Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

Life is very good.  The Pasty Little Putz is off today.  In “I’m Begging, Don’t Hack the Hacks” MoDo says W. not only clears brush, he’s also good with a brush. Who knew?  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  “Any Solution to Syria?”  He opines that the question of whether the United States should intervene to stop the bloodshed is more complicated than Yes or No.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Land of the Binge” and says with sequestration around the corner and bacon on every plate, America could use a dose of moderation.  Here’s MoDo:

I spent a long time looking at W.’s sprezzatura in the shower, the play of light and shadow on his muscular back, and his face winsomely reflected in the shaving mirror.

I gazed at the former president’s legs and toes in the bathtub, overcome with relief that W. was now under the influence of Lucian Freud rather than Dick Cheney.

Images of W.’s tasteful nude self-portraits went viral after being published on the Smoking Gun Web site on Thursday; they were stolen from his sister Doro’s e-mail account by a hacker called Guccifer, who is now being investigated by the Secret Service for pillaging three years of Bush family e-mail.

Congress and the news media are engaged in a febrile debate about the way America has used torture and drones, trying to figure out if the war on terror launched by W. got out of control and warped our sense of right and wrong. In the midst of this cacophony on morality, W. himself seems to have escaped to a simpler, more solipsistic landscape, making illustrations of his illustrious torso.

We are not talking Bonnard-level nude bath paintings. But, like W.’s charming oil portrait of Barney, signed “43,” which he released himself when his dog died recently, the pictures were surprisingly interesting and humanizing.

The way the artist uses light on surfaces, the sun coming through a fabric shade and hitting the water in the bathtub, is quite deft, as are his brush strokes and his use of a “Rokeby Venus”-style face in the mirror.

The man can handle a brush. And we thought he could only clear brush. The president who came across as a paint-by-numbers executive in public life can actually paint in private life.

It’s weird because W.’s presidency was not a reality-based undertaking; it did not look carefully at the world. And yet his paintings reflect meticulous optical observation.

As president (where he also showed sprezzatura), W. was led by Cheney and Rummy. But as a painter, he savors his own perspective.

The Smoking Gun reported that Guccifer infiltrated the e-mail of Doro Bush and several family friends, collecting cellphone numbers, security codes, photos — including ones of the paintings and another of the first President Bush in the hospital — and e-mails, including one by Jeb Bush about how his father helped restore Bill Clinton’s “sordid reputation.”

It was a week for worrying about the dark side of our cool, fast, exciting, heedless new technologies.

We are so dizzy and intoxicated by our new toys — from iPhones to drones — that we are hopelessly addicted to them before we fully understand the downsides.

The instant gratification they offer makes us shortsighted in an unprecedented way. It’s insane how vulnerable we’ve made ourselves, like drunks failing to look around as they walk into traffic. Hackers could shut down the way we live, and if they hacked into drones or nuclear codes, determine the way we die. If you think it through, which most of us avoid, the prospect of Techmaggedon is terrifying.

On Thursday, at John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to be C.I.A. director, some senators took a stab at thinking it through on the smart, sleek, robotic machine that dominates our political debate. (Drones, not Obama.)

Those who battled Cheney’s nefarious efforts to obliterate constitutional checks and balances and practice pre-emption can’t look the other way when a Democratic president is caught up in the narcotic allure of drones and pre-emption. You sell a little bit of the democratic soul when you start zapping people with no due process.

The Chinese, who have already broken into the White House computer network, have now pilfered, maybe spear-phished, oceans of e-mails from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

With the Chinese stockpiling our vile, vexed, vulgar, vivacious and vinous e-mails, they can trounce us easily. They can simply threaten to release a batch of our e-bombs about our bosses, spouses, dates, friends and crushes. We’ll all lose our jobs, but everyone else will, too, so we can just reboot and change places.

It’s already too late to stop sending embarrassing e-missives, with a decade worth of hand grenades out there rolling around.

Just as Obama knows in his heart that, while seductive, drones need limits, so we know that, while seductive, e-mails need limits — because sooner or later, the Chinese or some bitter hacker in his basement or some 10-year-old kid is going to make all our titillating e-mails public.

The rule of thumb in Washington used to be: Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want to see printed on the front page of The New York Times. The new rule is: Don’t send an e-mail you wouldn’t want to see printed on the front page of The New York Times. (Especially if you work here.)

OOOOH — looky!  MoDo can use big foreign words like “sprezzatura.”  Bet you peons don’t know what THAT means…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, who’s still in New Delhi:

Should the U.S. intervene to stop the bloodshed in Syria? I find myself torn between four different perspectives — from New Delhi, Baghdad, Tel Aviv and the U.N.

Last week, I met with a group of Indian strategists here at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses to talk about how America should withdraw from Afghanistan and navigate the interests of India, Pakistan and Iran. At one point, I tossed out an idea to which one of the Indian analysts responded: That was tried before — “in the 11th century.” It didn’t work out well. That’s why I like coming to Delhi to talk about the region. Indian officials tend to think in centuries, not months, and they look at the map of the Middle East without any of the British-drawn colonial borders. Instead, they only see old civilizations (Persia, Turkey, Egypt), old faiths (Shiites, Sunnis and Hindus), and old peoples (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Jews and Arabs) — all interacting within long-set patterns of behavior.

“If you want to understand this region, just take out a map from the Ganges to the Nile and remove the British lines,” remarked M. J. Akbar, the veteran Indian Muslim journalist and author. It takes you back to the true undercurrents of history that have long ruled the Middle East “and to interests defined by people and tribes and not just governments.”

When you look at the region this way, what do you see? First, you see that there is no way the U.S. can keep Afghanistan stable after we draw down — without working with Iran. Because of the age-old ties between Iranian Shiites and the Shiite Persian-speaking Afghans of Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Iran always was and always will be a player in Afghan politics. Shiite Iran has never liked the Sunni Taliban. “Iran is the natural counter to Sunni extremism,” said Akbar. It’s in Iran’s interest to “diminish the Taliban.” That’s why America and Iran were tacit allies in unseating the Taliban, and they will be tacit allies in preventing the reseating of the Taliban.

So from India, the struggle in Syria looks like just another chapter in the long-running Sunni-Shiite civil war. Syria is a proxy war between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar — two monarchies funding the Syrian “democrats,” who are largely Syrian Sunnis — and Shiite Iran and the Shiite-Alawite Syrian regime. It’s a war that never ends; it can only be suppressed.

Which is why in Israel some Israeli generals are starting to realize that if Syria is a fight to the death it could pose as great a strategic threat to Israel as Iran’s nuclear program. If Syria disintegrates into another Afghanistan — on Israel’s border — it would be an untamed land, with jihadists, chemical weapons and surface-to-air missiles all freely floating about.

Can that collapse be avoided? From Washington, some hoped that by quickly toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the West and the Sunnis could “flip” Syria from the Iranian-Soviet orbit to the Sunni-Saudi-American orbit. I’m dubious. I doubt that Syria can be flipped in one piece; it will break apart in the air into Sunni and Alawite regions. And, if we did manage to flip Syria, Iran would try to “flip” predominantly Shiite Iraq and Bahrain into its camp.

Some Arab diplomats at the U.N. argue, though, that there is a middle way, but it would require the U.S. to lead: First, mobilize the Security Council to pass a resolution calling for the creation of a transitional government in Syria with “full powers” and with equal representation of Alawites and Sunni rebels. If the Russians could be persuaded to back such a resolution (not easy), it could break the stalemate inside Syria, because many regime loyalists would see the writing on the wall and abandon Assad. The stick would be to tell the Russians that if they don’t back such a resolution, the U.S. would start sending weapons to the secular/moderate rebels.

Can there really be such a policy between George W. Bush’s “all-in” approach to transforming Iraq and Barack Obama’s “you-touch-it-you-own-it-so-don’t-even-touch-it” approach to Syria? One should study Iraq. The lesson of Iraq is that deep historical currents were at play there — Sunnis versus Shiites and Kurds versus Arabs. The December 2010 Iraqi elections demonstrated, though, that multisectarian parties and democratic rule were possible in Iraq — and actually the first choice of most Iraqis. But America would have had to keep some troops there for another decade to see that shift from sectarianism to multisectarianism become even remotely self-sustaining. Syria is Iraq’s twin. The only way you’ll get a multisectarian transition there is with a U.N. resolution backed by Russia and backed by a well-armed referee on the ground to cajole, hammer and induce the parties to live together.

It’s the Middle East, Jake.

If you will the ends, you’d better will the means. You can’t change the politics “unless you say you’ll stay for a hundred years,” insists Akbar. But no one wants to play empire anymore. In which case, he argues, it’s always best not to stay long in any of these countries — five months, not five years. Five years, says Akbar, is just long enough for people to hate you, but not fear or respect you, let alone change their long-held ways.

The answer to the question you ask in the first sentence of your column, Tommy, is HELL, NO!  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Around the time that Netflix released an entire season of “House of Cards” at once, so that viewers could gorge on all 13 episodes, a friend sent me a plaintive e-mail about the way that foodie-favored restaurants give her no option other than gorging.

She misses salads. (Yes, it’s possible. Really.) She’s nostalgic for healthy sides. In one place where she recently dined, she ordered kale, only to find that it was fried and, adding insult to artery, pummeled with candied pancetta. In another place, slivers of pastrami accessorized an unsuspecting salmon. She encounters bacon on brussels sprouts, bacon in sundaes and martinis, bacon, bacon everywhere, along with marrow and liver and lard.

“It’s all or nothing,” she wrote, flagging a dichotomy: cooking in trendy restaurants has never been fattier, while the trend of “cleansing” with a severe regimen of liquefied fruits, vegetables and nuts has never been hotter. Feast or famine. Binge or beet juice.

I turned from her lament to the front page of The Times. It reported the accidental death of someone participating in the X Games, a magnet for “extreme athletes,” as the article called them. The word “extreme” stuck with me and struck a chord. We compete extremely (look at Lance). Work out extremely (look all around you). Eat extremely. Watch extreme amounts of whatever we’ve decided we love, which we love in extremis. Even our weather is extreme: superstorms, Frankenstorms, snowmageddons.

And of course extreme campaign spending has contributed to extreme partisanship, the left seeing little merit or valor in just about anyone on the right, the right seeing the whole world with a tunnel vision that’s extremely eerie. The deficit of comity has led to the imminent spending cuts known as sequestration, which is an extreme answer to Congress’s failure to agree on a course of moderation.

Moderation. Remember that? It was once held up as an indisputable virtue, virtually synonymous with prudence. Don’t get too carried away with any one thing. Don’t become too set in your ways. That was the message from parents and teachers. That was the cue the culture gave.

But America these days is an immoderate land of fixed opinions and outsize fixations. More and more we wallow: in our established political philosophy; in our preferred interest group; in our pastime of choice; in whichever health routine we’ve turned into a health religion.

I blame the Internet. Well, that and social media and cable television, with its infinity of channels. In theory our hyperconnectivity and surfeit of possibilities have broadened our universes, speeding us to distant galaxies, fresh discoveries and new information. But in reality they’ve just as often had a narrowing effect, enabling us to dwell longer on, and burrow deeper into, one way of being, one mode of thinking.

Whether you’re predisposed to a conservative or liberal view, you can set your bookmarks to Web sites that reinforce what you already believe, take a similar tack with your Facebook and Twitter feeds, and turn for news to Fox News or MSNBC, each an echo chamber for like minds.

And many Americans do just that. The prime-time audiences for Fox News and MSNBC increased significantly between 2011 and 2012, while CNN’s prime-time audience dropped. The percentage of swing voters seemed to shrink, and over the last two decades, the percentage of voters who label themselves “moderate” has similarly declined.

There’s more extremism on the right than on the left: President Obama’s health care reform and push to raise taxes don’t come anywhere near the socialism that his Tea Party nemeses, themselves much more rigid, rant about. Above all, there’s gridlock. It’s hard to make much progress when reciprocal distrust is this extreme.

We’re immoderate not just in our affiliations, but also in our impulses. “Work Out So Hard You Vomit” proclaimed a headline on not so long ago; the story with it presented a tour through the long, grueling trials to which the fitness-intent subject themselves.

Never mind studies that suggest that moderate exertion — less than 20 miles of running a week, not more, and at a stately pace — bodes best for well-being. A growing group of people want the more extreme experience of military-style boot camps and obstacle courses like those in the Tough Mudder program, whose adherents forgo the treadmill and its individual TV screen for the exhilaration of crawling under barbed wire and swerving around flames. Bye, bye, Jack LaLanne. Hello, “Full Metal Jacket.”

I’m even more impressed with our food obsessions, being such a food-obsessive myself. Organic, gluten, lactose, carbohydrate: people structure whole diets around binding vocabularies, and not always because they have an affliction compelling them to.

And actual diets, by which I mean those aimed at superfluous chins, are flamboyantly ascetic, with solid food exiting the equation for three days, for five days, even for 10. The BluePrintCleanse, the Cooler Cleanse and other retail juice fasts have surged in popularity over recent years. Sales of juice extractors are also on the upswing. Even our self-punishment is indulgent. We binge on deprivation.

And we binge, period. Over the last decade, ambitious young chefs have jockeyed to one-up one another when it comes to fried, funky excess. I thought the situation had reached some gluttonous apotheosis with the Los Angeles restaurant Animal, where a porky meal I ate in early 2009 included foie gras on a biscuit doused in both maple syrup and pork-sausage gravy.

But since then, there’s been renewed respect for poutine, a dish of French fries, gravy and cheese. Chicago welcomed Au Cheval, where there’s potato hash with duck-heart gravy and a fried bologna sandwich. And a place in Queens went ahead and called itself Salt & Fat. Its beet salad has pepperoni chips. Its apple salad has candied walnuts and speck. And the foie gras comes with bacon brittle.

The verb “binge” applies as never before to television viewing. What Netflix was acknowledging with its “House of Cards” release was the widespread habit of storing up hours of a favorite show or buying a whole season so that you can marinate for an entire weekend in Claire Danes’s twitchy dread. So that you can choose your one mood, your one note, and revel in it.

But when does a luxury become a rut? And if we each hunker down in some tightly proscribed burg, don’t we lose common ground? That possibility explains the fusty maxim of “moderation in all things,” which wasn’t so much a wet towel over passion as a caution against single-mindedness. And a warning about bacon.

It’s tragic that Frank’s little friend just CAN’T seem to find a restaurant that will sell her a salad…  His little friends are rather like The Moustache of Wisdom’s cab drivers.


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