words but concrete results. They want problems solved and opportunities created. Mayors — ever accountable, ever answerable — tend to remember that and to wed themselves to a practicality that’s forgotten in Washington, where endless ideological tussles accommodate the preening that too many lawmakers really love best.

“Mayors can’t function as partisans,” he said. And in Charleston they officially don’t. While Riley happens to be a Democrat, candidates for mayor and City Council here aren’t party designees; there are no primaries.

But perhaps nothing, he said, is more vital than making sure that an electorate’s diversity is taken into account — Charleston is about 70 percent white and 25 percent African-American — and that voters feel fully respected by the leaders who represent them. Inclusion is everything, and he has long considered it the South’s mission, and his own, to build bridges between white and black people.

In the Charleston of his youth, schools were segregated, and when he practiced the proper manners that his parents had taught him and once answered a question from an African-American waiter with the words “yes, sir,” they corrected him. You didn’t say “sir” to a black man.

“The rules were phony,” he told me, adding that he and many of his friends realized it even then.

As a member of the South Carolina Legislature in the early 1970s, he advocated unsuccessfully for a state holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. In 1982, as mayor, he hired Charleston’s first African-American police chief, Reuben Greenberg, who held that job for 23 years and was considered a huge success.

One day in 2000, Riley arrived at his office and told a senior adviser, David Agnew, “Maybe I had too much coffee this morning, but I have an idea.” The mayor proposed — and then organized — a five-day, 120-mile march from Charleston to Columbia, the state capital, to urge the removal of the Confederate battle flag that still fluttered over the statehouse.

He was fed up with South Carolina’s image to outsiders as a preserve of stubborn bigotry, Agnew told me, “and he believed that the best instincts of South Carolina were better than what the Legislature was doing.”

Agnew said that Riley received death threats before the march and that Police Chief Greenberg insisted that he wear a bulletproof vest during it.

The walking bloodied and blistered his feet, which he swaddled in bandages so he could get to the finish line. The flag came down later that year, which was also when South Carolina became the last state to sign a King holiday into law.

Now his passion is the establishment of an African-American history museum on Charleston’s harbor. There are similar museums elsewhere, he said, but perhaps none in a setting as fitting. Charleston played a central role in the slave trade: Four of every 10 slaves came on ships that passed through the city. So Charleston, Riley said, should be at the forefront of guaranteeing that people remember what happened.

“It’s a profound opportunity to honor the African-Americans who were brought here against their will and helped build this city and helped build this country,” he told Charleston’s main newspaper, The Post and Courier, last year.

As he showed me the stretch of waterfront where he envisioned the museum rising, he talked about the horrors that slaves endured and “the amazing resilience of the human spirit.”

He is trying to secure the financing, bringing prominent architects on board and hoping that everything will be nailed down by December 2015. That’s when he has vowed to retire, at the end of 40 years. It’s time, he said.

The museum would be completed later, a legacy consistent with a conviction that he has held from the start. You can’t have “a great, successful city,” he said, “unless it’s a just city.”

Wise words. They hold true for a country as well.

Brooks and Krugman

June 13, 2014

Bobo has outdone himself.  In “The Big Burn” he raves that after neglect from the United States, the Sunni-Shiite conflict explodes in Iraq.  “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn, NY had this to say in the comments:  “David, I have my issues with the President, but I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him on his decision to leave Iraq.  That said, should you or any of your brothers in the neocon movement feel so motivated, please know that we will respect your decision to enlist in the Iraqi military.”  Or even our military for that matter — they’re members of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders now.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Fix Isn’t In,” says the surprise primary defeat of Eric Cantor is the unraveling of an ideological movement.  Here’s Bobo:

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it effectively destroyed the Iraqi government. Slowly learning from that mistake, the U.S. spent the next eight years in a costly round of state-building. As Dexter Filkins, who covered the war for The Times, wrote in a blog post this week for The New Yorker, “By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job.”

The Iraqi Army was performing more professionally. American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation.

We’ll never know if all this effort and progress could have led to a self-sustaining, stable Iraq. Before the country was close to ready, the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller American presence.

The administration didn’t begin negotiations on the treaty until a few months before American troops would have to start their withdrawal. The administration increased the demands. As Filkins writes, “The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of lack of engagement by the White House.”

American troops left in 2011. President Obama said the Iraq war was over. Administration officials foresaw nothing worse than a low-boil insurgency in the region.

Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.

This slide toward civil war was predicted, not only by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and writers like Max Boot, but also within the military. The resurgent sectarian violence gave fuel to fears that the entire region might be engaged in one big war, a sprawling Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cross borders and engulf tens of millions.

This slide toward chaos was exacerbated by the civil war in Syria, which worsened at about the same time. Two nations, both sitting astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line, were growing consumed by sectarian violence, while the rest of the region looked on, hatreds rising.

The same voices that warned about the hasty Iraq withdrawal urged President Obama to strengthen the moderates in Syria. They were joined in this fight by a contingent in the State Department.

But little was done. The moderate opposition floundered. The death toll surged. The radical terror force ISIS, for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, enjoyed a safe haven from which to operate, organize and recruit.

President Obama adopted a cautious posture, arguing that the biggest harm to the nation comes when the U.S. overreaches. American power retrenched. The American people, on both left and right, decided they could hide from the world.

And now the fears of one really big war seem to be coming true. The ISIS serves as a de facto government in growing areas of Syria and Iraq. Extremist armies are routing the official Iraqi Army, even though they are outmanned by as many as 15 to 1. Iraq is in danger of becoming a non-nation.

Andrew White is a Christian aid worker in Iraq, working on reconciliation. On his blog, he reports that the nation “is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war.” ISIS, a group that does not even see Al Qaeda as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, he says, adding, “It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets.”

Meanwhile, autocrats around the region are preparing to manipulate a wider conflagration. The Pakistani Taliban is lighting up their corner of the world. Yemen and Libya are anarchic. Radical jihadis have the momentum as thousands of potential recruits must recognize.

We now have two administrations in a row that committed their worst foreign policy blunders in Iraq. By withdrawing too quickly from Iraq, by failing to build on the surge, the Obama administration has made some similar mistakes made during the early administration of George W. Bush, except in reverse. The dangers of American underreach have been lavishly and horrifically displayed.

It is not too late to help Syrian moderates. In Iraq, the answer is not to send troops back in. It is to provide Maliki help in exchange for concrete measures to reduce sectarian tensions. The Iraqi government could empower regional governments, acknowledging the nation’s diversity. Maliki could re-professionalize the Army. The Constitution could impose term limits on prime ministers.

But these provisions would require a more forward-leaning American posture around the world, an awareness that sometimes a U.S.-created vacuum can be ruinous. The president says his doctrine is don’t do stupid stuff. Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.

Loathsome creature…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

How big a deal is the surprise primary defeat of Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader? Very. Movement conservatism, which dominated American politics from the election of Ronald Reagan to the election of Barack Obama — and which many pundits thought could make a comeback this year — is unraveling before our eyes.

I don’t mean that conservatism in general is dying. But what I and others mean by “movement conservatism,” a term I think I learned from the historian Rick Perlstein, is something more specific: an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda, meanwhile providing a support network for political and ideological loyalists.

By rejecting Mr. Cantor, the Republican base showed that it has gotten wise to the electoral bait and switch, and, by his fall, Mr. Cantor showed that the support network can no longer guarantee job security. For around three decades, the conservative fix was in; but no more.

To see what I mean by bait and switch, think about what happened in 2004. George W. Bush won re-election by posing as a champion of national security and traditional values — as I like to say, he ran as America’s defender against gay married terrorists — then turned immediately to his real priority: privatizing Social Security. It was the perfect illustration of the strategy famously described in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” in which Republicans would mobilize voters with social issues, but invariably turn postelection to serving the interests of corporations and the 1 percent.

In return for this service, businesses and the wealthy provided both lavish financial support for right-minded (in both senses) politicians and a safety net — “wing-nut welfare” — for loyalists. In particular, there were always comfortable berths waiting for those who left office, voluntarily or otherwise. There were lobbying jobs; there were commentator spots at Fox News and elsewhere (two former Bush speechwriters are now Washington Post columnists); there were “research” positions (after losing his Senate seat, Rick Santorum became director of the “America’s Enemies” program at a think tank supported by the Koch brothers, among others).

The combination of a successful electoral strategy and the safety net made being a conservative loyalist a seemingly low-risk professional path. The cause was radical, but the people it recruited tended increasingly to be apparatchiks, motivated more by careerism than by conviction.

That’s certainly the impression Mr. Cantor conveyed. I’ve never heard him described as inspiring. His political rhetoric was nasty but low-energy, and often amazingly tone-deaf. You may recall, for example, that in 2012 he chose to celebrate Labor Day with a Twitter post honoring business owners. But he was evidently very good at playing the inside game.

It turns out, however, that this is no longer enough. We don’t know exactly why he lost his primary, but it seems clear that Republican base voters didn’t trust him to serve their priorities as opposed to those of corporate interests (and they were probably right). And the specific issue that loomed largest, immigration, also happens to be one on which the divergence between the base and the party elite is wide. It’s not just that the elite believes that it must find a way to reach Hispanics, whom the base loathes. There’s also an inherent conflict between the base’s nativism and the corporate desire for abundant, cheap labor.

And while Mr. Cantor won’t go hungry — he’ll surely find a comfortable niche on K Street — the humiliation of his fall is a warning that becoming a conservative apparatchik isn’t the safe career choice it once seemed.

So whither movement conservatism? Before the Virginia upset, there was a widespread media narrative to the effect that the Republican establishment was regaining control from the Tea Party, which was really a claim that good old-fashioned movement conservatism was on its way back. In reality, however, establishment figures who won primaries did so only by reinventing themselves as extremists. And Mr. Cantor’s defeat shows that lip service to extremism isn’t enough; the base needs to believe that you really mean it.

In the long run — which probably begins in 2016 — this will be bad news for the G.O.P., because the party is moving right on social issues at a time when the country at large is moving left. (Think about how quickly the ground has shifted on gay marriage.) Meanwhile, however, what we’re looking at is a party that will be even more extreme, even less interested in participating in normal governance, than it has been since 2008. An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.

The wingnut welfare system isn’t going to go away any time soon…

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

May 11, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has decided to weigh in on “Rape and the College Brand.”  He says that the corporate university doesn’t want to hear about sexual assault.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “Douthat is on a one-man crusade to end sex between consenting adults, and he’s not going to let a bunch of (here he spits on the ground) “left-wing” and “feminist” groups mischaracterize what really underlies campus sexual abuse. The problem with the lax response to sexual aggression isn’t just that campus administrators are not taking such accusations seriously, but, according to Mr. Douthat, that they aren’t enforcing an overall policy of moral rectitude. Opus Dei wouldn’t put up with that, and neither should Harvard.”  At this juncture I can’t resist reminding people about Chunky Reese Witherspoon.  MoDo has found a new target.  In “With Malice Toward Nuns” she snarls that the cool pope begins to lose his cool.  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Hanoi.  In “More Chopsticks, Please” he tells us that traveling from Kiev to Hanoi within a matter of days was extremely revealing.  He doesn’t mention a cab driver…  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “What’s So Scary About Smart Girls?”  He says the greatest threat to extremism isn’t an army. It’s girls reading books. Want to stick it to Boko Haram? Help educate a girl.  In “Lessons in Catholic Judgment” Mr. Bruni says despite the pope’s gentle words, parochial school teachers confront a harsh litany of “thou shalt not.”  Here’s The Putz:

In last week’s column, I wrote about the connection between college social life and socioeconomic stratification, and the way the party scene at many universities, oriented toward heavy drinking and hooking up, creates distinctive challenges for working-class students, whether they’re attracted to its thrills or alienated by its excesses.

What I didn’t discuss was the ongoing ideological war over a more specific and toxic issue in college social life: the prevalence on campuses, often in alcohol-infused situations, of rape and sexual assault, and the question of what college administrations should be obliged to do about it.

The conflict pits an array of campus activists — students who have been raped or assaulted, supported by left-wing and feminist groups — against their own deans and administrators and disciplinary committees. The activists, lately with the support of the Obama White House, have leveraged Title IX’s rules against sex discrimination to pressure colleges to expand counseling for victims, to cooperate more fully with police departments and — most important — to take a much harder disciplinary line against sexual misconduct.

The colleges, for various reasons, are disinclined to push back too hard publicly against their critics. So conservative and libertarian observers — a mostly female group, it should be said, including Reason’s Cathy Young, Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle, the American Enterprise Institute’s Caroline Kitchens and others — have stepped into the breach.

These writers have cast doubt on some of the statistics invoked by campus activists (particularly the White House’s claim that one in five collegiate women will be sexually assaulted), questioned whether college disciplinary committees are really equipped to adjudicate guilt and innocence in such cases (“if a college wouldn’t conduct a murder trial, it shouldn’t be conducting rape trials,” writes McArdle) and cited instances — which might be multiplied if the activists had their way — in which accused male rapists were denied a fair hearing and railroaded instead.

Such arguments add up to a plausible case against some of the activists’ prescriptions. But they don’t inspire much sympathy for the colleges’ position in this controversy. The protesting students may be overzealous and unduly ideological, but when you’re running an essentially corrupt institution, sometimes that’s the kind of opposition you deserve.

Corruption is a strong word, but not, I think, unmerited. Over the last few generations, America’s most prominent universities — both public and private — have pursued a strategy of corporate expansion, furious status competition, and moral and pedagogical retreat. But the moral retreat has in certain ways been disguised: elite schools have abandoned any explicit role in policing the choices and shaping the character of their students, but they have masked that abdication in the nostrums of contemporary P.C. piety — promising diversity, tolerance, safe spaces, etc., with what can feel like a preacher’s sincerity and self-righteousness.

This has allowed them, notionally, to be many things to many people: students are promised adult liberty and a community that will protect them if anything goes wrong; parents get a fuzzy rather than a corporate vibe from deans, R.A.’s and other authority figures; admissions departments get to pitch a fun, even bacchanalian lifestyle while faculty-lounge liberals get to feel as if they’re part of a worthy ideological project.

But the modern university’s primary loyalty is not really to liberalism or political correctness or any kind of ideological design: It’s to the school’s brand, status and bottom line. And when something goes badly wrong, or predators run loose — as tends to happen in a world where teens and early-twentysomethings are barely supervised and held to no standard higher than consent — the mask of kindness and community slips, and the face revealed beneath is often bloodless, corporate and intent on self-protection.

I glimpsed this face, and saw it reflected in my friends’ eyes, at various moments of crisis during my own four years in higher education; I doubt that anything has changed for the better in the 12 years since. This seems to be what the anti-rape activists — victims, friends, sympathizers — are reacting against so strongly: the realization that an institution that seemed to make one set of promises had other priorities all along.

That the activists’ moral outrage is justified does not mean, again, that their prescriptions are correct. Their fatal conceit in many cases is the idea that by sweeping away misogyny they can resolve the internal contradictions of social liberalism, and usher in a world where everyone can be libertines together, and a hard-drinking, sexually permissive culture can be experienced identically by male and female, rich and middle class and poor.

This is a utopian, ahistorical vision, and its pursuit is fraught with peril: like many revolutionaries, today’s campus activists might well end up toppling a corrupt order only to install a kind of police state in its stead.

But the regime they’re rebelling against still deserves — richly — to eventually be overthrown.

And now here’s MoDo:

So much for all the cozy hugs and soothing cold calls and fun selfies and humble gestures and talk of mercy, love, inclusion, equality and justice.

Pope Francis appears guilty of condoning that most base Vatican sport: bullying nuns.

The cool pope suddenly doesn’t seem so cool, allowing Rome’s grand inquisitors to torque up the derogation this Mother’s Day of the American sisters who have mothered so many — even as an endless parade of ghoulish priests were shielded as they defiled vulnerable kids in their care.

Pope Benedict’s Vatican was determined to rein in American nuns inspired by Vatican II, accusing them of pushing “radical feminist themes” and caring for the sick instead of parroting church teaching opposing contraception, gay relationships and the ordination of women.

Although some conservative American bishops have politicized the abortion issue, punishing liberal pols who were pro-choice, they were furious that some uppity nuns supported the president’s health care plan, including his compromise on contraception for religious hospitals.

On Monday, we learned that German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, upbraided the officers of the largest group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which has already been investigated and reprimanded by Rome. He objected to their plan to honor Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham theology professor who has written that women are uncomfortable with “the dominant images of God as father, lord, and king” and would prefer “non-authoritarian” female language for God.

Last year Pope Francis said he would let the Vatican’s coercive reform of the nuns’ group continue. And this past week, he was silent following Müller’s mauling of the nuns.

The odd thing, as his biographer Paul Vallely told me, is, “He basically agrees with the nuns.”

The new pope’s focus on the poor and social justice, his “Who am I to judge?” cri de coeur on gays, his critique that the church has become too “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception — all these shocking and refreshing moves echo the gospel-infused spirit for which the nuns are being punished.

“This latest slapdown raises a big question about Pope Francis’s character,” said Kenneth Briggs, the author of “Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.” “Is he content projecting a Mr. Nice Guy image while giving the green light to the Vatican big boys to pursue a hard line? Is he the butterfly who delights everybody, or is he also the strong arm?”

Although the 77-year-old pope has said that women could gain greater power in the church, other comments have been typically atavistic. While praising women for their “sensitivity,” “intuition” and mothering skills, he said flatly that women’s ordination to the priesthood “is not a question open to discussion.”

The pope has admitted that as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, head of the Jesuits in Argentina, he did not do enough to fight the Dirty War. Bergoglio helped some people privately but did not come to grips publicly with the murderous junta.

“It was a sin of omission,” Briggs said. “He apparently didn’t have the gumption to go to that next step. It parallels what has happened with the nuns.”

Two of his priests, vocal advocates of the poor who worked in the slums, were captured and viciously tortured by the junta. One wrote a book claiming that Bergoglio had informed on them to the military, a claim the pope denies.

In his book “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots,” Vallely writes that Bergoglio later realized he “should have seen the danger in which he was placing his two priests” and “has been trying to atone for his behavior ever since.”

In Rolling Stone, Mark Binelli said that Pope Francis’s charm masks “authoritarian steel.”

Vallely told me that the pope is “intent on sending ambiguous signals in certain areas.”

He did not contradict Cardinal Müller “because that would be sending out a liberal message rather than an inclusive message,” the biographer said. But in June, the pope reportedly told a group of nuns and priests from Latin America not to worry if they heard from the orthodoxy enforcers because “this will pass!”

Vallely said that the pope was allowing the liberal German Cardinal Walter Kasper to make speeches on changing the rules to allow divorced Catholics to take Communion at the same time he’s allowing conservatives to oppose the same thing. He chose a liberal pope for sainthood to balance the conservative, pedophile-shielding pope.

“The thing he really hates is the way the papacy used to work like a medieval monarchy,” Vallely said. “He wants the church to reach decisions slowly, by conversations within the church. He wants to hear all the different voices. He’s letting a thousand flowers bloom.”

Or not. Women, gays and dissident Catholics who had fresh hope are going to have to face the reality that while this pope is a huge improvement on the last, the intolerance is still there.

We are still going to be discriminated against, but with a smile instead of a frown.

Maybe a frown is more honest.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

By an accident of scheduling, I’ve visited Kiev and Hanoi in the last couple weeks, and it’s been accidentally extremely revealing. Ukraine is a middle power living next to a giant bear, and Vietnam is a middle power living next to a giant tiger. Ukraine is struggling with how to deal with a declining Russia that is looking for dignity in all the wrong places — like in Crimea — and Vietnam is struggling with how to deal with a rising China that is looking for oil in all the wrong places — like in Vietnam’s territorial waters. Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine has been: “Marry me, or I’ll kill you.” And China’s toward Vietnam has been a variation of that line from “There Will Be Blood”: “I have a long straw, so I think I’ll drink my milkshake and yours.”

Meanwhile, America is trying to figure out how to buttress both Vietnam and Ukraine in their struggles with their giant neighbors without getting entangled in either dispute. And in my jet-lagged torpor, all I’ve been trying to do is make sure I don’t order Chicken Kiev in Hanoi and Chicken Spring Rolls in Kiev.

Both conflicts tell us a lot about the post-post-Cold War world. Neither Russia’s intervention in Ukraine nor China’s in Vietnam’s territorial waters is based on grand ideology or global aspiration. Both are about regional control, spurred by nationalism and resource competition.

Another similarity is that both Russia and China have not engaged in traditional crossborder aggression with their neighbors, choosing instead to operate behind cutouts. Russia used “little green men” in Ukraine — camouflaged pro-Russia gunmen whose identities are unclear — and China deployed a flotilla of 70 civilian vessels and just a few navy ships to the South China Sea. They towed a giant deep-sea drilling rig 130 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam — well within Vietnam’s continental shelf but also in range of the disputed Paracel Islands that China claims are its own and therefore entitle Beijing to control a wide arc of surrounding waters.

Vietnamese TV has been airing an animated re-enactment of the confrontation: When a Vietnamese navy patrol boat challenged a larger Chinese vessel, it rammed the Vietnamese ship, wounding six sailors. Then another Chinese ship used a giant water cannon to shoo away the Vietnamese boats. It’s a huge story here in Hanoi.

In both cases, Russia and China used tactics firm enough to get their way but calibrated not to galvanize the international community to react much. China’s timing, though, right after President Obama’s visit to the region — when he criticized China’s expansive maritime claims — seemed to be a squirt gun in his face.

“It has been a real shock for the whole region,” Ha Huy Thong, the vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Vietnamese Parliament told me. “They use civilian vessels, and then if you attack them they say, ‘Why did you attack our civilians?’ ”

But Vietnam has limited options. China “is a rising power. The question is how can we deal with it?” said Thong. “It is not only a violation of our territory but of international law.”

The only way to deter such regional powers when they bully one neighbor is with a coalition of all the neighbors. But such coalitions are hard to build when the threat is to just one country, is relatively low level and when the threatening country (China or Russia) controls so much trade to the rest of Asia in the case of China and so much gas to Ukraine and Europe in the case of Russia.

“We have a saying in Vietnamese,” added Thong: “It’s easy to break two chopsticks, but it’s very hard to break a bundle of them.” Until such a coalition gets built, Vietnam — in an irony of history — finds itself now looking to America for more protection from its historical predator, China.

Le Duy Anh, 24, a lecturer at Hanoi’s FPT School of Business (FSB), remarked to me when I visited his campus that whenever China does something to Vietnam these days people go to the American Embassy in Hanoi and demonstrate. For so many years, Vietnamese fought a war with Americans “trying to get you out,” he said, “and now we are demonstrating to get you to intervene. We don’t want bloodshed, so we need someone to tell someone else to calm down.”

So Americans may think we’ve lost influence in the world, but, the truth is, many people out here want our “presence” more than ever. This is especially true of those living on the borders of Russia and China, who are each sort of half in and half out of today’s globalization system — beneficiaries of its trading and investment regimes but revisionists when it comes to playing by all the rules in their own neighborhoods. We may not be so interested in the world, but a lot of the world is still interested in us — and saying: “Yankee come hither” more than “Yankee go home.”

We’re not going to go to war on either front. And Russia and China also have claims and interests that bear consideration. But if we are to persuade Moscow and Beijing to resolve these border disputes peacefully, not unilaterally, we’ll clearly need a few more chopsticks in our bundle. Which is why America’s ability to build coalitions is as vital today as the exercise of its own power.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

When terrorists in Nigeria organized a secret attack last month, they didn’t target an army barracks, a police department or a drone base. No, Boko Haram militants attacked what is even scarier to a fanatic: a girls’ school.

That’s what extremists do. They target educated girls, their worst nightmare.

That’s why the Pakistani Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head at age 15. That’s why the Afghan Taliban throws acid on the faces of girls who dare to seek an education.

Why are fanatics so terrified of girls’ education? Because there’s no force more powerful to transform a society. The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.

In that sense, Boko Haram was behaving perfectly rationally — albeit barbarically — when it kidnapped some of the brightest, most ambitious girls in the region and announced plans to sell them as slaves. If you want to mire a nation in backwardness, manacle your daughters.

What saddens me is that we in the West aren’t acting as rationally. To fight militancy, we invest overwhelmingly in the military toolbox but not so much in the education toolbox that has a far better record at defeating militancy.

President Obama gives the green light to blow up terrorists with drones, but he neglects his 2008 campaign promise to establish a $2 billion global fund for education. I wish Republicans, instead of investigating him for chimerical scandals in Benghazi, Libya, would shine a light on his failure to follow through on that great idea.

So why does girls’ education matter so much? First, because it changes demography.

One of the factors that correlates most strongly to instability is a youth bulge in a population. The more unemployed young men ages 15 to 24, the more upheaval.

One study found that for every 1 percentage point increase in the share of the population aged 15 to 24, the risk of civil war increases by 4 percent.

That means that curbing birthrates tends to lead to stability, and that’s where educating girls comes in. You educate a boy, and he’ll have fewer children, but it’s a small effect. You educate a girl, and, on average, she will have a significantly smaller family. One robust Nigeria study managed to tease out correlation from causation and found that for each additional year of primary school, a girl has 0.26 fewer children. So if we want to reduce the youth bulge a decade from now, educate girls today.

More broadly, girls’ education can, in effect, almost double the formal labor force. It boosts the economy, raising living standards and promoting a virtuous cycle of development. Asia’s economic boom was built by educating girls and moving them from the villages to far more productive work in the cities.

One example of the power of girls’ education is Bangladesh, which until 1971 was (the seemingly hopeless) part of Pakistan. After Bangladesh gained independence, it emphasized education, including of girls; today, it actually has more girls in high school than boys. Those educated women became the backbone of Grameen Bank, development organizations like BRAC and the garment industry.

Likewise, Oman in the 1960s was one of the most backward countries in the world, with no television, no diplomats and radios banned. Not a single girl attended school in Oman. Then there was a coup, and the new government educated boys and girls alike.

Today, Oman is stable and incomparably better off than its neighbor, Yemen, where girls are still married off young and often denied an education. America is fighting Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Pakistan with drones; maybe we should invest in girls’ schools as Bangladesh and Oman did.

Girls’ education is no silver bullet. Iran and Saudi Arabia have both educated girls but refused to empower them, so both remain mired in the past. But when a country educates and unleashes women, those educated women often become force multipliers for good.

Angeline Mugwendere was an impoverished Zimbabwean girl who was mocked by classmates because she traipsed to school barefoot in a torn dress with nothing underneath. She couldn’t afford school supplies, so she would wash dishes for her teachers in hopes of being given a pen or paper in thanks.

Yet Angeline was brilliant. In the nationwide sixth-grade graduation examinations, she had the highest score in her entire district — indeed, one of the highest scores in the country. Yet she had no hope of attending seventh grade because she couldn’t afford the fees.

That’s when a nonprofit called the Campaign for Female Education, or Camfed, came along and helped pay for Angeline to stay in school. She did brilliantly in high school and is now the regional director for Camfed, in charge of helping impoverished girls get to school in four African countries. She’s paying it forward.

Educating girls and empowering women are also tasks that are, by global standards, relatively doable. We spend billions of dollars on intelligence collection, counterterrorism and military interventions, even though they have a quite mixed record. By comparison, educating girls is an underfunded cause even though it’s more straightforward.

Readers often feel helpless, unable to make a difference. But it was a grass-roots movement starting in Nigeria that grabbed attention and held leaders accountable to address it. Nigeria’s leaders perhaps now realize that they must protect not only oil wells but an even greater treasure: the nation’s students.

Likewise, any of us can stick it to Boko Haram by helping to educate a girl. A $40 gift at Camfed.org buys a uniform so that a girl can go to school.

We can also call on members of Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, which would elevate the issue of sexual violence on the global agenda.

Boko Haram has a stronghold in northeastern Nigeria because it’s an area where education is weak and women are marginalized. Some two-thirds of women in the region have had no formal education. Only 1 in 20 has completed high school. Half are married by age 15.

Obviously, the situation in the United States is incomparably better. But we have our own problems. It’s estimated that 100,000 girls under 18 years old in the United States are trafficked into commercial sex each year. So let’s fight to #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria but also here in the United States and around the world.

Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

“Would Pope Francis Sign the New Catholic Teacher Contract?” That’s the question spelled out on a dozen billboards that have gone up around Cincinnati over the last week or so.

And it’s an excellent one, because it flags the tension between what’s been said in Rome and what’s happening in Ohio, between a message of greater tolerance and the practice of the same old intolerance, between the direction in which the Catholic church needs to move and the matters of sexual morality on which it keeps getting stuck.

Those matters take center stage in an expanded employment contract that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is forcing on more than 2,000 teachers, some of whom are refusing to sign it. In what the document does and doesn’t spell out, it sends the tired message that virtue resides in whom you share your bed with and how you do or don’t procreate.

The more things change, the more they remain mired in libido and loins.

The billboards are sponsored by Cincinnati Voice of the Faithful, which is part of a quickly welling protest of the newly detailed terms of employment.

Teachers in Catholic schools have long been forced to accept a vague morals clause telling them that they shouldn’t contradict Catholic doctrine. But teachers in Catholic schools in the Cincinnati archdiocese are being given a longer, more explicit litany of words and deeds that could get them fired.

The new contract expressly forbids a “homosexual lifestyle” and any “public support” of one. But it says nothing about public support of the death penalty, something else that the church opposes.

The new contract specifically rules out any use or advocacy of abortion rights, surrogacy, even in vitro fertilization. But it doesn’t address possible advocacy of the sorts of bloody military engagements that the church often condemns.

The new contract forbids “living together outside marriage,” “sexual activity out of wedlock” and any public endorsement of either. But there’s no reference to concern for the downtrodden, to the spirit of giving, to charity. And while those are surely more difficult to monitor, aren’t they as essential to Catholic principles, and closer to the core of the faith?

The Cincinnati document could be a harbinger of similar ones around the country. Already, Catholic officials in Hawaii and in Oakland, Calif., have introduced new teacher contracts that reflect the same concerns or delve into the same specifics.

And these specifics contradict what Pope Francis said last year about the church’s undue attention to a handful of divisive social issues.

Remember: Faithful Catholicism has never been a condition of employment in most Catholic schools, which have Protestant teachers, Jewish teachers, teachers of no discernible religion. They know to be respectful. They know to be discreet. But they’re there to decipher the mysteries of algebra, to eradicate the evils of dangling prepositions. They’re not priests.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is blurring that distinction, labeling the new employment agreement a “teacher-minister contract.” The language is deliberate. Religious organizations can claim exemption from anti-discrimination statutes in the hiring and firing of ministers who are actual caretakers of the faith. Putting teachers in that category — lumping them together with clergy — is an end run around laws that govern other employers.

But if Catholic schools are allowed an exemption from public accountability, shouldn’t they be denied public money? In Ohio they receive a significant amount of it, in the form of school-choice vouchers that families can use for parochial education.

With the “teacher-minister” classification and the long list of forbidden behaviors, Catholic officials in Cincinnati are trying to insure themselves against lawsuits like one filed by an unmarried female teacher who was fired after she became pregnant by artificial insemination. (A jury awarded her $171,000.) They’re also rationalizing decisions like the dismissal last year of Mike Moroski, a dean who indicated support for same-sex marriage on his blog.

Over recent days I spoke with him and other former and current employees of Catholic schools in the Cincinnati area. They wondered why religion gets to trump free speech.

They also wondered about run-of-the-mill political activity: Can a teacher be canned for attending a rally for a candidate who’s pro-choice? The contract suggests so.

Does a Catholic-school teacher relinquish the basic privileges of citizenship? The contract raises the question.

And what constitutes “public support” of a Catholic no-no? If a teacher’s Facebook page includes photographs of her niece’s same-sex wedding, is that cause to be fired?

“THE previous contract was two pages,” Richard Hague, who has taught literature and writing for 45 years at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, said to me. “It was sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell.”

The new contract is six pages and offends him in its suggestion that he must, for example, not express support for gay people in his life. Before it was distributed, Hague, 66, planned to teach for another five years. Now he doesn’t, and explained in a letter to the archdiocese: “I simply cannot believe that Jesus would require me to condemn my friends.”

Hague, who described himself as “a recovering Catholic,” said that his objections were distilled by a priest who told him that the archdiocese was turning “matters of the confessional” into “matters of the firing line.”

Mindy Burger, 63, is also declining to sign the contract, which she called “really misogynistic.”

“If I’m a teacher in a Catholic school and I’m a man, who’s going to know if I’m having sex outside of marriage?” she noted. “But if I’m an unmarried woman and get pregnant, I’m fired.”

These next weeks will be the end of her 18 years as an art teacher at her Catholic elementary school. She attended that very school decades ago and reared her own children as Catholics, but she told me: “At this point, I don’t consider myself Catholic anymore.”

There are so many losers here: kids — many from the inner city — who depend on parochial schools that will now be drained of talent; younger teachers who can’t afford to quit and will carry an embittered attitude into their classrooms; Catholics everywhere, forced to wrestle anew with their church’s archaic fixations; church leaders, who have such a sad knack for driving people away. Isn’t that what Pope Francis was urging an end to?

“I don’t see much in the gospel about sexual stuff,” said Timothy Garry, a lawyer in the Cincinnati area who sent all three of his children to Catholic schools and is trying to persuade the Cincinnati archdiocese to adjust the new contract.

Burger told me: “With Francis, everyone feels so hopeful. That’s one of the ironies of this.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

April 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a happiness whose other name was home.

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

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

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dowd and Friedman

January 15, 2014

MoDo has her knickers in a twist.  She has a question in “Tines That Try Men’s Souls:”  A cheesy complaint: Why can’t Hizzoner and I eat pizza with a knife and fork?  “pjc” from Cleveland had this to say:  “I am confused. Do articles like these skewer, or perpetuate, the shallowness of American political discourse?”  The answer is perpetuate.  In “The Man on the Wall” The Moustache of Wisdom says that Ariel Sharon was an enduring presence in Israeli political life.  Here’s MoDo:

Far be it from me to defend what Jon Stewart has demolished.

But I would like to speak up on behalf of the fledgling New York mayor’s de Blasphemy, now universally deemed his first mistake and possibly grounds for impeachment: daintily carving up his smoked-mozzarella-and-sausage pizza at Goodfellas in Staten Island with a knife and fork.

I’m not saying it’s right. I know it’s wrong. I’m just saying I do it, too. I eat pizza with a knife and fork because I want only the gooey stuff on top, not the crust.

(When I first started in The Times’s Washington bureau, I soothed my nerves by noshing on pizzas slathered with mashed potatoes, a dish that required a spoon and bigger jeans.)

I almost didn’t become a Times columnist because of a de Blasio-like faux pas. When Arthur Sulzberger Jr. took me to breakfast to discuss the possibility of a column, we were talking when he suddenly looked dismayed. I thought it was my ZERO knowledge about NATO, but it wasn’t.

“Why,” he asked me, “are you eating your muffin with a knife and fork?”

I thought I was being ladylike, which might have been de Blasio’s problem as well. The photos looked way too ladylike for the 6-foot-5 mayor. It seemed more like the prissy move of Warren Wilhelm Jr. of Cambridge — his original name which he changed because of his estrangement from his alcoholic father — than the paesano Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn.

Fearing my future depended on it, I immediately clutched the muffin. But switching to your hands midway, as the mayor also did, simply makes you seem feckless as well as forkless; better to stick to your guns, and tines.

David Letterman’s Top Ten “Odd Habits of Mayor Bill de Blasio” on Monday featured this one: “Refers to himself as ‘Her Majesty.’ ”

Indeed, when F.D.R. served King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, their first hot dogs on a 1939 visit to America, the confused queen ate hers with a knife and fork, afraid to heed the president’s advice to pick it up and relish it.

Pizza can be hazardous to an administration. We all remember what happened when a Clinton intern delivered a pie to the Oval Office during a government shutdown.

But de Blasio’s offense was so trivial that the most irritating part was the labor-loving mayor’s labored explanation, grandly attributing it to “my ancestral homeland.”

“I have been in Italy a lot, and I picked up the habit for certain types of pizza,” he told reporters. “So when you have a pizza like this, it had a lot on it, I often start with a knife and fork but then I cross over to the American approach and pick it up when I go farther into the pizza. It’s a very complicated approach, but I like it.”

He sounded like a parody of the self-serious New York liberal, convinced he’s right about everything from the Sandinistas to stop-and-frisk to a slice in Staten Island.

De Blasio sounded alarmingly like Zosia Mamet’s mega-rambling character, fellow Brooklynite Shoshanna Shapiro, on a recent “Girls,” when she quizzes a quizzical Adam about his favorite utensil.

When he says, “I guess a fork,” she lectures: “O.K., that is crazy. Like, why would you want a cold metal prong stabbing you in the tongue when instead you could have food delivered into your mouth on, like, a cool, soft, pillowy cloud?”

The new mayor should have just laughed it off. Then he might not have ended up getting reduced to rubble by Jon Stewart, who asked “the champion of the middle class”: “Were you elected the mayor of Italy? No! Look out the window of the pizzeria. … Do you see a Sistine Chapel or a Leaning Tower of Pisa? No, you don’t! You see several junkyards and a tanning salon.”

Unlike de Blasio, some pols use food as a way to seem more populist. The aristocratic Poppy Bush pretended his favorite snack was pork rinds, offsetting his request for “just a splash” more coffee at a New Hampshire truck-stop diner.

As with Christie the Bully, embarrassing incidents hurt politicians when they resonate about a deeper suspicion.

Sargent Shriver calling for a Courvoisier in an Ohio mill town bar. Jerry Ford at the Alamo, biting into a tamale without removing the corn husk. Jimmy Carter’s fishing trip that turned into “Paws,” fending off a Killer Rabbit. Michael Dukakis advising farmers to grow Belgian endive, and Barack Obama talking the price of arugula. When John Kerry ordered Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak in 2003, it buoyed Republican efforts to paint him as a Frenchie, fromage-loving surrender monkey.

“The whiff of a limousine-liberal factor,” G.O.P. strategist Mike Murphy told me, does not hurt de Blasio because he comes off as such “a humble, likable guy. He lacks the firing-squad instinct that makes for a true Commie leader.”

The question lurking beneath the surface with de Blasio is: Has he been promoted out of his league?

The answer can’t be determined when he devours his Staten Island pizza as though he were at the Tower of Pisa.

It figures that she eats pizza with a fork…  Now Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve always thought that the reason Ariel Sharon was such an enduring presence in Israeli political life is that he personally reflected three of the most important states of mind that the state of Israel has gone through since its founding. At key times, for better and for worse, Sharon expressed and embodied the feelings of the Israeli Everyman as much, if not more, than any Israeli leader.

The first was the enduring struggle for survival of the Jewish people in Israel. The founding of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world would never be a natural act, welcomed by the region. There is a Jewish state today because of hard men, like Ariel Sharon, who were ready to play by the local rules, and successive Israeli prime ministers used him to do just that. Sharon — whom I first met at age 16 when I interviewed him for my high school newspaper after a lecture he gave at the University of Minnesota in 1969 — always had contempt for those in Israel or abroad who he believed did not understand the kill-or-be-killed nature of their neighborhood. He was a warrior without regrets and, at times, without restraints. Not for nothing was a Hebrew biography of him entitled, “He Doesn’t Stop at Red Lights.”

Sharon could have perfectly delivered a Hebrew version of the speech Marine Col. Nathan Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, delivered in the climactic courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men,” justifying the death of a weak soldier, Santiago, under his command. In Sharon’s case, it would be justifying his no-holds-barred dealing with Arabs who resisted Israel’s existence back in the 1950s and ’60s.

As Jessep told the lawyer trying him: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? … I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. … You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”

Many Israelis wanted Sharon on that wall, which is why he survived so many crises. At the end of the day, they always wanted to know their chief warrior, who played by the local rules, was available.

But, in the 1980s, Sharon also embodied a fantasy that gripped Israel — that with enough power the Israelis could rid themselves of the Palestinian threat, that they could have it all: resettling Jews in their biblical heartland in the West Bank, plus settlements in Gaza, docile Palestinians, peace with the neighbors, and good relations with the world. That fantasy drove Sharon to team up in 1982 with the Christian Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel on a strategic overreach to both oust Yasir Arafat and the P.L.O. from Lebanon and install Gemayel as a pro-Israeli prime minister in Beirut. Ronald Reagan was in power in America; Sadat had just made peace with Israel and taken Egypt off the battlefield. The little Jewish state, Sharon thought, could rearrange the neighborhood.

That Israeli overreach, which I covered from Beirut, ended badly for everyone. Sharon was deemed by a 1983 Israeli commission of inquiry as “indirectly responsible” for the horrible massacre of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The fiasco in Lebanon (which also gave birth to Hezbollah), followed by two Palestinian intifadas, seemed to impress on Sharon the limits of Israeli power.

Indeed, I don’t know what, if any, epitaph the Sharon family will etch on his gravestone one day, but an adaptation of the most memorable line from Clint Eastwood’s classic “Magnum Force” would certainly be appropriate: “A country’s got to know its limitations.”

That was the conclusion that Sharon, the settlements builder, came to late in life — and so, too, did many Israelis. He acted on it by getting elected prime minister and then parting ways with his old Likud/settler allies, moving to the center and orchestrating a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He surely would have tried something similar in the West Bank if he had not had a stroke. Sharon remained skeptical that the Palestinians would ever make a true peace with Israel, but he concluded that occupying them forever was harmful to Israel’s future and, therefore, a third way had to be found.

Once again, Sharon was expressing the sentiments of the Israeli Everyman — which is probably why President Obama got such a warm reception from Israeli youths when, on his visit to Israel last March, he justified his own peace diplomacy by quoting a wiser and older Ariel Sharon, as telling Israelis that the dream of a Greater Israel had to be abandoned: “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Sharon said.

Few Israelis are neutral about Sharon. I think that’s because some part of him — the hardheaded survivor, the dreamer that hoped Israel could return to its biblical roots and that the Palestinians would eventually acquiesce or disappear or the sober realist trying to figure out how to share the land he loved with a people he’d never trust — touched something in all of them.

Nothing at all…

January 6, 2014

Well, this is a first.  In all the years I’ve been doing this I have nothing for you.  Keller and Kristof are off today (isn’t Monday usually Krugman’s day?) and Prof. Krugman didn’t post to his blog.  Since his last post said he wouldn’t have a column today and the Times said Kristof was off I wonder if changes are afoot, or if it’s just another example of their “fact checking.”

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

December 17, 2013

Bobo really needs to go back on leave to try to get himself pulled together.  He’s extruded a turd called “The Thought Leader” in which he is trying to examine the life cycle of a new intellectual paragon that has emerged to command our admiration.  Don’t ask me what the eff he’s nattering on about.  “sdavidc9″ ended his comment with this:  “If this cynical essay is not a self-portrait, what is the writer’s relation to the types pictured? Could this be a secret cry of despair?”  Well, we can all rest assured that Bobo’s thoughts lead us nowhere we need to go.  Mr. Nocera, in ” ‘What Is Good Teaching’,” says a documentary shows what goes on in the classroom, and serves as an unwitting primer on how to teach disadvantaged students.  Mr. Bruni (who used to be the food critic for the Times, lest we forget) is in Los Angeles and has written a puff piece so over the top that you’ve got to wonder if he’s related to the owner of the business.  In “Upon This Burger” he squeals that in a food obsessive’s quick riches lies a recipe for modern success.  (I don’t know as I’d want “special powder”  that “smacked intentionally of advanced culinary science” in my burger…)  Here’s Bobo:

Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.

The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts.

He doesn’t have students, but he does have clients. He doesn’t have dark nights of the soul, but his eyes blaze at the echo of the words “breakout session.”

Many people wonder how they too can become Thought Leaders and what the life cycle of one looks like.

In fact, the calling usually starts young. As a college student, the future Thought Leader is bathed in attention. His college application essay, “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life,” is widely praised by guidance counselors. On campus he finds himself enmeshed in a new social contract: Young people provide their middle-aged professors with optimism and flattery, and the professors provide them with grade inflation. He is widely recognized for his concern for humanity. (He spends spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.)

Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.

Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority. Of course he will seek to establish his edgy in-group identity by trying to prove that he was never really that into Macklemore.

Fortunately, this snarky phase doesn’t last. By his late 20s, he has taken a job he detests in a consulting firm, offering his colleagues strategy memos and sexual tension. By his early 30s, his soul has been so thoroughly crushed he’s incapable of thinking outside of consultantese. It’s not clear our Thought Leader started out believing he would write a book on the productivity gains made possible by improved electronic medical records, but having written such a book he can now travel from medical conference to medical conference making presentations and enjoying the rewards of being T.S.A. Pre.

By now the Thought Leader uses the word “space” a lot — as in, “Earlier in my career I spent a lot of time in the abject sycophancy space, but now I’m devoting more of my energies to the corporate responsibility space.”

The middle-aged Thought Leader’s life has hit equilibrium, composed of work, children and Bikram yoga. The desire to be snarky mysteriously vanishes with the birth of the first child. His prose has never been so lacking in irony and affect, just the clean translucence of selling out.

He’s succeeding. Unfortunately, the happy moment when you are getting just the right amount of attention passes, and you don’t realize you were in this moment until after it is gone.

The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.

In the end, though, a lifetime of bullet points are replaced by foreboding. Toward the end of his life the Thought Leader is regularly engaging in a phenomenon known as the powerless lunch. He and another formerly prominent person gather to have a portentous conversation of no importance whatsoever. In the fading of the light, he is gravely concerned about the way everything is going to hell.

Still, one rarely finds an octogenarian with status anxiety. He is beyond the battle for attention. Death approaches. Cruelly, it smells like reverence.

The thought of little girls in ancient Greece wanting to grow up to be philosophers made me snort…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In 2006, an idealistic New York public schoolteacher named Kevin Greer joined the faculty of an idealistic new high school, Brooklyn Community Arts and Media. Greer had previously taught English to 12th grade honors students at Dewitt Clinton, a huge high school in the Bronx. At B.C.A.M., which hoped to inspire students with an arts-driven curriculum, he would be teaching ninth graders. Most of the students had not chosen B.C.A.M., but had simply been assigned to the school. They weren’t nearly as self-motivated as Greer’s former students. Many if not most of them read below grade level.

Greer’s first approach to teaching these students was to refuse to concede to their obvious difficulties. He taught Plato and lectured about such things as “the rhetorical strategy of repetition of a phrase at the beginning of clauses. We call it anaphora.” He seemed distant from the students, and they reacted in kind, yawning or talking among themselves. Greer knew he was not getting through to them. He was frustrated.

Three years later, when members of this first B.C.A.M. class were seniors, Greer decided to teach a poetry class revolving around William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” This time, however, his demeanor was completely different. He engaged the students by asking them what their own definition of poetry was — and they responded eagerly. He was more relaxed and more confident. “I had to learn how to really break things down,” he told me recently. “I had to learn to work on several levels at a time.” Because, after all, he had students of various abilities in his classes.

I know these details about Kevin Greer’s classroom performance because I recently saw a documentary about B.C.A.M. that has been passed from teachers’ group to teachers’ group, from reformers to union executives, like samizdat. The film, called “The New Public” and produced and directed by a filmmaker named Jyllian Gunther, tracks that first B.C.A.M. class in both the class’s first and last years at the school.

Once she finished the film, Gunther sent it around the various film festivals. None of them bit. “The New Public” was shown once on PBS, but aside from that, it has not been seen widely. Instead, teachers — as well as those who teach teachers — have slowly found out about it and have embraced it.

Partly this is because it is the rare film that sympathetically conveys how hard it is to be a teacher in an inner-city school. “The New Public” not only shows what goes on in the classroom — which can be rough if the teacher can’t manage the classroom — but she also goes into the homes of the students she has focused on. There, the odds that the students are trying to overcome are made abundantly clear.

But it is also because the movie is an unwitting primer on how to teach disadvantaged students. There are teachers in the movie who know how to connect with their students, and teachers who don’t. Teachers College at Columbia University liked the film so much that it is creating a companion curriculum, so the film can be used to help train teachers. Until Gunther’s movie came along, Teachers College used to show “The Wire” to give prospective teachers a feel for what it’s like to teach in a disadvantaged community.

“What is good teaching?” asked Anand Marri, a professor at Teachers College who has championed the film. “Is teaching different in the Bronx versus the suburbs? How much do you start with where the students are?” For the most part, these elemental questions are ones that schools of education don’t ask nearly enough.

The lack of teacher training in education schools has also been borne out recently by a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, entitled “Training Our Future Teachers.” The question the group asked was a simple one: Do education schools teach classroom management? The answer was: not very much.

The group examined 122 teacher-preparation programs and found that while most programs could say they had classroom management as part of their curriculum, classroom management strategies rarely received “the connected and concentrated focus they deserve.” What’s more, “instruction is generally divorced from practice (and vice versa) in most programs, with little evidence that what gets taught gets practiced.”

Education schools, says Kate Walsh, who leads the group, “don’t see their job as training teachers. They see their job as creating professional identity.”

As the country continues to struggle with education reform, it seems obvious that education schools need to change, so that prospective teachers walk into their first classroom knowing how to teach. Maybe “The New Public” can help bring about that change.

In my column on Tuesday, I incorrectly wrote that the University of California, Berkeley, had raised $3 billion in two years. In fact, it has raised $2.9 billion over an eight-year span.

Why don’t these columnists, or the Times’ fact checkers, bother to do their jobs?  I guess they’ve started to rely on commenters to put their facts in order for them…  Now here’s Mr. Bruni’s mash note to a burger joint:

Just five years ago, Adam Fleischman was in a two-bedroom rental with his wife and their year-old son, fumbling around for a career that might stick. Screenwriting hadn’t worked out. Same for finance. He was 38 and, he told me, “It was do or die.”

Today he owns two houses here, one with six bedrooms and a makeshift vineyard out back. He said that he’s toying with the idea of a third in London. He has stakes in multiple businesses and plans for more.

All because of a burger.

In February 2009, with about $40,000, he opened a 30-seat restaurant on La Brea Avenue named Umami Burger. Its signature was a six-ounce patty of coarsely ground, loosely packed, steak-quality beef that had been seasoned just so and was served on a soft, Portuguese-style roll. It cost $8. You ordered it at a table, and could have booze.

Within about a year, there were four Umami Burgers around Los Angeles. Now there are 20 in California and one each in Miami and Manhattan, with many more to come. Fleischman projected that Umami Burger’s revenues for 2013 would be about $50 million. And the burger itself, with a current price tag of $12, has been exhaustively analyzed and justly celebrated.

But what of the enterprise? What secrets does it yield?

Most attention to the inventive stars of the ceaselessly expanding culinary world focuses on what they’ve done in the kitchen, not on their shrewdness as businesspeople. I turned to Fleischman for the lessons beyond the bun.

With Umami Burger, he demonstrated that a seemingly saturated market sometimes harbors unoccupied niches, unmet needs. While you could get venerated burgers in plenty of fast-food joints and in many upscale restaurants that did fancy riffs, it wasn’t as easy to find a carefully made, determinedly original burger at a casual place with prices and a style of service between those poles.

And few casual places devoted themselves as wholeheartedly to burgers as he decided to.

Fleischman specialized, recognizing that there’d be distinction — and a promise of expertise — in that. Let other menus be tempted down unrelated alleyways. His concentrated almost exclusively on a variety of burgers and a variety of accouterments.

He turned constraint into virtue. During his initial expansion, he didn’t have the budget to give the different Umami Burgers a consistent design. So he let each look entirely unlike the others, thus communicating that Umami wasn’t any old chain. It had a more elevated, independent spirit.

This was just one of many ways in which he tapped into the moment and the sensibilities of the customers he was after. Like other food-industry entrepreneurs, he appreciated that young diners of limited means craved distinctive restaurant experiences every bit as much as older, wealthier people did, and that they would eagerly channel that hunger toward the likes of pork buns, tacos, even doughnuts.

But he pulled off an even more precise mind meld with his potential audience, realizing that they also wanted to feel adventurous, erudite. His restaurant’s name and concept indulged their desired sophistication. Umami was familiar principally to food insiders as the “fifth taste,” first defined in Japan, a savory deliciousness apart from salty, bitter, sweet and sour. To incorporate it into patties, Fleischman used a special powder that smacked intentionally of advanced culinary science, and it, along with other splashes and accessories for the burgers, brought a wide world of ingredients into play: shiitake, porcini, Parmesan, miso, soy sauce, fish sauce, kelp.

He even gave each burger a tidy architecture and plenty of color and served it alone on white china, the better to be photographed for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “It was conceived as a brand,” he said, “and as a brand that reflected the present day.”

Fleischman clearly understood what most successful purveyors of cars, clothing and cosmetics have also appreciated. He was selling customers more than a product. He was selling them an identity. As surely as he was feeding them, he was flattering them.

But when I asked him for the most important takeaway from his story, he mentioned something else — passion — and the fact the he had finally embraced an endeavor fully reflective of his most profound obsession, which was flavor.

“Do a business that you can’t live without, that you’re not going to be able to sleep at night if you don’t do,” he said.

He meant that as a practical matter. Passion gave him the energy for the 18-hour days that were necessary during that first, whirlwind year.

And without passion in the creation of a business, he said, there’s not likely to be passion in the reception of it. People can sense whether you’re going through the paces or going for something better, something novel. It’s not dollars they want to hand over; it’s devotion. You just have to give them sufficiently juicy cause.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

July 14, 2013

We are spared The Moustache of Wisdom, who is off today.  The Pasty Little Putz decided to bend his attention to “The House’s Immigration Dilemma.”  He pondered deeply, and decided that there are risks wherever Republicans look.  MoDo, gawd help us, has decided to squeal about sex appeal.  She’s still in Paris, and in “The Tortured Mechanics of Eroticism” she gasps that a museum exhibition reveals the secret of centuries of sex appeal: industrial-strength underwear.  Between these two I’ve already lost about 50 IQ points.  Mr. Kristof is in Danja, Niger.  In “Where Young Women Find Healing and Hope” he says the next stop on this year’s win-a-trip journey is a new fistula hospital in Niger that is changing women’s lives with help from Times readers.  In “Tweeting Toward Sacrilege” Mr. Bruni tells us that musing on Egypt and sexual violence, Joyce Carol Oates saw that when you question religion, all hell breaks loose.  Sigh.  Just thinking about twitter-twatting just cost me another 25 IQ points…  Here’s The Putz:

The first thing you need to know about the House Republican view of immigration reform, the fate of which now rests with John Boehner’s restive caucus, is that there is no single House Republican view of immigration reform.

Instead, as the Democrats have come to march in lock step on the issue — dropping the old union-populist skepticism of low-wage immigration in favor of liberal cosmopolitanism and Hispanic interest-group pandering — many of the country’s varying, conflicting opinions have ended up crowded inside the Republican Party’s tent.

So there are Republicans who would happily vote for the Senate bill as is, no questions asked, and Republicans who might never vote for a bill that contains the words “comprehensive” and “reform,” let alone “immigration.”

There are law-and-order Republicans who care only about border security and E-Verify, pro-business Republicans seeking new guest-worker programs and religious-conservative Republicans for whom amnesty is a humanitarian cause.

There are libertarian Republicans who believe “the more, the better” is the only answer on immigration policy and communitarian Republicans who worry about the impact on wages, assimilation and cultural cohesion.

There are calculating, self-interested Republicans who think immigration reform will save their party from extinction, and calculating, self-interested Republicans who worry that it will create millions of new Democratic voters.

This diversity of views makes it difficult to game out exactly how the House might proceed on the issue. But right now, there seem to be two directions that Republicans could ultimately take.

The first is a kind of lowest-common-denominator approach suggested by the majority leader, Eric Cantor. It would advance two ideas that command broad Republican support — more spending on border security and more visas for high-skilled immigrants — alongside an idea many Republican representatives opposed in the past but seem to be warming to right now: a new version of the Dream Act, which would offer citizenship to illegal immigrants who arrived as children.

This combination would probably poll well, minimize intra-Republican divisions and focus on the policy area, high-skilled immigration, where there is the strongest consensus about the benefits to the nation. It would also vindicate the Republican Party’s (often notional) commitment to offering incremental alternatives to bloated liberal bills.

But such incrementalism would punt on the question of how to handle the bulk of the existing illegal-immigrant population, and thus wouldn’t be anything like the game changer sought by many Republican strategists worried about the Hispanic vote. And politically, it would have been much more clever months ago, before the Senate bill raised expectations for how sweeping a reform should be. In the shadow of Rubio-Schumer, a House that passed incremental bills and then refused to negotiate its way to something bigger might well receive the same kind of “do nothing” coverage as a House that did nothing at all.

Hence the (quiet, for now) appeal of the second option, mentioned last week by The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and The Huffington Post’s Jon Ward, in which the House would find a way to go along with a version of amnesty that either didn’t include the promise of citizenship or made the path so long and arduous that few immigrants would take it.

To its supporters, this combination would deliver illegal immigrants the security and stability that pro-legalization activists are seeking, without running afoul of either the principled Republican desire to avoid rewarding people who have broken America’s laws, or the more cynical Republican desire not to have the newly legalized showing up to vote for Democrats.

But it, too, would come at a cost. We’re living through an era of stratification, a period of mass unemployment, an economic “recovery” in which working-class wages aren’t actually recovering. This is a strange climate in which to create — and then augment, via guest-worker programs — a permanent tier of explicitly second-class, mostly low-skilled residents, deliberately curtail their political leverage and then ask low-wage native workers to compete with them for jobs.

And it’s a particularly strange climate for a Republican Party struggling to shed its “party of the rich” label to identify with such a policy, and give up one of the few issues where it has some credibility with working-class voters.

The party faces risks whatever it does: killing comprehensive reform might further alienate Hispanics, as the conventional wisdom has it, but then again going along with Charles Schumer and a flood of corporate money might exacerbate the kind of “who’s looking out for me?” disaffection that kept many conservative-tilting, economically strapped voters from the polls in 2012.

But a clever-sounding deal that legalizes immigrants as laborers but not as citizens risks disaster on both fronts: rejection by Hispanics as insufficient and ultimately insulting, and rejection by many of America’s tired, poor, huddled workers as another example of the political class’s indifference to their fate.

The party faces its main risks from being run by a gaggle of barking lunatics.  Now gird up your loins — here’s MoDo:

The French may feel shaky about the underpinnings of the economy. But about the underpinnings for the body, they are as rock solid as the Arc de Triomphe.

During a summer when the French are drooping, the best uplift can be found in the Louvre complex at the Museum of Decorative Arts, which has mounted a dazzling exhibition on undergarments and embellishments dating from the 14th century on: corsets and bustles, hoops and push-up bras, crinolines and codpieces. The exhibit, titled “Behind the Seams, the Mechanics of Underwear: An Indiscreet History of the Silhouette,” provides a fascinating contrast between the industrial-seeming tools used to shape the body and the sexiness that results.

Only a French museum would take fine washables so seriously. The word lingerie, after all, derives from the French word linge, meaning “washables.”

Seismic social changes have always been reflected in fashion, and the politics of lingerie can be incendiary. Consider recent reports about Ritu Tawade, a city official in Mumbai who has responded to the horrific rapes in India by crusading to remove lingerie-clad mannequins from store windows, fearing they incite rape.

It was only two years ago that Saudi Arabia, hypocritical home to many racy lingerie stores, compelled them all to employ women instead of men.

In “The Heat,” Melissa McCarthy’s Boston cop warns Sandra Bullock’s F.B.I. agent that her Spanx squish internal organs. It’s the same argument a bloomer brigade of feminist reformers used in the belle époque to denounce corsets — stays that stayed around for 500 years.

Jean Cocteau wrote amusingly in 1913 about the women at Maxim’s: “It was an accumulation of velvet, lace, ribbons, diamonds and what else I couldn’t describe. To undress one of these women is like an outing that calls for three weeks advance notice, it’s like moving house.”

Denis Bruna, the curator of the exhibit, said he has studied the human form in art through the centuries and has read countless ancient texts instructing women to be beautiful and men to be virile. He even tried on the intimate items from the time of the ancien régime.

“It feels good,” the 45-year-old said in French with a droll smile. “It makes you stand up very straight. You feel noble.”

He explained that the hard corsets were mostly worn by aristocratic women who wilted standing at court all day and needed bracing. If you were rich and had servants, you could have stays laced in the back (in the squeezing-the-breath-out-to-get-back-an-18-inch-waist style of Mammy and Scarlett O’Hara). Lower-class women had their stays in the front, so they could lace them on their own.

As though women weren’t trussed up enough, the rigidity was accentuated by a busk, a concave piece of metal, horn or whalebone that was inserted into the front of the corset to hold the torso erect. Sometimes these busks had portraits or love messages engraved on them.

The most wince-worthy displays: iron medical corsets from the 16th century for correcting curved spines; miniature corsets worn by infants and toddlers, because physicians of yore insisted that children’s soft bodies needed support; and corsets for pregnant and nursing women (the latter with little shutters).

The Marie Antoinette “grand habit” silhouette, with the wasp-waist corsets often made from bone at the roof of the whale’s mouth, and 12-foot-wide paniers at the hips were so broad that the side cages had to be retractable by hand so the ladies could get through a door. Was this why French doors came into fashion? Picture them all crashing into one another at court.

The paniers were balanced by pouf hairdos, built on a scaffolding of horsehair and wire, covered with powder and topped with toy sculptures like a little farm or a battleship.

“The lower parts of the woman’s body were less noble, so they were hidden,” Bruna said. “They thought the legs were ugly and sheathed them in pantaloons. The shape represented a pedestal base to make the top prettier.”

Finally, in the World War I era, Coco Chanel began helping women come into their own, unstrapping them from their hourglass constrictions and sheathing them in supple jersey. Maybe that’s why you see Chanel’s image here more often than Joan of Arc’s.

Yesterday’s aristocratic underwear morphs into today’s fetishistic outerwear. The show illustrates the influence of the ancient fashion on modern designers, including a Vivienne Westwood bustle frock and an Alexander McQueen corset dress.

Mirabile dictu, there are even new variations on Renaissance codpieces, or braguettes, a bragging-rights style bound to disappoint. “They’re already being sold in gay shops in France and on the Internet,” Bruna said.

It was commonly thought that the point of lingerie was to incite the lust of men. Yet, as this exhibit shows, women have also used underwear to assert their power and status.

As we celebrate Bastille Day, note this: The mannequins wearing the aristocratic undies have no heads.

I may be driven to putting gin on my corn flakes this morning…  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

They straggle in by foot, donkey cart or bus: humiliated women and girls with their heads downcast, feeling ashamed and cursed, trailing stink and urine.

Some were married off at 12 or 13 years old and became pregnant before their malnourished bodies were ready. All suffered a devastating childbirth injury called an obstetric fistula that has left them incontinent, leaking urine and sometimes feces through their vaginas. Most have been sent away by their husbands, and many have endured years of mockery and ostracism as well as painful sores on their legs from the steady trickle of urine.

They come to this remote nook of Niger in West Africa because they’ve heard that a new hospital may be able to cure them and end their humiliation. And they are right — thanks, in part, to you as Times readers.

There is nothing more wrenching than to see a teenage girl shamed by a fistula, and I’ve written before about the dreams of a couple of surgeons to build this fistula center here in Danja. Times readers responded by contributing more than $500,000 to the Worldwide Fistula Fund to make the hospital a reality. Last year, the Danja Fistula Center opened.

This is my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student along on a reporting trip to shine a spotlight on global poverty. So with my student winner, Erin Luhmann of the University of Wisconsin, I dropped in on Danja to see what you as readers have accomplished here. What we found underscored that while helping others is a complicated, uncertain enterprise, there are times when a modest donation can be transformative.

The first patient we met is Hadiza Soulaye; with an impish smile, she still seems a child. Hadiza said she never went to school and doesn’t know her birth date, but she said that her family married her off at about 11 or 12. She knows that it was before she began to menstruate. She was not consulted but became the second wife of her own uncle.

A year later, she was pregnant. Hadiza had no prenatal care, and a traditional birth attendant couldn’t help when she suffered three days of obstructed labor. By the time Hadiza was taken to a hospital for a Caesarean delivery, the baby was dead and she had suffered internal injuries including a hole, or fistula, between her bladder and vagina.

“I didn’t know what had happened,” she remembered. “I just knew that I couldn’t control my pee, and I started crying.”

Hadiza found herself shunned. Her husband ejected her from the house, and other villagers regarded her as unclean so that no one would eat food that she prepared or allow her to fetch water from the well when others were around. Villagers mocked her: “They would laugh at me and point to my dress,” which was constantly wet with urine.

She endured several years of this ostracism. Worldwide, there are some two million fistula sufferers, sitting in their homes feeling ashamed, lonely and hopeless.

A few months ago, Hadiza heard about the Danja Fistula Center and showed up to see if someone could help. Dr. Steve Arrowsmith, a urologist from Michigan who helped plan this center and has repaired more fistulas than any other American, operated on Hadiza and repaired the damage. He warned her not to have sex for six months to give the repair time to heal.

It typically costs $500 to $1,000 to repair a fistula and turn these women’s lives around. There is no one more joyous than a woman who has undergone this surgery successfully, and Hadiza was thrilled to return to her village.

Yet life is complicated. When she returned home — dry and cured — her husband summoned her to his bed.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “I was his wife.”

The husband tore open the fistula, and she began leaking urine once more. He then threw her out of the house again, so now Hadiza is back at the hospital. She vows that this time, if she can be patched up, she will never return to her husband.

As in Hadiza’s case, a fistula is often a result of a child marriage. Here in Niger, about three-quarters of girls are married before the age of 18.

“Some of these ladies here have never had a period,” Dr. Arrowsmith noted. “They became pregnant the first time they ovulated, and then their uterus was destroyed.”

Aside from repairing fistulas, the Danja center also conducts outreach to improve maternal health and encourage women to deliver in clinics. It has set up a system so that taxi drivers are guaranteed payment when they take a woman in labor to a hospital.

The Danja Fistula Center is also conducting research on how best to treat patients. One approach pioneered here may allow fistula hospitals to move patients out of recovery wards in half the time, effectively doubling capacity.

The fistula center was conceived by Dr. Arrowsmith and Dr. Lewis Wall, an obstetrics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and it partners with Serving in Mission, an American Christian charity with long experience here in Danja. It also gets backing from the Fistula Foundation, based in the United States. But, in line with the original vision, the Danja Fistula Center is run by Africans, with Dr. Arrowsmith training Dr. Itengré Ouedraogo, a surgeon from Burkina Faso, to be medical director.

Fistulas may be a grim topic, but this center you readers have helped to build is a warm and inspiring place. Women who have suffered for years find hope here, and they proudly display skills they are learning, such as knitting or sewing, that they can use to earn a living afterward. As they await surgery, their dormitories echo with giggles and girl talk. They are courageous and indomitable, and now full of hope as well.

This fistula center continues to exist on a shoestring, struggling for operating funds. But the exuberance of the patients is contagious, and I wanted readers to know that your generosity has built a city of joy. These women may arrive miserable and shamed, but they leave proud, heads held high. And in a complicated world of trouble, that’s a reason to celebrate.

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

I wasn’t sure which to bring up first with Joyce Carol Oates: the Muslims or the llamas.

She had tweeted about both in the days before I dropped by to see her last week. This said something about the breadth of her interests. Or about Twitter’s way of playing midwife to mischief.

I veered in the safer direction.

“So where are they?” I asked, looking out the back window of her house here, across a yard as empty as it was green. Nothing grazing. Nothing woolly. Certainly not the “53 llamas” that she had suggested, in a tweet, that she was purchasing to satisfy “a metaphysical yearning.”

She explained that she’d been riffing facetiously off a story in The Times about rampant llama love. “There’s really not room here,” she said. “We only have three acres.” Plenty for Oates and her husband. Not for an Andean offshoot of the clan.

That subject dispensed with, we proceeded to the missives that had really lit up cyberspace and had really prompted my visit.

In the first days of July, Oates, one of America’s most celebrated writers, was monitoring news from Egypt and was struck by something that I’m sure many other people noticed as well. It certainly caught my eye. Amid accounts of street protests were reports of sexual violence, an odd expression and ugly byproduct of the rage.

On her Twitter feed she saw a statistic that chilled her. And she tweeted, “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic — Egypt — natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?”

This wasn’t an isolated query. It belonged to a stream of musings that day, all 140 characters or fewer, on Egypt, Islam and women.

She wrote, “If 99.3% of women reported being treated equitably, fairly, generously — it would be natural to ask: what’s the predominant religion?”

She also wrote, “ ‘Rape culture’ has no relationship to any ‘religious culture’ — how can this be? Religion has no effect on behavior at all?”

Fellow writers and intellectuals freaked. On various byways of the Internet, she was blasted for anti-Muslim bigotry. A “furor,” The Wall Street Journal called it, and in a headline no less.

I wondered if she wanted to take it all back.

“Well, I’m not a confrontational person, so I wouldn’t do it again,” she told me, at least not with the exact language she used. She said that she might instead have written, “If all these women are being harassed and raped and so forth, it’s natural to ask what are the social conditions.” You tweet and you learn.

That she tweets at all is astonishing. Where does she find the time? She teaches a full load at Princeton. She also writes long, deeply researched literary reviews. And then there’s her principal vocation and claim to prolific fame: churning out at least a book a year — the novel “The Accursed,” all 670 history-packed pages of it, is her most recent — along with poems, essays and more.

Now 75, she cannot off the top of her head even quantify her oeuvre, which makes anyone else’s look like a lazy internship. More than 100 titles. That’s for certain.

The 99.3 percent figure that she cites for Egyptian women who report having been harassed is questionable, from a United Nations survey that defines harassment broadly. And she hasn’t researched the “epidemic” nature of rape in Egypt. She’s never been there, or anywhere in the Middle East.

But in a world in which sexual violence remains as unconscionably prevalent as in ours, shouldn’t anyone who cares about women — about human rights — be asking all sorts of questions, including delicate ones? And why are questions that stray beyond the secular considered so particularly delicate?

Look critically at someone’s god and gird for the lightning.

Oates calls herself a humanist, rejects the conventional notion of divinity and told me, “I don’t have a sense that there are sacred institutions. To me, all religions and all churches are created by human beings.” In that regard, she added, “They’re not that different from, say, the whole legal culture or the medical culture or the scientific culture.” About which you can say or ask almost anything at all.

SHE finds certain barriers and etiquette curious. “If you thought that women were being mistreated 50 miles from where you are, you might want to go help them,” she said. “But if you were told it was a religious commune or something, you’d think, ‘Uh-oh, that’s their religion, maybe I shouldn’t help them.’ It’s like religion is under a dome. It gives an imprimatur to behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

Is she saying that Islam oppresses women?

Although she expressed concern about Shariah law, she didn’t go that far, and she noted that most religions were patriarchies.

Islam stands out for her in terms of the extra-special sensitivity surrounding discussion of it. She said that while religion in general is still coddled in the United States, where churches get tax exemptions and God is on money and in inaugural speeches, we’ve indeed become less reluctant over time to poke fun or hurl barbs at Christianity or Judaism. She pointed to the unapologetic examination of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

“We can have cartoons about the pope,” she said. “Making fun of the pope just seems to be something that a Catholic might do.” She added, “But if you have a cartoon, or make a film, about radical Islam, then you’re in danger of your life.”

She did neither. She just tweeted, and isn’t sure why a format seemingly designed for uncensored, spontaneous, imprecise musings, not nuanced manifestoes, should become grist for such outrage.

“Once I said that the doorway to Hades was in our basement — I discovered it!” she told me, referring to a past tweet. That’s the degree of literalism she brings to the arena.

Yet readers parse the words they want to and cling to those of their choice. After all, I arrived at her doorstep expecting, on the basis of a single tweet, to meet a herd of exotic pets.

She shook her head, looked toward her llama-less yard and said, “It’s a little surprising to me that social media have turned out to be kind of prissy and prim and politically correct.”

I don’t have a whole lot of time for her books either…

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Keller

June 30, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 2, 2013

The only charitable explanation is that Bobo wrote his column yesterday and it’s a particularly ham-handed attempt at a joke.  In “Freedom Loses One” he actually says that if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, it will be a victory for living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.  Now he’s just fcking with us…  Mr. Nocera, in “Investor Activism Gone Wild,” says that if J.C. Penney succumbs to its financial troubles, a shareholder activist will shoulder much of the blame.  Mr. Bruni likes it “When TV Takes Its Time.”  He says the answer to too many “Housewives” and too much forensic hullabaloo? The gentle tempo and steadfast puzzles of shows like Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.”  Yeah, Frank.  On the Sundance channel…  We’re on a fixed income and can’t afford all those premium channels like HBO and Showtime, etc., etc., etc., so I guess I’m doomed to continue watching “Hoarders.”  (I file that one under “shit that makes me feel normal.”)  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

I don’t think we’ve paused sufficiently to celebrate the wonderful recent defeat for the cause of personal freedom. After all, these sorts of defeats don’t happen every day.

Over the past 40 years, personal freedom has been on a nearly uninterrupted winning streak. In the 1960s, we saw a great expansion of social and lifestyle freedom. In the 1980s, we saw a great expansion of economic freedom. Since then, we’ve had everything from jeans commercials to rock anthems to political conventions celebrating freedom as the highest ideal.

People are much more at liberty these days to follow their desires, unhampered by social convention, religious and ethnic traditions and legal restraints.

The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community.

Other big thinkers believed that if people are left perfectly free to follow their desires, their baser ones will end up dominating their nobler ones. For these writers, the goal in life is not primarily to be free but to be good. Being virtuous often means thwarting your inclinations, obeying a power outside yourself. It means maintaining a balance between liberty and restraint, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence. As Edmund Burke put it:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Recently, the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack. People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited. The results are as predicted. A decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate. Decline in marriage. More children raised in unsteady homes. Higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings.

But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.

Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.

And far from being baffled by this attempt to use state power to restrict individual choice, most Americans seem to be applauding it. Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.

Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it. Once Americans acknowledged gay people exist, then, of course, they wanted them enmeshed in webs of obligation.

I suspect that this shift in public acceptance will be permanent, unless it turns out that marriages are more unstable when two people of the same gender are involved.

And, who knows, maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice. Maybe there will be sumptuary codes that will make lavish spending and C.E.O. salaries unseemly. Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home. Maybe voters will restrain their appetite for their grandchildren’s money. Maybe more straight people will marry.

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

It’s been a while since I’ve served up a large plate of salted weasel dicks for Bobo, but this one deserves it.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

William Ackman, the investor-activist who runs the $12 billion hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, is like one of those guys you used to see in a certain kind of old-fashioned comedy. On one shoulder sits an angel, encouraging his better nature. On the other sits a devil, whispering temptation.

When he listens to the angel, Ackman does amazing things. He made a $25 million contribution to the Newark school system, an early and important match against the $100 million that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, put up in September 2010. Yet unlike virtually every other actor involved in the Zuckerberg grant, who have been squabbling ever since, Ackman attached virtually no strings to his donation. He wants his money to be used to help Newark’s schoolchildren — not to push someone’s reform agenda.

Then there’s his current Herbalife crusade. After making a $1 billion bet that the stock would fall, Ackman released a lengthy report alleging that the company was running an illegal pyramid scheme. I have been sadly constrained from writing columns about the Ackman-Herbalife battle because the company had the wit to hire my fiancée’s employer, David Boies, after Ackman unveiled his attack. I was, as they say, “conflicted out.”

But I will say this: Pyramid schemes are a hidden scourge, hurting millions of people seduced by their get-rich-quick promises. Until Ackman began agitating, the federal government had largely capitulated to the “multilevel marketing” industry (as it likes to be called), even exempting it from a law passed a few years ago specifically aimed at curbing pyramid schemes. Ackman has been heroic in taking on this litigious, well-financed industry. Not since Jim Chanos went after Enron has a hedge fund manager been willing to question whether a company was actually a criminal enterprise. That takes guts.

Also, his track record as an activist has been good; you don’t get $12 billion in assets if you don’t win more than you lose.

But there is always that devil on the other shoulder. A few years ago, Ackman took a position in Target’s stock. Because of the recession, retailers such as Target were struggling. To get the stock up, Ackman began throwing out ideas that amounted to financial engineering. He then mounted an expensive proxy fight to get on the board, which thankfully, he lost. The stock has since rebounded. Target didn’t need financial engineering; it just needed a better economy.

Which brings me to his latest retail foray, J.C. Penney. Is there a single word that can sum up what has befallen J.C. Penney since Ackman took a stake in the company? Yes: disaster.

J.C. Penney had long catered to lower-middle-class families searching for sales. Its chief executive, Mike Ullman, who had been at the helm since 2004, was widely viewed as solid, if a tad unimaginative. He had led J.C. Penney to some of the most profitable years in its history. But, by the fall of 2010, hurt by the same recession that hurt Target, Penney’s stock was way down. That’s when Ackman showed up.

Being a big-time activist-investor, Ackman could hardly allow Ullman to remain at the helm. Activists have to be, you know, active. Within a year, he landed the executive everyone in retail wanted: Ron Johnson, who had built Apple’s retail business. Imagine: a Steve Jobs disciple was going to run downmarket J.C. Penney. What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything. Johnson decided to eliminate the sales that had always been J.C. Penney’s trademark and move to everyday low prices. He thus alienated the core J.C. Penney customer. He kept talking about how he was going to apply the lessons he had learned at Apple to J.C. Penney, even though the companies sold completely different products to completely different customers. As the core customers departed, Johnson and J.C. Penney didn’t have the merchandise or cachet to attract a more upscale, Target-type customer. People abandoned J.C. Penney.

At the end of 2012, J.C. Penney announced that its revenues had fallen by a staggering $4.3 billion. It has laid off some 20,000 people. Walter Loeb, the former longtime retail analyst at Morgan Stanley who now blogs for Forbes.com, is predicting that its revenues will decline another 22 percent in the first quarter of 2013.

Lately, Johnson has brought back sales and devised a new strategy, revolving around “stores within stores” — selling merchandise much the way Bloomingdale’s does. One of its ministores will be devoted to Martha Stewart-designed home goods. You may have read about that. Macy’s, which says it has a contract that prevents Martha Stewart from selling housewares to other retailers, has sued. On the stand during the trial, I’m told, Johnson kept referring to his experience at Apple. Some people never learn.

The question is no longer whether Johnson will learn in time. If the quarter is as bad as Loeb is predicting, he’ll be gone soon. The question is whether Ackman has learned anything. The next time the devil whispers in his ear, let’s hope he doesn’t listen.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who enjoys classy TV shows:

If you haven’t caught “Top of the Lake,” a cryptic mini-series on the Sundance Channel right now, you owe yourself a peek, if only to behold and savor Holly Hunter, whose character is a mash-up of Pocahontas, the oracle at Delphi and Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” She’s all hair, her silvery mane accounting for easily half of her body weight and seemingly destined to sweep the ground. Perhaps when the character isn’t providing terse counsel to the damaged women around her at an odd spiritual retreat, she moonlights as a broom.

Most of the women at the retreat, built from a network of colorful cargo containers arranged like gigantic Legos on the lip of the aforementioned lake, are on the lam from destructive relationships with men. One is on the lam from a destructive relationship with a chimpanzee as well. Still they can’t help themselves. Their eyes rove to the scruffy local lads in the gorgeous patch of New Zealand where the story is set, and in the third of what will be seven episodes, a woman leaves her container to spend the night in the less Spartan digs of a lakeside drug lord. Minor spoiler alert: as she slips into his bed, he announces that he’s impotent, and the day after, as they frolic sexlessly in the woods, he stumbles across his mother’s grave, kneels in front of it and begins flagellating himself. This is a pretty good definition of a really bad date.

I’m mesmerized by “Top of the Lake,” which is now halfway through its run, and friends who are watching it constantly bring it up. And what we’re mainly responding to isn’t the meat of the yarn, which focuses on the effort to unravel what happened to a 12-year-old girl who is about five months pregnant. It’s the ancillary riddles and vaguely explained curiosities, like the interludes in Lego land. It’s the gentle pacing. It’s the way in which the mini-series, one of whose principal writers and directors is Jane Campion, insists on a certain opaqueness and bucks the bulk of what’s on television, even in this golden age of the medium.

“Top of the Lake” belongs to a budding genre that several critics, including Alessandra Stanley in The Times and Matt Zoller Seitz in Salon, have called Slow TV. Stanley sagely noted the parallel to Slow Food, which rebelled against the metastasis of McDonald’s outposts. Slow TV pushes back at the instant gratification and empty calories of too many elimination contests, too many reality shows, too many efficient, literal-minded forensic dramas that perhaps keep certain plot threads dangling but tie up the episode’s main mystery by the hour’s end.

The term Slow TV has multiple meanings, and has been applied to full-length chronicles of actual, incrementally unfolding events, like a ship’s voyage, and to the practice of spacing out viewings of a fictional serial’s episodes rather than watching them in a marathon session. But I think it’s best deployed in the way Stanley and then Seitz, writing about such shows as “Treme” and “Game of Thrones,” used it: to describe unrushed, atmospheric narratives.

Slow TV mines the pleasures of ambiguity, which are affirmed, as it happens, by one of the best movies I’ve recently seen, “Room 237,” a documentary in limited theatrical release and on cable TV. The title refers to a detail in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining,” and the documentary recounts the riot of messages and meanings that obsessive fans have read into Kubrick’s lone foray into horror.

It’s a testament, hilarious at times, to the human genius for overanalysis. One “Shining” fan points to a German-made typewriter in the movie to support his theory that it’s a Holocaust parable; another cites the feathered-headdress logo on baking-powder cans in a few scenes for his belief that “The Shining” is about the massacre of American Indians. A desktop paper tray is determined to be a metaphoric erection, and so on. The abstruseness of some of “The Shining” is arguably a flaw, but “Room 237” reminds you that only an artistic work that resists tidy explanation can accommodate such enjoyable flights of interpretive fancy.

Ambiguity has never been what TV values most, “Twin Peaks” excepted. But it was central to “The Killing,” which highlighted an additional characteristic of Slow or Slowish TV, the willingness to wander off the main road and down an intriguing cul-de-sac, as “Girls” did in a discrete episode with Patrick Wilson as a guest star. Another HBO series, “Enlightened,” partly redeemed its irritations with its habits of straying, and of lingering: on a sigh, on a glare, on a soulless office building. It cared as much for mood as for plot.

The same is true of “Top of the Lake,” which preserves some enigmas, hirsute and otherwise, and surrenders others on its own timetable, making you wait and making you work. Just like life.


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