Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

Cohen and Bruni

December 31, 2014

In “Gaza Is Nowhere” Mr. Cohen says that in the enclave, another war is waiting to happen.  Mr. Bruni thinks he has “A Democrat to Watch in 2015.”  He says in some ways the anti-Warren, Rhode Island’s first female governor is a dynamo and dissident who forces tough conversations on her party.  You heard it first here — the Democrats need her like they need root canals and bunions.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Gaza City:

You trudge into Gaza from a high-tech Israeli facility through a caged walkway that brings you, after about 15 minutes, to a ramshackle Palestinian border post; and then, formalities completed, on you go, through dust and the reek of sewage, past the crumpled buildings and the donkey carts, to arrive at last in the middle of nowhere.

Gaza is nowhere. Very few people go in or out of the 140-square-mile enclave. Most people want to forget about it. The border with Egypt was closed in October. A handful of travelers negotiate the labyrinth of inspections at the Israeli border and proceed into the Jewish state.

I watched a young man passing sand through a sieve as the surface of a road was laid beside the sea in Gaza City. He’d shake the sieve, watch the sand drop through and, finally, tip out the remnants. Again and again he did it, in the dust. He is among the more productively employed of Gaza’s 1.8 million citizens.

There is another war waiting to happen in Gaza. The last one changed nothing. Hamas rockets are being test-fired. A Palestinian farmer has been shot dead near the border. Tensions simmer. The draft Security Council resolution at the United Nations, championed by the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, seeking a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank by 2017, amounts to an elaborate sideshow. The real matter of diplomatic urgency going into 2015, for the Palestinian people and the world, is to end the lockdown of Gaza.

“People are mad, frustrated, they have nothing to lose,” Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to the Hamas Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, told me. “We are dying gradually so it is better to die with dignity.”

The only dust-free environment is the compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. I went to see its director, Robert Turner. He told me that initial estimates of war damage belittled its extent: 96,000 homes of refugee families (against initial estimates of 42,000) are either destroyed or damaged, and 124,000 houses in all. But very little rebuilding material is available. “There’s a vacuum.” he said.

The supposed reconciliation between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas has proved worthless. At the hospital, contracts for cleaners and food are not being paid. Hamas and Fatah blame each other. Turner described “a drift toward more radical groups.” None of the causes of the conflict had been addressed. “Fatah and Hamas and Israel can avert a descent into new violence, but I don’t think that window will stay open for long,” he told me.

Nobody wants to talk about Gaza because it reeks of failure — the failure of Israeli withdrawal; the failure of a long-ago election that ushered Hamas to power; the failure to achieve the Palestinian unity necessary for serious peace talks; the failure to prevent repetitive war; the failure of the Arab Spring that led to that sealed Egyptian border; the failure to be coherent about Hamas (negotiated with by Israel to end the war and to secure the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit but otherwise viewed as a terrorist group with which negotiation is impossible); the failure to offer decency to 1.8 million trapped human beings.

Gaza is shameful.

The enclave is a thorny quandary. Hamas has a vile Charter, a goal of destroying Israel, and it fires rockets on Israeli civilians from among Palestinian civilians. But it is not monolithic. Putting Gaza first would have several merits: forcing Palestinians to unify their national movement and hold long-delayed elections; averting yet another war with its heavy toll in human life and negative impact on Israel’s international standing; ushering a large group of Palestinians out of radicalizing misery; obliging the peacemakers, so-called, to get real or go home; stopping the distraction at the United Nations.

My Gaza road ended at the Shuhadaa al Shejaeya Secondary School for boys. It is about 1,400 yards from the border in eastern Gaza City. You look out past a destroyed juice factory, a destroyed farm-equipment factory and see the tantalizing green fields of Israel, from which Palestinians tend to avert their eyes. The classrooms all have windows blown out or doors blown off. Kids play football in a courtyard imprinted with Israeli tank tracks. Half of them have homes partially destroyed. I asked one student, Saleem Ejla, age 16, what he expected: “War after war,” he shot back.

Hasan al-Zeyada, a psychologist, showed me around. He lost six close relatives, including his mother and three brothers, in an Israeli airstrike on July 20. Of the students at the school, he said that they had no need to be taught history: “They have lived it. They can teach it to me.”

He told me about his 8-year-old daughter, Zeina, who refuses to speak to God since her grandmother was killed and tells her father: “God is a weak one. I will never say God again. He can’t change anything.”

But Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Europeans and Americans can — if they choose to locate the nowhere named Gaza and turn it into somewhere. The alternative is war without end.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, extolling another Republican Lite:

With the New Year comes a new slate of officeholders whose careers warrant close attention and whose fates could have broader political implications. Put Gina Raimondo near the top of that list.

She’s the first woman to be elected governor of Rhode Island, and when she’s inaugurated next week, she’ll become, at 43, one of just two Democratic women, alongside Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, at the helms of their states.

But it’s another prominent female Democrat from New England who provides a more interesting point of reference for Raimondo. I mean Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts. As much as Warren has excited the left wing of her party, Raimondo has enraged them.

She just wrapped up four years as her state’s treasurer, during which she successfully pushed an unusually ambitious overhaul of the pension system for state employees. It suspended cost-of-living adjustments, raised the retirement age by five years and left unions boiling mad. They opposed her in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. She marched to the governor’s job in tension, not harmony, with a key element of the party’s base.

Some in the party cast her as a pawn of the finance industry and big corporations, partly because she once worked in venture capital. She started Rhode Island’s first venture capital firm.

She doesn’t talk about plutocrats with Warren’s angry fire, not because she thinks they’re above reproach but because she deems vilifying them less fruitful than reminding them that they, too, have a profound stake in a healthier America with a fairer distribution of wealth and more social mobility.

“I fall into the camp that income inequality is the biggest problem we face,” she said Monday night over eggplant parmigiana in a Providence restaurant. An Italian-American, she grew up just outside the city and lives here now with her husband and their two young children.

She said that she has told Wall Street titans point blank that they should be paying higher federal taxes and leveling the playing field, but with this message: “I need you to double down on America. We need you. We need your brains, we need your money, we need your engagement — not because it’s Wall Street versus Main Street, but because you’re some of the smartest, richest people in the world, and you need to be a part of fixing America, because you want to live in an America that’s the best country in the world.”

She said that Democrats must always prioritize the underdogs, the strivers. And she spoke admiringly of Warren: “She says things that make people uncomfortable but need to be said.”

But, she added, “My own rhetoric is not so ‘us versus them.’ I don’t like fighting.”

And she has highlighted additional concerns, such as the Democratic Party’s frequent fealty to organized labor and its reluctance at times to shake up the status quo in order to find the money needed for social spending.

Her pension-reform campaign was fascinating for its blunt talk of trade-offs, of sacrifices today for investments in tomorrow. She framed the cutbacks as progressive — as the only responsible liberalism — because without them, education, infrastructure, transportation and more would suffer.

She thus provided a template for how politicians in Washington could try to rein in Social Security and Medicare spending, if they wished. An article in National Journal framed her efforts and the pushback against them as “a battle for the Democratic Party’s future,” and Matt Miller later wrote in The Washington Post that she could transform the “national conversation about how to achieve progressive goals in an aging America.”

She sometimes speaks a language of metrics that makes her as stirring to some business-minded centrists as Warren is to many liberals. And if she manages to improve Rhode Island’s famously beleaguered economy, she’s teed up to be a national player, thanks to her youth and back story: a working-class upbringing followed by Harvard, then a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, then Yale Law.

She’s small — just under 5-foot-3 — and intense. When she mentions that she played rugby in school, it fits. When she describes her advantage on the field, it sounds as if she’s talking about more than sport. “It’s good to be little and fast,” she said.

In focus groups, some Rhode Islanders called her “too harsh,” she said, a judgment seemingly connected to her wardrobe of suits. “Then you show them pictures of me in casual clothes and they’re like, ‘Oh, she seems nice.’ It’s, like, if you’re a strong woman, you can’t also be nice. It’s really that simple.”

Will she be a strong governor? She starts out dogged by a sweeping court challenge to those pension reforms.

But this much is clear: She takes risks, colors outside the lines and seeks a tone all her own. That’s worthy of note.

Bull crap.  Bruni should go back to reviewing restaurants — at least then he knew what the fck he was writing about.

Friedman and Bruni

December 24, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Is Vacation Over?”  He says we haven’t seen the ramifications of the drop in global oil prices yet.  In “The Pope, Beyoncé and Me” Mr. Bruni says that by reaching out to Cuba while admonishing his own cardinals, Francis sends the right Christmas message.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

More than we may realize, the world has been riding a lucky streak since the global financial meltdown in 2008. How so? The years between 2008 and late 2013 were — relatively speaking — a rather benign period of big power politics and geopolitics. This allowed the major economic powers — the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, Brazil and Japan — to focus almost exclusively on economic rehabilitation. But now there are strong indications that our vacation from geo-instability is over.

The last time the world witnessed such a steep and sustained drop in oil prices — from 1986 to 1999 — it had some profound political consequences for oil-dependent states and those who depended on their largess. The Soviet empire collapsed; Iran elected a reformist president; Iraq invaded Kuwait; and Yasir Arafat, having lost his Soviet backer and Arab bankers, recognized Israel — to name but a few. Admittedly, other factors were involved in all these events. But, in each case, steep drops in direct or indirect oil revenues played a big role.

If today’s falloff in oil prices is sustained, we’ll also be in for a lot of surprises. Some will have happy endings. Cuba’s decision to bury the hatchet with America had to have been spurred in part by Havana’s fears of losing some or all of the 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day it gets from the now cash-strapped Venezuela. Others could be very destabilizing. Today’s world is much more tightly interconnected and interdependent than in the last oil price drop-off, which was before the spread of the Internet. And today’s world has so many more actors — superpowers and superempowered individuals and hackers who can destabilize companies and countries with cyberweapons. See dictionary for “Sony” and “North Korea.”

When I hear President Vladimir Putin of Russia bragging that lower oil revenues won’t affect the Russian people because they are stoic — look what they tolerated in World War II — my reaction is: “Mr. Putin, that was before there was a significant urban middle class in Russia, one you helped to build with trickle-down oil and gas revenues.” A lot more Russians today have gotten used to traveling abroad, owning a car (note Moscow’s traffic jams), consuming Western goods and seeing how the rest of the world lives. Let’s see how stoic they are today. Russia’s former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin was quoted by The Financial Times on Monday as saying, “There will be a fall in living standards. It will be painful. Protest activity will increase.”

The Western sanctions on Putin’s banks, combined with the sudden sharp drop in oil prices and capital flight also triggered by the sanctions, mean that Russia has a dangerous gap between the funds flowing into its economy and what it needs to send out to pay its debts and finance its imports. Putin can’t relieve the pressure without a lifting of Western sanctions. That would require him to reverse his seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine.

If Putin admits his Ukraine adventure was a mistake, he will look incredibly foolish and the long knives will be out for him in the Kremlin. If he doesn’t back down, Russians will pay a huge price. Either way, that system will be stressed with unpredictable spillovers on the global economy. Remember: Russia’s 1998 economic collapse — also triggered by low oil prices and the moratorium it declared on payments to foreign debtors — helped to sink the giant American hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, sparking a near meltdown on Wall Street.

A prolonged drop in oil prices will impact Algeria, Iran and Arab Gulf states, where aging regimes have used high oil prices to increase government salaries to buy quiet from their people during the Arab Spring. Also, in an age when machines and software are ensuring that average is over for workers in developed countries, and everyone needs to be upgrading their skills, what happens to the developing Arab states and Iran, who have used oil money to mask their deficits in knowledge, education and women’s empowerment? Egypt’s military-led government is highly in need of Arab oil money to get through its crisis. A bit of good news: The Islamic State, which depends on oil smuggling, will fail at governing even faster than it already has.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s increasingly tyrannical president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been arresting domestic opponents, is looking like “Vladimir Putin Jr.” Erdogan is a tragic figure because he did much to build Turkey’s economy into a powerhouse. But, today, according to The Financial Times, Turkey now “needs more than $200 billion of foreign financing a year, more than a quarter of gross domestic product, to maintain its current level of growth.” There will be less Arab and Russian oil money for that and, last week, with Erdogan being criticized by the European Union (a big source of investment income) for arresting his opponents, the Turkish lira hit a low against the dollar. Watch that space.

High oil prices covered many sins and fostered many sins. If they stay low again for long, a lot of leaders will have to pay retail for their crazy politics, not wholesale. The political and geopolitical fallouts will be varied — good and bad — but fallout aplenty there will be.

Probably in a Friedman Unit or two…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

There was a Christmas Eve a little more than a decade ago when I did something that was, for me, rare, at least on a holiday typically spent in full-party mode, with booze, food, family and friends. I went to church.

No one had died. No one was getting married or baptized. This visit was entirely volitional — and, I told myself, ornamental, which was true to a point.

The church, you see, was St. Peter’s Basilica. I was The Times’s correspondent in Rome. And because I covered the Vatican, I had dibs on prime seats relatively close to the altar. Forgive the following mixture of profane and sacred, but you don’t have to be a Beyoncé devotee to say a quick yes to free tickets in the front rows. You go for the pageant and the privilege.

Pope John Paul II presided over the Mass, as best he could. He struggled to form coherent words, a man disintegrating before the world’s eyes, month by painful month. Many of us in the press corps who kept tabs on him and trailed him — to Guatemala, to Croatia, to Poland — were essentially on a deathwatch.

And some of us occasionally wondered if that vigil extended beyond him, to the Roman Catholic Church itself, and if he were both man and metaphor. Especially in Western Europe and the United States, the church was sliding into a sort of obsolescence.

It often resisted engagement with modernity. It denounced sin in the world while indulging it in the priesthood. And it spoke with a censoriousness that seemed antithetical to Christianity.

After John Paul came Benedict; little changed. More and more of the Catholics I knew located their faith as far outside of the Vatican as they could.

Now there’s Francis. And things are different. Not different enough, not by a long shot. The church remains wrong on women and wrong on gays, and I’ve noted repeatedly the shameful discrepancy between Francis’ kind words and the unkind firings of lesbian and gay employees by Catholic institutions in the United States.

But almost two years into his papacy, it’s impossible to deny the revolutionary freshness of his posture: humble, receptive, even casual. The pomp is gone and, with it, the air of thundering judgment. If the rules haven’t been rewritten, they seem less like bludgeons than in the past.

Francis doesn’t hold himself high, an autocrat with all the answers. He crouches to a level where questions can be asked, conversations broached, disagreements articulated.

He insists that other church leaders lower themselves as well, and used a traditional Christmas address on Monday not to chide the flock for its transgressions but to remind the shepherds of theirs.

He accused some of the cardinals, bishops and priests in the upper echelons of the church bureaucracy of straying so forgetfully from their true mission and ministry that they were afflicted with a kind of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”

He said that they had fallen prey to the “pathology of power” and needed to beware the “terrorism of gossip.” All in all, the Vatican as described by Francis sounded like an Aaron Spelling drama, although with looser-fitting clothes, odder hats and lower Nielsen ratings.

By taking the church out of the clouds, he’s putting it into the fray. All accounts of the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba cast Francis as a key player, and that’s more than a diplomatic victory. It’s an assertion of the church’s sustained relevance.

He’s also putting the church within reach of those who would rather find a place for it in their lives than have to figure out a life without it. They are many.

I’ve never been able to believe in one dogma, one institution, as a possible repository for all truth and as a compass trumping any other. And I’ve been troubled by the frequency with which individual religions divide rather than unite. The Catholic Church has certainly been guilty of this.

But it has also done, and continues to do, enormous good. Its soldiers are present at almost every humanitarian crisis, their courage and caring inextricable from the best strands of the faith.

That faith provides many pilgrims with a harbor they can’t find elsewhere. They look to it not necessarily for a precise code of conduct but for a crucial inspiration to be less selfish, more charitable. It gives them a sorely needed peace, so long as they don’t feel shoved away.

By not shoving, Francis is serving them well. By not shouting, he’s being heard.

In St. Peter’s this Christmas Eve, he’ll be at center stage. Except he won’t, in another sense, because he’s redefined his role. If I were in the pews once again, it wouldn’t be to savor the spectacle. It would be to see the man.

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

December 21, 2014

In “North Korea and the Speech Police” The Putz howls that Sony’s self-censorship isn’t really so surprising in an era of hypersensitive political correctness.  In the comments “azlib” from AZ has this to say:  “Oh, please Ross. It wasn’t a “liberal” institution that caved to North Korea. It was a capitalist corporation only concerned with its bottom line. It is also a false equivalence to compare the protests against some political speaker (which is also free speech) with the serious hacking done by North Korea against Sony.  Also, it is interesting you do not include all the right wing hissy fits done to silence liberal critics of the Iraq War. Is that part of our so called censorship culture or is there a double standard going on here?”  Mr. Cohen has a question:  “What Will Israel Become?”  He says the country’s choices narrow. Peace? Or annexation?  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question:  “Who’s Playing Marbles Now?”  He says there was a lot of Putin envy going around earlier this year. Oh how things have changed.  In “The Gift of Education” Mr. Kristof says in this holiday season, let’s take a moment to celebrate those who share the transformative opportunity of an education.  Mr. Bruni’s panties are in a knot.  In “Hacking Our Humanity” he squeals that conversations aren’t confidential. Spontaneity is ill-advised. This is bigger than Sony. We’re all exposed and diminished.  Well, Frankie, you don’t really have to tell everyone everything about your life by Twitter-twatting and FBing…  Here’s the Putz:

Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

So why should anyone be remotely surprised that Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?

Let’s get some qualifiers out of the way. The North Korean regime is arguably more evil than any other present-day dictatorship, its apparent hack of Sony Pictures is a deadly serious act of cyberterrorism, and the response by Sony — the outright withdrawal, after theater chains balked at showing it, of the offending comedy, “The Interview,” in which the North Korean dictator is blown to smithereens — sets a uniquely terrible precedent.

It’s terrible for cinema, since the film industry, already wary of any controversy that might make its blockbusters hard to sell in Asia, will no doubt retreat even further into the safety of superhero franchises. More important, it’s terrible for any future institution or individual hacked or blackmailed by groups seeking similar concessions.

So the Sony affair is more serious than many other debates about speech and power in the West right now. But the difference is still one of magnitude, not kind.

After all, the basic strategy employed by the apparently North Korean-backed hackers is the same one employed for years by Islamic extremists against novelists and newspapers and TV shows that dare to portray the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light (or in any light at all). And the weak response from Hollywood, where the town’s movers and shakers proved unwilling to even sign a George Clooney-organized public petition pledging solidarity against the hackers, isn’t so very different from the self-censorship by networks and publishers and even opera houses that have fallen afoul of Islamist sensitivities over the years.

Moreover, the demand that “The Interview” be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully — as it most certainly does — isn’t all that different from the arguments behind the various speech codes that have proliferated in Europe and Canada of late, exposing people to fines and prosecution for speaking too critically about the religions, cultures and sexual identities of others.

Nor is it all that different from the arguments used in the United States to justify canceling an increasing number of commencement speakers — including Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christine Lagarde — when some hothouse-flower campus activists decided they couldn’t bear to sit and hear them. Or the mentality that forced out the C.E.O. and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, when it was revealed that he had once donated money to a ballot initiative that opposed same-sex marriage. Or the free-floating, shape-shifting outrage that now pervades the Internet, always looking for some offensive or un-P.C. remark to fasten on and furiously attack — whether the perpetrator is a TV personality or some unlucky political staffer, hapless and heretofore obscure.

The common thread in all these cases, whether the angry parties are Hermit Kingdom satraps or random social-justice warriors on Twitter, is a belief that the most important power is the power to silence, and that the perfect community is one in which nothing uncongenial to your own worldview is ever tweeted, stated, supported or screened.

And the other common thread, of course, is the pathetic response from the cultural entities that are supposedly most invested in free speech in our culture — universities, Internet companies, the press and the film industry, all of which seem disinclined to risk much on behalf of the ideals they officially cherish.

As a conservative, you take for granted that these institutions are often political monocultures — that the average commencement speaker, like the average academic, will be several degrees left of center, that Silicon Valley isn’t the most hospitable place to be a religious conservative, that when Hollywood gets “edgy” or “controversial” it’s usually a right-wing ox that’s being gored.

But it would be far easier to live with this predictable liberalism if these institutions, so pious about their commitment to free expression, weren’t so quick to knuckle under to illiberalism in all its varied forms.

“We cannot have a society,” President Obama said on Friday, when asked about the Sony hack, “where some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”

In theory, that’s absolutely right. But in practice, Kim Jong-un has our culture’s number: Letting angry people impose a little censorship is just the way we live right now.

Putzy, here’s a big pile of salted dicks for you to munch on.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Jerusalem:

Uneasiness inhabits Israel, a shadow beneath the polished surface. In a violent Middle Eastern neighborhood of fracturing states, that is perhaps inevitable, but Israelis are questioning their nation and its future with a particular insistence. As the campaign for March elections begins, this disquiet looks like the precursor of political change. The status quo, with its bloody and inconclusive interludes, has become less bearable. More of the same has a name: Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his third term as prime minister. The alternative, although less clear, is no longer unthinkable.

“There is a growing uneasiness, social, political, economic,” Amos Oz, the novelist, told me in an interview. “There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.” The author, widely viewed as the conscience of a liberal and anti-Messianic Israel, continued, “Unless there are two states — Israel next door to Palestine — and soon, there will be one state. If there will be one state, it will be an Arab state. The other option is an Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”

If that sounds stark, it is because choices are narrowing. Every day, it seems, another European government or parliament expresses support for recognition of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian-backed initiative at the United Nations, opposed in its current form by the United States, is aimed at pushing Israel to withdraw from the West Bank by 2017. The last Gaza eruption, with its heavy toll and messy outcome, changed nothing. Hamas, its annihilationist hatred newly stoked, is still there parading its weapons. Tension is high in Jerusalem after a spate of violent incidents. Life is expensive. Netanyahu’s credibility on both the domestic and international fronts has dwindled.

“We wake up every morning to some new threat he has found,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist. “We have grown tired of it.”

This fatigue will, however, translate into change only if a challenger looks viable. Until recently nobody has. But in the space of a few weeks something has shifted. The leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, has been ushered from unelectable nerd to plausible patriot. Polls show him neck and neck with the incumbent. Through an alliance forged this month with Tzipi Livni, the recently dismissed justice minister and longtime negotiator with the Palestinians, the Labor leader created a sense of possibility for the center left. A post-Bibi Israel no longer seems a fantasy.

“This cannot go on,” Herzog, a mild-mannered man working on manifesting his inner steel, told me. “There is a deep inherent worry as to the future and well-being of our country. Netanyahu has been leading us to a dead end, to an abyss.” Summing up his convictions, Herzog declared, “We are the Zionist camp. They are the extreme camp.”

Here we get to the nub of the election. A battle has been engaged for Israel’s soul. The country’s founding charter of 1948 declared that the nascent state would be based “on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” This is the embodiment of the Zionism of Herzog and Livni. They are both descendants of important figures in Israel’s creation — Chaim Herzog, a former president of Labor sympathies, and Eitan Livni, a former commander of the rightist Irgun militia. For all their differences Labor and Likud, left and right, did not differ on the essential democratic freedoms for all its citizens, Jew and Arab, that Israel should seek to uphold. The new Herzog-Livni alliance looks like an eloquent reaffirmation of that idea.

It is a fragile idea today. Tolerance is under attack as a wave of Israeli nationalism unfurls and settlements grow in the West Bank. This virulent, Jews-first thinking led recently to a bill known as the nationality law that would rescind Arabic’s status as an official language — and proved a catalyst to the breakup of Netanyahu’s government. It also finds expression in the abuse hurled at anyone, including the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, who speaks up for Arab rights. “Traitor” has become a facile cry.

Danny Danon, a former deputy defense minister who is challenging Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, told me his long-term vision for the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as he calls it, “is to have sovereignty over the majority of the land with the minimum amount of Palestinians.” The two-state idea, Danon said, “is finished, and most Israelis understand that.”

In fact the two-state idea is alive but ever more tenuous. It is compatible with an Israel true to its founding principles. It is incompatible with an Israel bent on Jewish supremacy and annexation of all or most of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It can be resurrected, because there is no plausible alternative, despite the fact that almost a half-century of dominion over another people has produced ever greater damage, distrust and division. It can be buried only at the expense of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, for no democracy can indefinitely control the lives of millions of disenfranchised people — and that is what many Palestinians are.

“This election is a critical juncture,” said Ofer Kenig, a political analyst. “We have to choose between being a Zionist and liberal nation, or turning into an ethnocentric, nationalist country. I am concerned about the direction in which this delicate democracy is heading.”

A child of 9 in Gaza has memories of three wars in six years. The child may stand in the remains of the Shejaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City, gazing at tangles of iron rods, mountains of stone, jagged outcrops of masonry, and air thick with dust. The child may wonder what force it is that wrought such destruction, so repetitively, and why. It is safe to say that the adult this Palestinian child will one day become does not bode well for Israel. The child has no need for indoctrination in hatred.

I was there the other day, in the rubble. Children stood around. I chatted with the Harara family, whose houses were flattened during the 50-day war with Israel that began this summer. Every day Mustafa Harara, 47, comes to gaze at the cratered vestige of his house. He asks where else he should go. It took him 26 years to build. It took five minutes for Israel to demolish it. The reason is unclear. He is no Hamas militant. His electricity business, located in the same area, was also destroyed.

Since the war, he has received nothing, despite the billions for reconstruction pledged by gulf states and others. In June, President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new government that grew out of the reconciliation pact his Palestine Liberation Organization had signed with Hamas. There is no unity and, in effect, no government in Gaza.

The Egyptian border is closed. Movement through the Israeli border amounts to a minimal trickle. Israeli surveillance balloons hover in airspace controlled by Israel. The 140-square-mile area is little better than an open-air prison. As incubators for violent extremism go, it is hard to imagine a more effective setting than Gaza.

Abbas has not visited since the war broke out. To come after such suffering would have been courageous; not to was craven. Now he is regarded as a stranger by most of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Gaza, the absent father of a nation in desperate need. “Abbas is the one who destroyed us,” Harara says. “What reconciliation? You cannot mix gasoline and diesel.”

This is the abject Palestinian reality behind the speeches about new paradigms, internationalization of the conflict, United Nations resolutions and the like. The legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood is undermined by debilitating division that Abbas is either unable or unwilling to address. In January, he will have been in power for a decade. He shows no sign of organizing the election needed to confer legitimacy on his rule or to reveal the real power balance in Palestinian politics. The citizens of Gaza represent a significant proportion of Palestinians in the Holy Land. How the Palestinian push for statehood can be effective without real unity and the painful compromises between Fatah and Hamas needed to achieve it is a mystery. Surely it is Job 1.

Everyone in Gaza seems to expect another war. “We are dying slowly, so why not die quickly?” is a common refrain. People seem dazed. There is, quite literally, no way out.

Lutfi Harara, the younger brother of Mustafa, whose home was also destroyed, took me to see the little house with a corrugated iron roof he had cobbled together since the war. He showed me photographs of Haifa, his memories of the Israel where he used to work as an electrician before divisions hardened. From rockets and artillery shells found in the rubble of his home, he has fashioned lamps and a vase and a heavy bell dangling from an olive tree — his version of swords into plowshares, and the one hopeful thing I saw in Gaza.

From his home I went to see a hard-line Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar. He lambasted Abbas — “he is living on stories” — and told me to forget about a two-state compromise at or near the 1967 lines. “Israel will be eliminated because it is a foreign body that does not belong to our area, or history or religion,” he said. Referring to Israeli Jews, he continued, “Why should they come from Ethiopia, or Poland, or America? There are six million in Palestine, O.K., take them. America is very wide. You can make a new district for the Jews.”

Zahar, with his hatred, is almost 70. Abbas will be 80 in March. Many Palestinians in their 20s and 30s whom I spoke to in Gaza are sick of sterile threats, incompetence and the cycle of war.

“There is no such thing as a happy compromise,” Amos Oz told me. “Israelis and Palestinians cannot become one happy family because they are not one, not happy and not family either. They are two unhappy families who must divide a small house into even smaller apartments.” The first step, he said, is to “sign peace with clenched teeth, and after signing the contract, start working slowly on a gradual emotional de-escalation on both sides.”

Israel is a remarkable and vibrant democratic society that is facing an impasse. It must decide whether to tough it out on a nationalist road that must lead eventually to annexation of at least wide areas of the West Bank, or whether to return to the ideals of the Zionists who accepted the 1947 United Nations partition of Mandate Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab (the Arabs did not accept the division and embarked on the first of several losing wars aimed at destroying Israel).

This election constitutes a pivotal moment. Herzog told me, “We are not willing to accept that mothers and fathers on the other side don’t want peace. They also want it, and I understand that they have a lack of hope just like here.” He smiled, as a thought occurred to him. “You know, I would be very happy to visit my mother’s birthplace in Egypt as prime minister.”

Now we finally get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

In March, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers, was asked on “Fox News Sunday” how he thought President Obama was handling relations with Russia versus how President Vladimir Putin had been handling relations with the United States. Rogers responded: “Well, I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. And I don’t think it’s even close.”

Hmmm. Marbles. That’s an interesting metaphor. Actually, it turns out that Obama was the one playing chess and Putin was the one playing marbles, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say today that Putin’s lost most of his — in both senses of the word.

Rogers was hardly alone in his Putin envy. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Fox News has had a veritable Putin love fest going since March: Sarah Palin opined to the network that: “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Fox contributor Rudy Giuliani observed on the same day that in contrast with Obama, Putin was “what you call a leader.”

Only if leading your country to economic ruin is a form of leadership. And this is not Monday-morning quarterbacking. It has been obvious for months that Putin was fighting the market, Moore’s Law, Mother Nature and human nature all at once.

He bet almost his whole economy on oil and gas that only can be exploited long-term at the risk of disruptive climate change; he underestimated the degree to which technological innovation has enabled America to produce more oil, gas, renewable energy and greater efficiency, all at the same time, helping to undermine crude prices; he talked himself into believing that Ukrainians toppled their corrupt leaders only because the C.I.A. told them to — not because of the enduring human quest to realize a better future for their kids; and he underestimated how integrated and interdependent Russia is with the global markets and how deeply sanctions, over time, would bite him.

Let us not mince words: Vladimir Putin is a delusional thug. He created, fell in love with and is now being disabused of a fantasy notion of his and Russia’s power. Might he lash out militarily now to distract his people with more shiny objects? Yes, he might, but then he’d only be violating another rule of geopolitics: “The First Rule of Holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

I say that with no satisfaction. In fact, I say it with deep regret. I opposed NATO expansion and our unilateral ripping up of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, when Russia was weak. I wanted — and still want — to see America partner with Russia to help stem global disorder, because in many places in the world we can’t be effective without a Russian partner. Alas, we expanded NATO — and unintentionally helped to foster the political conditions in Russia for Putin’s xenophobic, grievance-based politics to flourish.

But Putin also went nuts. Oil at $110 a barrel went to his head. He thought all of this was about him, his decisions, the economy he and his cronies built and on some Russian geopolitical entitlement based on history. In reality, he had bet everything on drilling oil and gas, not on building his people and their talents. He rode the price up and now it is riding him down.

Along the way, Putin lied to the world and deluded himself. His big lie is that the popular toppling of the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev was just a Western plot to bring Ukraine into NATO. In Putin’s spook-defined world, no one has agency — except the Central Intelligence Agency (or K.G.B.). It is inconceivable to him that a critical mass of Ukrainians might have looked over at Poland and envied how well it had done since freeing itself from the Kremlin’s orbit and joining the European Union — that they might have then said to themselves, “We want that”— and that to get it they might have taken to the streets and overthrown Putin’s ally in Kiev, demanding a less corrupt, more transparent, democratic government.

Putin cast all of that as a C.I.A.-NATO plot in order to rally the Russian people to his side and justify his ugly grab of Crimea and his Ukraine intervention, which included indirect involvement in the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner. The real truth is that Putin is not afraid of NATO expansion to Ukraine. That was never in the cards. He is afraid of European Union expansion. He does not want Ukraine to join the European customs union, adopt its anti-corruption and transparency regulations and begin to build a successful economy on European principles that every day would stand as a contrast to and critique of the nontransparent kleptocracy Putin and his oil-and-gas clique have built in Russia.

His big delusion is that his mind-set is trapped in a 19th-century worldview, where Russia is entitled to and will always have “spheres of influence” on its borders. But spheres of influence are not like some honorary degree you get from Moscow University and can keep forever. Today, spheres of influence have to be earned and re-earned. Because, today, thanks to technology, emergent citizens are able to articulate and organize for their own aspirations much more effectively. These are “people of influence,” and they’ve asserted themselves in squares from Tahrir to Taksim to the Maidan in Kiev. Ukraine may be the first battleground in history where people of influence have squared off against a sphere-of-influence thinker. I am still betting on the people.

Russia’s decline is bad for Russians, but that doesn’t mean it is good for us. When the world gets this interconnected and interdependent, you get a strategic reverse: Your friends, through economic mismanagement (see Greece), can harm you faster than your enemies. And your rivals falling (see Russia and China) can be more dangerous than your rivals rising. If Russia, an economy spanning nine time zones, goes into recession and cannot pay foreign lenders with its lower oil revenues — and all this leads to political turmoil and defaults to Western banks — that crash will be felt globally.

Warren Buffett observed during the 2008 economic crisis that “only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.” Well, the oil tide has gone out, and it revealed that Putin was swimming naked. In doing so, the country he threatens most today is Russia — but not Russia alone. A triumphant, oil-fueled Russia riding a petro-surge is dangerous; but a defeated, angry, increasingly impoverished Russia is dangerous as well. So despite all of the above, I’d be willing to see the West work with Putin to ease the sanctions on Russia, but only if Putin is ready to stop stealing other people’s marbles, only if he is truly ready to be part of the solution in places like Ukraine — not the problem.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Port-au-Prince, Haiti:

Most of us in Nikenson Romage’s situation would have given up.

His dad died when he was 3, and his mom — a food vendor — often couldn’t afford his school fees. So he got kicked out of school occasionally for nonpayment, a humiliating ordeal that leads some kids to drop out forever.

But Nikenson would sneak back onto the school grounds and stand outside the open classroom windows to eavesdrop, day after day. He studied on his own, keeping pace so that when his mom scraped together a few dollars, he could re-enter class — until the next time school fees were due.

Against all odds, Nikenson graduated from high school this year, first in his class, with straight A’s, and was elected class president by his peers. Nikenson is a reminder of the basic aphorism of life today: talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

Fortunately, with the help of American donors, Nikenson is now receiving a university education that will propel him into Haiti’s elite. He’s a beneficiary of a program started by Conor Bohan, a young American who was teaching in a Haitian high school and distressed that a top student in the school couldn’t afford $30 to register for college. He sacrificed his savings to send her to college (she’s now a doctor). Then he hit up family and friends to help other Haitians go to college. The program grew and became the Haitian Education and Leadership Program, or HELP, sending hundreds of young men and women to Haitian universities.

“Education works,” Bohan said simply. “Good education works for everybody, everywhere. It worked for you, for me, and it works for Haitians.”

Tackling global poverty is harder than it seems, and Haiti is a case in point. Its streets are full of white S.U.V.’s ferrying around aid workers, yet it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Over time, I’ve concluded that education may be the single best way to help people help themselves — whether in America or abroad. Yet, as a nation, we underinvest in education, both domestically and overseas. So, in this holiday season, I’d suggest a moment to raise a glass and celebrate those who spread the transformative gift of education.

A few days ago, we saw the news of the horrific Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. The Taliban attacks schools because it understands that education corrodes extremism; I wish we would absorb that lesson as well. In his first presidential campaign, President Obama spoke of starting a global education fund, but he seems to have forgotten the idea. I wish he would revive it!

I’m particularly impressed by the HELP model in part because of a nifty way to make the program sustainable: Winners commit to giving back 15 percent of their incomes for their first nine years in their jobs. That’s a hefty sum: HELP graduates earn an average of $15,000 a year, compared with per capita income in Haiti of a bit more than $800, and university tuition is very cheap by American standards.

One brilliant new high school graduate, Elice Oreste, was working as an apprentice carpenter in a remote village and earning just $50 a month. HELP sent him to college to study industrial engineering, and he just graduated — and promptly found a job at a European company as a maintenance engineer for $1,500 a month.

“The only difference is his access to education,” notes Bohan.

A HELP scholarship is also transforming the trajectory of Anne Martine Augustin, an orphan who is studying electrical engineering. She designed an app for disaster readiness in Haiti that won a World Bank programming competition.

The greatest unexploited resource in poor countries isn’t oil or gold; it’s people like her. So, with the backing of mostly American donors, HELP scours the country for brilliant but impoverished high school graduates. Once selected, the students also get coaching in English, computer use, and leadership and public service. The aim is to nurture an elite corps of change-makers to build up the country.

“Nobody knows Haiti better than Haitians,” says Leonardo Charles, chosen for a scholarship after he scored in the top five in nationwide exams while also serving as high school class president and student newspaper editor “If there is to be change, it will be from us.”

So I raise my eggnog to toast all those promoting education at home and abroad, thereby spreading opportunity. It’s the updated version of giving a person a fishing pole rather than a fish.

At a party, a Western aid worker once asked Bohan whether HELP graduates would be able to find jobs.

“Look around this room,” Bohan says he replied. “I can replace every white person in this room with a Haitian.”

And now finally we get to Mr. Bruni:

There’s a square in the upper right-hand corner of your computer keyboard that probably looks more banged up than it did a week or two ago. It’s the one marked “delete.” I’ll bet that you’ve been giving it a workout lately, pressing it hard and often, moving relentlessly backward over your emails, fretting and fussing and killing off nearly as many words as you birth. Are they open to misinterpretation? Is their tone too mischievous or meanspirited? Delete, delete, delete. Better safe than Sony’d.

And I’ll bet that it’s all been coming back to you and coming to a head: the invasive games that Facebook has played, the data that Uber holds, the alarms that Edward Snowden sounded, the flesh that Jennifer Lawrence flashed to more people than she ever intended. The Dear Leader is late to this wretched party, and the breach that his regime in North Korea apparently orchestrated is less revelation than confirmation. You can no longer assume that what’s meant to be seen by only one other individual won’t find its way to hundreds, thousands, even millions. That sort of privacy is a quaint relic.

The lesson here isn’t that Hollywood executives, producers, agents and stars must watch themselves. It isn’t to beware of totalitarian states. It’s to beware, period. If it isn’t a foreign nemesis monitoring and meddling with you, then it’s potentially a merchant examining your buying patterns, an employer trawling for signs of disloyalty or indolence, an acquaintance turned enemy, a random hacker with an amorphous grudge — or of course the federal government.

And while this spooky realization prompts better behavior in certain circumstances that call for it and is only a minor inconvenience in other instances, make no mistake: It’s a major loss. Those moments and nooks in life that permit you to be your messiest, stupidest, most heedless self? They’re quickly disappearing if not already gone.

It’s tempting to try to forget that by homing in on other strands of the stories that bring it to our attention. As last week ended, the discussion about Sony turned to the entertainment industry’s hasty capitulation to threats of terrorism.

“I think they made a mistake,” President Obama said on Friday, referring to Sony executives’ decision to pull the movie “The Interview” from theaters. “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” He added that the America government would respond to North Korea’s actions “proportionally,” but that it hadn’t yet determined how.

Days earlier, the focus was as much on the adolescent nastiness that the hacking of Sony’s systems exposed as on the vulnerability to exposure that it underscored. You could gape at the way all of those temperamental titans typed and decide that they got what they deserved, just as you could chalk up those naked celebrity selfies to spectacularly bad judgment.

But there’s a bigger picture, and it’s terrifying. We’re all naked. The methods by which we communicate today — the advances meant to liberate us — are robbing us of control. Smartphones take photos and record audio. Voice mail is violable. Texts wind up in untrustworthy hands (just ask Anthony Weiner). Hard drives and even the cloud have memories that resist erasure. And the Internet can circulate any purloined secret fast and infinitely far.

The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.

“Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology — absolutely nothing at all — is guaranteed to stay private,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a “reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don’t do it. Don’t email, don’t text, don’t update, don’t send photos.” He might as well have added, “Don’t live,” because self-expression and sharing aren’t easily abandoned, and other conduits for them — landlines, snail mail — no longer do the trick.

WE “don’t have real choice,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Times’s Claire Cain Miller last month. “It’s not like picking up the newspaper and realizing ice cream has too many calories and you can start eating frozen yogurt, information that people can act on.” Rotenberg was explaining a remarkable survey that had just been published by the Pew Research Center, which found that overwhelming majorities of Americans seriously questioned the confidentiality and security of their social-media activity, their online chats, their texts — and yet pressed on with all of these.

This isn’t a contradiction. It’s more accurately labeled a bind.

Many people have begun to sanitize their exchanges, in manners that could be silencing important conversations and gagging creativity. Late last year, the PEN American Center surveyed 528 of its members, including many journalists and fiction writers, and found that 24 percent of them said that they’d avoided some topics in emails and phone calls for fear of surveillance or exposure. Sixteen percent had at times refrained from Internet research for the same reason. There were issues they didn’t dare to engage, stories they didn’t want to touch.

One unnamed writer who participated in the survey complained of “a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don’t think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent.”

Another expressed the worry “that by the time we fully realize that we live in this condition, it will be too late to alter the infrastructure patterns.”

Maybe encryption services will help. Maybe what Manjoo called an “erasable Internet” will come to the rescue. But that still leaves some essential forms of communication unaddressed, and enhanced protections could be trailed in short order by newly ingenious routes around them.

“The hackers are going to get better,” Obama conceded. “Some of them are going to be state actors. Some of them are going to be nonstate actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated, and many of them can do some damage.”

It’s not just creativity that’s in jeopardy. It’s not just candor. It’s secure islands of unformed thought and sloppy talk, places where people take necessary vacations from judgment, allowances for impropriety that make propriety possible. And these aren’t, or shouldn’t be, luxuries.

Delete, delete, delete. That’s a bit of your humanity being snuffed out.

Friedman and Bruni

December 17, 2014

In “This Israeli Election Matters” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us a nation struggles with its identity.  Mr. Bruni, in “Confronting an Ugly Killer,” says Alzheimer’s is deadly, costly and finally getting the blunt discussion it needs.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has set new elections in Israel for March 17. Israel has had critical elections before, but this could be its most important, because the Israeli right today is no longer dominated by security hawks and free-marketeers like Netanyahu. It is dominated by West Bank settlers and scary religious-nationalist zealots like Naftali Bennett, who, if they run the next government and effectively annex the West Bank, will lead Israel into a dark corner, increasingly alienated from Europe, America and the next generation of American Jews.

At the same time, the neighborhood Israel lives in has never been so full of threats. If the Israeli center-left and center-right want to avoid the South African future that the Israeli far right is offering them, then they have to create a coalition that can persuade the Israeli silent majority that they understand, and can blunt, those threats — and allow Israel to securely withdraw from most of the West Bank, either in a negotiated deal with the Palestinians or unilaterally.

“The importance of the 2015 election cannot be too highly emphasized,” Ari Shavit, the Haaretz columnist wrote last week. “This time the question isn’t about the price of an apartment or cottage (cheese), but whether there will be a home for us at all. This time the struggle isn’t about convenience but about the core of our existence. Because this time the forces threatening Israeli democracy and the Zionist enterprise from within are unprecedented in their power.”

So how might the Israeli center contest this foundational election? The best approach I’ve heard comes from Amos Yadlin, Israel’s former chief of defense intelligence, and the pilot who dropped the bomb through the roof of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor. Yadlin, who now directs Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, argued to me that Israel’s center needs to run on the core values of its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. That is an Israel, he said, “that understands the limits of power of a small country,” and is focused solely on building “a state that has a Jewish majority, a state that is democratic where all citizens are equal, a state that is secure even in a threatening environment and a state whose higher moral caliber is as valued as it was in the past.” And that means a state with a clear, secure border with its Palestinian neighbors.

Yadlin is a tough-minded analyst. He worries that the Israeli right is completely out of touch with the nation’s standing in the world and the left with the dangers in the neighborhood. While he knows that all his Ben-Gurion goals may not be achievable (and Israel may not have a Palestinian partner), he wants the next Israeli government to get caught trying — and trying again — to achieve them. What distinguishes him from Netanyahu and the Israeli right is that Yadlin is not looking for excuses to say that Israel has no negotiating partner, the way Netanyahu did out of fear that genuine negotiations about borders would blow up his right-wing ruling coalition, or the way the Jewish settlers do, because they know genuine negotiations would blow up their messianic vision for forever controlling the West Bank.

Yadlin says he wants the next Israeli government to take “all of Israel’s innovative spirit and brains” and apply them to “out-of-the-box thinking” to find a secure way forward. He sketched three paths for me based on the Israeli-designed traffic management application Waze.com. “As with Waze, if one route is blocked, one recalibrates and chooses a different route to the same destination,” said Yadlin. “We propose: the bilateral negotiations route; the Arab Peace Initiative route; and the independent route.”

The preferred route, argues Yadlin, “is that of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians to reach a permanent agreement. If this track is impossible, as was proven in 2013-14, then it is time to move to the second route, that of a revised Arab Peace Initiative.” Try to leverage the willingness of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel if it reaches a deal with the Palestinians. The more the Arab states put on the table, the more Palestinians can, in effect, offer Israel and the more cover Palestinians will have for concessions they will have to make. “If this route, too, proves to be blocked,” he said, “we must move to an independent track that will ensure that the viable two-state solution is kept. Israel will deploy along borders that guarantee a Jewish majority and a secure state.”

Netanyahu will still be a formidable candidate, but, interestingly, his popularity plummeted when he called for new elections. I know why: Israelis, though dubious about Palestinian intentions and terrified of their region, are tired of a leader who keeps telling them: there is no exit, everyone hates us and the future will be full of yesterdays. In a country whose national anthem is “Hatikvah” — “The Hope” — the prime minister came to symbolize the opposite to many Israelis, who still want someone with the attributes of Ben-Gurion to test and retest whether hope is possible. The Israeli candidate or party that understands that will have a great chance of winning.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

My maternal grandmother lives in my memory as two distinct images. Two distinct people, really.

The first: She’s coming off a plane, and she’s in a pillbox hat, a tailored suit and white gloves. That was how she dressed to fly, back in the days when people actually dressed to fly. We’d meet her at the airport, then drive home in a car suffused with Jungle Gardenia, which wasn’t just her scent. It was her armor and ecosystem, the way she told the world and reassured herself that she was a proper lady.

The second image: She’s on the couch in our TV room. Her blouse has come undone. So have her slacks, which are wrinkled and smudged. She’s spilling out of everything and she’s oblivious, a dazed, haunted look in her eyes. If she’s wearing any Jungle Gardenia, I no longer smell it.

These images are separated not just by years but by illness. My grandmother, Kathryn Owen Frier, developed Alzheimer’s. It turned a fastidious woman with a fiendish talent for crosswords into a slovenly one who couldn’t figure out a stoplight. I remember how mortified I felt for her, how quickly I turned my eyes away. And I remember how awful I felt for having that reaction.

She died more than a quarter century ago. For a long time afterward, I rejected any impulse to write about the way she went, worried that I’d somehow be dishonoring her.

But the world is different now. Much of the unwarranted shame surrounding Alzheimer’s has lifted. People are examining it with a new candor and empathy.

If most Oscar handicappers are correct, the next Best Actress statuette will go to Julianne Moore for her heartbreaking work as a university professor battling early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” to be released nationally next month. And while Moore isn’t the first star to shed a light on the disease — Judi Dench in “Iris” and Julie Christie in “Away From Her” also did so — her performance comes amid other intimate portraits of the toll that Alzheimer’s takes.

A new documentary, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” chronicles its recent impact on the singer who made “Rhinestone Cowboy” a megahit in the 1970s.

And one of the most acclaimed novels of 2014 is “We Are Not Ourselves,” by Matthew Thomas, which hinges on an agonizing case of Alzheimer’s. The book became an instant best seller.

“As baby boomers approach their 70s and Alzheimer’s disease becomes increasingly commonplace, more and more fiction writers are attempting to reach into that obscure space,” noted Stefan Merrill Block in The New Yorker last August.

Block himself reached into it for his first novel, “The Story of Forgetting,” in 2008. The novel “Still Alice,” on which the movie is based, was published around that time and went on to sell more than a million copies.

Its author, Lisa Genova, told me that its success underscores not only how many families have been touched by Alzheimer’s but how many had been trapped in silence. “Any disease of the brain has a stigma,” she said. “It’s not like the heart or the kidney. This is something that’s wrong with you.”

After “Still Alice” came out, she was struck by all the real-life stories that people suddenly shared with her. Thomas had the same experience when he promoted “We Are Not Ourselves.”

“I was surprised by how willing people were to be vulnerable,” he told me. Alzheimer’s was something that they desperately needed to talk about.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an advocacy group, the estimated number of Americans with the disease will rise from more than five million now to as many as 16 million in 2050, and the cost of caring for them and older Americans with other forms of dementia could reach $1.2 trillion annually.

Angela Geiger, the association’s chief strategy officer, calls Alzheimer’s “the unaddressed public health crisis of this decade.” And she told me that while there have been significant increases in federal funding for research, current spending doesn’t adequately reflect the disease’s status as the sixth leading cause of death in this country, one for which there’s “no treatment that slows the progression.”

It’s a hellish riddle, eroding the identities of those it afflicts and depriving us all of our cherished illusions of control. “Alzheimer’s disease is the opposite of modern life,” wrote Thomas, whose father had it, in Time magazine. “It’s the ascendancy of entropy and chaos.”

It’s not perfumed. It’s not gloved. But it’s what happens to many people and will happen to too many more, especially if we don’t stare unblinkingly at it.

“If we’re shy about it, then we don’t have a sense of urgency,” Genova said. We’re conquering the shyness. With the urgency, we have a ways to go.

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

December 14, 2014

Oh lordy…  The Pasty Little Putz has extruded a turd called “The Imitation of Marriage” in which he has a question:  Can progressive ideas really save the working-class family?  (As if he gave half a crap about the working class family…)  In the comments section “Richard” from Bozeman had this to say:  “This essay is SO smug that it ascribes values to liberals that are abhorrent to most of us. As for the sexual revolution, what would Douthat know of that?”  Well, Richard, there was the “chunky Reese Witherspoon” incident during his college years.  Mr. Cohen, in “Trying to Reinvent Italy,” says the prime minister struggles to get the country to change its ways.  The Moustache of Wisdom wants to tell us “Why 2014 Is a Big Deal.”  He says this could have been the year that tipped the scales toward action on climate change. Then the price of oil started falling.  Mr. Kristof tells us of “A Shooter, His Victim and Race.”  He says a black man did a terrible thing as a teenager and has been locked up his whole adult life. The white woman he shot in the face now wants him released. Let’s learn from them.  Mr. Bruni, who really should go back to reviewing restaurants, has decided to tell us all about “The Many Faces of Jeb.”  He squeals that we like to pigeonhole politicians, and the ones who might run for president in 2016 don’t make that easy.  Frankie, all I need to know about Jeb is his last name.  Here’s The Putz:

In the last two weeks, my colleagues at The Times’s data-driven project, The Upshot, have offered two ways of looking at the most important cleavage in America — the divide, cultural and economic, between the college educated and the struggling working class.

The first article, by Claire Cain Miller, discussed the striking decline in divorce rates among well-educated Americans, whose families seem to have adapted relatively successfully to the sexual revolution and the postindustrial economy.

The second, by Binyamin Appelbaum, looked at the decline of work itself among less-educated men, and the forces driving this decline: low wages and weak job growth, the availability of safety-net income, the burden of criminal records, and the fraying of paternal and marital bonds.

Appelbaum’s piece is a great jumping-off point for arguments about how policy might improve the fortunes of the unemployed and the working class. But the two articles read together also raise a crucial cultural question: To what extent can the greater stability of upper-class family life, and the habits that have made it possible, be successfully imitated further down the socioeconomic ladder?

Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.

The core idea here is that working-class men, in particular, need to let go of a particular image of masculinity — the silent, disciplined provider, the churchgoing paterfamilias — that no longer suits the times. Instead, they need to become more comfortable as part-time homemakers, as emotionally available soul mates, and they need to raise their children to be more adaptive and expressive, to prepare them for a knowledge-based, constantly-in-flux economy.

Like most powerful ideas, this argument is founded on real truths. For Americans of every social class, the future of marriage will be more egalitarian, with more shared burdens and blurrier divisions of labor, or it will not be at all. And the broad patterns of upper-class family life do prepare children for knowledge-based work in ways that working-class family life does not.

But the idea that progressive attitudes can save working-class marriages also has some real problems. First, it underestimates the effective social conservatism of the upper-class model of family life — the resilience of traditional gender roles in work and child rearing, the continued role of religion in stabilizing well-educated family life, and the conservative messages encoded even in the most progressive education.

Notwithstanding their more egalitarian attitudes, for instance, college-educated households still tend to have male primary breadwinners: As the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox points out, college-educated husbands and fathers earn about 70 percent of their family’s income on average, about the same percentage as working-class married couples.

The college-educated are also now more likely to attend church than other Americans, and are much less likely to cohabit before marriage than couples without a high school degree. And despite a rhetorical emphasis on Emersonian self-reliance, children reared and educated in the American meritocracy arguably learn a different sort of lesson — the hypersupervised caution of what my colleague David Brooks once dubbed “the organization kid.

Meanwhile, as cohabitation and churchgoing trends suggest, many working-class Americans — men very much included — have gone further in embracing progressive models of identity and behavior than many realize, and reaped relatively little reward for that embrace.

Near the end of “Labor’s Love Lost,” his illuminating new book on the decline of the working-class family, the Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin cites research suggesting that many working-class men, far from being trapped in an antique paradigm of “restricted emotional language,” have actually thrown themselves into therapeutic, “spiritual but not religious” questing, substituting Oprah-esque self-help for more traditional forms of self-conceiving and belonging.

Cherlin, working from progressive premises, sees this as potentially good news: a sign that these men are getting over Gary Cooper and preparing to embrace the more egalitarian and emotionally open patterns of the upper class.

But given that this shift has coincided with lost ground for blue-collar men, another interpretation seems possible. We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster.

If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Italy has long suffered from inertia, its individual vitality smothered by the bureaucracy and opacity of the state. Italians are rich, prudent savers. Their state is poor, profligate and inefficient. For 30 years now, since I was a correspondent in Italy, I have watched the country deploy its ingenuity to evade modernization, culminating in the orgy of baroque escapism known as the Berlusconi years.

So it was with some astonishment that I found Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sweeping in to meet me the other day in jeans and a white open-neck shirt (“I hope you don’t mind, it’s casual Friday!”), without the obsequious retinue of past Italian leaders, bearing a message of change. His aim: the creation of “un paese smart” — a smart country — that has “stopped crying over itself.”

Renzi, who has been in office less than 10 months, is 39. This in itself is something unthinkable for the political gerontocracy that was Italy, the lugubrious state epitomized by the late Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister seven times. “The new generation should do politics the American presidential way, two mandates and out,” he told me during an hourlong interview in his office at Chigi Palace. “I give myself a maximum of eight years if I win the next election, and then I’ll leave politics.”

He is a man in a hurry: constitutional reform, electoral reform, sales on eBay of a fleet of official luxury cars, women thrust into top jobs (half the cabinet is female), plans to slash the number of members of Parliament and senators (currently almost 1,000 of them). “In America, notoriously smaller and less important than Italy, you have 535 representatives and senators,” Renzi said, smiling, raising his eyebrows. Message received.

He held up his portable device and said he wants the whole labyrinthine Italian public administration simplified on an app. “This is the future of our administration!” he said. “How much pension do I get — all will be here.”

Un paese smart.

The jeans and app talk send a message — no more business as usual. As a European politician in an age when national politics often seem a charade, outpaced by borderless finance, Renzi knows that symbolism is important in producing substance. The “Jobs Act,” Renzi’s pivotal economic reform, was approved by Parliament this month. It simplifies the labor code, makes it easier for companies with over 15 employees to fire workers, and links workers’ protection to their length of service. By Italian job-for-life standards, it is a revolutionary step. To have a job was always to be “sistemato,” which roughly meant security within the system forever.

I asked Renzi why the legislation has an English name. “Because I like what Obama did,” he said. “The most interesting things he’s done have been on the domestic front. He took an economy in crisis in 2009, intervened, relaunched growth, and created jobs, all things that Europe has not succeeded in doing.”

That sounds nice, but of course the American economy is hard-wired for growth, labor mobility and innovation. Italy’s is hamstrung. It is saddled with climbing public debt and recession. Unemployment is over 13 percent. When I arrived in Italy, I found central Rome closed by protests against the “Jobs Act.” Renzi has a big fight on his hands to get Italians to change their ways.

His room to maneuver and pump up the economy is limited. The European Commission is warning that Italy may find itself in breach of the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact, which sets tight limits on budget deficits and stringent regulations on reducing debt. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said this month that any breach would be “negative for Europe.”

This sort of talk gets Renzi exercised because he believes it makes growth impossible. His Democratic Party is just seven years old. In a Europe where extremist and xenophobic parties have been growing, a reflection of widespread anger at high unemployment and stagnation, it represents an exception: a mainstream party of the center-left that has surged.

This success has set up Renzi as perhaps the second-most-powerful politician in Europe after Merkel. In schematic terms, he’s Mr. Anti-Austerity versus Ms. Austerity. He’s also the only new game in town, with Britain caught in a debilitating debate over a possible exit from the European Union and France turning in circles under weak leadership.

“Here a lot of people have accused Merkel of being the guilty one in the crisis,” Renzi said. “But the fault is not hers. It’s ours. We got ourselves into this. If we had done labor reform 10 years ago, when Germany did it, we would have been a lot better off.” Still, he went on, something has to give in a Europe caught “in a dictatorship of bureaucrats and technocrats,” unwilling to accept that “politics is the realm of flexibility.” Iron Frau, take note.

The European economic model, Renzi declared, is wrong. “We cannot go on reasoning only on the basis of austerity and rigor. In a phase of deflation and stagnation, we can’t. We have to keep our accounts in order, spend money well, yes, because Germany is preoccupied that southern countries don’t spend money wisely — and it’s true — but the central point is that if we tackle our problems, European economics must change in favor of investment in growth.”

I asked Renzi how. He said investment in strategic areas — digital broadband, education, research, energy, the green economy — “should be outside the calculation of the Stability Pact, which is the instrument of rigidity and austerity.”

How, he asked, can he fight criminality and massive unemployment in Sicily if some Stability Pact formula on deficits and debt blocks him?

The eurozone, in which Italy is the third-largest economy, is an unwieldy entity — tied by a shared currency, divided by everything from fiscal policy to culture. Anger over stagnation is boiling over. Renzi is right: Something has to give for Europe and its jobless youth. In the past, even Germany has broken Stability Pact rules in a time of need. Now it’s payback time. But if Renzi gets some margin of budgetary flexibility, he must deliver. Waste and corruption are endemic to Italy. Curtailing them is a Sisyphean task. “First I must put my own country in order,” Renzi acknowledged. “Otherwise I will never be credible.”

A spell has been broken in Italy. Politics have shifted. He compared the country to “a sleeping beauty in the enchanted wood that can be woken up.”

The beauty is certainly stirring. Whether she will now bound forward remains to be seen. Italians, versed in the rise and fall of powers and the vanity of ambition, tend to be skeptical of transformation. It will be an arduous journey. But I’m inclined to give Renzi the benefit of the doubt.

Next up we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

I was just about to go with a column that started like this: When they write the history of the global response to climate change, 2014 could well be seen as the moment when the balance between action and denial tipped decisively toward action. That’s thanks to the convergence of four giant forces: São Paulo, Brazil, went dry; China and the United States together went green; solar panels went cheap; and Google and Apple went home.

But before I could go further, the bottom fell out of the world oil price, and the energy economist Phil Verleger wrote me, saying: “Fracking is a technological breakthrough like the introduction of the PC. Low-cost producers such as the Saudis will respond to the threat of these increased supplies by holding prices down” — hoping the price falls below the cost of fracking and knocks some of those American frackers out. In the meantime, though, he added, sustained low prices for oil and gas would “retard” efforts to sell more climate-friendly, fuel-efficient vehicles that are helped by high oil prices and slow the shift to more climate-friendly electricity generation by wind and solar that is helped by high gas prices.

So I guess the lead I have to go with now is: When they write the history of the global response to climate change, 2014 surely would have been seen as the moment when the climate debate ended. Alas, though, world crude oil prices collapsed, making it less likely that the world will do what the International Energy Agency recently told us we must: keep most of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves in the ground. As the I.E.A. warned, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” — otherwise we’ll bust through the limit of a 2-degree Celsius rise in average temperature that scientists believe will unleash truly disruptive ice melt, sea level rise and weather extremes.

Technology is a cruel thing. The innovators who’ve made solar panels, wind power and batteries so efficient that they can now compete with coal and gas are the same innovators who are enabling us to extract oil and gas from places we never imagined we could go at prices we never imagined we would reach. Is a third lead sentence possible? There is. In fact, there is an amazing lead waiting to be written. It just takes the right political will. How so?

Let’s go back to my first lead. The reason I thought we were decisively tipping toward action was, in part, because of news like this from the BBC on Nov. 7 in São Paulo: “In Brazil’s biggest city, a record dry season and ever-increasing demand for water has led to a punishing drought.” When a metropolitan region of 20 million people runs dry because of destruction of its natural forests and watersheds, plus an extreme weather event scientists believe was made more intense by climate change, denialism is just not an option.

Then you have the hugely important deal that President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China struck on Nov. 12 under which the United States will reduce its carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China will peak its carbon emissions by or before 2030. China also committed to build by 2030 an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of clean power — or nearly as much new renewable energy in China as all the electrical capacity in America today. That will greatly spur innovation in clean tech and help do for solar, wind and batteries what China did for tennis shoes — really drive down global prices.

Also, last February, Google bought Nest, for $3.2 billion. Nest makes a $250 smart thermostat that can save homeowners tons of money by learning their temperature preferences and automatically managing their air-conditioners and home heating systems for the greatest efficiency. Also this year, Apple announced the development of the Apple HomeKit, which will enable customers to remotely manage their appliances and home energy systems on their iPhones. When Apple and Google start competing to make homes more energy efficient, watch out. We will likely see nonlinear improvements.

But what if Verleger is right — that just as the cost of computing dropped following the introduction of the PC, fracking technology could flood the world with cheaper and cheaper oil, making it a barrier to reducing emissions? There is one way out of this dilemma. Let’s make a hard political choice that’s a win for the climate, our country and our kids: Raise the gasoline tax.

“U.S. roads are crumbling,” said Verleger. “Infrastructure is collapsing. Our railroads are a joke.” Meantime, gasoline prices at the pump are falling toward $2.50 a gallon — which would be the lowest national average since 2009 — and consumers are rushing to buy S.U.V.’s and trucks. The “clear solution,” said Verleger, is to set a price of, say, $3.50 a gallon for gasoline in America, and then tax any price below that up to that level. Let the Europeans do their own version. “And then start spending the billions on infrastructure right now. At a tax of $1 per gallon, the U.S. could raise around $150 billion per year,” he said. “The investment multiplier would give a further kick to the U.S. economy — and might even start Europe moving.”

So there is a way to make 2014 that truly decisive year in confronting both climate and rebuilding America, but only our political leaders can write that lead.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, who continues to remind us that yes, Republicans, it IS about race:

Ian Manuel is a black man who has spent most of his life in prison. Yet he still has a most unusual advocate calling for his release: a white woman whom he met when he shot her in the face.

Manuel fired the bullet when he was barely 13, and he fit all too neatly into racial stereotypes, especially that of the black predator who had to be locked away forever. One of the greatest racial disparities in America is in the justice system, and fear of young black criminals like Manuel helped lead to mass incarceration policies that resulted in a sixfold increase in the number of Americans in prison after 1970. Yet, as his one-time victim points out (speaking with a reconstructed jaw), it’s complicated.

Manuel grew up in a housing project here in Tampa to a mom with drug problems, without a dad at home, and he drifted early to crime. By the time he was 13, he had had 16 arrests. He desperately needed help, but instead the authorities kept returning him to a dysfunctional home.

Then, as part of a gang initiation, he was handed a gun, and he joined a couple of other teenagers on July 27, 1990. They confronted Debbie Baigrie, a stay-at-home mom who had gone out with friends for the first time since the birth of her second child.

“Give it up!” Manuel remembers shouting, as he pulled the gun. Baigrie screamed and Manuel fired wildly and repeatedly. One .32-caliber bullet entered Baigrie’s mouth, ripped through her jaw and teeth and went out her cheek. She began running away, awkwardly on high heels, blood pouring down her face and drenching her shirt.

Manuel fired after her, missing, and then he ran away with his friends. Later, arrested in an unrelated case, he confided to a cop without realizing the trouble he could face. “You know that lady that got shot downtown the other night?” he said he told the officer. “I’m the one who did it.”

Although he had just turned 13, prosecutors charged him as an adult, and the judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, the lawyer now representing him, says that every single child 13 or 14 years old sentenced to life without parole for a nonhomicide has been a person of color.

Manuel found himself the youngest, tiniest person in a men’s prison — by his account, abused and fearful. One day as his second Christmas behind bars approached, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie.

Baigrie debated whether to accept the charges. She said her dentist had wept when he had seen her jaw, for the bullet had torn out five teeth and much of her gum. She faced 10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries, requiring tissue from her palate to rebuild her gum.

Still, she was curious, so she accepted the charges. Manuel said he wanted to apologize for the shooting. Awkwardly, he wished her and her family a Merry Christmas.

“Ian,” she asked bluntly, “why did you shoot me?”

“It was a mistake,” he answered timidly.

Later he sent her a card showing a hand reaching through prison bars to offer a red rose. Baigrie didn’t know whether to be moved or revolted. “I was in such pain,” Baigrie remembers. “I couldn’t eat. I was angry. But I’d go back and forth. He was just a kid.”

Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” he wrote in one letter.

“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”

Over time, Baigrie became friendly with Manuel’s brother and mother. Baigrie began to feel sympathetic because, as she says: “When you’re 13, you do stupid stuff.”

Baigrie was also troubled by the racial dimensions of the case. “If he was a cute white boy at 13, with little dimples and blue eyes, there’s no way this would have happened,” she says.

Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’ ” Baigrie recalls.

Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.

Manuel, now 37, did not adjust well to prison, and his prison disciplinary record covers four pages of single-spaced entries. He was placed in solitary confinement at age 15 and remained there almost continually until he was 33. For a time, he cut himself to relieve the numbness. He repeatedly attempted suicide.

Returned to the general prison population, Manuel did better. He earned his G.E.D. with exceptional marks, including many perfect scores. He drafts poems and wrote an autobiographical essay, which Baigrie posted on her Facebook page. His mother, father and brother are now all dead; the only “family” he has left is Baigrie, who sometimes regards him as a wayward foster son.

Race in America is a dispiriting topic, a prism to confirm our own biases. Some will emphasize the unarguable brutality of Manuel’s crime, while others, myself included, will focus on the harshness of a sentence that probably would not have been given to a white 13-year-old. In other columns, I’ve focused on racism that holds back perfectly innocent people because of their skin color; those are the easiest cases, while Ian is a reminder that racial injustice also affects those who made horrific mistakes or committed brutal crimes. It’s still injustice.

There’s a tragic symmetry here. We as a society failed Manuel early on, and he, in turn, failed us. When you can predict that an infant boy of color in a particular ZIP code is more likely to go to prison than to college, it’s our fault more than his. The losers aren’t just those kids but also crime victims like Baigrie — and, in a larger sense, all of us. Manuel never had a chance to contribute to society and is costing us $47.50 each day he is in prison. That’s a waste of money, of human talent, of life itself.

Overcoming the racial gulf in this country will be a long and painful task, but maybe we can learn something from Baigrie’s empathy.

“Walk a mile in his shoes,” she says. And if Debbie Baigrie and Ian Manuel can unite and make common cause, linked by a bond of humanity that transcends the faint scar on her cheek, then maybe there’s hope for us all.

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni, here to tell us about a passenger in the 2016 Clown Car:

As brothers who governed large states at the same time, each Bush was bound to be defined in terms of the other. George was the impulsive one who’d stumbled and then swaggered toward success. Jeb was the cogitator, the toiler. George was the extrovert: He worked the room. Jeb was the introvert: He read the books.

That was how they were discussed back in 1999 and 2000, and the word on their ideological differences was that George was perhaps a bit more moderate, while Jeb was the truer conservative.

What a difference a decade and a half make. How the sands of politics shift.

As Jeb Bush seemingly leans toward a presidential run, many observers are casting him as a centrist. And there are indeed elements of his current message that suggest that if he won “the nomination as well as the presidency, it could reshape Republican politics for a generation,” as Jonathan Martin wrote in The Times late last week. But Martin noted other elements of Bush’s message and record as well, the ones that explain why a separate camp of observers look at him and see someone else. For instance, in Politico Magazine, the journalist S. V. Dáte observed that for him and others “who covered Jeb’s two terms in Tallahassee,” characterizations of Bush as a moderate are “mind-boggling.”

Just what kind of Republican is Jeb Bush? That question is being asked with increasing frequency. And the absence of a clear answer, coupled with the insistence on one, is instructive.

It speaks to the fact that most successful politicians aren’t fixed in one place forevermore. They’re the products of certain unwavering convictions and certain adaptations to circumstance, and the measures of each are different at different moments in their careers.

The futile tussle to define Bush also reflects the way ideological yardsticks change over time. Above all else, it exposes the poverty of our political vocabulary.

Left, center, right. Liberal, moderate, conservative. We reach fast for these labels and itch to put pols in these boxes, no matter how untidy or impermanent the fit. Some of the expected candidates for 2016 are great examples.

Hillary Clinton: liberal or moderate? Depends on which point in her past you choose. Toward the beginning of Bill’s successful 1992 quest for the presidency, she was part of his decision to steer away from the left, as The Times’s Peter Baker and Amy Chozick recently reported. They noted that in the recollection of Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, Hillary pledged, “We’re going to be a different kind of Democrat by the convention.”

But there were chapters after Bill’s election when she came across as a familiar kind of Democrat, and then there’s the present, when she’s seen as someone so estranged from some traditional Democratic principles that there’s a movement to draft Elizabeth Warren to challenge her. It apparently gathered steam last week, just as Clinton topped a CNBC poll of 500 millionaires who were asked about their preference for president in 2016. She got 31 percent of the vote, while Bush was second with 18. I await a new “super PAC,” Mills for Hills.

The Republican field is almost always broken down into candidates of the right and those of the center: a schematic to which we journalists cling. It’s hugely flawed this time around. Rand Paul evades it so completely that he gets his own adjective — libertarian — even though some of his positions on social issues contradict it.

Chris Christie gets the moderate box, because he was twice elected governor of a blue state; signed legislation granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants in New Jersey; pushed criminal-justice reforms that stress rehabilitation; outlawed therapy that aims to turn gay teenagers straight; and accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. And right after Hurricane Sandy, he and President Obama had their soggy, windswept bromance.

But Christie also opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights. He has vetoed some sensible gun-control legislation. And he sidesteps questions about immigration reform. He’s not exactly a paragon of moderation.

Marco Rubio, another possible presidential contender, isn’t easily labeled either. Back in 2010, when he won election to the Senate, he was presented as a mascot of the right, a Tea Party darling. But he has endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And his proposals for making college more affordable and student loans less onerous aren’t just bold. They’re progressive.

Bush’s categorization as a moderate owes much to the passion he brings to the issues of immigration and education and his dissent from hard-line conservatives on both. These rebellions are meaningful.

So was his commentary from the sidelines of the 2012 presidential race. After a Republican primary debate in which all eight candidates said that they would refuse a budget deal that included $10 of reduced spending for every $1 in tax increases, he made clear that he didn’t agree with the pack. And he said that his party had drifted rightward enough that someone like Ronald Reagan would have difficulty finding a receptive home in it.

That assessment suggested one reason Bush is now deemed a centrist: The poles have moved.

But much of his record in Florida is that of the “headbanging conservative” he claimed to be during a first, unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1994. (He won the next time, in 1998.) He slashed taxes. He was a friend to gun owners: Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was enacted on his watch.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman deemed by many physicians to be in a persistent vegetative state, he intervened on the side of her parents — but against the wishes of her husband, who was her legal guardian — to prevent the removal of a feeding tube. And he was an assertive opponent of abortion rights. He still opposes them, and same-sex marriage.

But he learned between his 1994 defeat and 1998 victory to reach out to minorities and speak inclusively and hopefully. When he recently told an audience in Washington that a person had to be willing to lose the Republican primary to win the general election, he was in part alluding to that lesson, and he was telegraphing the tone that a Bush campaign would take. He was also signaling a suspicion of labels and boxes.

We should be similarly wary of them, because we’ve routinely seen leaders defy our assumptions. Jeb’s brother George, for example, campaigned for the presidency as someone cautious about overextending the American military and adamant about fiscal restraint. And while we took him for an inveterate backslapper, he now spends much of his time alone at an easel.

That’s how it goes with so many politicians. We think we’ve figured them out, but we’re hasty and they’re slippery.

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

December 7, 2014

MoDo is off today.  In “The Old Journalism and the New” The Putz thinks he can tell us all about how the drama at a storied magazine points to what’s gained and lost in media’s online shift.  The Moustache of Wisdom tells us “How ISIS Drives Muslim From Islam.”  He says that young Arabs are boldly speaking out against rule by Shariah.  Mr. Kristof suggests some “Gifts That Inspire,” and says Times readers can change lives with any of these holiday gift ideas.  Mr. Bruni says “Hillary 2.0 Would Be Hillary XX” and that there are smart reasons Hillary Clinton, the Iron Lady in 2008, might campaign as the grandmother-in-chief.  Spare me Hillary.  The mere idea gives me the creeping horrors.  Here’s The Putz:

Sometimes media events synchronize almost too neatly. Last weekend, the entity known as Vox Media, whose array of properties includes this year’s big liberal-journalism start-up, Vox.com, announced that its latest round of investment had raised the company’s valuation to a robust $380 million.

Then on Thursday, The New Republic, a storied liberal magazine that’s emphatically not worth $380 million, saw its editor in chief and literary editor sacked by a pair of figures out of a Silicon Valley satire — a tech almost-billionaire, Chris Hughes, who won the meritocracy’s equivalent of the lottery when he roomed with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, and Hughes’s digital guru, Guy Vidra, whose plan for vertical integration with the singularity can now proceed apace.

Mass resignations followed; eulogies were penned for the T.N.R.-that-was. (And, admittedly, that hadn’t really existed for some time.) But the most interesting in memoriam came from Ezra Klein, Vox.com’s editor in chief, because he wrote as a spokesman for a new model of political journalism pronouncing a parting benediction on the old one.

“The eulogy that needs to be written,” Klein argued, is actually for an entire kind of publication — the “ambitious policy magazine,” whether on the left or right, that once set the terms of Washington’s debates.

With the emergence of the Internet, those magazines lost their monopolies, and the debate “spilled online, beyond their pages, outside their borders,” with both new competitors and specific voices (Klein kindly cites my own) becoming more important than before.

As Klein correctly implies, this shift has produced a deeper policy conversation than print journalism ever sustained. Indeed, the oceans of space online, the easy availability of studies and reports, the ability to go endless rounds on topics — plus the willingness of many experts to blog and bicker for the sheer fun of it! — has made the Internet era a golden age for technocratic argument and data-driven debate.

But there is a price to be paid as well. That price, Klein suggests, is the loss of the older magazines’ ability to be idiosyncratic and nonpandering and just tell their readers what they should care about, because more than ever before you need to care about what readers click on first (like the latest John Oliver SMACKDOWN, in the case of Vox) to get the traffic that pays for the ads that subsidize a seven-part argument about health care costs.

So as much as the new landscape has to offer, Klein concludes, “something is being lost in the transition from policy magazines to policy websites, and it’s still an open question how much of it can be regained.”

All of this is sensible and true. But there’s one large amendment that needs to be offered. The New Republic as-it-was, the magazine I and others grew up reading, was emphatically not just a “policy magazine.” It was, instead, a publication that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art.

It wasn’t just a liberal magazine, in other words; it was a liberal-arts magazine, which unlike many of today’s online ventures never left its readers with the delusion that literary style or intellectual ambition were of secondary importance, or that today’s fashions represented permanent truths.

Unlike our era’s ascendant data journalism, it also never implied that technocracy was somehow a self-sustaining proposition, or that a utilitarianism of policy inputs and social outcomes suffices to understand every area of life. (And unlike many liberal outlets, in its finest years it published, employed and even occasionally was edited by people on the right of center — something some of us particularly appreciated.)

So when we talk about what’s being lost in the transition from old to new, print to digital, it’s this larger, humanistic realm that needs attention. It isn’t just policy writing that’s thriving online; it’s anything that’s immediate, analytical, data-driven — from election coverage to pop culture obsessiveness to rigorous analysis of baseball’s trade market.

Like most readers, I devour this material. Like most journalists, I write some of it. I’m grateful that the outlets that produce it all exist.

But among publications old and new and reinvented, it’s also hard not to notice that John Oliver videos — or, more broadly, the array of food and sports and gadget sites that surround Klein’s enterprise at Vox Media — aren’t just paying for the policy analysis. They’re actively displacing other kinds of cultural coverage and interaction, in which the glibness of the everyday is challenged by ideas and forms older than a start-up, more subtle than a TV recap, more rigorous than a comedian’s monologue.

And since today’s liberalism is particularly enamored of arc-of-history arguments that either condemn or implicitly whisk away the past, this may be a particular problem for the Internet-era progressive mind.

The peril isn’t just that blithe dot-com philistines will tear down institutions that once sustained a liberal humanism. It’s that those institutions’ successors won’t even recognize what’s lost.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Islamic State has visibly attracted young Muslims from all over the world to its violent movement to build a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But here’s what’s less visible — the online backlash against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, by young Muslims declaring their opposition to rule by Islamic law, or Shariah, and even proudly avowing their atheism. Nadia Oweidat, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who tracks how Arab youths use the Internet, says the phenomenon “is mushrooming — the brutality of the Islamic State is exacerbating the issue and even pushing some young Muslims away from Islam.”

On Nov. 24, BBC.com published a piece on what was trending on Twitter. It began: “A growing social media conversation in Arabic is calling for the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, to be abandoned. Discussing religious law is a sensitive topic in many Muslim countries. But on Twitter, a hashtag which translates as ‘why we reject implementing Shariah’ has been used 5,000 times in 24 hours. The conversation is mainly taking place in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The debate is about whether religious law is suitable for the needs of Arab countries and modern legal systems. Dr. Alyaa Gad, an Egyptian doctor living in Switzerland, started the hashtag. ‘I have nothing against religion,’ she tells BBC Trending, but says she is against ‘using it as a political system.’ ”

The BBC added that “many others joined in the conversation, using the hashtag, listing reasons why Arabs and Muslims should abandon Shariah. ‘Because there’s not a single positive example of it bringing justice and equality,’ one man tweeted. … A Saudi woman commented: ‘By adhering to Shariah we are adhering to inhumane laws. Saudi Arabia is saturated with the blood of those executed by Sharia.’ ”

Ismail Mohamed, an Egyptian on a mission to create freedom of conscience there, started a program called “Black Ducks” to offer a space where agnostic and atheist Arabs can speak freely about their right to choose what they believe and resist coercion and misogyny from religious authorities. He is part of a growing Arab Atheists Network. For Arab news written by Arabs that gets right in the face of autocrats and religious extremists also check out freearabs.com.

Another voice getting attention is Brother Rachid, a Moroccan who created his own YouTube network to deliver his message of tolerance and to expose examples of intolerance within his former Muslim faith community. (He told me he’s converted to Christianity, preferring its “God of love.”)

In this recent segment on YouTube, which has been viewed 500,000 times, Brother Rachid addressed President Obama:

“Dear Mr. President, I must tell you that you are wrong about ISIL. You said ISIL speaks for no religion. I am a former Muslim. My dad is an imam. I have spent more than 20 years studying Islam. … I can tell you with confidence that ISIL speaks for Islam. … ISIL’s 10,000 members are all Muslims. … They come from different countries and have one common denominator: Islam. They are following Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in every detail. … They have called for a caliphate, which is a central doctrine in Sunni Islam.”

He continued: “I ask you, Mr. President, to stop being politically correct — to call things by their names. ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban, and their sister brand names, are all made in Islam. Unless the Muslim world deals with Islam and separates religion from state, we will never end this cycle. … If Islam is not the problem, then why is it there are millions of Christians in the Middle East and yet none of them has ever blown up himself to become a martyr, even though they live under the same economic and political circumstances and even worse? … Mr. President, if you really want to fight terrorism, then fight it at the roots. How many Saudi sheikhs are preaching hatred? How many Islamic channels are indoctrinating people and teaching them violence from the Quran and the hadith? … How many Islamic schools are producing generations of teachers and students who believe in jihad and martyrdom and fighting the infidels?”

ISIS, by claiming to speak for all Muslims — and by promoting a puritanical form of Islam that takes present-day, Saudi-funded, madrassa indoctrination to its logical political conclusion — has blown the lid off some long simmering frustrations in the Arab Muslim world.

As an outsider, I can’t say how widespread this is. But clearly there is a significant group of Muslims who feel that their government-backed preachers and religious hierarchies have handed them a brand of Islam that does not speak to them. These same authorities have also denied them the critical thinking tools and religious space to imagine new interpretations. So a few, like Brother Rachid, leave Islam for a different faith and invite others to come along. And some seem to be quietly detaching from religion entirely — fed up with being patronized by politically correct Westerners telling them what Islam is not and with being tyrannized by self-appointed Islamist authoritarians telling them what Islam is. Now that the Internet has created free, safe, alternative spaces and platforms to discuss these issues, outside the mosques and government-owned media, this war of ideas is on.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Along with falling leaves and first snows, it’s time for my annual holiday gift guide, offering suggestions for presents with meaning.

At a time of racial division and inequity in America, Equal Justice Initiative, eji.org, fights on behalf of low-income people snared unfairly by the justice system. The group is led by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American lawyer whom Desmond Tutu has called America’s Mandela.

Equal Justice Initiative fights an uphill battle against mass incarceration. It is a lifeline for innocent people who have been railroaded, and for children in prison. Donations finance its work as the conscience of the justice system.

Camfed, or the Campaign for Female Education, camfed.org, supports girls’ education in Africa.

Supporting Camfed is a way to stand up for girls’ education, especially after the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria earlier this year. Just $10 buys a girl a school-supplies kit for elementary school. Or $25 buys her the shoes she must have to attend school. Or $300 sends her to a year of high school.

Evidence Action, evidenceaction.org, started by economist geeks, applies lessons from randomized trials to spend money in the most cost-effective ways. For example, a bleach dispenser provides a family with clean drinking water for a year and significantly reduces disease at a cost of just 70 cents per person.

Or 50 cents will deworm a child, making that child less anemic, more healthy and better able to thrive in school. Millions of children worldwide still carry intestinal parasites that impair their learning as well as their health and nutrition.

Red Cloud Indian School is a private Lakota and Jesuit K-12 school educating 600 children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On a reservation notorious for alcoholism, unemployment and poverty, the Red Cloud school, redcloudschool.org, is a beacon of hope.

Students volunteer on the reservation, and they go on to some of the best universities in the country, returning as leaders. The school accepts donations and full-time volunteers, and it also sells holiday gifts on its website — including nifty earrings and bracelets made out of porcupine quills, for $18 and up.

Future Doctors for South Sudan, futuredoctors.org, was started by Dr. Ken Waxman, an American physician in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was working in war-torn South Sudan, where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to learn to read — partly because there are so few doctors. Dr. Waxman realized that one solution is to train talented young South Sudanese to become doctors themselves.

So he and others are sponsoring brilliant South Sudanese students to attend medical schools in Kenya or Uganda and then go home to practice and help build up their own country.

OneGoal, onegoalgraduation.org, tackles head-on one of the great gaps in this country: 82 percent of American kids from high-income families graduate from college, but only 8 percent of low-income children do. OneGoal offers a three-year program designed to coach disadvantaged high school students to put them on track to success in college.

A new University of Chicago study found that OneGoal lowered arrest rates in high school and made students more likely to enroll in and graduate from college, and thus break the cycle of poverty.

A group called 20/20/20 helps the blind see. It provides free cataract surgery to impoverished people abroad who otherwise might end up beggars. The cost is just $35 per adult or $300 per child (because children require general anesthesia). Imagine being blind for want of $35!

Visit the 20/20/20 website at 20x20x20.org to see a video of two sisters in India who were blind from cataracts and received this surgery. When the bandages come off their eyes and they take in their surroundings, chills will go down your spine. You’ll understand why my purpose is to provide an opportunity to share gifts of hope.

It’s also time to announce my next annual win-a-trip contest, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip to the developing world. The winner will write posts for my blog on the New York Times website. I’ve been holding the win-a-trip contest since 2006, and one former winner, Mitch Smith, is now a Times reporter.

One possible destination for our 2015 trip is Congo; another is India and Nepal. Information about the contest and how to apply is at my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground. As before, the Center for Global Development in Washington will screen applications and pick finalists. I’m looking for a smart undergraduate or graduate student with great storytelling skills who wants to help shine a light on neglected issues and doesn’t mind bedbugs or warlords. Please pass the word if you know just the candidate.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

November 2016 is still a long way off, but it’s hard to imagine that the presidential campaign will provide any bit of advertising as strangely entertaining and revealing as a video put online recently by Stand With Hillary, a new “super PAC.”

Haven’t seen it? Oh you must. Right now. I give you leave from this column to go take a look, but hurry back. There’s a lot to talk about.

It spotlights a man in a cowboy hat who croons in a country-and-western twang about how darned much he adores that there Hillary Clinton. “Hindsight’s always right,” he sings, a clear dig at Barack Obama, the candidate chosen over her in the Democratic primaries. There are images of construction work, a welder, a pickup truck, a tractor, a big red barn, cows. It’s the unveiling of Hard-Hat Hillary. Rodeo Hillary. Hillary, Patron Saint of the Prairie.

But it positions her first and foremost as all woman. The references are incessant. The chorus goes like this: “Thinking about one great lady like the women in my life. She’s a mother, a daughter and through it all, she’s a loving wife.”

A man with a sledgehammer shatters a panel of glass — twice. And the cowboy exhorts his brethren: “Put your boots on and let’s smash this ceiling.” Just in case there was any doubt about what that glass meant.

The video wasn’t produced by Clinton or her aides. But the people who did put it together clearly followed the cues that they felt they were getting, and they read her intentions right. If she runs, she’ll do so with more focus on her gender and a greater emphasis on making history than she did in 2008.

And that’ll be the smart move, because her gender is precisely what offsets certain of her weaknesses as a candidate. To double down on the double X may be her best way to mitigate several otherwise big vulnerabilities.

Back in 2008, “Clinton seemed to develop a tortured approach toward her gender on the campaign trail, sometimes embracing it, sometimes dismissing it, sometimes appearing to overcompensate for it — but rarely appearing at ease with it,” wrote Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post in her 2009 book about that race, “Notes From the Cracked Ceiling.”

She observed that some of Clinton’s key advisers felt that partly because of her gender, she had to routinely assert toughness and be America’s own Iron Lady. There were boxing gloves at her events, along with music from “Rocky.”

Kornblut recalled the time when she was told by a proud Clinton adviser that it was “as though his boss were running with a penis.” And at one campaign event, a labor leader introduced her as “the candidate with ‘testicular fortitude,’ ” Kornblut wrote.

Clinton never gave a gender speech that rivaled Obama’s race speech.

Additionally, “When Obama won the Iowa caucuses, everybody wrote and talked about it as historic,” Kornblut told me last week. “But Jesse Jackson had won primaries. When Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire, it was historic. But the coverage was, ‘Hillary made a comeback. She’s the comeback kid, just like her husband was.’ ”

Kornblut said that, belatedly, a few members of Clinton’s inner circle came to believe that her frequently gender-neutral approach wasn’t just “a big mistake of the campaign. That was the big strategic mistake.”

But with an even longer résumé now, Clinton could emphasize her trailblazing womanhood for 2016 without the worry that many voters would misinterpret it as the main qualification that she’s claiming. And after four years as a secretary of state more hawkish than the president she served, she wouldn’t have to push the image of a dauntless world leader.

Americans’ economic anxieties will almost surely be at the center of the race, and with the right language, Clinton might have “the ability to talk as mom and grandmom about the need to make sure government is on the side of our families,” Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who recently addressed the group Ready for Hillary, told me.

“Being a woman translates into great politics,” he said.

Clinton seemingly agrees. Over the last year she has weighed in strongly on issues like equal pay and child care. She has done women-themed events galore.

In a speech at Georgetown University last week, she said: “We know when women contribute in making and keeping peace, entire societies enjoy better outcomes. Women leaders, it has been found, are good at building coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines and speaking up for other marginalized groups.”

It’s possible that Clinton has noticed polls. In one by Gallup early this year, when Americans were asked what about a Clinton presidency would be most exciting, the answer given more than any other was that she would be the first woman in the job.

It’s her “unique selling proposition,” wrote Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, in an analysis of those results.

And that proposition is potentially an inoculation.

Yes, she’s been around forever and isn’t a fresh face. But she can’t be yesterday’s news when she’s tomorrow’s precedent.

Yes, there’s a whiff of dynasty about her. But maybe she gets some of the “new car smell” that Obama said voters were looking for by promising a new altitude of female accomplishment.

Yes, a contest between her and Jeb Bush would be one of two surnames from the past. But only she can claim to represent an uncharted future, at least in one sense.

Yes, detractors will say that she’s a third term of Obama: business as usual. Her supporters can answer that she’s history’s unfinished business.

Yes, she’s now wealthy and well-connected, and would be starting the race with titanic advantages. But if she’s willing to talk about her experience as a woman, she can talk about what it’s been like to make her way in a man’s world. She’s a leader of the pack who can make some underdog noises, an ultimate insider who can potentially connect with outsiders — thanks to gender.

Lehane called it “a sword and a shield.”

When she ran the last time around, Rush Limbaugh asked, “Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” It was a sexist question, but this can be a sexist country, and even some Democrats had that concern.

It’s more than six years later, and Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post recently noted Clinton’s “full-on embrace of grandma-hood, tweeting out pictures of her new granddaughter despite the twin pitfalls of gender and age.” For Clinton 2016, gender might not be a pitfall at all.

Jeez, Frank, shill much do you?

Friedman and Bruni

December 3, 2014

In “The Gift that Keeps Giving” Tommy “Friedman Unit” has decided to ‘splain to us how the foreign policy of fear took hold after Sept. 11.  And of course he and the rest of the “liberal” MSM had NOTHING to do with anything…  Mr. Bruni, in “A Pox on Campus Life,” takes a look at another problem with fraternities.  He says the “Animal House” isn’t an especially eclectic zoo.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Flying into New York the other day, I got my first good look at the Freedom Tower, now known as 1 World Trade Center, the skyscraper that sits atop 9/11’s ground zero. It does, indeed, scrape the sky, topping out at a patriotic 1,776 feet. Thirteen years after 9/11, I appreciate the nationalist pride that, while terrorists can knock down our buildings, we can just build them right back up. Take that, Osama bin Laden.

If only the story ended there. Alas, bin Laden really did mess us up, and continues to do so. We’ve erased the ruins of the World Trade Center, but the foreign policy of fear that 9/11 instilled is still very much inside us — too much so. It remains the subtext of so much that we do in the world today, which is why it’s the subtitle of a new book by David Rothkopf, “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.”

Much of the book is an inside look at how foreign policy was made under the two presidents since 9/11. But, in many ways, the real star of the book, the ubershaper of everything, is this “age of fear” that has so warped our institutions and policy priorities. Will it ever go away or will bin Laden be forever that gift that keeps on giving? This is the question I emailed to Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

“The post-9/11 era will not be seen as a golden age in U.S. foreign policy,” he responded. “Largely, this is because 9/11 was such an emotional blow to the U.S. that it, in an instant, changed our worldview, creating a heightened sense of vulnerability.” In response, “not only did we overstate the threat, we reordered our thinking to make it the central organizing principle in shaping our foreign policy.”

This was a mistake on many levels, Rothkopf insisted: “Not only did it produce the overreaction and excesses of the Bush years, but it also produced the swing in the opposite direction of Obama — who was both seeking to be the un-Bush and yet was afraid of appearing weak on this front himself” — hence doubling down in Afghanistan and re-intervening in Iraq, in part out of fear that if he didn’t, and we got hit with a terrorist attack, he’d be blamed.

Fear of being blamed by the fearful has become a potent force in our politics. We’ve now spent over a decade, Rothkopf added, “reacting to fear, to a very narrow threat, letting it redefine us, and failing to rise as we should to the bigger challenges we face — whether those involved rebuilding at home, the reordering of world power, changing economic models that no longer create jobs and wealth the way they used to” or forging “new international institutions because the old ones are antiquated and dysfunctional.”

To put it another way, he said — and I agree with this — the focus on terrorism, combined with our gotcha politics, has “killed creative thinking” in Washington, let alone anything “aspirational” in our foreign policy. Look at the time and money Republicans forced us to spend debating whether the Benghazi, Libya, consulate attack was a terrorist plot or a spontaneous event — while focusing not a whit on the real issue: what a bipartisan failure our whole removal of Libya’s dictator turned out to be, what we should learn from that and how, maybe, to fix it.

I have sympathy for President Obama having to deal with this mess of a world, where the key threats come from crumbling states that can be managed only by rebuilding them at a huge cost, with uncertain outcomes and dodgy partners. Americans don’t want that job. Yet these disorderly states create openings for low-probability, high-impact terrorism, where the one-in-a-million lucky shot can really hurt us. No president wants to be on duty when that happens either. Yet many more Americans were killed in their cars by deer last year than by terrorists. I don’t think Obama has done that badly navigating all these contradictions. He has done a terrible job explaining what he is doing and connecting his restraint with any larger policy goals at home or abroad.

Argues Gautam Mukunda, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter,” our overreliance on fencing, so to speak, since 9/11 has distracted us from building resilience the way we used to, by investing in education, infrastructure, immigration, government-funded research and rules that incentivize risk-taking but prevent recklessness.

“We used to invest in those things more than anyone,” said Mukunda, “because they offered high-probability, high-impact returns.” Now we don’t, and we are less resilient as a result — no matter how many walls we put up. We’re also not investing enough in the low-probability, high-payoff innovations — like the Internet or GPS — that have distinguished us as a nation and add to our resilience. “We live in a world where small bets can have huge returns,” said Mukunda.

When you look at the effort our leaders now expend preventing low-probability, high-impact terrorist attacks — or protecting themselves from charges of not having done so — compared with rethinking and investing in the proven sources of our strength in this era of rapid change, said Mukunda, “it’s way out of balance.”

I wonder how many Friedman Units it will be until our “leaders” stop pissing their pants and get down to the business of actually leading the country…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

In college you’re supposed to be testing a new altitude of independence. So why join a club whose demand for fealty is such that it often comes with a hazing ritual?

You should be cultivating the kind of sensibility that makes you a better citizen of a diverse and distressingly fractious society. How is that served by retreating into an exclusionary clique of people just like you?

That description doesn’t apply to all fraternities and sororities, but it suits many of them. And it’s a reason atop others to wonder about their role in campus life.

Fraternities are under fresh scrutiny now for the ways in which they’ve abetted sexual assault. The University of Virginia has temporarily suspended its fraternities following rape allegations.

On Monday, Wesleyan University announced that one of its fraternities, Psi Upsilon, would be banned from holding social events until the end of 2015 — also because of rape accusations.

And there has been heightened attention over the last year to the wages of hazing, binge drinking and other potentially destructive behavior that so-called Greek life sometimes seems to promote. A series of stories by Bloomberg News tallied more than 75 fraternity-related deaths since 2005, and the Atlantic magazine published an epic, must-read investigation into the dangers of Greek life by Caitlin Flanagan. It was titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities.”

But fraternities have a culpability beyond sexual violence and personal injury, and it’s the degree to which they contradict one of the most important missions of higher education: giving students a breadth of perspectives.

This mission has seldom been more important. In America today, class divisions, social media, the Balkanization of culture and an intensely partisan, polarized political environment are sorting people into ever-narrower silos and eroding common ground.

And college administrators have an almost unrivaled ability to push back at that, fostering conversations across all lines: economic, ethnic, racial, religious.

“One of the most interesting and wonderful things about the four-year residential-college experience is that it’s one of those times when social engineering is most possible,” said Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociologist and one of the authors of the 2013 book “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.”

“Administrators actually can do more than at pretty much any of our other institutions, except maybe prison,” she told me. “But doing it well takes a lot of resources, a lot of thought about what the physical space should look like.”

Fraternities and sororities aren’t a logical part of that picture. The “Animal House” isn’t an especially eclectic zoo.

Michael Roth, Wesleyan’s president, conceded as much. “I do think, today, fraternities sometimes can be like the cable news station that just preaches to the choir,” he told me.

But so can the themed residential clusters — for theater rats, for ardent environmentalists — that have popped up at some schools, even becoming part of their marketing pitches. Under a putatively liberal banner, these enclaves have the same shortcoming: They contrive micro-communities of sameness in a world of difference. They favor contact with like-minded individuals over communication with a spectrum of people.

There’s an understandable draw to these enclaves. People are tribal, ineluctably so.

And there’s a benefit. In some instances, a feeling of safety and a steady grounding can be precisely what emboldens a person to venture far and wide across unfamiliar terrain.

But in other instances, such comfort strangles curiosity and binds a person to a single crowd, a blinkered viewpoint. Not letting that kind of tribalism get out of hand is one of the central obligations of a country like ours.

And that calls for a hard, cold look at fraternities, which are “more homogenous than the overall college student population” and “at cross-purposes with the goal of promoting campus diversity,” in the judgment of a stinging Bloomberg editorial that accompanied its stories.

On some campuses, fraternities and sororities handle the housing of many students, so their elimination is tricky. On others they’re believed to be a student draw and the source of some particularly generous future alumni.

But Williams College in the 1960s, Colby College in the 1980s and other schools at other times decided to eliminate fraternities and didn’t suffer any great cost or disruption. For every student or graduate who relishes them, there’s another who feels the opposite way.

Whatever the case, I’m concerned less with the fine points of their popularity than with the extent to which they encourage students to hear and listen only to voices like their own.

They can fall into that sad trap as adults. College, of all places, should steer them clear of it.

The Pasty Little Putz, Kristof and Bruni

November 30, 2014

MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  In “The Retreat to Identity” The Pasty Little Putz says that after Ferguson, it’s harder to make a case for optimism about race and politics in America.  In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say:  “In pretending to diss identity politics, Ross perpetuates them. This dog-whistle of a screed immediately signals its intent with the specious claim that “racial cleavages are still less dramatic” than in days of yore. What a shame that the reality had to impinge upon his lollipops-and-roses world. So he has to do a quick propaganda reset, in which liberals still have the chutzpah to talk about a fair economy! And the GOP, for some reason unfathomable to Ross, just can’t get its family values message to resonate with “those people” even as its plutocrat-friendly policies absolutely guarantee their continued misery and oppression.”  Putzy obviously didn’t read Mr. Kristof’s column, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5,” in which he asks a question:  How can we address the racial biases embedded in our society?  In “Just Plane Ugly” Mr. Bruni says Look! Up in the sky! It’s the very worst of us.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

Last summer, around the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I wrote a column making — gingerly — a case for optimism about race and politics in America.

My argument was basically this: As much as racial controversy has marked the presidency of Barack Obama, our race-related policy cleavages are still less dramatic than at any previous point in America’s history. It isn’t just that there’s no contemporary equivalent of the conflict over Jim Crow, in which one side had to be defeated utterly for racial progress to be possible. It’s that on many racially entangled issues, from education to criminal justice to various socioeconomic challenges, the key policy debates are less polarized than in the 1970s and 1980s, and the impact of potential reforms on whites and blacks seems much less zero sum.

But after watching as Ferguson, Mo., seethed and smoldered, it’s worth offering a case for greater pessimism. Not because the optimistic arguments are no longer credible, but because we’ve just had an object lesson in why they might be proved wrong.

This lesson isn’t exactly new; indeed, it’s been offered by both parties throughout this presidency. Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

In the Obama era, though, neither coalition has done a very good job selling such a vision, because neither knows how to deliver on it. (The left doesn’t know how to get wages rising again; the right doesn’t know how to shore up the two-parent family, etc.) Which has left both parties increasingly dependent on identity-politics appeals, with the left mobilizing along lines of race, ethnicity and gender and the right mobilizing around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.

For a while the media has assumed that this kind of identity-based politics inevitably favors the left, because 21st-century America is getting less white every day.

But that’s too simplistic, in part because the definitions of “white” and “minority” are historically elastic. If a “white party” seems sufficiently clueless and reactionary, it will lose ground to a multicultural coalition. But as African-Americans know from bitter experience, “whiteness” has sustained itself by the inclusion of immigrants as well as by the exclusion and oppression of blacks. That history suggests that a “multicultural party” may always be at risk of being redefined as a grievance-based “party of minorities” that many minorities would prefer to leave behind. (And leadership matters, too: A protean figure like Barack Obama can put together a genuine rainbow coalition, but it’s not clear how many other politicians can do the same.)

The key point here, though, is that whichever coalition is ascendant in this scenario, a politics divided primarily by identity is likely to be more poisonous than one in which both parties are offering more-color-blind appeals.

Unfortunately, identity is also the most primal, reliable form of political division. And Ferguson has provided a case study in exactly how powerfully it works.

There was a moment, early in the debate over the death of Michael Brown, when it felt as if this story might vindicate the case for optimism about racial politics — that the original tragedy might be sufficiently transparent, the subsequent police misconduct in quelling protests sufficiently clear-cut, for Ferguson to become a more powerful exhibit in the increasingly bipartisan case for various criminal justice reforms.

But then it became clear that the situation was murkier — that the cop had witnesses and physical evidence supporting his side of the story, that police had to deal with looters as well as peaceful protesters. As John McWhorter wrote in Time magazine, by the time the grand jury handed down its non-indictment the original narrative about Ferguson could only survive with “a degree of elision” and “adjustment.” Which meant, predictably, that the potential for consensus receded, and how people felt about the story became primarily a matter of identification instead.

Do you identify more with a black teenager or with a cop? With protesters menaced by playing-soldier cops or with business owners menaced by the protest’s violent fringe? With various government spokesmen or with, say, Al Sharpton?

Again, this is not unusual; this is how political division and racial division often interact.

And there’s still nothing inevitable about this interaction. Rand Paul, the Republican who’s pushed hardest to change the old paradigm on race and crime, is still talking about criminal justice reform in the wake of Ferguson. The path to a less identity-driven kind of politics is still open.

But it’s clearer today how easy, how human, it will be to leave that path untaken.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof.  Maybe somebody will sit Putzy down and read this to him:

We Americans are a nation divided.

We feud about the fires in Ferguson, Mo., and we can agree only that racial divisions remain raw. So let’s borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.

The model should be the 9/11 commission or the Warren Commission on President Kennedy’s assassination, and it should hold televised hearings and issue a report to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps it could be led by the likes of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey.

We as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life. Two economists, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, found that white N.B.A. referees disproportionally call fouls on black players, while black refs call more fouls on white players. “These biases are sufficiently large that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games,” Price and Wolfers wrote.

If such racial bias exists among professional referees monitored by huge television audiences, imagine what unfolds when an employer privately weighs whom to hire, or a principal decides whether to expel a disruptive student, or a policeman considers whether to pull over a driver.

This “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series is a call for soul-searching. It’s very easy for whites to miss problems that aren’t our own; that’s a function not of being white but of being human. Three-quarters of whites have only white friends, according to one study, so we are often clueless.

What we whites notice is blacks who have “made it” — including President Obama — so we focus on progress and are oblivious to the daily humiliations that African-Americans endure when treated as second-class citizens.

“In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,” a 23-year-old black man wrote in May 1992. “In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall, they follow me.”

He described an incident when he was stopped by six police officers who detained him, with guns at the ready, and treated him for 30 minutes as a dangerous suspect.

That young man was future Senator Cory Booker, who had been a senior class president at Stanford University and was a newly selected Rhodes Scholar. Yet our law enforcement system reduced him to a stereotype — so young Booker sat trembling and praying that he wouldn’t be shot by the police.

My sense is that part of the problem is well-meaning Americans who disapprove of racism yet inadvertently help perpetuate it. We aren’t racists, yet we buttress a system that acts in racist ways. It’s “racism without racists,” in the words of Eduardo Bonillo-Silva, a Duke University sociologist.

This occurs partly because of deeply embedded stereotypes that trick us, even when we want to be fair. Researchers once showed people sketches of a white man with a knife confronting an unarmed black man in the subway. In one version of the experiment, 59 percent of research subjects later reported that it had been the black man who held the knife.

I don’t know what unfolded in Ferguson between Michael Brown, a black teenager, and Darren Wilson, a white police officer. But there is a pattern: a ProPublica investigation found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.

If you’re white, your interactions with police are more likely to have been professional and respectful, leaving you trustful. If you’re black, your encounters with cops may leave you dubious and distrustful. That’s why a Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that 64 percent of African-Americans believe that Officer Wilson should be punished, while only 22 percent of whites think so.

That’s the gulf that an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission might help bridge just a little. In 1922, a Chicago Commission on Race Relations (composed of six whites and six blacks) examined the Chicago race riots of 1919. More recently, President Clinton used an executive order to impanel an advisory board on race that focused on how to nurture “one America.”

A new commission could jump-start an overdue national conversation and also recommend evidence-based solutions to boost educational outcomes, improve family cohesion and connect people to jobs.

White Americans may protest that our racial problems are not like South Africa’s. No, but the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of blacks than apartheid South Africa did. In America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid.

Most troubling, America’s racial wealth gap, pay gap and college education gap have all widened in the last few decades.

There are no easy solutions. But let’s talk.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

The woman in 27E doesn’t have only one carry-on plus a small bag for a laptop or personal items. She has one carry-on plus a purse the size of a bassinet plus some canvas vessel for all of her electronics plus two different plastic totes for various pillows, blankets and possibly an ottoman and a coffee table. Shuffling down the aisle, she looks more like a Peruvian llama than anything human. She grunts and buckles.

She must have heard the announcement that the flight was full and the plea that everyone not bring too much aboard, because those words blared every 45 seconds. But there’s no selective hearing loss like that of the airline passenger. She reaches her row, predictably discovers that there’s insufficient space under the seat in front of hers and proceeds to colonize the space under the seat in front of yours. You arrive to find that what little legroom you’d counted on is gone. She pretends not to see that you’re glaring at her.

A tiff has erupted in Row 18. The man in Seat C has used the overhead for his jacket, which is lovingly folded there, and is protesting any and all attempts to move it. He has miles. He has status. That’s why he was invited to board the aircraft earlier than almost everybody else, and he’s hellbent on milking that privilege for all that it’s worth.

I’m not describing a flight that I just took. Among my Thanksgiving blessings was an avoidance of the unfriendly skies. I’m describing every other flight that I’ve taken over the last year. I’m describing a flight that many Americans surely suffered through this weekend.

And I’m doing it not simply to rue the horrors of air travel these days, which have been rued aplenty. I’m doing it because there are few better showcases of Americans’ worst impulses, circa 2014, than a 757 bound from New York to Los Angeles or from Sacramento to St. Louis. It’s a mile-high mirror of our talent for pettiness, our tendency toward selfishness, our disconnection from one another and our increasing demarcation of castes. It’s a microcosm at 30,000 to 45,000 feet.

Most of the passengers start out in a bad mood, because there’s no good way to get to the airport. The thrifty, efficient rail links that exist in many Asian and European cities remain uncommon in the United States, a reflection of our arrogant and damnable inattention to infrastructure. Even in recent years, during an economic downturn that cried out for the kinds of big projects that create jobs, we made only meager investments. Our airports and the roads and nonexistent tracks around them show it.

“Our infrastructure is on life support right now,” Ray LaHood, the former transportation secretary, told Steve Kroft in a segment of “60 Minutes” from one week ago. It was titled, fittingly, “Falling Apart.”

Kroft noted that there was “still no consensus on how to solve the problem,” which had grown more severe because of “political paralysis in Washington.”

One of the impediments to consensus is manifest on a plane: There’s little sense of a common good, no rules that everybody follows so that nobody gets a raw deal. Instead there’s an ethic of every passenger for himself or herself. The existence of, and market for, the Knee Defender, that device that prohibits the person in front of you from reclining, says it all.

On second thought, no, this does: Immediately following news coverage of a flight that had to be diverted when two passengers scuffled over a Knee Defender’s use, sales of the device reportedly increased.

Courtesy is dead. The plane is its graveyard. There’s a scrum at the gate and then another scrum in the aisle that defy any of the airline’s attempts at an orderly boarding process. There’s no restraint in the person who keeps smacking the back of your chair; no apology from the parent whose child keeps kicking it; no awareness that certain foods, unwrapped in a tight space, turn one traveler’s lunch into every traveler’s olfactory reality.

And nobody really communicates. Conversation between strangers becomes rarer as gadgets get better, enabling everyone to hunker down with his or her own music and own movies and own video games, to shrink the world to the dimensions of a smartphone’s or tablet’s screen, to disappear into a personalized bubble of ceaseless entertainment and scant enlightenment.

On the plane, as in the economy, most people are feeling squeezed. Financially, every flight is a death by a dozen cuts. There’s the baggage fee, the meal fee, the wireless fee. All the base price gets you is a perch that’s tighter than ever and getting tighter still. In The Daily Beast two days before Thanksgiving, Clive Irving described airlines’ sophisticated, inch-by-inch stratagems to “engineer you out of room,” and they sounded like experiments in orthopedic torture. What the rack was to medieval times, Seat 39B is to modern ones.

But Seat 2A? That’s a different story. A different world. The gap between first class and everyone else is writ vivid on a plane, and crossing from one side of the divide to the other seems to be growing more difficult. Frequent-flier programs are being tweaked to reward dollars spent on tickets instead of miles flown, and to give more bonus miles to people who are already at a high status than to people who aspire to be.

“United Continental’s Miles Program to Penalize Average Fliers,” said a headline in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. The article went on to explain that the airline was “becoming the latest carrier to shift its loyalty program to favor bigger spenders.”

A recent story in The Journal explored this further, noted that Delta was making similar adjustments, and explained, “People who fly on expensive business-class and first-class tickets and have top-tier status in frequent-flier programs will see their accounts flooded with miles.”

In the clouds as on land, the rich get richer, social mobility wanes and people are funneled ever more ruthlessly into gradations of privilege: those in sections with names like “economy comfort”; those eligible for the exit row; those who get to board in the first, second or third waves; those consigned to later stages and middle seats.

Some blot out all of this sorting with Candy Crush. Some seethe. Too many of us lose sight of more than the earth. We forget that simply being up in the air is an experience that others seldom if ever get. If there’s one thing in even shorter supply than legroom, it’s empathy.

Friedman and Bruni

November 26, 2014

In “News Drumsticks” The Moustache of Wisdom offers us all some suggestions for what to talk about over Thanksgiving dinner.  Mr. Bruni ponders “When Italians Meet Turkey” and says their Thanksgiving menu tends to sprawl. But then so do their feelings.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Thanksgiving is a time for dinner-table conversation. If you’re short of news drumsticks to chew on, here are a few you may have missed.

For starters, it’s true the world would be safer if we got a deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear program. But if the Iranians and their Arab neighbors don’t protect and preserve their environments, Mother Nature is going to finish them all off long before they get to each other. Read Chandran Nair’s essay in The International New York Times on Nov. 10 from Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city: “The major artery that ran through the city was the Zayanderud River, a thoroughfare that nourished some of the earliest civilizations in recorded history and sustained the people of Isfahan down through modern times. But for two years the river has been bone dry. It’s not that its banks have receded; they simply aren’t there anymore. In their place is a desertified riverbed. … Wells have dried up and ecosystems have been destroyed.”

The crisis was produced by a prolonged on-again-off-again drought, dating to 1999, and populist, undisciplined water subsidies by the ayatollahs, trying to win support from industry, farmers and the poor. The doubling of Iran’s population in the last 40 years compounded the problem. But Iran’s rulers are afraid to cut back now for fear of triggering populist anger. Iran will soon need a lot of nuclear power — to desalinate water.

Speaking of population, it was a hot topic at the World Parks Congress in Sydney last week — the U.N.’s startling new population data. According to a Sept. 18 article in Science magazine, “Analysis of these data reveals that, contrary to previous literature, the world population is unlikely to stop growing this century. There is an 80 percent probability that world population, now 7.2 billion people, will increase to between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion in 2100. … Much of the increase is expected to happen in Africa, in part due to higher fertility rates and a recent slowdown in the pace of fertility decline.”

We just added a couple billion more people to the planet this century! If the ecosystems and forests that provide us with clean water and clean air are stressed with 7.2 billion people here, what happens at 12.3 billion? Pass me some wine with that drumstick.

You may have missed this one, too: The Times of Israel reported on Oct. 24 that Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, decried “what he sees as an epidemic of anti-Arab racism,” telling a group of Israeli academics, “Israeli society is sick, and it is our duty to treat this disease.”

Actually, Rivlin speaking out is a sign of health. So was an essay by Shabtai Shavit, the former chief of the Mossad, in Haaretz on Monday, saying: “I am truly concerned about the future of the Zionist project. I am concerned about the critical mass of the threats against us on the one hand, and the government’s blindness and political and strategic paralysis on the other. … I am concerned that for the first time, I am seeing haughtiness and arrogance, together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict into a holy war. … This right wing, in its blindness and stupidity, is pushing the nation of Israel into the dishonorable position of ‘the nation shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations’ (Numbers 23:9).” Shavit said Israel should launch a peace effort, based on the Arab peace initiative, which calls for full peace for full withdrawal.

The same day, Ori Nir, who covered the Palestinians for Haaretz, wrote his own brutally honest essay, which said: “The Palestinians don’t have a national figure with [President] Rivlin’s integrity. I wish they did, because their society, too, is very sick, indeed, and could use Rivlinesque self-criticism.” One only needs to read the praise that Hamas, the Jordanian Parliament and Arab commentators heaped on the two Palestinians who murdered four Jews at prayer in a West Jerusalem synagogue to know just how sick their society is, and one only needs to study the continuing flow of young Muslim men to the Islamic State, or listen to the hate-mongering of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who declared Israel guilty of “barbarism that surpasses Hitler” — to know this whole region needs a shrink.

Nir put it well: “Without leaders who inspire hope for a future of peace, young Israelis and Palestinians have lost the ability to dream, to envision a different reality. … I know that even if the occupation ended tomorrow, healing will take many years. But healing will only be possible once the two societies separate, so they can mind their own illnesses. We must let the healing begin.”

Finally, Ferguson, Mo., reminds us of our own wounds of mistrust we need to heal. The controversial verdict was announced the same day President Obama awarded this year’s Presidential Medals of Freedom, which also reminded us that we’ve been a work in progress in repairing our racial divide. Among those honored were the three civil rights workers killed in the Freedom Summer of 1964. Another was Charlie Sifford, a black golfer who helped desegregate the P.G.A. Tour and pave the way for Tiger Woods. And another was Stevie Wonder, who, as Obama put it, “channeled his inner visions into messages of hope and healing.”

That should be plenty to talk about.

And there’s nothing quite like discussing politics at dinner to make for a happy occasion…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Thanksgiving Day is almost upon us, and I haven’t yet summoned the nerve to tell Uncle Mario and Aunt Carolyn, who host it, that I may not arrive until a quarter past noon. That’ll make me more than an hour late, which by my rough arithmetic translates into 12 chilled shrimp, 15 mozzarella balls, four meatballs, a medium-size plate of stuffed mushrooms and a sizable wedge of frittata.

That’s an unthinkable magnitude of forgiveness to ask for.

The Bruni family has a schedule, you see. A pace. It’s like a forced march, only a catered one, with prosciutto. We get going at 11 a.m. because we have no other choice if we’re to cram in all the necessary appetizers — and what I’ve described above isn’t even half of them — before we sit down to the main meal. It must commence by 1:30 p.m., lest we fail to do the dessert buffet at 3:15, the spread of sandwiches at 5:30 and the return of the dessert buffet at 6:45.

“Buffet” doesn’t really cover it. “Burlesque” comes closer. To wit: My sister is making three pumpkin pies, and she’s one of maybe 10 guests bearing sweets. Aunt Vicki is baking another six pies — three apple and three pecan — to complement the cookies, brownies, cupcakes, cakes and tubs of ice cream that various other relatives contribute. We’re something like 40 people this year, but still. This could feed 400.

Italian-Americans are a gluttonous tribe, and when we look at the calendar, we don’t see big moments and small ones, peaks and valleys. We see occasions to eat a lot and occasions to eat even more than that.

And Thanksgiving, with its focus on food and its veneration of plenty, is the ultimate occasion, the utmost license, our culinary id unbound. It’s when we’re released from our paddocks, ovoid thoroughbreds allowed to hit full stride.

One year I hobbled myself. I was trying hard to diet, and I actually showed up and murmured something about steering clear of carbohydrates, just this once. You could have heard a chicken cutlet drop. Cousins gaped. Nieces had tears in their eyes. Aunt Carolyn grabbed the edge of the turkey platter to steady herself.

I’d cursed in the temple, and my penance was clear. I had two helpings of stuffing, along with a bulbous buttered yam.

That’s a lie. I had helpings of two different kinds of stuffing. It’s a hallmark of Bruni Thanksgivings that there’s never just one of anything: no single vegetable, no solitary starch, no gargantuan turkey carrying the whole protein load.

There’s usually an equally mammoth ham in the mix. There’s stuffing from inside the bird as well as stuffing from outside. One casserole of sweet potatoes has marshmallow on top; the other dispenses with that sugary hood. Someone might like a particular version best, so it must be there, along with the yams, and each alternative must exist in a quantity that would be sufficient if everyone decided at the last minute to eat it and only it.

And pasta must appear at some point. We’re Italian. We have a duty.

Every so often there’s a suggestion that we cut back. This goes over about as well as my forswearing of carbohydrates did. Here’s the problem: Aunt Carolyn eliminates the mozzarella balls and someone invariably asks, “Where are the mozzarella balls?” She exiles the stuffed mushrooms and someone desperately canvasses every room and every table surface for them, as if searching for a lost kitten. She ditches the yams and someone goes into a yam funk.

A yam funk won’t do. It’s Thanksgiving! So she serves everything that she did on previous years and maybe, to amuse herself, something additional, which she’s then committed to serving forevermore.

There were Thanksgivings past when I considered all of this absurdly wasteful, outrageously unhealthful, even obscene. I saw us as a parody of ourselves, a plump cartoon.

Now I just smile gratefully and chew. The cartoon’s meaning comes into ever sharper focus. It’s less about gluttony than about generosity. The calories are proxies for something else.

Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Mario spread out everything that they do so that there can be no doubt about how much they treasure us. The rest of us bring everything that we do so that there can be no doubt about how much we treasure them.

We Italian-Americans exalt food because we Italian-Americans exalt family. They’re intertwined. Indistinguishable.

The day’s final image is always the same: Aunt Carolyn back in the kitchen, drained and triumphant, filling elaborate doggie bags so that each of us totes away enough white meat, dark meat, pasta, stuffing, corn, peas, pie and cookies to restage the meal at home a few times. If the eating doesn’t stop, the togetherness never ends.

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Bruni

November 23, 2014

MoDo is off today.  In “The Making of an Imperial President” The Putz thinks he can explain to us how Barack Obama ended up embracing the executive overreach he once campaigned against.  In the comments “Look Ahead” from WA had this to say:  “Maybe the assertion of executive authority has something to do with the headless horseman called Congress since it was TP’d in 2010. Dashing from pointless investigations to useless repeal votes to shutdowns, the Congress has abandoned responsibility and role, leaving the President to act on climate change and other pressing global issues.”  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Sydney, Australia.  He has a question in “Stampeding Black Elephants:”  What happens when some 6,000 park rangers, scientists, environmentalists and others gather to brainstorm how to guard and expand the earth’s protected areas?  Mr. Bruni looks at “Promiscuous College Come-Ons” and says the hucksterism of schools makes it harder for students to navigate the admissions process with any sanity and real success.  Here’s The Putz:

Let me be clear, as he likes to say: I believe that President Obama was entirely sincere when he ran for president as a fierce critic of the imperial executive. I believe that he was in earnest when he told supporters in 2008 that America’s “biggest problems” involved “George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” I believe he meant it when he cast himself as a principled civil libertarian, when he pledged to defer to Congress on war powers, when he promised to abjure privileges Bush had claimed.

I also believe he was sincere when he told audiences, again and again across his presidency, that a sweeping unilateral move like the one just made on immigration would betray the norms of constitutional government.

So how did we get from there to here? How did the man who was supposed to tame the imperial presidency become, in certain ways, more imperial than his predecessor?

The scope of Obama’s moves can be debated, but that basic imperial reality is clear. Even as he has maintained much of the Bush-era national security architecture, this president has been more willing to launch military operations without congressional approval; more willing to trade in assassination and deal death even to American citizens; and more aggressive in his war on leakers, whistle-blowers and journalists.

At the same time, he has been much more aggressive than Bush in his use of executive power to pursue major domestic policy goals — on education, climate change, health care and now most sweepingly on immigration.

Three forces — two external, one internal — might help explain how this transformation happened.

First, public expectations. Across the last century, the presidency’s powers have increased in a symbiosis with changing public expectations about the office. Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured. And so the modern president, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has written, is increasingly seen as “a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise.”

And pressure on this talisman to act, even in violation of laws or norms or Burkean traditions, is ever increasing and intense. When presidents aren’t seen as “doing something,” they’re castigated as lame ducks; when they take unilateral action, as we’ve seen in the last week of media coverage, they suddenly seem to get their groove back. And that’s something that even a principled critic of executive power can find ever harder to pass up.

Second, congressional abdication. This is the point that liberals raise, and plausibly, in President Obama’s defense: It isn’t just that he’s been dealing with an opposition party that’s swung to the right; it’s that this opposition doesn’t know its own mind, collectively or sometimes even individually, and so has trouble bargaining or legislating effectively.

This reality has made it harder to cut major bipartisan deals; it’s made it harder to solve problems that crop up within existing law; it’s made it harder for the president to count votes on foreign policy. All of which creates more incentives for presidential unilateralism: In some cases, it seems required to keep the wheels turning; in others, it can be justified as the only way to get the Big Things done.

Which bring us to the third factor in the president’s transformation: his own ambitions. While running for president, Obama famously praised Ronald Reagan for changing “the trajectory of America” in a way that Bill Clinton’s triangulation did not. And it’s his self-image as the liberal Reagan, I suspect, that’s made it psychologically impossible for this president to accept the limits that his two predecessors eventually accepted on their own policy-making ability.

That transformative self-image has shaped his presidency from the beginning: Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted — as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)

But the liberal Reagan idea has shaped his choices more as it’s become clear that certain major liberal priorities — a big climate-change bill, a comprehensive amnesty — are as out of legislative reach as health care reform proved for Clinton and Social Security reform for Bush. Confronted with those realities, Clinton pivoted and Bush basically gave up. But Obama can’t accept either option, because both seem like betrayals of his promise, his destiny, his image of himself.

And so he has chosen to betray himself in a different way, by becoming the very thing that he once campaigned against: an elected Caesar, a Cheney for liberalism, a president unbound.

Yeah, Putzy.  I’m just waiting for the massive torch-lit rallies.  I guess they’ll start any day now…  Schmuck.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I participated in the World Parks Congress in Sydney last week and learned a new phrase: “a black elephant.” A black elephant, explained the London-based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan, is a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.

“Currently,” said Sweidan, “there are a herd of environmental black elephants gathering out there” — global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, mass extinction and massive fresh water pollution. “When they hit, we’ll claim they were black swans no one could have predicted, but, in fact, they are black elephants, very visible right now.” We’re just not dealing with them at the scale necessary. If they all stampede at once, watch out.

No, this is not an eco-doom column. This one has a happy ending — sort of. The International Union for Conservation of Nature holds the parks congress roughly every 10 years to draw attention to the 209,000 protected areas, which cover 15.4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and inland water areas and 3.4 percent of the oceans, according to the I.U.C.N.

I could have gone to the Brisbane G-20 summit meeting, but I thought this was more important — and interesting. A hall full of park exhibits and park rangers from America, Africa and Russia, along with a rainbow of indigenous peoples, scientists and environmentalists from across the globe — some 6,000 — focused on one goal: guarding and expanding protected areas, which are the most powerful tools we have to restrain the environmental black elephants. How so?

It starts with a simple fact: Protected forests, marine sanctuaries and national parks are not zoos, not just places to see nature. “They are the basic life support systems” that provide the clean air and water, food, fisheries, recreation, stable temperatures and natural coastal protections “that sustain us humans,” said Russ Mittermeier, one of the world’s leading primatologists who was here.

That’s why “conservation is self-preservation,” says Adrian Steirn, the South Africa-based photographer who spoke here. Every dollar we invest in protecting natural systems earns or saves multiple dollars back. Ask the people of São Paulo, Brazil. They deforested hillsides, destroyed their watersheds, and now that they’re in prolonged drought, they’re running out of water, losing thousands of jobs a month. Watch that story.

Walking around the exhibit halls here, I was hit with the reality that what we call “parks” are really the heart, lungs, and circulatory systems of the world — and they’re all endangered.

Onodelgerekh Batkhuu, the director of the Mongol Ecology Center, stops me to explain that Lake Hovsgol National Park in Mongolia, which holds 70 percent of the surface freshwater of Mongolia — 2 percent of the world’s freshwater — and is the headwaters for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater that is in Lake Baikal in Siberia, is now under huge pressure from hoteliers. “How do we get them to understand that the value of that lake staying pristine is more valuable than any hotels?” she asks.

John Gross, an ecologist with the U.S. National Park Service, who has worked in Yellowstone for 20 years, uses a NASA simulation to show me how the average temperature in Yellowstone has been rising and the impact this is having on the snowpack, which is now melting earlier each spring, meaning more water loss through evaporation and rapid runoff, lengthening the fire season. But, hey, it’s just a park, right?

People forget: Yellowstone National Park is “the major source of water for both the Yellowstone and the Snake Rivers,” said Gross. “Millions of people” — farmers, ranchers and communities — “need those two rivers.” Yellowstone’s snowpack is their water tower, and its forest their water filters. Its integrity really matters. What happens in Yellowstone, doesn’t stay in Yellowstone.

Via Skype, I got to interview the heroic Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two of his rangers were killed last week — bringing the total to 140 rangers killed since the park was founded — protecting the park from antiregime rebels, marauding bands poaching wildlife or fronting for oil prospectors. “No park in Africa has this diversity of species,” said de Merode, who has been shot several times.

But, again, this isn’t just an outdoor zoo. With just a little investment, explains de Merode, the park’s rivers could provide 100 megawatts of electricity from hydropower, as well as fisheries, eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture that would create thousands of jobs for the poor communities on its border. Indeed, if the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo is ever to be stabilized, it will likely start from Virunga. “You have a core of Congolese [park] rangers who have maintained their work when every other institution [in the country] has broken down,” he said. Virunga has “become an island of stability.” This is a park holding up a country, not the other way around.

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s former minister of environment and energy and now a vice president of Conservation International, explains to me the politics of parks — and the difference between countries that have their forest service under the minister of agriculture and those where the forest service is under the minister of environment or independent. Agriculture ministers see natural forests and parks “as timber that should be chopped down for something ‘productive,’ like soybeans, cattle or oil palm,” said Rodríguez. Forest services and environment ministers “see their forests as carbon stocks, biodiversity reservoirs, water factories, food production plants, climate adaptation machines and tourism sites,” and protect them.

Guess who’s in the first group? Honduras and Guatemala, where many people live on degraded hillsides. Some 50,000 children have been sent from Central America to the U.S. this year — unaccompanied. Where did they come from? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Central America’s most deforested states. They cut their forests; we got their kids.

I promised you good news — sort of. It’s how many people are now focusing on the economic and national security value of their ecosystems. But the power that financiers and corrupt politicians still hold in setting the limits on what we can and cannot destroy in nature — as opposed to the scientists and biologists — remains the bad news. As Adam Sweidan put it, in too many places we’ve still got “the vampires in charge of the blood banks.” It has to stop, not so we “save the planet.” The planet will always be here. This is about us.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Between the last application season and the current one, Swarthmore College, a school nationally renowned for its academic rigor, changed the requirements for students vying to be admitted into its next freshman class.

It made filling out the proper forms easier.

A year ago, applicants were asked to write two 500-word essays as supplements to the standard one that’s part of the Common Application, an electronic form that Swarthmore and hundreds of small colleges and big universities accept. This was slightly more material than Swarthmore had previously requested, and it was more than many other highly selective schools demanded.

Not coincidentally, the number of applicants to the college dropped, and its acceptance rate in turn climbed, to 17 from 14 percent, making Swarthmore seem less selective.

This year, it’s asking for just one supplemental essay, of only 250 words.

Swarthmore is hardly alone in its desire to eliminate impediments to a bounty of applicants. Over the last decade, many elite colleges have adjusted their applications in ways that remove disincentives and maximize the odds that the number of students jockeying to get in remains robust — or, even better, grows larger.

In one sense, that’s a commendably egalitarian approach and a sensible attempt to be sure that no sterling candidate is missed.

But there’s often a less pure motive in play. In our increasingly status-oriented society, a school’s reputation is bolstered by its glimmer of exclusivity and by a low acceptance rate, which can even influence how U.S. News & World Report ranks it. And unless a school is shrinking the size of its student body, the only way to bring its acceptance rate down is to get its number of applicants up. So, many colleges methodically generate interest only to frustrate it. They woo supplicants for the purpose of turning them down.

It’s a cynical numbers game that further darkens the whole admissions process, a life juncture that should be exhilarating but is governed these days by dread.

It depersonalizes the process, too. Ideally, colleges should want students whose interest in them is genuine, and students should be figuring out which colleges suit them best, not applying indiscriminately to schools that have encouraged that by making it as painless (and heedless) as possible.

“Colleges are actively saddling themselves with a whole group of applicants about whom they know little and who, in turn, know little about them,” Lauren Gersick, the associate director of college counseling at the Urban School of San Francisco, told me. “You have a whole bunch of people fumbling along and freaking out.”

In a story in The Times last weekend, Ariel Kaminer observed that it’s not uncommon these days for an anxious, ambitious student to submit applications to 15 or more schools. Kaminer rightly cast this as a consequence of the overheated competition for admission to the most elite ones. Students spread their nets wider in the hopes of a good catch, and the Common Application abets this.

But so do the schools, which hawk themselves more assertively than ever. They fly in counselors like Gersick and give them elaborate sales pitches. They send their own emissaries out into the world, armed with glossy pamphlets. They buy data to identify persuadable applicants and then approach them with come-ons as breathless as any telemarketer’s pitch.

A recent email that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sent unbidden to one high school senior invited him “to apply with Candidate’s Choice status!” (The boldface letters and the exclamation point are Rensselaer’s, not mine.)

“Exclusively for select students, the Candidate’s Choice Application is unique to Rensselaer, and is available online now,” the email said, after telling its recipient that “a talented student like you deserves a college experience that is committed to developing the great minds of tomorrow.”

“The marketing is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” said Kay Rothman, director of college counseling at the NYC Lab School, in Manhattan. “There are places like Tulane that will send everyone a ‘V.I.P.’ application.” She told me that she routinely had to disabuse impressionable students of the notion that they’d won some prized lottery or been given some inside track.

A certain amount of outreach and promotion is necessary, even commendable.

“I don’t think colleges are guilty for marketing their product,” Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, said when I spoke with her last week. “Colleges need to explain to students what their product is about.”

And there can be other rationales for what looks like a loosening of application demands. Smith and several other similarly prominent colleges no longer require the SAT or ACT, and McCartney said that that’s not a bid for more applicants. It’s a recognition that top scores on those tests correlate with high family income and may say more about an applicant’s economic advantages — including, say, private SAT tutoring — than about academic potential.

Jim Bock, Swarthmore’s dean of admissions, said that by lightening the essay load for its current applicants, the college was less concerned about boosting its overall number of applicants than about making sure candidates of great merit didn’t miss out on Swarthmore and vice versa. He mentioned the hypothetical example of a high school student from a low-income family who works 10 or more hours a week and doesn’t have ample time to do different essays for different schools.

“Sometimes asking too much is asking too much,” he said in an interview on Friday.

But will Swarthmore’s applicants this year give quite as much thought to its suitability for them, to whether it’s the right home? I’m betting not.

When it’s a snap for a student to apply to yet one more college and each school is simply another desirable cereal on a top shelf that he or she is determined to reach, there’s inadequate thought to a tailored match, which is what the admissions process should strive for. It’s what the measure of success should be.

That was the feeling expressed by a group of counselors and consultants in a thread of Facebook comments last July about colleges doing away with supplemental essays.

One of them, Laird Durley, wrote that students insufficiently motivated to write something extra for a school “probably shouldn’t go to those schools anyway,” and he rued the extent to which simply gaining admission to a school with a fancy name — any school with a fancy name — ruled the day.

“It is harder than ever to sell ‘fit’ as opposed to ‘logo affixing,’ ” he wrote, adding that “what you will learn there” has taken a back seat to a different consideration: “Look at my brand!”


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