Archive for the ‘Dowd’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

February 22, 2015

In “The G.O.P. Policy Test” Putzy has a question:  Which candidates are true reformers, and which are just giving reform lip service?  In his comment “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “It doesn’t matter what Republicans say. After six years of near-total lack of governance, endless filibusters, dozens of impotent symbolic votes to kill Obamacare and a government shut down, their actions have said it all.”  MoDo also has a question in “Jeb Bush’s Brainless Trust:”  Can you be your own man if you have to keep insisting you are your own man, while using all your family’s donors and advisers?  Mr. Kristof, in “Straight Talk for White Men,” says the evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically offer benefits based on race and gender.  Mr. Bruni has the final question of the day in “Hillary, Jeb and $$$$$$:”  When candidates rake in this much, what do they give away?  Their souls, Mr. Bruni, assuming they have such things.  Here’s Putzy:

The economy is sluggish but improving. President Obama’s approval rating is mediocre but not disastrous. Memories of Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaign are relatively fresh — not least because Romney popped up briefly to remind everyone of them. And the Republicans pondering a run for president in 2016 all seem to sense that they need do to things a little, well, differently if they expect to ultimately win.

Maybe that means talking more about inequality — even putting it right in the heart of your economic pitch, as Jeb Bush seems intent on doing. Maybe it means trying to reach constituencies (young, black, Hispanic) that the Romney campaign mostly wrote off, which is what Rand Paul thinks his libertarian message can accomplish. Maybe it means projecting the most Middle American, Kohl’s-shopping, non-Bain Capital image possible — which is why the recent media fascination with Scott Walker’s lack of a college diploma was probably a boon to the Wisconsin governor.

When it comes to the Republican Party’s basic presidential-level problem, though — the fact that many persuadable voters don’t trust a Republican president to look out for their economic interests — it should be easy to tell whether the way a candidate differentiates himself will actually make a difference. Just look at what he proposes on two issues: taxes and health care.

These are obviously not the only domestic policies worthy of debate. But they’re two places where the immediate link between policy and take-home pay is very clear and two places where abstract promises about “opportunity,” “mobility” and “the American dream” either cash out or don’t.

Precisely because there’s real money on the table, they are places where being a reformer requires more than lip service. One reason issues like immigration and education are appealing to Republican politicians looking to change their party’s image is that policy change in these areas seems relatively cheap — more green cards here, new curricular standards there, and nothing that requires donors and interest groups to part with their favorite subsidies and tax breaks.

But you can’t reform the tax code or health care that easily, which is why those issues offer better, tougher tests of whether a would-be conservative reformer should be taken seriously.

Not coincidentally, they’re policy tests that Obama-era Republicans have often conspicuously failed. On taxes, the party has been enamored of reforms — some plausible, some fanciful — that would cut taxes at the top while delivering little, or even higher taxes, to most taxpayers. (It’s an odd position for a party that is officially anti-tax to take in an age of wage stagnation, but at least the donors have been happy.) On health care, the G.O.P. has profited from the unpopularity of Obamacare, but we are now at Year 6 and counting without anything more than the pretense of a conservative alternative.

These failures have not been for want of policy options; they’ve been for want of ingenuity and will. The list of plausible conservative health care alternatives now literally fills a book — “Overcoming Obamacare,” from The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, which any G.O.P. presidential contender would do well to at least pretend to have read. The best of these alternatives would allow a Republican candidate to promise, as Romney did not, to mostly maintain Obama’s coverage expansion (albeit with less comprehensive coverage) while lowering health insurance premiums for most Americans.

On tax policy, similarly, several obvious avenues are open to a would-be reformer. One possibility is the family-friendly tax reform championed by Senators Marco Rubio (the presidential contender with the strongest policy agenda to date) and Mike Lee, which would deliver substantial tax relief to families with children. Another is a straightforward payroll tax cut, which would raise take-home pay for existing workers and reduce the cost of hiring new ones.

But again, these kinds of policies cost money. A plausible Obamacare alternative requires a tax credit for purchasing insurance; a middle-class tax cut requires, well, a middle-class tax cut. If you want these things, you probably can’t have certain other priorities beloved by the party’s donor base — like, say, the lowest possible top marginal tax rate.

So embracing reforms that deliver something tangible to middle-class voters means embracing a policy fight.

But Republicans who decide to duck that fight won’t really be tackling Middle America’s biggest challenges — or their party’s biggest political problem.

If Jeb Bush decides that his big reform ideas will be immigration and the Common Core, his “right to rise” rhetoric will be mostly empty. If Scott Walker campaigns on, say, a flat tax and restoring the pre-2009 health insurance status quo, his middle-class shtick will remain just that.

But if the party nominates a candidate who offers something genuinely different on these issues than his predecessors did in 2008 and 2012, the possibility of a different general-election outcome might be there for the taking.

Keep on whistling past the graveyard, Putzy.  Here’s MoDo:

I had been keeping an open mind on Jeb Bush.

I mean, sure, as Florida governor, he helped his brother snatch the 2000 election. And that led to two decade-long botched wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The nation will be dealing for a long time with struggling veterans and the loss of American prestige. Not to mention that W. let Wall Street gamble away the economy, which is only now finally creeping back.

But, all that aside, shouldn’t John Ellis Bush have the right to make the case that he is his own man?

In his foreign policy speech in Chicago on Wednesday, Jeb was dismissive toward those who want to know where he stands in relation to his father and brother. “In fact,” he said, mockingly, “this is a great, fascinating thing in the political world for some reason.”

For some reason?

Like the Clintons, the Bushes drag the country through national traumas that spring from their convoluted family dynamic and then disingenuously wonder why we concern ourselves with their family dynamic.

Without their last names, Hillary and Jeb would not be front-runners, buoyed by networks of donors grateful for appointments or favors bestowed by the family. (When Jeb and W. ran gubernatorial races in 1994, they both mined their mother’s Christmas card list for donors.)

Yet Jeb is bristling with Jane Austen-style condescension, acting as though he would still be where he is if his last name were Tree. The last two presidents in his party were his father and brother, and his brother crashed the family station wagon into the globe, and Jeb is going to have to address that more thoroughly than saying “there were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.”

He says he doesn’t want to focus on “the past,” and who can blame him? But how can he talk about leading America into the future if he can’t honestly assess the past, or his family’s controversial imprint?

In his speech, he blamed President Obama for the void that hatched ISIS, which he also noted didn’t exist in 2003 at the dawn of “the liberation of Iraq.” Actually, his brother’s invasion of Iraq is what spawned Al Qaeda in Iraq, which drew from an insurgency of Sunni soldiers angry about being thrown out of work by the amateurish and vainglorious viceroy, Paul Bremer.

Although Jeb likes to act as though his family is irrelevant to his ambitions, Bushworld stalwarts recite the Bush dynasty narrative like a favorite fairy tale:

The wonky Jeb, not the cocky W., was always 41’s hope. H.W. and Bar never thought W., unprepared, unruly and with a chip on his shoulder, would be president. His parents’ assumption that he was The One got in Jeb’s head and now the 62-year-old feels he needs “to try to correct and make up for some of W.’s mistakes,” as one family friend put it. The older Bush circle seems confident that Jeb sided with his father and Brent Scowcroft on the folly of letting the neocons push America into diverting from Osama to Saddam.

So for Bushworld, Jeb is the redeemer, the one who listens and talks in full sentences that make sense, the one who will restore the luster of the Bush name. But if you want to be your own person, you have to come up with your own people.

W. was a boy king, propped up by regents supplied by his father. Since he knew nothing about foreign affairs, his father surrounded him with his own advisers: Colin Powell, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney, who joined up with his pal Donald Rumsfeld and absconded with W.’s presidency.

Jeb, too, wanted to bolster his negligible foreign policy cred, so the day of his speech, his aide released a list of 21 advisers, 19 of whom had worked in the administrations of his father and his brother. The list starts with the estimable James Baker. But then it shockingly veers into warmongers.

It’s mind-boggling, but there’s Paul Wolfowitz, the unapologetic designer of the doctrine of unilateralism and pre-emption, the naïve cheerleader for the Iraq invasion and the man who assured Congress that Iraqi oil would pay for the country’s reconstruction and that it was ridiculous to think we would need as many troops to control the country as Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, suggested.

There’s John Hannah, Cheney’s national security adviser (cultivated by the scheming Ahmed Chalabi), who tried to stuff hyped-up junk on Saddam into Powell’s U.N. speech and who harbored bellicose ambitions about Iran; Stephen Hadley, who let the false 16-word assertion about Saddam trying to buy yellowcake in Niger into W.’s 2003 State of the Union; Porter Goss, the former C.I.A. director who defended waterboarding.

There’s Michael Hayden, who publicly misled Congress about warrantless wiretapping and torture, and Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary who fumbled Katrina.

Jeb is also getting advice from Condi Rice, queen of the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. And in his speech he twice praised a supporter, Henry Kissinger, who advised prolonging the Vietnam War, which the Nixon White House thought might help with the 1972 election.

Why not bring back Scooter Libby?

If he wants to reclaim the Bush honor, Jeb should be holding accountable those who inflicted deep scars on America, not holding court with them.

Where’s the shame?

For some reason, Jeb doesn’t see it.

Jeez — when you’ve lost MoDo…  Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Supermarket shoppers are more likely to buy French wine when French music is playing, and to buy German wine when they hear German music. That’s true even though only 14 percent of shoppers say they noticed the music, a study finds.

Researchers discovered that candidates for medical school interviewed on sunny days received much higher ratings than those interviewed on rainy days. Being interviewed on a rainy day was a setback equivalent to having an MCAT score 10 percent lower, according to a new book called “Everyday Bias,” by Howard J. Ross.

Those studies are a reminder that we humans are perhaps less rational than we would like to think, and more prone to the buffeting of unconscious influences. That’s something for those of us who are white men to reflect on when we’re accused of “privilege.”

White men sometimes feel besieged and baffled by these suggestions of systematic advantage. When I wrote a series last year, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” the reaction from white men was often indignant: It’s an equal playing field now! Get off our case!

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias remains widespread in ways that systematically benefit both whites and men. So white men get a double dividend, a payoff from both racial and gender biases.

Consider a huge interactive exploration of 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors.com that recently suggested that male professors are disproportionately likely to be described as a “star” or “genius.” Female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty,” “ugly,” “bossy” or “disorganized.”

One reaction from men was: Well, maybe women professors are more disorganized!

But researchers at North Carolina State conducted an experiment in which they asked students to rate teachers of an online course (the students never saw the teachers). To some of the students, a male teacher claimed to be female and vice versa.

When students were taking the class from someone they believed to be male, they rated the teacher more highly. The very same teacher, when believed to be female, was rated significantly lower.

Something similar happens with race.

Two scholars, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, sent out fictitious résumés in response to help-wanted ads. Each résumé was given a name that either sounded stereotypically African-American or one that sounded white, but the résumés were otherwise basically the same.

The study found that a résumé with a name like Emily or Greg received 50 percent more callbacks than the same résumé with a name like Lakisha or Jamal. Having a white-sounding name was as beneficial as eight years’ work experience.

Then there was the study in which researchers asked professors to evaluate the summary of a supposed applicant for a post as laboratory manager, but, in some cases, the applicant was named John and in others Jennifer. Everything else was the same.

“John” was rated an average of 4.0 on a 7-point scale for competence, “Jennifer” a 3.3. When asked to propose an annual starting salary for the applicant, the professors suggested on average a salary for “John” almost $4,000 higher than for “Jennifer.”

It’s not that we white men are intentionally doing anything wrong, but we do have a penchant for obliviousness about the way we are beneficiaries of systematic unfairness. Maybe that’s because in a race, it’s easy not to notice a tailwind, and white men often go through life with a tailwind, while women and people of color must push against a headwind.

While we don’t notice systematic unfairness, we do observe specific efforts to redress it — such as affirmative action, which often strikes white men as profoundly unjust. Thus a majority of white Americans surveyed in a 2011 study said that there is now more racism against whites than against blacks.

None of these examples mean exactly that society is full of hard-core racists and misogynists. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociologist, aptly calls the present situation “racism without racists”; it could equally be called “misogyny without misogynists.” Of course, there are die-hard racists and misogynists out there, but the bigger problem seems to be well-meaning people who believe in equal rights yet make decisions that inadvertently transmit both racism and sexism.

So, come on, white men! Let’s just acknowledge that we’re all flawed, biased and sometimes irrational, and that we can do more to resist unconscious bias. That means trying not to hire people just because they look like us, avoiding telling a young girl she’s “beautiful” while her brother is “smart.” It means acknowledging systematic bias as a step toward correcting it.

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

Last week began with the comedy extravaganza of the “Saturday Night Live” reunion, but not one of its sketches or jokes was half as funny as four words three days later by Jeb Bush.

“I’m my own man,” he said.

And he kept a straight face somehow.

The remark came during a foreign policy speech in Chicago, and he was making clear that he was no slave to the policies and priorities of his father, the 41st president, or his older brother, the 43rd.

I’ll buy that.

But immediately following the speech, donors sought to buy him.

It was estimated that at back-to-back fund-raisers, he hauled in about $4 million for his Right to Rise PAC and for a “super PAC” that supports him.

This was on top of another $4 million that he reportedly netted the previous week in one evening alone at the Manhattan home of a private equity bigwig. After Manhattan came the Washington, D.C., area, where he racked up $1 million at two events, according to Politico. An atlas of cities, an avalanche of dough: It’s what successful campaigns are made of, and his is expected to raise between $50 million and $100 million over a span of three months.

Those dollars come with expectations. Money almost always does.

Bush is no more his own man than Hillary Clinton is her own woman. And in her case, too, I’m not talking about the imprint of her family, specifically a husband who served two terms in the White House and still looms impossibly large and loquacious on the post-presidential stage.

I’m talking about financial ties — past, present, future. I’m talking about the reality, growing ever more pronounced and ominous, that you can’t run for a major, fiercely contested political office in this country without becoming a monstrous, ceaseless, insatiable Hoover of money.

The Clintons suck it in like no one before them, with a dearth of caution that boggles the mind. Stories in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post last week tabulated and detailed the fund-raising of the Clinton Foundation over the last decade and a half, calculating that it had raised $2 billion.

And the sources of some of that money should give us pause. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “Recent donors include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Australia, Germany and a Canadian government agency promoting the Keystone XL pipeline.”

There are firm and necessary laws against American candidates accepting foreign donations. There’s no such prohibition for a philanthropy like the Clinton Foundation, which undeniably does much essential, heroic work around the globe.

But it’s a philanthropy headed by a woman who’s most likely running for president and by her husband and daughter. Their requests and their gratitude cannot be separated entirely from politics. There’s inevitable overlap and blending.

As The Washington Post wrote, the foundation “has given contributors entree, outside the traditional political arena, to a possible president. Foreign donors and countries that are likely to have interests before a potential Clinton administration — and yet are ineligible to give to U.S. political campaigns — have affirmed their support for the family’s work through the charitable giving.”

And this isn’t some minor wrinkle of the foundation’s structure and workings. “A third of foundation donors who have given more than $1 million are foreign governments or other entities based outside the United States, and foreign donors make up more than half of those who have given more than $5 million,” according to The Post’s analysis.

That analysis also showed that “donations from the financial services sector” represented the “largest share of corporate donors.” In other words, the foundation is cozy with Wall Street, which has also funneled Clinton some of her enormous speaking fees.

The Journal noted that “at least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during her tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation.”

A few prominent Democrats with whom I spoke were spooked, not because they believed that Clinton would feel a pressing need to repay these kindnesses, but because the eventual Republican nominee had just been handed a potent weapon against her.

And in the income-inequality era, how does a candidate crowned with this many dollar signs put herself forward persuasively as a woman of the people and a champion of the underdog?

THE answer — and her salvation — may be that we’ve all become so accustomed to the tide of money washing through politics that we just assume all candidates to be equally (and thoroughly) wet. We give in. And we stop acknowledging frequently or urgently enough that American elections, which should be contests of ideas and character, are as much (if not more) contests of cold, hard cash.

Certainly those of us in the news media are somewhat guilty of this, because something that’s no longer new is no longer news.

Sure, we publish stories about the dizzying, obscene heights of spending by major donors, like one written in The Times last month by Nicholas Confessore. He noted that the Koch brothers had drawn up a budget of $889 million for the 2016 election cycle.

But we discuss the damage being done to Chris Christie’s presidential dreams by the defection of potential donors without digressing to underscore the perversity of a small circle of people having so much consequence.

We report, as we did in January, on how well or poorly Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz performed when they spoke at a gathering put together by the Kochs in Southern California. But we don’t flag the oddity of these auditions, the chilling bizarreness of the way the road to the White House winds not only through the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary but also through plutocrats’ posh retreats.

An astonishing bounty of the comments and developments that make headlines emanate from the arena of fund-raising. We learned that Mitt Romney might enter the 2016 race because he was telling donors as much, and we learned that he had decided otherwise because he was letting donors know. In neither instance did we take sufficient note of that.

We articulate misgivings about how much of Clinton’s or Bush’s thinking may be rooted in the past. But the bigger issue, given the scope of not just their own political histories but also their relatives’, is how heavy a duffel of i.o.u.s each of them would carry into office.

Their prominence is commensurate with their debts. And only so many of those can be forgotten.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

February 1, 2015

Putzy has a question in “Our Loud, Proud Left:”  What is fueling the cultural activism of the later Obama years?  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has part of the answer:  “Where certain pundits see an excess of left-wing political correctness, others may see a reaction to Republican efforts to roll back every progressive initiative that has been enacted over the last half-century. I can see why the left has lost its taste for debate when one side wants to deny basic human rights to gay people using bogus religious-freedom objections, or to kill food stamps, or to increase the unconscionable income disparity. I don’t need to weigh the merits of both sides to know that one side sickens me.”  In “Mitt’s White Horse Pulls Up Lame” MoDo tells us how real Mitt fell in love with reel Mitt.  I’m sure that the Koch brothers had NOTHING to do with him leaving the race…  Mr. Kristof, in “Heroes and Bystanders,” says the best way to honor past victims of genocide is to fight it everywhere that it exists today.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Vaccine Lunacy” and says for the sake of children’s health, let’s face facts and repudiate fiction.  Here’s The Putz:

For the last week, liberal journalists have been furiously debating whether a new political correctness has swept over the American left. The instigator of this argument was New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, normally a scourge of Republicans, whose essay on what he dubbed “the new P.C.” critiqued left-wing activists for their zeal to play language cop, shout down arguments and shut down debate outright.

It will surprise absolutely nobody that I think the phenomenon that Chait describes is real. But I come not to judge but to explain — because whether you like or loathe the “P.C.” label, the rise of a more assertive cultural left is clearly one of the defining features of the later Obama years. This assertiveness is palpable among younger activists, on campus and online; it’s visible in controversy after controversy, from Ferguson to campus rape. And it’s interesting to think about exactly where it’s coming from.

The first source, probably, is disappointment with other forms of left-wing politics. A decade ago, the left’s energy was focused on Iraq; in President Obama’s first term, it was divided between his quest for a new New Deal and Occupy Wall Street’s free-form radicalism. But now the antiwar movement is moribund, Occupy has gone the way of the Yippies and it’s been years since the White House proposed a new tax or spending plan that wasn’t D.O.A.

What’s more, despite all the books sold by Thomas Piketty, the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have. Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

The second wellspring is a more specific sort of disillusionment. Call it post-post-racialism: a hangover after the heady experience of electing America’s first black president; a frustration with the persistence of racial divides, even in an age of elite African-American achievement; and a sense of outrage over particular tragedies (Trayvon Martin, Ferguson) that seem to lay injustice bare.

Post-post-racial sentiment is connected to economic disappointments, because minorities have fared particularly poorly in the Great Recession’s aftermath. And this sentiment’s rejection of respectability politics — that is, the idea that the fate of black Americans rests mostly in their own hands — seems to point naturally toward a kind of redistributionism. (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent Atlantic essay “The Case For Reparations” made this argument explicitly.)

But again, because the paths to economic redistribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way to put post-post-racialism into practice is social activism: a renewed protest politics of the kind we’ve seen since Ferguson, and a wider effort to police the culture for hidden forms of racism, which don’t require tax increases to root out.

Finally, the late-Obama left is shaped by the success of the same-sex marriage movement, a rare example of a progressive cause that seems to be carrying all before it. To activists, its progress offers a model for winning even when electoral obstacles loom large: It shows that the left can gain ground at the elite level and then watch the results trickle down, that victories on college campuses can presage wider cultural success and that pathologizing critics as bigoted and phobic can be an effective way to finish up debates.

I suspect that a lot of the ambition (or aggression, depending on your point of view) from the campus left right now reflects the experience of watching the same-sex marriage debate play out. Whether on issues, like transgender rights, that extend from gay rights, or on older debates over rape and chauvinism, there’s a renewed sense that what happens in relatively cloistered environments can have wide ripples, and that taking firm control of a cultural narrative can matter much more than anything that goes on in Washington.

What’s interesting about this ambition is that it’s about to intersect with a political campaign in which the champion of liberalism will be a Clinton — when the original Clintonism, in its Sister Souljah-ing, Defense of Marriage Act-signing triangulation on social issues, is a big part of what the new cultural left wants to permanently leave behind.

Precisely because this left’s energy is cultural rather than economic, this tension is unlikely to spur the kind of populist, Elizabeth Warrenesque challenge to Hillary that pundits keep expecting.

But it does promise an interesting subtheme for the campaign. Can Hillary, the young feminist turned cautious establishmentarian, harness the energy of the young and restless left? Or will the excesses associated with that energy end up dividing her coalition, as it has divided liberal journalists of late?

Those of us watching from the right — with, perhaps, a little popcorn — will be interested to find out.

Be careful, Putzy, you may very well choke on your popcorn.  Here’s MoDo, writing from Salt Lake City:

When the Mitt Romney documentary premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival last year, one member of the audience was especially charmed by the candidate up on the screen.

That guy is great, Mitt Romney thought to himself. That guy should be running for president.

It was an “Aha” moment that came to him belatedly at age 66, after two failed presidential runs that cost more than $1 billion.

Mitt had a revelation that he should have run his races as Mitt — with all the goofiness, Mormonism, self-doubt and self-mockery thrown into the crazy salad.

Some of his strategists had argued against the movie. But wasn’t it endearing, when the tuxedo-clad Romney ironed his own French cuffs while they were on his wrists? When he listened to “This American Life” on NPR with his family? When he wryly called himself a “flippin’ Mormon”? When he and Ann prayed on their knees just before the New Hampshire primary? When he went sledding with his grandkids?

He was himself as a moderate Massachusetts governor. But when he ran for president in 2008, he was “severely conservative,” as he would later awkwardly brag, and that wasn’t him.

In 2012, he was closer but still not truly himself, putting his faith and centrist record off to the side. He had surrounded himself with Stuart Stevens and other advisers who did not have faith that the unplugged Mitt could win, and the candidate did not have enough faith in himself to push back against them.

“It’s a sad story of discovery,” said a Republican who is friends with him. “He kept going through campaigns and evolving closer to himself. Then he saw the documentary and it was liberating, showing 100 percent of himself instead of 80. But it was too late. You don’t really get three shots.”

Romney got bollixed up by dueling fears that the unkind arena would rage at him if he put up his guard and rage at him if he dropped it. He was haunted by the collapse of his father’s 1968 campaign for president after his father dropped his guard, telling a Detroit TV broadcaster that he thought he had been brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War by American commanders and diplomats there.

But after Romney saw the documentary “Mitt” — by Mormon filmmaker Greg Whiteley — and felt that he could be Mitt “all the way,” as one friend put it, he was ready to run “a hell of a race.”

Mormons learn firsthand that rejection — as the young Mitt learned in Paris on his mission when he got less than 20 converts in two-and-a-half years — doesn’t mean you should stop trying.

Recent polls had Romney ahead of Jeb Bush and other Republican contenders. He was more in demand on the trail than President Obama during the 2014 campaign. He had shied away in 2012 from explaining the role of faith in his life, worried that Mormonism might still sound strange to voters if he had to explain lore like the white horse prophecy, that a Mormon white knight would ride in to save the U.S. as the Constitution was hanging by a thread.

But, in the last few weeks, Romney had seemed eager to take a Mormon mulligan. Less sensitive about his great-grandparents fleeing to Mexico to preserve their right to polygamy, Romney began joking to audiences that when he learned about the church at Brigham Young University, “Emma was Joseph Smith’s only wife.”

It was foolish to ever think he could take his religion — which is baked into every part of his life — and cordon it off.

In Park City Wednesday, I talked to Jon Krakauer, the author of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a history of Mormonism, and executive producer of “Prophet’s Prey,” a Showtime documentary, which was premiering at Sundance, about the most infamous Mormon polygamous cult.

“I don’t think he has a choice,” Krakauer said. “I don’t know how people will react, but he has nothing to be ashamed with, with his faith. And by not talking about it, it looks like he does.”

It was the same mistake Al Gore made in 2000 when he listened to advisers who told him he would seem too tree-huggy if he talked about the environment. When that was off-limits, Gore lost the issue he was least likely to be wooden on; it was the one topic that made him passionate — not to mention prescient.

If Mitt was 100 percent himself, he began to think this time, he could move past the debacles of his 47 percent comment caught on tape and his cringe-worthy 13 percent tax rate — both of which had made him seem like the pitiless plutocrat conjured by Democrats.

Two weeks ago, at a Republican meeting in San Diego, Romney talked about his decade as a Mormon bishop and stake president, working “with people who are very poor to get them help and subsistence,” finding them jobs and tending to the sick and elderly.

He changed his residency to Utah and started building a house in a wealthy suburb of Salt Lake City. He got a broker for the luxe La Jolla oceanfront home with the four-car elevator.

It was reported that a 2016 Romney campaign could be based here. Romney had been burning up the phone lines with donors and past operatives and was reassembling his old campaign team. But Jeb Bush popped Mitt’s trial balloon by peeling off the money and the talent.

“He thought there was more interest than there was,” one strategist close to Romney said. “There wasn’t a big groundswell. The donor-activist-warlord bubble had moved on. It’s a tough world. Mitt didn’t want to claw and slug.”

 Or as his 2008 presidential campaign adviser Alex Castellanos put it, “Mitt Romney found he had walked out on stage without his pants.”

At an appearance Wednesday in Mississippi, where he seemed to be honing talking points and attack lines for a possible run, he said Hillary Clinton had “cluelessly” pushed the reset button with Russia.

He blamed the news media and voters for concentrating on the wrong things. “It would be nice if people who run for office, that their leadership experience, what they’ve accomplished in life, would be a bigger part of what people are focused on, but it’s not,” he said. “Mostly it’s what you say — and what you do is a lot more important than just what you say.”

But both in what he said and did, Romney came across as clueless in 2012. He was hawking himself as a great manager, but he couldn’t even manage his campaign. His own advisers did not trust him to be himself. They did not adapt what the Obama team had taught everyone in 2008 about technologically revolutionizing campaigns. His own campaign was in need of a Bain-style turnaround and he was oblivious.

The reel Mitt could have told the real Mitt, as Romney said in the documentary, that the nominee who loses the general election is “a loser for life.”

He seemed shocked, the night of the election, to learn that his White Horse was lame. But how could he have won? The wrong Mitt was running.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

One of the great heroes of the 20th century was Auschwitz prisoner No. 4859, who volunteered to be there.

Witold Pilecki, an officer in the Polish resistance to the Nazi regime, deliberately let himself be captured by the Germans in 1940 so that he could gather information about Hitler’s concentration camps. Inside Auschwitz, he set up resistance cells — even as he almost died of starvation, torture and disease.

Then Pilecki helped build a radio transmitter, and, in 1942, he broadcast to the outside world accounts of atrocities inside Auschwitz — as the Nazis frantically searched the camp looking for the transmitter. He worked to expose the Nazi gas chambers, brutal sexual experiments and savage camp punishments, in hopes that the world would act.

Finally, in April 1943, he escaped from Auschwitz, bullets flying after him, and wrote an eyewitness report laying out the horror of the extermination camps. He then campaigned unsuccessfully for an attack on Auschwitz.

Eventually, he was brutally tortured and executed — not by the Nazis, but after the war, in 1947, by the Communists. They then suppressed the story of Pilecki’s heroism for decades (a book about his work, “The Auschwitz Volunteer,” was published in 2012).

I was thinking of Pilecki last week on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. I had relatives killed in Auschwitz (they were Poles spying on the Nazis for the resistance), and these camps are emblems of the Holocaust and symbols of the human capacity for evil.

In the coming months, the world will also commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide — which, despite the outrage of Turkish officials at the term, was, of course, a genocide. There, too, I feel a connection because my ancestors were Armenian.

Then, in the summer, we’ll observe the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — an occasion for recalling Japanese atrocities in China, Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere. All this is likely to fuel more debates focused on the past. Should we honor Armenian genocide victims with a special day? Should Japan apologize for enslaving “comfort women”?

But, to me, the lesson of history is that the best way to honor past victims of atrocities is to stand up to slaughter today. The most respectful way to honor Jewish, Armenian or Rwandan victims of genocide is not with a ceremony or a day, but with efforts to reduce mass atrocities currently underway.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is a shining example of that approach, channeling outrage at past horrors to mitigate today’s — from Syria to Central African Republic. But, in general, the world is typically less galvanized by mass atrocities than paralyzed by them.

Even during the Holocaust, despite the heroism of Pilecki and others like Jan Karski, who tried desperately to shake sense into world leaders, no one was very interested in industrial slaughter. Over and over since then, world leaders have excelled at giving eloquent “never again” speeches but rarely offered much beyond lip service.

This year, I’m afraid something similar will happen. We’ll hear flowery rhetoric about Auschwitz, Armenia and World War II, and then we’ll go on shrugging at crimes against humanity in Syria, Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere.

Darfur symbolizes our fickleness. It has disappeared from headlines, and Sudan makes it almost impossible for journalists to get there, but Human Rights Watch reported a few days ago that the human rights situation in Sudan actually deteriorated in 2014.

Indeed, the Sudanese regime is now engaging in mass atrocities not only in Darfur but also in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions. Sudan bombed an aid hospital in January in the Nuba Mountains, and the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders has just announced the closure of operations in Sudan because of government obstructionism.

A decade ago, one of the most outspoken politicians on Darfur — harshly scolding President George W. Bush for not doing more — was an Illinois senator, Barack Obama. Today, as president of the United States, he is quiet. The United Nations force in Darfur has been impotent.

Granted, humanitarian crises rarely offer good policy choices, but there’s no need to embrace the worse option, which is paralysis. We’ve seen in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Kurdistan and, lately, Yazidi areas of Iraq and eastern Congo that outside efforts sometimes can make a difference.

So, sure, let’s commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, the horror of the Holocaust and the brutality of the Armenian genocide by trying to mitigate mass atrocities today. The basic lesson of these episodes is not just that humans are capable of astonishing evil, or that some individuals like Witold Pilecki respond with mesmerizing heroism — but that, sadly, it’s just too easy to acquiesce.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

A few years back, an acerbic friend of mine who was a recent transplant to Los Angeles told me that she itched to write a satirical novel with the following narrative:

A group of wealthy, educated people in Santa Monica who deliberately didn’t vaccinate their children subsequently take them on a “poor-ism” trip to a developing country. The goal is to make them wiser and more sensitive to suffering in the world. While being sensitized, the kids catch diseases that they could have been inoculated against. Some of them die.

As a plot, it lacks subtlety (and compassion). But as a parable, it’s crystal-clear. You can be so privileged that you’re underprivileged, so blessed with choices that you choose to be a fool, so “informed” that you’re misinformed.

Which brings us to Disneyland, measles and the astonishing fact that a scourge once essentially eliminated in this country is back.

You’ve probably heard or read about the recent outbreak traced to the theme park. But there’s a chance that you’re unaware, because it hasn’t received nearly the coverage that, say, Ebola did, even though some of the dynamics at work here are scarier.

It started in mid-December and is now believed to be responsible for more than 70 cases in seven states and Mexico; 58 of those are in California, which of course is where the park is — in Orange County, to be more specific.

As it happens, there are affluent pockets of that county where the fraction of schoolchildren whose parents have cited a “personal belief” to exempt them from vaccinations is higher than the statewide average of 2.5 percent. That’s also true of some affluent pockets of the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

It used to be that unvaccinated children in America were clustered in impoverished neighborhoods; now they’re often clustered among sophisticates in gilded ZIP codes where a certain strain of health faddishness reigns. According to a story in The Hollywood Reporter last year, the parents of 57 percent of the children at a Beverly Hills preschool and of 68 percent at one in Santa Monica had filed personal-belief exemptions from having their kids vaccinated.

Why? Many of them buy into a discredited theory that there’s a link between the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine and autism. They’re encouraged by a cadre of brash alarmists who have gained attention by pushing that thinking. Anti-vaccine panic was the path that the actress Jenny McCarthy traveled to innumerable appearances on prominent news and talk shows; she later demonstrated her singular version of concern for good health by working as a pitchwoman for e-cigarettes.

Other parents have separate or additional worries about vaccines, which can indeed have side effects. But they’re weighing that downside against what they deem to be a virtually nonexistent risk of exposure to the diseases in question. And that degree of risk depends entirely on a vast majority of children getting vaccines. If too many forgo them, we surrender what’s known as “herd immunity,” and the risk rises. That’s precisely what health officials see happening now.

In 2004, there were just 37 reported cases of measles in the United States. In 2014, there were 644. And while none of those patients died, measles can kill. Before vaccines for it became widespread in 1963, millions of Americans were infected annually, and 400 to 500 died each year.

“I don’t think its fatality rate has decreased,” said Daniel Salmon, a vaccine expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We just haven’t had enough cases for someone to die.”

An estimated 90 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to the measles virus become infected, and they themselves can be infectious four days before they develop a telltale rash.

But what’s in play is more than one affliction’s resurgence. The size and sway of the anti-vaccine movement reflect a chilling disregard for science — or at least a pick-and-choose, cafeteria approach to it — that’s also evident, for example, in many Americans’ refusal to recognize climate change. We’re a curious species, and sometimes a sad one, chasing knowledge only to deny it, making progress only to turn away from its benefits.

The movement underscores the robust market for pure conjecture — not just about vaccines, but about all sorts of ostensible threats and putative remedies — and the number of merchants willing to traffic in it. Look at Dr. Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon now drawing millions of viewers daily as a television host peddling weight-loss tricks. The British Medical Journal recently analyzed dozens of his shows and determined that more than half of the suggestions he doled out didn’t have sound scientific backing.

The Internet makes it easier for people to do their own “research” and can lead them to trustworthy and untrustworthy sites in equal measure.

“It can be difficult to know what to believe,” said Kristen Feemster, a infectious diseases specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “So many people can be an expert, because there are platforms for so many voices.”

Salmon noted that the sheer variety and saturation of media today amplify crackpot hypotheses to a point where they seem misleadingly worthy of consideration. “People say things enough times, there must be some truth to it,” he said. “Look at the proportion of people who question where our president was born or his religion.”

And we in the traditional media don’t always help, covering the news in an on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand fashion that sometimes gives nearly equal time to people citing facts and people weaving fiction.

I’m not entirely baffled by the fear of vaccines, which arises in part from a mistrust of drug companies and a medical establishment that have made past mistakes.

But this subject has been studied and studied and studied, and it’s abundantly clear that we’re best served by vaccinating all of those children who can be, so that the ones who can’t be — for medical reasons such as a compromised immune system — are protected.

Right now, Salmon said, only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, limit vaccine exemptions to such children. If the anti-vaccination crowd grows, other states may have to move in that direction.

There’s a balance to be struck between personal freedom and public safety, and I’m not at all sure that our current one is correct.

We rightly govern what people can and can’t do with guns, seatbelts, drugs and so much more, all in the interest not just of their welfare but of everybody’s. Are we being dangerously remiss when it comes to making them wear the necessary armor against illnesses that belong in history books?

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

January 18, 2015

In “Mitt the Insurgent” The Putz says a third Romney run is a bad idea, but it’s hard to see what harm it can do.  He has a delicious description of the 2012 Clown Car, in which he calls them “a collection of dwarves and hobbits.”  These are the same people he was writing puff pieces about then…  In “Not Just a Movie” MoDo says the truth of the strategizing on civil rights between President Johnson and Dr. King was dramatic enough. Why twist it?  Mr. Kristof says “Smart Guns Save Lives.  So Where Are They?”  He points out that we protect our cellphones with a PIN or a fingerprint, so why not do the same with firearms?  Mr. Bruni considers “Mark Wahlberg, Penance and Pardons” and says the actor wants his criminal record wiped clean. But what kind of message would that send?  Here’s The Putz:

The idea of yet a third Mitt Romney campaign for the presidency, once the idle dream of a few Romney bundlers and now apparently something embraced by the Man From Bain Capital himself, has been greeted by most Republicans with a mixture of horror, exhaustion and embarrassment. The polite ones sound like a girl before the senior prom who can’t believe that the stumblebum date who ruined her last school dance is in line first to ask her again: No, please, not this time. The rest sound like the characters in the third act of a horror movie, confronting a shambling revenant that just keeps coming: How do we kill this thing?

And these attitudes are understandable. Romney was not, perhaps, quite as terrible a presidential candidate as memories of his worst moments might lead one to believe: He ran ahead of many Republican Senate candidates; he had the most successful presidential debate performance in recent memory; he persuaded the public that he was closer to the ideological middle than President Obama.

But his failures were … conspicuous. There was the threadbare policy agenda, linked to a self-defeating theory that the election would be decided by the unemployment rate alone. There were the various rich-guy disasters that played into the White House’s effort to portray him as the candidate of the richest 0.47 percent. And most unforgivable, given his promise of a ruthless private sector competence, there were the polling failures and ground game debacles that let Obama coast to victory.

What would Romney re-redux offer? Nothing obvious: Romney’s a decade removed from elected office, with nothing on his résumé since except the permanent campaign. As a white, superrich, late-60-something male, he’s the walking embodiment of his party’s image problems. He won the last nominating contest because on the debate stage he looked like Aragorn son of Arathorn among a collection of dwarves and hobbits (plus Jon Huntsman’s elf lord and Ron Paul’s Gollum). Unless meteors strike several state capitols and the United States Senate, that won’t be true this time.

So a third Romney run will almost certainly be a blind alley for a man who should be thinking of a better way to serve his country and his fellow man.

But should Republicans actively fear a Romney run? I think not: If the conventional wisdom is correct about its folly, it’s hard to see what harm it can do, save to Romney’s own ego and self-image, to have that folly ruthlessly exposed.

Another run would be genuinely frightening for Republicans — and this is probably why the reaction against it has been so intense — if there were any chance of Romney doing what he did in 2012: monopolizing fund-raising to a point where other potentially electable candidates stay out; carpet-bombing his opponents with attack ads; and essentially forcing the party faithful to accept him, flaws and all.

But unless G.O.P. power brokers are truly crazy — and based on the response to Romney’s trial balloon they aren’t — that isn’t going to happen. Not even close. Instead, a Romney candidacy would depend on a small circle of backers while ceding immense fund-raising territory to Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio … the list goes on. He wouldn’t quite resemble his old rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, each of whose insurgent campaigns were floated by a single megadonor, but he would be closer to their position than to that of the commanding Mitt of old.

And he would resemble Gingrich and Santorum in other ways. In 2008, he had the backing of key voices in the conservative movement; in 2012, he had the establishment (however reluctantly) behind him. In 2016, he would be on his own, hanging out in Iowa living rooms and New Hampshire diners, trying to win primaries on the basis of debate performances and flesh-pressing and even (gasp!) ideas, like any other long-shot candidate.

Which is why, purely as human drama, Romney 3.0 could actually be interesting to watch. Maybe he’ll campaign more openly as a Mormon, running ads like the moving testimonials that aired just before Clint Eastwood’s prime time weird-out at the Republican convention, in which his faith and works are played up rather than hidden. Maybe he’ll roll out a sweeping policy agenda on poverty, as he claims he wants to do, amid incredibly awkward but maybe touching photo ops with the rural unemployed and inner-city kids. Maybe he’ll sock Mike Huckabee in the jaw during a debate.

Or maybe he’ll be wooden, clueless and entitled; finish sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire; and drop out. In which case he’ll lose some dignity, but we won’t lose anything at all.

So Mitt, it’s your call. I wouldn’t do it, you won’t win it, but I respect a Romney’s right to choose.

Now if only Mitt, Putzy, and the rest of the occupants of the 2016 Clown Car would respect MY right to choose…  Here’s MoDo:

I went Friday morning to see “Selma” and found myself watching it in a theater full of black teenagers.

Thanks to donations, D.C. public school kids got free tickets to the first Hollywood movie about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday weekend — an effort that was duplicated for students around the country.

The kids did plenty of talking and texting, and plenty of fighting over whether there was too much talking and texting. Slowly but surely, though, the crowd was drawn in by the Scheherazade skills of the “Selma” director, Ava DuVernay.

The horrific scene of the four schoolgirls killed in the white supremacist bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church stunned the audience. One young man next to me unleashed a string of expletives and admitted that he was scared. When civil rights leaders are clubbed, whipped and trampled by white lawmen as feral white onlookers cheer, the youngsters seemed aghast.

In a delicately wrought scene in which Coretta Scott King calls out her husband about his infidelities, some of the teenage girls reacted with a chorus of “oooohs.”

DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. King. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.”

Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.

And that’s a shame. I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.

DuVernay told Rolling Stone that, originally, the script was more centered on the L.B.J.-M.L.K. relationship and was “much more slanted to Johnson.”

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie,” she said.

Hollywood has done that with films like “Mississippi Burning,” which cast white F.B.I. agents as the heroes, or “Cry Freedom,” which made a white journalist the focus rather Denzel Washington’s anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko.

Instead of painting L.B.J. and M.L.K. as allies, employing different tactics but complementing each other, the director made Johnson an obstacle.

Top Johnson aide Jack Valenti told Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, that L.B.J. aspired to pass a Voting Rights Act from his first night as president. Valenti said that his boss talked to him about it the night of J.F.K.’s assassination in the bedroom of Johnson’s house in D.C., The Elms, before the newly sworn-in president went to sleep.

On the tape of a phone conversation between President Johnson and Dr. King the week of L.B.J.’s 1965 inauguration, the president said that he indicated the time was yet ripe to ask Congress for it, and he made it clear that they both needed to think of something that would move public opinion more than a presidential speech.

“Johnson was probably thinking, at least in part, of the spring of ’63, when J.F.K. was privately saying the public wasn’t yet politically ready for a comprehensive civil rights bill,” Beschloss said. “Then came the May 1963 photograph of Birmingham police setting dogs against African-American demonstrators, which helped to move many white Americans who were on the fence about the issue.

“Once Selma happened, L.B.J. was, of course, horrified, but he knew that the atrocity would have an effect on white Americans similar to Birmingham that would make it easier for him to get a Voting Rights Act from Congress.”

In an interview with Gwen Ifill on P.B.S., DuVernay dismissed the criticism by Joseph Califano Jr. and other L.B.J. loyalists, who said that the president did not resist the Selma march or let J. Edgar Hoover send a sex tape of her husband to Mrs. King. (Bobby Kennedy, as J.F.K’s attorney general, is the one who allowed Hoover to tap Dr. King.)

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” DuVernay said. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”

The “Hey, it’s just a movie” excuse doesn’t wash. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who was badly beaten in Selma, has said that bridge led to the Obama White House. And, on Friday night, the president offset the Oscar dis by screening “Selma” at the White House. Guests included DuVernay, Lewis and Oprah Winfrey, who acts in the film and was one of its producers.

There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.

As I have written about “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Argo,” and as The New York Review of Books makes clear about “The Imitation Game,” the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough. Why twist it? On matters of race — America’s original sin — there is an even higher responsibility to be accurate.

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street — and they were no doubt shocking to the D.C. school kids. There was no need to create a faux one.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Just after Christmas, Veronica Rutledge of Blackfoot, Idaho, took her 2-year-old son to a Walmart store to spend holiday gift cards. As they strolled by the electronics section, according to news reports, the toddler reached into his mom’s purse and pulled out a handgun that she legally carried. He pulled the trigger once and killed her.

The previous month, a 3-year-old boy in Washington State was shot in the face by a 4-year-old. Earlier, a 2-year-old boy in Pennsylvania shot and killed his 11-year-old sister.

About 20 children and teenagers are shot daily in the United States, according to a study by the journal Pediatrics.

Indeed, guns kill more preschool-age children (about 80 a year) than police officers (about 50), according to the F.B.I. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This toll is utterly unnecessary, for the technology to make childproof guns goes back more than a century. Beginning in the 1880s, Smith & Wesson (whose gun was used in the Walmart killing) actually sold childproof handguns that required a lever to be depressed as the trigger was pulled.

“No ordinary child under 8 years of age can possibly discharge it,” Smith & Wesson boasted at the time, and it sold half-a-million of these guns, but, today, it no longer offers that childproof option.

Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?

Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17-year-old high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.

“I started with iris recognition, and that seemed a good idea until you realize that many people firing guns wear sunglasses,” Kloepfer recalls. “So I moved on to fingerprints.”

Kloepfer designed a smart handgun that fires only when a finger it recognizes is on the grip. More than 1,000 fingerprints can be authorized per gun, and Kloepfer says the sensor is 99.999 percent accurate.

A child can’t fire the gun. Neither can a thief — important here in a country in which more than 150,000 guns are stolen annually.

Kloepfer’s design won a grand prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Then he won a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to refine the technology. By the time he enters college in the fall (he applied early to Stanford and has been deferred), he hopes to be ready to license the technology to a manufacturer.

There are other approaches to smart guns. The best known, the Armatix iP1, made by a German company and available in the United States through a complicated online procedure, can be fired only if the shooter is wearing a companion wristwatch.

The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory. One problem has been an unfortunate 2002 New Jersey law stipulating that three years after smart guns are available anywhere in the United States, only smart guns can be sold in the state. The attorney general’s office there ruled recently that the Armatix smart gun would not trigger the law, but the provision has still led gun enthusiasts to bully dealers to keep smart guns off the market everywhere in the U.S.

Opponents of smart guns say that they aren’t fully reliable. Some, including Kloepfer’s, will need batteries to be recharged once a year or so. Still, if Veronica Rutledge had had one in her purse in that Idaho Walmart, her son wouldn’t have been able to shoot and kill her.

“Smart guns are going to save lives,” says Stephen Teret, a gun expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They’re not going to save all lives, but why wouldn’t we want to make guns as safe a consumer product as possible?”

David Hemenway, a public health expert at Harvard, says that the way forward is for police departments or the military to buy smart guns, creating a market and proving they work.

An interfaith group of religious leaders is also appealing to gun industry leaders, ahead of the huge annual trade show in Las Vegas with 65,000 attendees, to drop opposition to smart guns.

Smart guns aren’t a panacea. But when even a 17-year-old kid can come up with a safer gun, why should the gun lobby be so hostile to the option of purchasing one?

Something is amiss when we protect our children from toys that they might swallow, but not from firearms. So Veronica Rutledge is dead, and her son will grow up with the knowledge that he killed her — and we all bear some responsibility when we don’t even try to reduce the carnage.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Every time I read about the actor Mark Wahlberg’s bid to be pardoned by the state of Massachusetts for crimes he committed in his youth, I flash back to the days I spent with him for a Times magazine profile just before “Boogie Nights” came out. I remember a specific detail.

He was then trying to pivot from being Marky Mark, the trash-talking rapper and underwear model, to being a serious actor. Over lunch one day, I asked him about his bulky eyeglasses, which sent a signal of studiousness that struck me as too emphatic. They weren’t familiar from any old images of him that I’d seen.

Was he nearsighted?

No, he said.

Farsighted?

No.

So what were they for?

He stalled and squirmed a bit. Then he conceded that they were just for effect.

In the story I submitted, I fleetingly mentioned the glasses. A fact checker questioned my description of them as “nonprescription,” because Wahlberg’s publicist, a savvy one, had insisted to her that it was an error and that we must take it out. But I had Wahlberg on tape. The description stayed.

Ah, Hollywood. It’s a place where reinvention rules supreme; where truth is often whatever script you can convincingly perform and persuasively sell; and where any details or bits of the past that run counter to your purposes are annoyances to be deleted. That applies both to what’s put on-screen — as “Selma,” “American Sniper” and a few of the other movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar last week demonstrate — and to what you’re putting out there about yourself.

Elsewhere life is less easily manipulated. Wahlberg is confronting that now.

While there’s not yet been any decision about his pardon application, which was filed late last year, it has drawn no small measure of extra attention to him, much of it rightly negative.

What I wish it would do is amplify and broaden a conversation in America about the contradictions in the way we treat people who’ve done their time.

Generally, we send them back out into the world with the exhortation that they build or rebuild productive lives, which we’re invested in having them do. But we simultaneously saddle them with a dizzying range of restrictions, varying from state to state, that make that significantly more difficult.

We deny them kinds of government assistance available to others. We prevent them from engaging in all sorts of business transactions and jobs, and some of these prohibitions make little or no sense.

“We have people with real talents who aren’t able to employ those talents,” Mark Osler, a law professor who is an expert on pardons, told me. If our goal is to prevent recidivism, this isn’t a smart way to go about it.

Pardons eliminate many restrictions. And for people who’ve served their sentences, they should be more common. But they’re granted in a small enough minority of cases that it’s impossible to argue that Wahlberg’s should be one.

He’s 43 now. His crimes occurred at 16, in Dorchester, Mass. On a night when he has said that he was heavily intoxicated, he used a stick to hit a Vietnamese man on the head with such force that it knocked him unconscious. As he fled the police, he punched another Vietnamese man in the eye. All the while, he used racial slurs.

It wasn’t out of character. When he was 15, according to court documents, he was involved in two incidents of using racial slurs as he physically threatened black children. That matter was referred to civil court and he got off with a warning.

For the subsequent crimes, he served 45 days in prison, and he has said in interviews over time that once he got out, he was determined to be a different man.

That transformation was gradual and fitful. As Marky Mark in the early 1990s, he was known for using crude language about women. He was implicated in brawls.

He dedicated an autobiographical picture book to his penis.

Since then there have been many fine movies, an Oscar nomination, a wife, four kids. Several prominent Hollywood producers with whom I spoke last week said that his reputation in the industry today is sterling. They praised him as a joy to work with: sincere, diligent, humble.

In his pardon application, he said that he tried to get to church almost daily and that he devoted considerable time to working with troubled kids through the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, which has raised about $9.6 million over the years.

But he can afford that in a way that very few ex-cons can. And, oddly, one of many reasons Wahlberg cited for wanting a pardon has to do with money. He and his brothers are expanding their chain of Wahlburgers restaurants, and licensing in some states is complicated by his record of a felony conviction.

Advocates for Asian-Americans have complained that before filing his pardon application, Wahlberg never reached out to the Vietnamese community in Dorchester or to the victims of his crimes.

Some good could come from his appeal. “It shines a light on a beneficent power that has atrophied in Massachusetts,” Margaret Love, a lawyer with extensive knowledge about the pardon process, wrote in a recent blog post. With any luck, she added, it will encourage pardons “for the dozens of ordinary individuals whose futures may depend on it.”

But nothing that Wahlberg has said publicly suggests that he was motivated by that. He declined to be interviewed for this column.

And when I spoke with Love, asking her about the proper fate of his particular request for a pardon, she said, “Given the irregularity and the absence of pardons, I think it would be a very bad idea to single out someone of such a high profile.”

That’s exactly right. In Massachusetts, just four pardons have been granted over the last dozen years. If Wahlberg got one of the next ones, it would be going to a person whose unpardoned offenses don’t shadow him the way most former prisoners’ do. He’s the wrong poster boy for the right cause.

Financial generosity shouldn’t be a factor in his (or anyone else’s) favor: That’s just the criminal-justice system’s version of income inequality.

In his application he argued that getting a pardon could be an inspiration to people trying to turn their lives around and hoping for forgiveness. But to the less advantaged of them, it would be the opposite: a confirmation that being white, rich and famous earns you special treatment.

What he’s asking for isn’t just an image overhaul, a routine Hollywood rewrite.

If he can’t see that, he needs better glasses.

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.

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

November 2, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz tells us all about “How Obama Lost America.”  He insists there are four explanations for the Democrats’ biggest problem heading into the midterms.  MoDo, in “A Cup of G.I. Joe,” says Howard Schultz of Starbucks says America is good at sending people to war but bad at bringing them home. He has a plan to help.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Flying Blind in Iraq and Syria.”  He asks with no reporters inside ISIS territory to document the war, how do we know what’s happnening on the ground?  Gee, Tommy, you’re a reporter and I’m sure you have a passport…  Mr. Kristof tells us “Teenagers Stand Up to Backpage,” and that some brave girls who say they were sold for sex on Backpage.com are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.  Mr. Bruni considers “The Pitiful Wimper of 2014” and says voters abhor the status quo.  He also has a question:  When will someone present them with anything truly different? Here’s The Putz:

The midterms have featured many variables and one constant. Whether they’re running as incumbents or challengers, campaigning in blue or red or purple states, Democratic candidates have all been dragging an anchor: a president from their party whose approval ratings haven’t been north of 45 percent since last October.

The interesting question is why. You may recall that Mitt Romney built his entire 2012 campaign strategy around the assumption that a terrible economy would suffice to deny Barack Obama a second term. Yet throughout 2012, with the unemployment rate still up around 8 percent, Obama’s approval numbers stayed high enough (the mid-to-upper 40s) to ultimately win. Whereas today the unemployment rate has fallen to 6 percent, a number Team Obama would have traded David Axelrod’s right kidney for two years ago, but the White House hasn’t benefited: The public’s confidence is gone, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back.

So when and how was it lost? When President Bush’s second-term job approval numbers tanked, despite decent-at-the-time economic numbers, the explanation was easy: It was Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. But nothing quite so pat presents itself in Obama’s case, so here are four partial theories instead.

He gets blamed for Republican intransigence. This is the explanation that many Obama partisans favor, because it lets him mostly off the hook. The theory is that with the country as polarized as it is, and with the public inclined to blame the president for gridlock, the natural state for presidential approval ratings is a kind of regression toward the low 40s. This regression can be interrupted only by either some major unforeseen event or the emergence of a challenger — Romney for Obama, John Kerry for George W. Bush — who reminds voters that they dislike the other party more. But once the challenger is beaten, the process resumes: Just as Bush’s post-9/11 ratings declined steadily except when Kerry was on the scene, so too Obama’s numbers were doomed to decay once he won a second term.

It’s the economy — yes, still: This explanation raises an eyebrow at the last one and says, come on: If the economy were enjoying a 1990s-style boom, surely Obama would have a decent chance at Clinton-level approval ratings, gridlock or no gridlock! But even with the improving employment picture this recovery is still basically a disappointment, especially for the middle class. So the contrast between Obama’s position in 2012 and his weaker one today isn’t necessarily a case study in the economy not mattering. It’s an example of voter patience persisting for a while, and finally running out.

It’s Obamacare — yes, still. This is the closest equivalent to Bush and the Iraq War: The health care law is Obama’s signature issue, it remains largely unpopular (even if support for full repeal is weak), and its initial stumbling coincided with the sharpest second-term drop in the president’s approval. Fixing the website may have stabilized the system, but by design Obamacare still creates many losers as well as winners, and a persistent dissatisfaction with shifts in coverage and costs could be the crucial drag keeping Americans dissatisfied with their president as well.

It’s foreign policy — and competence. One of the interesting features of the 2012 campaign was that as much as the economy made Obama’s sales pitch challenging, he had an edge that Democratic politicians often lack: The public trusted him on foreign policy. But that trust began to erode with the Edward Snowden affair, it eroded further during our non-attack on Bashar al-Assad last fall, and recent events in Ukraine and Iraq have essentially made Obama’s position irrecoverable: His approval rating on foreign policy is around 35 percent in most recent polling.

But this harsh judgment probably isn’t explicitly ideological: The public isn’t necessarily turning neoconservative or pining for the days of Bush. Instead, it mostly reflects a results-based verdict on what seems like poor execution, in which the White House’s slow response to ISIS is of a piece with the Obamacare rollout and the V.A. scandal and various other second-term asleep-at-the-tiller moments. It’s a problem of leadership that reflects badly on liberalism but doesn’t necessarily vindicate conservatism.

And it’s because it isn’t explicitly ideological that the Democrats still have a chance in many states on Tuesday. From North Carolina to New Hampshire to Georgia, their candidates are being tugged downward by the Obama anchor, but they’re still bobbing, still only half-submerged, waiting for undecideds to break (or just stay home).

In many ways, Republicans have enjoyed in 2014 the kind of landscape they expected in 2012: a landscape in which nobody save Democratic partisans particularly supports President Obama anymore. What we’re about to find out is whether, amid that disillusionment, just being the not-Obama party is enough.

Next up we have MoDo:

When I close my eyes, I can easily flash back to a time when it was cool to call people in uniform “pigs” and “baby killers.”

If you had any family members in the police or military in the Vietnam era, you know how searing that was.

Now we give our veterans respect, early boarding at airports and standing ovations at ballgames. Yet it’s becoming clear that it’s not enough.

With no draft and fewer than 1 percent volunteering to serve, most Americans have no personal connection to anyone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan. There’s a schism between the warriors and the people they were fighting for.

Instead of ticker-tape parades, the veterans returned to find Americans in a crouch, wishing they could forget the military adventures of the last decade. Hollywood was turning out movies showcasing heroic veterans, but they were from World War II. And scandals scarred Walter Reed and an ill-prepared Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The government does a very good job of sending people to war,” Howard Schultz, the C.E.O. of Starbucks, told me in New York this past week, “and a very poor job of bringing them home.”

Schultz was more conversant with espresso shots than rifle shots when he was invited to speak to West Point cadets about leadership in 2011.

His father had served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II but never spoke of it. As a teenager, he sat in front of the TV with his mother when it was announced that young men with draft numbers from 1 to 125 were going to Vietnam.

“When I tell my story to my kids, they think I’m making it up: ‘What do you mean there was a lottery?’ ” he said. “And I remember it was literally a lottery where they picked out balls. And my number was 332, so I didn’t go. But I would have.”

After touring what he called “the sacred ground” of the military academy, he started to speak and choked up.

“It is I who should be learning from you,” he told the cadets. “You are the true leaders.”

It is good to cast your company in a patriotic glow, of course. But Schultz is also a man of open sentimentality, obsession with transformation and ferocious enthusiasms — be it for coffee, mermaids, basketball, biking, Israel or China. His epiphany at West Point led to an odyssey with veterans, a mission to get Americans to have more “skin in the game.”

“Before going to West Point, I had never even spoken to anyone in uniform,” he shares in a new book he wrote with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post war correspondent. “As I look back, I’m embarrassed.”

He put former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the Starbucks board, committed $30 million from his family foundation to projects including research on post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, and he visited the Pentagon, Walter Reed and military bases. He and Chandrasekaran produced “For Love of Country: What our veterans can teach us about citizenship, heroism, and sacrifice,” a slender volume with harrowing and heroic stories of war and coming home. Schultz’s proceeds will go to the Onward Veterans fund, which was created by the Schultz Family Foundation.

The coffee czar joined a growing list of corporations getting good P.R. by pledging to hire a million veterans, even though there are only about 200,000 post-9/11 veterans out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Schultz has hired 1,000 vets and spouses and committed to give jobs to 9,000 more by 2019.

He has organized a Concert for Valor on the Mall on Veterans Day, featuring stars from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem to Rihanna, a way to celebrate soldiers and urge the public to get involved with veterans’ groups vetted by Gates and Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The free concert, put on by Starbucks, HBO and JPMorgan Chase, will be shown live on HBO, even for those without subscriptions.

Schultz said that many vets he talked to had lost “a sense of core purpose.” He writes that tens of thousands of vets have grave injuries that will require a huge financial commitment and that healthy vets eager to join the work force “are too often viewed as damaged goods.”

There is a discernible P.T.S.D. bias among employers. Veterans Affairs estimates that 11 percent to 20 percent of the more than 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from P.T.S.D. I wondered if it was harder because of the sour view of the two wars. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey in April, 50 percent of the vets polled didn’t believe that Iraq was worth fighting and 41 percent didn’t believe Afghanistan was worth it.

Pfc. James Cathcart — suffering from P.T.S.D. and looking for work in Colorado in January — expressed his anguish to The Times’s Richard Oppel Jr. after ISIS raised its black flag over Falluja, Iraq, where so many Marines and soldiers died and were wounded capturing the city twice: “Lives were wasted, and now everyone back home sees that. It was irresponsible to send us over there with no plan, and now to just give it all away.”

But Schultz said that in his private chats with vets, “I never had one conversation where anyone brought up the politics. What I did hear, countless times, is, ‘I want to go back.’ ”

Chandrasekaran said that we need to weave the vets, recovering from the strain of multiple tours and terrains strewn with I.E.D.s, back into the American narrative.

“In 1946, if your neighbor was watering the street at night because he was kind of crazy from shell shock, you knew that everyone coming back wasn’t crazy because your brother or son or husband had served and was successfully transitioning,” he said. “We don’t have that common understanding anymore. So if someone goes and shoots up Fort Hood, there are all those people who think all vets are a bunch of killers-to-be. And that’s not the case. So the aperture needs to widen.”

Schultz produced glossy film clips for the concert. One shows the macchiato mogul, wearing an Army-green down vest, greeting troops with his blonde wife, Sheri, as heart-tugging piano music plays. I note that it is bound to make viewers wonder if he’s partly motivated by a desire to run for president.

“I have an interest in trying to make a difference,” he said. “I don’t know where that’s going to lead.” He believes that “the country is longing for leadership and for truth with a capital T.”

The American dream is frayed, he says, adding: “We’ve lost our collective and individual responsibility, and to a large degree our conscience, and that has to be addressed. And that is linked to a dysfunctional government and a lack of authentic, truthful leadership. Am I depressing you?”

If the people who send troops off to war aren’t risking their own children as well it’s easier.  Bring back the draft.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has accompanied its brutal takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria with the kidnapping and beheading of journalists. Any Western journalists who would dare to venture into ISIS territory today would be risking their lives every second. So the United States is now involved in the first prolonged war in the modern Middle East that American reporters and photographers can’t cover firsthand on a daily basis, with the freedom to observe and write what they please and with the sustained presence to offer perspective on how the story is evolving. That is not good.

But it gets worse. The Times reported last week that ISIS had one of its British hostages act as a combat reporter in a propaganda video from the Syrian town of Kobani, “forecasting that the town is about to fall to militants despite waves of American airstrikes,” and suggesting that ISIS was getting even more savvy in promoting its cause by adopting the techniques of a 24-hour news channel. “ ‘Hello, I’m John Cantlie,’ the hostage says in the video, dressed in black, ‘and today we are in the city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. That is, in fact, Turkey right behind me.’ ”

And it will get even worse. Dylan Byers, Politico’s media reporter, wrote on Oct. 23 that the F.B.I. had sent a bulletin to news organizations warning that ISIL had identified reporters and media personalities as “legitimate targets for retribution attacks” in response to the U.S.-led airstrikes.

What are we missing by not having reporters permanently present inside ISIS territory? A lot. We can’t answer for ourselves important questions: How is our bombing campaign being perceived? Is it drawing ISIS fighters and local Iraqi Sunnis closer together or pushing them apart? How is ISIS governing, running schools and the justice system, and how is this perceived by Iraqis and Syrians under its rule? What motivates so many losers and lost souls to join this jihadist movement? Do we have the right message directed at them? I could go on.

Retiring Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns recently authored a piece in Foreign Policy magazine with his parting advice to American diplomats. He quoted Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News giant, advising incoming diplomats that the “really critical link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.”

The same is true for reporters and photographers. Sure, polls, graphs and Twitter feeds are important. They are one form of data. But interviewing another human being about hopes and dreams, fears and hatreds, is also a form of data collecting and analysis — something the best diplomats, journalists and historians rely upon. You can’t capture in numbers a raised eyebrow or a wry smile or the fear in a refugee’s eyes or the regret in a militiaman’s voice. Sometimes just listening to someone’s silence speaks volumes.

I often reflect on interviews I did with Egyptian women at an all-female voting station in the poorest neighborhood in Cairo in the 2012 election that brought a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the presidency. Almost all of them had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. But when I asked why, not a single one cited religion. Instead they said that Morsi would bring jobs, security, sidewalks, better living conditions and an end to corruption — in short, better governance. Morsi was eventually toppled for bringing none of those, not because he was impious.

Recently, Vice News used the veteran Al Jazeera and Arabic photojournalist Medyan Dairieh to produce a compelling documentary from Syria, called “The Islamic State.” But that was a one-shot deal done with “conditions in order to get in and get out with your life,” Jason Mojica, the Vice News editor in chief, told a panel at N.Y.U., according to The Huffington Post.

I asked Mina al-Oraibi, assistant editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, how an Arabic daily covered ISIS:

“We have our correspondents supported by a few local stringers who risk their lives by being in touch with us from Iraq. However, we have a blackout from ISIS-controlled areas in Syria, especially Raqqa. In Iraq, our use of phones and emails to get information leaves us worried about the safety of these reporters, and often they are working without knowing how they will eventually get paid. … Having said that, our coverage is enriched by networks of Iraqis and Syrians reaching out to tell us their stories, in addition to relations with Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs who have either interacted with some ISIS militants or had relations with them when they were under other banners.”

But the reality, she added, “is that much of what we know is either from ISIS militants, or anecdotal stories from observers or people with families in places controlled by ISIS.”

Indeed, ISIS is telling us what it wants us to know through Twitter and Facebook, and keeping from us anything it doesn’t want us to know. So be wary of what anyone tells you about this war — good, bad or indifferent. Without independent reporting on the ground, we’re in for some surprises. If you don’t go, you don’t know.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

If prostitution of children is illegal, why is it that we allow an estimated 100,000 underage girls and boys to be sold for sex in America each year — many on a single American website, Backpage.com?

That’s a reflection of law enforcement priorities, but several brave girls who allege that they were pimped on Backpage are trying to change them. They are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.

Two young women who say they were each sold on Backpage at age 15, and raped hundreds of times as a result, are suing the company in Boston in federal court. Another suit is winding its way through Washington State courts, pursued by three girls who say they, too, were sold for sex on Backpage — in the case of two of them, when they were 13 years old.

The girls in the federal suit are represented pro bono by a major Boston law firm, Ropes & Gray, which has five lawyers on the case. The suit charges that Backpage has “perfected a business model that profits substantially from aiding and participating with pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children.”

“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike,” says one of the girls who is a plaintiff in the federal suit. “Men would view their options, and if I seemed like the best one, they would call.”

Now 17, she says she was sold for sex on Backpage when she was 15 and 16; she estimates that she was raped 1,000 times as a result. She is seeking damages and whatever injunctions the court finds appropriate, but she is not explicitly seeking to close down the entire Backpage site.

Some readers may scoff that this is about censorship of free speech. No, it’s about human rights — because one of the most searing rights abuses in America is the sexual exploitation of children.

Nor is the issue prostitution. Whatever one thinks of legalizing sexual transactions among adults, we should all be able to agree that children shouldn’t be peddled like pizzas.

The federal suit lays out what it says is a pattern of Backpage blocking efforts by police or families to trace missing girls and boys. According to the suit, Backpage systematically scrubs photos in sex ads of metadata that would allow authorities to track down people in them.

Backpage also makes it hard to search for missing girls by allowing scrambled phone numbers in sex ads. If you sell a dog on Backpage in the pet section, you must post a numeric phone number; sell sex with a girl, and you can use a nonsearchable version — such as zero12-345-six78nine — that makes it more difficult for police or family members to locate a missing child with a simple Internet search.

Likewise, Backpage allows ads to be paid for with untraceable credit cards or even with Bitcoin. It doesn’t require any age verification or real names.

I first wrote about Backpage a few years ago when it was used to advertise a 13-year-old girl being enslaved in Brooklyn. One day the pimp dropped her off at an apartment building and waited at the entrance to make sure she did not run. She hurt too much to endure another rape, so instead of going to the apartment that had ordered her, she randomly pounded on another door and begged to use the telephone. She called her mother, and then dialed 911. The pimp is now in prison, but Backpage profited on the ad — as it always does.

Attorneys general from 48 states have written a joint letter to Backpage, pleading with it to stop exploiting children.

Liz McDougall, the lawyer for Backpage, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuits, but she told me: “We remain committed to effective measures of prevention and successful prosecution of this heinous crime.”

That’s absurd. Backpage claims to report possible sex-trafficking cases, but Yiota Souras, the general counsel of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says that “Backpage’s reporting is not conducted in good faith.” Souras says that if parents report to Backpage that their teenage daughters are being sold on the site, the company doesn’t always remove the ads or prevent new ads for the children from being posted.

The lawsuit says Backpage floods the authorities with reports of possible underage girls to pretend to be helpful, while actually impeding the effort. Meanwhile, Backpage refuses to use screening software that might actually detect ads for underage girls.

Americans rightly waxed indignant at the way the Roman Catholic Church or Penn State turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of minors. But our entire society does the same thing.

Isn’t it time to stop?

Lastly we get to Mr. Bruni:

Imagine a house ablaze. Now picture a team of firefighters pulling up to it. They behold the flames shooting through its roof. They feel its heat on their faces. And they get in position to fight it.

With squirt guns.

That house is America, and those rescuers are the candidates in these misbegotten midterms.

We’re living through a chapter of uncommonly durable and pronounced pessimism, when a majority of adults don’t think their kids will have as many opportunities as they did; when there’s waning faith in social mobility and a widening gap between rich and poor; when our standing in the world is diminished and our sense of insecurity has intensified accordingly; when the environment itself is turning on us and demanding the sorts of long-term adjustments we’ve seldom been good at.

And yet nothing about the discussion during these long months of campaigning has fully reflected that or been scaled to it. None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep. No one has stepped forward with originality, authenticity and a pledge to tear up the dreary political script of recent years and lead us into a future that we’re ceasing to believe in.

In Iowa, Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley talked of Harleys, hogs and chickens. In Florida, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott bickered over a fan. In Colorado, Mark Udall’s focus was more womb-centric than “The Handmaid’s Tale.” While I believe strongly in reproductive freedom and salute him for defending it, I also wish I could tell you, without intensive research, what sort of script he has for restoring this country’s confidence.

But I don’t know the answer — for him or for just about any of the other 2014 candidates. I know where they stand on the minimum wage and maybe on immigration reform, though there’s been a whole lot of waffling there. I know that they think the Islamic State is evil and Ebola scary.

But a visionary plan? A detailed route back to the optimism at the core of the American character? I didn’t catch those, so I’d be wary of any party leader or pundit who tells you that there’s a clear moral to the outcome of Tuesday’s voting, a bold lesson. After a sometimes breathtakingly cynical campaign bereft of big ideas, few Americans will actually be voting for anything or anyone, at least in the congressional contests.

The midterms have had too little real substance to have too much predictive relevance.

In The Los Angeles Times a month ago, the columnist Doyle McManus drew attention to a poll that “asked voters if they intended their choices to send a message to Washington.”

“Only 13 percent said they would be voting in support of Republican policies,” McManus wrote. “An even smaller number said they would be voting in favor of Democratic ideas. The largest group of all, 42 percent, said they didn’t have a bigger message in mind at all.”

Many of them won’t even like whichever politician they wind up voting for. In Senate race after Senate race, they’re choosing between the lesser of evils. At least as many voters have unfavorable as favorable views of both the Democratic and Republican candidates in Iowa, in North Carolina, in Georgia and in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell, the Republican, marveled recently at a sinkhole that had opened up in the state’s moist earth. I think of that maw as nature’s response to the election, its attempt to wipe the slate clean, or rather swallow it whole and start from scratch.

It was in Kentucky that the Democratic aspirant, Alison Lundergan Grimes, provided the election’s defining moment, refusing to say whether she’d voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. With an eye toward whatever calibrations might constitute a winning formula, she tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side.

Analysts of this election have cast it as a referendum on competence, a referendum on Obama, a referendum on an economic recovery that’s been slow and spotty. There’s some truth to each of those observations, and to the sum of them.

But if Republicans wrest control of the Senate, it will mostly reflect the particularities of the individual races and states themselves, and the larger takeaway, to the extent that there is one, will be the same as the takeaway from most of the last five elections. The turnover in the chamber will be a retort to the status quo, which is a Democratic Senate majority, along with a Democratic president.

For more than a decade, consistently, more Americans have said that the country is on the wrong track than have said it’s on the right one. This is remarkable.

And in almost every election during that span, the party in control of the White House, the Senate or the House of Representatives has changed. It’s been a nearly constant seesaw, with a sustained message from voters: What we have isn’t working. Give us different.

If you’re the candidate of continuity and sameness, whether a Republican or a Democrat, you’re quite likely vulnerable. That’s why Udall’s aides raised a stink when his opponent, Cory Gardner, ran a TV commercial underscoring the generations of politicians in the Udall family. Udall said it represented an out-of-bounds personal attack, which was ridiculous. What it did was weld Udall to the status quo, and that rightly spooked him.

Being welded to the status quo obviously spooks Hillary Clinton as well, and that’s why, if she runs for president, she’ll bang the “first woman ever” drum in a manner that she didn’t last time around. It’s a way to argue that putting another Democrat in the White House after Obama isn’t mere perpetuation.

The leaders of whichever party fares better than expected or at least better than the other in the midterms will talk a lot about 2016, claiming not just victory but a proven connection with the zeitgeist and what Americans really want.

Your correct response to this inevitable aria of self-congratulation will be laughter, or maybe tears, because what Americans crave and fantasize about is difference of a magnitude and a passion — you might even say an audacity — that was absent from this election cycle.

Here’s a wager for 2016, based not on 2014 but on our trudge through the doldrums and government sclerosis of so many years now: The spoils will go to the candidate who comes to the conflagration with more than a toy and a piddling amount of water.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Bruni

October 19, 2014

It’s a quiet day today since The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Kristof are off.  In “The Ebola Scare” The Putz gurgles that sometimes incompetence can be a lot more frightening than any conspiracy theory.  MoDo has been watching TV again.  In “An Affair to Remember, Differently” she squeals that infidelity is as fascinating as ever, just ask the co-creator of Showtime’s “The Affair.”  Mr. Bruni, in “The Virus of Cynicism,” says Ebola is Obama’s presidency — and the efficacy of government — in a petri dish.  Here’s The Putz:

I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, but I did: While flying from D.C. to Dallas last week, just after the news came out that an Ebola-infected nurse had been allowed to fly while running a fever, I went back and read the opening pages of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

In King’s epic, perhaps his finest, a superflu with a 99.4 percent fatality rate accidentally escapes from a desert laboratory and lays waste to civilization. King being King, supernatural developments ensue for the survivors. But the book is at its most terrifying in the unraveling with which it opens, when the only bogeyman that matters is a hacking cough that spreads and spreads and spreads.

To reread these pages now — in a time of national, well, not panic but least disquiet over the handling of Ebola inside our borders — is to be struck both by parallels and by crucial differences between the scenario King conjured and what we fear today.

The parallels lie, not surprisingly, in the realm of official incompetence. King’s superflu escapes because various computerized safeguards fail; it spreads because of interagency chaos in chasing down patient zero; it compromises a C.D.C. facility whose safeguards turn out to be insufficient. The chaos swirling around the Dallas Ebola infections has followed this kind of pattern: the patient sent home undiagnosed; the unprepared hospital and the infected nurses; the C.D.C.’s weird slowness in taking over; the confident governmental assurances giving way to blame-shifting, double talk and the appointment of a political hack as Ebola princeps … er … sultan … er, czar.

But the differences are interesting as well. King’s novel, infused with 1970s-era paranoia, imagines a government that blunders constantly but is also malignantly competent — brilliant enough to design a superflu capable of killing 99 percent of humanity, tyrannical enough to suppress media reports with martial law and murder, ruthless enough to swiftly spread the superflu behind the Iron Curtain to make sure our enemies go down with us.

This part of the novel’s vision is of a piece with all of modern conspiracy culture, which requires a certain level of omnicompetence to sustain its theories about covered-up alien landings or 9/11 inside jobs.

But conspiracy culture, while always resilient, has had a tough go of it of late. From the Iraq war to Hurricane Katrina and various Obama-era debacles, the public has been steadily conditioned to fear government incompetence much more than it fears secret conspiracies against the public good. Instead of the Bilderbergers and the Trilateralists and the cigarette-smoking man, it’s Mike “heckuva job” Brown and George “slam dunk” Tenet and whoever was allegedly in charge of the V.A. hospital system who haunt our collective unconscious these days. People still indulge the occasional “House of Cards”-style fantasy of all-powerful political puppetmasters, but what actually scares us is the idea of the Ebola epidemic being managed by the gang from “Veep.”

I suspect that’s part of why Obama-era scandals that may actually involve secret government machinations — from the N.S.A. revelations to the harassment of journalists and the politicized overreach of Lois Lerner’s I.R.S. division — haven’t fixed themselves in the public imagination, at least among people who don’t have an explicit ideological or political interest at stake. Wisely or not, Americans have trouble imagining the White House that gave us the HealthCare.gov rollout micromanaging partisan I.R.S. chicanery, or the national security bureaucracy that couldn’t see 9/11 or the Islamic State coming doing anything all that Machiavellian with a firehose’s worth of online data.

Likewise with Ebola: Of course you can find wild conspiracy theories, but the idea of a successful government cover-up — secret body bags, muzzled journalists — is basically laughable. Instead, the baseline anxiety is all about bureaucratic incompetence exacerbated by insouciance, with conservatives fearing that a liberal administration won’t be willing to go far enough — in terms of travel restrictions and quarantines — to effectively contain the disease’s spread.

Because plausible arguments have been offered for and against a travel ban, the administration’s actual response will be an interesting case study. As much as the authorities have fouled up so far, we’ve only had a few infections. If the White House continues to resist calls for more dramatic measures, and we manage to contain Ebola domestically, then the president and his appointees will look more competent and levelheaded than their critics — a result that’s all too rare these days.

Given the track record, however, it’s easy to imagine somewhat less fortunate results, and travel restrictions increasingly seem like an appropriate hedge against ongoing domestic incompetence.

But it would be welcome, and then some, to watch a competent strategy unfold that rendered that opinion obsolete.

And then, our faith in government’s effectiveness partially restored, we can all get back to worrying about what’s being secretly cooked up in the Nevada desert.

Faith in government effectiveness will only be possible after all of the current crop of Republicans have been voted out of office.  Next up we have MoDo’s fizzing:

We live in a world awash in unreliable narrators.

Officials at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital were unreliable narrators on Ebola. The Internet is bristling with unreliable narrators who prefer their takes to the truth. The unsavory husband and wife in the thriller “Gone Girl” are such chillingly unreliable narrators that they easily beat out the undead unreliable narrator, Dracula, at the box office. And let’s not even start on Fox News.

So now comes the riveting “Rashomon” in Montauk, Showtime’s “The Affair,” with Ruth Wilson and Dominic West offering alternating he recalls-she recalls versions of the same story in each show, as they get swept up in sexual infidelity and a serious crime during a shimmering summer.

I went to Brooklyn to talk to West — the British actor who played the raffish Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire” on HBO — and the show’s co-creator, Sarah Treem, as they shot scenes at a school there.

West’s character, Noah, is a novelist and teacher who lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with his wife, played by Maura Tierney, and four kids. He’s happily married but feeling insecure about the lackluster performance of his first novel. It gets worse when his wife giggles at his facial expression during lovemaking, and he’s taunted by his arrogant father-in-law, a famous fiction writer who owns the oceanfront mansion in the Hamptons where the family is spending the summer.

When West meets Wilson’s comely Alison, a diner waitress and Montauk native who is also married to someone she loves (Joshua Jackson) and also feeling uncertain and anxious, the chase is on.

But who’s chasing whom? In West’s memory, Alison is sultry and curvy, wearing sexy outfits and seducing him. In Alison’s version, she’s wan and withdrawn, still mourning the drowning death of her small son and dubious about Noah’s aggressive blandishments.

Treem, a playwright and “House of Cards” writer, created “The Affair” with Hagai Levi, with whom she also worked on HBO’s “In Treatment.”

Treem said the new show uses sex to illustrate that the characters are “trying to connect and they fail at it all the time. I think we have a lot of sex in this show, but in terms of the sex where they’re actually unified, that happens very rarely.”

Treem is a newlywed. In June, she married Jay Carson, a former campaign spokesman for Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton who is a producer on “House of Cards” and the father of Treem’s nearly 2-year-old son. Yet the brainy, alluring 34-year-old has an intriguingly jaded philosophy of romance.

“I have this belief that, in all relationships, there’s this long erotic moment that happens at the beginning of the relationship,” she said. “It’s like the pole of a tetherball court, and then everything else is just basically that damn ball going around, winding and unwinding around that one erotic moment, and you’re trying to always get back to that incredible moment of connection with somebody, and it’s gone forever.”

She said they put up a quote by the poet Robert Hass in the writers’ room, the final line of a passage where he describes the sensation of making love to a woman: “I felt a violent wonder at her presence like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat, muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her. Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.”

I tell her that Carson asked me if he should be worried, given how knowingly his wife writes about infidelity.

She laughed, replying, “I wrote the show when I was still single at 31, so at that point in your life you see a lot of infidelity. You have married men coming on to you. You see your friends already in affairs. From my perspective at that point, infidelity was all over the place. Now, being married, I would like my marriage to work. I love him, and I want to be faithful to him, and I want him to be faithful to me.” But, she adds matter-of-factly, “you probably have a 20 percent chance, maybe a 10 percent chance, of actually getting through an entire marriage with no infidelity.”

When I ask her if she thinks that men are more prone to cheat, she instantly replies: “Yes, I do.”

West agrees that the show may be “a shag-a-thon,” as he merrily put it, but its real subject is meant to be marriage.

“When you have four kids, inevitably your sex life suffers,” said West, himself a father of four. “But, for me, in my 20s and 30s, the stakes are much higher if you’re unfaithful. I feel, as you get older, the stakes get a lot lower. I don’t think infidelity would bother either me or my wife so much as if anything happened to our children, for instance. It ceases to be the primary anxiety.”

When I mentioned that it was interesting how, in Noah’s remembrance, Alison has fuller breasts, West’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Does she?” he said, laughing. “Is that right? Well spotted.”

The actor said that, after playing Iago and the English serial killer Fred West, he yearned for a more heroic role.

“I was really keen to play a good guy,” he said, with a wry smile. “So this is the good guy I’m playing — a cheating husband.”

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

We have no clue at this point how far Ebola could spread in the United States — and no reason for panic.

But one dimension of the disease’s toll is clear. It’s ravaging Americans’ already tenuous faith in the competence of our government and its bureaucracies.

Before President Obama’s election, we had Iraq, Katrina and the meltdown of banks supposedly under Washington’s watch. Since he came along to tidy things up, we’ve had the staggeringly messy rollout of Obamacare, the damnable negligence of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the baffling somnambulism of the Secret Service.

Now this. Although months of a raging Ebola epidemic in West Africa gave the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sufficient warning and ample time to get ready for any cases here, it was caught flat-footed, as its director, Tom Frieden, is being forced bit by bit to acknowledge. Weeks ago he assured us: “We are stopping Ebola in its tracks in this country.” Over recent days he updated that assessment, saying that “in retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight,” federal officials could and should have done more at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

President Obama made his own assurances and then corrections. He said back in mid-September that “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.”

Well, we weren’t wholly prepared, and the event was never unlikely: This country is a potent magnet for travelers, with a proudly (and rightly) open posture toward the world. People stream in all the time. And a federally funded study published in early September calculated a nearly 20 percent “probability of Ebola virus disease case importation” within three weeks. Within four, Thomas Duncan, the Liberian man who was initially (and inexplicably) turned away from the Dallas hospital, was at last admitted and treated for Ebola.

After that screw-up by hospital officials, Frieden told us that the right protocols were in place. But it now appears that Duncan wasn’t immediately put in isolation; that nurses attending to him were confused about the proper use of protective garb; and that the clothing they wore may have left bits of skin exposed.

We’ve learned of the C.D.C.’s bizarrely permissive attitude toward the hospital workers who came in contact with Duncan or his lab samples. While they should have been on restricted movement, one took flightsafter first calling the C.D.C. for a green light — from Texas to Ohio and back. Another boarded a cruise ship. By Monday, will we find out about a C.D.C.-approved game of Twister in the hospital staff room?

This is bad, not because it means that a large number of Americans are at risk of infection but because it confirms the sloppiness of the very institutions in which we place the most trust. It’s spreading the virus of cynicism.

And the C.D.C.’s missteps have much different implications from the errors made by the Secret Service and by Veterans Affairs. Individual Americans don’t fear that the Secret Service’s lapses will endanger them personally, and many of them aren’t directly affected by the wrongdoing of hospitals for veterans. But they can imagine themselves on one of those flights or in some other closed space with an infected person. They feel vulnerable.

Because the Ebola response deepens doubt about the current government, it almost certainly hurts incumbents in the midterm elections and favors change. That’s unhappy news for Democrats as they fight to retain control of the Senate, and by the end of last week, they were spooked. I heard that not only in my conversations with party strategists but also in the statements of Democratic candidates themselves.

Bruce Brayley, locked in a tight Senate race in Iowa, publicly upbraided the Obama administration for what he characterized as a sluggish response. Al Franken, running for re-election in Minnesota, said there should at least be serious consideration of the sorts of flight restrictions that Obama has dismissed. Even Jay Carney, the president’s former spokesman, mentioned such restrictions as potentially wise policy.

Rationally or not, this is one of those rare moments when Americans who typically tune out so much of what leaders say are paying rapt attention, and Obama’s style of communication hasn’t risen fully to the occasion. Even as he canceled campaign appearances and created a position — Ebola czar — that we were previously told wasn’t necessary, he spoke with that odd dispassion of his, that maddening distance.

About the ban, he said, “I don’t have a philosophical objection necessarily.” About the czar, he said that it might be good to have a person “to make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward.” He’s talking theory and calligraphy while Americans are focused on blood, sweat and tears.

Ebola is his presidency in a petri dish. It’s an example already of his tendency to talk too loosely at the outset of things, so that his words come back to haunt him. There was the doctor you could keep under his health plan until, well, you couldn’t. There was the red line for Syria that he didn’t have to draw and later erased.

With Ebola, he said almost two weeks ago that “we’re doing everything that we can” with an “all-hands-on-deck approach.” But on Wednesday and Thursday he announced that there were additional hands to be put on deck and that we could and would do more. The shift fit his pattern: not getting worked up in the early stages, rallying in the later ones.

It’s more understandable in this case than in others, because when it comes to statements about public health, the line between adequately expressed concern and a license for hysteria is thin and not easily determined. Still, he has to make Americans feel that he understands their alarm, no matter how irrational he deems it, and that they’re being leveled with, not talked down to, not handled. And he has a ways to go.

“If you were his parent, you’d want to shake him,” said one Democratic strategist, who questioned where Obama’s passion was and whether, even this deep into his presidency, he appreciated one of the office’s most vital functions: deploying language, bearing, symbols and ceremony to endow Americans with confidence in who’s leading them and in how they’re being led.

Right now in this country there’s a crisis of confidence, and of competence, and that’s the fertile ground in which the Ebola terror flowers. That’s the backdrop for whatever steps Obama and Frieden take from here. With the right ones, they can go a long way toward calming people who are anxious not just about Ebola but about America. I don’t even want to think about the wrong ones.

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

October 12, 2014

In “The Last Right” The Putz thinks he can explain why America is moving so slowly on assisted suicide, while shifting dramatically on other social issues.  MoDo has a question in “Lady Psychopaths Welcome:”  The debate rages: Is “Gone Girl” about a she-monster or a me-monster?  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “I.S. = Invasive Species,” also has a question:  Just how did ISIS spread so far, so fast? He says the National Arboretum might have the answer.  In “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 3” Mr. Kristof says a conversation on racial inequality in America continues with a look at the justice system.  In “Appetite, Bill and Barack” Mr. Bruni says our 42nd president brought something to the office that our 43rd and 44th didn’t — what about our 45th?  Here’s The Putz:

On Nov. 1, barring the medically unexpected or a change of heart, a young woman named Brittany Maynard will ingest a lethal prescription and die by suicide.

Maynard is 29, recently married and is suffering from terminal brain cancer. After deciding against hospice care — fearing, she wrote in a CNN op-ed, a combination of pain, personality changes, and the loss of basic mental and physical functions — she and her husband moved from California to Oregon, one of five states that permit physician-assisted suicide. In the time remaining to her, she has become a public advocate for that practice’s expansion, recording testimonials on behalf of the right of the terminally ill to make their quietus.

The tragedy here is almost deep enough to drown the political debate. But that debate’s continued existence is still a striking fact. Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

Twenty years ago, a much more rapid advance seemed likely. Some sort of right to suicide seemed like a potential extension of “the right to define one’s own concept of existence” that the Supreme Court had invoked while upholding a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. Polls in the 1990s consistently showed more support — majority support, depending on the framing — for physician-assisted suicide than for what then seemed like the eccentric cause of same-sex marriage.

Yet the latter cause has triumphed sweepingly, while voluntary euthanasia has advanced only haltingly. Part of the explanation lies with the Supreme Court, which in 1997 ruled 9 to 0 that the Constitution does not include a right to suicide. But the court would not have ruled as it did absent a deeper reality: Many liberals seem considerably more uncomfortable with the idea of physician-assisted suicide than with other causes, from abortion to homosexuality, where claims about personal autonomy and liberty are at stake.

Conservatives oppose assisted suicide more fiercely, but it’s a persistent left-of-center discomfort, even among the most secular liberals, that’s really held the idea at bay. Indeed, on this issue you can find many liberal writers who sound like, well, social conservatives — who warn of the danger of a lives-not-worth-living mentality, acknowledge the ease with which ethical and legal slopes can slip, recognize the limits of “consent” alone as a standard for moral judgment.

At the same time, though, there are tensions within the liberal mind on this issue, particularly when the discussion moves from the general (why assisted suicide is unwise as public policy) to the particular (why life is still worth living after all hope is lost, and why a given person facing death shouldn’t avail themselves of suicide).

You can see that tension illustrated, in a fascinating way, in the work of Ezekiel Emanuel, the health care expert and bioethicist (and brother of Chicago’s mayor). Emanuel’s 1997 Atlantic essay on physician-assisted suicide remains the best liberal critique of the idea, and he reiterated his anti-suicide position this fall, again in the Atlantic, in an essay discussing his perspective on aging, medicine and death.

But the new essay — which ran under the headline “Why I Hope to Die at 75” — was also shot through with precisely the fear of diminishment and incapacity, the anxiety at being any kind of burden, the desire to somehow exit at one’s sharpest and fittest and best, that drives the impulse toward medicalized suicide. It was partially a powerful case against unnecessary medical treatment — but partially a window into a worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

The same deficit is apparent in responses to Brittany Maynard’s plight. Liberal policy writers are comfortable using her case to discuss the inadequacies of end-of-life care (as the health care expert Harold Pollack did, eloquently, in a piece for The New Republic). But when it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.”

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

If it can, then laws like Oregon’s will remain unusual, and the politics of assisted suicide the exception to the ever-more-libertarian trend.

If it can’t, then many more tragic stories will have the ending Brittany Maynard has chosen to embrace.

Correction: October 11, 2014 An earlier version of this column misidentified the writer Kara Tippetts. Her name is not Krista Tippett.

You’d think if the schmuck was citing someone’s work he’d bother to get her name right.  And of course the Times’ fact checkers outdid themselves again…  Here’s MoDo:

Fighting Superman is super hard.

“The guy is tough,” says Ben Affleck, who is playing Batman in a new iteration filming now in Detroit where the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel duke it out. The actor is also having a tricky time with less heroic characters in his new hit movie, “Gone Girl,” a twisted and twisty conjugal cage fight that has sparked charges of misogyny, misandry and misanthropy.

Critics complain that Gillian Flynn’s clever creation, Amy Dunne, who punishes the men in her life by conjuring two false charges of rape and one of murder, is as cartoonish as muscly men in tights. They keen that the sleek blonde portrayed by Rosamund Pike in the movie is the latest in a line of stereotypical she-monsters and vagina dentata dames, independent women who turn out to be scary sociopaths.

“Gone Girl” opened last weekend with the backdrop of cover-ups on N.F.L. domestic violence and campaigns against sexual assault in the military and on campus. (California just passed legislation requiring students to give active consent before any sexual activity.)

In The Guardian, Joan Smith contended that the movie’s fake rape scenarios perpetuate the idea that victims of sexual violence “can’t be trusted.”

The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister told The Financial Times that the movie’s depiction of “our little sexual monsters” traded “on very, very old ideas about the power that women have to sexually, emotionally manipulate men. When you boil women down to only that, it’s troubling.”

Not to mention when the boiled-down women boil bunnies.

But, as a devotee of film noir vixens, I side with Flynn, whose philosophy is: “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”

Given my choice between allowing portrayals of women who are sexually manipulative, erotically aggressive, fearless in a deranged kind of way, completely true to their own temperament, desperately vital, or the alternative — wallowing in feminist propaganda and succumbing to the niceness plague — I’ll take the former.

If “Gone Girl” is sending the wrong message about women, then Emma Bovary should have gone to medical school instead of cheating on her husband, Anna Karenina should have been a train engineer rather than throwing herself onto the tracks, and Eve Harrington should have waited her turn.

The idea that every portrait of a woman should be an ideal woman, meant to stand for all of womanhood, is an enemy of art — not to mention wickedly delicious Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies. Art is meant to explore all the unattractive inner realities as well as to recommend glittering ideals. It is not meant to provide uplift or confirm people’s prior ideological assumptions. Art says “Think,” not “You’re right.”

After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks pushed Socialist Realism, creating the Proletkult to ensure that art served ideology. Must we now have a Gynokult to ensure Feminist Unrealism?

“Good God, we’re in a lot of trouble if people think that Amy represents every woman,” Flynn marveled, telling me: “Once I was being mentioned alongside Ray Rice, I thought, wow, this is going to an interesting place.

“Feminism is not that fragile, I hope. What Amy does is to weaponize female stereotypes. She embodies them to get what she wants and then she detonates them. Men do bad things in films all the time and they’re called anti-heroes.”

Amy may not be admirable, Flynn notes, but “neither are the men on ‘The Sopranos.’ ”

“I think part of what people are pushing back on is that Amy’s not a dismissible bad person,” she said. “She doesn’t get punished.”

David Fincher, the director with the gift for saturating scenes in the darkness that interests him, is equally bemused.

“I don’t think the book or movie is saying that one out of five women in the Midwest needs to be scrutinized for borderline personality disorder,” he said. “The character is hyperbolized. It’s not ‘60 Minutes.’ It’s a mystery that becomes an absurdist thriller that ultimately becomes a satire.”

Flynn, Fincher and Affleck agree the movie is less about the she-monster than the me-monster, the narcissism involved in seducing your aspirational soul mate.

“The whole point is that these are two people pretending to be other people, better people, versions of the dream guy and dream girl,” Flynn said. “But each one couldn’t keep it up, so they destroy each other.”

Or as Fincher puts it, eventually in a relationship, you get to the point where exhaustion sets in and you say, “I don’t feel like repainting the Golden Gate Bridge yet again.”

Affleck said that, as the father of two young girls, he is acutely aware of the dangers that women face in the world.

“But picking apart the plot architecture in this literal way misses the larger point of Gillian’s book and David’s movie,” he said. “Just as Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’ was about pedophilia, plotwise, but actually about obsession, this movie is not simply about a diabolical woman or a man getting railroaded. It’s an indictment of how we lie to one another until, eventually, the mask falls off. Ironically, it is a movie that’s critical of marriage from two people who have great marriages.”

So to the Church of Feminism and the Niceness Thought Police, I say: Let a thousand black orchids bloom.

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

An Iraqi official recently told me this story: When the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took over Mosul in the summer, the Sunni jihadist fighters in ISIS, many of whom were foreigners, went house to house. On the homes of Christians they marked “Nassarah,” an archaic Arabic term for Christians. But on the homes of Shiites they marked “Rafidha,” which means “those who reject” the Sunni line of authority as to who should be caliph, or leader of the Muslim community, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But here’s what was interesting, the Iraqi official said, the term “Rafidha” was largely unknown in Iraq to describe Shiites. It is a term used by Wahhabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia. “We did not know this word,” he told me. “This is not an Iraqi term.”

I was intrigued by this story because it highlighted the degree to which ISIS operates just like an “invasive species” in the world of plants and animals. It is not native to either the Iraqi or Syrian ecosystems. It never before grew in their landscapes.

I find it useful at times to use the natural world to illuminate trends in geopolitics and globalization, and this is one of them. The United States National Arboretum website notes that “invasive plant species thrive where the continuity of a natural ecosystem is breached and are abundant on disturbed sites like construction areas and road cuts. … In some situations these nonnative species cause serious ecological disturbances. In the worst cases, invasive plants … ruthlessly choke out other plant life. This puts extreme pressure on native plants and animals, and threatened species may succumb to this pressure. Ultimately, invasive plants alter habitats and reduce biodiversity.”

I can’t think of a better way to understand ISIS. It is a coalition. One part consists of Sunni Muslim jihadist fighters from all over the world: Chechnya, Libya, Britain, France, Australia and especially Saudi Arabia. They spread so far, so fast, despite their relatively small numbers, because the disturbed Iraqi and Syrian societies enabled these foreign jihadists to forge alliances with secular, native-born, Iraqi and Syrian Sunni tribesmen and former Baathist army officers, whose grievances were less religious and more about how Iraq and Syria were governed.

Today, ISIS — the foreigners and locals together — is putting pressure on all of Iraq’s and Syria’s native species with the avowed goal of reducing the diversity of these once polycultural societies and turning them into bleak, dark, jihadist, Sunni fundamentalist monocultures.

It is easy to see how ISIS spread. Think about the life of a 50-year-old Iraqi Sunni male from Mosul. He first got drafted to fight in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988. Then he had to fight in the Persian Gulf war I after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then he lived under a decade of U.N. sanctions that broke Iraq’s middle class. Then he had to endure the years of chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, which ended with a corrupt, brutal, pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad led by Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that did all it could to keep Sunnis poor and powerless. This was the fractured political ecosystem in which ISIS found fertile ground.

How do you deal with an invasive species? The National Arboretum says you should “use systemic herbicides carefully” (President Obama’s air war), while also constantly working to strengthen and “preserve healthy native plant habitats” (Obama’s effort to forge a national unity government in Baghdad with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together).

Generally speaking, though, over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan we have overspent on herbicides (guns and training) and underinvested in the best bulwark against invasive species (noncorrupt, just governance). We should be pressing the Iraqi government, which is rich with cash, to focus on delivering to every Iraqi still under its control 24 hours of electricity a day, a job, better schools, more personal security and a sense that no matter what sect they’re from the game is not rigged against them and their voice will count. That is how you strengthen an ecosystem against invasive species.

“It was misgovernance which drove Iraqis to contemplate a relationship with ISIS with the view that it was less detrimental to their interests than their own (Shiite-led) government,” explained Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment who is a former U.S. adviser in Afghanistan and author of the upcoming “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.” The Iraqi Army we built was seen by many Iraqi Sunnis “as the enforcer of a kleptocratic network.” That army got “sucked dry by the cronies of Maliki so it became a hollow shell that couldn’t withstand the first bullet.”

The goal of ISIS now is to draw us in, get us to bomb Sunni towns and drive the non-ISIS Sunnis away from America and closer to ISIS, “because,” notes Chayes, “ISIS knows it can’t survive without the support of these non-ISIS Sunnis.”

We always overestimate military training and force and underestimate what Arabs and Afghans want most: decent and just governance. Without the latter, there is no way to cultivate real citizens with a will to fight — and without will there is no training that matters.

Ask any general — or gardener.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Some white Americans may be surprised to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu describe Bryan Stevenson, an African-American lawyer fighting for racial justice, as “America’s young Nelson Mandela.”

Huh? Why do we need a Mandela over here? We’ve made so much progress on race over 50 years! And who is this guy Stevenson, anyway?

Yet Archbishop Tutu is right. Even after remarkable gains in civil rights, including the election of a black president, the United States remains a profoundly unequal society — and nowhere is justice more elusive than in our justice system.

When I was born in 1959, the hospital in which I arrived had separate floors for black babies and white babies, and it was then illegal for blacks and whites to marry in many states. So progress has been enormous, and America today is nothing like the apartheid South Africa that imprisoned Mandela. But there’s also a risk that that progress distracts us from the profound and persistent inequality that remains.

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., I wrote a couple of columns entitled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” The reaction to those columns — sometimes bewildered, resentful or unprintable — suggests to me that many whites in America don’t understand the depths of racial inequity lingering in this country.

This inequity is embedded in our law enforcement and criminal justice system, and that is why Bryan Stevenson may, indeed, be America’s Mandela. For decades he has fought judges, prosecutors and police on behalf of those who are impoverished, black or both. When someone is both and caught in the maw of the justice system — well, Stevenson jokes that “it’s like having two kinds of cancer at the same time.”

“We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” he adds.

Stevenson, 54, grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Delaware and ended up at Harvard Law School. He started the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., to challenge bias and represent the voiceless. It’s a tale he recounts in a searing, moving and infuriating memoir that is scheduled to be published later this month, “Just Mercy.”

Stevenson tells of Walter McMillian, a black Alabama businessman who scandalized his local community by having an affair with a married white woman. Police were under enormous pressure to solve the murder of an 18-year-old white woman, and they ended up arresting McMillian in 1987.

The authorities suppressed exculpatory evidence and found informants to testify against McMillian with preposterous, contradictory and constantly changing stories. McMillian had no serious criminal history and had an alibi: At the time of the murder, he was at a church fish fry, attended by dozens of people who confirmed his presence.

None of this mattered. An overwhelmingly white jury found McMillian guilty of the murder, and the judge — inauspiciously named Robert E. Lee Key Jr. — sentenced him to die.

When Stevenson sought to appeal on McMillian’s behalf, Judge Key called him up. “Why in the hell would you want to represent someone like Walter McMillian?” the judge asked, according to Stevenson’s account.

Stevenson dug up evidence showing that McMillian couldn’t have committed the crime, and prosecuting witnesses recanted their testimony, with one saying that he had been threatened with execution unless he testified against McMillian. Officials shrugged. They seemed completely uninterested in justice as long as the innocent man on death row was black.

Despite receiving death threats, Stevenson pursued the case and eventually won: McMillian was exonerated and freed in 1993 after spending six years on death row.

I suggested to Stevenson that such a blatant and racially tinged miscarriage of justice would be less likely today. On the contrary, he said, such cases remain common, adding that he is currently representing a prisoner in Alabama who has even more evidence of innocence than McMillian had.

“If anything, because of the tremendous increase in people incarcerated, I’m confident that we have more innocent people in prison today than 25 years ago,” Stevenson said.

Those of us who are white and in the middle class rarely see this side of the justice system. The system works for us, and it’s easy to overlook how deeply it is skewed against the poor or members of minority groups.

Yet consider drug arrests. Surveys overwhelmingly find that similar percentages of blacks and whites use illegal drugs. Yet the Justice Department says that blacks are arrested for such drug offenses at three times the rate of whites.

One study in Seattle found that blacks made up 16 percent of observed drug dealers for the five most dangerous drugs and 64 percent of arrests for dealing those drugs.

Likewise, research suggests that blacks and whites violate traffic laws at similar rates, but blacks are far more likely to be stopped and arrested. The Sentencing Project, which pushes for fairer law enforcement, cites a New Jersey study that racial minorities account for 15 percent of drivers on the turnpike, but blacks account for 42 percent of stops.

THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. Too many whites unquestioningly accept a system that disproportionately punishes blacks and that gives public schools serving disadvantaged children many fewer resources than those serving affluent children. We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.

Some whites think that the fundamental problem is young black men who show no personal responsibility, screw up and then look for others to blame. Yes, that happens. But I also see a white-dominated society that shows no sense of responsibility for disadvantaged children born on a path that often propels them toward drugs, crime and joblessness; we fail those kids before they fail us, and then we, too, look for others to blame.

Today we sometimes wonder how so many smart, well-meaning white people in the Jim Crow era could have unthinkingly accepted segregation. The truth is that injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different from ourselves; that helps explain the obliviousness of our own generation to inequity today. We need to wake up.

And that is why we need a Mandela in this country.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

After the latest meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative wrapped up three weeks ago, I thought I’d missed the perfect window to write about Bill Clinton’s continued hold on Americans’ hearts, his sustained claim on the spotlight.

Silly me. In short order and with customary brio, Clinton simply traded that stage for the next one: the entire state of Arkansas, his old stamping grounds, through which he barnstormed over recent days in the service of Senate Democrats.

He remained in the headlines. He was still in the mix. Even when he’s not running, he’s running — exuberantly, indefatigably, for just causes, for lost causes, because he hopes to move the needle, because he loves the sound of his own voice and because he doesn’t know any other way to be. Politics is his calling. The arena is his home.

And that’s the real reason that he’s so popular in his post-presidency, so beloved in both retrospect and the moment. In bold contrast to the easily embittered, frequently disappointing occupant of the Oval Office right now, Bill Clinton was — and is — game.

Nothing stops him or slows him or sours him, at least not for long. Nothing is beneath him, because he’s as unabashedly messy and slick as the operators all around him. He doesn’t recoil at the rough and tumble, or feel belittled and diminished by it. He relishes it. Throw a punch at him and he throws one at you. Impeach him and he bounces back.

It’s that very gameness that fueled his undeniable successes as a president, and that’s worth keeping in mind when the midterms end and we turn our attention more fully to the 2016 presidential race. Who in the emerging field of contenders has his level of enthusiasm, his degree of stamina, his intensity of engagement?

Neither of the two presidents who followed him do, and that absent fire explains many of their shortcomings in office. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama felt put out by what they had to do to get there. Neither masked his sense of being better than the ugly process he was lashed to.

Bush was always craving distance from the stink and muck of the Potomac, and routinely averted his gaze: from the truth of Iraq, from the wrath of Katrina. In a different way, Obama also pulls away, accepting stalemates and defeats, not wanting to get too dirty, not breaking too much of a sweat. “The audacity of mope,” his countenance has been called.

It comes into sharper, more troubling focus with each passing season and each new book, including Leon Panetta’s, “Worthy Fights,” which was published last week. The reservations expressed by Panetta, who served under Obama as both C.I.A director and defense secretary, seconded those articulated by so many other Democrats.

The president, Panetta wrote, “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” He exhibits “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause,” in Panetta’s words, and he “avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities.”

As Washington absorbed Panetta’s assessment and debated whether it was an act of disloyalty or of patriotism, Arkansas opened its arms to Clinton, who beamed and pressed the flesh and talked and talked.

He talked in particular about Mark Pryor, the incumbent Democratic senator, who seems poised to be defeated by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star. And while it’s doubtful that Clinton’s backing will save Pryor, it’s almost certain that no other Democrat’s favor would serve Pryor any better.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg poll that came out last week suggested that a campaign plug from Clinton would carry more weight with voters than one from Obama, the first lady, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney or Chris Christie. He’s the endorser in chief.

That gives him an invitation and a license to step onto soapboxes wide and far. Last month he stumped in Maine, North Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. This month he’s bound for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He’s wanted. He’s welcomed.

And, yes, that’s partly because he’s a reminder of an epoch more economically dynamic than the current one, of an America less humbled and fearful. It’s also because he has no real responsibility and thus no real culpability: He can’t let us down. On top of which, absence has always made the heart grow fonder.

BUT he never really went away. He abandoned the White House only to begin plotting by proxy to move in again. He’s the past, present and future tenses all entwined, and that’s a clue that there’s something other than just nostalgia behind the outsize affection for him. He’s missed because he demonstrates what’s missing in the commanders in chief since.

He’s missed for that gameness, an invaluable asset that fueled so many leaders’ triumphs but wasn’t abundant in leaders who suffered many defeats.

Jimmy Carter, for one. “He was not just detached and not just unfamiliar with congressional politics but he also didn’t like it, didn’t want to play it — and that was a huge obstacle for him,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian who has written books about Carter and Bush and has one about Lyndon Baines Johnson, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” scheduled for publication in January. “It really damaged him.”

“Clinton was the last president we’ve had who loved politics,” Zelizer added. “Bush — and you can see this in his post-presidency — didn’t have a taste for what Washington was all about. Executive power was partly a way to avoid Congress entirely. And Obama is just like Bush that way.”

It’s interesting to note that neither Bush nor Obama knew any really big, bitter political disappointments en route to the White House. (Bush’s failed 1978 congressional race, so early in his career and so distant from his subsequent bid for Texas governor, doesn’t count.) Their paths were relatively unimpeded ones, while Clinton suffered the humiliation of being booted from his job as governor of Arkansas after one term, then having to regain it.

Scars like that do a politician good. They prove that he or she loves the sport enough to keep going, and has the grit for it. We’d be wise to look for them in the politicians angling for the presidency next. The ugliness of the job isn’t going to change. Might as well elect someone with the appetite for it.

Clinton showed us the downside of unappeasable hunger, but he also showed us the upside, and he’s showing us still. He gets love and he gets his way simply by never letting up in his demand for them. There’s a lesson in that.

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

September 28, 2014

In “The Cult Deficit” the Putz tries to ‘splain why a creative society needs fringe groups and gurus.  In “From Pen and Phone to Bombs and Drones” MoDo says in needing Arab allies to help in the fight against ISIS, we turn a blind eye to their record on women.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  “Who Had it Easier, Reagan or Obama?”  He says the final answer will have to come from historians years from now, but he seems to think a look at several critical areas offers some hints.  Mr. Kristof considers “Stranger Danger and Guns,” and also has a question:  Is knocking on a stranger’s door dangerous? If so, maybe that’s because we tolerate a society in which unregulated guns are prevalent.  In “The Wilds of Education” Mr. Bruni says the landscape that students romp across shouldn’t be too tame.  Here’s the Putz:

Like most children of the Reagan era, I grew up with a steady diet of media warnings about the perils of religious cults — the gurus who lurked in wait for the unwary and confused, offering absolute certainty with the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.

Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on. Some strange experiments have aged into respectability, some sinister ones still flourish, but over all the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms. Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.

Twice in the last few months I’ve encountered writers taking note of this shift, and both have made a similar (and provocative) point: The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.

The first writer is Philip Jenkins, a prolific religious historian, who argues that the decline in “the number and scale of controversial fringe sects” is both “genuine and epochal,” and something that should worry more mainstream religious believers rather than comfort them. A wild fringe, he suggests, is often a sign of a healthy, vital center, and a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack “a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry” as well.

The second writer is Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, venture capitalist and controversialist, who includes an interesting aside about the decline of cults in his new book, “Zero to One” — officially a book of advice to would-be entrepreneurs, but really a treatise on escaping what he regards as the developed world’s 40-year economic, technological and cultural malaise.

The implications of Jenkins’s argument are specific to religion. Cults can be dangerous, even murderous, but they can also be mistreated and misjudged (as Koresh’s followers were, with fatal consequences); moreover, spiritual experiments led by the charismatic and the zealous are essential to religious creativity and fruitful change. From the Franciscans to the Jesuits, groups that looked cultlike to their critics have repeatedly revitalized the Catholic Church, and a similar story can be told about the role of charismatic visionaries in the American experience. (The enduring influence of one of the 19th century’s most despised and feared religious movements, for instance, is the reason the state of Utah now leads the United States on many social indicators.)

Thiel’s argument is broader: Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.

This means that every transformative business enterprise, every radical political movement, every truly innovative project contains some cultish elements and impulses — and the decline of those impulses may be a sign that the innovative spirit itself is on the wane. When “people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known,” Thiel writes, there was more interest in groups that claimed access to some secret knowledge, or offered some revolutionary vision. But today, many fewer Americans “take unorthodox ideas seriously,” and while this has clear upsides — “fewer crazy cults” — it may also be a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.”

Thiel’s view of our overall situation is hotly contested, not surprisingly, on his own Silicon Valley turf. The Internet is cluttered with debates (some friendly, some less so) between Thiel and his peers over whether innovation has actually slowed down, whether recent technological progress is actually as disappointing as he frequently suggests.

But in the intellectual realm, the stagnation he identifies seems readily apparent, since whole swaths of political, ideological and religious terrain that fascinated earlier generations have been mostly written off in ours. As Mark Lilla noted in a recent New Republic essay, it’s not just that alternatives — reactionary, radical, religious — to managerial capitalism and social liberalism are no longer much embraced; it’s that our best and brightest no longer seem to have any sense of why anyone ever found alternatives worth exploring in the first place.

Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists.

Or maybe the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk.

Next up we have MoDo:

The president was at the United Nations on Wednesday urging young people across the Muslim world to reject benighted values, even as America clambers into bed with a bunch of Middle East potentates who espouse benighted values.

President Obama has been working hard to get a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates because they provide cover in the fight against the brutal, metastasizing threat of the Islamic State, a “network of death” known as ISIS, that our blunders — both of action and inaction — helped create.

He and Secretary of State John Kerry have cajoled this motley crew for the coalition — American warplanes are doing most of the airstrikes in Syria — even though in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, powerful elements are financing some of the same terrorists that their governments have been enlisted to fight.

At the U.N. on Tuesday, in a scene in a fancy-old New York hotel that evoked Marlon Brando making the peace with the heads of the five families in “The Godfather,” President Obama offered a tableau of respect to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“This represents partners and friends in which we have worked for very many years to make sure that security and prosperity exists in the region,” he said.

When American presidents rain down bombs on Muslim countries, they use the awful treatment of women in the Middle East as one of their justifications.

In his speech at the United Nations, President Obama said he wanted “to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world” and urged them to create “genuine” civil societies.

“Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed,” he said. “And that’s why we support the participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and the economy.”

Yet, because we need the regressive rulers in the Persian Gulf to sell us oil and buy our fighter jets and house our fleets and drones and give us cover in our war coalitions, we don’t really speak out about their human rights violations and degradation of women as much as we should. The Obama administration was sparked to action by the videos of ISIS beheading two American journalists. Yet Saudi Arabia — wooed to be in the coalition by Kerry with a personal visit this month — has been chopping off heads regularly, sometimes for nonlethal crimes such as drugs or sorcery.

The president should just drop the flowery talk and cut to the chase. Americans get it. Let’s not pretend we’re fighting for any democratic principles here.

America failed spectacularly in creating its democratic model kitchen with Iraq. So now we have to go back periodically and cut the grass, as they say in Israel, to keep our virulent foes in check.

It is pre-emption. But the difference with President Obama’s pre-emption is that there is an actual threat to the globe from a vicious, maniacal army. President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice made up a threat to America from a contained and diminished Saddam Hussein to justify pre-emption and serve their more subterranean purposes.

Eight months ago, the president was reduced to threatening to act without Congress, warning: “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”

Now he’s brandishing bombs and drones on a scale he’s never done before. The ex-community activist elected on a peace platform has grown accustomed to coldly ordering the killing of bad guys.

“It’s hard to imagine that in his wildest dreams — or nightmares — he ever foresaw the in-box he has,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But, as Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, said once, when asked what disrupted his best-laid plans: “Events, dear boy, events.”

As the U.S. woos the Arab coalition, Arab leaders are not speaking out against the atrocities of ISIS against women.

“It is the obligation and duty of Arab countries, where men always feel so possessive about their mother, their wife, their daughter, to condemn ISIS’s violence against women,” said Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. “Why don’t they say a word?

“I’ve been working with women in the Middle East for 40 years, and I’ve never seen such brutality, such barbarism as that which ISIS is committing against women. It is unbelievable.”

We are so far from where the dunderheads of the Bush administration were in 2003, with George W. Bush bragging about his cakewalk of weakening dictators, forging democracies and recognizing the rights of women. As it has rampaged like a flesh-eating virus through the region, ISIS has been targeting professional women. An Iraqi lawyer who worked to promote women’s rights was grabbed from her home last week after she posted complaints on her Facebook page about ISIS’s “barbaric” destruction of mosques and shrines in Mosul. Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy was tortured for days; then a masked firing squad executed her on Monday and then told her family she could not have a funeral.

In a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “ISIS’s Cruelty Toward Women Gets Scant Attention,” Esfandiari toted up a litany of horrors, including the tragic story of a woman who was tied to a tree, naked, and repeatedly raped by ISIS fighters, who are “rewarded” with droit du seigneur as they assault and pillage their way toward an Islamic caliphate.

She noted that even though ISIS propaganda emphasizes protecting the morality of women, it has taken little girls playing with dolls and married them off to fighters three times older, set up “marriage bureaus” in captured Syrian towns to recruit virgins and widows to marry fighters, and tied together women with a rope as though “they were being led to a makeshift slave market.”

She told me that “it’s a strategy to shame women and undermine their families. In our part of the world, a woman who has been raped, whether once or 50 times, feels ashamed, her family feels ashamed. Some commit suicide. Others become pregnant and are ostracized by their family and community, with no fault at all of their own.”

Haass noted that one of the lessons we should have learned in fighting halfway around the world, from Vietnam to Iraq, is “the power of local realities.”

“One of the things we’ve learned is that we can’t deliver fundamental social and cultural transformation in this part of the world,” he said. “Our ability to influence the position or status of women in the Arab or Muslim world is limited.”

He said the Arab coalition is necessary because “our priority has got to be to push back and weaken ISIS.

“Even if we’re not in a position to give women the better life they deserve,” he concluded, “we are in a position to save many of them from what ISIS would do to them. And that’s significant.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ken Adelman’s fascinating history “Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War.” Adelman, who led Reagan’s arms control agency, was an adviser at Reagan’s 1986 Iceland summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Using some newly declassified documents, Adelman fills out the extraordinary dialogue between the two leaders that set in motion a dramatic cut in nuclear arms.

You learn a lot about Reagan’s leadership in the book. For me, the most impressive thing was not Reagan’s attachment to his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative, which is overrated in ending the Cold War. What is most impressive about Reagan is that he grasped that Gorbachev was a radically different kind of Soviet leader — one with whom he could make history — long before his intelligence community did. That made a big difference.

These days there is a lot of “if-only-Obama-could-lead-like-Reagan” talk by conservatives. I’ll leave it to historians to figure out years from now who was the better president. But what I’d argue is this: In several critical areas, Reagan had a much easier world to lead in than Obama does now.

“Easier world, are you kidding?” say conservatives. “Reagan was up against a Communist superpower that had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at us! How can you say that?”

Here’s how: The defining struggle in Reagan’s day was the Cold War, and the defining feature of the Cold War was that it was a war between two different systems of order: Communism versus democratic capitalism. But both systems competed to build order — to reinforce weak states around the world with military and economic aid and win their support in the Cold War. And when either Moscow or Washington telephoned another state around the world, there was almost always someone to answer the phone. They even ensured that their proxy wars — like Vietnam and Afghanistan — were relatively contained.

Obama’s world is different. It is increasingly divided by regions of order and regions of disorder, where there is no one to answer the phone, and the main competition is not between two organized superpowers but between a superpower and many superempowered angry men. On 9/11, we were attacked, and badly hurt, by a person: Osama bin Laden, and his superempowered gang. When superempowered angry men have more open space within which to operate, and more powerful weapons and communication tools, just one needle in a haystack can hurt us.

Most important, Reagan’s chief rival, Gorbachev, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for doing something he never wanted to do: peacefully letting go of Eastern Europe. Obama’s foes, like the Islamic State, will never win the Nobel Peace Prize. Reagan could comfortably challenge Gorbachev in Berlin to “tear down this wall” because on the other side of that wall was a bad system — Communism — that was suppressing a civilization in Eastern and Central Europe, and part of Russia, that was naturally and historically inclined toward democratic capitalism. And there were leaders there — like Lech Walesa, another Nobel Peace Prize winner — to lead the transition. We just needed to help remove the bad system and step aside.

“The countries of Eastern and Central Europe were forcibly part of a Communist empire but culturally were always part of Western civilization,” explained Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist and author of “The Road to Global Prosperity.” “They never saw themselves as Communist, but rather as Westerners who had been kidnapped.” After Gorbachev, under pressure from Reagan and the West, released them, “they ran as fast as they could to embrace Western institutions.”

In the Middle East, which has consumed so much of Obama’s energy, the people tore down their walls — their systems — but underneath was not a civilization with the suppressed experience, habits and aspirations of democracy and free markets. Instead it was a toxic mix of Islamism, tribalism, sectarianism and an inchoate aspiration for democracy.

Reagan’s leadership challenge was to bring down a wall and then reap the peace dividends by just letting nature take its course. Obama’s challenge is that on the other side of the wall that the Arabs took down lies the world’s biggest nation-building project, with a civilization that is traumatized, divided and often culturally hostile to Western values and institutions. It’s an enormous job that only the locals can lead.

The one time that Reagan faced the miniversion of Obama’s challenge was in Lebanon. After Israel toppled the Palestinian ministate there, Reagan hoped it would unleash a naturally democratic order, with just a little midwifing help from American Marines. But after 241 U.S. servicemen were blown up in Beirut in 1983, Reagan realized that the civilization there was a mix of Islamists, sectarian Christians, Syrians, Shiite militias, Palestinian refugees and democrats. It required a lot more than us just standing guard. It required nation-building. And what did Reagan do? He left.

I was there to wave goodbye to the last Marines on the beaches of Beirut.

So comparing Reagan with Obama in foreign policy is inevitable. But when you do, also compare their respective contexts. The difference is revealing.

And let’s not forget that the grinning, senile old B-movie actor didn’t have to deal with virulent racism at home and an opposition party that had completely lost its mind.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Earlier this month, my iPhone vanished.

I looked up its location on an app called Find My Friends that my wife and I use, and I had a shock: The app said my phone was in a house 15 miles away, in a neighborhood that I’d never visited.

I drove there. It was night. The house looked creepy.

My wife stayed in the car, cellphone in hand, ready to summon the cavalry. I walked to the front door and rang the doorbell.

Nothing. The lights were on, so I rang again and knocked hard. I spent five minutes ringing the doorbell and pounding on the door. Finally, a man emerged.

“I think you have my phone,” I explained tautly.

“Your phone?” he asked.

“YOU HAVE MY PHONE!”

“Oh,” he said, “your phone.” He pulled it out, still with my name, email address and office phone number pasted on it, and meekly handed it over.

I left, no questions asked.

Full of myself, I posted about the adventure on social media — and provoked a firestorm. A typical comment on Facebook, from Glenna: “Are you insane?”

Many followers scolded me, while others — particularly those abroad — expressed bewilderment that it should be dangerous to knock on a door and ask for one’s property. Heidi asked: “What kind of society do we live in when knocking on someone’s door to retrieve a lost iPhone becomes perceived as life-threatening?”

Put aside the question of whether I was a knucklehead. Isn’t there a larger question of why we tolerate a society so bristling with guns that such a quest may be perilous? Aren’t we all knuckleheads for tolerating such a threat?

About one-third of American households have guns, according to a Pew survey (a bit more, Gallup says), and these firearms kill 32,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just last month, a Detroit man, Theodore Wafer, 55, was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride, 19, who apparently knocked on his door seeking help after she was in a car accident.

When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I encountered bewilderment at the fate of a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student in Louisiana who had been invited to a Halloween party. The boy, Yoshihiro Hattori, mistakenly went to the wrong address and rang the bell.

The homeowner, Rodney Peairs, came out with a gun and shouted, “Freeze.” Yoshihiro didn’t understand. Peairs shot him in the chest, killing him. We, as a country, should be ashamed that this prompted the Japanese government to teach its citizens traveling to the United States the word “freeze.”

As for Peairs, he had to live with himself. He was later quoted as saying that he would never again use a gun.

We turn to guns in the belief that they will make us safer. Nonsense!

Sure, there are cases where guns are successfully used for self-defense, but a study in the journal Injury Prevention found that the purchase of a handgun was associated with 2.4 times the risk of being murdered and 6.8 times the risk of suicide. Several other studies confirm that a gun in the house significantly increases the risk that a person in the home will be murdered or commit suicide.

Partly that’s because we misperceive the risks. We imagine a home invasion, but a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that 76 percent of homicide victims knew their assailant. That study also said that men with guns in the home are 10 times as likely to commit suicide in the home as men without a gun. Look, there are no simple solutions when we already have 300 million guns circulating in America. It’s also fair to note that any single gun is not much of a danger (statistically, a child is more likely to die from a swimming pool at a house than from a gun in the house).

But, with so many guns, often kept loaded without trigger locks, the collective toll is enormous. Just since 1968, it has been calculated, more Americans have died from gunfire than have died in all the wars in our country’s history.

The simplest baby step forward would be to institute universal background checks before gun purchases, to prevent sales to criminals. That was favored by 92 percent of Americans in a poll last year, as well as by three-quarters of members of the National Rifle Association. Yet the N.R.A. leadership is so extreme that it fights even such a step, and craven politicians buckle to its will.

I may have been a fool for trying to reclaim my phone. But we’re all idiots for accepting a society where knocking on a door is a deadly risk.

Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

When it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want and need our schools to be as safe as possible.

But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?

Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?

Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation? And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?

Not in the view of an unacceptable number of Americans. Not in too many high schools and on too many college campuses. Not to judge by complaints from the right and the left, in suburbs and cities and states red and blue.

Last week was Banned Books Week, during which proponents of unfettered speech and intellectual freedom draw attention to instances in which debate is circumscribed and the universe sanitized. As if on cue, a dispute over such censorship erupted in the affluent Dallas-area community of Highland Park, where many students pushed back at a recent decision by high school administrators to suspend the teaching of seven books until further review. Some parents had complained about the books.

Their titles? That was the strangest part. The seven offenders included the young adult novel “An Abundance of Katherines,” by John Green. It was deemed too sexually frank. Also “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” by David K. Shipler. It has references to rape and abortion. “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir, was tagged for its portraits of alcoholism and mental illness. And “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein, dared to include a scene in which a teenage girl under the age of consent comes on to an older man. In several sentences, her breasts are described.

It’s not exactly “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I mean, its narrator is a Labrador-terrier mix.

“It’s the dog book,” Stein marveled when I reached him by telephone in Seattle, where he lives. “My book’s the dog book.” In it an animal who expects to be reincarnated as a person puzzles over humanity — and prepares for it — by studying his master, a racecar driver.

“It’s full of life lessons: about responsibility, about self-reliance, about perseverance,” Stein said. Apparently, nipples trump all of that.

The events in Highland Park brought to mind other stories, including one in the Denver area that received national attention last week: A newly conservative board for the Jefferson County School District, which is Colorado’s second-largest, raised the possibility of pruning the curriculum of books and material that could be seen to exalt civil disobedience and promote unpatriotic thoughts. Where does that leave the civil rights movement? Vietnam?

Late last spring, during commencement season, students at one college after another succeeded in warding off scheduled speakers and honorary-degree recipients whose politics they disagreed with. Condoleezza Rice felt compelled to back out of a speech at Rutgers University. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, canceled an appearance at Smith College, where students were circulating a petition that charged the I.M.F. with the “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Brandeis University reacted to faculty and student protests there by rescinding its invitation to the writer and women’s rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had made strongly negative statements about Islam.

Around that same time, there were movements on scattered college campuses to attach so-called trigger warnings to texts whose evocations of, say, anti-Semitism or rape might prompt emotional turmoil in students. This echoed moves years earlier by officials at some elementary, middle and secondary schools to prune standardized tests of words that might distress students, either by summoning life’s harshness, reminding them of their deprivation or making them feel excluded. “Poverty,” “slavery,” “divorce,” “hurricanes” and “birthdays” were on a list drawn up by New York City educators, who later abandoned the plan.

While these efforts differ greatly, they overlap in their impulse to edit the world to the comfort of students, and that’s especially troubling in this day and age, when too many people use technology and the Internet to filter a vast universe of information and a multitude of perspectives into only what they want to hear, a tidy, cozy echo chamber of affirmation.

The efforts are also inextricable from subtler, more pervasive dynamics of caution and conformity in our classrooms and schools, where “failure” and “disappointment” are sometimes dirty words. When teachers inflate grades, they’re making education a feel-good enterprise rather than a feel-rattled one. When high-school students obsessed with getting into elite colleges avoid any courses that play to their weaknesses, they’re treating education in precisely the wrong way, no matter how understandable their motivation.

And when students at those colleges march in lock step toward certain majors (economics, for example) and certain professions (finance and consulting), they’re missing out. That’s what the recent best seller “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, noted and rued: the treatment of hallowed universities as placid pastures for contented grazing rather than majestic landscapes to romp and rage across, their bruising pitfalls redeemed by their exhilarating peaks.

Education is about growing bolder and larger. It’s about expansion, and that can’t happen if there’s too strong an urge and a push to contract the ground it covers, to ease the passage across it, to pretty up the horizon.

“You’re only diminishing a young person’s ability to go off into the world and interface with people from all walks of life,” Stein said. Thinking back to his own childhood in the suburbs of Seattle and then his years at Columbia University, he said, “The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who stand up in front of the class and wave their arms and say provocative things that students then react to.”

He recalled that in the eighth grade, he read a book, recommended by a school librarian, in which bullies tormented a kid by pulling off his shoes and urinating in them. It upset him, because it was a situation alien to his own experience. That’s also why he needed to be exposed to it, he said.

“It showed me that this happens,” he explained, with a note of gratitude in his voice. “It made me understand.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof, Blow and Bruni

September 21, 2014

In “Grand Illusion in Syria” The Putz tells us that the White House is trying a cheaper version of what didn’t work in Iraq.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston says “The only thing we might take away from this quandary, as we circle the drain, is to never again elect the ignorant, the pandering, the sanctimonious and the deluded to positions of power. Not in November, and not in 2016.”  In “Two Redheaded Strangers” MoDo tells us that, on the Honeysuckle Rose, Willie Nelson and Maureen talk pot, politics and a certain trip to the White House in the Carter years.  In “Three Cheers for Pluralism Over Separatism” The Moustache of Wisdom explains why the no vote in Scotland was a good thing.  Mr. Kristof sends us “Alicia Keys Asks: Why Are We Here?”  He says Alicia Keys wants to galvanize an infantry that moves from being frustrated about the world to improving it.  In “Up From Pain” Mr. Blow says he had to stop hating his abuser to start loving himself. He had to let go of his past so that he could step into his future.  Mr. Bruni takes a look at “The Vain and the Desperate” and says our political process repels many leaders who might do us good and leaves us with a sometimes motley crew.  Here’s The Putz:

Across years of war and at an extraordinary cost, the United States built an army that was supposed to prevent jihadists from gaining a sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East. It had American-trained leaders, American-made weaponry and 250,000 men under arms — far more troops and firepower than any insurgent force that might emerge to challenge it.

That army was the Iraqi Army, and we know what happened next: The Syrian civil war spilled over into Iraq, jihadists first found a foothold and then led an insurgency against the Iraqi military, and the jihadists won. American-organized units were routed; American-trained soldiers fled; American-made weapons fell into the hands of the Islamic State, the self-declared caliphate with which we ourselves are now at war.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a lesson here about how hard it is to conjure up reliable allies amid the chaos of the current Middle East. But if so, we seem determined not to learn it, since our official strategy for fighting the Islamic State involves basically trying the same thing again, this time on the cheap: inventing allies, funneling them money and weaponry, and telling ourselves that it will all work out.

Those allies are the “moderate” and “vetted” — euphemisms for “not as scary as the other guys” — rebels in Syria, whom Congress voted last week to finance and train and arm. As fighting forces go, they promise to be rather less impressive than the last army we trained, since if all goes well just 5,000 rebels will be ready for the fight this year, or about one-sixth as many fighters as ISIS now has under arms. (And those odds get even longer when you consider that the rebels intend to use our weapons to fight the Assad regime as well.)

If our failure to build an army capable of stabilizing Iraq after our departure looks like a pure tragedy, then the arm-the-rebels gambit in Syria has more than a whiff of farce. But really it’s a studied evasion, a way for this administration to pretend that we don’t face a set of deeply unpleasant options in our quest to contain or crush the caliphate.

The first realistic, non-farcical option is the one that the president seemed to choose initially, when he launched limited airstrikes to rescue the embattled Kurds last month. This would basically be a strategy of containment and attrition, oriented around the current lines of battle in Iraq, in which we see if the Kurds and those Iraqi Army units that didn’t collapse can push the front westward, see if a post-Maliki government can woo local Sunni leaders, and use our air power to degrade the caliphate’s fighting capacity while letting its internal weaknesses degrade it from within.

The trouble with containment is that it would leave the Islamic State in control of a great deal of territory (with more beheading videos, no doubt) for months and years to come. Hence the administration’s pivot to Syria; hence the strategic dream palace that is our arm-the-rebels strategy.

The cold reality, though, is that defeating ISIS outright in Syria will take something more substantial than dropping a few bombs in support of a few U.S.-trained moderates. Either the American military will have to intervene in force (including with substantial ground troops) or we’ll have to ally, in a very un-American display of machtpolitik, with Bashar al-Assad. Both options may have supporters within the Republican Party. Many hawks seem ready to send in ground forces, and John McCain has explicitly argued that we should be willing to go to war with both Assad and the Islamists at once. From Rand Paul, meanwhile, you hear what sounds like a version of the ally-with-Assad approach, albeit couched in somewhat ambiguous terms.

The White House would clearly prefer not to choose either path, either escalation. But its current approach seems likely to drift more in McCain’s direction, with a gradual ramping-up (today bombing, tomorrow special forces, the next day … ?) in Syria that makes a clash with Assad and a multifront war steadily more plausible.

There is still time for the president to reconsider, to fall back on the containment-and-attrition strategy in Iraq and avoid a major commitment inside Syria. That strategy does not promise the satisfaction of the Islamic State’s immediate elimination. But neither does it require magically summoning up a reliable ally amid Syrian civil strife, making a deal with the region’s bloodiest dictator, or returning once again to ground warfare and nation-building in a region where our efforts have so often been in vain.

It does not traffic, in other words, in the fond illusions that we took with us into Iraq in 2003, and that hard experience should have disabused us of by now.

But some illusions are apparently just too powerful for America to shake.

Next up we have MoDo:

When Willie Nelson invites you to get high with him on his bus, you go.

The man is the patron saint of pot, after all, and I’m the poster girl for bad pot trips.

It seemed like a match made in hash heaven.

When Nelson sang at the 9:30 club in D.C. one recent night, I ventured onto the Honeysuckle Rose, as his tour bus and home-away-from-home is called.

I was feeling pretty shy about meeting him. The 81-year-old Redheaded Stranger is an icon, one of America’s top songwriters and, as Rolling Stone said, “a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.” The Smithsonian wants his guitar, “Trigger.”

I needed a marijuana Miyagi, and who better than Nelson, who has a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and a first-degree black belt in helping Norml push for pot legalization?

In a Rolling Stone cover piece last month on “America’s Most Beloved Outlaw,” Nelson told writer Patrick Doyle that he had read my column on having a bad reaction to a marijuana-infused candy bar while I was in Denver covering the pot revolution in Colorado.

“Maybe she’ll read the label now!” he said, laughing, adding that I was welcome to get high on his bus “anytime.”

So that’s how I found myself, before Nelson’s show here, sitting opposite him in a booth on the bus as he drank black coffee out of a pottery cup, beneath a bulletin board filled with family photos.

His eyes were brass-colored, to use Loretta Lynn’s description. His long pigtails were graying. His green T-shirt bore the logo of his son’s band, Promise of the Real.

So, Sensei, if I ever decide to give legal pot a whirl again, what do I need to know?

“The same thing that happened to you happened to me one or two times when I was not aware of how much strength was in whatever I was eating,” Nelson said, in his honeyed voice. “One time, I ate a bunch of cookies that, I knew they were laced but I didn’t worry about it. I just wanted to see what it would do, and I overdid it, naturally, and I was laying there, and it felt like the flesh was falling off my bones.

“Honestly, I don’t do edibles,” he continued. “I’d rather do it the old-fashioned way, because I don’t enjoy the high that the body gets. Although I realize there’s a lot of other people who have to have it that way, like the children that they’re bringing to Colorado right now for medical treatments. Those kids can’t smoke. So for those people, God bless ’em, we’re for it.”

Eager not to seem like a complete idiot, I burbled that, despite the assumption of many that I gobbled the whole candy bar, I had only taken a small bite off the end, and then when nothing seemed to be happening, another nibble.

Nelson humored me as I also pointed out that the labels last winter did not feature the information that would have saved me from my night of dread.

Now, however, Colorado and Washington State have passed emergency rules to get better labeling and portion control on edibles, whose highs kick in more slowly and can be more intense than when the drug is smoked. Activists are also pushing to make sure there are stamps or shapes to distinguish pot snacks — which had, heretofore, been designed to mimic regular snacks — so that children don’t mistakenly ingest them.

Trying to prevent any more deaths, emergency-room trips or runaway paranoia, the Marijuana Policy Project has started an educational campaign called “Consume Responsibly.”

Its whimsical first billboard in Denver shows a bandjaxed redhead in a hotel room — which is far too neat to be mine — with the warning: “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation. With edibles, start low and go slow.”

Bill Maher also offered Colorado, “the Jackie Robinson of marijuana legislation,” some tips, including having budtenders talk to customers “like a pharmacist would,” curtail pot products that look like children’s candy, and don’t sell novices kief, superconcentrated crystals so potent that they’re “harvested directly from Willie Nelson’s beard.”

I asked Nelson about Jerry Brown’s contention that a nation of potheads would threaten American superiority.

“I never listened to him that much,” he said, sweetly.

He showed me his pot vaporizer, noting: “Everybody’s got to kill their own snakes, as they say. I found out that pot is the best thing for me because I needed something to slow me down a little bit.” He was such a mean drunk, he said, that if he’d kept drinking heavily, “there’s no telling how many people I would have killed by now.”

I asked him about the time he was staying in the Carter White House — on bond from a pot bust — and took a joint up to the roof.

“It happened a long time ago,” he said, adding slyly, “I’m sure it happened.”

Did he also indulge in the Lincoln Bedroom?

“In what?” he replied, mischievously. “I wouldn’t do anything Lincoln wouldn’t have done.”

Given all the horrors in the world now, I said, maybe President Obama needs to chill out by reuniting the Choom Gang.

“I would think,” Nelson said, laughing, “he would sneak off somewhere.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Madrid:

This was an interesting week to visit Britain and Spain — first to watch the Scottish separatists push for independence and then to watch Basque and Catalan separatists watching (with disappointment) the outcome of the vote. One reaction: I’m glad a majority of Scots rejected independence. Had they not, it would have clipped the wing of America’s most important wingman in the world: Britain. Another reaction: God bless America. We have many sources of strength, but today our greatest asset is our pluralism — our “E pluribus unum” — that out of many we’ve made one nation, with all the benefits that come from mixing cultures and all the strengths that come from being able to act together.

As I’ve asked before: Who else has twice elected a black man as president, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, who first defeated a woman and later defeated a Mormon? I’m pretty sure that I will not live long enough to see an ethnic Pakistani become prime minister of Britain or a Moroccan immigrant president of France. Yes, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., reminds us that we’re still a work in progress in the pluralism department. But work on it we do, and I’ll take the hard work of pluralism over the illusions of separatism any day.

Why is pluralism such a big advantage today? Two reasons: politics and innovation. Before I explain, though, it’s worth recalling: What is pluralism? I like the definition that the Pluralism Project at Harvard offers on its website: “pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity” because “mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.” A society being “pluralistic” is a reality (see Syria and Iraq). A society with pluralism “is an achievement” (see America).

Pluralism, it also notes, “does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind. … It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” And, it posits that real pluralism is built on “dialogue” and “give and take, criticism and self-criticism” — and “dialogue means both speaking and listening.”

That pluralism is more important than ever is easily divined by just looking at the Middle East. Iraq and Syria were pluralistic societies that lacked pluralism. Their diversity — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Alawites — was something to be controlled from the top down by iron-fisted Ottomans, then the British and French and finally by local kings and colonels. Society was kept stable by a strongman.

But the diffusion of communication technologies and globalization is making all forms of top-down, autocratic control weaker, obsolete or more expensive in blood, money or arrests. Either these countries develop an ethic of pluralism — so they can govern themselves horizontally through social contracts forged among equal citizens — or they’ll stay in violent turmoil.

It’s no accident that the two democratizing Middle East entities doing best today are Tunisia and Kurdistan. Neither has fully mastered pluralism yet, but they’ve mastered its necessary precursor for self-governance, which was the principle used in 1989 to settle the Lebanese civil war: “No victor, no vanquished” among the major players. Everyone’s interests have to be balanced. Iraq is now struggling to get there; Syria is not even close.

Social networks and hyperglobalization are also increasing the economic returns from pluralism. After all, where does innovation come from? It comes from mashing up different perspectives, ideas and people. Google began as a mashup between Larry Page and Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant. The more pluralism your society has, the more trust it has, and trust plus pluralism enables people to collaborate, spark new ideas and businesses, and to comfortably reach out anywhere in the globe for the best co-creators. Sure, melting pots can boil over, but, when fueled by a pluralistic ethic, the energy they provide is undeniable. The Economist reported in April 2013 that some “40 percent of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children.”

Democratic Spain in the last decade has impressively absorbed more than four million immigrants — mostly from Ecuador, Romania and Morocco — or 10 percent of its population. They came during the economic boom and have triggered no anti-immigrant party (yet). No wonder Spain’s national leaders today expressed relief at the no vote in Scotland. But the Catalan regional government insists it will proceed with its own nonbinding separatist referendum in November.

That will meet headwinds. To manage its diversity, Spain already awards a lot of autonomy to its 17 regions — a process called “coffee for all” — and many Spaniards “don’t want” to be pressed into a deeper breakup, explained José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “You go to Barcelona and people are hanging the Catalan independence flag on their balcony. If you’re not, it means you’re not in favor of independence, but I don’t want to fight you by hanging the Spanish flag.” Many people here think you can be “a good Spaniard, good Catalan and good European” all at once.

The other danger of all these separatist movements, added Torreblanca, is that they “change the axis” of the political debate. “Politics should be about left and right — how to grow and how to redistribute.” Historically in Europe, he said, right-wing parties come in and create growth and inequality and left-wing parties come in and redistribute — and back and forth. “But the net result is that you end up with societies that are both competitive and cohesive.” All these separatist movements take you off that track, he said, and put you onto one of “identity politics,” which is precisely why places like Syria and Iraq can’t make progress.

America has always been “a country of citizens,” which made its pluralism relatively easy, noted Torreblanca. “The Europe Union is a country of nation states,” and it is trying to get more pluralistic by integrating those states ever more tightly into a super-state, called the European Union. But that is stalled now because the next level of integration requires not just giving up your currency but sovereignty, so there can be a truly common economic policy. In Syria and Iraq today, you have neither citizens nor states, but rather clans, sects and tribes, which now need to reorganize themselves into voluntary states, as opposed to those imposed by colonial powers, so they can be real citizens.

This is why America has such an advantage with its pluralism, and why — if Scots are brave enough to preserve theirs, and Spaniards are struggling to keep theirs and Iraqis are groping to find theirs — we should have the wisdom to pass an immigration reform bill that enriches ours.

Next up on the roster today we have Mr. Kristof:

Alicia Keys is a superstar singer who has mostly kept her clothes on and gossip off. So what is she doing in this photo, dressed only in a peace sign?

Her answer has to do with the purpose of life. Last month, as she was sickened by grim news — from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to the toll in Gaza and Syria — a friend of hers lobbed a provocative question about the meaning of our existence: Why are you here?

“Nobody had asked me that question before,” Keys recalled. It got her thinking about her mission in life, her legacy. She is one of the world’s best-known singers, but many of her songs have been about love or heartbreak. She has 35 million fans on Facebook and almost 20 million followers on Twitter, but she wasn’t leveraging that audience for some broader purpose.

So she is now starting a We Are Here movement to channel her music and her fans to social justice causes, from stricter gun laws to criminal justice reform, from gay rights to global girls’ education.

“I want to gather an army,” Keys told me. She wants to galvanize that infantry of fans from feeling frustrated about the world to improving it.

Keys is expecting her second child in December — the movement arises partly from her concern about the world that the child will inherit — so she decided to be photographed nude with a peace sign on her belly as an image of amity to kick off the effort.

“It’s time to get people’s attention,” she said. “People won’t be able to ignore this visual.”

She plans to kick off the We Are Here Movement on Sunday at the Social Good Summit, a grass-roots version of the annual United Nations General Assembly.

Keys says she will encourage her fans to support 12 specific groups: All Out, a gay rights organization; CARE, the aid group; Equal Justice Initiative, which combats racial inequity in the criminal justice system; the Future Project, which empowers high school students in America; Girl Rising, which supports girls’ education around the world; Keep a Child Alive, which helps children affected by H.I.V. and AIDS; Moms Rising, which supports universal prekindergarten, maternal leaves and tighter gun laws; Oxfam, which fights global poverty; Partners in Health, which tackles disease worldwide; the Trevor Project, which prevents suicide among gay and lesbian youths; the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which fights racial profiling; and War Child, which supports children in conflict areas.

To get the effort started, Keys is donating $1 million of her own money, to be divided among the 12 groups, and she hopes that her fans will make their own donations directly to the charities. A website, WeAreHereMovement.com, provides information.

There is, of course, a tradition of socially conscious musicians, and Bono has done as much as anybody to highlight the challenges of global poverty. Keys seems less inclined to lobby at Group of 8 summit meetings; rather, she says, she wants to work with fans at the grass-roots level.

As a theme for the effort, Keys released a new song, “We Are Here.” She says that her songs henceforth will do more to address racism, injustice and poverty; she aspires to be a moral voice as well as a musical one.

Keys is biracial, the daughter of a white mother and black father, and she says she has black relatives and friends who have been unjustly imprisoned. But her concerns far transcend race and gender.

So what will her fans think of her advocating on hot-button issues like stricter gun laws? On the whole, she thinks her audiences welcome such direction. Many are frustrated about social inequities, she says, but feel helpless to make a difference.

“We’re in the same head space. We think the same things,” she said. “This is bothering us, so how can we take that to the next step and do something about that, as opposed to just being angry?”

The next steps, she says, will include petitions, rallies, protests and public awareness efforts, as well as fund-raising. She also hopes to bring other artists into the effort, and she has already reached out to some.

I don’t know whether a youthful musical audience can be easily deputized into a posse for social justice. But Dr. Helene Gayle, the president of CARE, is optimistic.

“Whether or not it’s a huge financial gain, who knows?” Dr. Gayle told me. “What she’s able to do is get people to pay attention to these issues. I can talk about these issues until I’m blue in the face and do cartwheels, and I can’t get people to pay as much attention as she can. This is a huge opportunity to raise visibility.”

In an unusual appearance on Sunday here’s Mr. Blow:

I was away at college doing much of nothing, just pushing back against sorrow as it pressed down. My mother called. She told me someone wanted to speak to me. There was a silence on the line, and then words: “What’s going on, boy?”

It was an older cousin, whom I’ll call Chester. He was at my mother’s house, our house. It had been years since I had heard that voice. “What’s going on, boy?” as if nothing had ever happened, as if everything was buried and forgotten. But betrayal doesn’t work that way. Even when it’s buried, it doesn’t stay buried. It’s still alive down there, scratching its way back to the surface.

I don’t recall saying anything or even hanging up. I flung myself down the stairs of the apartment, wearing only pajama pants and a T-shirt. I burst out of the door and bolted to the car.

I was engulfed in an irrepressible rage. Everything in me was churning and pumping and boiling. All reason and restraint were lost to it. I was about to do something I wouldn’t be able to undo. Bullets and blood and death. I gave myself over to the idea.

The scene from the night when I was 7 years old kept replaying in my mind: waking up to him pushed up behind me, his arms locked around me, my underwear down around my thighs. The weight of the guilt and grieving that followed. The years of the bullying designed to keep me from telling — and the years of questioning my role in his betrayal.

I jumped in the car, grabbed the gun from under the car seat. It was a .22 with a long black barrel and a wooden grip, the gun my mother had insisted I take with me to college, “just in case.”

The ridges of the gas pedal pressed into the flesh of my foot as I raced down Interstate 20 toward my mother’s house, 25 miles away. I had driven this lonely stretch of north Louisiana road from Grambling State to my hometown, Gibsland, a hundred times. It had never gone so slowly; I had never driven so fast.

Bawling and with the heat of my anguish being released into the winter air, I reviewed my simple plan: walk into the house, find Chester, and shoot him in the head as many times as possible. No arguing. No explanation. Done.

Then I thought about who I was now, and who I could be. Seeing him in a pool of his own blood might finally liberate me from my past, but it would also destroy my future.

I had to make a choice: drive forward on the broad road toward the unspeakable or take the narrow highway exit. I don’t know which chose, my head or my hand, but I exited and drove through my college campus, thinking about all that I had accomplished. Me. With my own mind and grit. I had reinvented and improved myself. I was a man — a man with a future. I couldn’t continue to live my life through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.

That night, I forced myself to come to terms with some things. Chester had done damage, but he didn’t deserve to die for what he had done, and I deserved to live in spite of it.

I had to stop hating Chester to start loving myself. Forgiveness was freedom. I simply had to let go of my past so that I could step into my future.

Yes, the mark that Chester’s betrayal had left on my life was likely to be permanent, but blaming him for the whole of the difference in my emerging sense of sexual identity, while convenient, was most likely not completely accurate. Abusers don’t necessarily make children different, but rather, they are diabolically gifted at detecting difference, often before the child can see it in him or herself. It is possible that Chester glimpsed a light in me, and that moved the darkness in him.

In addition to being attracted to women, I could also be attracted to men. There it was, all of it. That possibility of male attraction was such a simple little harmless idea, but I had allowed it to consume and almost ruin my life. The attraction and my futile attempts to “fix it” had cost me my dreams. The anguish, combined with a lifetime of watching hotheads brandishing cold steel, had put me within minutes of killing a man.

My world had told me that there was nothing worse than not being all of one way, that any other way was the same as being dead, but my world had lied. I was very much alive. There was no hierarchy of humanity. There was no one way to be, or even two, but many. And no one could strip me of my value and dignity, because no one had bestowed them. These things came into the world with me.

I had done what the world had signaled I must: hidden the thorn in my flesh, held “the demon” at bay, kept the covenant, borne the weight of my crooked cross. But concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it.

DARING to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do, because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked you are vulnerable.

But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one.

I had to stop romanticizing the man I might have been and be the man that I was, not by neatly fitting into other people’s definitions of masculinity or constructs of sexuality, but by being uniquely me — made in the image of God, nurtured by the bosom of nature, and forged in the fire of life.

I had spent my whole life trying to fit in, but it would take the rest of my life to realize that some men are just meant to stand out. I would have to learn to simply relax and be: complex, betwixt and between, and absolutely all right.

I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me.

That would include attempts at male intimacy.

The first time I tried ended disastrously. I had worked up the nerve to go to a gay bar, thinking that if male intimacy was something my body wanted, I might as well know it.

It was a world apart from the one I knew. Instead of feeling a sense of belonging, I felt apart. The bar was brimming with sameness — not the locker room, frat house kind I was familiar with, full of ego-measuring and distance-keeping, but a different and disorienting kind. I was the object of considerable attention. I was young and tall and fit and new. I was being watched. I knew it, and I liked it. So I sat alone at the end of the bar and took long sips of my drink as I soaked up pensive admiration.

Soon a man sidled up to me and began making small talk. He was unremarkable in appearance and seemed slightly older than me. He said he was a shoe importer. He sounded smart and seemed kind, and he smiled a lot. He invited me to his apartment for more drinks. I said, “Why not?” In my mind, the moment I had walked through the door of the bar, I had passed the point of no return.

When we arrived at his place, he poured a glass of wine, but I was too nervous to drink it. He talked more about his business and showed me shoe samples — ugly, rough-cut sandals that I couldn’t imagine anyone with even a dash a style deigning to wear.

Then, without warning, the mood shifted. The man disrobed, walked toward his bedroom, and beckoned me to follow. But the sight of him naked caused whatever attraction I might have had to collapse. His body looked sculpted, the way a body looks after years of proper eating and unstinting exercise, but I wasn’t drawn to it. My body went limp and cold.

I could in no way imagine us intertwined. I found the idea of it all immensely unsettling. I was surprised by my reaction — embarrassed by it — but my feeling was unambiguous: I wasn’t interested. So I grabbed my jacket, and ran out of the apartment.

I figured then that if I could indeed go both ways, one way didn’t quite prefer to go all the way.

I would come to know what the world called people like me: bisexuals. The hated ones. The bastard breed. The “tragic mulattos” of sexual identity. Dishonest and dishonorable. Scandal-prone and disease-ridden. Nothing nice.

And while the word “bisexual” was technically correct, I would only slowly come to use it to refer to myself, in part because of the derisive connotations. But, in addition, it would seem to me woefully inadequate and impressionistically inaccurate. It reduced a range of identities, unbelievably wide and splendidly varied, in which same-gender attraction presented itself in graduated measures, from a pinch to a pound, to a single expression. To me it seemed too narrowly drawn in the collective consciousness, suggesting an identity fixed precisely in the middle between straight and gay, giving equal weight to each, bearing no resemblance to what I felt.

In me, the attraction to men would never be equal to the attraction to women — for men, it was often closer to the pinch — but it would always be in flux. Whenever someone got up the gumption to ask me outright, “What are you?” I’d reply with something coy: “Complicated.” It would take many years before the word “bisexual” would roll off my tongue and not get stuck in my throat. I would have to learn that the designation wasn’t only about sexual histories or current practice, but capacity.

Few people would be open to the idea of men like me even existing, in any incarnation. Even the otherwise egalitarian would have no qualms about raising questions and casting doubt. Many could conceive of bisexuality only in the way it existed for most people willing to admit to it: as a transitory identity — a pit stop or a hiding place — and not a permanent one. Whatever the case, folks would never truly understand me, nor I them.

To me, their limits on attraction would seem overly broad and arbitrary. To them, I would be a man who walked up to the water’s edge and put only one foot in, out of fear or confusion or indecision. I would be the kind of man who wanted it all — clinging to the normative while nodding to difference.

But that’s not the way it works within me. I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide.

I wouldn’t always get things right. I wouldn’t always find the courage to tell people the whole truth about myself, or do so before their love had already reached through my secret and touched my shame, but at least I learned to move in the right direction. I wouldn’t lay the weight of my shame down all at once, but a bit at a time over many years, like forks of hay pitched from the back of a pickup truck, until the bales dwindled and the load was made light.

I would get married fresh out of college — to my college sweetheart, the love of my young life — after we both stopped pretending there was any other we would rather be with. I confessed, though not as soon as either of us would have preferred, to her my past and my proclivities, as fully as I understood them at the time, including the story of my encounter with the shoe importer. We figured that our love was greater than my complexity. We had three beautiful children — first a boy and then girl-boy twins — in rapid succession, but the marriage didn’t survive the seventh year. Still, the marriage confirmed for me that extended fidelity was in fact possible, not by denying part of my nature, but by submitting the whole of my heart. Monogamy was a choice. That was a side I could pick.

AFTER my wife and I split, I decided to give male intimacy another try. The male attraction was still there, running alongside the female one — not equal, but there. I assumed my first failure might have been the result of youth and nerves and a mixed match. But now, again, my body sometimes failed to respond. Other times I was able to engage more fully, but almost always with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol, which left me barely able to remember the encounters and often wanting to forget them. This felt fraudulent to me, and opportunistic, and dangerous.

Still, no matter how much I drank, no matter how altered my consciousness, I couldn’t completely rid myself of the unease of being intimately close to another man’s body, hard and hairy and muscular and broad at the shoulders, more stem than flower — too much like my own.

In those moments I was acutely aware that I missed the tug of the female form, the primary sensation and the peripheral ones. The look of soft features and the feel of soft skin. The graceful slopes of supple curves. The sweet smells. The giggles. The thing in me that yearned for those sensory cues from a woman wouldn’t quietly accept a substitute.

I had to accept a counterintuitive fact: my female attraction was fully formed — I could make love and fall in love — but my male attraction had no such terminus. To the degree that I felt male attraction, it was frustrated. In that arena, I possessed no desire to submit and little to conquer. For years I worried that the barrier was some version of self-loathing, a denial. But eventually I concluded that the continual questioning and my attempts to circumvent the barrier were their own form of loathing and self-flagellation.

I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

In case you missed it, our nation’s officeholders, current and former, have been working overtime to make us proud.

Ted Cruz threw a histrionic hissy fit in front of Arab Christians. Sarah Palin went to a birthday party where her family reportedly got into a brawl. Mark Sanford emitted a self-pitying aria of romantic angst. Debbie Wasserman Schultz compared some Republicans to wife beaters.

Somewhere in there, I sank into a newly deep funk about the kinds of people drawn to politics these days.

Then I burrowed into Matt Bai’s new book and I hit rock bottom.

It’s called “All the Truth Is Out,” it will be published later this month and it’s about Gary Hart. Remember him: the presidential contender who rode a boat named Monkey Business into a media whirlpool? You should, as the book, which is excerpted in The Times Magazine this weekend, makes clear.

And the reason isn’t so much the scandal that swallowed him or his particular exit from the political arena. It’s the warning that his story sounded — about a new brutality on the campaign trail, about uncharted frontiers of media invasiveness and about the way both would wind up culling the herd, not in favor of the strongest candidates but in favor of those so driven or vacuous that the caress of the spotlight redeems the indignities of the process.

Has running for public office become less attractive than ever? Does it frighten off potential leaders who might benefit us and clear a path for aspirants with less to offer?

Bai’s book suggests as much, and he points a finger at political journalism, which, he writes, is “now concerned almost entirely with exposing lies and unearthing character flaws, sexual or not.”

“Hart’s downfall,” Bai continues, “was the thing that tipped the scales completely, the catalyst that made it O.K. — even necessary — for all aspiring political reporters to cast themselves as amateur P.I.s and psychotherapists. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would have been: We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”

“All the Truth Is Out” has fascinating tidbits, in particular about friendships that bloomed between Hart and Mikhail Gorbachev and Hart and Bill Clinton, his descendant in the annals of sexual scandal.

It also has a few belly laughs — painful ones. Bai writes that when the media was consumed by Hart’s sex life, Johnny Carson joked that “the nomination would fall into Hart’s lap — if there was any room left there. On the highly rated sitcom ‘Golden Girls,’ one of the little old ladies commented of another character, ‘She’s Gary Hart’s campaign manager. It doesn’t pay much, but you don’t have to get out of bed to do it.’ ”

Those jokes serve a point: Hart was reduced to a single trait, and everything else he had to say was muffled by it. And the same questionable fate befell many politicians after him, as privacy perished and the media’s insistence on a certain sort of juicy narrative intensified.

“It’s just getting worse,” Stuart Stevens, the veteran Republican strategist who spearheaded Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told me. “It’s the most grueling process imaginable.”

As CNN’s Peter Hamby noted in a study he wrote during a fellowship at Harvard last year, the accelerated news cycle of the social-media age demands meaningless scoops, trumpets dubious gaffes and turns the reporters trailing a candidate into “one giant, tweeting blob.”

That blob suffocates its quarry, often at the prodding of his or her rivals, who supply opposition research (or “oppo”) that strays from serious byways down silly cul-de-sacs. This was captured in a story about the Senate elections that was splashed across the top of the Politico website Friday afternoon.

The headline blared, “GOTCHA! How oppo took over the midterms.” And the story began, “Why would anyone want to talk about immigration, terrorism, gun control or the national debt, when there’s Alison Lundergan Grimes’ bus, John Walsh’s thesis, Bruce Braley’s chickens and Pat Roberts’ recliner? Gotcha stories — ranging from those tangentially related to issues of the day to the completely ephemeral and even absurd — have been front and center in an abnormally large number of top races this year.”

Everything’s a teapot, primed for a tempest. Although Joe Biden has a famously spastic tongue and there’s no reason to believe he is anti-Semitic, he makes an indecorous reference to “Shylocks” and the outrage machinery cranks into gear. The content-ravenous blogosphere lights up.

BUT the hysteria of the present media climate isn’t the only problem or turnoff. There’s the extended duration of a political race. There’s the ceaseless fund-raising, the burden of which was spelled out in an internal memo that leaked from Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign in Georgia. It decreed that drumming up money should consume 80 percent of her time in the first quarter of 2014, declining to 70 percent in the third.

The memo identified Jews as a “tremendous financial opportunity,” so long as Nunn struck the right position on Israel, still to be finessed. Ah, the heartfelt conviction that animates today’s candidate!

Writing about the memo in The Times Magazine, Mark Leibovich said that his main takeaway was “that a political campaign today is a soul-killing pursuit.” He presumes a soul to take.

Seriously, who’s attracted to this ordeal? Some people with only the best intentions and motivations, yes. But also plenty like Sanford, whose 2,346-word Facebook post about his postmarital woes signaled a Newt-caliber neediness. Or like Wasserman Schultz, an intemperate warrior who, if Politico’s profile of her last week got it right, is consumed by self-centered ambition. Or like Cruz, with his lust for attention, even if it’s negative.

Or like Palin. She’s clearly on Bai’s mind when he writes that the “post-Hart climate” of estrangement between politicians and the press — and of shallow campaign pageantry — made it easier for candidates with little policy expertise or insight into governance, because no one expected any candidate to say anything too detailed or deep.

“A politician could duck any real intellectual scrutiny simply by deriding the evident triviality of the media,” Bai writes.

It’s odd and funny that the conservative writer Charles Krauthammer sought to vilify President Obama last week by calling him, of all things, a narcissist. When this came up on “The View” and narcissism was explained to Rosie O’Donnell as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self and their own importance and a deep need for admiration,” she replied, “That’s every celebrity I know, including me.”

It’s a lot of politicians, too. The process guarantees it.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Friedman

September 14, 2014

In “The Middle East’s Friendless Christians” The Putz says Senator Ted Cruz’s stunt at a conference on religious persecution has only increased his co-religionists’ isolation.  I just love the way he uses “co-religionists,” implying that he and Cruz aren’t both (at least nominally) Christians.  In “Throw the Bums Out” MoDo says when you enable men who beat women, you’re in danger of getting sacked.  I’ll bet she thought with both hands all week to come up with that play on words…  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  “What’s Their Plan?”  He says the fight against ISIS is a two-front campaign. We keep making it about us and Obama. But that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Here’s The Putz:

When the long, grim history of Christianity’s disappearance from the Middle East is written, Ted Cruz’s performance last week at a conference organized to highlight the persecution of his co-religionists will merit at most a footnote. But sometimes a footnote can help illuminate a tragedy’s unhappy whole.

For decades, the Middle East’s increasingly beleaguered Christian communities have suffered from a fatal invisibility in the Western world. And their plight has been particularly invisible in the United States, which as a majority-Christian superpower might have been expected to provide particular support.

There are three reasons for this invisibility. The political left in the West associates Christian faith with dead white male imperialism and does not come naturally to the recognition that Christianity is now the globe’s most persecuted religion. And in the Middle East the Israel-Palestine question, with its colonial overtones, has been the left’s great obsession, whereas the less ideologically convenient plight of Christians under Islamic rule is often left untouched.

To America’s strategic class, meanwhile, the Middle East’s Christians simply don’t have the kind of influence required to matter. A minority like the Kurds, geographically concentrated and well-armed, can be a player in the great game, a potential United States ally. But except in Lebanon, the region’s Christians are too scattered and impotent to offer much quid for the superpower’s quo. So whether we’re pursuing stability by backing the anti-Christian Saudis or pursuing transformation by toppling Saddam Hussein (and unleashing the furies on Iraq’s religious minorities), our policy makers have rarely given Christian interests any kind of due.

Then, finally, there is the American right, where one would expect those interests to find a greater hearing. But the ancient churches of the Middle East (Eastern Orthodox, Chaldean, Maronites, Copt, Assyrian) are theologically and culturally alien to many American Catholics and evangelicals. And the great cause of many conservative Christians in the United States is the state of Israel, toward which many Arab Christians harbor feelings that range from the complicated to the hostile.

Which brings us to Ted Cruz, the conservative senator and preacher’s son, who was invited to give the keynote address last week at a Washington, D.C., summit conference organized in response to religious cleansing by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The conference was an ecumenical affair, featuring an unusual gathering of patriarchs and clerics (few of whom agree on much) from a wide range of Christian churches. But Middle Eastern reality and the Christian position in the region being what they are, this meant that it included (and was attacked for including) some attendees who were hostile to Israeli policy or had said harsh things about the Jewish state, and some who had dealings with Israel’s enemies — Assad and Hezbollah, in particular.

Perhaps (I think almost certainly) with this reality in mind, Cruz began his remarks with a lecture on how Assad, Hezbollah and ISIS are indistinguishable, and paused to extol Israel’s founding, and then offered the sweeping claim that the region’s Christians actually “have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”

The first (debatable) proposition earned applause, as did his calls for Jewish-Christian unity. But at the last claim, with which many Lebanese and Palestinian Christians strongly disagree, the audience offered up some boos, at which point Cruz began attacking “those who hate Israel,” the boos escalated, things fell apart and he walked offstage.

Many conservatives think Cruz acquitted himself admirably, and he’s earned admiring headlines around the right-wing web. There is a certain airless logic to this pro-Cruz take — that because Assad and Hezbollah are murderers and enemies of Israel, anyone who deals with them deserves to be confronted, and if that confrontation meets with boos, you’ve probably exposed anti-Semites who deserve to be attacked still more.

But this logic shows not a scintilla of sympathy for what it’s actually like to be an embattled religious minority, against whom genocide isn’t just being threatened but actually carried out.

Some of the leaders of the Middle East’s Christians have made choices that merit criticism; some of them harbor attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors that merit condemnation. But Israel is a rich, well-defended, nuclear-armed nation-state; its supporters, and especially its American Christian supporters, can afford to allow a population that’s none of the above to organize to save itself from outright extinction without also demanding applause for Israeli policy as the price of sympathy and support.

If Cruz felt that he couldn’t in good conscience address an audience of persecuted Arab Christians without including a florid, “no greater ally” preamble about Israel, he could have withdrawn from the event. The fact that he preferred to do it this way instead says a lot — none of it good — about his priorities and instincts.

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

What an unmitigated ass he is.  Now here’s our weekly dose of MoDo:

When Roger Goodell was growing up here, he had the best possible example of moral leadership. His father, a moderate New York Republican appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to Bobby Kennedy’s Senate seat after the assassination, risked his career to come out against the Vietnam War.

“We should not be engaged in a land war 10,000 miles away,” he wrote to Rockefeller.

Egged on by Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon never blanched at putting his political viability ahead of the lives of kids on the battlefield, but Charles Goodell would not do that. In September 1969, the senator tried to force the president to withdraw all the troops faster by introducing a bill, S-3000, withholding money. He could have waited until after his election the following year, thus garnering President Nixon’s support, but he was that rare creature that seems to have vanished from the Washington landscape: a profile in courage.

His moral stance brought down the immoral Furies: Nixon, Agnew and Kissinger, who suggested Goodell was treasonous. As his five sons, including 11-year-old Roger, watched in dismay, the vengeful Nixon White House schemed against Goodell’s re-election, and, at 44, his political career was kaput.

The two legacies from his dad, Bryan Curtis wrote in Grantland last year, could well be “a measure of his dad’s idealism, his contrarianism, his stubbornness. And I bet we’d also find a kind of defense mechanism that develops when you see your dad destroyed on a public stage. An instinct that makes you think, I won’t let that happen to me.”

Now the N.F.L. commissioner, he proudly keeps a framed copy of the original S-3000 on the wall of his office on Park Avenue and told The Times’s George Vecsey in 2010 that it “was a valuable lesson to me.”

But what was the lesson? Goodell is acting more like Nixon, the man who covered up crimes, than like his father, who sacrificed his career to save lives.

As ESPN’s Keith Olbermann nicely summed it up, “Mr. Goodell is an enabler of men who beat women,” and he must resign.

Goodell likes to present himself as a law-and-order sheriff bent on integrity, whose motto is: “Protect the shield.” But that doesn’t seem to include protecting the victims of violence or American Indians who see the Washington team’s name as a slur. As with concussions, the league covered up until the public forced its hand.

The commissioner, who has been a sanctimonious judge for eight years, suddenly got lenient. His claim that it was “ambiguous about what actually happened” in the Atlantic City casino elevator between Ray Rice and his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, during the Valentine’s Day massacre was risible to start with. What did he think happened? The man was dragging out an unconscious woman like a sack of mulch.

Goodell’s credibility took another hit on Thursday, when Don Van Natta Jr. wrote on ESPN.com that four sources close to Rice had said that the player had admitted to the commissioner during a disciplinary meeting in his office on June 16 that he had hit his girlfriend in the face and knocked her out. This makes sense since Goodell is known for being intolerant of lies, and since Rice probably assumed the commissioner had seen the video. Yet Goodell only suspended him for two games, two less than if he’d been caught taking Adderall.

It has been suggested that the N.F.L. give players purple gear (oddly the color of Rice’s Ravens team) next month in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But they may as well just wear green. The Wall Street Journal reported that the greed league even asked entertainers to pay for the privilege of playing the Super Bowl halftime show.

Goodell was hired by the owners to be a grow-the-pie guy, which means shielding the throw-the-punch guy. Since he became commissioner in 2006, the league’s 32 gridiron fiefdoms have increased in value by $10.9 billion, according to Forbes. He wants to bring in $25 billion annually by 2027. Goodell himself is making more than $44 million.

Owners shrug off moral turpitude because when they pay a lot of money for a player, they don’t want him sitting out games, even if he’s been accused of a crime, because every game they lose means less merchandise and fewer ticket sales. So, as the N.F.L. continues its perp walk — on Friday, one of its best running backs, the Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson, was indicted on charges of abusing his 4-year-old son in Texas — Goodell looks the other way.

They think they can get away with anything now, even with women being almost 50 percent of their fan base. And maybe they can. Twenty million people tuned in to watch the Ravens play Thursday night — even without the irony of prerecorded Rihanna’s performance kicking things off — and the papers were filled with sickening pictures of women proudly wearing Rice’s No. 27 jersey.

The last sports commissioner who didn’t kowtow to owners may have been Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who banned Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox players from baseball for life even though they were acquitted in 1921 and went out with the jury to eat to celebrate. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” Landis said, “baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.”

If only.

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

There are three things in life that you should never do ambivalently: get married, buy a house or go to war. Alas, we’re about to do No. 3. Should we?

President Obama clearly took this decision to lead the coalition to degrade and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, with deep ambivalence. How could he not? Our staying power is ambiguous, our enemy is barbarous, our regional allies are duplicitous, our European allies are feckless and the Iraqis and Syrians we’re trying to help are fractious. There is not a straight shooter in the bunch.

Other than that, it’s just like D-Day.

Consider Saudi Arabia. It’s going to help train Free Syrian Army soldiers, but, at the same time, is one of the biggest sources of volunteer jihadists in Syria. And, according to a secret 2009 U.S. study signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and divulged by WikiLeaks, private “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Turkey allowed foreign jihadists to pass into and out of Syria and has been an important market for oil that ISIS is smuggling out of Iraq for cash. Iran built the E.F.P.’s — explosively formed penetrators — that Iraqi Shiite militias used to help drive America out of Iraq and encouraged Iraq’s Shiite leaders to strip Iraqi Sunnis of as much power and money as possible, which helped create the ISIS Sunni counterrevolt. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, deliberately allowed ISIS to emerge so he could show the world that he was not the only mass murderer in Syria. And Qatar is with us Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and against us Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fortunately, it takes the weekends off.

Meanwhile, back home, Obama knows that the members of his own party and the Republican Party who are urging him to bomb ISIS will be the first to run for the hills if we get stuck, fail or accidentally bomb a kindergarten class.

So why did the president decide to go ahead? It’s a combination of a legitimate geostrategic concern — if ISIS jihadists consolidate their power in the heart of Iraq and Syria, it could threaten some real islands of decency, like Kurdistan, Jordan and Lebanon, and might one day generate enough capacity to harm the West more directly — and the polls. Obama clearly feels drummed into this by the sudden shift in public opinion after ISIS’s ghastly videotaped beheadings of two American journalists.

O.K., but given this cast of characters, is there any way this Obama plan can end well? Only if we are extremely disciplined and tough-minded about how, when and for whom we use our power.

Before we step up the bombing campaign on ISIS, it needs to be absolutely clear on whose behalf we are fighting. ISIS did not emerge by accident and from nowhere. It is the hate-child of two civil wars in which the Sunni Muslims have been crushed. One is the vicious civil war in Syria in which the Iranian-backed Alawite-Shiite regime has killed roughly 200,000 people, many of them Sunni Muslims, with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. And the other is the Iraqi civil war in which the Iranian-backed Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki systematically stripped the Sunnis of Iraq of their power and resources.

There will be no self-sustained stability unless those civil wars are ended and a foundation is laid for decent governance and citizenship. Only Arabs and Muslims can do that by ending their sectarian wars and tribal feuds. We keep telling ourselves that the problem is “training,” when the real problem is governance. We spent billions of dollars training Iraqi soldiers who ran away from ISIS’s path — not because they didn’t have proper training, but because they knew that their officers were corrupt hacks who were not appointed on merit and that the filthy Maliki government was unworthy of fighting for. We so underestimate how starved Arabs are, in all these awakenings, for clean, decent governance.

Never forget, this is a two-front war: ISIS is the external enemy, and sectarianism and corruption in Iraq and Syria are the internal enemies. We can and should help degrade the first, but only if Iraqis and Syrians, Sunnis and Shiites, truly curtail the second. If our stepped-up bombing, in Iraq and Syria, gets ahead of their reconciliation, we will become the story and the target. And that is exactly what ISIS is waiting for.

ISIS loses if our moderate Arab-Muslim partners can unite and make this a civil war within Islam — a civil war in which America is the air force for the Sunnis and Shiites of decency versus those of barbarism. ISIS wins if it can make this America’s war with Sunni Islam — a war where America is the Shiite/Alawite air force against Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. ISIS will use every bit of its Twitter/Facebook network to try to depict it as the latter, and draw more recruits.

We keep making this story about us, about Obama, about what we do. But it is not about us. It is about them and who they want to be. It’s about a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism and needs to learn how to coexist. It’s the 21st century. It’s about time.


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