Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

In “The Brutality Cascade” Bobo says that in some competitions, the most brutal player gets to set the rules.  It’s one of those columns where he bounces all over the place trying to equate things and failing.  Mr. Cohen, in “The Competition Drug,” says Adderall has become to college what steroids are to baseball: an illicit performance enhancer for a fiercely competitive environment.  Way back in the day it was amphetamine…  Not much new under the sun.  Mr. Nocera has delivered himself of another misguided screed in favor of the oil industry.  In “A Scientist’s Misguided Crusade” he howls that James Hansen hurts his climate cause with an obsession with the Keystone XL pipeline.  It’s a remarkably fact-challenged piece of crap.  Mr. Bruni, in “Knowing God’s Mind,” says an author asks, can those who condemn gays and lesbians be so sure of God’s will?  Here’s Bobo:

Let’s say you were a power hitter during baseball’s steroids era. You may have objected to steroids on moral and health grounds. But many of your competitors were using them, so you faced enormous pressure to use them too.

Let’s say you are a student at a good high school. You may want to have a normal adolescence. But you are surrounded by all these junior workaholics who have been preparing for the college admissions racket since they were 6. You find you can’t unilaterally withdraw from the rat race and still get into the college of your choice. So you also face enormous pressure to behave in a way you detest.

You might call these situations brutality cascades. In certain sorts of competitions, the most brutal player gets to set the rules. Everybody else feels pressure to imitate, whether they want to or not.

The political world is rife with brutality cascades. Let’s say you are a normal person who gets into Congress. You’d rather not spend all your time fund-raising. You’d like to be civil to your opponents and maybe even work out some compromises.

But you find yourself competing against opponents who fund-raise all the time, who prefer brutalism to civility and absolutism to compromise. Pretty soon you must follow their norms to survive.

Or take a case in world affairs. The United States is a traditional capitalist nation that has championed an open-seas economic doctrine. We think everybody benefits if global economics is like a conversation, with maximum openness, mutual trust and free exchange.

But along comes China, an economic superpower with a more mercantilist mind-set. Many Chinese, at least in the military-industrial complex, see global economics as a form of warfare, a struggle for national dominance.

Americans and Europeans tend to think it is self-defeating to engage in cyberattacks on private companies in a foreign country. You may learn something, but you destroy the trust that lubricates free exchange. Pretty soon your trade dries up because nobody wants to do business with a pirate. Investors go off in search of more transparent partners.

But China’s cybermercantilists regard deceit as a natural tool of warfare. Cyberattacks make perfect sense. Your competitors have worked hard to acquire intellectual property. Your system is more closed so innovation is not your competitive advantage. It is quicker and cheaper to steal. They will hate you for it, but who cares? They were going to hate you anyway. C’est la guerre.

In a brutality cascade the Chinese don’t become more like us as the competition continues. We become more like them. And that is indeed what’s happening. The first thing Western companies do in response to cyberattacks is build up walls. Instead of being open stalls in the global marketplace, they begin to look more like opaque, rigidified castles.

Next, the lines between private companies and Western governments begin to blur. When Western companies are attacked, they immediately turn to their national governments for technical and political support. On the one hand, the United States military is getting a lot more involved in computer counterespionage, eroding the distance between the military and private companies. On the other hand, you see the rise of these digital Blackwaters, private security firms that behave like information age armies, providing defense against foreign attack but also counterattacking against Chinese and Russian foes.

Pretty soon the global economy looks less like Monopoly and more like a game of Risk, with a Chinese military-industrial complex on one part of the board and the Western military-industrial complex on another part.

Brutality cascades are very hard to get out of. You can declare war and simply try to crush the people you think are despoiling the competition.

Or you can try what might be called friendship circles. In this approach, you first establish the norms of legitimacy that should govern the competition. You create a Geneva Convention of domestic political conduct or global cyberespionage. Then you organize as broad a coalition as possible to agree to uphold these norms.

Finally, you isolate the remaining violators and deliver a message: If you join our friendship circle and abide by our norms, the benefits will be overwhelming, but if you stay outside, the costs will be devastating.

In his effort to fight what he regards as Republican zealots, President Obama is caught between these two strategies. He never quite pushes budget showdowns to the limit to discredit Republicans, but he never offers enough to the members of the Republican common-sense caucus to tempt them to break ranks.

Clearly the second option is better for dealing with the Chinese. Establish a Geneva Convention that bans cyberactivity against citizens and private companies. Establish a broad coalition to enforce it.

Unfortunately, standard-setting is a dying art these days, so we are living with these brutality cascades.

Next up is Mr. Cohen, who’s in Boston:

This is America’s college town par excellence. Kids from all over the world flock to Boston to learn. I have a son who is a freshman here. Last autumn, as he entered school, I listened to warnings about the dangers of binge drinking. I think they missed the point.

The real epidemic involves so-called smart drugs, particularly Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.) but so freely available as to be the pill to take whenever academic pressure requires pulling an all-nighter with zero procrastination to get a paper done.

“Just popped an Addie, so I’m good to go” — this sort of pretest attitude has become pervasive. Conversations with several students suggested Adderall was always available, costing from $2 to $5 a pill. Adderall has become to college what steroids are to baseball: an illicit performance enhancer for a fiercely competitive environment.

What to say to doctors to get a prescription is now so widely known among students — “It’s like my thoughts are channel-surfing and I can’t stop” — as to have become a kind of joke.

“If there are no A.D.H.D. symptoms prior to college I have a very hard time writing a prescription,” Jill Kasper, a pediatrician, told me. “But if somebody wants a prescription for Adderall, they can find someone to give it to them.”

The problem is that Adderall is dangerous, a Class 2 controlled substance like cocaine. While it has helped countless A.D.H.D. sufferers, it can also lead down a dark road of dependency, ever higher doses, fight-or-flight anxiety levels, sleeplessness and depression.

Here, in his own words, is the Adderall story of Steven Roderick, 24, a smart, soft-spoken, lost senior studying health science at the University of Massachusetts Boston:

“I started taking it my first year in college. My performance had always fluctuated a lot. It was hard to pay attention, even in classes I was interested in. I was getting D’s. I felt something had to change. Adderall flies around campus. The first time I took it I wrote a paper for an astronomy class that was out of this world. I could not believe it — I was so inspired it made me want to be a doctor!

“I thought — oh my God! — this is the whole problem. You have the ability. You are intelligent. You just don’t have the link between intelligence and the capacity to be productive. The pill is the link. I felt literally unstoppable.

“I went to the doctor, said I’d like to give Adderall a try. There were no diagnostic procedures. Doctors give in too easily. I did not think there could be a risk later on. I started on 20 milligrams. I went from D’s and F’s to straight A’s. But your brain adapts, you have to increase the dose, and by 2011 I was up to 45 milligrams.

“In the spring of that year I started to feel Adderall was my best friend and my worst enemy at the same time. Because I could not sleep I went to see my psychopharm, and she prescribed me Ativan to sleep. That worked O.K. for a while. But I really ran into trouble last year. I was up to 65 milligrams, and then during finals went to 80, even 120, milligrams, and I was just locked into this Adderall-Ativan cycle. My doctor seemed scatterbrained. She’d prescribe something but not follow up.

“It’s a complicated dependency. I mean I never took Adderall to get high, never took it in a way that was not academically oriented; and I think there’s a distinction between dependency and addiction, taking something for a purpose or for a rush. But I feel awful. My baseline anxiety level would be most people’s highest anxiety level. The drop of a pin makes me spin around.

“I am living at home. My parents are clueless, and it is hard to discuss with them, although my Mom helps me now. I alternate between ‘on’ and ‘off’ states — I come off the Adderall, take Ativan and sleep for days. I miss appointments. I know I need to go to the appointments, but I wonder if I will be functional enough.

“Adderall suddenly turned its back on me. It enabled me to focus, got me to a higher place academically. But then I could no longer rely on it. I was on my own. And although I have less than three credits to go, I may have to withdraw from school because I have not been able to make it to enough classes.

“Look, I am in a culture that constantly justifies the means to an end. So how do we persuade people not to take it? All you hear is how impossible it will be to get a job when you get out, and you are going more and more into debt, and you think without this I won’t be top of the class. With other drugs you know you are ruining your life. But Adderall manipulates you into thinking you are doing what is needed to have a great life.”

Now let’s slog through Mr. Nocera’s ode to Keystone XL:

Last Friday, at 3:40 p.m., the State Department released its “Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement” for the highly contentious Keystone XL pipeline, which Canada hopes to build to move its tar sands oil to refineries in the United States. In effect, the statement said there were no environmental impediments that would prevent President Obama from approving the pipeline.

Two hours and 20 minutes later, I received a blast e-mail containing a statement by James Hansen, the head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA — i.e., NASA’s chief climate scientist. “Keystone XL, if the public were to allow our well-oiled government to shepherd it into existence, would be the first step down the wrong road, perpetuating our addiction to dirty fossil fuels, moving to ever dirtier ones,” it began. After claiming that the carbon in the tar sands “exceeds that in all oil burned in human history,” Hansen’s statement concluded: “The public must demand that the government begin serving the public’s interest, not the fossil fuel industry’s interest.”

As a private citizen, Hansen, 71, has the same First Amendment rights as everyone else. He can publicly oppose the Keystone XL pipeline if he so chooses, just as he can be as politically active as he wants to be in the anti-Keystone movement, and even be arrested during protests, something he managed to do recently in front of the White House.

But the blast e-mail didn’t come from James Hansen, private citizen. It specifically identified Hansen as the head of the Goddard Institute, and went on to describe him as someone who “has drawn attention to the danger of passing climate tipping points, producing irreversible climate impacts that would yield a different planet from the one on which civilization developed.” All of which made me wonder whether such apocalyptic pronouncements were the sort of statements a government scientist should be making — and whether they were really helping the cause of reversing climate change.

Let’s acknowledge right here that the morphing of scientists into activists is nothing new. Linus Pauling, the great chemist, was a peace activist who pushed hard for a nuclear test ban treaty. Albert Einstein also became a public opponent of nuclear weapons.

It is also important to acknowledge that Hansen has been a crucial figure in developing modern climate science. In 2009, Eileen Claussen, now the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told The New Yorker that Hansen was a “heroic” scientist who “faced all kinds of pressures politically.” Today, his body of work is one of the foundations upon which much climate science is built.

Yet what people hear from Hansen today is not so much his science but his broad, unscientific views on, say, the evils of oil companies. In 2008, he wrote a paper, the thesis of which was that runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million — a point it had already exceeded — unless it were quickly reduced. There are many climate change experts who disagree with this judgment — who believe that the 350 number is arbitrary and even meaningless. Yet an entire movement,, has been built around Hansen’s line in the sand.

Meanwhile, he has a department to run. For a midlevel scientist at the Goddard Institute, what signal is Hansen sending when he takes the day off to get arrested at the White House? Do his colleagues feel unfettered in their own work? There is, in fact, enormous resentment toward Hansen inside NASA, where many officials feel that their solid, analytical work on climate science is being lost in what many of them describe as “the Hansen sideshow.” His activism is not really doing any favors for the science his own subordinates are producing.

Finally, and most important, Hansen has placed all his credibility on one battle: the fight to persuade President Obama to block the Keystone XL pipeline. It is the wrong place for him to make a stand. Even in the unlikely event the pipeline is stopped, the tar sands oil will still be extracted and shipped. It might be harder to do without a pipeline, but it is already happening. And in the grand scheme, as I’ve written before, the tar sands oil is not a game changer. The oil we import from Venezuela today is dirtier than that from the tar sands. Not that the anti-pipeline activists seem to care.

What is particularly depressing is that Hansen has some genuinely important ideas, starting with placing a graduated carbon tax on fossil fuels. Such a tax would undoubtedly do far more to reduce carbon emissions and save the planet than stopping the Keystone XL pipeline.

A carbon tax might be worth getting arrested over. But by allowing himself to be distracted by Keystone, Hansen is hurting the very cause he claims to care so much about.

You, Mr. Nocera, are busy destroying whatever credibility you may have once had.  Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Jeff Chu was married last September, on the lawn of a house on Cape Cod, against the backdrop of an ivy-covered fence. About 80 people came.

His mother and father weren’t among them.

His mother sent an e-mail just beforehand, to let him know that she was thinking of him. But to be a part of the ceremony? To celebrate the day? That much she couldn’t do, because Jeff was pledging his devotion to another man. And his parents, strict Southern Baptists, have always deemed such a love sinful, and against God’s wishes.

Against God’s wishes. That notion — that argument — is probably the most stubborn barrier to the full acceptance of gay and lesbian Americans, a last bastion and engine of bigotry. It’s what many preachers still thunder. It’s what some politicians still maintain.

It’s what Jeff himself once feared.

“How many nights have I spent sweaty and panicked and drained of tears, because I thought I would go to hell — for being gay, for being me?” he asks.

And how often, he adds, did he pray “that God would take these feelings from me?”

Those words come from a book that he wrote, its title yet another question: “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” It will be published this month, and is largely a travelogue.

For the span of a year, Jeff, who has written for Time magazine and many other publications, roamed the country, visiting Christian churches and groups of diverse theological stripes to explore their attitudes toward homosexuality. He also talked with devout Christians who’d dealt with homosexual feelings in different ways: by repressing them, by embracing them, by trying to divert them.

One man had elected celibacy. Another had married a woman and resolved to appreciate sex with her. He told Jeff: “It’s not like pizza or French fries — it’s more an acquired taste that I’ve come to like even better. It’s like olives.”

In the book Jeff, now 35, also shares his own story, which we discussed further in his Brooklyn town house recently.

His parents came to America from Hong Kong with the conservative beliefs that Baptist missionaries had spread through that area of the world. They reared Jeff in their religion, sending him to a Christian high school in Miami. One of his vivid memories from those years was the sudden banishment of a favorite teacher after the school discovered that he was involved with another man.

Jeff knew even then that he had feelings like the teacher’s, and writes: “This was the lesson that I learned: Nobody could ever, ever find out, because if they did, I would be damned and cast out, just like he was.”

At Princeton, he dated women. But in London for graduate school, he began to date men, and to wonder how that orientation could be wrong, when God had presumably made him the way he was.

Although his book doesn’t focus on the scattered references in the Bible to homosexuality, Jeff knows them well. And, yes, a few seem to condemn same-sex intimacy.

But have they been translated correctly? Interpreted the right way? Are they timeless verities or — more logically — reflections of an outmoded culture and obsolete mind-set? And if all of the Bible is to be taken literally, shouldn’t Christians refrain from planting multiple kinds of seed in one field or letting women speak in church or charging interest to the poor?

“You can twist the Bible any way you want,” Jeff told me, adding, “We overemphasize sexual morality, as if God puts a premium on what we do in the bedroom over what we do at the bank.”

He’s right. He’s also humble. He doesn’t claim, in his book or in conversation, to have definitive answers. He hasn’t determined beyond any doubt that his life and love are in concert with God’s wishes, because he thinks it arrogant to insist, as the zealots who condemn gay people do, that God’s will is so easily known.

And in light of that, he thinks it wrong for anyone to try to consign gays to the shame that so many of them have endured.

The stories in Jeff’s book made me sad, and they made me angry. How much needless pain have people like him been put through, and in God’s name no less?

But Jeff’s own story makes me hopeful. It’s one of grace. He still attends church, though not a Southern Baptist one. He’s patient with his parents; they’re struggling, too.

His mother actually plans to visit, and stay with, him and his husband this summer.

“I pull her along and she pulls me along, and we grow,” Jeff said, describing a dynamic and a tension not unlike America’s. “It’s uncomfortable for both of us. But it’s the path we have to take.”


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