Dowd, Cohen, Kristof and Bruni

Praise the FSM, The Pasty Little Putz and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  MoDo is fizzing over a thespian again.  (Which is certainly better than another venomous column about Obama/Clinton/marijuana/any random Democrat.)  In “High Tea With Mr. Fancypants Sheen” she babbles that after playing everyone from Mozart to Tony Blair, the actor Michael Sheen puts the Master of Sex on top.  In “Diplomat and Warrior” Mr. Cohen says we need Richard Holbrooke’s skill and resolve today.  In the comments “Query” from the West sums it up well:  “Thus column reveals all the useless pettiness of our Very Serious People.”  In “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” Mr. Kristof says white America should wipe away any self-satisfaction about racial progress. Many challenges remain to achieving equality.  Mr. Bruni, in “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” says religiously unaffiliated Americans are owed a larger, better vocabulary for their spirituality.  Here’s MoDo:

Is sex more important than music, war, sports and vampires? Is sex more important than Nixon?

Michael Sheen thinks so.

The nimble Welsh actor has played a royal flush of renowned men — Mozart, Tony Blair (three times), the English soccer manager Brian Clough and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.” He also starred as a villainous vampire in the “Twilight” movies.

Asked how he rates the importance of historical figures he has channeled, he places his current conjuring, William Masters in Showtime’s mesmerizing “Masters of Sex,” on top.

“Sex, sexuality, is something every single person has to engage in, whether you’re actively pursuing, avoiding, enjoying in the moment or regretting later,” Sheen says over tea at Trump SoHo, looking sharp in a black Armani suit and black Prada tie. “So anyone who’s played a part in affecting that, I suppose it’s about as wide-ranging as it gets, really.”

Sheen contended that while the revolutionary research Masters did with his partner and later wife, Virginia Johnson, did not always lead them to correct conclusions — they claimed to have made some homosexuals straight and overstated how easily H.I.V. could be contracted — at least they were trying to measure things scientifically, unlike Alfred Kinsey, whose research comprised interviews.

“All you have to do is talk to someone about their sex life to get a sense of how untrustworthy each of us might be about that,” Sheen said dryly.

In the show, Masters suggests to Johnson that they have research sex, noting that “we get the benefit of interpreting the data first hand.” Later, he tells her it’s a condition of her job. But Sheen and the alluring Lizzy Caplan, plus the writing, soften the nasty coercion on his part and coldblooded careerism on hers with a subtext of mutual attraction.

Late in life, Johnson told the biographer Thomas Maier that she had never desired Masters, only the job.

“It is sexual harassment,” Sheen said, but “they both have different agendas. Conscious and unconscious motivations are something we’re playing with in the show.”

He also suggests that there may have been “a bit of revisionism” on Johnson’s part, colored by the fact that Masters seemed to prefer his Doberman pinschers and left her after 22 years for a woman he’d had a crush on in college.

“While at the beginning he was quite intimidating and wasn’t an easily likable man and Virginia was the one people warmed to, by the end, it had completely reversed,” Sheen said.

He noted that there’s a “Beauty and the Beast” undersong to their telling of the relationship of Masters and Johnson, a sexually free woman who had a stint as a country singer and three divorces behind her when she became his secretary in her early 30s.

“He’s drawn to the beauty but at the same time can’t accept that she might see him as anything else than a monster, which I think is also the story of intimacy — how do you cope with someone seeing the ugliest part of you?” Sheen said.

He said he chose to play Masters as “one of the hardest characters to ever like in a lead role,” knowing that it would make the arrogant gynecologist’s rare displays of vulnerability more affecting. “I only ever play myself, with the volume turned up on certain aspects. If I was playing anyone else, I’d be acting and I hate acting.”

I note that the repellent Masters was the opposite of Blair and Frost, who tried to ingratiate.

“American audiences, at that time anyway, tended to go, ‘Oh, we love Blair and we love what you do because you make him so likable,’ ” he said. “People hate Blair in Britain and saw what I was doing as a kind of criticism of him, that he was false, opportunistic, ambitious. Same with Frost.”

Sheen is also in the spotlight for his romance with Sarah Silverman, who came to New York with him.

When the 43-year-old Silverman won an Emmy for her HBO special, she made an affectionate reference to “Mr. Fancypants Sheen.” At another red carpet event, the raunchy comedienne grabbed her proper boyfriend’s butt.

“She sort of makes a big deal of me doing Shakespeare and I know lots of words and it just makes me laugh,” said the 45-year-old Sheen, who, like Silverman, has never been married.

Not a fan of living in Los Angeles — he is there to raise his 15-year-old daughter, Lily, with ex-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale — Sheen said “one of the things I really appreciate about Sarah is that she’s not concerned about a lot of things that a lot of people are concerned about in L.A.” She’s “grounded,” he said, yet “just as out there and quirky and eccentric as anyone in L.A. but in a lovely way.” After they began dating last winter, she took a role in the Showtime show as a lesbian palm reader.

He seems like the buttoned-up part of the twosome — a variation on the odd-couple romance he had with Tina Fey on “30 Rock” as Brit Wesley Snipes — but Sheen has a wild side, or at least a “Where the Wild Things Are” side.

His daughter gave him an adult Max suit for Christmas a couple years ago because he loves the Maurice Sendak character so much.

“What I actually want to do, if I can get the guts together eventually, is eschew clothes altogether and just wear that,” he says with a delighted grin. “I just want to be the guy in the Max outfit.”

She’d probably be much happier writing breathless puff pieces for “People”…  Next up we have Mr. Cohen, although his POS might just as well have been stolen from MoDo:

On Sept. 8, 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, wrote to the secretary of the Army requesting that an exception to policy be granted to allow Richard C. Holbrooke to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Holbrooke had collapsed in her office nine months earlier. He died soon after while serving in the most thankless of his many assignments, as President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Few diplomats throughout history have made as deep and sustained an impact upon the course of war and peace than Richard did, and few civilian leaders have consistently provided more support to the U.S. military,” Clinton wrote in her appeal. “Indeed, his nearly fifty-year career in public service was inextricably intertwined with our military, and, more than once, Richard found himself on the front lines, the living embodiment of ‘one mission, one team.’ ” Arlington Cemetery is reserved for active or retired members of the Armed Forces and their families, but several exceptions have been made over the course of its history in cases of what are deemed to be exceptional civilian service benefiting the military — and sometimes for other reasons.

Clinton, in a two-page letter made available to me, went on to describe Holbrooke’s long diplomatic career — as a young foreign service officer in Vietnam; at the Paris Peace talks that led to the end of that conflict; as ambassador to Germany at a time of post-Cold War military transformation; as the diplomat who “brokered the historic Dayton Accords that brought the bloody war in the Balkans to a close”; and finally in “the most complex and vexing foreign and military policy challenge of our day” in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That last assignment was particularly “vexing” because Obama and Holbrooke never got along. The “no drama” president had little patience for high-drama Holbrooke. There was no significant place in the president’s young, tight-knit foreign policy team for this man of vast experience and sweeping insights. Holbrooke had backed Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries; his loyalty was questioned. In an extraordinary put-down, Obama took several staffers with him to Afghanistan in March, 2010, but not Holbrooke, his supposed point man.

In hindsight, this clash offered indications of how Obama’s hesitant foreign policy, forged in that narrow White House circle, would evolve. The president has just declared that “We don’t have a strategy yet.” He was talking about possible military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (a comment later narrowed by his spokesman to apply to military strikes against ISIS in Syria). The comment, however construed, should not have been uttered. It conveys indecision even if intended to convey methodical caution. It suggests weakness.

The remark was of a piece with others about hitting singles and doubles but rarely more as American president, and running a no-stupid-stuff foreign policy, and various riffs on the limits of American power in a tough world. There is merit to prudence after a season of American rashness. But the appearance of feckless incoherence from the White House is very dangerous — as the eruptions in the Middle East and Ukraine have underscored.

Holbrooke was a passionate believer in American power and its capacity for good. He acknowledged American failings but would never talk down the transformative power of a nation that is also an idea. Realism, even fierce realism, could never efface idealism about America’s ability to spread freedom. It is a pity Obama shunned him. More experienced, battle-hardened voices might have helped the president.

On Oct. 26, 2011, John McHugh, the secretary of the Army, wrote to Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton, who had petitioned for an exception, to say that he had reviewed all the information available to him, “including letters of support from some of our Nation’s most senior officials,” and concluded that “Ambassador Holbrooke, unfortunately, is not eligible to be laid to rest at Arlington.” McHugh wrote that Holbrooke’s “national and international service was exceptional,” but noted that “interment and inurnment at Arlington is deeply rooted in military service.” Holbrooke never served in the military.

Adm. Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me he was a strong supporter of the idea that Arlington be Holbrooke’s resting place. “I felt very strongly about it because Richard spent so much time with the military through so many conflicts,” he said. “He was deserving.” But Mullen, who also wrote on Holbrooke’s behalf, believed that only a White House intervention could change McHugh’s decision — and knew that would not be forthcoming. The White House did not respond to emails seeking comment.

My own view of Holbrooke was etched by watching him bring the war in Bosnia to an end — a remarkable achievement involving the full panoply of American power, diplomatic and military. Through skill and conviction at the service of clear strategy, the impossible was achieved at Dayton. Not another shot was fired in anger.

Clinton wrote that Holbrooke was a “great warrior for peace.” As an emblem of service and resolve that America sorely needs today, he was worth an Arlington exception.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Many white Americans say they are fed up with the coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A plurality of whites in a recent Pew survey said that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News reflected that weariness, saying: “All you hear is grievance, grievance, grievance, money, money, money.”

Indeed, a 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts found that whites, on average, believed that anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Yes, you read that right!

So let me push back at what I see as smug white delusion. Here are a few reasons race relations deserve more attention, not less:

• The net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to 2011 census data. The gap has worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid. (Whites in America on average own almost 18 times as much as blacks; in South Africa in 1970, the ratio was about 15 times.)

• The black-white income gap is roughly 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.

• A black boy born today in the United States has a life expectancy five years shorter than that of a white boy.

• Black students are significantly less likely to attend schools offering advanced math and science courses than white students. They are three times as likely to be suspended and expelled, setting them up for educational failure.

• Because of the catastrophic experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nearly 70 percent of middle-aged black men who never graduated from high school have been imprisoned.

All these constitute not a black problem or a white problem, but an American problem. When so much talent is underemployed and overincarcerated, the entire country suffers.

Some straight people have gradually changed their attitudes toward gays after realizing that their friends — or children — were gay. Researchers have found that male judges are more sympathetic to women’s rights when they have daughters. Yet because of the de facto segregation of America, whites are unlikely to have many black friends: A study from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.

That’s unfortunate, because friends open our eyes. I was shaken after a well-known black woman told me about looking out her front window and seeing that police officers had her teenage son down on the ground after he had stepped out of their upscale house because they thought he was a prowler. “Thank God he didn’t run,” she said.

One black friend tells me that he freaked out when his white fiancée purchased an item in a store and promptly threw the receipt away. “What are you doing?” he protested to her. He is a highly successful and well-educated professional but would never dream of tossing a receipt for fear of being accused of shoplifting.

Some readers will protest that the stereotype is rooted in reality: Young black men are disproportionately likely to be criminals.

That’s true — and complicated. “There’s nothing more painful to me,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said, “than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

All this should be part of the national conversation on race, as well, and prompt a drive to help young black men end up in jobs and stable families rather than in crime or jail. We have policies with a robust record of creating opportunity: home visitation programs like Nurse-Family Partnership; early education initiatives like Educare and Head Start; programs for troubled adolescents like Youth Villages; anti-gang and anti-crime initiatives like Becoming a Man; efforts to prevent teen pregnancies like the Carrera curriculum; job training like Career Academies; and job incentives like the earned-income tax credit.

The best escalator to opportunity may be education, but that escalator is broken for black boys growing up in neighborhoods with broken schools. We fail those boys before they fail us.

So a starting point is for those of us in white America to wipe away any self-satisfaction about racial progress. Yes, the progress is real, but so are the challenges. The gaps demand a wrenching, soul-searching excavation of our national soul, and the first step is to acknowledge that the central race challenge in America today is not the suffering of whites.

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

Almost midway through Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists.

He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it.

This happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”

Had Harris at last found God? And is “Waking Up” a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?

Hardly. Harris is actually up to something more complicated and interesting than that. He’s asking a chicken-or-egg question too seldom broached publicly in America, where religion is such sacred and protected turf, where God is on our currency and at our inaugurals and in our pledge and sometimes written into legislation as a way to exempt the worshipful from dictates that apply to everyone else.

The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?

Reflecting on the high that he felt by the Sea of Galilee, Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.”

But that conclusion, in his view, would have been a prejudiced, willed one, because he had felt similar exaltation and rapture “at my desk, or while having my teeth cleaned,” or in other circumstances where he had slowed down, tuned out distractions and focused on the moment at hand. In other words, there are many engines of flight from quotidian worries, many routes of escape from gravity and the flesh. They include prayer, but they also include meditation, exercise, communion with music, immersion in nature.

Harris’s book, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in early September, caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.

According to a 2012 Pew poll that drew considerable attention, nearly 20 percent of adults in this country fell into that category. Less than a third of those people labeled themselves atheists or agnostics. Seemingly more of them had a belief in some kind of higher power, but that conviction was unmoored, unclassifiable and maybe tenuous. These nomads aren’t looking for a church, but may want some of the virtues — emotional grounding, psychic grace — that are associated and sometimes conflated with one. The subtitle of “Waking Up” can be read as a summons to them: “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”

Harris made his name with his acclaimed 2004 best seller, “The End of Faith,” which took a buzz saw to Christianity, Islam and the rest of it. He was strenuously edgy and perhaps gratuitously insulting: While he’s right that it’s dangerous to play down all the cruelty done in the name of religion, it’s also a mistake to give short shrift to the goodness.

But the man has guts. Just read a blog post that he wrote in late July about the fighting in Israel and Gaza. By traveling down byways of the debate about Israel’s actions that most politicians and pundits avoid, it rightly caused a stir, along with a surge in traffic to his website that temporarily crashed it.

IN books and lectures since “The End of Faith,” Harris has increasingly redirected his energies from indicting organized religion — “I’ve ridden that hobbyhorse,” he told me — to examining the reasons that people are drawn to it and arguing that much of what they seek from it they can get without it. There is the church of Burning Man, he noted. There is the repetition of mantras. There are the catharsis and clarity of unsullied concentration.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.

I’m not casting a vote for godlessness at large or in my own spiritual life, which is muddled with unanswered and unanswerable questions. I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word. We hear the highest-ranking politicians mention God at every turn and with little or no fear of negative repercussion. When’s the last time you heard one of them wrestle publicly with agnosticism?

During my conversation with Harris, he observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: “May God bless and keep Jim’s memory, and may God bless the United States of America.” That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary.

“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears,” he said.

There should be. There’s a hunger for it, suggested by the fact that after Harris recently published the first chapter of “Waking Up” online as a way of announcing the entire volume’s imminent release, readers placed enough preorders for the book that it shot up briefly to No. 22 on Amazon’s list of best sellers.

Some of those buyers, as well as many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: