The Moustache of Wisdom is off today. The Pasty Little Putz, in “The Man With the Google Glasses,” has decided to warn us about the danger of isolation — or worse — in the rush to virtual communities. MoDo cries “Come Back, Sarah Palin!” and says having defined Mitt Romney as the “Eh, I guess” candidate, “Saturday Night Live” writers wonder if there’s anything else to say. MoDo, honey, the Republicans themselves have defined Mittens that way, and the SNL writers merely comment. Mr. Kristof, in “A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame,” says for returning soldiers, home has been deadlier than the battlefield. Some say the V.A. isn’t doing enough to help. In “Working and Women” Mr. Bruni says Hilary Rosen’s remark about Ann Romney reflected many sad truths about politics today. Here’s the Putz:
A man wakes up in a New York apartment, brews coffee and goes out into the world, and everything that can appear on a smartphone or iPad appears before his eyes instead: weather reports, calendar reminders, messages from friends, walking maps of New York, his girlfriend’s smiling face.
This is the promise of Google’s Project Glass, which released the video I’ve just described earlier this month, as a preview of a still-percolating project that aspires to implant the equivalent of an iPhone into a pair of science-fiction spectacles.
Even if the project itself never comes to fruition, though, the video deserves a life of its own, as a window into what our era promises and what it threatens to take away. If modernity’s mix of achievement and alienation was once embodied by the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, now it’s embodied by the Man in the Google Glasses.
On the one hand, the video is a testament to modern technology’s extraordinary feats — not only instant communication across blocks or continents, but also an almost god-like access to information about the world around us. The Man in the Google Glasses can find his way effortlessly through the mazes of Manhattan; he can photograph anything he sees; he can make an impulse purchase from any corner of the world.
But the video also captures the sense of isolation that coexists with our technological mastery. The Man in the Google Glasses lives alone, in a drab, impersonal apartment. He meets a friend for coffee, but the video cuts away from this live interaction, leaping ahead to the moment when he snaps a photo of some “cool” graffiti and shares it online. He has a significant other, but she’s far enough away that when sunset arrives, he climbs up on a roof and shares it with her via video, while she grins from a window at the bottom of his field of vision.
He is, in other words, a characteristic 21st-century American, more electronically networked but more personally isolated than ever before. As the N.Y.U. sociologist Eric Klinenberg notes in “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” there are now more Americans living by themselves than there are Americans in intact nuclear-family households. Children are much more likely to grow up with only a single parent in the home; adults marry less and divorce relatively frequently; seniors are more likely to face old age alone. And friendship, too, seems to be attenuating: a 2006 Duke University study found that Americans reported having, on average, three people with whom they discussed important issues in 1985, but just two by the mid-2000s.
The question hanging over the future of American social life, then, is whether all the possibilities of virtual community — the connections forged by Facebook and Twitter; the back alleys of the Internet where fans of “A Dance to the Music of Time” or “Ren & Stimpy” can find one another; the hum of virtual conversation that’s available any hour of the day — can make up for the weakening of flesh-and-blood ties and the decline of traditional communal institutions.
The optimists say yes. If you believe writers like Clay Shirky, author of 2008’s “Here Comes Everybody,” the buzzing hive mind of the Internet is well on its way to generating a kind of “cognitive surplus,” which promises to make group interactions even more effective and enriching than they were before the Web.
The pessimists, on the other hand, worry that online life offers only a simulacrum of community. In “Alone Together” (2011), Sherry Turkle argues that the lure of Internet relationships, constantly available but inherently superficial, might make both genuine connection and genuine solitude impossible.
Seeing the world through the eyes of the Man in the Google Glasses, though, suggests a more political reason for pessimism. In his classic 1953 work, “The Quest for Community,” the sociologist Robert Nisbet argued that in eras of intense individualism and weak communal ties, the human need for belonging tends to empower central governments as never before. An atomized, rootless population is more likely to embrace authoritarian ideologies, and more likely to seek the protection of an omnicompetent state.
The kind of totalitarianism, fascist and Marxist, that shadowed Nisbet’s writing isn’t likely to come back. But a kinder, gentler kind of authoritarianism — what the blogger James Poulos has dubbed “the pink police state,” which is officially tolerant while scrutinizing your every move — remains a live possibility.
Today, social media are hailed for empowering dissidents and undercutting tyrannies around the world. Yet it’s hard not to watch the Google video and agree with Forbes’s Kashmir Hill when she suggests that such a technology could ultimately “accelerate the arrival of the persistent and pervasive citizen surveillance state,” in which everything you see and do can be recorded, reported, subpoenaed … you name it.
In this kind of world, the Man in the Google Glasses might feel like a king of infinite space. But he’d actually be inhabiting a comfortable, full-service cage.
Of course, the Putz assumes that just because one can one must… Here’s MoDo:
“Saturday Night Live” writers have devastatingly lampooned Mitt Romney as a corny, coreless candidate who evokes an “Eh, I guess” response in voters. Now they’re worried that we’re heading, comedy-wise, toward an “Eh, I guess” election.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as much fun as 2000 and 2008,” Jim Downey, the show’s inimitable satirist, told me. “When you have an incumbent president, it’s not wholly new. And because of the long Republican primary debate stretch, I’m already tired of Romney. I wish there could be a crazy brokered convention with someone we’ve never heard of to keep it fresh. But you don’t get a gift like Sarah Palin very often, and I’m sure it’ll never happen again.”
You’re telling me.
“Comedy writers are incredibly promiscuous, and we want as many targets as possible,” agreed Seth Meyers, the clever “S.N.L.” head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor. “We really slowed down in the second four years of Bush.”
Stuck with a Tin Man-versus-Spock race, the writers perk up at the thought of Romney’s picking the crackling Chris Christie as his running mate. But Mitt seems too programmed to risk his hard-won chance at the brass ring on a brassy partner who might overshadow him.
Two of the most hallucinatory moments in “S.N.L.” history came in 2008, when Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin and the real Palin sashayed past each other, and when John McCain roguishly appeared in a skit with Fey’s Palin going rogue.
“Sarah Palin was a once-in-a-lifetime situation,” Meyers marveled. “She was incredibly magnetic and came with a built-in catchphrase.”
She, like Joe Biden, inspires what Meyers calls “wet comedy” (as opposed to dry), and they both have what Downey calls “handles,” quirks of speech and personality that both writers and performers can latch onto.
Having played John Kerry in 2004, Meyers has experience puncturing a stiff, rich guy who has a hard time getting anyone to like him.
“The fun thing with Mitt Romney is, here’s a guy who has to look in the mirror every day and see that he looks exactly the way a president should look,” Meyers said, and yet he can’t catch fire.
“There’s a creepy youth minister kind of squareness to him, especially combined with that goofy eagerness to please,” Downey said. “People are perfectly willing to accept people different from them as long as they don’t try to pretend otherwise.”
In a sketch last week written by Downey, Jason Sudeikis’s Romney pandered three exits past shameless talking to different groups. He told the American Diabetes Association, “No one wants to get sick, you know, but frankly I’ve always thought that if I had to develop a chronic disease, you know I hoped it would be adult onset diabetes, I mean what a fascinating illness.”
The five Romney sons have also taken a ribbing. The hilarious Bill Hader, playing an Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” version of the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, interviewed the “S.N.L.” sons, noting: “I like creepy things and I love these guys. … Our thanks to Stephen King for creating those boys.”
Meyers says that “there’s something funny about a candidate with all these fully grown adult sons. When it comes to an adorable competition, they certainly don’t beat Sasha and Malia.”
Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer, has offered a guest spot to Romney, who is considering it.
“He was funny on Letterman, giving the Top Ten list,” Downey said.
“S.N.L.” has always struggled with its Obama impersonation because Obama is “smooth without big handles,” as Downey puts it. To the dismay of the president, Fred Armisen plays it more as pedantic white guy than cool black guy. In The Times, the writer Jason Zinoman complained: “What’s frustrating about these performances is the same thing that has left many in Mr. Obama’s base disillusioned. Mr. Armisen seems sometimes to blend into the background.”
Meyers recalled that, after the Navy Seals raid that killed Osama last year, the show did a sketch with Obama “getting his mojo back.”
“It would be really fun to see that Obama again on the show, the confident Obama who comes out on the campaign trail,” he said.
When Rick Santorum dropped out, Meyers tweeted about the Santorum impersonator Andy Samberg: “About to sit down Samberg and tell him he’s not going to play the president. This part of the job is never easy.”
But with rumors buzzing that Samberg, plus Sudeikis, who plays Mitt Romney, and Kristen Wiig, who plays Ann Romney, are leaving the show, will different white-bread Romney mimics be required? “I’m sure they would stick around for the pre-election shows,” Downey said.
Maybe Stefon can moderate the debates. But meanwhile, Downey is leavening the prospect of an “eh” campaign by plotting to follow up his hilarious Keith Olbermann sketch (performed by the host Ben Affleck) with a send-up of Sean Hannity.
“I think I’m right in saying,” Downey observed, “that he’s the dumbest person who’s ever been paid to speak on television.”
Now here’s Mr. Kristof:
Here’s a window into a tragedy within the American military: For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.
An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year — more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.
These unnoticed killing fields are places like New Middletown, Ohio, where Cheryl DeBow raised two sons, Michael and Ryan Yurchison, and saw them depart for Iraq. Michael, then 22, signed up soon after the 9/11 attacks.
“I can’t just sit back and do nothing,” he told his mom. Two years later, Ryan followed his beloved older brother to the Army.
When Michael was discharged, DeBow picked him up at the airport — and was staggered. “When he got off the plane and I picked him up, it was like he was an empty shell,” she told me. “His body was shaking.” Michael began drinking and abusing drugs, his mother says, and he terrified her by buying the same kind of gun he had carried in Iraq. “He said he slept with his gun over there, and he needed it here,” she recalls.
Then Ryan returned home in 2007, and he too began to show signs of severe strain. He couldn’t sleep, abused drugs and alcohol, and suffered extreme jitters.
“He was so anxious, he couldn’t stand to sit next to you and hear you breathe,” DeBow remembers. A talented filmmaker, Ryan turned the lens on himself to record heartbreaking video of his own sleeplessness, his own irrational behavior — even his own mock suicide.
One reason for veteran suicides (and crimes, which get far more attention) may be post-traumatic stress disorder, along with a related condition, traumatic brain injury. Ryan suffered a concussion in an explosion in Iraq, and Michael finally had traumatic brain injury diagnosed two months ago.
Estimates of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury vary widely, but a ballpark figure is that the problems afflict at least one in five veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. One study found that by their third or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than one-quarter of soldiers had such mental health problems.
Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide. For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health.
Michael and Ryan, like so many other veterans, sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, declined to speak to me, but the most common view among those I interviewed was that the V.A. has improved but still doesn’t do nearly enough about the suicide problem.
“It’s an epidemic that is not being addressed fully,” said Bob Filner, a Democratic congressman from San Diego and the senior Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We could be doing so much more.”
To its credit, the V.A. has established a suicide hotline and appointed suicide-prevention coordinators. It is also chipping away at a warrior culture in which mental health concerns are considered sissy. Still, veterans routinely slip through the cracks. Last year, the United States Court of Appeals in San Francisco excoriated the V.A. for “unchecked incompetence” in dealing with veterans’ mental health.
Patrick Bellon, head of Veterans for Common Sense, which filed the suit in that case, says the V.A. has genuinely improved but is still struggling. “There are going to be one million new veterans in the next five years,” he said. “They’re already having trouble coping with the population they have now, so I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Last month, the V.A.’s own inspector general reported on a 26-year-old veteran who was found wandering naked through traffic in California. The police tried to get care for him, but a V.A. hospital reportedly said it couldn’t accept him until morning. The young man didn’t go in, and after a series of other missed opportunities to get treatment, he stepped in front of a train and killed himself.
Likewise, neither Michael nor Ryan received much help from V.A. hospitals. In early 2010, Ryan began to talk more about suicide, and DeBow rushed him to emergency rooms and pleaded with the V.A. for help. She says she was told that an inpatient treatment program had a six-month waiting list. (The V.A. says it has no record of a request for hospitalization for Ryan.)
“Ryan was hurting, saying he was going to end it all, stuff like that,” recalls his best friend, Steve Schaeffer, who served with him in Iraq and says he has likewise struggled with the V.A. to get mental health services. “Getting an appointment is like pulling teeth,” he said. “You get an appointment in six weeks when you need it today.”
While Ryan was waiting for a spot in the addiction program, in May 2010, he died of a drug overdose. It was listed as an accidental death, but family and friends are convinced it was suicide.
The heartbreak of Ryan’s death added to his brother’s despair, but DeBow says Michael is now making slow progress. “He is able to get out of bed most mornings,” she told me. “That is a huge improvement.” Michael asked not to be interviewed: he wants to look forward, not back.
As for DeBow, every day is a struggle. She sent two strong, healthy men to serve her country, and now her family has been hollowed in ways that aren’t as tidy, as honored, or as easy to explain as when the battle wounds are physical. I wanted to make sure that her family would be comfortable with the spotlight this article would bring, so I asked her why she was speaking out.
“When Ryan joined the Army, he was willing to sacrifice his life for his country,” she said. “And he did, just in a different way, without the glory. He would want it this way.”
“My home has been a nightmare,” DeBow added through tears, recounting how three of Ryan’s friends in the military have killed themselves since their return. “You hear my story, but it’s happening everywhere.”
We refurbish tanks after time in combat, but don’t much help men and women exorcise the demons of war. Presidents commit troops to distant battlefields, but don’t commit enough dollars to veterans’ services afterward. We enlist soldiers to protect us, but when they come home we don’t protect them.
“Things need to change,” DeBow said, and her voice broke as she added: “These are guys who went through so much. If anybody deserves help, it’s them.”
As long as those in power treat the military like toys to be used, broken and thrown away nothing will change. The MOTU have no skin in the game. It’s not their sons they send off to die. Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
By the standards of Hilary Rosen, whose name and swipe at Ann Romney just possibly crossed your radar last week, my mother also never worked a day in her life, at least not after she delivered the first of four epically needy, fiercely loved and ferociously grateful children.
Like Romney, Mom didn’t punch a clock or get a paycheck or any of that. She might have endured less stress and finagled more sleep if she had. But her arrangement with Dad was traditional: he sweated the income, she sweated the rest. Actually, it wasn’t so traditional, because the rest included the bill paying, the checkbook balancing, the wrangling with the roofer, the wrangling with the electrician, the car selection, the school selection, you name it.
The major decisions were all hers. While Dad playacted the part of president, Mom was both House and Senate, with supermajorities that could override all vetoes. She was also Supreme Court, poised to strike down any of his individual mandates.
He had whole days off. She had the stray episode of “Mannix,” “Kojak” and — equal opportunist and Angie Dickinson aficionada that she was — “Police Woman.” Then it was back to the pinpoint management of six lives, only one of them her own.
I don’t mean to romanticize her lot. Quite the opposite. And I worry to this day that she didn’t really choose it, inasmuch as she and Dad were products of a different generation, when too many women were prodded in too preordained a direction.
But I know that she was proud of how she spent her time and chafed mightily at any career woman who in any way insinuated that she was performing a servile or trivial function. And since she’s no longer around, I’ll chafe for her. What Rosen said was inaccurate, gratuitous and a sad example of the way politics is practiced today.
Has too much been made of it? That was Stage 2 or 3 of the commentary, during which it was rightly noted that Rosen, a Democratic consultant, wasn’t speaking for the Obama administration or even the Democratic National Committee. In fact the president, his advisers and the D.N.C. quickly distanced themselves from her. Even Michelle Obama tweeted a tsk-tsk.
It was also said that the news media was tumbling headlong into a noncontroversy and that we should all be talking instead about the economy, the debt and health care, as if those topics had gone unplumbed and Democrats and Republicans alike hadn’t turned isolated outbursts or gaffes into major hullabaloos before.
But Rosen’s words warrant attention for several reasons, the most significant of which I’ll save for last.
She may not reflect the prevailing Democratic thinking, but she does reflect the way partisan sniping aims too broadly and claims needless casualties. These days it’s seldom enough to question the opposing side; you have to discredit anyone associated with it, even if that person has done little to draw such withering fire.
In assessing Mitt Romney’s appeal to women, we should by all means look carefully at his hiring record at Bain Capital; at how well women were represented in Massachusetts government under his watch; at whether his current policy prescriptions square with many women’s needs; at his positions (they change) on reproductive choice. Relevant material, all of it.
But Ann Romney? Rosen claimed that she was fair game because her husband had cited her as an adviser of sorts on women’s issues, but that doesn’t justify the personal nature of Rosen’s gibe. And tagging Ann Romney as sheltered and old-fashioned is such an obvious, facile and reductive putdown, just as the Catholic League’s subsequent derision of Rosen’s sexuality and family — she’s lesbian, with adopted kids — is cheap and gross. We have to be better than this.
Rosen also said that she wasn’t critiquing Ann Romney’s role as a homemaker but, rather, her charmed isolation from — and thus presumed insensitivity to — the financial hardships of mothers who must work.
When did it become axiomatic that to care about people in economic distress you have to be personally familiar with it? This notion has been one of the most frequently used cudgels against Mitt Romney, who has abetted it with his near-pathological knack for awkward invocations of wealth. He has somehow managed to create such an easy-street image for himself that John Kerry’s breezy windsurfing seems, in retrospect, like a slog in a dinghy with one oar.
But if privilege equals an inability to relate, then we apparently misjudged and must reappraise many politicians from the past, including the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and even George Washington.
What’s most bothersome about Rosen’s comment, though, was its betrayal of what the Democratic Party and feminism at their best are supposed to be about: recognizing the full diversity of human experience and empowering everyone along that spectrum to walk successfully down the path of his or her choosing, so long as it poses no clear harm to anyone else.
Does Ann Romney’s path make sense to me? Marriage at 19, with a special, separate Mormon ceremony the next day that excluded her non-Mormon parents? No. But I respect her right to it. I admire her resilience in the face of breast cancer and then multiple sclerosis. And I think that Rosen’s dig not only violated the very idea of inclusiveness but also had the sort of judgmental ring for which many of us justly excoriate certain institutions and figures on the right: the Catholic League, Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh.
That sort of censure used to make my mother livid. In 1970 she wrote that some feminist rhetoric of that time “practically accuses you of criminal negligence because you have turned your back on your college-trained mind.” This was in an essay in the journal of the Woman’s Club of White Plains, N.Y.
“I haven’t turned my back on my education,” she continued, adding that she used it daily “to make my home the center of learning it should be.” I indeed remember talking about fiction with her. About science. About current events, too.
But mostly I remember her at her computer well past 10 p.m., stealing the last hours of the day to do administrative work for some volunteer project she’d been drawn into or for the 60-member competitive swimming club that she and Dad had founded and that she ran largely by herself.
I wish I knew how to work even half that hard.
I doubt that Mrs. Bruni had staffs of nannies and housekeepers…