Blow, Cohen and Krugman

In “Iowa’s Black Caucusgoers” Mr. Blow says despite their relatively small numbers, black voters on Monday could make a difference in the direction of the presidential campaign.  In “Italian-Iranian Hall of Mirrors” Mr. Cohen says the West has not capitulated by hiding the Capitoline nudes. But Italy has again failed the test of seriousness.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Wind, Sun and Fire:”  Will we have a renewables revolution? He says it may be closer than you think.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

On Monday, Iowans will become the first people in the nation to officially express their choices for the next president of the United States.

But what interested me in particular was that a subset of those voters will be black. And since black voters in national polls are overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelming prefer Hillary Clinton to her rivals, it seemed important to explore how these voters are processing this election cycle and its candidates.

Over three days in Des Moines — from Friday to Sunday — I interviewed more than 30 black people, and spoke briefly to many more at a black church, a black-owned barbershop, a popular soul food restaurant and at African-American social events.

My first impression from these conversations was that there existed a staggering level of ambivalence and absence of enthusiasm. A surprising number of people said that they were undecided and started an answer with the clause, “If I had to chose …”

Furthermore, there also seemed to be a generational divide between the people who felt more embraced and informed by the political campaigns — the older ones, and those who felt more abandoned or ignored by them — the younger ones.

As Wayne Ford, co-founder and co-chairman of the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, told me Sunday, the level of excitement in the black community is “nowhere near where it was 2008” when Barack Obama was a candidate.

Also, the preference for Clinton over Bernie Sanders was a two-pronged assessment; it was a sophisticated weighing of comfort and of policy without an absolutism of good vs. bad, but rather a matter of degrees better or worse, more real or more fantasy.

On the policy front, many simply found Sanders’s policies unrealistically ambitious, an over-promising of giveaways. As one woman put it, “He sounds like Oprah: ‘You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!’ How is he going to pay for all that?”

Clinton’s ambitions seemed to be judged more realistic.

Then, there was the problem of comfort.

The Clintons seem to intuitively understand the value of retail politics, particularly when doing outreach to marginalized groups. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from black people about the time that one of the Clintons — most often Bill Clinton — spoke at or showed up at an event important to the black community.

This means something. It adds to an aura of familiarity that doesn’t extend to Sanders.

For instance, on Saturday, the second and final day of the “I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa” annual festival, billed as the largest African-American festival in the state, Hillary Clinton was the only candidate to make an appearance, albeit incredibly briefly.

(Some may recognize the phrase “I’ll make me a world” as a line in James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” from his 1927 book of poems “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” Those who don’t may already be at a deficit in African-American outreach.)

This year for the first time a straw poll was taken at the event, and Clinton got more votes than all other candidates combined.

But it seemed to me that the support was remarkably soft. People, in general, weren’t charging toward passion but slumping toward acquiescence.

The next day, Bill Clinton strode into the Corinthian Baptist Church — accompanied by Representatives John Lewis and Sheila Jackson Lee. While Hillary had spoken for just a few minutes at the previous day’s event, Bill spoke so long at the church that there was no time left for a sermon.

Bill Clinton seems to understand the powerful role the griot plays in black culture, and he channels that spirit when he speaks, far more than any non-black candidate I’ve seen.

Maybe that is why no one I spoke to mentioned “how much damage the Clintons have done — the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes,” as Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” put it Thursday on her Facebook page.

For Sanders’s part, he seemed to be judged too unfamiliar and too absent, particularly down the homestretch. This feels to me like a terrible tactical error. No matter how much his positions and policies may benefit black voters, they are no more interested than any other group of voters in a long-distance love affair. You have to show up. You have to put in the time.

It is true that in the last census, blacks were only 3.7 percent of the population in Iowa, but that vote matters, not only for Iowa but also as a harbinger for those who will come after.

As Rick Wade, Obama’s director of African-American outreach in 2008, told CNN last week, “In both large and small caucuses, black voters can tilt the scales when the numbers are close.” He continued: “And strong black support in Iowa could affect black response and support in South Carolina and nationally.”

As an aside, if you haven’t read “God’s Trombones” find a copy.  You won’t regret it.  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Italy’s decision to cover up the nudes at the Capitoline Museum in deference to the sensibilities of the visiting Glasgow-educated Iranian president has been widely interpreted as final proof of the capitulation of Western civilization to theocratic Islam.

It was, Hisham Melhem, a columnist for Al Arabiya English, suggested, a “brazen act of self-emasculation and obeisance.”

If Italy, inheritor of the glories of the Roman Empire, boxes up some of its finest works of art just in case the eye of President Hassan Rouhani should fall on the plum-like breast of a marble goddess, then nobody should be surprised if Islamic fanatics (Sunni, not Shia, but still) choose to destroy the glorious Greco-Roman legacy at Palmyra.

Or so the reasoning goes.

As a consequence of Boxgate, Italy has suffered ridicule. Nothing is worse than ridicule. Here it is merited. Not so much, I would argue, for Italy’s clumsy attempt at courtesy, for courtesy is important and has become an undervalued virtue. Reading the fall of the West into the concealment of a nude is going too far. Mistakes happen.

No, the ridicule is merited because the decision to hide the works of art was, it seems, taken by nobody. In Rome, the buck stops nowhere.

The Capitoline Venus just boxed herself up one night because she was bored and took a few deities along with her.

The prime minister, Matteo Renzi, did not know. The foreign minister did not know. The culture minister called the decision “incomprehensible.” They were, they insist (perhaps too much), as surprised as anyone to find all those white cubes — none, incidentally, provided by the prestigious White Cube gallery in London.

One account has it that a woman named Ilva Sapora who works at Palazzo Chigi, where Renzi’s office is located, made the decision after visiting the Capitoline with Iranian Embassy officials. “Nonsense,” Jas Gawronski, a former Italian member of the European Parliament, told me. The notion that a mid-level Chigi official in charge of ceremonial matters could have made the decision does seem far-fetched. Gawronski believes it is more likely to have been officials at the Farnesina, home to the Foreign Ministry.

One thing can be safely said: Nobody will ever know. I was a correspondent in Rome for some years in the 1980s. Periodically there would be developments in terrorist cases — the Piazza Fontana bombing of 1969 or the Brescia bombing of 1974. Trials, verdicts, appeals followed one another. Facts grew murkier not clearer. It would take decades to arrive at convictions that did not resolve doubts. Italy has never had much time for the notion that justice delayed is justice denied.

Renzi has wanted to break with this Italy of murky secrets, modernize it, bring stable government and install accountability. He’s made significant changes in electoral and labor law. But he has a problem. At the same time as the Boxgate scandal was unfolding he was telling my colleague Jim Yardley in an interview that, “I’m the leader of a great country.”

A great country doesn’t have statues that box themselves up all by themselves.

Truth in Italy is elastic. A much-conquered country learned the wisdom of ambiguous expression, as for that matter did much-conquered Persia. The Italians say, “Se non é vero, é ben trovato” — roughly if it’s not true it ought to be.

At bottom, this story is one of an Iranian-Italian hall of mirrors with a pot of gold sitting in the middle of the hall valued at about $18 billion in new trade deals.

The Iranians insist nobody asked for those masterpieces of Classical humanism to be hidden: another case of nobody’s decision.

Iran too distrusts clarity. It is a nation whose conventions include the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof,” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative.

Speaking of truth denial, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has again questioned the existence of the Holocaust. He chose to do so in a video uploaded to his website on Holocaust Remembrance Day. There is to be another “Holocaust Cartoon and Caricature Contest” in June.

Needless to say this Holocaust denial is odious, the regime at its worst. It is also a sign of desperation among the hard-liners determined to block Rouhani’s opening to the world. They reckon Holocaust denial will derail any détente. The buzzword of the hard-liners is “nufuz,” or infiltration by the West. Iranians are being warned to guard against it in this month’s parliamentary elections.

You can hide a few statues in the Capitoline Museum, but you can’t hide the deep rifts between an Iranian society overwhelmingly in favor of opening to the West and a theocratic regime determined to ensure the nuclear deal does not lead to wider cooperation with the United States and Europe.

Far from finding itself in a state of capitulation, the West exerts a very powerful cultural magnetism, evident in the rabid desperation of its opponents.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So what’s really at stake in this year’s election? Well, among other things, the fate of the planet.

Last year was the hottest on record, by a wide margin, which should — but won’t — put an end to climate deniers’ claims that global warming has stopped. The truth is that climate change just keeps getting scarier; it is, by far, the most important policy issue facing America and the world. Still, this election wouldn’t have much bearing on the issue if there were no prospect of effective action against the looming catastrophe.

But the situation on that front has changed drastically for the better in recent years, because we’re now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution. What’s more, getting that energy revolution wouldn’t require a political revolution. All it would take are fairly modest policy changes, some of which have already happened and others of which are already underway. But those changes won’t happen if the wrong people end up in power.

To see what I’m talking about, you need to know something about the current state of climate economics, which has changed far more in recent years than most people seem to realize.

Most people who think about the issue at all probably imagine that achieving a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would necessarily involve big economic sacrifices. This view is required orthodoxy on the right, where it forms a sort of second line of defense against action, just in case denial of climate science and witch hunts against climate scientists don’t do the trick. For example, in the last Republican debate Marco Rubio — the last, best hope of the G.O.P. establishment — insisted, as he has before, that a cap-and-trade program would be “devastating for our economy.”

To find anything equivalent on the left you have to go far out of the mainstream, to activists who insist that climate change can’t be fought without overthrowing capitalism. Still, my sense is that many Democrats believe that politics as usual isn’t up to the task, that we need a political earthquake to make real action possible. In particular, I keep hearing that the Obama administration’s environmental efforts have been so far short of what’s needed as to be barely worth mentioning.

But things are actually much more hopeful than that, thanks to remarkable technological progress in renewable energy.

The numbers are really stunning. According to a recent report by the investment firm Lazard, the cost of electricity generation using wind power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the cost of solar power fell 82 percent. These numbers — which are in line with other estimates — show progress at rates we normally only expect to see for information technology. And they put the cost of renewable energy into a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels.

Now, there are still some issues special to renewables, in particular problems of intermittency: consumers may want power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But this issue seems to be of diminishing significance, partly thanks to improving storage technology, partly thanks to the realization that “demand response” — paying consumers to cut energy use during peak periods — can greatly reduce the problem.

So what will it take to achieve a large-scale shift from fossil fuels to renewables, a shift to sun and wind instead of fire? Financial incentives, and they don’t have to be all that huge. Tax credits for renewables that were part of the Obama stimulus plan, and were extended under the recent budget deal, have already done a lot to accelerate the energy revolution. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which if implemented will create strong incentives to move away from coal, will do much more.

And none of this will require new legislation; we can have an energy revolution even if the crazies retain control of the House.

Now, skeptics may point out that even if all these good things happen, they won’t be enough on their own to save the planet. For one thing, we’re only talking about electricity generation, which is a big part of the climate change problem but not the whole thing. For another, we’re only talking about one country when the problem is global.

But I’d argue that the kind of progress now within reach could produce a tipping point, in the right direction. Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success and, yes, a powerful interest group, anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip. And an energy revolution in America would let us take the lead in global action.

Salvation from climate catastrophe is, in short, something we can realistically hope to see happen, with no political miracle necessary. But failure is also a very real possibility. Everything is hanging in the balance.

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