The Pasty Little Putz is in a lather. In “Defining Religious Liberty Down” he ‘splains to us that the Chick-fil-A flap is the latest sign of confusion about what “free exercise” of religion means. He ends the thing with a textbook example of hyperbole that should be taught in grammar classes. MoDo considers “Mitt’s Olympic Meddle:” Off with his head! Mitt Romney barely escapes the Tower of London. Some “charm offensive.” At least the British press is honest about him. The Moustache of Wisdom gives us “Coming Soon: The Big Trade-Off.” He says as baby boomers age, Americans face tough choices. We can pay for nursing homes or for nursing Afghanistan. How many Friedman Units will it be before we decide, Tommy? Mr. Kristof, in “Blissfully Lost in the Woods,” says here’s a little advice for the overburdened and overconnected: take a hike. Mr. Bruni, in “Political Fortunetelling,” says the future of presidential campaigning awaits us, with familiar families, megabucks and Miley Cyrus. Here’s The Putz:
The words “freedom of belief” do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor do the words “freedom of worship.” Instead, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called “the free exercise” of religion.
It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.
I cannot improve upon the way the first lady of the United States explained this issue, speaking recently to a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday,” Michelle Obama said. “It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.”
But Mrs. Obama’s words notwithstanding, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about this point in the Western leadership class today.
You can see this confusion at work in the Obama White House’s own Department of Health and Human Services, which created a religious exemption to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches, and treats religious hospitals, schools and charities as purely secular operations. The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship, which indeed it does. But a genuine free exercise of religion, not so much.
A similar spirit was at work across the Atlantic last month, when a judge in Cologne, Germany, banned circumcision as a violation of a newborn’s human rights. Here again, defenders of the decision insisted that it didn’t trample on any Jew’s or Muslim’s freedom of belief. But of course to be an adult Jew in good standing, as The Washington Post’s Charles Lane pointed out, one must circumcise one’s son at 8 days old. So while the ruling would not technically outlaw Jewish theology or Jewish worship, it would effectively outlaw Judaism itself.
Now we have the great Chick-fil-A imbroglio, in which mayors and an alderman in several American cities threatened to prevent the delicious chicken chain from opening new outlets because its Christian president told an interviewer that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Their conceit seemed to be that the religious liberties afforded to congregations (no official, to my knowledge, has threatened to close down any Chicago churches) do not extend to religious businessmen. Or alternatively, it was that while a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised and expressed.
I have described all these incidents as resulting from confusion about what freedom of religion actually entails. But of course every freedom has its limits. We do not allow people to exercise beliefs that require, say, forced marriage or honor killing. You can believe in the gods of 15th-century Mesoamerica, but neither Chicago values nor American ones permit the use of Aztec sacrificial altars on the South Side.
To the extent that the H.H.S. mandate, the Cologne ruling and the Chick-fil-A controversy reflect a common logic rather than a shared confusion, then, it’s a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality — all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business — as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms.
Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, these ideas are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.
It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.
It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.
If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.
There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.
He is SUCH a horse’s ass. Here’s MoDo:
So the Republican presidential contender, eager to show off more than gubernatorial experience, travels overseas to bolster his foreign policy credentials. Then, in a TV interview, he blurts out a shockingly ill-considered, if undeniably true, observation that snowballs until the poor guy collapses into an international punch line.
It was a vertiginous fall for George Romney, who, while running for president in 1967, asserted that generals and diplomats had given him “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” when he toured Vietnam two years earlier.
And it was painful for Mitt, who had to watch his father’s epic gaffe from afar, while he was over in France struggling to drum up a few Mormon converts.
In their book “The Real Romney,” Michael Kranish and Scott Helman quoted Mitt’s sister Jane as saying the episode deeply affected Mitt: “He’s not going to put himself out on a limb. He’s more cautious, more scripted.”
That’s when Mitt began to build his own sterile biosphere, shaping his temperament and political career to make sure he never stumbled into such a costly moment of candor.
Even though the Mormon doesn’t drink coffee, he has measured out his life in coffee spoons, limiting access to reporters, giving interviews mostly to Fox News, hiding personal data, resisting putting out concrete policy proposals, refusing to release tax returns, trimming his conscience to match the moment, avoiding spontaneity. But somehow he ended up making the same unforced error that his dad did.
It’s like the epigraph in John O’Hara’s “Appointment at Samarra.” You can run from fate, but fate will be waiting in the next town, at the next marketplace.
Even as he angled to appear Anglo-Saxon and obsequiously vowed to restore the bust of Churchill to the Oval Office, Mitt condescended to the nation that invented condescension. The Brits swiftly boxed his ears for his insolence and foul calumny.
Conservatives in London oozed scorn. Mayor Boris Johnson mocked “a guy called Mitt Romney,” and Prime Minister David Cameron suggested it was easier to run an Olympics “in the middle of nowhere.” Fleet Street spanked “Nowhere Man” and “Mitt the Twit.”
Conservatives on Fox News were dumbfounded. “You have to shake your head,” Karl Rove said. Charles Krauthammer pronounced the faux pas “unbelievable, it’s beyond human understanding, it’s incomprehensible. I’m out of adjectives.”
The alarming thing about Romney is that he has been running for president for years, but he still doesn’t know how to read a room. He doesn’t take anything in, he just puts it out. He doesn’t hear himself the way the rest of us hear him.
In the Mitt-sphere, populated by his shiny white family, the Mormon Church and a narrow, homogenous inner circle, Romney’s image of himself as wise, caring, smart and capable is relentlessly reinforced. That leaves him constantly surprised that other people don’t love what he is saying.
We may wince when the blithering toff, or want-wit, as Shakespeare would say, arrives at the Brits’ home and throws his Cherry Coke Zero can in the prize rose bushes. But what drives his gaffes is his desire to preen over accomplishments.
As a candidate, he’s expected to stoop to conquer, to play a man of the people. But he really wants voters to know that he earned $250 million, and not even in the same business where his dad made a name for himself.
So he keeps blurting out hoity-toity stuff to make sure we know he’s not hoi polloi — about his friends who are Nascar owners, his wife’s Cadillacs, how he likes to fire people and how he, too, is unemployed. And he builds a car elevator in the middle of an economic slough.
In his interview with Brian Williams in London, Romney couldn’t resist giving himself the laurels for saving the Salt Lake City Games by analyzing whether the British ones were off by a hair, or a hire.
Then he tried to scamper back to the obligatory common-man script and ended up looking clumsy and the one thing he most certainly is not: unuxorious.
After going all the way to London to see the Olympics, he decides he won’t watch his wife’s mare, Rafalca, compete in horse ballet? He tries to win the political horse race by going to the Games, which are literally a race in which he has a horse, and then feigns disengagement?
“This is Ann’s sport,” Romney told Williams dismissively. “I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it. I will not be watching the event.”
He came across like a wazzock, as The Daily Telegraph called him, using a British insult for a daft know-it-all.
Romney programmed himself into a robot, so he wouldn’t boil over with opinions and convictions, like his more genuine dad.
But if we’re going to have someone who’s removed, always struggling to connect and emote, why not stick with the president we already have?
Better the android you know than the android you don’t know.
Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
When you talk to Chinese officials lately, it doesn’t take long before they express concern about America’s “rebalancing” of forces — the prospect that we’ll shift more troops from the Middle East, where they are containing instability, to Asia, where they would contain China. My standard reply is that China is worrying about the wrong thing. It is not that we’ll shift our Marines from the Middle East to Asia; it’s that we are going to shift them from the Middle East to San Diego — because we can’t afford to be the world’s policeman much longer, and China will have to fill some of the void.
Good luck, world! It’s been fun hanging with you, but we can’t pay for it anymore — not with all of us baby boomers about to retire with no savings. We have a new strategic doctrine coming: “U.S. foreign policy in the age of Alzheimer’s.” We’ll do what we can afford and forget the rest.
Why do I say that? In part it’s because I spent time this week with the Washington staff of The Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, which represents the 155 Jewish community federations across America. They may seem like an unlikely interlocutor for a foreign affairs columnist, but they’re not. Like their counterparts, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services, these Jewish federations operate nursing homes, hospitals, elder-care programs, meals on wheels, job-training, hospices and family social services in cities across America. And the financial challenges they’re all facing today are profound — as the baby boomers are aging — and so too are the trade-offs we’ll have to make between nursing homes in America and nursery schools in Afghanistan. Unless we get some sustained economic growth, Afghanistan is going to lose.
William Daroff, the director of JFNA’s Washington office, starts with this fact: Since the 2008 economic crisis, annual donations to Jewish federations have been flat, while there has been a sharp increase in demand for services and significant cuts in Medicaid and block grants that help pay for them. “We have people who were donors to our programs five years ago, now knocking on the door to use those same programs” — from people in need of job-training to those in need of help to cover a mortgage payment, said Daroff.
And we haven’t seen anything yet, explains Barbara Bedney, the director of public policy for JFNA. “We will see a doubling of the number of older adults — people over the age of 65 — by 2030, as the baby boomers age,” she explained, and one of the fastest growing groups will be the “old-old” — those who are 85 years old and older, who are living longer but requiring even more expensive care. And wait until the baby boomer cohort reaches their 80s. Alzheimer’s Disease Research reports that roughly 5.4 million Americans of all ages had Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, and, by 2050, more than 15 million Americans could be living with the disease — a key reason nursing home residents are predicted to double over the next 30 years.
And many baby boomers, says Steven Woolf, the senior tax policy counsel for JFNA, “are nowhere near prepared in terms of retirement savings” for the kinds of costs they are going to incur after they stop working — in an age in which they will be living longer, the government will have less to offer, they each will have fewer kids to care for them and social service agencies will be swamped with demands.
Indeed, a 2011 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that a “sizable percentage of workers report they have virtually no savings or investments.” Among those workers polled in its retirement confidence survey, “29 percent say they have less than $1,000. In total, more than half of workers (56 percent) report that the total value of their household’s savings and investments, excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans, is less than $25,000.”
That could pay for one hospital stay and recuperation in a nursing home, or dealing with just one parent with Alzheimer’s. And all that’s before the next president and Congress agree on a long-term fiscal rebalancing plan that will surely reduce Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Fortunately, two-thirds of baby boomer households are expected to receive some kind of inheritance over their lifetime to cushion the blow. Also, baby boomers as a generation have been very volunteer-oriented, and we’re going to need a lot of family volunteers to work with the elderly.
Indeed, says Bedney, today “family informal caregivers provide about 80 percent of elder care,” delivering meals to parents or aunts or driving them from place to place and managing their doctor visits and medications. But there are lots of problems associated with this care, she added: “lost work hours, high stress, declines in physical health.” Up to now, though, family caregivers have been largely ignored by policy makers, which is a mistake we must remedy, because “when we support family caregivers, we enable older adults to ‘age in place’ instead of in a high-cost institution,” said Bedney.
But, as any family caregiver can tell you, it is no picnic. “One of the leading risk factors for the institutionalization of older adults is the declining health of the person taking care of them,” added Bedney. “You’re lifting someone and you do it wrong and you both fall.”
Add up all these trend lines and you can see why, over the next decade, we must get more consistent economic growth as a society and, also, adds Daroff, come up with more policy and technology innovations that allow us to provide a lot more elder care, in particular aging at home, for a lot less money. That will require breakthroughs like remote diagnosis equipment in every home that can track a patient’s weight, blood sugar or lung capacity and dispatch it to a hospital, or clothing with sensors woven into the fabric that will be able track all physical indicators around the clock.
Nursing homes, nursery schools or nursing Afghanistan — these are the trade-offs we’ll have to make in this decade, unless we have a real growth spurt. Mitt Romney gave a big foreign policy speech last week, waxing eloquent about how he would be more assertive of U.S. interests abroad than President Obama and ensure that this is an “American century.” Really? I like American centuries. But to paraphrase an old saying: a foreign policy vision without a real plan to pay for it — and manage all the trade-offs back home — is just a hallucination.
Do bear in mind that Tommy was a drum major for the Iraq war. It would all get better in just one more Friedman Unit if we “stayed the course.” Fuck you, Tommy. Here’s Mr. Kristof, on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon:
Actually, that dateline isn’t quite right. It shouldn’t be “on” the Pacific Crest Trail, because my daughter and I drifted off the trail. We ended up completely lost in a wilderness of snow, mountains and forests.
No phones. No e-mail. No work. A perfect father-daughter bonding experience.
The adventures began after my 14-year-old daughter and I started out on a 200-mile backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail this month. Ultralight backpacking is one of my family’s summer rituals, but this time we ran into an unusually high snowpack for July.
For the first 50 miles we managed to bound over five-foot snowdrifts and stay on the trail. Then we hit higher elevations in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and later the Mount Jefferson Wilderness: the trail completely disappeared under many feet of snow that lasted for miles.
We gave up on the trail and followed map and compass. Once, we were delighted to find footprints that we eagerly followed. Then the footprints became more distinct and we realized that they had toes. And claws.
“Dad, I think that’s a bear you’re following.”
So we returned to map and compass, scrambling up steep ridges and tumbling down snowy slopes, bounding across vast fields of boulders and lava, and finding patches of bare ground to camp on when darkness fell.
For much of the way, we were mauled by the most bloodthirsty brutes of the American wilderness — not grizzly bears, but mosquitoes. My daughter had DEET repellent and a head net, but neither helped much.
“Look, Dad! I just counted! I have 49 mosquito bites on my forehead alone!”
This trip, even more than most backpacking slogs, was a reminder that we humans are mere bricks in a vast natural cathedral. As we tumbled in snow pits, as rain fell on us, we mused that we’re not landlords of our planet, or even its prime tenants. We’re just guests.
In short, the wilderness humbled us, and that’s why it is indispensable.
In our modern society, we have structured the world to obey us; we can often use a keyboard or remote to alter our surroundings. Yet all this gadgetry focused on our comfort doesn’t always leave us more content or grounded. It is striking how often people who are feeling bewildered or troubled seek remedy in the wilderness. That’s the point of the best-selling new book “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, about how she escaped from heroin and grief over her mother’s death by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
“Wild” is a terrific yarn, opening with a moment in which Strayed loses one precious hiking boot over a precipice — and then angrily hurls the other after it. Over time, the forests tame her, providing free therapy and the setting for her maturation. Strayed’s book has been successful, largely by word of mouth, partly because it reflects a truth we recognize.
For decades, youth programs have found benefit in sending troubled adolescents to drink from wilderness streams and lap up truths about themselves. Outward Bound takes a similar path, for everyone from at-risk kids to returning veterans to corporate executives.
Perhaps wilderness is an antidote to our postindustrial self-absorption. It’s a place to be deflated, humbled and awed all at once. It’s a window into a world larger than ourselves, one that doesn’t respond to a remote. It’s an Olympiad for all of us.
Yet, increasingly, it’s for only a tiny minority of us. Getting lost in the wild used to be routine for generations raised on hunting and fishing, yet those pastimes are becoming less common. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the number of Americans who fish dropped by 15 percent between 1996 and 2006. In that same period, the number of hunters dropped by just over 10 percent.
Likewise, the number of backcountry campers in our national parks has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1979.
Look, trudging uphill through mosquito swarms isn’t for everyone. But unplugging long enough to encounter nature is less scary and more fortifying than people may expect. My daughter and I were never in any danger and eventually muddled through all 200 miles of our hike. After 10 exhausting, exhilarating days, we emerged from the woods — and my daughter was promptly telling her brothers tales of snow and misadventure that had them yearning for frostbite.
To guarantee wilderness in the long run, we first need to ensure a constituency for it. Environmentalists focus on preserving wilderness, because that’s the immediate priority, but they perhaps should be as energetic at getting young people to interact with it. We need more Americans working through their challenges, like Cheryl Strayed, by hurling boots off precipices. We need more schools and universities to offer classes on the wild, in the wild — with extra credit for students who get lost.
Last but not least is Mr. Bruni:
Talk about putting the cart ahead of the donkey. Last week Public Policy Polling actually sized up voters’ feelings about possible Democratic candidates for… the 2016 presidential race. That’s right: 2016. The 2012 contest still has two conventions, one vice-presidential selection, four debates and a river delta’s worth of mudslinging to go, and already the soothsayers are moving on. Either we Americans are an admirably future-oriented people, or we’re really, really bored.
The polling firm surveyed voters in Iowa, site of those wild and woolly caucuses, and found that they preferred Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden by a 42-point margin. You’ll be hard pressed to believe this, but on the Republican side, which the firm also assessed, things were messier, with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee so close they might as well be tucked into the same sweater vest.
Those findings came out Monday. On Tuesday news reports noted that Jeb Bush would be giving a speech this fall in Iowa — which can mean only one thing! — and that the Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper, a popular Democrat, had made plans for a summer trip to New Hampshire, verdant cradle of so many a presidential dream. Any day now, I expect Intrade odds for a Bush-Hickenlooper general-election contest, along with a raft of commentary on the implications of a matchup even more syllabically skewed than Bush-Dukakis. Can the longer clump of letters win?
And if we extrapolate just a bit from current trends and add a soupçon of imagination, can’t we see even further into the future? Let’s give it a try.
In the 2020 Republican primary, there are brief surges each by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and the comedian Dennis Miller. For three weeks, Sarah Palin sends coy signals of a possible candidacy; those weeks happen to coincide with the debut of her Wasilla lounge act, “Rock & Rogue,” and the rollout of a signature eyewear collection at LensCrafters nationwide.
Michele Bachmann attempts a comeback, enabled by a continued erosion of campaign finance regulations. Corporations can now formally sponsor like-minded candidates, and a fast-food chain known for its evangelical bent backs her, leading to bumper stickers and T-shirts that say: “Bachmann 2020, Brought to You by Chick-fil-A.”
But the primary ultimately comes down to dueling dauphins. It’s George P. Bush (son of Jeb) versus Tagg Romney (son of Mitt), whose catchy campaign slogan, “Tagg: You’re It!” gives him an early lead. That advantage is erased when, on a trip to Brazil meant to showcase his foreign-policy bona fides, he alienates the entire country with a profession of admiration for what he mistakenly assumes to be its national anthem, “The Girl From Ipanema.” And so Romney, brought to you by the Marriott International Inc., narrowly loses to Bush, brought to you by Koch Industries.
He faces a Democratic incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, brought to you by the Food Network, which has grown at this point to eight channels of programming, three devoted to the ultra-processed, “semi-homemade” cooking of Cuomo’s significant other, Sandra Lee.
Cuomo promises that if semi-enthusiastic voters give him a second term, he and Lee will at last tie the knot. He also assures voters that he will never again let her choose the menu for a state dinner or come anywhere near the food pyramid, which, under her influence, has begun to resemble something more like a food trapezoid. He prevails.
The 2024 Democratic primary is an inter-dynastic echo of the 2020 Republican one, pitting Beau Biden (son of Joe) against Chelsea Clinton (lineage well known). Solidifying the Democratic Party’s lucrative connection to Hollywood, Clinton says that she plans to make George Clooney her secretary of state. Biden one-ups her — and seals his primary win — by pledging the two-for-one appointment of Brangelina to that post, on the correct theory that the couple’s expansive brood of adopted children alone can provide him his margin of victory at the polls.
The Republican field is utter madness, even if you don’t factor in Palin’s latest faux flirtation with a candidacy. It coincides with the debut of her new reality show, “Sarah at Sixty: A Tundra of Fun.”
George P. Bush winds up getting the nod again. The Biden vs. Bush general-election face-off is the most expensive ever, with a total of $50 billion in spending by the campaigns, the parties, various “super PACs” and three unidentified men from Beijing hoisting steamer trunks of cash off the baggage carousel at J.F.K. When Bush points out that he has added more than 250,000 jobs to the economy through his hiring of ad makers, opposition researchers, telemarketers and assemblers of George P. Bush action figurines, voters gratefully elect him.
By 2036, campaigns have turned so negative and shallow that candidates don’t even bother with policies; they just exchange dismissive emoticons on a new, wordless social media platform. The Republican incumbent, Andrew Rove, flings eye rolls, yawns and — in a homage to the president his father helped elect — an occasional smirk.
Rove’s Democratic opponent, Malia Obama, favors hopey-changey faces and expressions of grit.
The only two traditional news periodicals still in operation publish frequent laments about the tyranny of name recognition, nepotism and family wealth in American government, noting that Rove’s commerce secretary is Craig Romney; his education secretary is Ben Quayle; his labor secretary is Ivanka Trump; and his secretary of defense is Meghan McCain. The potent sway of such journalism is reflected in Obama’s choice of a running mate: Kristin Gore.
Presidential debates no longer exist, replaced by a jingoistic televised competition, “The Patriot Game,” that tests candidates’ love of country and belief in American exceptionalism. The judges Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber favor Obama’s a cappella version of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” to Rove’s hip-hop interpretation of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Obama and Rove perform equally well in the “America Is Better Than Europe Because” segment, each getting 100 percent of the “true or false” questions correct. But in the “American Superlatives” category, Rove stumbles. While he correctly names the United States as the fattest country on earth and as the one with the most handguns per household, he denies it its rightful recognition as the major democracy with, at this point, the lowest voter turnout.
Regardless, the White House at long last goes to a third-party candidate, who benefits from both Republican and Democratic bloodlines. In January 2037, the oath of office is taken by Patrick Arnold Shriver Schwarzenegger.