The Moustache of Wisdom is off today. The Pasty LIttle Putz has a serious case of flop sweat as he whistles past the graveyard. He says “The Kurtz Republicans” are looking in vain for a method to the shutdown madness. I guess he can’t remember all the way back to 9/21/12 when he wrote “The party now has a faction committed to learning real lessons from the 2012 defeat, breaking with the right’s stale policy consensus and embracing new ideas on a range of issues, from foreign policy to middle-class taxes, the drug war to banking reform.” As “cgehner” of Seattle/Munich says in the comments, “What a rapid change by Mr. Douthat! I remember only recently Mr. Douthat’s Blog was trying to argue that Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio were the “great intellectual innovators” of the GOP.” He’s a stronger man than I am. Even I won’t go near the Putz’s blog. In “A Mad Tea Party” MoDo says at a mad tea party, Ted and Chris and Rummy and Cheney and Scooter and Rupert all clink their cups. Mr. Kristof, in “From the Streets to ‘World’s Best Mom’,” says the fight against sex trafficking isn’t hopeless. Just look at some of this good work being done in Nashville. Mr. Bruni has a question in “College’s Identity Crisis:” How do we increase the accessibility of higher education, lower its costs and improve its quality all at once? Here’s the Putz:
“They told me,” Martin Sheen’s Willard says to Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” at the end of a long journey up the river, “that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.”
His baldness bathed in gold, his body pooled in shadow, Kurtz murmurs: “Are my methods unsound?”
And Willard — filthy, hollow-eyed, stunned by what he’s seen — replies: “I don’t see any method at all, sir.”
This is basically how reasonable people should feel about the recent conduct of the House Republicans.
Politics is a hard business, and failure is normal enough. It’s not unusual for political parties to embrace misguided ideas, pursue poorly thought-out strategies, persist in old errors and embrace new ones eagerly.
So we shouldn’t overstate the gravity of what’s been happening in Washington. There are many policies in American history, pursued in good faith by liberals or conservatives, that have been more damaging to the country than the Republican decision to shut down the government this month, and many gambits that have reaped bigger political disasters than most House Republicans are likely to face as a result.
But there is still something well-nigh-unprecedented about how Republicans have conducted themselves of late. It’s not the scale of their mistake, or the kind of damage that it’s caused, but the fact that their strategy was such self-evident folly, so transparently devoid of any method whatsoever.
Every sensible person, most Republican politicians included, could recognize that the shutdown fever would blow up in the party’s face. Even the shutdown’s ardent champions never advanced a remotely compelling story for how it would deliver its objectives. And everything that’s transpired since, from the party’s polling nose dive to the frantic efforts to save face, was entirely predictable in advance.
The methodless madness distinguishes this shutdown from prior Congressional Republican defeats (the Gingrich shutdown, the Clinton impeachment), when you could at least see what the politicians involved were thinking. And it distinguishes it, too, from many of history’s marches of folly as well.
You could compare the behavior of current House Republicans to the diplomatic sleepwalking that led to World War I, but at least, in that case, the various powers had reasonable theories of how they would actually win the ensuing war.
Or you could compare it to Paraguay’s decision in the 1860s to declare war on both Brazil and Argentina at once, but at least Paraguay’s armed forces managed to win some victories before being ground into defeat.
Now, admittedly, just because the Republican strategy has been irrational doesn’t make it inexplicable. The trends that brought us to this point are clear enough: the discrediting of the Republican establishment during the Bush era; the rise of a populist right that often sees opposition as an end unto itself; the willingness of too many media figures, activists and politicians to stoke that wing’s worst impulses; and the current Republican leadership’s desire both to prevent an intraparty civil war and avoid a true national disaster like default.
Given this underlying landscape, it may be that John Boehner chose a kind of rational irrationality these last two weeks — accepting the Kurtzian shutdown “strategy” in order to demonstrate its senselessness and persuade his members to behave slightly more sensibly in the future.
But even if Boehner’s decision-making ends up looking like a least-bad approach under the circumstances, he’ll only have won a temporary reprieve. Kurtz Republicanism isn’t likely to go away until somebody else within the party — someone with more movement credibility than the speaker, and more subtlety and vision than Ted Cruz — figures out how to take the energy driving the shutdown and redirect it to more constructive ends.
It’s clear, right now, that the populists can’t be trusted not to drive their party into a ditch. But neither can Republican leaders just declare war on their own base, as some moderates and liberals would have them do.
Instead, Republicans need to seek a kind of integration, which embraces the positive aspects of the new populism — its hostility to K Street and Wall Street, its relative openness to policy innovation, its desire to speak on behalf of Middle America and the middle class — while tempering its Kurtzian streak with prudence, realism, and savoir-faire.
Think of the way that Barack Obama, in his post-2004 ascent, managed to channel the zeal of the antiwar left without being defined by its paranoid excesses, and you can see a recent model for how this kind of integration might work.
But then imagine an alternate reality in which figures like Joe Lieberman and John Kerry were stuck trying to lead a Democratic Party whose backbenchers were mostly net-roots-funded fans of Michael Moore, and you have a decent analog for where the post-Bush Republicans have ended up.
And even if Kurtz doesn’t get the last word in this story, it’s still a long way back down that river.
It’s fun to watch him writhe… Here’s moDo:
How awful are Ted Cruz and his Cruzettes?
They have done the impossible. They have made Americans look back at the Bush II era, the most reckless wrecking ball in American history, with relative nostalgia.
With 78 percent of Americans feeling blue about the country being on the wrong track, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, many consider the G.O.P.’s imperialistic unilaterists less loco than the narcissistic anarchists. As grandiose delusions go, global domination makes more sense than self-annihilation.
“If I was in the Senate now, I’d kill myself,” Chris Christie said on Friday.
But before you start thinking Dick Cheney is temperate by comparison, consider the Commentary roast of the former vice president on Monday night at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Cheney made a joke about waterboarding an antelope that he borrowed from Jay Leno. Donald Rumsfeld quasi-jested that he knew Dick “back when the president of the United States still led our foreign policy, instead of Putin.”
Ben Smith of BuzzFeed reported that the roast sponsored by Rupert Murdoch and others featured Rumsfeld, Joe Lieberman and Scooter Libby, known as “Cheney’s Cheney” until he was convicted of lying during a federal leak probe.
Lieberman, a guest told BuzzFeed, said it was nicer to be at the Plaza than in cages after a war crimes trial. There were pardon jokes about W., whose relationship with Cheney was shattered over not giving Libby one. Libby said W. sent a note: “Pardon me, I can’t make it.”
The acrid legacy of Cheney and Rummy lives on as they carp from the sidelines about the “so-called commander in chief.” In December, “The Unknown Known,” an Errol Morris documentary about the man who was the youngest and oldest secretary of defense, hits theaters.
Morris won an Oscar in 2004 for “Fog of War,” his documentary about another dangerous, delusional defense secretary with wire-rimmed glasses, Robert McNamara; in his acceptance speech, Morris warned that, with Iraq, America might be going down another “rabbit hole.”
But the cocky Rummy talked to him for 33 hours anyway. Unlike McNamara, however, Rumsfeld does not admit his historic blunders, but maintains his “Stuff happens” brio.
“You make a movie with the secretary of defense you have,” Morris told me dryly, “not with the secretary of defense you want to have.”
Still, the filmmaker was smart to bookend the men, opposite ends of the same warmongering problem: McNamara was so droning and unemotive that he lulled listeners into thinking that nothing bad could be happening, while Rumsfeld was so energetic and blithe that it was hard to believe that people were dying and the war was being lost. Morris’s wife and collaborator, Julia Sheehan, said that McNamara was “The Flying Dutchman” wandering the earth looking for redemption, while Rumsfeld is the Cheshire cat.
“All we’re left with at the very end is this infernal grin,” Morris said. “Everybody wants this smoking gun. The entire Bush administration is a smoking gun.
“In his memos and homilies, Rumsfeld will say things that are just contradictory, as though by saying everything, you’ve covered all your bases,” Morris continued. “It’s deeply anti-rational, as if there’s no deep reflection or thought. You have no evidence? Well, ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ as Rumsfeld said about W.M.D. in Iraq. Taken to some crazy conclusion, you can justify anything that way.
“At times in his language, he descends into some strange insanity, as though he’s trying to convince himself.”
Asked the lesson of Vietnam — Rumsfeld was the chief of staff to Gerald Ford when Saigon was evacuated — Rumsfeld briskly replies: “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.”
When Morris presses Rumsfeld about the Justice Department’s “torture memos,” the former defense chief said they did not come out of “the Bush administration, per se; they came out of the U.S. Department of Justice.” That parsing would be beyond Bill Clinton.
About the memos that led to what Morris considers “one of the great stains in American history,” Rumsfeld says he never read them. When asked why, he replies, “I’m not a lawyer. What would I know?”
When Morris asks Rumsfeld about the “confusion” that linked Saddam to 9/11, he answers brightly, “I don’t think the American people were confused about that,” adding, “I don’t remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that.”
Holy mushroom cloud.
Rumsfeld doesn’t even seem to understand his signature phrase. Reading from a 2004 memo, he says, “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns.” He tells Morris that there are also unknown knowns. Things that you possibly may know that you don’t know you know.
Morris challenges him: “But the memo doesn’t say that. It says that we know less, not more, than we think we do.”
Rumsfeld finally admits a boo-boo: “Yeah, I think that memo is backwards.” Then he chastises the filmmaker for “chasing the wrong rabbit.”
Right down the rabbit hole.
When I start feeling nostalgic about C+ Augustus will be the day that I’ll be committed to a mental institution. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
When men paid Shelia Faye Simpkins for sex, they presumably thought she was just a happy hooker engaging in a transaction among consenting adults.
It was actually more complicated than that, as it usually is. Simpkins says that her teenage mom, an alcoholic and drug addict, taught her at age 6 how to perform oral sex on men. “Like a lollipop,” she remembers her mom explaining.
Simpkins finally ran away from home at 14 and into the arms of a pimp.
“I thought he was my boyfriend,” Simpkins remembers. “I didn’t realize I was being pimped.”
When her pimp was shot dead, she was recruited by another, Kenny, who ran a “stable” of four women and assigned each of them a daily quota of $1,000. Anyone who didn’t earn that risked a beating.
There’s a common belief that pimps are business partners of prostitutes, but that’s a complete misunderstanding of the classic relationship. Typically, every dollar earned by the women goes to the pimp, who then doles out drugs, alcohol, clothing and food.
“He gets every penny,” Simpkins explains. “If you get caught with money, you get beat.”
Simpkins periodically ran away from Kenny, but each time he found her — and beat her up with sticks or iron rods. On average, she figures that Kenny beat her up about once a week, and she still carries the scars.
“I was his property,” Simpkins says bluntly.
I met Simpkins here in Nashville, where my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and I have been filming a segment about sex trafficking as part of a PBS documentary accompanying our next book. We were filming with Ashley Judd, the actress, who lives in the Nashville area and is no neophyte about these issues. Judd has traveled all around the world to understand sexual exploitation — and she was devastated by what we found virtually in her backyard.
“It’s freaking me out,” she told me one day after some particularly harrowing interviews. It’s easier to be numbed by child prostitution abroad, but we came across online prostitution ads in Nashville for “Michelle,” who looked like a young teenager. Judd had trouble sleeping that night, thinking of Michelle being raped in cheap hotels right in her hometown.
In this respect, Nashville is Everytown U.S.A. Sex trafficking is an American universal: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported in 2011 that over a two-year period, trafficking occurred in 85 percent of Tennessee’s counties, including rural areas. Most are homegrown girls like Simpkins who flee troubled homes and end up controlled by pimps.
Of course, there are also women (and men) selling sex voluntarily. But the notion that the sex industry is a playground of freely consenting adults who find pleasure in their work is delusional self-flattery by johns.
Sex trafficking is one of the most severe human rights violations in America today. In some cases, it amounts to a modern form of slavery.
One reason we as a society don’t try harder to uproot it is that it seems hopeless. Yet Simpkins herself is a reminder that we needn’t surrender.
Simpkins says that she would be dead by now if it weren’t for a remarkable initiative by the Rev. Becca Stevens, the Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt University here, to help women escape trafficking and prostitution.
Rev. Stevens had been searching for a way for her congregation to address social justice issues, and she felt a bond with sex trafficking survivors. Rev. Stevens herself had been abused as a girl — by a family friend in her church, beginning when she was 6 years old — and she shared with so many trafficked women the feelings of vulnerability, injustice and anger that go with having been molested.
With donations and volunteers, Rev. Stevens founded a two-year residential program called Magdalene for prostitution survivors who want to overcome addictions and start new lives. To help the women earn a living, Rev. Stevens then started a business, Thistle Farms, which employs dozens of women making products sold on the Internet and in stores like Whole Foods. This year, Thistle Farms has also opened a cafe, employing former prostitutes as baristas.
Shelia Simpkins went through the Magdalene program and overcame her addictions. In December, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and then she plans to earn a master’s in social work.
She regularly brings in women off the street who want to follow her in starting over. I met several of Simpkins’ recruits, including a woman who had been prostituted since she was 8 years old and is now bubbling with hope for a new future. Another has left drugs, started a sales job and found a doctor who agreed not to charge her to remove 16 tattoos designating her as her pimp’s property. And a teenage prostitute told me that she’s trying to start over because, “the only person who visited me in jail was Miss Shelia.”
Magdalene and Thistle Farms fill part of what’s needed: residential and work programs for women trying to flee pimps. We also need to see a much greater crackdown on pimps and johns.
Simpkins figures she was arrested about 200 times — and her pimps, never. As for johns, by my back-of-envelope calculations, a john in Nashville has less than a 0.5 percent chance of being arrested. If there were more risk, fewer men would buy sex, and falling demand would force some pimps to find a new line of work.
In short, there are steps we can take that begin to chip away at the problem, but a starting point is greater empathy for women like Simpkins who were propelled into the vortex of the sex trade — and a recognition that the problem isn’t hopeless. To me, Simpkins encapsulates not hopelessness but the remarkable human capacity for resilience.
She has married and has two children, ages 4 and 6. The older one has just been accepted in a gifted program at school, and Simpkins couldn’t be more proud.
“I haven’t done a lot of things right in my life, but this is one thing I’m going to do right,” she said. “I’m going to be the world’s best mom.”
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
Is a college degree’s worth best measured by the income its recipient makes 5 or 10 years down the road? Is college primarily a catapult to wealth? These were questions implicitly raised by President Obama’s recent proposal that the federal government look at graduates’ earnings when rating schools in an effort to steer students toward the best ones.
Is time in the military, in a store or at home with children comparable to time in a classroom, and should it count in some way toward a degree? There are university administrators who think so and who are trying to increase “completion rates” — the percentage of students who make it all the way to degrees — by giving credit for experiences far away from campus, so that students have a less lengthy, costly route to a diploma.
Some states and educators see the spread of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a terrific way to enroll more young people in college at a more affordable price, but there’s little if any evidence so far that this approach is optimal, especially for the students stretching the furthest to incorporate higher education into their lives.
And already, the higher learning that too many young Americans partake of leaves a lot to be desired. Time magazine rightly began its recent cover story on the college experience in the United States by reporting the results of a chilling survey last year of recent graduates. It showed that 62 percent of them didn’t know, for example, that Congressional terms are two years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate. You can’t tell me that the quality of the men and women we send to Washington isn’t affected by such profound and widespread ignorance about what they do there and how the system works (or, rather, doesn’t).
Although our lurch from one crisis to the next — the Syria debate, the government shutdown — often obscures all other matters, one of the most important issues in American life right now is higher education’s identity crisis, its soul-searching about what it should accomplish, whom it should serve and how it must or mustn’t be tweaked. Our global competitiveness is likely to depend on how we answer these questions.
And if you think we’re suitably competitive as is, then consider another survey, published last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It measured the skills of Americans from the ages of 16 to 65 and found that they by and large lacked the mathematical and technological know-how, along with the literacy, of their counterparts in Japan and Northern European countries. Among the 23 nations that the organization assessed, we weren’t anywhere near the lead. We were closer to the bottom of the pack, with our young adults in particular performing unremarkably. This troubling state of affairs is an echo of the educational gap that we’ve long lamented. It’s an extrapolation, really. Learn too little and you wind up knowing too little.
“Higher education policy needs to focus not just on access and affordability but also quality and success,” Michael Dannenberg, the director of higher education policy for the Education Trust, said last week when I asked him what the moral of the skills survey was. He added that while completion rate was one aspect of success, “it’s not the whole story.”
In a different week, the survey might have garnered more attention, but Washington’s dysfunction sucks the oxygen out of every other discussion. You can’t tackle education or immigration when you’re passing emergency measures so that slain servicemen’s survivors aren’t denied the government aid they’ve been promised and deserve.
The escalation of tuition, the crippling rise of student debt and a persistently high jobless rate over recent years have rightly prompted educators, politicians and other policy makers to float and implement methods to make college less financially onerous, in part by collapsing the time it takes for students to get their degrees. After all, statistics suggest that college diplomas are the best amulets against unemployment and the surest paths to a good income.
And the Obama administration, to its credit, has made clear in its recent proposals that the measurable effectiveness of schools shouldn’t be overlooked in the process. That was a big part of the new higher-education policy it laid out in August, which Dannenberg described as positive “baby steps” in the right direction.
But the inclusion of graduates’ earnings as one yardstick of effectiveness belongs to a broader trend of seeing college in pecuniary terms that could easily go too far. Setting students up for immediate careers and giving them the intellectual tools that will serve them best over a lifetime aren’t necessarily one and the same, and in several states and at many universities, the vigorous push to plump up enrollment and herd students into particular programs threatens to make college too much of a vocational school.
“The notion is, let’s transform higher education into job training,” Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, told me disapprovingly. That sort of sentiment, he said, was detectable in President Obama’s recent remark that it might be wise to shorten law school from three years to two.
Ackerman said that when you also factor in the proliferation of online courses for disadvantaged students, you begin to see what could easily become an overly tiered, wildly inconsistent college landscape of “a few superstars and then a lot of glorified teaching systems” that aren’t all that constructive.
We’re in a tricky, troubling spot. At a time when our nation’s ability to tackle complicated policy problems is seriously in doubt, we must pull off a delicate balancing act. We must make college practical but not excessively so, lower its price without lowering its standards and increase the number of diplomas attained without diminishing not only their currency in the job market but also the fitness of the country’s work force in a cutthroat world.
“Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor,” Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Times’s Richard Pérez-Peña in an article about the new skills survey last week. “But that advantage is slipping.”