In “The Loss of the Innocents” The Pasty Little Putz says there is no refuge from evil, and no solution to its mystery. MoDo screeches “Watch Out Below!!!” She says she’s hanging on by her fingernails in the era of cliff diving. The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Egypt: The Next India or the Next Pakistan?” He asks will Egyptian democracy empower minorities and protect their rights, or will the military and Muslim Brotherhood control everything always? Mr. Kristof asks “Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?” He says there’s an epic contrast between the heroism of teachers facing a gunman and the fecklessness of politicians who won’t stand up to N.R.A. Mr. Bruni looks at “Our Corrosive Guessing Games” and says the media’s insistence on looking far, far into the political future isn’t just silly. It’s damaging. Here’s The Putz:
Newtown, Conn., is about 20 miles from the town where my wife grew up. It’s the kind of place that rewards rambling New England drives: there are big old Victorian houses flanking the main street, a hill with a huge flagpole rising in the center of town, and a large pasture just below, with shaded side roads radiating outward from the greensward, and then horse farms in the hills beyond.
When you live in a hectic, self-important city, it’s easy to romanticize a town like Newtown, and maybe imagine escaping there someday, children in tow. The last time we drove through was more than a year ago: it was a summer dusk, and there were families out everywhere — kids on bikes, crowds around the ice cream stand, the images of small town innocence flickering past our car windows like slides on a carousel.
Any grown-up knows that such small-town innocence is illusory, and that what looks pristine to outsiders can be as darkened by suffering as any other place where human beings live together, and alone.
But even so, the illusion has real power, not least because the dream of small-town life makes the whole universe seem somehow kinder and homier. If only a Bedford Falls or Stars Hollow or Mayberry existed somewhere, we tend to feel — in New England or Nebraska, the present or the past — then perhaps there’s some ultimate hope for the rest of us as well. Maybe the universe really was meant to be a home to humanity, and not just a blindly cruel cosmos in which a 6-year-old’s fate is significant to his parents but no more meaningful in absolute terms than the cracking of a seashell or an extinction of a star.
But if the ideal of the Good Place, the lost Eden or Arcadia, can stir up the residue of religious hopes even in hardened materialists, the reality of what transpired in the real Newtown last week — the murder in cold blood of 20 small children — can make Ivan Karamazovs out of even the devout.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed — babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of 5 locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God — a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”
Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”
It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov” is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.
Pious crap, as usual, with no thought given as to how to prevent tragedies like this in the future. Oh, right — The Putz is a Republican, bought and paid for by the NRA… Here’s MoDo:
The end of the world never comes at a convenient time.
It never comes, for instance, when you’re sitting in front of a blank computer screen trying to think of a column.
But the end is nigh, according to ancient Mayans and Washington mandarins.
We have reached the quivering moment of truth that Jon Stewart calls “Cliffpocalypsemageddonacaust.”
However the Mayan prediction and the fiscal cliff work out in the next few days, I hope we are talking about the end of talking about the end.
It’s tedious to always be suspended in midair, like Wile E. Coyote or Thelma and Louise. The attempts by some to continually whirl the whole American population into a state of apocalyptic excitement are exhausting.
We have enough real cliffhangers — Will Carrie and Brody descend into craziness together or go to a movie and chill, going zero dark flirty at “Zero Dark Thirty”? Will RGIII’s knee buckle against Cleveland on Sunday? — without creating fake ones.
There’s a new American trend in hysteria. Everything now is in italics, punctuated by exclamation points!!! As entertaining as Carrie Mathison’s bouts of hysteria have been in “Homeland,” stirring up hysteria in real life, whether to draw clicks, eyeballs or votes, is not a good idea.
Cliff dwellers in our society may think that facing the guillotine focuses the mind. But the cliff metaphor is so overused it makes me want to walk off one. Don’t even mention Cliff Clavin, Cliff Huxtable, Cliff Robertson, Jimmy Cliff or Heathcliff (either on the moors, in Cliffs Notes or in the funny papers.)
If your Christmas presents don’t come from Amazon in time, you’re going over the gift cliff. If your boyfriend bails, you’re going over the romance cliff. If he comes back, you could be going over the marriage cliff.
Journalists now have to add an extra coup de grâce (“Fiscal cliff crash”) or double metaphor (“Clock is ticking for fiscal cliff”) or raffish cartoons to juice things up. The new cover of The Economist features Uncle Sam, waving a Jack Daniels bottle, with the Statue of Liberty, wearing cool shades and smoking a doobie, plunging into the Grand Canyon in a red, white and blue Thunderbird with the license plate “Debt 1.”
Other metaphors have been suggested: “fiscal obstacle course,” “debt bomb,” “austerity bomb.” But we’re stuck in the year of cliffian thinking.
There are cliffians, who predict dire consequences if a deal is not reached, and anti-cliffians. But no matter if you’re into Keynes, Krugmania or Ayn Ryanism, looking at things as a cliff is not the most constructive way to live. It’s sheer madness. Apocalypse is a very bad place in which to think clearly about anything.
There are people in both parties who have wanted to keep everything on a war footing for years, a Manichaean battle between good and evil, right and wrong. Every election brings more insanity, hyperbole and demagoguery.
But scaring people is generally not a good way to get people to understand things. It’s like the color-coded warnings for terrorist attacks that lost all meaning amid the fearmongering.
Especially in emergencies, grave crises like a nuclear threat or a terrorist attack, you need calm people who don’t think the world is going to end.
Lincoln wasn’t cliffy. As the new Steven Spielberg movie shows, Lincoln had a goal and pursued it methodically through various means, some shady. He wasn’t interested in hysteria. It had no political use for him.
The BBC examined the etymology of the phrase of the moment. The lexicographer Ben Zimmer discovered that an 1893 editorial in The Chicago Tribune warned: “The free silver shriekers are striving to tumble the United States over the same fiscal precipice.”
Zimmer traced the first use of “fiscal cliff” to the property section of The New York Times in 1957, in an article about people overextending their finances to buy their first home. Ben Bernanke imprinted the term on the public consciousness last February, pointing ominously toward Jan. 1.
But Derek Thompson, the business editor at The Atlantic, told the BBC that if you had to go topographical, a slope or a hill was more accurate.
“You talk about a cliff, it’s extremely sudden and the second you step off the edge you plunge to your death,” he said, adding: “We’re not going to fall off anything.”
Language is important, he said, because it can provoke a panicky deal rather than a smart deal. He suggested that a more apt metaphor might be dieting after bingeing, as in “fiscal fast.”
“There will be a short, sharp recession in early to middle of next year, which is more like falling on your face after fasting too vigorously, and then the economy is going to grow,” he said.
The really bad news is that, even if we survive this abyss, there are more coming, with the debt ceiling cliff and the spending bill cliff dead ahead. Once you start with the cliffs, you can fall into cliffinity — with endless cliff riffs on the horizon.
Cliff talk is not cool talk.
And, as we all know, MoDo is all about cool talk… Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
I want to discuss Egypt today, but first a small news item that you may have missed.
Three weeks ago, the prime minister of India appointed Syed Asif Ibrahim as the new director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, its domestic intelligence-gathering agency. Ibrahim is a Muslim. India is a predominantly Hindu country, but it is also the world’s third-largest Muslim nation. India’s greatest security threat today comes from violent Muslim extremists. For India to appoint a Muslim to be the chief of the country’s intelligence service is a big, big deal. But it’s also part of an evolution of empowering minorities. India’s prime minister and its army chief of staff today are both Sikhs, and India’s foreign minister and chief justice of the Supreme Court are both Muslims. It would be like Egypt appointing a Coptic Christian to be its army chief of staff.
“Preposterous,” you say.
Well, yes, that’s true today. But if it is still true in a decade or two, then we’ll know that democracy in Egypt failed. We will know that Egypt went the route of Pakistan and not India. That is, rather than becoming a democratic country where its citizens could realize their full potential, instead it became a Muslim country where the military and the Muslim Brotherhood fed off each other so both could remain in power indefinitely and “the people” were again spectators. Whether Egypt turns out more like Pakistan or India will impact the future of democracy in the whole Arab world.
Sure, India still has its governance problems and its Muslims still face discrimination. Nevertheless, “democracy matters,” argues Tufail Ahmad, the Indian Muslim who directs the South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, because “it is democracy in India that has, over six decades, gradually broken down primordial barriers — such as caste, tribe and religion — and in doing so opened the way for all different sectors of Indian society to rise through their own merits, which is exactly what Ibrahim did.”
And it is six decades of tyranny in Egypt that has left it a deeply divided country, where large segments do not know or trust one another, and where conspiracy theories abound. All of Egypt today needs to go on a weekend retreat with a facilitator and reflect on one question: How did India, another former British colony, get to be the way it is (Hindu culture aside)?
The first answer is time. India has had decades of operating democracy, and, before independence, struggling for democracy. Egypt has had less than two years. Egypt’s political terrain was frozen and monopolized for decades — the same decades that political leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh “were building an exceptionally diverse, cacophonous, but impressively flexible and accommodating system,” notes the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond, the author of “The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World.”
Also, the dominant political party in India when it overthrew its colonial overlord “was probably the most multiethnic, inclusive and democratically minded political party to fight for independence in any 20th-century colony — the Indian National Congress,” said Diamond. While the dominant party when Egypt overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s tyranny, the Muslim Brotherhood, “was a religiously exclusivist party with deeply authoritarian roots that had only recently been evolving toward something more open and pluralistic.”
Moreover, adds Diamond, compare the philosophies and political heirs of Mahatma Gandhi and Sayyid Qutb, the guiding light of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Nehru was not a saint, but he sought to preserve a spirit of tolerance and consensus, and to respect the rules,” notes Diamond. He also prized education. By contrast, added Diamond, “the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who have been in the driver’s seat since Egypt started moving toward elections, have driven away the moderates from within their party, seized emergency powers, beaten their rivals in the streets, and now are seeking to ram a constitution that lacks consensus down the throats of a large segment of Egyptian society that feels excluded and aggrieved.”
Then there is the military. Unlike in Pakistan, India’s postindependence leaders separated the military from politics. Unfortunately, in Egypt after the 1952 coup, Gamel Abdel Nasser brought the military into politics and all of his successors, right up to Mubarak, kept it there and were sustained by both the military and its intelligence services. Once Mubarak fell, and the new Brotherhood leaders pushed the army back to its barracks, Egypt’s generals clearly felt that they had to cut a deal to protect the huge web of economic interests they had built. “Their deep complicity in the old order led them to be compromised by the new order,” said Diamond. “Now they are not able to act as a restraining influence.”
Yes, democracy matters. But the ruling Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is so much more than just winning an election. It is nurturing a culture of inclusion, and of peaceful dialogue, where respect for leaders is earned by surprising opponents with compromises rather than dictates. The Noble Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen has long argued that it was India’s civilizational history of dialogue and argumentation that disposed it well to the formal institutions of democracy. More than anything, Egypt now needs to develop that kind of culture of dialogue, of peaceful and respectful arguing — it was totally suppressed under Mubarak — rather than rock-throwing, boycotting, conspiracy-mongering and waiting for America to denounce one side or the other, which has characterized too much of the postrevolutionary political scene. Elections without that culture are like a computer without software. It just doesn’t work.
Next up is Mr. Kristof:
In the harrowing aftermath of the school shooting in Connecticut, one thought wells in my mind: Why can’t we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?
The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals — all countries have them — but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns.
Children ages 5 to 14 in America are 13 times as likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries, according to David Hemenway, a public health specialist at Harvard who has written an excellent book on gun violence.
So let’s treat firearms rationally as the center of a public health crisis that claims one life every 20 minutes. The United States realistically isn’t going to ban guns, but we can take steps to reduce the carnage.
American schoolchildren are protected by building codes that govern stairways and windows. School buses must meet safety standards, and the bus drivers have to pass tests. Cafeteria food is regulated for safety. The only things we seem lax about are the things most likely to kill.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has five pages of regulations about ladders, while federal authorities shrug at serious curbs on firearms. Ladders kill around 300 Americans a year, and guns 30,000.
We even regulate toy guns, by requiring orange tips — but lawmakers don’t have the gumption to stand up to National Rifle Association extremists and regulate real guns as carefully as we do toys. What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won’t stand up to the N.R.A.?
As one of my Facebook followers wrote after I posted about the shooting, “It is more difficult to adopt a pet than it is to buy a gun.”
Look, I grew up on an Oregon farm where guns were a part of life; and my dad gave me a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday. I understand: shooting is fun! But so is driving, and we accept that we must wear seat belts, use headlights at night, and fill out forms to buy a car. Why can’t we be equally adult about regulating guns?
And don’t say that it won’t make a difference because crazies will always be able to get a gun. We’re not going to eliminate gun deaths, any more than we have eliminated auto accidents. But if we could reduce gun deaths by one-third, that would be 10,000 lives saved annually.
Likewise, don’t bother with the argument that if more people carried guns, they would deter shooters or interrupt them. Mass shooters typically kill themselves or are promptly caught, so it’s hard to see what deterrence would be added by having more people pack heat. There have been few if any cases in the United States in which an ordinary citizen with a gun stopped a mass shooting.
The tragedy isn’t one school shooting, it’s the unceasing toll across our country. More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
So what can we do? A starting point would be to limit gun purchases to one a month, to curb gun traffickers. Likewise, we should restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines so that a shooter can’t kill as many people without reloading.
We should impose a universal background check for gun buyers, even with private sales. Let’s make serial numbers more difficult to erase, and back California in its effort to require that new handguns imprint a microstamp on each shell so that it can be traced back to a particular gun.
“We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,” President Obama noted in a tearful statement on television. He’s right, but the solution isn’t just to mourn the victims — it’s to change our policies. Let’s see leadership on this issue, not just moving speeches.
Other countries offer a road map. In Australia in 1996, a mass killing of 35 people galvanized the nation’s conservative prime minister to ban certain rapid-fire long guns. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands.
The law did not end gun ownership in Australia. It reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one-fifth, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings.
In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings — but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect. The murder rate with firearms has dropped by more than 40 percent, according to data compiled by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and the suicide rate with firearms has dropped by more than half.
Or we can look north to Canada. It now requires a 28-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and it imposes a clever safeguard: gun buyers should have the support of two people vouching for them.
For that matter, we can look for inspiration at our own history on auto safety. As with guns, some auto deaths are caused by people who break laws or behave irresponsibly. But we don’t shrug and say, “Cars don’t kill people, drunks do.”
Instead, we have required seat belts, air bags, child seats and crash safety standards. We have introduced limited licenses for young drivers and tried to curb the use of mobile phones while driving. All this has reduced America’s traffic fatality rate per mile driven by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s.
Some of you are alive today because of those auto safety regulations. And if we don’t treat guns in the same serious way, some of you and some of your children will die because of our failure.
Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:
Last week I stumbled across this headline: “Gov. Cuomo passes on supporting Hillary Clinton for 2016 presidential bid.”
Take a moment. Savor the epic, eye-crossing absurdity of that.
For starters there’s no bid. Not officially. Not yet. A whole lot can happen in the three years between now and the wintry Iowa caucuses of 2016, which might not even be wintry by then, global warming and all.
Also, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s top dog, seems to have more than a mild interest in a move to the White House himself. And he’s being asked whether he’s poised to endorse a rival Democratic candidate who, I repeat, hasn’t even reached the point where she’s rounding up endorsements?
“It’s a long way away,” Cuomo said, sanely and predictably dodging the question and prompting the headline mentioned above, on the Web site of The New York Post.
But it wasn’t just The Post that deemed his demurral noteworthy. Hardly. I found similar reports from The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Daily News, CBS News, Newsday (“Cuomo shrugs off Clinton run”) and Politico (“Andrew Cuomo ducks on Hillary Clinton in 2016”). (The Times made cursory note of Cuomo’s statement toward the end of a story on other Cuomo-related matters.)
We’re officially out of control here. We’ve really lost it. No sooner had one presidential contest ended than the hyperventilating analysis of the next one began. And I mean “no sooner” literally. Election Day was Nov. 6. On Nov. 7 The Washington Post’s Web site provided readers with a candidate-by-candidate assessment of no fewer than six Republicans and seven Democrats thought to be in the hunt for the presidency next time around. “Handicapping the 2016 Presidential Field,” read the headline on that piece of fortunetelling.
You were sick of the 2012 race many months before its climax? You’ll be sick of 2016 by Easter, and at the rate we in the news media are going, you’ll be seeing polls and prognostications about 2020 by Memorial Day.
And this isn’t just silly of us. It’s corrosive. It undercuts our own credibility and thus the amount of attention we can command when we broach less wildly speculative matters that really deserve it. It perverts the electoral process, because the field of contenders who can hope to get on the radar, raise money and make a go of it gets set earlier and earlier.
And it complicates the tricky and important business of governing, which a politician can’t adequately focus on if he or she is being pulled into, and distracted by, a permanent campaign. In fact the media’s emphasis on the horse races and pundits’ insistence that those races begin ever sooner suggest that governing doesn’t really matter. Only elections do.
What’s more, our assiduous soothsaying is an insult to history, which has shown that when presidential predictions are made — and presidential preferences surveyed — this far in advance, they’re often worthless. As Doyle McManus pointed out recently in a column in The Los Angeles Times, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who were polled right after the 1988 election about which of seven potential candidates they most wanted as the party’s 1992 nominee named Ted Kennedy (26 percent of respondents), Mario Cuomo (19 percent), Michael Dukakis (15 percent) and Jesse Jackson (15 percent) as their top picks.
Not one of those four men even ended up running, and the candidate who nabbed the 1992 nomination was such a relatively unheralded upstart four years beforehand that the poll, by ABC News, didn’t even ask respondents about him. His name would be Bill Clinton.
Events usually shape a given contest’s players and dynamics, not the other way around. “The landscape could change dramatically — and likely will,” observed Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist and one of the authors of “Masters of Disaster,” a new book on damage control. “Remember how 9/11 redefined U.S. politics?”
As for Hillary and her ostensible lock on the 2016 nomination, well, she was once said to have a lock on the 2008 nomination. And along came a certain Barack Obama, who had other ideas about that.
Could someone like him emerge in 2016? Absolutely, though we’re almost surely making that harder by paying such enormous heed at such a premature point to the established brands, the known quantities. What we’re doing underscores the click-driven nature of journalism today, the impulse to produce reports with ready-made hooks, such as names with ready-made pull. Clinton, Christie, Rubio, Ryan: these are known sellers. Trusted bait.
That same impulse is why you see and hear more about Donald Trump than is warranted — and I’m guilty on this score. Trump is irrelevant, but he’s also an eyeball magnet.
And that impulse is why you have already been made repeatedly aware of the possibility that the actress Ashley Judd will take on Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the United States Senate, in his 2014 re-election effort. Judd’s chances as a novice candidate in a state as red as Kentucky are pretty poor. But her name’s a starry draw, so her imagined campaign gets coverage — already.
Speculation comes easier than real, gritty information. In a news environment starved for profits and proper funding, speculation doesn’t cost much to round up and showcase. It’s a game in which just about anyone can participate, so as the number of out-and-out chroniclers in the news business dwindles, there’s a rise in clairvoyants who don’t just assess facts but obsess over rune stones.
Is Christie’s weight going to drag him down? Is Ryan’s budget plan? Will we go round one more time with Santorum, with Gingrich, with Perry? Consuming the news over the last few weeks has been like watching reruns on the TV Land cable channel. It’s déjà vu all over again.
And that’s because we in the media are so far ahead of ourselves we’re chasing our tails. What an off-putting spectacle. And what a risky one.