Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 3, 2015

In “Leaving and Cleaving” Bobo gurgles that instant communications technology has changed the nature of parting: a new level of self-discipline and sacrifice is required for a graceful split.  In the comments “Mary Askew” from Springfield, MA had this to say:  “David Brooks may know people who stalk and harass ex-lovers, friends, mentors. I don’t. And, I haven’t heard those issues discussed among my friends.  If he thinks about it, Brooks will drop the “We all know….” formula. It is, at best, a lazy rationalization for this column.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Vast Realm of ‘If’,” says hypothetically speaking, one life is not enough. There is not enough time for all of our dreams.  In “How Warren Buffet Does It” Mr. Nocera tells us about going from “cigar butt” investing to the greatest conglomerate ever in 50 years.  Here’s Bobo:

So much of life is about leave-taking: moving from home to college, from love to love, from city to city and from life stage to life stage.

In earlier times, leaving was defined by distance, but now it is defined by silence. Everybody everywhere is just a text away, a phone call away. Relationships are often defined by the frequency and intensity of communication between two people.

The person moving on and changing a relationship no longer makes a one-time choice to physically go to another town. He makes a series of minute-by-minute decisions to not text, to not email or call, to turn intense communication into sporadic conversation or no communication. His name was once constant on his friend’s phone screen, but now it is rare and the void is a wound.

If you are like me you know a lot of relationships in which people haven’t managed this sort of transition well. Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted — after a transition — by resentment, neediness or narcissism.

We all know men and women who stalk ex-lovers online; people who bombard a friend with emails even though that friendship has evidently cooled; mentors who resent their former protégés when their emails are no longer instantly returned; people who post faux glam pictures on Instagram so they can “win the breakup” against their ex.

Instant communication creates a new sort of challenge. How do you gracefully change your communication patterns when one person legitimately wants to step back or is entering another life phase?

The paradox is that the person doing the leaving controls the situation, but greater heroism is demanded of the one being left behind. The person left in the vapor trail is hurt and probably craves contact. It’s amazing how much pain there is when what was once intimate conversation turns into unnaturally casual banter, emotional distance or just a void.

The person left behind also probably thinks that the leaver is making a big mistake. She probably thinks that it’s stupid to leave or change the bond; that the other person is driven by selfishness, shortsightedness or popularity.

Yet if the whole transition is going to be managed with any dignity, the person being left has to swallow the pain and accept the decision.

The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to (except in the most highly unusual circumstances). The person being left has to suppress vindictive flashes of resentment and be motivated by a steady wish for the other person’s ultimate good. Without accepting the idea that she deserved to be left, the person being left has to act in a way worthy of her best nature, to continue the sacrificial love that the leaver may not deserve and may never learn about.

That means not calling when you are not wanted. Not pleading for more intimacy or doing the other embarrassing things that wine, late nights and instant communications make possible.

Maybe that will mean the permanent end to what once was, in which case at least the one left behind has lost with grace. But maybe it will mean rebirth.

For example, to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their child’s transition into adulthood.

The mistakes usually begin early in adolescence. The parents don’t create a space where the child can establish independence. They don’t create a context in which the child can be honest about what’s actually happening in his life. The child is forced to deceive in order to both lead a semi-independent life and also maintain parental love.

By college, both sides are to be pitied. By hanging on too tight, the parents have created exactly the separation they sought to avoid. The student, meanwhile, does not know if he is worthy of being treated as a dignified adult because his parents haven’t treated him that way. They are heading for a life of miscommunication.

But if the parents lay down sacrificially, accept the relationship their child defines, then it can reboot on an adult-to-adult basis. The hiddenness and deception is no longer necessary. Texts and emails can flow, not as before, but fluidly and sweetly.

Communications technology encourages us to express whatever is on our minds in that instant. It makes self-restraint harder. But sometimes healthy relationships require self-restraint and self-quieting, deference and respect (at the exact moments when those things are hardest to muster). So today a new kind of heroism is required. Feelings are hurt and angry words are at the ready. But they are held back. You can’t know the future, but at least you can walk into it as your best and highest self.

I wonder if Bobo is busy cyber-stalking his ex-wife, since he seems so sure that we ALL know someone who does that…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

What happens only just happens; then inevitability is conferred upon it. Between the lived and the not-quite-lived lies the little word “if.” It’s a two-letter invitation to the vast realm of the hypothetical, the counterfactual, and all the various paths not taken over the course of a life.

When I lived in Brazil in the 1980s I would run along the beach from Leblon to Ipanema and back. After the workout, I’d always pay a couple of cents for coconut water. I liked to watch the way the beach-shack dude cupped the coconut in one hand and then, with three or four languorous but unerring swipes of his machete, opened up the top. He’d insert a straw. The iced water was always perfect.

I’d count his fingers. The blade never slipped. There were always 10.

Of course, if I’d thought of putting the coconut water in a bottle 30 years ago, marketing its health benefits, and selling it worldwide, I would not be writing this column today. It was too simple to think of that.

When I lived in Rome, before Brazil, I liked to watch the barmen ratcheting ground coffee into a receptacle, tapping the grains down, twisting the container into a socket, placing cups on a metal ledge-cum-filter beneath the coffee-yielding spouts, pouring milk with the requested dose of foam, and placing the various coffees on the counter. The quicksilver movements seemed all part of a single pirouette.

My then wife and I would travel from Rome to the Midwest, where she is from, and remark on the fact that it was near impossible to get a good coffee. She liked the idea of opening a coffee shop in the Twin Cities that would serve coffee as good as we’d become accustomed to drinking in Italy. Perhaps we could even grow the business across the United States!

Of course, if we’d done that in 1983, coffee aficionados might be speaking of St. Paul today the way they speak of Seattle. We’d be visiting our coffee shops in Chengdu and Glasgow. But it was too simple to do that.

Before Rome, when I lived in Brussels, I’d watch the chocolatiers down near the Grand Place apply their tongs (most useful and underrated of culinary implements!) to the cocoa-dusted truffles and place them, one by one, in small white boxes until the chocolates were arrayed in many-layered order, one temptation nestling against another.

It would have been easy enough, in 1980, to make those chocolates more widely available, and it did occur to me that they should be, but of course I did nothing about the thought. If I had, who knows?

When I was in Afghanistan in 1973, before all the trouble started, or rather at the moment the trouble started with the overthrow of the king, I should have brought back all those Afghan rugs, and perhaps picked up a few in Iran (in that one could drive across the country then without any problem or mention of nukes); and certainly I should have hung onto our VW Kombi called Pigpen, after the keyboardist of the Grateful Dead who died that year, but I did not imagine then what a vehicle like that, adorned with Afghan paintings, might go for on eBay today, or how the VW bus would one day be prized from Hay-on-Wye to Haight-Ashbury. I don’t even recall where in England I left Pigpen to die.

Hypothetically speaking, we need countless lives. There is not enough time. Or so it may seem. In the next one I will be a baker or a jeweler or a winemaker. I will make things. I will stay in one place.

Absent what might have been, I went on writing. In “The Debt to Pleasure,” the English novelist John Lanchester has this to say about my profession: “‘Your precipitate social decline cannot fail to alarm your well-wishers,’ I told my brother. ‘You started as a painter, then you became a sculptor, now you’re basically a sort of gardener. What next, Barry? Street-cleaner? Lavatory attendant? Journalism?”’

That is a little harsh on what happened in the absence of what might have.

There is beauty in our dreams of change, our constant what ifs. Days begin in the realm of solemn undertakings — to eat less, to exercise more, to work harder, or to go gentler. They end with wobbles into compromise, or collapses into indulgence, with the perennial solace of the prospect of another day. The good-intentions dinner, a salad with a couple of slivers of chicken, turns into a Burrito with cheese and avocado and salsa and chicken. That’s human.

It’s an illusion to think it would have been simple to change. We live lives that reflect our natures. Memory grows, a refuge, a solace, a repository so vast that what happened and what almost did begin to blur.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Fifty years ago, a young investor named Warren Buffett took control of a failing textile company, Berkshire Hathaway. “I found myself … invested in a terrible business about which I knew very little,” Buffett relates in his annual letter to shareholders, which was released over the weekend. “I became the dog who caught the car.”

Buffett describes his approach in those days as “cigar butt” investing; buying shares of troubled companies with underpriced stocks was “like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it,” he writes. “Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free.” He continues: “Most of my gains in those early years … came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices.”

But that approach had limits. It took Charlie Munger, the Los Angeles lawyer who has been his longtime sidekick, to show him that there was another way to win at the investing game: “Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices,” Munger told him. “Instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” Which is what Buffett’s been doing ever since.

He has done it in two ways. First — and this is what he is renowned for — he has bought stock in some of the great American companies of our time, stock that he has held not just for years, but for decades. Second, he has turned Berkshire Hathaway into a true conglomerate, which owns not just stocks but entire companies. Although Berkshire’s front office employs only 25 people, its companies have, in total, some 340,500 employees.

How successful has the Buffett-Munger approach been? In the 50 years since Buffett took over Berkshire, its stock has appreciated by 1,826,163 percent. That is an astounding number.

You would think, given Buffett’s success, that more people would try to emulate his approach to investing. It is not as if he hasn’t tried to explain how he does it. Every year, you can find a Buffett tutorial in his annual letter that the rest of us would do well to absorb — and practice.

In the current letter, for instance, he makes the case — which has been made many times before — that a diversified portfolio of stocks “that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions” are less risky over the long term than other investment vehicles that are tied to the dollar. Clearly, that’s been his approach. He then goes on to bemoan the fact that too many investors — both little guys and investment professionals — do things that add risk: “Active trading, attempts to ‘time’ market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees … and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy.”

Another thing about Buffett is that he has never gotten caught up in fads. He only buys businesses that he understands and can predict where the business will be in a decade. He teaches this point in the current letter with a discussion of the conglomerates that sprung up in the 1960s and became the hot stocks of the moment. Jimmy Ling, who ran one such company, LTV, used to say that he looked for acquisitions where “2 plus 2 equals 5.”

LTV, as conceived by Ling, of course, ceased to exist decades ago (though the company would go through several transformations and bankruptcy court before shuttering its last vestige in 2002). “Never forget that 2 + 2 will always equal 4,” writes Buffett. “And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.”

If it’s really this simple, why don’t more people try to invest like Buffett? One reason, I think, is that sound investing — buying when others are selling, holding for the long term, avoiding the hot stocks — requires a stronger stomach than most people have. When a stock is plummeting, it takes a certain strength to buy even more instead of selling in a panic. Most of us lack the temperament required for smart investing. The fundamental equanimity required to be a great investor is a rare thing.

The second reason is that investing the Warren Buffett way is a lot more complicated than he makes it sound. Can you predict where a business will be in 10 years? Of course not. But he can — and does.

In a few months, the faithful will flock to Omaha to attend Berkshire’s annual meeting — “Woodstock for capitalists,” Buffett likes to call it. For six hours, Buffett and Munger will be on stage, before some 40,000 people, cracking wise, while making their investment decisions sound like simplicity itself.

But, in coming to pay their annual homage, the throngs will not be acknowledging the simplicity of Buffett’s approach, but the genius behind it.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 19, 2015

In “The Obama Years” Mr. Blow says wherever you think he may rank as a president, there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.  Mr. Cohen has decided to channel MoDo and has written a fever dream.  In “The Great Jewish Exodus” he you should be careful what you wish for: An Israeli leader urges a course that diminishes Jewishness and the liberal world order.  Mr. Kristof addresses “The Cost of a Decline in Unions” and says as unions wane in American life, it’s increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining the middle class.  Which is most likely why TPTB are slowly strangling them.  Ms. Collins has a question in “A Gun on Every Corner:”  Should a local gun permit be treated like a driver’s license that is recognized all over the country?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

As the political parlor game increasingly turns to obsessions about the jockeying to become the next president, my thinking increasingly turns to how history will measure the current one.

While a truly comprehensive appraisal and historical contextualization of a presidency is the scope and scale of books more than columns, there are things that, from my perch and according to the peculiarities of my personal interests, stand out.

Some of these are things for which the president can — in part or in whole — take personal responsibility, but others simply happened on this watch. And yet, I believe that they will all be somewhat associated with him and his stewardship.

In an interview broadcast earlier this month, the president told CNN, “I’m proud of saving the economy.” That may well be the most resounding mark of his presidency, even as people debate the quality of the recovery and his administration’s role in it.

It is nearly impossible to overstate how close we came to economic collapse in 2008 and how frightened we all were.

Now, that has turned around. The private sector has seen job growth for 59 straight months. The unemployment rate was down to 5.6 percent in December, the lowest since 2008, and as Reuters pointed out last month, new claims for unemployment benefits reached “the lowest level in nearly 15 years.”

But this recovery tends to feel more favorable for the wealthy than the working class. As the National Employment Law Project pointed out in an April policy paper, there is an imbalance between the kinds of jobs lost in the recession and the kinds experiencing the greatest growth in the recovery: High-wage industries accounted for 41 percent of the job losses but only 30 percent of the recent employment growth, while lower-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of the job losses but 44 percent of recent growth.

But if you are one of the Americans well off enough to own stocks, life looks much better. In 2009, the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen below 7,000; now it’s above 18,000. And yet, as CNBC pointed out in September, the percent of Americans who hold stock either directly or indirectly is at an 18-year low while “stock ownership for the wealthy is at a new high,” based on 2012 data. As CNBC reported:

“In 2010, the latest period available, the top 10 percent of Americans by net worth held 81 percent of all directly held or indirectly held stocks, according to Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University who specializes in inequality and Federal Reserve data.”

The Obama years will also be remembered for the reshaping of our politics. There was the rise of the Tea Party and the demise of moderate voices. There were the unfathomable and indefensible rulings by the Supreme Court to bless dark money in the Citizens United case and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. There is an ongoing voter effort to shrink and restrict the voting pool as minorities are beginning to feel their power at the polls.

The Obama years will be remembered as a cultural — and legal — tipping point for equality for all people who do not identify as strictly heterosexual, arguably the civil rights movement of our times. The president signed the bill repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court.

And in 2012, Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage (a book by David Axelrod even claims that the president was in favor of same-sex marriage, long before he publicly proclaimed it, and indeed when he was publicly saying that he wasn’t). When Obama took office, same-sex marriage was rare; now it’s legal in 37 states. And a case now before the Supreme Court could determine whether it will be legal nationally.

The New Republic even dubbed Obama the “Gay-Rights President,” and it is hard to argue with that.

The Obama years will also be remembered for his signature legislation — the Affordable Care Act. This week, the president said that 11.4 million people had signed up for insurance or renewed coverage under the plan. Needless to say, the program is reducing the number of people who are uninsured but it also appears to be lowering medical costs.

Yet the future of the act is unclear. There is a case (King v. Burwell) before the Supreme Court — a laughable case about a language quibble that may be the most significant linguistic imprecision of a generation — that could spell doom for the law by withholding subsidies from millions of low-income Americans to purchase health insurance.

There’s the Supreme Court again. One could argue that the Supreme Court — the judicial Divine Nine — has shaped the Obama presidency as much as Obama has. That’s not to say that he hasn’t done an amazing job of shaping the judiciary in this country himself. In addition to appointing two new members to the Supreme Court — both women, a first for any president — he has completely transformed the lower courts.

As Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in The New Yorker in October:

“When Obama took office, Republican appointees controlled ten of the thirteen circuit courts of appeals; Democratic appointees now constitute a majority in nine circuits. Because federal judges have life tenure, nearly all of Obama’s judges will continue serving well after he leaves office.

Furthermore, Toobin laid out the diversity of the Obama transformation, writing:

“Sheldon Goldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a scholar of judicial appointments, said, ‘The majority of Obama’s appointments are women and nonwhite males.’ Forty-two per cent of his judgeships have gone to women. Twenty-two per cent of George W. Bush’s judges and twenty-nine per cent of Bill Clinton’s were women. Thirty-six per cent of President Obama’s judges have been minorities, compared with eighteen per cent for Bush and twenty-four per cent for Clinton.”

This is huge.

And there isn’t space in this column to address the many other things the Obama years will be remembered for: our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Russian aggression, moves on climate policy and the rise of American energy, the re-fighting of issues over women’s reproductive rights and immigration policy, to name a few.

Whether you agree that Obama was a transformational figure or how he ranks among other presidents — a new survey of American Political Science Association members puts him 18th — there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.

Next up we have MoDo Mr. Cohen:

They were gone, as completely as from Baghdad or Cairo, Damascus or Alexandria. They had vanished from Budapest and Brussels, from Frankfurt and Padua, from Paris and Manchester, from Antwerp and Stockholm.

As in the Arab world, Europe wondered what it had lost. The texture of life was thinned, the richness of exchange diminished, the flowering of ideas curtailed. There was an absence.

They did not say much. They packed and left, wheeling their suitcases, carrying their bags and bundles and babies, a little wave offered here and there. Rich and poor, religious and not, they sold what they had and went on their way. People looked askance, as their forbears once had in crueler circumstances, a little uneasy at the exodus, unsure what it meant but certain it was the end of a very long story.

Was Europe not the Continent of Disraeli and Heine and Marx (all baptized, but still), of Freud and Einstein, of Rothschild and Bleichröder, of Dreyfus and Herzl, of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig? Was it not the home of Yiddish, once the first tongue of millions, a language perhaps unique, as Isaac Bashevis Singer noted, because it was never spoken by men in power?

Was it not the scene of a great 19th-century struggle for emancipation beginning in France and stretching across the Continent to the pogrom-stained Pale of Settlement, a battle that in many instances ushered this stubborn people, with their eternal covenant of ethics entered into with a faceless God, to the summit of the professions, only for this progress, threatening to some, to end in the Nazis’ industrialized mass murder?

Was Europe not, against all odds, the place liberalism triumphed over the deathly totalitarianisms? The land of Isaiah Berlin who quoted Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The Continent where this people survived after the attempted annihilation (in which the majority of Europeans were complicit), forming new communities, even in Germany; a Continent of crooked timber, of every expression and experiment in their identity, their partial loss of identity, their embrace of merged and multiple identities?

Yes, there was often a sense of otherness, a self-imposed discretion, but there was also reassurance in being part of a great European convergence that over many decades dissolved the borders across which countless wars had been fought and affirmed the right of every European of whatever faith or ethnicity to equal rights, free expression, and the free practice of their beliefs.

Yet now they were gone. Europe, without the Jews, had lost part of itself. It had lost the very right to a conscience. It had been defeated in its essence. It had rebirthed itself after the 20th-century horror only to surrender.

Jewishness had lost one of its constituent elements, the European Jew of the diaspora. As for humanity, it had lost all hope. Humankind had succumbed to the tribal nightmare, to the darkest of tides. Tribal war loomed.

The strange thing was that the prime minister of Israel, the Jewish homeland established in 1948, the certain refuge at last, the place where belonging could never be an issue, had wished it so.

It was the Israeli leader who suggested it was time to abandon the European Jewish experiment. He had been in office many years. He saw himself as the visionary defender and gatherer of his people, the man for every threat (and they seemed to multiply endlessly).

After the shootings of Jews in Brussels and Paris and Copenhagen, as European soldiers and police fanned out to protect synagogues and as he faced a close election, the Israeli leader said this: “This wave of terror attacks is expected to continue, including these murderous anti-Semitic attacks.”

He continued: “We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe” of Jews. He added, “I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: Israel is the home of every Jew.”

Israel is indeed the home of every Jew, and that is important, a guarantee of sorts. It is equally important, however, that not every Jew choose this home. That is another kind of guarantee, of Europe’s liberal order, of the liberal idea itself. So it was shattering when millions of Jews, every one of them in fact, as if entranced, upped and left their homes in Milan and Berlin and Zurich.

The leader himself was overcome: Where was he to house them? Many of the liberal Jews of Europe, long strangers in strange lands, knowing statelessness in their bones, mindful of Hillel’s summation of the Torah — “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man” — refused to be part of the spreading settlements in the West Bank, Israeli rule over another people.

The prime minister awoke, shaken. It had been such a vivid nightmare. Too vivid! To himself he murmured, “Careful what you wish for.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Like many Americans, I’ve been wary of labor unions.

Full-time union stagehands at Carnegie Hall earning more than $400,000 a year? A union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her? A police union in New York City that has a tantrum and goes on virtual strike?

More broadly, I disdained unions as bringing corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules to the labor market, impeding the economic growth that ultimately makes a country strong.

I was wrong.

The abuses are real. But, as unions wane in American life, it’s also increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life — especially the private-sector unions that are now dwindling.

Most studies suggest that about one-fifth of the increase in economic inequality in America among men in recent decades is the result of the decline in unions. It may be more: A study in the American Sociological Review, using the broadest methodology, estimates that the decline of unions may account for one-third of the rise of inequality among men.

“To understand the rising inequality, you have to understand the devastation in the labor movement,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at the University of Washington and the author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”

Take construction workers. A full-time construction worker earns about $10,000 less per year now than in 1973, in today’s dollars, according to Rosenfeld. One reason is probably that the proportion who are unionized has fallen in that period from more than 40 percent to just 14 percent.

“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

I’m as appalled as anyone by silly work rules and $400,000 stagehands, or teachers’ unions shielding the incompetent. But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

In Germany, the average autoworker earns about $67 per hour in salary and benefits, compared with $34 in the United States. Yet Germany’s car companies in 2010 produced more than twice as many vehicles as American companies did, and they were highly profitable. It’s too glib to say that the problem in the American sector was just unions.

Or look at American history. The peak years for unions were the 1940s and ’50s, which were also some of the fastest-growing years for the United States ever — and with broadly shared prosperity. Historically, the periods when union membership were highest were those when inequality was least.

Richard B. Freeman, a Harvard labor expert, notes that unions sometimes bring important benefits to industry: They can improve morale, reduce turnover and provide a channel to suggest productivity improvements.

Experts disagree about how this all balances out, but it’s clear that it’s not a major drag. “If you’re looking for big negatives, everybody knows they don’t exist,” Professor Freeman said.

Joseph Stiglitz notes in his book “The Price of Inequality” that when unions were strong in America, productivity and real hourly compensation moved together in manufacturing. But after 1980 (and especially after 2000) the link seemed to break and real wages stagnated.

It may be that as unions weakened, executives sometimes grabbed the gains from productivity. Perhaps that helps explain why chief executives at big companies earned, on average, 20 times as much as the typical worker in 1965, and 296 times as much in 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”

He’s right. This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Earlier this month — right between Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day — Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced a bill that would allow people from states with lax gun laws to carry their concealed weapons all around the country.

The goal, Cornyn said in a press release, is to treat local gun permits “like drivers’ licenses.”

“This operates more or less like a driver’s license,” he told a reporter for The Hill. “So, for example, if you have a driver’s license in Texas, you can drive in New York, in Utah, and other places subject to the laws in those states.”

This is perfectly reasonable, except for the part about gun permits being anything whatsoever like drivers’ licenses. If a citizen from Mississippi shows his driver’s license to someone in Connecticut, the Connecticut person has good reason to presume that the licensee can, um, drive. It’s not a perfect system — witness the fact that there are many, many licensed drivers in America who have successfully parallel parked only one time in their entire life. But, still, no matter what state it comes from, a driver’s license generally signifies a certain level of accomplishment when it comes to the basics of stopping, starting and steering.

On the other hand, a permit to carry a concealed weapon from Mississippi is concrete proof of the owner’s ability to fill out an application. In Virginia, you can take an online course. You can get a permit from Florida without ever living in Florida, although you definitely do have to send $112 to the State Department of Agriculture.

In some states, you can be pretty certain that anyone with the legal right to carry a concealed weapon has been checked out carefully. In others, not so much. In 2007, The Sun Sentinel in Florida found that in a six-month period, more than 1,400 people who had pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies had been awarded concealed carry permits, along with 216 people with outstanding warrants, 28 people with active domestic violence injunctions against them, and six registered sex offenders.

The Cornyn bill would set a national bar at the lowest denominator.

“The situation in Florida is dire enough on its own. But this law would present a danger to the rest of us because of Florida’s abhorrently low standards,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Think about this in terms of states’ rights.”

You’d think that states’ rights would be a winning argument. However, as with so many, many things in this world, states’ rights is a theory that people only like when it’s going to get them something they already want.

In many crowded cities, gun safety means there’s almost nobody carrying but the cops. But it’s impossible to keep that kind of order when people are roaming the streets waving out-of-town gun permits, which local police frequently have no way to verify.

“It’s a nightmare for New York law enforcement,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York. “In 20 states you can have a repeated history of mental health police visits and you can get a gun. You can have a domestic violence record. In many states, people subject to emergency orders of protection can be allowed to carry.”

Cornyn’s bill has been the top priority of groups like the National Rifle Association for years. That is, in part, because their base is irritated about not being able to drive around the country with a handgun in the glove compartment.

However, I suspect another part of the equation is that the gun lobby is running out of causes to rally the troops. Some states have already pretty much legalized everything. Once you’ve made it O.K. to carry a gun onto a playground, you’ve just about come to the end of the road. The N.R.A. doesn’t want to recruit members by arguing for Texans’ right to wave a pistol around the small appliance department at Target. It wants a big, meaty challenge — like fighting for looser gun regulation in states where the populace doesn’t want looser gun regulation.

Nobody doubts that the House of Representatives would pass a bill like Cornyn’s. (Really, just call them; they’ll come in and do it before dinner tonight.) The Senate has been more resistant, but, in 2013, the same proposal came within three votes of passage. And this is not an issue where minds are changed by an invigorating debate.

“You say: ‘Look, maybe this works in the rural parts of your state but it doesn’t work in Times Square,’ ” said Schumer. “They’re not even open to the argument.”

Now, with the new Republican majority, it’ll be extremely hard to keep a bill from being sent to the president. He could always veto it. Unless, of course, it was tied to some crucial, desperately needed measure.

“This is awful, awful, awful,” said Schumer.

Maybe our best hope is that Congress will do what it does best and fail to pass any legislation whatsoever for the rest of the year.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 16, 2015

In “A Kaffeeklatsch on Race” Mr. Blow says the F.B.I. chief, James Comey, enters the debate.  Mr. Cohen, in “Islam and the West at War,” says the Danish prime minister speaks of a “dark ideology.” This vagueness undermines the Muslims fighting the Islamist scourge.  Prof. Krugman addresses Greek debt and the lessons of history in “Weimar on the Aegean.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In our collective imaginations, we tend to conceive of the constantly called-for “national conversation on race” as having the formality of some grand conclave of consciousness — an American Truth and Reconciliation equivalent, a spiritual spectacle in which sins are confessed and blame taken and burdens lifted.

This may be ideal, but it is also exceedingly unlikely in this country, particularly in this political environment. There will be no great atoning. Reparations will not be paid. There will no sprawling absolution.

Yet we can still have a productive conversation. Indeed, I would argue that we are in the midst of a national conversation about race at this very moment. Its significance isn’t drawn from structure but from the freedom of its form.

Every discussion over a backyard fence or a cup of coffee is part of that conversation. It is the very continuity of its casualness that bolsters its profundity.

We need to stop calling for the conversation and realize that we are already having it.

Last week the F.B.I. director, James Comey, added his voice to that conversation, particularly as it relates to the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. There were portions I found particularly potent coming from a man in his position.

He gave a list of “hard truths,” the first of which was an admission that the history of law enforcement in this country was not only part of the architecture of oppression but also a brutal tool of that system. As Comey put it, “One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either.”

His second hard truth acknowledged the existence of unconscious racial bias “in our white-majority culture” and how that influences policing.

Third, he acknowledged that people in law enforcement can develop “different flavors of cynicism” that can be “lazy mental shortcuts,” resulting in more pronounced racial profiling.

But as in all discussions, there were portions of the speech to which I took exception.

First, Comey seems to falsely conflate condemnation of poor policing — sometimes predatory policing, in particular — with a condemnation of all policing. He makes a straw man argument, “Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods.” Who said it was?

This is a twisting of motive and purpose of the voices of recent protesters that undermines and mischaracterizes both. Minority communities want policing the same as any other, but they want it to be appropriate and proportional. They want not to be afraid of the cops as well as the criminals. They want officers to display an equitable modicum of discernment in treating the law-abiding differently from the lawbreaking.

The discussion is not about police officers being a “root cause of problems” in a given neighborhood, but rather that they shouldn’t be a problem at all, anywhere. We are not geographically confined. We can move in and out of high-crime neighborhoods. We can’t move in and out of our own skin.

At another point, Comey states that cynicism “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights.” This is dangerous and unconditionally false. “Lazy mental shortcuts” — in other words, racial profiling — aren’t rational in any light. That violates not only an American principle but also a human one: that no person should be punished for the crimes or sins of another.

His fourth hard truth focused on how crimes among “many young men of color become part of that officer’s life experience.” But in seeking to offer context, he mentioned “environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment.” Here he moves perilously close to a racial pathology argument, as if there were something inherent in blackness and black culture that predisposes one to criminality. This, too, is a “lazy mental shortcut.”

What too few people mention when discussing crime is the degree to which concentrated poverty, hopelessness and despair are the chambermaids of violence and incivility. These factors are developed and maintained through a complicated interplay of structural biases — historical and current — interpersonal biases, environmental reinforcements and personal choices.

Even as I disagree on portions, I take the larger point, and I applaud the endeavor and its purpose. Comey seems to be making a genuine effort to be part of the conversation and the solution, and that is more than I can say for some.

One doesn’t have to possess the certitude of gospel to have a positive impact on this discussion — for oneself and others. Just an earnest desire for insight and mutual understanding.

This is more than one can say of the hard of heart, those resistant to engagement and, therefore, beyond enlightenment. The stone cannot absorb no matter how much you drench it.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

After a Danish movie director at a seminar on “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” and a Danish Jew guarding a synagogue were shot dead in Copenhagen, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the prime minister of Denmark, uttered a familiar trope:

“We are not in the middle of a battle between Islam and the West. It’s not a battle between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a battle between values based on the freedom of the individual and a dark ideology.”

This statement — with its echoes of President Obama’s vague references to “violent extremists” uncoupled from the fundamentalist Islam to which said throat-cutting extremists pledge allegiance — scarcely stands up to scrutiny. It is empty talk.

Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world, in a failed bid to eradicate a metastasizing Islamist movement of murderous hatred toward Western civilization.

To call this movement, whose most potent recent manifestation is the Islamic State, a “dark ideology” is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate. There is little point in Western politicians rehearsing lines about there being no battle between Islam and the West, when in all the above-mentioned countries tens of millions of Muslims, with much carnage as evidence, believe the contrary.

The Danish filmmaker Finn Norgaard was killed a little over a decade after another movie director, Theo van Gogh, was slain in Amsterdam for making a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. The Islamists’ war is against freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of blasphemy, sexual freedom — in short, core characteristics of democracies seen by the would-be rebuilders of the Caliphate as signs of Western debasement.

Do not provoke them with cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, some say, show respect for Islam, the peaceful faith of some 1.6 billion people. But what, pray, was the “provocation” of Dan Uzan, the Jewish security guard outside the Copenhagen synagogue?

Islam is a religion that has spawned multifaceted political movements whose goal is power. Islam, as such, is fair game for commentators, caricaturists and cartoonists, whose inclination to mock the depredations of theocracy and political Islam’s cynical uses of the Prophet cannot be cowed by fear.

Over the more than 13 years since Al Qaeda attacked America on 9/11, we have seen trains blown up in Madrid, the Tube and a bus bombed in London, Western journalists beheaded, the staff of Charlie Hebdo slaughtered, Jews killed in France and Belgium and now Denmark. This is not the work of a “dark ideology” but of jihadi terror.

On the right of Europe’s political spectrum, anger is rising against Islam, against marginalized Muslim communities, who in turn feel discriminated against and misrepresented, with cause. Several thousand young European Muslims troop off to join ISIS. Europe’s Jews are on edge, with cause. Israel calls them home. In the United States, three Muslim students were killed this month by a gunman in a possible hate crime denounced by Obama as “brutal and outrageous.” A tide of retaliatory menace rises.

Who or what is to blame? There are two schools. For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel (seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant); its wars (Iraq); its brutality, (Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib); its killing of civilians (drones); its oil-driven hypocrisy (a jihadi-funding Saudi ally).

For the second, it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic State its appeal.

I find the second view more persuasive. The rise of the Islamic State, and Obama’s new war, are a direct result of the failure of the Arab Spring, which had seemed to offer a path out of the deadlocked, jihadi-spawning societies of the Arab world.

Only Arabs can find the answer to this crisis. But history, I suspect, will not judge Obama kindly for having failed to foster the great liberation movement that rose up in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Inaction is also a policy: Nonintervention produced Syria today.

I hear the words of Chokri Belaid, the brave Tunisian lawyer, shortly before he was gunned down by Islamist fanatics on Feb. 6, 2013: “We can disagree in our diversity but within a civilian, peaceful and democratic framework. Disagree in our diversity, yes!”

To speak of a nonspecific “dark ideology,” to dismiss the reality of conflict between the West and Islam, is also to undermine the anti-Islamist struggle of brave Muslims like Belaid — and these Muslims are the only people, ultimately, who can defeat the black-flagged jihadi death merchants.

And last but certainly not least here’s Prof. Krugman:

Try to talk about the policies we need in a depressed world economy, and someone is sure to counter with the specter of Weimar Germany, supposedly an object lesson in the dangers of budget deficits and monetary expansion. But the history of Germany after World War I is almost always cited in a curiously selective way. We hear endlessly about the hyperinflation of 1923, when people carted around wheelbarrows full of cash, but we never hear about the much more relevant deflation of the early 1930s, as the government of Chancellor Brüning — having learned the wrong lessons — tried to defend Germany’s peg to gold with tight money and harsh austerity.

And what about what happened before the hyperinflation, when the victorious Allies tried to force Germany to pay huge reparations? That’s also a tale with a lot of modern relevance, because it has a direct bearing on the crisis now brewing over Greece.

The point is that now, more than ever, it is crucial that Europe’s leaders remember the right history. If they don’t, the European project of peace and democracy through prosperity will not survive.

About those reparations: The basic story here is that Britain and France, instead of viewing the newly established German democracy as a potential partner, treated it as a conquered enemy, demanding that it make up their own wartime losses. This was deeply unwise — and the demands placed on Germany were impossible to meet, for two reasons. First, Germany’s economy had already been devastated by the war. Second, the true burden on that shrunken economy would — as John Maynard Keynes explained in his angry, powerful book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” — be far greater than the direct payments to the vengeful Allies.

In the end, and inevitably, the actual sums collected from Germany fell far short of Allied demands. But the attempt to levy tribute on a ruined nation — incredibly, France actually invaded and occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, in an effort to extract payment — crippled German democracy and poisoned relations with its neighbors.

Which brings us to the confrontation between Greece and its creditors.

You can argue that Greece brought its problems on itself, although it had a lot of help from irresponsible lenders. At this point, however, the simple fact is that Greece cannot pay its debts in full. Austerity has devastated its economy as thoroughly as military defeat devastated Germany — real Greek G.D.P. per capita fell 26 percent from 2007 to 2013, compared with a German decline of 29 percent from 1913 to 1919.

Despite this catastrophe, Greece is making payments to its creditors, running a primary surplus — an excess of revenue over spending other than interest — of around 1.5 percent of G.D.P. And the new Greek government is willing to keep running that surplus. What it is not willing to do is meet creditor demands that it triple the surplus, and keep running huge surpluses for many years to come.

What would happen if Greece were to try to generate those huge surpluses? It would have to further slash government spending — but that wouldn’t be the end of the story. Spending cuts have already driven Greece into a deep depression, and further cuts would make that depression deeper. Falling incomes would, however, mean falling tax receipts, so that the deficit would decline by much less than the initial reduction in spending — probably less than half as much. To meet its target, then, Greece would have to do another round of cuts, and then another.

Furthermore, a shrinking economy would lead to falling private spending too — another, indirect cost of the austerity.

Put it all together, and attempting to cough up the extra 3 percent of G.D.P. the creditors are demanding would cost Greece not 3 percent, but something like 8 percent of G.D.P. And remember, this would come on top of one of the worst economic slumps in history.

What would happen if Greece were simply to refuse to pay? Well, 21st-century European nations don’t use their armies as bill collectors. But there are other forms of coercion. We now know that in 2010 the European Central Bank threatened, in effect, to collapse the Irish banking system unless Dublin agreed to an International Monetary Fund program.

The threat of something similar hangs implicitly over Greece, although my hope is that the central bank, which is under different and more open-minded management these days, wouldn’t go along.

In any case, European creditors should realize that flexibility — giving Greece a chance to recover — is in their own interests. They may not like the new leftist government, but it’s a duly elected government whose leaders are, from everything I’ve heard, sincerely committed to democratic ideals. Europe could do a lot worse — and if the creditors are vengeful, it will.

Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 12, 2015

In “Curtail Iran and Win” Mr. Cohen says the dismantlement camp is a war camp. But you can’t bomb Iranian knowledge of the fuel cycle out of existence.  He’s making a surprising amount of sense for someone I’ve thought should be registered as a lobbyist for Israel.  In “Muslims, Marriage and Bigotry” Mr. Kristof says the murder of Muslims in North Carolina and upheaval over same-sex marriage in Alabama are reminders of the importance of combating intolerance.  What’s going on in Alabama has more to do with the lunatic fringe of the nullification party than intolerance…  Ms. Collins offers “An Ode to Obamacare” and says it turns out that the Affordable Care Act is no trouble to anybody.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

As a deadline nears for a possible deal with Iran on its nuclear program, discussion is being clouded by false debate. A curtailment camp that sees a viable avenue to ring-fencing limited Iranian enrichment so that the country cannot acquire a bomb confronts a dismantlement camp that believes any deal is bad and every Iranian centrifuge must go.

The Obama administration officials leading the talks are committed curtailers. They seek a tough deal involving intensive verification over an extended period of a much-reduced enrichment program compatible only with civilian nuclear energy and assuring that Iran is kept at least one year from any potential “breakout” to bomb manufacture.

The dismantlers, who believe a deal would be disastrous, are led by Benjamin Netanyahu with strong support in the Republican-controlled Congress, even before the Israeli prime minister addresses a joint session early next month. Netanyahu, whose planned visit has angered Obama, argues that he has an “obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country.”

The falseness of the debate lies in the disingenuousness of the dismantlers. Iran has mastered the fuel cycle. This may be regrettable but is no less true for that. It did so before Obama took office. The country knows its way around basic enrichment technology. Thousands of centrifuges are spinning, although many fewer than would have been without the effective interim agreement concluded in late 2013. What then does it mean to dismantle knowledge? You can’t bomb a people’s knowledge out of existence. Yet this in essence is what the dismantlers propose.

In reality, the dismantlement camp favors escalation that makes a calamitous conflict with Iran more likely; it is a war camp. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, will not voluntarily eliminate a nuclear program that is a source of national pride and to which it believes it has a right.

Baloney, the dismantlers say, the country can be sanctioned to its knees — and Senators Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, have a sanctions bill readied in an attempt to prove just that (Obama has said he will veto it). The sanction-and-dismantle devotees are deluded. Sanctions have hurt Iran, but the country is largely inured to them.

That leaves bombing Iran in an attempt to achieve dismantlement. Yet even optimistic assessments suggest the most a military campaign might achieve is setting the Iranian program back a couple of years. It would also lead the United States into a war with the sworn Shiite enemies of Sunni ISIS just as America and its allies do battle with the Islamic State, as well as place Israel at war with Persians and Arabs for the first time. As double whammies in folly go, this would be up there.

Wise counsel to the dismantlers would run as follows: “In a perfect world Iran would have no enrichment program, but life’s not perfect. This situation comes down to alternatives. Either you get a negotiated solution that ensures over some 15 years that Iran’s program is strictly limited, at least a year from breakout, with eyes and ears on the ground you’ve never had before, and the plutonium path to a bomb cut off by the transformation of the Arak research reactor — or you go for military action. And what would war achieve? It may set the program back some, but it will ensure that Iran goes for a bomb, inflame anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, and see the current international coalition for sanctions fall apart. That is not good for anyone, including Israel.”

A tough nuclear deal, of the kind sought by Obama, would enhance Israeli security. War with Iran would undermine it.

A little over a month remains until a March 24 deadline for at least the “political framework” of a deal. The main differences, I am told, are over an unrealistic Iranian demand that all sanctions be lifted at once if a deal is reached, and over cuts or modifications to the almost 10,000 operating centrifuges. Because Western officials believe Iran is prepared to send almost all its current stockpile to Russia, which would set back its “breakout” potential, there is more American flexibility on the number of centrifuges. Still, the number would probably need to be at least halved.

These are real but not insurmountable differences. Ushering Iran toward the world through a rigorous deal would have enormous political and economic benefits. As Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said recently: “We need to seize this opportunity. It may not be repeated.” It remains to be seen if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme Iranian leader, is in “seizing” mode.

He’s not the only hard-liner. The dismantlers seek another unwinnable war. They cloak their intent with irresponsible talk of a deal as another Munich. Their argument is false. The curtailers are realistic. They are right. It’s far better to circumscribe enrichment than spur it — and possibly an Iranian bomb — through impossible dismantlement demands.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In North Carolina, three young Muslims who were active in charity work were murdered, allegedly by a man who identified as atheist and expressed hostility to Islam and other faiths. Police are exploring whether it was a hate crime, and it spurred a #MuslimLivesMatter campaign on Twitter.

And, in Alabama, we see judges refusing to approve marriages of any kind because then they would also have to approve same-sex marriages. In one poll conducted last year, some 59 percent of people in Alabama opposed gay marriage. Somehow a loving God is cited to bar loving couples from committing to each other.

These are very different news stories. But I wonder if a common lesson from both may be the importance of resisting bigotry, of combating the intolerance that can infect people of any faith — or of no faith.

I don’t think Muslims should feel obliged to apologize for the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. Nor do I think atheists need apologize for the killing of the three Muslims.

But it does seem useful for everyone to reflect on our capacity to “otherize” people of a different faith, race, nationality or sexuality — and to turn that other-ness into a threat. That’s what the Islamic State does to us. And sometimes that’s what we do, too.

O.K. I’m sure some of you are protesting: That’s a false equivalency. True, there is a huge difference between burning someone alive and not granting a couple a marriage license. But, then again, it’s not much of a slogan to say, “We’re better than ISIS!”

There has been a pugnacious defensiveness among conservative Christians to any parallels between Christian overreach and Islamic overreach, as seen in the outraged reaction to President Obama’s acknowledgment at the National Prayer Breakfast this month that the West has plenty to regret as well. But Obama was exactly right: How can we ask Islamic leaders to confront extremism in their faith if we don’t acknowledge Christian extremism, from the Crusades to Srebrenica?

More broadly, one message of the New Testament is the value of focusing on one’s own mistakes rather than those of others. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:5. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We could do with a little more of that spirit these days, at a time when everybody wants to practice ophthalmology on everyone else.

When I posted on my Facebook page about the North Carolina murders, one follower, Frank, wrote dismissively: “Muslims are slaughtering people around the globe (including their own) but let’s highlight this story — seems legit.”

I’ve previously urged Muslims to reflect on intolerance in their camp, and this is an occasion when Christians, atheists and others can do the same. Did the furor in North Carolina that led to the cancellation of the Muslim call to prayer from Duke University’s chapel tower inflame sentiments?

The Alabama legal drama, with Chief Justice Roy S. Moore of the State Supreme Court defying federal authorities, is, of course, different. But it also is redolent of faith as I-am-holier-than-thou chest-thumping, a reminder of the need for humility.

Do Judge Moore and other conservative Christians think that when God made gays and lesbians fall achingly in love with each other, He screwed up?

It seems odd to me that so many conservative Christians are obsessed with homosexuality, which Jesus never mentions, yet seem unworried about issues Jesus did emphasize like poverty and suffering. Jesus explicitly advised a wealthy man, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), so maybe that’s the Scripture that Judge Moore should follow to demonstrate his piety.

Then there’s Jesus’s praise for those who make themselves eunuchs (Matthew 19:12); but I’d settle for a little “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I’ve written often about committed and self-effacing Christians doing outstanding work combating injustice around the world, and it’s frustrating that they don’t get attention. The problem is that their heroism is often overshadowed by sanctimonious blowhards.

Among Americans aged 18 to 24, a 2012 survey found that half or more describe present-day Christianity as “hypocritical,” “judgmental” and “anti-gay.” And more regarded it as immoral to view pornography than to have sex with a person of the same gender. Alabama is, once again, on the wrong side of history.

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air to Catholics and non-Catholics alike because he seems less moralizing and more moral, less about pointing a finger and more about offering a helping hand. After the tragedy in North Carolina and the legal chaos in Alabama, maybe that’s a good instinct for all of us.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Let’s sing the praises of Obamacare for a minute.

Get back here! I said just for a minute. O.K., it’s not the tidiest law in history. You’re probably still sulking because you wanted something simple and rational, like a single-payer plan. But it’s here, and about 10 million people have health coverage who didn’t have it before.

Plus, it’s apparently working better than any of us imagined. Here is how great the Affordable Care Act is doing: The Supreme Court is about to hear a challenge to the law, filed on behalf of four Virginia plaintiffs, who claim to have suffered grievous harm by being forced to either buy health coverage or pay a penalty. Lately, reporters have been trying to track down this quartet of pain, and discovered they are:

— A 64-year-old limo driver who does not seem to be required to do anything under the Affordable Care Act because the cost of even a very cheap health care plan would be more than 8 percent of his income. (People who have to pay more than 8 percent are allowed to just opt out of the whole program and stay blissfully uninsured.) Also, he’s a Vietnam veteran and thus presumably eligible for free veteran’s health care, making the whole discussion even more irrelevant.

— A 63-year old man in Virginia Beach who would apparently have been eligible for stupendous savings on health insurance under the new law. And who is also a veteran.

— A woman who listed her address as a motel where she hasn’t been staying since late 2013. And wherever she is, she probably wouldn’t have any Obamacare problems because of the 8 percent rule.

— A 64-year-old woman who seemed to have little or no idea what the case was about. “I don’t like the idea of throwing people off their health insurance,” she told Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones.

That plaintiff, an anti-gay rights activist, also told Mencimer that because of previous health problems, she faced insurance costs of $1,500 a month, a vastly higher premium than she’d pay under Obamacare. Also, The Wall Street Journal determined that her annual rate of pay as a substitute teacher was so low she, too, should be off the hook because of the 8 percent rule. Also, she’s about to qualify for Medicare.

Comments by some of the plaintiffs did suggest that they experienced serious pain over the fact that Barack Obama is president. “… When he was elected, he got his Muslim people to vote for him, that’s how he won,” one told Facebook.

“These are the best they can do?” asked David Levine, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Wow. Obamacare must be the greatest law in the history of … laws.

All this may not be enough to get the case thrown out of court. But still. “It’s not hard, frankly, to find plaintiffs who want to take down the government,” said Neal Katyal, a law professor at Georgetown who formerly served as acting solicitor general. “The fact that these folks apparently couldn’t find four people who actually had a legitimate grievance is very telling.”

The case the Supreme Court is considering would be outrageous even if the plaintiffs were four disabled orphans being threatened with eviction. Linda Greenhouse had a wonderful opinion column recently in The Times explaining the whole thing, but the bottom line is that there is sloppy wording in two Obamacare subclauses, although they’re easy to interpret correctly if you read the entire law. The simplest way to clear things up, of course, would be for Congress to just fix the language.

Pop Quiz: Last week the House of Representatives took up the issue of Obamacare and:

A) Voted to tweak the wording in those two subclauses.

B) Voted to repeal Obamacare for the 56th time.

C) Voted to repeal Obamacare for the 67th time.

D) Decided to let everything putter along the way it is and passed a resolution demanding that Beyoncé be given the Grammy for best album.

The answer is either B or C. Even the House of Representatives seems to have lost count.

Critics said that since Republicans were offering no alternative health plan, their position was wildly irresponsible, particular to those Obamacare-covered citizens. This is totally unfair because it overlooks an important provision of the bill requiring three House committee chairs to get together and come up with what Republican leaders called a “thoughtful replacement strategy.”

We have been looking forward to that thoughtful replacement strategy since the days when everyone was excited about iPads and zombies on TV.

Really, Obamacare is terrific. You can tell by looking at the people who are against it.

Ain’t that the God’s gospel truth!

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 9, 2015

In “Beyond ‘Black Lives Matter'” Mr. Blow has a question.  He says Michael Brown and Eric Garner are now old news. He then asks: Where do we go from here?  Mr. Cohen, in “Western Illusions Over Ukraine,” says the only way to change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis is to help arm Ukraine.  JUST what we need — more saber rattling and dick swinging…  Prof. Krugman says “Nobody Understands Debt.”  He says families who rely on it make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true of nations? No, it isn’t, as he explains.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Black Lives Matter protesters took some criticism for what others viewed as a lack of clear focus and detailed agenda. But in truth, raising an issue to the point where it can no longer be ignored is the grist for the policy mill. Visibility and vocalization have value.

In the same way that Occupy Wall Street forever elevated that concept of income inequality, the Black Lives Matter protesters have elevated the idea of inequity in policing as it relates to minority communities.

Protests following the grand jury decisions in the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island have largely died down. Those stories no longer command front page placement or lead the news. The news machine, hungry for newness, as is its wont, has moved on to measles and back to the Islamic State’s medieval murder tactics.

But, as is often the case, there was no full resolution or reconciliation. The issue of police-community relations was raised but not solved. The memory of mistrust still wafts through the air like the smell of rot being carried by the breeze.

What was it all for? What came of it? Where do we go from here?

First, the encouraging news.

In December, President Obama signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which in part aims to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.”

The White House has promoted the use of body cameras, and police departments across the country are considering their purchase and use.

The task force has held listening sessions around the country, and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is holding round-table discussions.

The Ferguson Police Department last week began testing a “less lethal” device that attaches to an officer’s gun. According to The Washington Post, “When a bullet fired, it melded with an attached projectile the size of a Ping-Pong ball that flew with enough force to knock a person down, maybe break some ribs, but not kill him, the product’s makers said — even at close range.”

The Huffington Post reported in November that in 2013, 27 law enforcement officers “were killed as a result of felonious acts — the lowest such figure in more than 50 years of F.B.I. reporting.” That month, The Chicago Tribune reported that “U.S. violent crimes including murders fell 4.4 percent in 2013 to their lowest number since the 1970s, continuing a decades-long downturn, the F.B.I. said.”

Now the discouraging news. According to a November USA Today report, “The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police last year — 461 — was the most in two decades, according to a new F.B.I. report.”

Something about these numbers doesn’t add up, and it will be interesting to see whether the protests and the heightened sensibilities they brought to the surface will affect these numbers in next year’s reporting.

In New York, after Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police union came to loggerheads, the mayor skipped an opportunity to address the issue of the police and minorities communities, and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton seems to be going out of his way to reassure the department at the expense of future protests.

The worry is that rapprochement may come to resemble appeasement.

In this month’s State of the City speech, as The Village Voice put it, de Blasio hardly mentioned policing, offering anodyne praise for the city’s officers. This raised the hackles of many reform advocates, even among his supporters.

Bratton has announced the creation of a separate police unit of roughly 500 patrol officers to handle temporary issues like large protests. He has resisted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for an independent monitor in cases where grand juries fail to indict officers in the death of a civilian. And he proposed raising resisting arrest from a misdemeanor — a charge that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and is often tossed out — to a felony.

According to BuzzFeed, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, “also called for enhanced penalties against protesters, asking the Legislature to make assaulting a police officer at a public assembly a Class B felony, which would carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.”

Few people support resisting arrest or assaulting officers, but in the scrum of protests, such severe penalties for sometimes subjective or even dubious charges seem disproportionate and an attempt to chill dissent.

This is what happens when a story fades from the headlines, the heat is dialed down and the eyes avert: In the silence, amid the stillness, there is movement. The immediacy of protests gives way to the glacial pace of policy. The burden is to remain vigilant, so that movement is in the right direction.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, who just can’t wait to whale away on those war drums:

The most difficult thing for a communist, it has been observed, is to predict the past. I was reminded of this as I listened to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in full Soviet mode at the Munich Security Conference, suggesting that after World War II it was “the Soviet Union that was against splitting Germany.”

People laughed; they guffawed. Germans recall the Soviet clamp on the east of the country and the Berlin Wall. But in a way Lavrov was right: The Soviet Union would have been quite happy to swallow all of Germany, given the chance.

Today, in similar fashion, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia would be quite happy to absorb all of Ukraine, which it views as an extension of the motherland, an upstart deluded by the West into imagining independent statehood.

Lavrov’s performance here reflected the alternate universe in which the Russian spaceship has docked almost a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. George Orwell’s doublethink scarcely begins to describe his assertions.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was, he insisted, a popular uprising, the people “invoking the right of self-determination” as per the United Nations Charter. Ukrainians were engaged in an orgy of “nationalistic violence” characterized by ethnic purges directed against Jews and Russians. The United States was driven by an insatiable desire for global dominance and, in Ukraine, had orchestrated the “coup d’état” last year that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Europe post-1989 had turned its back on building “the common European house,” declining the prospect of a “free economic zone” from Lisbon to Vladivostok in favor of the expansion of NATO eastward to the doorstep of mother Russia.

Dream on, Sergei.

In fact, the Russian annexation of Crimea tore up by forceful means “the territorial integrity” and “political independence” of Ukraine, in direct violation of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. It also shredded Russia’s formal commitment under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to respect Ukraine’s international borders. The “nationalistic violence” that has again raised issues of war and peace in Europe stems not from Kiev but from Moscow, where Putin has cultivated a preposterous fable of encirclement, humiliation and Western depredation to generate hysteria and buttress Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Similarly, the fascism Lavrov purports to locate in Ukraine through allusions to attacks against Jews and other ethnic groups can in fact be far more persuasively identified back home. Putin has reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason. The Russian leader has invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He has persevered in the nonsense that all the Russian forces and matériel in eastern Ukraine are figments of the world’s imagination.

Lavrov’s “coup” in Ukraine was nothing of the sort: It was a popular uprising against a corrupt Russian puppet strong-armed into turning his country away from closer association with the West. Ukrainians are not nuts. They find the allure of Warsaw or Berlin greater than that of sunny Minsk. When they hear “common European house” they translate it as “Soviet imperium.”

Two plus two equals five was a Soviet slogan. It was deployed in 1931 in support of the notion that Stalin’s five-year plan could be completed in four. Two plus two equals five is still the “truth” emanating from Moscow. This is worth recalling in all negotiations over Ukraine.

There was much talk here of a possible Franco-German engineered cease-fire; of there being “no military solution” to the Ukrainian conflict (except, of course, the one Putin has in mind); of the advisability or not for the West of sending weapons to support the Ukrainian government (Chancellor Angela Merkel is opposed); and of the need to be resolute, at least in word.

Resolute-schmesolute: It’s time to get real over Putin. He has not poured tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems over the Ukrainian border because he is about to settle for anything less than a weak Ukraine, sapped by low-level conflict in the Donetsk region, a country with its very own pro-Russian enclave à la Abkhazia or Transnistria, firmly within the Russian sphere of influence: the symbol of his definitive strategic turn away from closer cooperation with the West toward the confrontation that shores him up as oil prices and the currency plunge. He will not let Ukraine go.

There is a language Moscow understands: antitank missiles, battlefield radars, reconnaissance drones. Bolster the Ukrainian Army with them and other arms. Change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis. There are risks but no policy is risk-free. Recall that Ukraine gave up more than 1,800 nuclear warheads in exchange for that bogus commitment from Russia back in 1994 to respect its sovereignty and borders. Surely it has thereby earned the right to something more than night-vision goggles. The West’s current Ukraine diplomacy is long on illusion and short on realism. Two plus two equals four, in war and peace.

I wonder if there’s an area that he doesn’t want to arm…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Many economists, including Janet Yellen, view global economic troubles since 2008 largely as a story about “deleveraging” — a simultaneous attempt by debtors almost everywhere to reduce their liabilities. Why is deleveraging a problem? Because my spending is your income, and your spending is my income, so if everyone slashes spending at the same time, incomes go down around the world.

Or as Ms. Yellen put it in 2009, “Precautions that may be smart for individuals and firms — and indeed essential to return the economy to a normal state — nevertheless magnify the distress of the economy as a whole.”

So how much progress have we made in returning the economy to that “normal state”? None at all. You see, policy makers have been basing their actions on a false view of what debt is all about, and their attempts to reduce the problem have actually made it worse.

First, the facts: Last week, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report titled “Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging,” which found, basically, that no nation has reduced its ratio of total debt to G.D.P. Household debt is down in some countries, especially in the United States. But it’s up in others, and even where there has been significant private deleveraging, government debt has risen by more than private debt has fallen.

You might think our failure to reduce debt ratios shows that we aren’t trying hard enough — that families and governments haven’t been making a serious effort to tighten their belts, and that what the world needs is, yes, more austerity. But we have, in fact, had unprecedented austerity. As the International Monetary Fund has pointed out, real government spending excluding interest has fallen across wealthy nations — there have been deep cuts by the troubled debtors of Southern Europe, but there have also been cuts in countries, like Germany and the United States, that can borrow at some of the lowest interest rates in history.

All this austerity has, however, only made things worse — and predictably so, because demands that everyone tighten their belts were based on a misunderstanding of the role debt plays in the economy.

You can see that misunderstanding at work every time someone rails against deficits with slogans like “Stop stealing from our kids.” It sounds right, if you don’t think about it: Families who run up debts make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true when we look at overall national debt?

No, it isn’t. An indebted family owes money to other people; the world economy as a whole owes money to itself. And while it’s true that countries can borrow from other countries, America has actually been borrowing less from abroad since 2008 than it did before, and Europe is a net lender to the rest of the world.

Because debt is money we owe to ourselves, it does not directly make the economy poorer (and paying it off doesn’t make us richer). True, debt can pose a threat to financial stability — but the situation is not improved if efforts to reduce debt end up pushing the economy into deflation and depression.

Which brings us to current events, for there is a direct connection between the overall failure to deleverage and the emerging political crisis in Europe.

European leaders completely bought into the notion that the economic crisis was brought on by too much spending, by nations living beyond their means. The way forward, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany insisted, was a return to frugality. Europe, she declared, should emulate the famously thrifty Swabian housewife.

This was a prescription for slow-motion disaster. European debtors did, in fact, need to tighten their belts — but the austerity they were actually forced to impose was incredibly savage. Meanwhile, Germany and other core economies — which needed to spend more, to offset belt-tightening in the periphery — also tried to spend less. The result was to create an environment in which reducing debt ratios was impossible: Real growth slowed to a crawl, inflation fell to almost nothing and outright deflation has taken hold in the worst-hit nations.

Suffering voters put up with this policy disaster for a remarkably long time, believing in the promises of the elite that they would soon see their sacrifices rewarded. But as the pain went on and on, with no visible progress, radicalization was inevitable. Anyone surprised by the left’s victory in Greece, or the surge of anti-establishment forces in Spain, hasn’t been paying attention.

Nobody knows what happens next, although bookmakers are now giving better than even odds that Greece will exit the euro. Maybe the damage would stop there, but I don’t believe it — a Greek exit is all too likely to threaten the whole currency project. And if the euro does fail, here’s what should be written on its tombstone: “Died of a bad analogy.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 6, 2015

In “Conflict and Ego” Bobo says the best way to successfully respond to hate, even from the likes of ISIS, is to step outside the logic of vengeance.  He opens this POS with a terrific, sniveling whine:  “If you read the online versions of newspaper columns you can click over to the reader comments, which are often critical, vituperative and insulting. I’ve found that I can only deal with these comments by following the adage, “Love your enemy.”  It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill.”  He’s delusional if he thinks that the Times doesn’t filter comments on his stuff through an EXTREMELY fine mesh strainer.  “Vituperative” never gets through.  Poor, poor Bobo is SO set upon.  Maybe he could take a fricking step back and consider WHY he gets the comments that he does…  Mr. Cohen says “Israel Needs a Grownup,” and that Netanyahu promotes himself as a “Bibi-sitter”, but babysitters don’t think about the future.  Prof. Krugman, in “A Game of Chicken,” says Europe faces a moment of truth as it deals with a debt-ridden Greece.  Here, gawd help us, is Bobo:

If you read the online versions of newspaper columns you can click over to the reader comments, which are often critical, vituperative and insulting. I’ve found that I can only deal with these comments by following the adage, “Love your enemy.”

It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill. But if I read them with the (possibly delusional) attitude that these are treasured friends bringing me lovely gifts of perspective, then my eye slides over the insults and I can usually learn something. The key is to get the question of my self-worth out of the way — which is actually possible unless the insulter is really creative.

It’s not only newspaper columnists who face this kind of problem. Everybody who is on the Internet is subject to insult, trolling, hating and cruelty. Most of these online assaults are dominance plays. They are attempts by the insulter to assert his or her own superior status through displays of gratuitous cruelty toward a target.

The natural but worst way to respond is to enter into the logic of this status contest. If he puffs himself up, you puff yourself up. But if you do this you put yourself and your own status at center stage. You enter a cycle of keyboard vengeance. You end up with a painfully distended ego, forever in danger, needing to assert itself, and sensitive to sleights.

Clearly, the best way to respond is to step out of the game. It’s to get out of the status competition. Enmity is a nasty frame of mind. Pride is painful. The person who can quiet the self can see the world clearly, can learn the subject and master the situation.

Historically, we reserve special admiration for those who can quiet the self even in the heat of conflict. Abraham Lincoln was caught in the middle of a horrific civil war. It would have been natural for him to live with his instincts aflame — filled with indignation toward those who started the war, enmity toward those who killed his men and who would end up killing him. But his second inaugural is a masterpiece of rising above the natural urge toward animosity and instead adopting an elevated stance.

The terror theater that the Islamic State, or ISIS, is perpetrating these days is certainly in a different category than Internet nastiness. But the beheadings and the monstrous act of human incineration are also insults designed to generate a visceral response.

They are a different kind of play of dominance. They are attempts by insignificant men to get the world to recognize their power and status.

These Islamic State guys burn hostages alive because it wins praise from their colleagues, because it earns attention and because it wins the sort of perverse respect that accompanies fear. We often say that terrorism is an act of war, but that’s wrong. Terrorism is an act of taunting. These murderous videos are attempts to make the rest of us feel powerless, at once undone by fear and addled by disgust.

The natural and worst way to respond is with the soul inflamed. If they execute one of our guys, we’ll — as Jordan did — execute two of their guys. If they chest-thump, we’ll chest-thump. If they kill, we’ll kill.

This sort of strategy is just an ISIS recruiting tool. It sucks us into their nihilistic status war: Their barbarism and our response.

The world is full of invisible young men yearning to feel significant, who’d love to shock the world and light folks on fire in an epic status contest with the reigning powers.

The best way to respond is to quiet our disgust and quiet our instincts. It is to step out of their game. It is to reassert the primacy of our game. The world’s mission in the Middle East is not to defeat ISIS, which is just a barbaric roadblock. It’s to reassert the primacy of pluralism, freedom and democracy. It’s to tamp down zeal and cultivate self-doubt. The world has to destroy the Islamic State with hard power, but only as a means to that higher moral end.

Many people have lost faith in that democratic mission, but without that mission we’re just one more army in a contest of barbarism. Our acts are nothing but volleys in a status war.

In this column, I’ve tried to describe the interplay of conflict and ego, in arenas that are trivial (the comments section) and in arenas that are monstrous (the war against the Islamic State). In all cases, conflict inflames the ego, distorts it and degrades it.

The people we admire break that chain. They quiet the self and step outside the status war. They focus on the larger mission. They reject the puerile logic of honor codes and status rivalries, and enter a more civilized logic, that doesn’t turn us into our enemies.

Of course the Iraq war, that Bobo was SUCH a huge fan of, had NOTHING to do with what’s going on now…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A pivotal Israeli election looms in March with one man towering over it: Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s us or him,” says a slogan of the opposition Zionist Camp, as the prime minister seeks a fourth term. People tire of the same face; there’s a shelf life for any leader in a democracy. Netanyahu’s would-be successors are betting that, after a cumulative nine years in power, he has exhausted his.

Sensing the challenge, Netanyahu has gambled. His planned visit to Washington next month to address a joint session of Congress amounts to a high-risk foray. President Obama will not meet with him. Nor will Secretary of State John Kerry. Dozens of House Democrats have suggested they may give the March 3 address a pass. All have been angered by Netanyahu’s clumsy embrace of a Republican offer to step into the midst of American politics, an invitation accepted without the minimum courtesy of informing the White House.

Obama is furious, with cause. He has been a firm supporter of Israel. His patience with its leader is at an end. The question now is whether Israeli voters will be more swayed by the sight of a Netanyahu greeted by standing ovations in the Republican-controlled Congress as he lambastes a possible nuclear deal with Iran, or a Netanyahu shunned by the Obama administration for his decision to play to the gallery.

Israelis feel uncomfortable when relations with the United States deteriorate to the point reached today. They also know that any credible response to Iran is reinforced by American-Israeli unity and undermined by its absence. Netanyahu’s Washington visit — hatched by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer — smacks of a misjudgment. How serious this will prove remains to be seen.

Over the past couple of weeks, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party has rallied. Opinion polls now show Likud slightly ahead of the centrist Zionist Camp, winning an estimated 25 or 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, to the main opposition grouping’s 23 or 24. Last month, the Zionist Camp appeared to have a slight advantage. The reason comes down to a single word: security. When threats to Israel rise, Netanyahu reassures. The Bibi baritone steadies the ship. A Likud campaign ad shows him arriving at the home of parents who are going out for the evening: “You asked for a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter,” he says.

But of course babysitters take care of the immediate needs of kids. They do not build a future for them; they scarcely even think about the future. In this sense, the ad is instructive. The fundamental question about a potential fourth period in office for Netanyahu is: to what end?

The decision by Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party leader, and Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and longtime lead negotiator with the Palestinians, to call themselves the Zionist Camp is significant. Their Zionism is distinct from the Messianism of the Israeli right, which claims the mantle of Zionism while betraying it through maximalist territorial claims that undermine the long-term survival of a Jewish and democratic state.

Herzog and Livni begin with the idea that a two-state peace is the only guarantor of the founding Zionist vision of a democratic Jewish homeland. It is also the only outcome consistent with Jewish ethics founded on the principles of truth, justice and peace. Netanyahu has paid lip service, but no more, to the two-state idea. He would continue to do so if victorious with predictable consequences: a familiar status quo comprised of periodic war.

This is the fundamental issue in an election that appears to be about Netanyahu but is in fact about something far more serious: whether Israel can return to the Zionism of the founders of the modern state and seek in good faith a two-state outcome, whatever the myriad failings and errors of the Palestinians. These failings must be factored into negotiations rather than used as a pretext for the politics of kicking the can down the road.

When I was in Israel at the end of last year, Livni told me: “Netanyahu looks at the situation of Israel through the lens of the threats. His deep emotion is to stick together, be united against those who are against us. I believe we need to be for something. Written on my wall is Jewish Democratic state, two states for two peoples. Written on Likud’s wall is Jewish state, Greater Israel. For me any day that goes by without a solution is another lost day. For those believing in Greater Israel, another day that passes without an agreement is another day of victory and taking more land.”

That’s a pretty good summation of what’s at stake March 17. Beyond economic issues, corruption charges, Boehner-Bibi shenanigans and the rest, Israel’s future is on the line. It’s not a babysitter the Jewish state needs. It’s a grown-up.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wednesday, the European Central Bank announced that it would no longer accept Greek government debt as collateral for loans. This move, it turns out, was more symbolic than substantive. Still, the moment of truth is clearly approaching.

And it’s a moment of truth not just for Greece, but for the whole of Europe — and, in particular, for the central bank, which may soon have to decide whom it really works for.

Basically, the current situation may be summarized with the following dialogue:

Germany to Greece: Nice banking system you got there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Greece to Germany: Oh, yeah? Well, we’d hate to see your nice, shiny European Union get all banged up.

Or if you want the stuffier version, Germany is demanding that Greece keep trying to pay its debts in full by imposing incredibly harsh austerity. The implied threat if Greece refuses is that the central bank will cut off the support it gives to Greek banks, which is what Wednesday’s move sounded like but wasn’t. And that would wreak havoc with Greece’s already terrible economy.

Yet pulling the plug on Greece would pose enormous risks, not just to Europe’s economy, but to the whole European project, the 60-year effort to build peace and democracy through shared prosperity. A Greek banking collapse would probably lead Greece to leave the euro and establish its own currency — and if even one country were to abandon the euro, investors would be put on notice that Europe’s grand currency design is reversible.

Beyond that, chaos in Greece could fuel the sinister political forces that have been gaining influence as Europe’s Second Great Depression goes on and on. After a tense meeting with his German counterpart, the new Greek finance minister didn’t hesitate to play the 1930s card. “Nazism,” he declared, “is raising its ugly head in Greece” — a reference to Golden Dawn, the not-so-neo-Nazi party that is now the third largest in the Greek legislature.

What we’re looking at here is, in short, a very dangerous confrontation. This isn’t diplomacy as usual; this is a game of chicken, of two trucks loaded with dynamite barreling toward each other on a narrow mountain road, with neither willing to turn aside. And all of this is taking place within the European Union, which is supposed to be — indeed, has been, until now — an institution that promotes productive cooperation.

How did Europe get to this point? And what’s the end game?

Like all too many crises, the new Greek crisis stems, ultimately, from political pandering. It’s the kind of thing that happens when politicians tell voters what they want to hear, make promises that can’t be fulfilled, and then can’t bring themselves to face reality and make the hard choices they’ve been pretending can be avoided.

I am, of course, talking about Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and her colleagues.

It’s true that Greece got itself into trouble through irresponsible borrowing (although this irresponsible borrowing wouldn’t have been possible without equally irresponsible lending). And Greece has paid a terrible price for that irresponsibility. Looking forward, however, how much more can Greece take? Clearly, it can’t pay the debt in full; that’s obvious to anyone who has done the math.

Unfortunately, German politicians have never explained the math to their constituents. Instead, they’ve taken the lazy path: moralizing about the irresponsibility of borrowers, declaring that debts must and will be paid in full, playing into stereotypes about shiftless southern Europeans. And now that the Greek electorate has finally declared that it can take no more, German officials just keep repeating the same old lines.

Maybe the Germans imagine that they can replay the events of 2010, when the central bank coerced Ireland into accepting an austerity program by threatening to cut off its banking system. But that’s unlikely to work against a government that has seen the damage wrought by austerity, and was elected on a promise to reverse that damage.

Furthermore, there’s still reason to hope that the European Central Bank will refuse to play along.

On Wednesday, the central bank made an announcement that sounded like severe punishment for Greece, but wasn’t, because it left the really important channel of support for Greek banks (Emergency Liquidity Assistance — don’t ask) in place. So it was more of a wake-up call than anything else, and arguably it was as much a wake-up call for Germany as it was for Greece.

And what if the Germans don’t wake up? In that case we can hope that the central bank takes a stand and declares that its proper role is to do all it can to safeguard Europe’s economy and democratic institutions — not to act as Germany’s debt collector. As I said, we’re rapidly approaching a moment of truth.

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

January 11, 2015

In “France, the Crucible of Europe” The Putz tells us that it is increasingly clear that the Continent’s future will be determined by the French.  I’m sure Angela Merkel is fascinated by what he has to say…  MoDo is back [sigh] and is spelunking in people’s heads again.  In “The Deano Chronicles, Continued” she voyages inside the head of the tanned, rested and ready Speaker Boehner after the tumultuous first week of the 114th Congress.  In “Race, the Police and the Propaganda” Mr. Kristof suggests ending the impunity that fuels unequal law enforcement.  Mr. Bruni, in “Your God and My Dignity,” says faith warrants respect, but it shouldn’t earn anyone an exemption from laws or permission to discriminate.  Mr. Cohen, in “The Battle to Belong,” says his mother suffered as an immigrant, as a Jew set adrift.  (I’ve placed Mr. Cohen last since his is a much longer piece.)  Here’s The Putz:

The France that endured a vicious terrorist attack last week is a France that has suffered, for decades and centuries, from anxieties about its own decline. And for good reason: Since the 18th century, when it bestrode Europe and seemed poised to dominate the globe, France has seen its relative power diminish, suffering defeats and humiliations at the hands of rival forces, from Britain’s navies to Germany’s jackboots to the invading might of American popular culture.

Now these longstanding anxieties have been thrown into relief by the murderous attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an attack linked to all the various specters haunting contemporary France: fears of creeping Islamification and rising anti-Semitism, fears of the far right’s growing power and anti-Muslim backlash — and all of it bound up in a larger sense, amid economic stagnation, of betrayal at the hands of the Continent’s elite.

ut notwithstanding these declinist fears, France isn’t actually irrelevant or spent. Instead, it’s arguably becoming more important, more central to the fate of Europe and the West.

No, the age of the Sun King isn’t about to return. But politically, culturally, even intellectually, events in France over the next half-century could matter more than at any point since before the two world wars. Indeed, more than Germany or Greece or Britain or any other actor, it’s in France that the fate of 21st-century Europe could ultimately be decided.

Consider the specific issue at the heart of the Hebdo nightmare: the question of whether European nation-states can successfully integrate Muslim immigrants, and what will happen if they don’t.

Here France looks like the crucial test case. It has the largest Muslim population of any major European country, and parts of that population are more assimilated and others far more radicalized (16 percent of French citizens expressed support for the Islamic State in a poll last summer) than elsewhere on the Continent.

Not surprisingly, the response to Islam is divided as well: Muslims are regarded more favorably in France than elsewhere in Western Europe, and yet French politics features an increasingly potent far-right party, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, whose electoral clout is now likely to increase. Meanwhile, France’s foreign policy has distinctive (often military) entanglements across Northern Africa and the Levant, which means the ripples from French domestic politics have more room to spread and then return.

So if there’s a path to greater Muslim assimilation and inclusion, it’s more likely to be pioneered in France. If Islamic radicalism is going to gain ground or mutate into something more pervasive and dangerous, it’s also more likely to happen in France’s sphere of influence than elsewhere. And if Europe’s much-feared far right is going to complete its journey from the fringe to the mainstream, it will probably happen first in Paris.

French politics is likewise central to the fate of the wider European Union project, which is in crisis at the moment because of the gulf between Germany’s interests and the interests of the E.U. periphery, Greece and Italy and Spain. But that gulf (and the weight of 20th-century history) means that the Germans, however economically dominant, cannot hold the union together on their own. Instead it’s France, for reasons of history and culture as well as geography, that has to bridge the divide between Europe’s north and south and make the E.U. work politically. Unless, of course, the French gradually and fatefully choose not to, in which case the entire project will fall apart or be completely reconceived.

Either way, France’s star may rise as Germany’s descends. Demography, the source of so much Gallic anxiety in the past, suddenly has turned in France’s favor: The Germans are rich but aging, whereas even amid economic drift the French birthrate has risen sharply (suggesting a certain optimism amid the ennui). By the 2050s, under some scenarios, France could once again have the larger economy and population — making it either dominant in a more integrated Europe, or the most important power on a continent more divided than today.

Then amid these political and economic patterns there’s an important intellectual possibility — namely, that if there’s something beyond the West’s current end-of-history torpor, some new ideological conflict or synthesis, it might emerge first in the place where so many revolutions had their birth.

France has always been a country of extremes — absolutist and republican, Catholic and anticlerical, Communist and fascist. Now it’s once again the place where strong forces are colliding, and where the culture’s uncertainties — about Islam, secularism, nationalism, Europe; about modernity itself — suggest that new ones might soon be born.

The decline has been real, but the future is unwritten. If there is real history yet to be made in Europe, for good or ill, it might be made first in la belle France.

That was surprisingly coherent.  I wonder who really wrote it…  Here’s MoDo:

Kissing the sun. Swilling merlot. Plotting revenge.

Life is good for John Boehner.

Lying in a hammock at his new condo in Marco Island, Fla., the speaker of the House is even closing in on his goal of getting darker than the oxblood leather wingback chair in his Capitol office.

D.C.’s Dean Martin is relaxing, reviewing the tumultuous first week of the 114th Congress. There were the usual annoyances. The speaker told the press that he was comfortable in his skin even as his skin made the press uncomfortable. The Times’s First Draft did a Sherwin-Williams analysis of Boehner’s strikingly darker hue, syncing it to a color called “Husky Orange.”

And there were serious irritations, like another coup attempt by Tea Partiers eager to wreck the celebration of their party’s congressional takeover. This really bugs Boehner. How could a blue-collar Ohio pol who came to Congress in 1991 as a revolutionary be denounced as too establishment? How could critics dismiss him as “a squish?” How could he nearly be toppled from his speakership by a nobody named Ted Yoho?

Even in the flush of victory, the 65-year-old is hurt that some consider him a RINO, a fauxpublican who doesn’t have the brass to stand up to President Obama on immigration.

“That knuckle-dragger Hannity called me ‘cowardly,’ ” he mutters, lighting up another Ultra Light Camel. “I’m the most anti-establishment speaker we’ve ever had.” Hadn’t he always fought the good fight on earmarks? Hadn’t he always kept his regular-guy, son-of-a-Cincinnati-barkeep personality? Didn’t he still cut his own grass and eat breakfast at Pete’s Diner on the Hill?

As they had sat in his office, watching the dramatic vote count for speaker on C-Span, Boehner made his true feelings clear to his rat-pack pal, Saxby Chambliss: “Do these morons think they could do any better? Could Louie Gohmert really run the House better than me?

“I let Ted Yahoo make the response to Obama’s immigration order and he ran against me. Now I want him deported. And how about that Daniel Webster? At least the original tried to prevent civil war. I gave him a plum assignment on the Rules Committee and he ran against me. Then little Danny had the nerve to want his picture taken with me.

“If this were Chicago, those rat-finks would be in Lake Michigan. I did kick two of the quislings off the Rules Committee. My wife and my rat pack want vengeance. But I don’t do anger. I’m going to try to rise above it, and believe me, it’s not that hard to rise above guys like Gohmert and Yoho.

“We got the biggest majority since the Great Depression, but my pallie Mitch might be in for a shock. He’s been bragging that he’s going to get the Senate working again and move beyond the culture of ‘No’ that he created. I found out the hard way that you can’t get these knuckleheads to agree on anything except their right to be re-elected.”

His BlackBerry ring-a-ding dings, flashing a Florida area code.

“That better not be Webster or Yahoo,” he mutters. Listening, he grins. “Hey, Jeb,” he says warmly. “What’s up? I hope you didn’t take offense when I said I was anti-establishment.”

Pause. “Oh, you are, too?”

Boehner chuckles as the call ends, thinking an anti-establishment Bush is going to be an even tougher sell than an anti-establishment Boehner.

With everything else going on, he even had to come to the defense of Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, one of his top lieutenants, who spoke to a racist group back in 2002.

“I told those reporters that I knew, in his heart, Steve wasn’t a white supremacist,” Boehner says, laughing. “How could he be when he hangs out with somebody like me? Even President Obama called me a ‘person of color,’ hailing my orange as ‘the new black.’ ”

Thinking about Obama makes Boehner wince.

“So now President Harvard wants to give everybody free community-college educations? Should we do their homework for them, too? I had to work my way through school as a janitor.”

He wonders if the president saw Glenn Thrush’s piece in Politico revealing that, sometimes when Obama calls Boehner, the speaker puts the receiver on his desk, rolls his eyes and lights a Camel while the president drones on.

The speaker shrugs, rolls his eyes and lights a Camel. “The president keeps saying that he wants to work with us, but then he acts like his pal, the Cuban dictator,” he says. “He’s going to veto the Keystone pipeline. Executive orders have become par for the course. At least he’s par somewhere.

“Obama acts all liberated, but he’s just killing time. He was out of town all week and no one even noticed he was gone. Maybe I’ll retire with him. I don’t do legacy and I can’t bear the thought of going through another one of these battles for speaker with peabrains with slingshots.

“I can give speeches, get on boards and play Augusta National, just like all those other anti-establishment types.”

He refills his glass of red wine as his blue eyes fill with tears.

“It’s still just me, guys,” he sobs, “doing it my way.”

Lord, how I dread the upcoming 2016 campaign and all of MoDo’s drivel.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Welcome visitors to New York City! This has been the best time ever to urinate on a street, sneak onto the subway or run a red light, for the police force has been on a virtual strike.

Police officers may be making a point for contract negotiations. But many also are genuinely frustrated and, along with millions of other Americans, seem sympathetic to an argument that goes like this:

The real threat to young black men isn’t white cops. It’s other black men. Police officers are numerous in black neighborhoods not because they want to hang out there, but because they’re willing to risk their lives to create order on streets where too many residents have kids outside of marriage, or collect government benefits but disdain jobs. Instead of receiving thanks for their efforts, cops have been cursed and attacked. Hate-mongering led by President Obama built a climate of animosity that led to the murder of two of New York’s finest. And where are the street protests denouncing those racist murders? Don’t blue lives count?

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and de facto spokesman for that viewpoint, put it this way in November when he was asked about Ferguson, Mo., on “Meet the Press”: “I find it very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here.”

“What about the poor black child that is killed by another black child?” he added. “Why aren’t you protesting that?”

After the assassination of the two New York police officers, Giuliani declared: “We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.”

That view has gained traction, creating an astonishing impasse in America’s largest city. In one week in late December, the number of police citations, summonses and arrests in some categories fell by 90 percent from the same week the previous year.

That’s not “a few bad apples.” That’s the apple basket.

Most of us understand that police officers are often in an impossible position, and we appreciate their courage and good work. When they work.

So let’s examine the narrative that Giuliani and others have spread.

Take the argument that police killings are a red herring because the biggest threat to blacks is other blacks. The latter part is true. Where the perpetrator has been identified, 93 percent of murderers of blacks are also black. Then again, it’s equally true that 84 percent of murderers of whites are fellow whites.

So?

How would we feel if we were told: When Americans are killed by Muslim terrorists, it’s an exception. Get over it.

Some offenses are particularly destructive because they undermine the social system. Terrorism is in that category, and so is police abuse. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that such abuse is too common.

In 2012, an African-American detective in the New York City Police Department, Harold Thomas, hobbled from a nightclub to his car (he had been shot a year earlier by a would-be armed robber). Other police officers didn’t recognize him and, according to Thomas, slammed his head into his vehicle, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him. He is suing the city.

Thomas, who retired last year after 30 years, admires the police force but says the racial bias is ingrained — caused by a small percentage of officers who “make everyone look bad.”

Reuters interviewed 25 African-American male police officers, some retired, in New York City and said all but one reported having been subjected to unwarranted incidents — from stop-and-frisks to being thrown into prison vans. Five said they had had guns pulled on them.

A 2010 New York State task force report on police-on-police shootings identified 14 officers around the country killed by fellow officers over the previous 15 years in mistaken identity shootings. Ten of the 14 were officers of color.

Then there’s a ProPublica investigation that found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.

It’s true that some on the left who are aghast at racial profiling are sometimes prone to career profiling: We should stereotype neither black youths nor white cops. Some extremist protesters turned to the slogan “arms up, shoot back,” or to chants of “What do we want? Dead cops.” That was inexcusable. But, of course, that’s not remotely what Obama was saying.

PunditFact reviewed all of Obama’s statements and found that he never encouraged hostility toward police; it labeled that Giuliani assertion as “pants on fire.” Good for Obama and other politicians — including Mayor Bill de Blasio — for trying to shine a light on inequality in law enforcement.

“Many of my peers were deeply racist,” Redditt Hudson, a former St. Louis cop, wrote in The Washington Post last month. He described seeing force used unnecessarily, particularly against blacks, such as the time a boy who couldn’t walk was punched, handcuffed and dragged by his ankles from his home to a car.

Hudson said that the fundamental need is an end to impunity.

“Cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it,” he wrote. “These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police. Even when officers get caught, they know they’ll be investigated by their friends, and put on paid leave.”

Race is a nettlesome issue, and I recognize that I’m calling for more diversity and accountability in police forces even as my own institution — the press — doesn’t look like America either.

We can all do better. Put yourselves in the shoes of the family of Tamir Rice, the black 12-year-old boy shot dead in November in Cleveland. A 911 call had reported someone carrying a “probably fake” gun, and Tamir was carrying a pellet pistol.

A white police officer, who had previously been judged unprepared for the stresses of the job, shot Tamir. A video released a few days ago shows the boy’s 14-year-old sister rushing to her fallen brother — and then tackled by police, handcuffed, and placed in a police car a few feet from her dying brother. The officers stood around and gave him no medical aid.

To those who see no problem in policing, just one question: What if that were your son or daughter?

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

I’ve been called many unpleasant things in my life, and I’ve deserved no small number of them. But I chafe at this latest label:

A threat to your religious liberty.

I don’t mean me alone. I mean me and my evidently menacing kind: men who have romantic relationships with other men and maybe want to marry them, and women in analogous situations. According to many of the Americans who still cast judgment on us, our “I do” somehow tramples you, not merely running counter to your creed but running roughshod over it.

That’s absurd. And the deference that many politicians show to such thinking is an example not of religion getting the protection it must but of religious people getting a pass that isn’t warranted. It’s an illustration of religion’s favored status in a country that’s still working out this separation-of-church-and-state business and hasn’t yet gotten it quite right.

We’re at an interesting crossroads, brought about by the rapid advance of same-sex marriage. It’s now legal in 36 states, including, as of last week, Florida. Equality is increasingly being enshrined into law, and one response from those opposed to it is that the law shouldn’t apply to them.

Why? Because it contradicts their religious beliefs, which they use as a fig leaf for intolerance.

“This is the new wave, the new frame,” James Esseks, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U., told me. He said that last year, more than 10 states considered legislation that, to varying degree, blessed discrimination based on sexual orientation by people claiming that it was a right, a matter of religious liberty. Only one of those states, Mississippi, passed such a law, but efforts elsewhere persist. A Virginia lawmaker introduced this sort of legislation just a few weeks ago.

The issue is also playing out in courts. As Michael Paulson noted in a recent story in The Times, judges have been hearing complaints about a florist or baker or photographer refusing to serve customers having same-sex weddings. They’ve been siding so far with the gay couples.

But this is only the beginning, especially with the contest for the Republican presidential nomination gathering steam.

Several likely candidates — Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee — get a special gleam in their eyes when they’re denigrating gays, and Huckabee has perfected a stew of homophobia and puerility, on display in a new book of his that sounds like a collection of recipes by Paula Deen expressly for the N.R.A.: “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy.” With three copies you get a free sandwich combo at Chick-fil-A.

Kidding.

In “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy” (it bears repeating), he bemoans the acquiescence of air travelers to invasive screenings with this dignified locution: “Bend over and take it like a prisoner.” In fact that’s the title of a whole chapter, with an exclamation point added. This, mind you, is from someone who once governed a state (Arkansas) and won the 2008 Republican caucus in Iowa.

Another probable contender, Jeb Bush, weighed in anew on same-sex marriage last week, and some of his words — that laws must be honored and same-sex couples respected — were encouraging. But he also said that America needed to take care to “safeguard religious liberty,” and there are several problems with that formulation.

For starters, it perpetuates confusion, some of which is cynically engineered, about the consequences of marriage-equality laws. They do not pertain to religious services or what happens in a church, temple or mosque; no clergy member will be compelled to preside over gay nuptials. Civil weddings are covered. That’s it.

But also, “religious liberty” sounds disturbingly like a dog whistle to the crowd that wants specified, codified exemption from anti-discrimination laws; it’s one of the phrases they lean on. If Bush didn’t know that, he should have. If he did, he just sided, for the moment, with religious extremists.

As these lamentations about religious liberty get tossed around, it’s worth remembering that racists have used the same argument to try to perpetuate segregation. Esseks noted that even after the Civil Rights Act, the owner of the Piggie Park restaurant chain in South Carolina maintained that he could refuse to serve black people because his religion forbade the mixing of races. The courts were unimpressed.

Christian fundamentalists in this country are practiced at claiming marginalization and oppression. “They’re always saying they’re kept out of the public square, and that’s baloney,” said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law expert and the author of “God vs. the Gavel.” “They’re all over the public square.”

They and their churches inject themselves into political debates while enjoying tax-exempt status. They get public support in questionable circumstances. After a student Christian magazine insisted on its right to funds from the University of Virginia, the Supreme Court decided in 1995 that if a nonreligious publication got financial help from a public school, so must a religious publication, even if it’s proselytizing.

And churches have been allowed to adopt broad, questionable interpretations of a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws that allow them to hire and fire clergy as they wish.

What’s more, in a country that’s not supposed to promote any one religion over others, we do precisely that.

Would we be content to let a Muslim store owner who believes that a woman should always cover her hair refuse service to women who do not? Or a Mormon hairdresser who spurns coffee to turn away clients who saunter in with frappuccinos?

I doubt it. So why should a merchant whose version of Christianity condemns homosexuality get to exile gays and lesbians?

Baking a cake, arranging roses, running an inn: These aren’t religious acts, certainly not if the establishments aren’t religious enclaves and are doing business with (and even dependent on) the general public.

Their owners are routinely interacting with customers who behave in ways they deem sinful. They don’t get to single out one group of supposed sinners. If they’re allowed to, who’s to say they’ll stop at that group?

I respect people of faith. I salute the extraordinary works of compassion and social justice that many of them and many of their churches do. I acknowledge that we in the news media, because we tend to emphasize conflict and wrongdoing and hypocrisy, sometimes focus more on the shortcomings of religious institutions than on their positive contributions.

And I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts.

But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you.

And now here’s Mr. Cohen’s extensive piece:

Never before have so many people been on the move. New opportunity, like a bright star, draws immigrants across the world. In every one of the past four generations my family has moved, hopping from Lithuania to what is now South Africa and on to Britain, Israel and the United States. Sometimes they have found success and happiness. But the other side of displacement, its black sun, is loss.

The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.

I was born in London to South African Jewish parents. We left almost immediately for South Africa, lived there for two years and returned to Britain. Although the word was never uttered, we were immigrants. Our priority was assimilation into Englishness. Pogroms and penury had been left far behind. The past was as silent as a village at the bottom of a dam.

Why then was I tugged to Israel as a college student? Our Jewish identity had been dribbling away ever since my great-grandparents and grandparents left Lithuania for South Africa around the turn of the 20th century. It was a slow process but appeared inexorable.

Having been persecuted as Jews in the Eastern European shtetl, my forebears put their faith in education and science to usher them from backwardness. My father did have a bar mitzvah in Johannesburg in 1934 but hated the experience, seeing it as an exercise in obscurantism and hypocrisy. He reached England in the mid-1950s with no inclination to inflict such instruction on me.

His was the silence, or at least discretion, shared by many Jews — whether Holocaust survivors or not — in the postwar years, especially in Europe. There was after Auschwitz something shameful about survival that no Jew could abjure. Why them and not me? Better, at least in England, to look forward, work hard, say little, and confine protest to shunning German cars.

Tradition and custom and ceremony went missing. No days were different from any other days. We did not have a Christmas tree. Nor did we have anything else. Our deity was academic and professional achievement. My father’s rise as a scientist in his adopted country was meteoric.

Nonetheless in time I wanted what I was not given, a Jewish identity, because that, simply, is what I felt myself to be, a Jew. Being called a “Yid” during my first year in high school stirred within me a lost and then defiant identity. In England, Philip Roth wrote, people’s voices always drop “just a little” when Jews are mentioned — and indeed my mother’s voice used to drop when she said the word in the land of Lewis Namier’s “trembling Israelites.”

Adaptation to England, with its retreat-from-empire gloom, proved too much for my mother, June. Born on Human Street in the small South African mining town of Krugersdorp in 1929, she was bright and full of laughter, with lovely, pale skin and thick, bouncy curls. She was highly strung, with a rapier wit. In 1950, upon graduation from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, she married Sydney, a young doctor born on Honey Street in the Berea district of the city. A few years later the girl from Human Street and the boy from Honey Street decided to turn their backs on the horrors of apartheid. They emigrated.

June’s first depression occurred soon after. It came on after she was uprooted, bounced back and forth between England and South Africa, set down at last in north London in 1957, pregnant with my younger sister, Jenny. She had a hardworking husband and was obliged to get on with life as best she could as she raised two infants without all the support she had known in South Africa. She placed coins in a meter for hot water. She strained to fit in, to drop South Africa and its tight-knit Jewish community, to belong again. She wanted to help my father, her overriding goal always. Instead, she collapsed.

She was admitted in 1958 to a sanitarium near London. Diagnosed with “post-puerperal depression,” she first underwent electroshock treatment on July 30, 1958, and again on Aug. 1, 1958, the day before my third birthday, as it took me more than a half century to discover. Later she suffered from manic depression and never shook it off. In each generation of my family the condition recurred — a great-uncle in Johannesburg, a cousin who committed suicide in Tel Aviv at age 28. The question is whether my mother’s condition was endogenous, a purely pharmacological issue, or exogenous, a psychological issue tied to our Jewish odyssey of the 20th century and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing and forgetting.

There can be no absolute answer. The study of epigenetics is a relatively new one that seeks to explore how something in the external environment can, in the words of Rachel Yehuda, an Israeli-born neuroscientist and psychiatrist, “affect the internal environment, and before you know it a gene is functioning in a different way.” Evidence is growing of such trauma-induced changes. Yehuda quoted Ezekiel in a recent interview with Tablet: “The fathers ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge.” My mother was always on edge. After the electroshock treatment she was like a tree hollowed out by lightning. As her life progressed, she craved return to the sun and South Africa.

This was not supposed to happen. As immigrants, our gaze was to be forward-looking. June, despite her suffering, made an immense effort to that end. But the shock of upheaval can prove too much for some people. The project of starting anew collapses; its foundations are too weak.

European societies make fitting in harder than America. The difference between those who came first and those who came last in the United States is negligible beside the intricate matter of British ancestry — not to mention the subtle matter of British anti-Semitism. June had been raised in a cocoon of new South African wealth so enveloping as to eliminate, almost overnight, the Lithuanian past. I was raised an English boy, as if England were my birthright.

A child of repetitive Jewish displacement, I would sit in a Christian epicenter of continuity, Westminster Abbey, every school-day morning. This irony was lost on me. I was unaware that my paternal grandparents and much of my mother’s family came from the shtetls of northern Lithuania; or that my upbringing, while bestowing the gifts of a superb liberal education, had also been devoted to the expunging of this past, as well as to the suppression of the not-unrelated history of my mother’s mental breakdown.

I see my forebears losing touch with one another and fanning out across the world. I see the ebb and flow of their fortunes and the battle for assimilation. Theirs is a constant, almost manic, reinvention — in Johannesburg, in London, in Jerusalem, in Cleveland. Yet all the while they carry within them a bipolar gene that forms an unbroken chain with the past, liable to surface at any moment. They fight for that feeling of belonging that goes with home, the elusive place where, as Robert Frost noted, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

My mother’s suicide note to my father of July 25, 1978, was found in the Hampstead house on the hill she loved; the house she had, in a bout of manic activity, agreed to sell the previous March to buy a Georgian terraced jewel on Lord North Street in central London, only to cancel the sale when she plunged back into a depression in June.

She had suffered from a combination of symptoms: weight loss, dizzy spells, hot flashes, as well as alternating hyperactivity and inertia, or manic depression. In early February, a doctor had again suggested electroshock treatment. No! Two decades on from her 1958 confinement, she would not return to that hell. She would not tolerate again the metal plates being strapped to her swabbed temples, enclosing her skull in its high-voltage carapace.

The strain of hiding her condition was enormous. She had to pursue her work as a magistrate and maintain the outward appearance of familial stability. Voiding the real estate deal concluded in manic March filled June with guilt over the time and money wasted. One thing about mania, with its rashness and rages, is that it provides plenty of legitimate reasons for remorse during the ensuing depressive phase.

My father came home from work and found the bedroom doors closed. He thought little of it. June was often in bed. He fixed himself a whiskey, sat down with the papers. It was a mild summer’s evening, sunlight glinting through the trees, clouds of gnats against the fence. June’s cycles were running at three-month intervals. With luck, come September she would be active again. Sydney tossed the papers aside. He tried the bedroom door. It was locked. He raced around to the other door, from the bathroom.

It was locked. He ran outside. The net curtains were drawn. The windows looked sealed. On closer inspection, one was very slightly ajar.

My mother lay sprawled on the bed, a bottle of gin beside her. She had taken large doses of doxepin and Valium, washed down with the gin. Her arms were thrown back behind her head.

Her pupils were scarcely responsive, her breathing shallow. The suicide note written to my father was beside her bed: “You are made to do great things, make immensely useful discoveries to aid all mankind and I’m leaving you to continue unimpeded by my burden. I so much hoped to help you and to help you and to love and adore you …” June survived, just. The emetic effect of the gin probably saved her. She vowed to us all that she would never again “resort to such a drastic step.” But death was always the cajoling voice in her ear.

June tried to kill herself again on June 15, 1982. Again there was a suicide note. Again, she survived, barely. At last cancer took her on Jan. 2, 1999, at age 69.

Mental illness is a charnel house from which nobody escapes unscathed. My parents’ marriage, in its last two decades, was filled with terrible silences and fierce eruptions. After the loss of my mother, I had to find vitality at any price. Every relationship was a mausoleum in the making.

When a parent dies unhappy, there is something unresolved that keeps nagging. It is irrational to want to save my mother from her torment — and now I cannot anyway. Still, because of her, I had to go back. The void, ever renewed, that her absence has left can be explained only by her refusal to stop believing in love, however compromised by frailty her expression of it was. Love and acceptance and stoicism and dignity were, against all odds, her fundamental and enduring lessons. Her spirit, housed too long in that troubled body, had immense strength.

It was my father she had loved most deeply, despite everything. My father, who had begun another relationship to survive, and who had hardened with the demands and the secrecy of that involvement, crumpled with a grief that shocked him after my mother’s death. He wrote to me:

“Your expanding memories of Mom have become infinitely precious and important; I share with you the vision of a light which is the obverse of her tormenting darkness and which in some miraculous way has become completely dominant since her death. I hope and pray that this vision of her will be an enduring source of strength and inspiration to you in all the years ahead, ever cherished and unsullied.

“For myself, I did have a fleeting dream of a few tranquil years carrying me into the sunset. I still hope for that in a mental and bodily sense. But I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.”

We were too undone to ask for the urn with my mother’s ashes. I do not know where it ended up. The girl from Human Street left no trace of her anguished passage across the earth, from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere. After her high school records from Barnato Park in Johannesburg, after the bulk of her medical records from the Holloway Sanatorium near London, her very physical remains vanished, too. From an early age, I had grown used to deploying my imagination as a defense. I told many other stories with many foreign datelines before I realized, returning to the place where I began, that the one story I had to tell was hers — and through hers that of a far-flung Jewish family, tied by the pain of forgetting, the strain of assimilation, the curse of mental illness and the ever-renewed consolation of love.

Cohen and Collins

January 3, 2015

In “A Time for Traitors” Mr. Cohen says Israelis and Palestinians need bold leaders to carry out “a fair divorce.”  Ms. Collins, in “Hillary Versus History,” says with only 55 weeks until the New Hampshire primary and seven months until the Iowa straw poll, there is much presidential history to contemplate.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Tel Aviv:

Here is Amos Oz on writing a novel: “It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

I found Oz at the end of his working day, around 8:30 in the morning. He’d been up since 4, as usual, taken a brisk walk, as usual, drunk a coffee, as usual, and settled down at his desk around 5:30. His good working hours for all those decisions are between 5:30 and 8:30. With a novel called “Judas” published in Hebrew last year (but not yet out in English), he is at work on something new, but, he says, “in this business there are many more miscarriages and abortions than live births.”

Treason and loyalty are themes of “Judas.” They have been on Oz’s mind. “The protagonist points out that almost every significant political leader in history was called a traitor by many of his own people — Abraham Lincoln, de Gaulle, Gorbachev, Begin, Sadat, Rabin,” the novelist told me. “The day people in this country start calling Netanyahu a traitor I will know that something may change.”

Oz, the conscience of a certain liberal and secular Israel still committed to a two-state outcome, called Benjamin Netanyahu “a coward, a man who prefers inaction to action.”

“He has been in power for some nine years,” Oz said. “In those nine years he has not made one, even one, really controversial decision either way.”

The result is drift, a status quo that is violent, or brewing with violence. It is an illusion to think of the status quo in anything but violent terms so long as the Palestinian quest for nationhood remains unresolved.

This struggle may recede from view for a while, and on a sunny day in a quiet Tel Aviv it may seem infinitely remote, but it is there, the storm at the horizon.

“Up until last summer there was a seemingly pragmatic school in the Israeli political middle of the road, former generals and politicians, who claimed it’s impossible to resolve the conflict at this time so let’s think about conflict management,” Oz said. “I think last summer, the third Gaza war in six years, taught Israelis what conflict management looks like. This may be a useful lesson.”

But, I asked, after almost a half-century of occupation of the West Bank, is a two-state peace not on life support? “Well, I have sad moments, and I have encouraging moments. But I don’t see an alternative. Or rather, the alternative is a disaster for Israelis. The alternative is the end of Israel.”

Oz refuses to be pessimistic. He sees the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a “very reasonable starting point.” Perhaps, he suggested, “the present day is the best chance we had in 110 years to conclude the conflict altogether because Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis, the gulf states, even Assad in Syria, all have a more immediate enemy than Israel, and they are more willing to make a historical compromise with Israel.”

But more traitors are needed. An Israeli leader who will give up land for peace, as Menachem Begin, of all people, did with Sinai; an Arab leader, like Anwar el-Sadat, bold enough to be pragmatic rather than peddle empty dreams.

Oz laughs at the notion of one state for two peoples. “If anyone would have proposed that in 1945 Germany and Poland immediately become a binational state they would put him in a madhouse. How can anyone in Israel or elsewhere think that Israelis and the Palestinians can simply jump into a honeymoon bed together? After generations of hatred, we need a divorce, a fair divorce.”

He is right. Israelis and Palestinians need traitors as leaders who will deliver an equitable divorce, ugly as most divorces are, setting the terms for the peaceful coexistence of two states. The thing about traitor-leaders is that they break the rules that seemed immutable.

There are none on the horizon, but you never know. “I’m old enough to know that when somebody says words like ‘never,’ or ‘forever,’ or ‘the rest of eternity’ in the Middle East, it usually means something like six months to 30 years. If anyone had said to me as a young man that one day I would travel to Egypt or Jordan with Egyptian and Jordanian visas stamped in my passport, I would have said, ‘Let’s not get carried away.’ ”

He continued: “I have seen people change. They are not born again but they change, somewhat. In fact that is how I make a living, by observing and describing the way people change.”

Change and three-quarters-of-a-million decisions and before you know it, something new and original, even something unimaginable, is born.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

When Hillary Clinton thinks about running for president, do you think she contemplates the fact that no Democrat has been elected to succeed another Democrat since James Buchanan in 1856?

We bring you this factoid in honor of the beginning of the 2016 election season. (Only 55 weeks until the New Hampshire primary!) We’ve got so much time. It’s the perfect moment for random irrelevant trivia about presidential elections of the past. Which, to be honest, is my favorite part.

Consider that succession information for a minute. We have had Democratic vice presidents step into office when the Democratic president died. But the voters haven’t gone to the polls and elected one Democrat to follow another since before the Civil War.

What do you think this means? Actually, there weren’t all that many Republicans who were elected to succeed Republicans either. Particularly if you acknowledge that Rutherford B. Hayes stole the election from Samuel Tilden. James Garfield did it, but then he was assassinated. William Howard Taft followed Theodore Roosevelt, and then Roosevelt came to hate Taft so much that he ran as a third-party candidate in 1912, throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson. Herbert Hoover succeeded Calvin Coolidge, and we know how well that one worked out. Finally, George H.W. Bush was elected after Ronald Reagan.

Wow, think about that. The only president elected to follow a member of his own party without creating some sort of cosmic disaster was George H.W. Bush. No wonder he always looks so cheerful.

These factoids refer only to elections between Republicans and Democrats. Even with nearly two years to go (but seven months until the Iowa straw poll!), we don’t have enough time to deal with the Whigs. Our two current parties began duking it out in — yes! — 1856, when Buchanan ran against the first Republican presidential candidate, John Charles Frémont. Frémont was an explorer whose political enemies claimed had resorted to cannibalism during one unfortunate Western expedition. I am just telling you this to make it clear how interesting American history can be.

Anyhow, Buchanan won and went on triumphantly to become possibly the worst president ever. Almost every chief executive in American history has his defenders. I had a very nice time last year talking with people who feel Warren Harding hasn’t been given his due. But you very seldom run into fans of Buchanan, the man who cozied up to slaveholders and failed to stop Southern secession.

“He was terrible,” said Jean Baker, a professor of history at Goucher College and Buchanan biographer. This despite arriving in office with one of the best résumés in the history of presidential candidates: Buchanan had been a congressman, envoy to Russia, senator, secretary of state and minister to Britain. “He was sitting around waiting and waiting with the best C.V. of any president we’ve ever had. That’s what’s so ironic,” said Baker.

Did I mention that Buchanan was also the last former secretary of state elected president?

I don’t think Clinton-Buchanan commonalities are likely to be a big concern. Liberals worry that Hillary might be overly aggressive when it comes to foreign policy; I don’t think anybody thinks she’d sit on her hands and let any states secede. (Only 58 weeks until the South Carolina primary!)

Still, it never hurts to push a little random presidential history into the mix, if only to liven things up for the next year or so. Any suggestions? I am in the market for some comparisons between Ted Cruz and Millard Fillmore.

But about James Buchanan: Professor Baker thinks his unwillingness to stand up to the South was because, at least partly, of his close friendships with Southern politicians. (He described the abolition movement as “weak, powerless and soon to be forgotten” and referred to white men from the South as “the chivalrous race.”) Buchanan roomed with William King of Alabama during their Senate days, and the pair were so close that people referred to them as “Siamese twins.” King went on to become the only bachelor vice president, under Franklin Pierce. Buchanan, you may recall, was our only bachelor president.

Baker said that when she was writing her book on Buchanan, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., her editor, demanded that she “take a position on whether he was gay or not.” She demurred. Buchanan never said, and he spent a great deal of time pretending to be courting various widows, none of whom managed to get him anywhere near the altar. Baker wishes she could have said for sure: “It would have been one of the few things I could present as positive about James Buchanan.”

Well, he was kind to his nephews and nieces. He had two pet bald eagles, which sounds sort of interesting. And he was the only president who hailed from Pennsylvania. Perhaps I should point out that Joe Biden was born in Scranton.

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.

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.


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