Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo’s playing pop psychologist/sociologist again, even though we all wish he wouldn’t.  In “The Heart Grows Smarter” he gurgles that a study that has followed a set of men from 1938 to the present time confirms that emotional intelligence is critical to leading a contented life.  In “The Spirit of America” Mr. Cohen says at the close of this presidential campaign it is worth recalling that America is an idea, and one that dies when hope and possibility disappear.  Mr. Nocera looks at “Mayor Bloomberg’s Blind Side” and offers the real take-away from the drawn-out decision on the marathon.  Mr. Bruni looks at “Lessons in Fearmongering” and says in advance of a potentially historic Election Day, the foes of same-sex marriage deployed their favorite canards.  Here’s Bobo:

If you go back and read a bunch of biographies of people born 100 to 150 years ago, you notice a few things that were more common then than now.

First, many more families suffered the loss of a child, which had a devastating and historically underappreciated impact on their overall worldviews.

Second, and maybe related, many more children grew up in cold and emotionally distant homes, where fathers, in particular, barely knew their children and found it impossible to express their love for them.

It wasn’t only parents who were emotionally diffident; it was the people who studied them. In 1938, a group of researchers began an intensive study of 268 students at Harvard University. The plan was to track them through their entire lives, measuring, testing and interviewing them every few years to see how lives develop.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the researchers didn’t pay much attention to the men’s relationships. Instead, following the intellectual fashions of the day, they paid a lot of attention to the men’s physiognomy. Did they have a “masculine” body type? Did they show signs of vigorous genetic endowments?

But as this study — the Grant Study — progressed, the power of relationships became clear. The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.

Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in “Triumphs of Experience,” his most recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

Of the 31 men in the study incapable of establishing intimate bonds, only four are still alive. Of those who were better at forming relationships, more than a third are living.

It’s not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.” The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen.

In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives.

But a childhood does not totally determine a life. The beauty of the Grant Study is that, as Vaillant emphasizes, it has followed its subjects for nine decades. The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.

One man in the study paid his way through Harvard by working as a psychiatric attendant. He slept from 6 p.m. to midnight. Worked the night shift at a hospital, then biked to class by 8 in the morning. After college, he tried his hand at theater. He did not succeed, and, at age 40, he saw himself as “mediocre and without imagination.” His middle years were professionally and maritally unhappy.

But, as he got older, he became less emotionally inhibited. In old age, he became a successful actor, playing roles like King Lear. He got married at 78. By 86, the only medicine he was taking was Viagra. He lived to 96.

Another subject grew up feeling that he “didn’t know either parent very well.” At 19, he wrote, “I don’t find it easy to make friends.” At 39, he wrote, “I feel lonely, rootless and disoriented.” At 50, he had basically given up trying to socialize and was trapped in an unhappy marriage.

But, as he aged, he changed. He became the president of his nursing home. He had girlfriends after the death of his first wife and then remarried. He didn’t turn into a social butterfly, but life was better.

The men of the Grant Study frequently became more emotionally attuned as they aged, more adept at recognizing and expressing emotion. Part of the explanation is biological. People, especially men, become more aware of their emotions as they get older.

Part of this is probably historical. Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.

The so-called Flynn Effect describes the rise in measured I.Q. scores over the decades. Perhaps we could invent something called the Grant Effect, on the improvement of mass emotional intelligence over the decades. This gradual change might be one of the greatest contributors to progress and well-being that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.

Next up is Mr. Cohen:

Four years ago, on the eve of the victory of Obama in the 2008 election, I attempted to define what America is.

It is renewal, I suggested, the place where impossible stories get written.

It is the overcoming of history, the leaving behind of war and barriers, in the name of a future freed from the vengeful clamp of memory.

It is reinvention, the absorption of one identity in something larger — the notion that “out of many, we are truly one.” Americans are decent people. They’re not interested in where you came from. They’re interested in who you are.

At the close of this endless campaign — on one of those crisp, clear New York days where the glimmer of possibility seems to lurk at the tapering edge of the city’s ruler-straight canyons — it is worth recalling that America, alone among nations, is an idea; and that idea dies when hope and possibility disappear.

As a naturalized American who recalls the 1,000 faces in the room where I swore the oath of allegiance and how they mapped the world and yet shared some essential notion of humanity, I confess to the convert’s zeal. I had to take a dictation back then to become a citizen. It was supposed to prove my command of English. The second sentence was, “I plan to work very hard every day.” So here I am writing, loneliest of tasks.

It has been a hard, uneven road from 2008. The idealism vested in America’s first black president was also vested in an introverted man whose talent for the deal-making that oils the wheels of politics proved limited. Barack Obama is the least “political” president since Jimmy Carter.

The United States is as divided today as it was four years ago — over economic policy, of course, but more deeply over social policy: the whole regressive God-invoking push of the Republican right against a woman’s right to abortion, gay rights, marriage equality and so on.

One nation sometimes feels like two.

But even with its debt and division and uneven recovery the United States has come a long way from the abyss of 2008. Obama is a man more likely than not to make smart decisions. He’s also lucky. Sandy blew in a week before the election and by the time it blew out Mittmentum was dented, Bloomberg on board and New Jersey’s Republican governor cooing.

There have been big achievements: the winding down of the wars, health reform, getting Osama bin Laden, and restoring the battered American idea.

Obama has fallen short of the pledge he made in 2009 when said we “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.” Drone killings have nothing to do with due process. But the country no longer inhabits the “dark side” of torture and rampant renditions.

By allowing gays to serve openly in the military and by signing legislation to back equal pay for equal work for women, Obama has strived to make the United States more inclusive.

America turns its back on its core ideas when it discriminates against women or on the basis of people’s sexual orientation.

Romney has led a campaign that has said everything and the contrary, embracing war then peace, changing positions on Obamacare, refusing to reveal how he will offset tax cuts. He wants to deny women the right to abortion. His America, it seems, would be more unequal and divided.

Last week I wrote about the sharp divisions in the Jewish community of Cleveland, Ohio, where the Senate candidacy of a young right-wing Jewish ex-Marine named Josh Mandel has exacerbated the tensions of a close campaign where some Jews have tried hard to portray Obama as anti-Israel. Mandel, who has campaigned against the Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, is related by marriage to the influential Ratner family.

After the column a paid ad in the form of an open letter to Mandel from several members of the Ratner family appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News. It read in part:

Dear Josh, Your cousins, Ellen Ratner and Cholene Espinoza, are among the many wonderful couples whose rights you do not recognize. They were married almost eight years ago in Massachusetts, at a time when it was the only state in the nation to allow same-sex marriage. Their wedding, like yours, was a beautiful and happy occasion for all of us in our family. It hurts us that you would embrace discrimination against them.

We are equally distressed by your belief that gay men and women should not be allowed to serve openly in the military. Like you, Cholene spent many years in the armed forces. A graduate of the Air Force Academy and an accomplished pilot, she became the second woman in history to fly the U-2 reconnaissance plane. And yet, you have argued that she, like many gay and lesbian soldiers, should be forced to live a life of secrecy and lies.

The letter embodies the spirit that overcame slavery and Jim Crow and has made America an ever-reinvented land always pushing to the next frontier. It is cause for hope.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

I was headed out of town on Sunday morning when I spotted the runners. They were wearing the kind of lightweight running gear that marks a serious marathoner. Some were even wearing bib numbers. They were running north on Eighth Avenue toward Columbus Circle, which is where the marathoners normally enter Central Park, on the first Sunday of November, for the home stretch of the New York City Marathon.

But, of course, there was no New York City Marathon on Sunday. Late on Friday, the city canceled it after mounting public pressure. More precisely, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had insisted right up until Friday afternoon that the race would go on — and who likes to think of himself as being impervious to public pressure — finally caved.

Most other mayors, faced with a loud public outcry, would have canceled it much earlier. I live with a marathoner, and, by Wednesday, I could see how upset she and her friends in the running community were over Bloomberg’s insistence that the show go on. One friend, Jimmy Smyth, who has run in 23 consecutive New York City Marathons, told me that holding the 2012 marathon would “permanently damage the legacy of both the marathon and Mayor Bloomberg.”

On Friday morning, The New York Post published a photograph on its cover showing a security guard in Central Park protecting two generators reserved for the marathon. Residents of Staten Island, which had been so heavily damaged, were furious at the thought that 47,000 runners were going to arrive in their battered borough — la di da — to start the race.

But Bloomberg is a stubborn man, who tends to think that he knows what’s best for us. He is also a businessman who views problems through the prism of business. Running the marathon, he said, would show that the city was back up and running. It was a linchpin of tourism. Bloomberg even mentioned the tax revenue the city would generate as a result of the marathon. When he was finally forced to back down, he sent his deputy mayor, Howard Wolfson, to the press conference. Eating crow has never been one of the mayor’s strong suits.

I’m of the view that Bloomberg has been a very good mayor, maybe one of the greatest in New York’s history. He has made city government more data-driven and more efficient. He has championed causes, like gun control, that most other politicians run away from. His long-term strategic planning has made a huge difference in the life of the city. As I mentioned in my last column, his foresight in realizing the city needed an updated evacuation plan undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives during Hurricane Sandy.

A pragmatic, apolitical, solution-oriented centrist, Bloomberg is now trying to nurture a new generation of politicians who will follow his lead. He has used some of his enormous wealth, for instance, to contribute to several campaigns of centrist members of Congress facing more extreme opponents. Until his recent endorsement of President Obama, he had been largely dismissive of the presidential campaign, precisely because neither candidate was offering what he viewed as pragmatic solutions to the country’s problems. He has spent a great deal of time advising other mayors — even setting up a competition among cities through his foundation. The winner will receive $5 million to pursue innovative ideas for running cities.

But what Bloomberg’s third term — a term, let’s recall, that required the extension of term limits — also illustrates is that sometimes, politicians have to be, well, political. Flying in the face of smart politics, Bloomberg appointed a school superintendent who had never spent a day in her life in school administration. He was compelled to let her go three months later. When one of his deputies was forced to resign because of a domestic violence arrest, Bloomberg tried to keep the news quiet. The kind of empathy that has practically oozed from New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, in the aftermath of Sandy is anathema to Bloomberg. The mayor’s refusal to cancel the marathon until the last second is hardly the most pressing decision he’s made. But it is emblematic of his one big blind spot.

As it turns out, there weren’t just a few dozen runners who came into the park on Sunday. There were thousands. I parked my car and walked into Central Park to get a better view. Spectators were sitting in the stands, cheering the runners, who were waving and smiling back. I took my place with them, and started clapping my hands. It was one of the most joyous, awe-inspiring things I have ever seen in this city, cathartic in a way that the real marathon could never have been. Not this year anyway.

A politician could have — should have — owned that moment.  That will never describe Bloomberg.

And last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Seattle:

The nation’s vigilant theocrats figured us out. We can’t slip anything past them. It’s not the right to marry that we’re after — to make the same commitment that our straight peers are automatically able to, even if they’re thrice divorced, tipsy and standing before an Elvis impersonator in Vegas. It’s the nation’s young. We’re out to recruit the next generation, plump up our ranks and pave the way to a gay utopia in which the Tony Awards get higher Nielsen ratings than the Super Bowl and we all dance at the inauguration of President Ellen DeGeneres.

Please. If you think we have time for such elaborate stratagems, you underestimate how many hours we put in at the gym. Besides which, I prefer football to “Footloose,” and I can round up plenty of other gay men who are with me on that, along with lesbians more loyal to “The View” than to “Ellen.”

On this Election Day, citizens in four states are weighing in on same-sex marriage. Minnesotans are deciding whether to ban it in their Constitution, but here in Washington and in Maine and Maryland as well, the issue is whether to permit it, and a majority of “yes” votes would mark the first time that a state has done so by popular referendum.

That milestone seems within reach, and horrified opponents have responded with their favorite and nastiest scare tactic, the insinuation that America’s children are about to be corrupted. This fearmongering worked four years ago in California, where voters rejected same-sex marriage after the repeated broadcast of a commercial in which an adorable little girl exultantly informs her aghast mother that in school that day, she learned that princes could marry princes and that she could marry a princess. A stern-looking man then sweeps in to warn viewers that they will be saying O.K. to such ostensible brainwashing if they let gay couples say “I do.”

The analogous commercial this year spotlights David and Tonia Parker, who insist that after Massachusetts began to allow same-sex marriage in 2004, their son and other children were forced to learn about homosexual relationships in school. While it’s true that some schools mentioned same-sex couples in diversity discussions, it wasn’t mandated by the state or connected to the advent of same-sex marriage, and the referendums this Election Day say nothing at all about curriculums. Moreover, a federal court that heard a lawsuit by the Parkers rightly determined that a cursory reference to gay couples in classrooms “does not constitute ‘indoctrination,’ ” as the Parkers had claimed.

David Parker is just a textbook homophobe in the garb of a humbly concerned parent. He has likened homosexuality to alcoholism and equated teachers who mention it to sexual predators using foul language in the park.

He and his ilk love to link gay rights with sexual predation. An ad used in Florida in 2009 shows a blond girl in a pink T-shirt entering a playground restroom; seconds later, a man in a baseball cap and sunglasses follows her in. The commercial then claims that the Gainesville City Commission made this legal, presumably by including transgendered people in an anti-discrimination ordinance that covered public accommodations.

As for anti-gay crusaders’ fixation with indoctrination, I’d like them to explain how so many of us turned out gay or lesbian despite having straight parents and, in my day, being exposed to movies, TV shows and Top 40 songs that portrayed an almost exclusively heterosexual world.

I’d also like them to meet Jeff DeGroot, 27, a law student here who has been giving public speeches in support of the Washington referendum. He grew up in Oregon with two mothers — “the most wonderful parents in the world,” he told me — who went to all his hockey games, nagged him about his homework and have now been together for 38 years. They were even married to each other briefly after a county clerk in Oregon began to grant same-sex marriage licenses in 2004. The Oregon Supreme Court nullified those weddings the following year, devastating them, he said.

Surely, I remarked, his upbringing had made him homosexual.

He laughed. “My girlfriend would have something to say about that,” he said.

You are who you are. And that’s all that Jeff and I and others who endorse same-sex marriage want anyone to be.

I have 11 nieces and nephews, the oldest of whom is 16, and do you know how many times I’ve discussed my sexual orientation with her? Zero. She knows I’m gay, knows my partner — and that’s that. Instead we talk about the New York Giants, whom she roots for, and the Denver Broncos, my team.

The Broncos won on Sunday. I’ve decided to treat that as an omen that at least one of the same-sex marriage referendums will succeed, and that unjustified fears and an unjustifiable inequality are in retreat.

And thank the FSM that this campaign is FINALLY over…


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