The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

The Pasty Little Putz is “Going for Bolingbroke.”  He tries to convince us about an 18th-century approach that could work for 21st-century Republicans.  MoDo has a question in “Time to Hard-Delete Carlos Danger:”  Huma Abedin stands by her man, but will it matter?  In “I Want to Be a Mayor” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that crucial economic growth is being generated in cities and metropolitan areas across the country.  “Mark Thomason” from Clawson, MI covers this for us in comments:  “Translation: Our nation has failed, and there is nothing our government can do to help. However, there are a few places in the nation still doing well, profiting off the wreckage around them by being the elite among those losing out. It is more fun to be one of the elite.”  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Can We See Our Hypocrisy to Animals?”  He says two new documentaries bring to mind the inconsistent and hypocritical treatment of animals. What will future generations say when they look back at us?  Mr. Bruni looks at “Our Pulchritudinous Priesthood” and says personal trainers are becoming a must-have accessory in modern life.  Really?  Not down here where I live…  Here’s The Putz:

Before political movements can be understood by others, they need to understand themselves: what they want to be, what they actually are and how they might bridge the gap between aspiration and reality.

Today, the post-George W. Bush, post-Mitt Romney conservative movement is one-third of the way there. Among younger activists and rising politicians, the American right has a plausible theory of what its role in our politics ought to be, and how it might advance the common good. What it lacks, for now, is the self-awareness to see how it falls short of its own ideal, and the creativity necessary to transform its self-conception into victory, governance, results.

The theory goes something like this: American politics is no longer best understood in the left-right terms that defined 20th-century debates. Rather, our landscape looks more like a much earlier phase in democracy’s development, when the division that mattered was between outsiders and insiders, the “country party” and the “court party.”

These terms emerged in 18th-century Britain, during the rule of Sir Robert Walpole, the island kingdom’s first true prime minister. They were coined by his opponents, a circle led by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, who were both conservative and populist at once: they regarded Walpole’s centralization of power as a kind of organized conspiracy, in which the realm’s political, business and military interests were colluding against the common good.

Bolingbroke is largely forgotten today, but his skepticism about the ways that money and power intertwine went on to influence the American Revolution and practically every populist movement in our nation’s history. And it’s his civic republican ideas, repurposed for a new era, that you hear in the rhetoric of new-guard Republican politicians like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, in right-wing critiques of our incestuous “ruling class,” and from pundits touting a “libertarian populism” instead.

Theirs is not just the usual conservative critique of big government, though that’s obviously part of it. It’s a more thoroughgoing attack on the way Americans are ruled today, encompassing Wall Street and corporate America, the media and the national-security state.

As theories go, it’s well suited to the times. The story of the last decade in American life is, indeed, a story of consolidation and self-dealing at the top. There really is a kind of “court party” in American politics, whose shared interests and assumptions — interventionist, corporatist, globalist — have stamped the last two presidencies and shaped just about every major piece of Obama-era legislation. There really is a disconnect between this elite’s priorities and those of the country as a whole. There really is a sense in which the ruling class — in Washington, especially — has grown fat at the expense of the nation it governs.

The problem for conservatives isn’t their critique of this court party and its works. Rather, it’s their failure to understand why many Americans can agree with this critique but still reject the Republican alternative.

They reject it for two reasons. First, while Republicans claim to oppose the ruling class on behalf of the country as a whole, they often seem to be representing an equally narrow set of interest groups — mostly elderly, rural (the G.O.P. is a “country party” in a far too literal sense) and well-off. A party that cuts food stamps while voting for farm subsidies or fixates on upper-bracket tax cuts while wages are stagnating isn’t actually offering a libertarian populist alternative to the court party’s corrupt bargains. It’s just offering a different, more Republican-friendly set of buy-offs.

Second, as much as Americans may distrust a cronyist liberalism, they prefer it to a conservatism that doesn’t seem interested in governing at all. This explains why Republicans could win the battle for public opinion on President Obama’s first-term agenda without persuading the public to actually vote him out of office. The sense that Obama was at least trying to solve problems, whereas the right offered only opposition, was powerful enough to overcome disappointment with the actual results.

Both of these problems dog the right’s populists today. There might indeed be a “libertarian populist” agenda that could help Republicans woo the middle class — but not if, as in Rand Paul’s budget proposals, its centerpiece is just another sweeping tax cut for the rich.

There might be a way to turn Obamacare’s unpopularity against Democrats in 2014 — but not if Republican populists shut down the government in a futile attempt to defund it.

To overthrow a flawed ruling class, it isn’t enough to know what’s gone wrong at the top. You need more self-knowledge, substance and strategic thinking than conservatives have displayed to date.

Here the historical record is instructive. The original “country party” critique of Robert Walpole’s government was powerful, resonant and intellectually influential.

But it still wasn’t politically successful. Instead, the era as a whole belonged to Walpole and his court — as this one, to date, belongs to Barack Obama.

What a pile of dung…  Now here’s MoDo:

When you puzzle over why the elegant Huma Abedin is propping up the eel-like Anthony Weiner, you must remember one thing: Huma was raised in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet.

Comparatively speaking, the pol from Queens probably seems like a prince. Even though he’s a punk. After he got caught sexting and flashing women online in 2011, he promised to “never, ever” do that to his family again and slouched away from Congress. He cyber-creeped other young women in a pervy bout of tweet du seigneur as his wife traveled the world with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state.

Yet, while married to the classy, gorgeous mother of his infant son and planning a redemptive run for mayor, he told a Facebook friend and phone-sex partner he had never met that he loved her. Then he told her to “hard-delete” all their correspondence — if that is what you call it.

Aside from his zany Zorro-like nom de porn, Carlos Danger, Weiner has been called many things. His digital girlfriend and fellow extreme exhibitionist, Sydney Leathers (whose name sounds like a nom de porn), said that Weiner described himself to her accurately as “an argumentative, perpetually horny middle-aged man.”

But Weiner’s Goya-esque grotesquerie earns him another name: the “Rosemary’s Baby” of the Clintons.

Bill and Hillary Clinton transformed the way we look at sex scandals. They plowed through the ridicule, refused to slink away in shame like Gary Hart, said it was old news, and argued that if Hillary didn’t object, why should voters?

Poppy Bush thought Americans would reject Bill Clinton in 1992 because of his lascivious ways, but he learned that voters are more concerned with how their own lives will be changed than they are with politicians’ duplicitous private lives.

Americans keep moving the marker of acceptable behavior, partly as a reflection of the coarsening of society and partly as a public acknowledgment that many pols with complicated personal lives have been good public servants.

Now, defining deviancy downward, Señor and Señora Danger are using the Clinton playbook.

The difference is, there’s nothing in Weiner’s public life that is redeeming. In 12 years in Congress, he managed to get only one minor bill passed, on behalf of a donor, and he doesn’t work well with people. He knows how to be loud on cable and wave his Zorro sword in our faces.

Some sex scandals, like Mark Sanford’s, fall into the realm of flawed human nature, and some, like Weiner’s, fall into the realm of “Seriously, what is wrong with you?”

Huma gained renown, movie star suitors and a Vogue spread as the stylish Muslim Garbo silently and efficiently parting the waves for Hillary. She had to be resilient to work her way up from intern to consigliere in tough Hillaryworld, and she saw firsthand how the Clintons beat back foes.

They love Huma, but the Clintons, now showcasing philanthropy and public service preparatory to Hillary’s 2016 run, are not happy about getting dragged into the lewd spectacle that is a low-budget movie version of their masterpiece.

The former president is distancing himself, one associate said, noting, “He’s not getting anywhere near that grenade.”

Huma’s friends are “slapping-my-forehead astounded,” as one put it, that Weiner would get in the race knowing the online land mines that would rock Huma’s world again and torpedo the campaign.

Weiner wooed Huma assiduously, showing up at the Westchester airport in the wee hours to pick her up when she came back from trips with Hillary. “They were two hyperdrive young brains that just clicked,” said a friend. “She liked his Borscht Belt humor.”

Her circle understands that “you love who you love,” as one put it, marveling at Weiner’s “madonna-whore” complex played out online. But that doesn’t mean that you ask people to vote for someone who’s dreadfully flawed for a major office, just because you love him.

They are worried that Huma’s decision to vouch for her husband is starting to hurt her, the one person they all assumed would never be ensnared in anything weird or bad. “The hard stink of this one is going to get on everyone involved,” said one friend.

Another agreed: “As soon as she stood up to say those words she changed herself from a sophisticated, mysterious guiding intelligence and beauty next to Hillary Clinton to the wife of a tarnished Anthony Weiner.”

They fear Huma learned the wrong lesson from Hillary, given that Bill was a roguish genius while Weiner’s a creepy loser.

“Bill Clinton was the greatest political and policy mind of a generation,” said one. “Anthony is behaving similarly without the chops or résumé.”

As often as Bill apologized, he didn’t promise he would “never, ever” do it again, as Weiner did.

“What people won’t forgive is lying in the apology,” said the Clinton pal. “It has to be sincere, and it sure as hell has to be accurate.”

Of course, if we didn’t have cell phones and Twitter-twatting Weiner would be the creepy guy in a raincoat flashing little girls.  And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

As Americans, we’ve been raised on the notion that any child could dream of becoming president. But when you see how much “fun” Barack Obama and his immediate predecessors have had in that job — and when you look at where the most exciting innovations in governance are happening — how long will it be before our kids, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer: “I want to be a mayor.” Except in Detroit, mayors today have more fun.

In fact, if you want to be an optimist about America today, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up — from its major metropolitan areas — than from the top down. Washington is tied in knots by Republican-led hyperpartisanship, lobbyists and budget constraints. Ditto most state legislatures. So the great laboratories and engines of our economy are now our cities. This is the conclusion of an important new book by the Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, entitled: “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.”

For generations, they write, we held the view that “the feds and states are the adults in the system, setting direction; the cities and the metropolitan areas are the children, waiting for their allowance. The metropolitan revolution is exploding this tired construct. Cities and metropolitan areas are becoming the leaders in the nation: experimenting, taking risks, making hard choices.” We are seeing “the inversion of the hierarchy of power in the United States.”

What produced this shift? First, they argue, the Great Recession blew up the deformed growth model we had settled into — one “that exalted consumption over production, speculation over investment, and waste over sustainability.” The new growth model, which the most successful cities are practicing, focuses on creating networks that combine skilled laborers and knowledge workers, with universities and technical schools, with quality infrastructure and high-speed Internet, to do manufacturing, innovation, technology development and advanced services — with an eye to exporting all of them. That’s how we build a 21st-century middle class. “The best cities now understand that you need to a have a sector of your economy that is world class” in order to thrive, the authors argue.

Second, cities know that neither Washington nor state government will save them. “Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own,” the authors write. “Mired in partisan division and rancor, the federal government appears incapable of taking bold action to restructure our economy and grapple with changing demography and rising inequality.”

Look around and you see cities “doing the hard work of growing our new economy,” they said to me in an interview. With federal funding for scientific research uncertain, Michael Bloomberg “has created Applied Sciences campuses in New York City to spur innovation. Voters are putting up tax dollars for large-scale transit investments in Denver and Los Angeles and local leaders are leading the modernization of ports, airports and freight rail in Miami, Chicago, Jacksonville and Dallas.” A network of economic development organizations in northeast Ohio is “helping manufacturing firms retool their factories for new demand, using some federal dollars but also sizable investments from philanthropies.” And, in Houston, a network of neighborhood centers is connecting new immigrants with low-cost banking, education, child care and health care  — while the immigration bill is stalled in Congress.

“Washington is dysfunctional politically, and it is not just a momentary thing,” Rahm Emanuel, who gave up being the president’s chief of staff to become mayor of Chicago, told me. “We always said that there’d be a day when all that the federal government does is debt service, entitlement payments and defense. Well, folks, that day is here. So, federal support for after-school programs has shrunk. We added to ours, but I had to figure out where to get the money. The federal government is debating what to do with community colleges. We’ve already converted ours to focus on skills development and career-based education. I worked for two great presidents, but this is the best job I’ve had in public service.”

D’s and R’s will work together locally, unlike in their statehouse or Congress, say the authors, because how they feel about the place where they live and work “is much stronger than how they feel about their party.”

Then there’s Detroit. It is “an extreme case,” Katz and Bradley explained. It is a perfect storm of municipal mismanagement, auto company mismanagement, major job decentralization and property abandonment. “Other cities face many of these challenges, but none to the same extent,” they argued. “Philadelphia has a daunting pension situation, as does Chicago, but both of those cities have things that Detroit lacked for decades: more jobs in their downtown cores and elected leaders who are not waiting for miracles but trying to move more aggressively to grow their economies, increase revenues, and manage debt.” Wish them well. With both D.C. and the states increasingly AWOL, we need cities more than ever to be our engines of smart growth.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

A new documentary, “The Act of Killing,” explores the human capacity for mass murder. It addresses the Indonesian fratricide of the mid-1960s, in which a million people may have been killed.

The slaughter was monstrous, but it was also mystifying — which is the way it often is. I’ve interviewed war criminals in a half-dozen countries, and it’s always bewildering how the nice old person across from me, so graciously concerned with how much milk I want in my coffee, could have committed atrocities.

The puzzle of such episodes is that otherwise good and decent people were so oblivious to the abhorrence of what was going on. So I was struck that the same section of this newspaper that carried a thoughtful review by A. O. Scott of “Act of Killing” also reviewed another documentary. That one was “Blackfish,” and it looks at the SeaWorld marine park and its (mis)treatment of orcas.

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are sophisticated mammals whose brains may be more complex than our own. They belong in the open sea and seem to suffer severe physical and mental distress when forced to live in tanks. Maybe that is why they sometimes go berserk and attack trainers. You or I might also go nuts if we were forced to live our lives locked up in a closet to entertain orcas.

SeaWorld denies the claims, which isn’t surprising since it earns millions from orcas. Two centuries ago, slave owners argued that slaves enjoyed slavery.

The juxtaposition of the two reviews made me wonder: Some day, will our descendants be mystified by how good and decent people in the early 21st century — that’s us — could have been so oblivious to the unethical treatment of animals?

There certainly has been progress. Centuries ago, a European game consisted of nailing a cat to a post and head-butting it to death without getting your eyes scratched out. These days, torturing animals is a crime.

Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher, published his landmark book “Animal Liberation” in 1975, and, at first, the idea was regarded as a quixotic source of amusement.

Who would have thought then that today we would be discussing the rights of killer whales, or that the National Institutes of Health would be halting most lab experiments with chimpanzees? Who could have imagined that Burger King would now be buying cage-free eggs out of concern for hens? Or, more accurately, out of concern for tens of millions of customers who empathize with hens?

Today, the challenge is factory farming, which produces food exceptionally cheaply, at huge cost in animal welfare.

“There are still tens of billions of animals suffering horribly in factory farms every year, around the world,” Singer told me.

Big Agriculture has dug in its heels, backing “ag gag” laws that punish whistle-blowers who secretly document abusive conditions for livestock or poultry. The House of Representatives recently had the gall to amend the farm bill so as to nullify many state laws protecting farm animals. “In a single legislative act, it could undo two decades of state lawmaking to protect animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States; let’s hope the Senate-House conference committee will drop this amendment.

A surprising force for positive change has been food companies, responding to consumer pressure. In 2013, so far, there have been commitments to stop using pork from gestation crates (which don’t allow sows to turn around) from General Mills, Tim Hortons, IHOP, Applebee’s, Marriott and Au Bon Pain.

McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Safeway, Oscar Mayer, Costco and others had announced in 2012 that they would move away from gestation crates.

Europe has also already moved decisively to improve animal welfare. Most astonishing, a grass-roots animal rights movement has emerged in China, winning a battle this year against companies that cruelly “milk” bears of bile to sell for quasi-medicinal purposes.

Look, I confess to hypocrisy. I eat meat, albeit with misgivings, and I have no compunctions about using mousetraps. So what? We have the same inconsistencies, controversies and hypocrisies in dealing with human rights. We may disagree about waterboarding terror suspects, but almost everyone shares a revulsion for genocide, the use of poison gas or the torture of children.

Now we are plodding along a similar controversial, inconsistent, hypocritical — and progressive — path on animal rights. We may disagree about eating meat, but growing numbers share a disgust for extreme behavior, like the force-feeding of geese (now banned in California) to produce pâté.

We as a global society have crossed the Rubicon. We disagree about where to draw the line to protect animal rights, but almost everyone now agrees that there is a line to be drawn.

May our descendants, when, in the future, they reflect uncomprehendingly on our abuse of hens and orcas, appreciate that we are good and decent people moving in the right direction, and show some compassion for our obliviousness.

And now last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

I neither spotted a psychotherapist nor heard mention of therapy in Woody Allen’s newest movie, “Blue Jasmine,” which pokes fun at faddish, pampered New Yorkers, as Allen tends to do. But a personal trainer flits across the screen and factors into the plot.

That pretty much says it all.

What therapists were to the more cerebral New York of yesteryear, trainers are to the more superficial here and now: designated agents of self-actualization, florid expressions of self-indulgence, must-have accessories, must-cite authorities.

“My therapist says” is outmoded. “My trainer says” is omnipresent, at least in the coddled precincts of most cosmopolitan cities coast to coast.

The ranks of trainers metastasize and the adulation for them swells, even as their precise function grows fuzzier — or more variable from trainer to trainer and client to client. Trainers are the new priests. Trainers are the new escorts. They’re paid listeners, paid talkers: friends for hire, who charge by the hour, water not included. And they’re ludicrously apt emblems of, and metaphors for, this particular juncture in America, where people of means seem to believe that there’s no problem — from a child’s grades to a belly’s sprawl — that can’t be fixed by throwing money and a putative expert at it. Anything can be delegated. Everything can be outsourced, even perspiration.

As David Zinczenko, the editorial director of Men’s Fitness, told me: “There are people who organize your closet, walk your dog, build your social media profile. We’re evolving into a personal-service culture.” Or devolving, as the case may be.

Personal trainers are a luxury that illustrates how different the lives of affluent Americans and the lives of the less fortunate can be. But people well outside the 1 percent or even the 5 percent make room in their budgets for trainers, and that bespeaks the particular intensity of our obsession with health and beauty, not to mention the Sisyphean contradictions in our pursuit of both. Many food lovers I know intersperse their trainer-monitored calisthenics with lavish meals at the latest restaurant: one lunge forward, one waddle back.

I too belong to the hopeful tribe of the personally trained, which I joined back in 2002, when I needed to lose some 50 pounds. So I can attest that what’s most remarkable of all is the sheer oddity of the personal-training ecosystem, which I’ve observed across a series of gyms and a sequence of my own trainers: Aaron and then Ari and now Andrew. I seem to put a lot of stock in the first letter of the alphabet.

Andrew, last name Ginsburg, is also a stand-up comedian and does riffs, onstage and off, about the way the boom in personal training has permitted struggling actors, failed athletes and even ex-cons to repurpose themselves as trainers, with meaningless credentials from certificate mills.

“If you have $400 and a pulse, you can be a trainer,” he told me during a recent session, referring to the licensing fee from one organization, which administers a multiple-choice test. “A chimp could pass it. The questions are like, ‘If a client complains of tightness in the chest, do you: A) chocolate, B) chocolate, C) chocolate, D) consult a physician?’ ”

“So the answer’s B, right?” I said.

He told me to focus on my leg presses, during which we marveled at a nearby client, whose “workout” was a 15-minute soliloquy about her weekend plans, delivered while her flirty male trainer stretched her ever so tenderly.

There’s a trainer at my gym who routinely gives clients graphic details of his libidinous escapades. There’s a trainer who travels with and to certain clients, who can’t be without him. There’s a trainee who exercises, if you can call it that, in a full coat of makeup, never smudged by sweat. There are teenagers dropped off by their parents, who apparently believe they owe their children not just good educations but six-pack abs.

How did this happen? And when? Fifteen years ago I didn’t know a single person who had a personal trainer; then, suddenly, every third friend had one. Personal trainers are like automatic tellers: one minute they didn’t exist, the next they were everywhere, and considered indispensable.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 234,000 people employed in the category of “fitness trainers and aerobics instructors” in 2012, an increase of about 40 percent from 10 years earlier and a robust exception to a stagnant or deteriorating job market along most other vectors of American life. This is our great nation’s future: an army of men and women in Lululemon apparel, barking about the importance of a “strong core” and meaning muscle, not character.

Harry Hanson, a longtime trainer who runs the American Academy of Personal Training, a professional school with branches in New York and Boston, told me that at some point over recent years, the market for personal training became so huge that “everybody who was a college athlete or had a good body thought, ‘I can be a personal trainer.’ ”

“There is no shortage of personal trainers,” he said. “It’s a glamorous occupation.” His own school’s mission, he said, is to turn out trainers who really do know what they’re doing.

At the Equinox fitness chain, members who want to sign up for personal training answer questions about the kind of motivation and motivator best suited to them, and there are different levels of trainers, signifying different altitudes of expertise.

When I contacted a publicist for the chain to learn more about this, and to ask what percentage of members use personal trainers and how many trainers the chain employs, I was given only a blanket statement. “As we consider ourselves in a ‘category of one,’ it is our policy to be overly sensitive about how we are positioned in the industry,” it began.

It asserted that Equinox is “at the forefront of personal training” and is advised by “top experts in the fields of personal training, nutritionist, and sleep.” (That’s verbatim.) It was as if I’d been trying to lift the veil of Scientology.

But then there’s a kooky degree of mysticism surrounding personal training and the demigods who mete it out, no small number of whom — like Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper of “The Biggest Loser,” or like Tracy Anderson, who once took credit for Madonna’s triceps — have become celebrities. It’s a mysticism that extends these days to the whole world of exercise, which is more religion than chore, and to its many sects. Not for nothing is one of the most popular spinning franchises known as SoulCycle.

I think the explosion in personal training indeed owes much, as Zinczenko suggested, to our totemic, slightly lazy faith in expertise, no matter how dubiously claimed. There are private tutors, lactation consultants and nutritionists where they barely existed before.

The explosion also owes something to the increasing striation of privilege and convenience. A gym membership is the coach section. A personal trainer at the gym is an extra-legroom seat. A personal trainer with his or her own gym and a cult following: that’s first-class.

And the personal trainer benefits from how broad and diverse a cluster of needs he or she meets, by how easily he or she can be customized: the Mr. Potato Head of service providers. Like a therapist, a trainer can challenge or affirm you. Unlike a therapist, a trainer can touch you. The conversation can stray in all sorts of directions. So can the relationship.

In “Blue Jasmine,” it strays to the ballpark, which is where a rakish plutocrat takes his trainer. You’ll have to see the movie if you want to know which base they reach.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: