The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

In “All the Lonely People” The Pasty Little Putz has a question:  Is there a link between suicide and weakened social ties?  This is a particularly poisonous little turd he’s created here, a lovely “blame the victim” essay.  When he says “retreated  … from full time paying work” please feel free to understand he should have said “fired” or “laid off.”  Which should really happen to him.  MoDo is still in her full-blown, snot-slinging hissy fit.  In “Taxing Times for Obama” she says now comes the mess with the I.R.S. The president could use a little J.F.K., and a little Bulworth.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, MoDo.  Your stuff is sounding more and more like you have an awful, unrequited crush…  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Tel Abyad, Syria.  In “Without Water, Revolution” he says the Syrian disaster is like a superstorm. It’s what happens when drought, a fast-growing population, a repressive and corrupt government, and sectarian and religious passions combine.  In “Show Us Your Woe” Mr. Bruni says from “American Idol” to American politics, it’s all about the suffering. And it’s exhausting.  Here’s The Putz:

Over the last decade, the United States has become a less violent country in every way save one. As Americans commit fewer and fewer crimes against other people’s lives and property, they have become more likely to inflict fatal violence on themselves.

In the 1990s, the suicide rate dipped with the crime rate. But since 2000, it has risen, and jumped particularly sharply among the middle-aged. The suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010; for men in their 50s, it rose nearly 50 percent. More Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides.

This trend is striking without necessarily being surprising. As the University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox pointed out recently, there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties: people — and especially men — become more likely to kill themselves “when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).” That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen lately among the middle-aged male population, whose suicide rates have climbed the fastest: a retreat from family obligations, from civic and religious participation, and from full-time paying work.

The hard question facing 21st-century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself, or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone.

Right now, the pessimistic scenario seems more plausible. In an essay for The New Republic about the consequences of loneliness for public health, Judith Shulevitz reports that one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago. “With baby boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 a day,” she notes, “the number of lonely Americans will surely spike.”

There are public and private ways to manage this loneliness epidemic — through social workers, therapists, even pets. And the Internet, of course, promises endless forms of virtual community to replace or supplement the real.

But all of these alternatives seem destined to leave certain basic human yearnings unaddressed.

For many people, the strongest forms of community are still the traditional ones — the kind forged by shared genes, shared memory, shared geography. And neither Facebook nor a life coach nor a well-meaning bureaucracy is likely to compensate for these forms’ attenuation and decline.

This point is illustrated, richly, in one of the best books of the spring, Rod Dreher’s memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” an account of his sister’s death from cancer at the age of 42. A journalist and author, Dreher had left their small Louisiana hometown behind decades before and never imagined coming back. But watching how the rural community rallied around his sister in her crisis, and how being rooted in a specific place carried her family through its drawn-out agony, inspired him to reconsider, and return.

What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.

In today’s society, that escape is easier than ever before. And that’s a great gift to many people: if you don’t have much in common with your relatives and neighbors, if you’re gay or a genius (or both), if you’re simply restless and footloose, the world can feel much less lonely than it would have in the past. Our society is often kinder to differences and eccentricities than past eras, and our economy rewards extraordinary talent more richly than ever before.

The problem is that as it’s grown easier to be remarkable and unusual, it’s arguably grown harder to be ordinary. To be the kind of person who doesn’t want to write his own life script, or invent her own idiosyncratic career path. To enjoy the stability and comfort of inherited obligations and expectations, rather than constantly having to strike out on your own. To follow a “little way” rather than a path of great ambition. To be more like Ruthie Leming than her brother.

Too often, and probably increasingly, not enough Americans will have what the Lemings had — a place that knew them intimately, a community to lean on, a strong network in a time of trial.

And absent such blessings, it’s all too understandable that some people enduring suffering and loneliness would end up looking not for help or support, but for a way to end it all.

Gawd, I’d love to slap him upside the head with a skillet…  Here’s MoDo:

I went to New York last week to cover the TV presentations for the new season, shows like “Scandal,” “Shark Tank” and a faltering “American Idol.”

I may as well have stayed here.

You know that the faltering American idol in the White House must be reeling in this scandalous spring. No Drama Obama is immersed in drama so over the top it could have been scripted by Shonda Rhimes and Karl Rove.

Just four months after his second inauguration, the president is buffeted by gushing investigations, smug and deranged Republicans, and cat-who-ate-the-canary conspiracists. The man who promised in 2008 to make government cool again is instead batting away charges that he has made government “Nixonian” again.

Asked about that on Thursday, Obama might have tried a little J.F.K. wit to dismiss the ridiculous assertion. Instead, he played the pill, as he too often does, huffily telling reporters, “Well, I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons, and you can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions.”

The onetime messiah seems like a sad sack, trying to bounce back from a blistering array of sins that are not even his fault. He went to Baltimore on Friday to talk about jobs. But no one was listening. Everybody in the country who hates the I.R.S. — so, then, everybody — was listening to the lugubrious acting I.R.S. commissioner who had been ousted, Steven Miller, tell a House committee that he didn’t know who was to blame for the scheme to unfairly scrutinize conservative groups with words like “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their titles.

“Is this still America?” demanded Congressman Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas.

It turns out that Treasury officials knew during the 2012 campaign that an investigation into the targeting was going on. But, enhancing his image as a stranger in a strange land, the president said he learned about it from news reports on May 10. Then he waited three days to descend from the mountain and express outrage.

Democrats are not worried that the rumpuses will hurt Obama’s personal appeal or reputation for integrity. But it can’t help the president’s already limited ability to get anything done in a Congress full of Republicans who live to thwart him, and it may impede his plan to win back the House.

Democrats fret that it will hurt them in 2014. As one strategist put it: “Now the kooky, paranoid Tea Party people will believe they had a reason to be paranoid. And there’s no better way to express their feelings than to vote next year.”

Certainly Obama is getting a clearer understanding that the biggest downside of having the other party control a branch of Congress is its ability to use investigations and subpoenas as anvils.

Unfortunately, the sound and fury and battle for clicks will make the already aggrieved president, who considers himself a serious person stuck in an unserious time, even more aggrieved. The Times’s Peter Baker reported that Obama feels so stymied that he dreams of “going Bulworth,” a reference to the Warren Beatty movie in which a depressed and fading Democratic senator from California starts rapping, speaking with politically incorrect candor and dating Halle Berry.

The president should try candid; wistful and petulant aren’t getting him anywhere. The Republicans who are putting partisan gain above solving the country’s problems deserve a smackdown.

Obama the candidate was romanticized as the pristine relief from Clinton scandals. But his pure personal life did not exempt him from running a government awash in old-school screw-ups.

The Clintons have emerged stronger on the back end of their scandals. For better or worse, Bill is seen as authentic. He is what he is. America’s ultimate survivors are now truly potent or dangerous, depending on how you look at it, because Americans love them Bridget Jones-style, just the way they are, warts and all. “Hillary Clinton eats scandals for breakfast,” Bill Maher said. “If the Republicans keep this up, she’ll not only be president, she’ll appoint Bill to the Supreme Court.”

Obama would never pull what Hillary pulled with her longtime aide Huma Abedin. Abedin was allowed, after the birth of her and Anthony Weiner’s son, to work part time as a top adviser in the State Department for $135,000 while also working as a consultant for private clients, some of whom had to be interested in her influence in the government.

As Politico reported, the arrangement was similar to the way many of Hillary’s aides were paid while she was a senator: “They were compensated partly through work on her government staff, and partly through her political action committee.” And others would later land lucrative gigs at Clinton-friendly organizations.

Hillary has a blind spot on ethics, not minding if things look terrible if they’re technically legit. And she has a tight grip on money, so she didn’t choose to simply shift Huma to her personal payroll.

But Americans have already priced in the imperfections of the Clintons.

Who knows? If Washington keeps imploding, Hillary may run in 2016 on restoring honor to the White House.

Oh, and wouldn’t you just LOVE that, you hissing witch…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

I just spent a day in this northeast Syrian town. It was terrifying — much more so than I anticipated — but not because we were threatened in any way by the Free Syrian Army soldiers who took us around or by the Islamist Jabhet al-Nusra fighters who stayed hidden in the shadows. It was the local school that shook me up.

As we were driving back to the Turkish border, I noticed a school and asked the driver to turn around so I could explore it. It was empty — of students. But war refugees had occupied the classrooms and little kids’ shirts and pants were drying on a line strung across the playground. The basketball backboard was rusted, and a local parent volunteered to give me a tour of the bathrooms, which he described as disgusting. Classes had not been held in two years. And that is what terrified me. Men with guns I’m used to. But kids without books, teachers or classes for a long time — that’s trouble. Big trouble.

They grow up to be teenagers with too many guns and too much free time, and I saw a lot of them in Tel Abyad. They are the law of the land here now, but no two of them wear the same uniform, and many are just in jeans. These boys bravely joined the adults of their town to liberate it from the murderous tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, but now the war has ground to a stalemate, so here, as in so many towns across Syria, life is frozen in a no-man’s land between order and chaos. There is just enough patched-up order for people to live — some families have even rigged up bootleg stills that refine crude oil into gasoline to keep cars running — but not enough order to really rebuild, to send kids to school or to start businesses.

So Syria as a whole is slowly bleeding to death of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. You can’t help but ask whether it will ever be a unified country again and what kind of human disaster will play out here if a whole generation grows up without school.

“Syria is becoming Somalia,” said Zakaria Zakaria, a 28-year-old Syrian who graduated from college with a major in English and who acted as our guide. “Students have now lost two years of school, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and if this goes on for two more years it will be like Somalia, a failed country. But Somalia is off somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Syria is the heart of the Middle East. I don’t want this to happen to my country. But the more it goes on, the worse it will be.”

This is the agony of Syria today. You can’t imagine the war here continuing for another year, let alone five. But when you feel the depth of the rage against the Assad government and contemplate the sporadic but barbaric sect-on-sect violence, you can’t imagine any peace deal happening or holding — not without international peacekeepers on the ground to enforce it. Eventually, we will all have to have that conversation, because this is no ordinary war.

This Syrian disaster is like a superstorm. It’s what happens when an extreme weather event, the worst drought in Syria’s modern history, combines with a fast-growing population and a repressive and corrupt regime and unleashes extreme sectarian and religious passions, fueled by money from rival outside powers — Iran and Hezbollah on one side, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the other, each of which have an extreme interest in its Syrian allies’ defeating the other’s allies — all at a time when America, in its post-Iraq/Afghanistan phase, is extremely wary of getting involved.

I came here to write my column and work on a film for the Showtime series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” about the “Jafaf,” or drought, one of the key drivers of the Syrian war. In an age of climate change, we’re likely to see many more such conflicts.

“The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,” said the Syrian economist Samir Aita, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened, Aita explained, was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.

Because of the population explosion that started here in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better health care, those leaving the countryside came with huge families and settled in towns around cities like Aleppo. Some of those small towns swelled from 2,000 people to 400,000 in a decade or so. The government failed to provide proper schools, jobs or services for this youth bulge, which hit its teens and 20s right when the revolution erupted.

Then, between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the United Nations reported. “Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, said Aita. And with Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized. “State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said Aita, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”

Young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water — were a prescription for revolution. Just ask those who were here, starting with Faten, whom I met in her simple flat in Sanliurfa, a Turkish city near the Syrian border. Faten, 38, a Sunni, fled there with her son Mohammed, 19, a member of the Free Syrian Army, who was badly wounded in a firefight a few months ago. Raised in the northeastern Syrian farming village of Mohasen, Faten, who asked me not to use her last name, told me her story.

She and her husband “used to own farmland,” said Faten. “We tended annual crops. We had wheat, barley and everyday food — vegetables, cucumbers, anything we could plant instead of buying in the market. Thank God there were rains, and the harvests were very good before. And then suddenly, the drought happened.”

What did it look like? “To see the land made us very sad,” she said. “The land became like a desert, like salt.” Everything turned yellow.

Did Assad’s government help? “They didn’t do anything,” she said. “We asked for help, but they didn’t care. They didn’t care about this subject. Never, never. We had to solve our problems ourselves.”

So what did you do? “When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years, and then we said, ‘It’s enough.’ So we decided to move to the city. I got a government job as a nurse, and my husband opened a shop. It was hard. The majority of people left the village and went to the city to find jobs, anything to make a living to eat.” The drought was particularly hard on young men who wanted to study or marry but could no longer afford either, she added. Families married off daughters at earlier ages because they couldn’t support them.

Faten, her head conservatively covered in a black scarf, said the drought and the government’s total lack of response radicalized her. So when the first spark of revolutionary protest was ignited in the small southern Syrian town of Dara’a, in March 2011, Faten and other drought refugees couldn’t wait to sign on. “Since the first cry of ‘Allahu akbar,’ we all joined the revolution. Right away.” Was this about the drought? “Of course,” she said, “the drought and unemployment were important in pushing people toward revolution.”

Zakaria Zakaria was a teenager in nearby Hasakah Province when the drought hit and he recalled the way it turned proud farmers, masters of their own little plots of land, into humiliated day laborers, working for meager wages in the towns “just to get some money to eat.” What was most galling to many, said Zakaria, was that if you wanted a steady government job you had to bribe a bureaucrat or know someone in the state intelligence agency.

The best jobs in Hasakah Province, Syria’s oil-producing region, were with the oil companies. But drought refugees, virtually all of whom were Sunni Muslims, could only dream of getting hired there. “Most of those jobs went to Alawites from Tartous and Latakia,” said Zakaria, referring to the minority sect to which President Assad belongs and which is concentrated in these coastal cities. “It made people even more angry. The best jobs on our lands in our province were not for us, but for people who come from outside.”

Only in the spring of 2011, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, did the Assad government start to worry about the drought refugees, said Zakaria, because on March 11 — a few days before the Syrian uprising would start in Dara’a — Assad visited Hasakah, a very rare event. “So I posted on my Facebook page, ‘Let him see how people are living,’ ” recalled Zakaria. “My friends said I should delete it right away, because it was dangerous. I wouldn’t. They didn’t care how people lived.”

Abu Khalil, 48, is one of those who didn’t just protest. A former cotton farmer who had to become a smuggler to make ends meet for his 16 children after the drought wiped out their farm, he is now the Free Syrian Army commander in the Tel Abyad area. We met at a crushed Syrian Army checkpoint. After being introduced by our Syrian go-between, Abu Khalil, who was built like a tough little boxer, introduced me to his fighting unit. He did not introduce them by rank but by blood, pointing to each of the armed men around him and saying: “My nephew, my cousin, my brother, my cousin, my nephew, my son, my cousin …”

Free Syrian Army units are often family affairs. In a country where the government for decades wanted no one to trust anyone else, it’s no surprise.

“We could accept the drought because it was from Allah,” said Abu Khalil, “but we could not accept that the government would do nothing.” Before we parted, he pulled me aside to say that all that his men needed were anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons and they could finish Assad off. “Couldn’t Obama just let the Mafia send them to us?” he asked. “Don’t worry, we won’t use them against Israel.”

As part of our film we’ve been following a Syrian woman who is a political activist, Farah Nasif, a 27-year-old Damascus University graduate from Deir-az-Zour, whose family’s farm was also wiped out in the drought. Nasif typifies the secular, connected, newly urbanized young people who spearheaded the democracy uprisings here and in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. They all have two things in common: they no longer fear their governments or their parents, and they want to live like citizens, with equal rights — not as sects with equal fears. If this new generation had a motto, noted Aita, the Syrian economist, it would actually be the same one Syrians used in their 1925 war of independence from France: “Religion is for God, and the country is for everyone.”

But Nasif is torn right now. She wants Assad gone and all political prisoners released, but she knows that more war “will only destroy the rest of the country.” And her gut tells her that even once Assad is gone, there is no agreement on who or what should come next. So every option worries her — more war, a cease-fire, the present and the future. This is the agony of Syria today — and why the closer you get to it, the less certain you are how to fix it.

And now finally we get to Mr. Bruni, who starts out with a dreadful confession:

In the service of what I’m about to write, an admission I’m loath to make: I watch “The Voice.”

It gets worse. I watch “American Idol,” too.

Not whole seasons. Not even whole episodes. If I may brag a little, no one can fast-forward like I can, compressing two recorded hours of “The Voice” into 34 minutes and the “Idol” finale on Thursday night into about 19, including the pauses to top off my Chablis and brush the cracker crumbs from my comforter.

But I’ve experienced enough of these shows to know that they’re not merely singing competitions. They’re misery competitions. Bad-luck bake-offs. I’ll see you your high school expulsion, and I’ll raise you my stint in rehab.

I’ve experienced enough of them, in other words, to feel the onset of hardship fatigue, and changing the channel to CNN or MSNBC doesn’t bring relief. Candidates for elective office tell us not just how high they’ve climbed but how high they’ve climbed against all odds, as if that’s the only way accomplishment really means anything; as if survival itself confers great merit on the survivor; as if the bleak shall inherit the earth.

There’s a vivid streak of this in history, from Abe Lincoln’s log home to Bill Clinton’s turbulent one. But it seems more florid now. The economy’s stubborn funk has ratcheted up our suspicion of perks and privileges and our support for underdogs, to a point where we’re less taken with what people have achieved than with what they’ve endured.

In politics and in prime time, the contestants with the most traction are frequently the contestants with the gravest trials: afflictions, addictions, lost loves, lost dogs. I’m kidding about the canines, but only slightly. If there aren’t any epic setbacks in your biography, your political consultants or your “Voice” producers will find and amplify whatever garden-variety sorrows do exist. They’re like divining rods for tears, Yo-Yo Ma’s of the heartstrings.

That’s surely why a sort of weariness and skepticism was the response among a few New Yorkers I know to last week’s revelations by Christine Quinn, the mayoral candidate, that she’d struggled with bulimia and alcoholism. They’ve grown so inured to the process of public figures rummaging through the past for hard knocks that they greet it in a jaded fashion, wondering how to tell the real aches from the exaggerated ones.

Fetishized misfortune — hardship porn — has numbed them. That’s the biggest problem with it. It equates and mashes everything into one sentimental mush, cheapening uncommon suffering by showcasing it alongside the rest. It bends all life stories into identical arcs, no matter how different those stories are.

Think back to the Republican convention in Tampa, where so many speakers peddled similar tales of heroic forebears and humble origins that genuinely inspirational narratives were lost in the clutter. One moment, Tim Pawlenty was talking about the early death of his mother, when he was just 16; another moment, Rand Paul was reaching back generations to tell the audience: “My great-grandfather, like many, came to this country in search of the American dream. No sooner had he stepped off the boat than his father died.”

Ann Romney remembered the basement apartment and tuna casseroles that she and Mitt once shared in a voice not unlike Condoleezza Rice’s when she flashed back to her Birmingham girlhood in the Jim Crow era. Everyone’s come a long way! Marco Rubio had by then already revised his family’s saga, because he’d been getting it wrong, claiming that his parents had fled Castro’s Cuba when they’d initially left years before he seized power. When you enter the hardship sweepstakes, you tend to overreach.

And anyone who can get in the game does. Democratic and Republican strategists alike crow about what “a great story” a candidate has, meaning that it includes great challenges, which are seen as the handiest routes to rendering the candidate “relatable.” Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, was toughened by breast cancer, Elizabeth Warren by waiting tables at 13 and Paul Ryan by waking up one morning when he was still in high school and finding his father dead in bed. Those aren’t just anecdotes that flit by. They’re foundational ordeals, mentioned incessantly.

And that suggests another problem with hardship porn: its insinuation that surmounting obstacles equals acquiring real character, which is ostensibly impossible without tough times. Romney was punished by this thinking; that’s why Ann took the oratorical tack she did.

But I know strong, empathetic people who haven’t weathered anything much more distressing than a hangnail, and I know jerks who are graduates of garish travails. Hardship isn’t necessarily the crucible in which virtue is formed. Sometimes it’s just hardship, sad and unenviable, and the man or woman on the far side of it is exactly who he or she was before: kindly or cruel, brave or timid.

I care less about Heitkamp’s grit in the face of disease than about her cowardice in the face of gun-control legislation, which she voted against. I care less about how quickly Ryan was forced to grow up than about how unyielding he can be on certain social and fiscal issues, and what I want to know from Quinn is how she’ll improve the city’s schools and give its kids a real chance.

I can marvel at Olympic athletes’ dominance without the hardscrabble back stories, presented in three minutes of gauzy footage, scored to bathetic music, that speak not just to the sacrifices they made but to the despair that almost swallowed them. In a “Voice” or “Idol” contestant, I prefer perfect pitch to perfect heartbreak.

These shows, like other elimination competitions, are clapping, stomping tributes to obstacles surmounted and pain sloughed off — “Dancing Queen for a Day” — and they have an astonishing knack for attracting talent under true duress. Last season’s “Idol” winner, Phillip Phillips, performed through kidney stones; this season’s runner-up, Kree Harrison, has already lost both her parents.

Over on “The Voice,” there’s nary a sick relative unmentioned or rotten break unplumbed, and contestants are forever stifling sobs. The show, trying to one-up the best of “Idol,” insists on it.

Until about two weeks ago, I was mystified by how Judith Hill, the seeming front-runner on “The Voice” this season, had survived the screening process, given her good fortune. She’s already sung professionally with Michael Jackson and her helicopter parents are always near, beaming and applauding.

Then she shared a secret: she was rehabilitating a “scary” node on her vocal cords. Hardship!

When she hit her high notes that night, it wasn’t just a feat of artistry. It was a triumph over adversity.

She probably developed the node on her vocal cords from voice abuse, which is the most common cause.


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