Archive for the ‘Kristof’ Category

Blow, Kristof and Collins

October 8, 2015

Mr. Blow says “With Ben Carson, the Doctor is Always Out” and that after this week’s string of dumbfounding comments emanating from the candidate, I’m starting to doubt everything that comes out of his mouth.  Mr. Kristof considers “3 Peerless Republicans for President: Trump, Carson and Fiorina” and says any  of the front-runners would make history by being elected without basic experiences of every other occupant of the Oval Office.  Ms. Collins says “Too Many Bushes Spoil the Broth” and that Jeb’s supporters are hearing from the whole family: Columba, George, Barbara, George W. and Laura.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Oh, Ben.

On Tuesday, Ben Carson was on “Fox & Friends” and was posed this hypothetical: “If a gunman walks up and puts a gun at you and says what religion are you, that is the ultimate test of your faith,” as the Oregon shooter reportedly did to his victims.

It wasn’t a question per se, but the interviewer obviously wanted to know how Carson would react in that incredibly stressful circumstance.

Carson responded:

“I’m glad you asked that question because not only would I not probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’ ”

Then Carson chuckled.

Oh, Ben.

Do you not see why so many people saw this as a callous, thickheaded blaming of the victim? The statement doesn’t honor the heroism of Chris Mintz, who did exactly as Carson suggested — charged at the shooter, was shot seven times, but wasn’t able to incapacitate him — and it also devalues the lives and reactions of all the other victims who didn’t or couldn’t charge the shooter.

Which of us truly know precisely how we would react — even those of us who are sure that we would be fearless — when caught off guard and caught up in an active mass shooting where bodies, ripped open by bullets, are falling all around?

On Tuesday evening, Carson appeared on Fox News’ “The Kelly File,” where the host, Megyn Kelly, put this statement to him: “The accusation there, Dr. Carson, is that you appeared tone deaf and that you seemed callous in the laughter about a massacre and what you would have done.”

Carson responded, “I’m laughing at them and their silliness.” “Who?” Kelly asked. “The people asking that question,” Carson responded.

Hold up! When the original statement/question was put to Carson, the “them” were the hosts on “Fox & Friends,” and Carson’s response began with “I’m glad you asked that question…”

I’m starting to doubt everything that comes out of this man’s mouth.

On Wednesday on “CBS This Morning,” Carson defended his comments, saying, “I want to plant in people’s minds what to do in a situation like this because, unfortunately, this is probably not going to be the last time this happens.”

What Carson wants to plant in people’s minds flows counter to what the Department of Homeland Security wants to plant in their minds as “good practices.” The agency prioritizes personal protection and fleeing over engagement:

“If you suspect a potential active shooter situation, you must quickly determine the most reasonable way to protect your own life. If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to evacuate the premises.”

The recommendations continue:

“If evacuation is not possible, you should find a place to hide where the active shooter is less likely to find you.”

And then:

“As a last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger, you should attempt to incapacitate the shooter by acting with physical aggression and throwing items at the active shooter.”

On Wednesday, Carson appeared again on Fox News, responding to the criticism over his Tuesday comments.

“I’m not gonna change and become — you know, you know — a vanilla envelope that they can accept. They’re never going to accept me because I don’t believe in political correctness. So I can twist myself in pretzels trying to fit into their silly little box or I can be who I am. And we need people who are willing to stand up and talk what’s logical right now.”


Oh, Ben.

Did you mean manila, perchance?


This is not about whether speech should conform to political correctness, Mr. Carson, but about having a reasonable expectation that politicians can speak correctly. You, apparently, cannot.

We have to deal with all of the issues that contribute to our epidemic of gun violence in this country — everything from better assessment and treatment of mental illness, to sensible, national gun-control measures, to addressing a fame-obsessed, violence-soaked culture.

Our politicians won’t stand up to the gun lobby. But we can’t simply, as Carson recommends, throw our bodies at armed men.

During a Facebook question and answer session, he seemed to suggest that he preferred bodies riddled with bullets to more gun control. Carson wrote:

“There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking — but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”

Oh, Ben.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The leading contenders for the Republican nomination for president tell us three interesting things about America.

First, many G.O.P. voters are so disenchanted they’re willing to entrust the country to candidates — Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — with zero experience in elective office or military command. Only two men without previous time in major elective office or the military have been president, Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft, and both had held cabinet posts. No president has ever been as inexperienced as any of these three leading Republican candidates.

Second, the public feels an odd awe for C.E.O.s and presumes they know how to run things, even if their records suggest otherwise. This cultural reverence for C.E.O.s perhaps also explains why pay packages have increased — and why Fiorina was allowed to take home a $21 million severance package after she was fired as Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive for incompetence.

Third, the only kind of welfare that carries no stigma in America is corporate welfare. For all Trump’s criticisms of government, his familywealth came from feeding at the government trough. His father, Fred Trump, leveraged government housing programs into a construction business; the empire was founded on public money.

My bet is that Trump, Fiorina and Carson will fade, and that voters will eventually turn to a more conventional candidate, perhaps Senator Marco Rubio. From the Democrats’ point of view, the scariest Republican ticket might pair Rubio with John Kasich. Rubio has natural political skills, projects youth and change, and would signal that the Republican Party is ready to expand its demographic base. Rubio and Kasich would also have a decent chance of winning their home states, Florida and Ohio — and any ticket that could win Florida and Ohio would be a strong contender.

But instead, Republican primary voters for now are pursuing a bizarre flirtation with three candidates who are the least qualified since, well, maybe since Trump put his toe in the waters before the 2000 election.

In that sense, they offer a window into the American psyche — part of which is our adulation of the C.E.O.

There’s something to be said for C.E.O.s’ entering politics: In theory, they have management expertise and financial savvy. Then again, it didn’t work so well with Dick Cheney.

More broadly, the United States has overdone the cult of the C.E.O., partly explaining why at the largest companies the ratio of C.E.O. compensation to typical worker pay rose from 20 to one in 1965 to 303 to one in 2014,according to the Economic Policy Institute.

In any case, even if you were conducting a job search for a great C.E.O. to lead the free world, you wouldn’t turn to either Trump or Fiorina.

My sense is that Trump isn’t the idiot that critics often claim (the most common words voters used to describe him in a recent poll were “idiot,” “jerk,” “stupid” and “dumb”). This is a man who is near the top of diverse fields: real estate, book writing, television and now presidential politics. He’s a born showman, a master of branding and marketing. But he doesn’t seem a master of investing.

Back in 1976, Trump said he was worth “more than $200 million.” If he had simply put $200 million in an index fund and reinvested dividends, he would be worth $12 billion today, notes Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post. In fact, he’s worth $4.5 billion, according to Forbes.

In other words, Trump’s business acumen seems less than half as impressive as that of an ordinary Joe who parks his savings in an index fund.

An index fund might also have been less ethically problematic. In the 1970s, the Justice Department accused Trump of refusing to rent to blacks. And in 2013, New York State’s attorney general sued him, alleging “persistent fraudulent, illegal and deceptive conduct”; Trump denied the charges.

If Trump’s performance as a business executive was problematic, Fiorina’s was exceptional. Exceptionally bad.

Put aside the fact that she’s the C.E.O. who fired thousands of workers while raking in more than $100 million in compensation and pushing H.P. to acquire five corporate jets. Just looking at the bottom line, she earned her place on those “worst C.E.O.” lists she appeared on.

As Steven Rattner wrote in The Times, Hewlett-Packard’s share price fell 52 percent in the nearly six years she was at the helm. H.P. did worse than its peers: IBM fell 27.5 percent, and Dell, 3 percent.

Oh, and on the day she was fired, the stock market celebrated: H.P. shares soared 7 percent.

If I wanted a circus ringmaster, I’d hire Trump. If I wanted advice on brain surgery or hospital management, I’d turn to Carson. Fiorina would make an articulate television pundit. But for president?

The fact that these tyros are the three leading presidential contenders for a major political party is a sad window into our political dysfunction.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Happiness is being on the Jeb Bush campaign mailing list. Recent highlights:

Sept. 27 — Columba Bush emailed to say she wants me to get to know the Jeb she knows, who is a person of principle. Also very tall. “But Friend, no one is going to see that side of him if he misses his critical End of Quarter fundraising goal of $200,000.”

Sept. 29 — President George H.W. Bush is in my inbox. The good Bush! He wants me to know that Jeb is ready.

Later that day …

Barbara Bush just wrote, asking me to donate some money. She admits she’s not as big into email as her son. (Jeb brags that he spent 25 to 30 hours a week emailing when he was governor. He has a book coming out about this and a lot of the messages seem to involve thanking people for writing.) Anyhow, the former first lady mentions that — although she has no idea why — her family calls her “The Enforcer.” I am not entirely clear on why she’s bringing that up. Is it a threat?

Sept. 30 — Oh, wow, they’re rolling out W. He feels Jeb “has what it takes to lead our nation.” Also, both he and Laura would really appreciate it if I send some money.

Later that day …

Jeb wants to make sure I caught his brother’s note: “Really thankful to have his support on this journey.” I think someday we should discuss the national tendency to describe everything as a “journey.” Journey is getting a bad name.

Oct. 4 — Big news from Jeb: He’s been talking with his parents, and they think it would be great if I could get to know them personally. “Today we’re launching a contest to fly one lucky winner down to Texas at the end of the month to meet Mom and Dad. All you have to do is chip in $1.”

Oct. 6 — Columba wants to make sure I got Jeb’s note about the contest to meet George H.W. and Barbara. “Jeb loves meeting his biggest supporters, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than flying you to Houston to meet the whole family.” She and Jeb are going to be there, too. Although not, apparently, W. and Laura. Maybe they’re on a different journey.

• • •

This is far from the first time a candidate for president has dragged the family into fund-raising efforts. (By the end of the campaign, you’re going to see third cousins serving as honorary guests at $100-a-plate dinners.) And eventually, we’re going to have some serious conversations about Bill Clinton. But right now, we’re starting to get so many Bushes, the nation is in danger of becoming one large political hedge.

This week Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer reported in The Timesthat the Bush organization is seriously considering having George W. campaign for his brother in South Carolina, where people apparently look back on the invasion of Iraq as the best of times. South Carolina was a critical victory for W. in 2000 and I remember interviewing Republican primary voters who said they were going to vote for him because they knew if he got in trouble, his parents would straighten him out. It seemed sort of sweet at the time. Oh well.

The longer the race goes on, the closer Jeb seems to snuggle up to his older brother. We’ve come a long way from the “my own man” distancing epoch. After that, there was the arm’s-length era of Well, I wouldn’t have expanded Medicare. And then it was on to the fabled moment during the last debate when Donald Trump dissed W., and Jeb shot back: “You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe.” He then went on to mention the hugging of the firefighter at ground zero.

The World Trade Center was such a terrible, terrible tragedy that it seems unseemly to use it for political leverage in any way. However, if you’re going to bring it up, the accurate way to describe George W. Bush in relation to 9/11 would be something like, “The man who, despite the best intentions in the world, failed to keep us safe.”

Chances are, Jeb did envision a campaign in which he was the only Bush in sight. Just last month he told voters he knew he’d never get elected “by being the third Bush running for president.” But desperate times breed desperate measures. Very hard to go around bragging that you were a terrific Florida governor at the same time Florida Republicans are saying they’d much rather vote for Trump.

Plus, the big donors are getting restless. Dissatisfaction on the part of your former constituents is one thing, but there’s nothing worse than cranky oligarchs. Dangers abound. It’s a time when you need to see your kin flocking to the rescue. One person’s hedge is another person’s security blanket.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

October 1, 2015

In “Jeb Bush: Crying Out Loud” Mr. Blow says most of his speeches ooze over him like cold gruel. But there’s one special phrase, when he hears it, that tells him to perk up and pay attention.  In “The Most Important Thing, and It’s Almost a Secret” Mr. Kristof says everyone knows about the spread of war and the hopeless intractability of poverty. But everyone is wrong.  In “Planned Parenthood Talks” Ms. Collins says the only game in town goes into extra innings in Congress.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In an interview this week with Sirius XM’s POTUS channel, the presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush said that Washington Redskins was not an offensive team name. As Bush put it, “It’s a sport, for crying out loud. It’s a football team.” He continued, “I’m missing something here, I guess.”

Ah, Mr. Bush, you always seem to be missing something.

As The New York Times reported, But Change the Mascot, an advocacy group that represents Native American tribes, responded in a statement that read:

“What is surprising is that in promoting the use of this slur, the governor somehow believes he speaks for Native Americans and can assert that Native American people do not find this slur offensive.”

The Times also reported that according to a Federal Election Commission filing, the Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, “donated $100,000 this year to Right to Rise, the super PAC that supports Mr. Bush.”

As always, follow the money.

But there is something else that I also follow when it comes to Bush: his penchant for saying “for crying out loud,” particularly when his back is a bit against the wall and he realizes that what he’s saying will be found controversial by some. It seems to be his way of dampening backlash before it happens.

As a person who uses language for a living, I find it hard not to notice rhetorical quirks committed by others.

It has become something of a parlor game for me to note whenever he says “for crying out loud,” which always seems to signal some level of exasperation. And, somewhere around that phrase, he seems to say something interesting, sometimes something careless, nearly always something that makes news.

It’s one of those subconscious things that speakers do — like scratching their nose while telling a lie or taking a drink of water when listening to a question that makes them uncomfortable — that journalists learn to pay attention to.

For instance, while in Berlin during the summer, Bush addressed turmoil in his campaign, saying:

“This is an adjustment based on the skills of people that I got to know during the last three months. … It’s June, for crying out loud, so we’ve got a long way to go.”

When complaining that the Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley should not have apologized for conflating “all lives matter” with “black lives matter,” Bush said:

“No, for crying out loud, no. We’re so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying lives matter?”

He continued:

“Life is precious. It’s a gift from God. I frankly think that it’s one of the most important values that we have. I know in the political context it’s a slogan, I guess. Should he have apologized? No.”

When a Democratic National Committee spokeswoman asserted in March that Republican hopefuls were being disingenuous in their attacks on Hillary Clinton over her email, and specifically asked “what emails has Jeb Bush not turned over?” Bush responded that he was “totally transparent. I have a BlackBerry as part of my official portrait, for crying out loud. There was nothing to hide.”

In August, Bush complained about the impracticality of building a border wall between the United States and Mexico, a plan advocated by the Republican front-runner. Bush detailed his own plan, which included beefing up the border patrol and local law enforcement along the border as well as using more technology like drones and GPS. Yet he demanded, “But do it as a conservative, for crying out loud.” He continued, “I don’t think we should spend hundreds of billions of dollars with an impractical solution.”

As a person who uses language for a living, I find it hard not to notice rhetorical quirks committed by others.

It has become something of a parlor game for me to note whenever he says “for crying out loud,” which always seems to signal some level of exasperation. And, somewhere around that phrase, he seems to say something interesting, sometimes something careless, nearly always something that makes news.

It’s one of those subconscious things that speakers do — like scratching their nose while telling a lie or taking a drink of water when listening to a question that makes them uncomfortable — that journalists learn to pay attention to.

For instance, while in Berlin during the summer, Bush addressed turmoil in his campaign, saying:

“This is an adjustment based on the skills of people that I got to know during the last three months. … It’s June, for crying out loud, so we’ve got a long way to go.”

When complaining that the Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley should not have apologized for conflating “all lives matter” with “black lives matter,” Bush said:

“No, for crying out loud, no. We’re so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying lives matter?”

He continued:

“Life is precious. It’s a gift from God. I frankly think that it’s one of the most important values that we have. I know in the political context it’s a slogan, I guess. Should he have apologized? No.”

When a Democratic National Committee spokeswoman asserted in March that Republican hopefuls were being disingenuous in their attacks on Hillary Clinton over her email, and specifically asked “what emails has Jeb Bush not turned over?” Bush responded that he was “totally transparent. I have a BlackBerry as part of my official portrait, for crying out loud. There was nothing to hide.”

In August, Bush complained about the impracticality of building a border wall between the United States and Mexico, a plan advocated by the Republican front-runner. Bush detailed his own plan, which included beefing up the border patrol and local law enforcement along the border as well as using more technology like drones and GPS. Yet he demanded, “But do it as a conservative, for crying out loud.” He continued, “I don’t think we should spend hundreds of billions of dollars with an impractical solution.”

He was asked at a campaign event in Florida in July about his commitment to overhauling the immigration system. “Yes, for crying out loud,” he said. “It’s a broken system used as a wedge issue for political purposes.”

Many conservatives have accused Bush of supporting what they call amnesty and what others simply call a path to citizenship for some immigrants now illegally in the country. And of course, there was the conservative outrage over Bush saying that many immigrants come illegally as “an act of love.”

In an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting following the first presidential debate in which Bush bombed, he blasted the front-runner for his criticism of one of the moderators, saying:

“Megyn Kelly is a top-notch journalist. And the fact that she asked the guy tough questions … I mean, if you’re running for president of the United States and you think this is tough, try dealing with Putin for crying out loud.”

Bush has been struggling to get his footing in the race and rebuff and detract from an onslaught of insults coming his way.

While campaigning in New Hampshire in August, Bush commented on the huge Republican field — trying to deflect attention from the fact that he was no longer the G.O.P. front-runner — and how the candidates compared with the Democratic front-runner:

“There’s a lot of differences amongst ourselves but the differences pale in comparison to the differences that I have with Hillary Clinton, for crying out loud.”

The list of Bush’s nervous usage of the idiom goes on and on. I could have filled every one of these column inches with examples.

But Mr. Bush, I must say that I appreciate your little quirk. Most of the time your speeches ooze over me like cold gruel. At least now, when I hear your say “for crying out loud,” I know to perk up and pay attention.

Just think … Jeb! is supposed to be “the smart one.”  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

We journalists are a bit like vultures, feasting on war, scandal and disaster. Turn on the news, and you see Syrian refugees, Volkswagen corruption, dysfunctional government.

Yet that reflects a selection bias in how we report the news: We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. Indeed, maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we almost never cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.

Huh? You’re wondering what I’ve been smoking! Everybody knows about the spread of war, the rise of AIDS and other diseases, the hopeless intractability of poverty.

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty. Consider:

• The number of extremely poor people (defined as those earning less than $1 or $1.25 a day, depending on who’s counting) rose inexorably until the middle of the 20th century, then roughly stabilized for a few decades. Since the 1990s, the number of poor has plummeted.

• In 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5; this toll has since dropped by more than half.

• More kids than ever are becoming educated, especially girls. In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do.

Granted, some 16,000 children still die unnecessarily each day. It’s maddening in my travels to watch children dying simply because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But one reason for our current complacency is a feeling that poverty is inevitable — and that’s unwarranted.

The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.

“We live at a time of the greatest development progress among the global poor in the history of the world,” notes Steven Radelet, a development economist and Georgetown University professor, in a terrific book coming in November, “The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World.”

“The next two decades can be even better and can become the greatest era of progress for the world’s poor in human history,” Radelet writes.

I write often about inequality, a huge challenge in the U.S. But globally, inequality is diminishing, because of the rise of poor countries.

What does all this mean in human terms? I was thinking of that last week while interviewing Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner. Malala’s mother grew up illiterate, like the women before her, and was raised to be invisible to outsiders. Malala is a complete contrast: educated, saucy, outspoken and perhaps the most visible teenage girl in the world.

Even in countries like Pakistan, the epoch of illiterate and invisible women like Malala’s mother is fading; the epoch of Malala is dawning. The challenge now is to ensure that rich donor nations are generous in supporting the Global Goals — but also that developing countries do their part, rather than succumbing to corruption and inefficiency. (I’m talking to you, Angola!)

There’s one last false argument to puncture. Cynics argue that saving lives is pointless, because the result is overpopulation that leads more to starve. Not true. Part of this wave of progress is a stunning drop in birthrates.

Haitian women now average 3.1 children; in 1985, they had six. In Bangladesh, women now average 2.2 children. Indonesians, 2.3. When the poor know that their children will survive, when they educate their daughters, when they access family planning, they have fewer children.

So let’s get down to work and, on our watch, defeat extreme poverty worldwide. We know that the challenges are surmountable — because we’ve already turned the tide of history.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Ten years ago, did you imagine that Planned Parenthood would be the center of our national political life? No, 10 years ago we were just worried about George W. Bush and high oil prices. Sometimes I miss high oil prices.

On Wednesday the House passed a bill to keep the government running until December. Only 91 Republicans supported the idea, because it included funding for Planned Parenthood. (Thank you for keeping the national parks open, Nancy Pelosi.) John Boehner resigned because he was exhausted with the fight.

Right now the House of Representatives has at least three different committees investigating Planned Parenthood. That’s a lot of committees, although you do have to remember that there were once seven investigating what happened in Benghazi. And the current House specialBenghazi investigation has now taken longer than the one that looked into Watergate.

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy bragged to Sean Hannity on Fox News. McCarthy is hoping to succeed John Boehner as speaker, and he’s probably nervous about all the praise Boehner has been getting lately for evenhanded leadership. McCarthy’s remarks sounded awful to innocent bystanders — aren’t these things supposed to at least pretend to be fair? But it was probably meant to reassure his supporters that the team has never really faltered in its commitment to insanely irrational partisanship.

We will look forward to the questioning when Clinton appears before that special committee on Oct. 22. But about Planned Parenthood…

This week’s episode involved an appearance by Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Some critics have claimed the members made no attempt to actually get any information from their witness, but just made speeches for the cameras. Well, duh. At least they let Richards into the room. Which is more than you could say for the Judiciary Committee’s recent hearing on “Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation’s Largest Abortion Provider.”

Richards was fine, whenever she could get a word in edgewise. She explained several times that Planned Parenthood’s federal funding was mainly just Medicaid payments for treating low-income patients. However this is a concept that her opponents made it clear they plan to never get their heads around.

Peering down at Richards, Representative John Duncan Jr., a Tennessee Republican, noted that the Boys & Girls Clubs of America “received $26 million from the federal government, compared to your $528 million. Seems a little bit lopsided to me.”

Richards mildly noted that as much as she respected the Boys & Girls Clubs, it doesn’t do a whole lot in the way of providing health care services to Medicaid recipients. Unmoved, Duncan then demanded to know if Richards would defend “the sale of baby body parts.”

This is of course a reference to those heavily doctored videos that are supposed to prove that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit. They have been determined to be false, false, false on one count after another, but the anti-abortion activist who made them has never been invited to a congressional hearing to explain anything.

The committee members are also sure that Planned Parenthood is replaceable. In the immortal words of Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, they believe they can just “shift the money from an organization caught doing what they were caught doing and give it to the community health centers.” You can tell them a million times that there aren’t nearly enough providers to take care of all those low-income patients. You can show them congressional studies. You can also tell them that Planned Parenthood wasn’t caught doing anything. Never mind. It’s hopeless.

Several Democrats on the committee charged their Republican colleagues with sexism because they continually interrupted Richards and talked over her answers. (Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia complained about “the disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today.”) But to be fair, this is really standard operating procedure in the House these days, and Richards, who is the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, is not exactly a delicate flower.

Her interrogators also harped on her salary, which is more than $520,000 a year. It’s a lot of cash, but not a stunning amount of money for a job at that level, even for a normal large nonprofit where the challenges are mainly administration and fund-raising. Being at the helm of Planned Parenthood in the current climate is more like steering a boat carrying unstable explosives through a rocky and narrow channel while surrounded on both sides by enemy pirates throwing burning torches and threatening to close down the government.

The base salary for the head of the Boys & Girls Clubs, by the way, is $576,000.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

September 24, 2015

In “The Soft Bigotry of Ben Carson” Mr. Blow says his  pedigree as a neurosurgeon adds gravitas to his nonsensical utterances and provides some cover for poisonously harmful, over-the-line invectives.  In “Jews as Far as Possible” Mr. Cohen says being part of Stefan Zweig’s “community of expulsion,” Jews cannot now turn their backs on the expelled.  Mr. Kristof, in “A Pope for All Species,” says Francis’ empathy lifts humans, animals and Christianity itself.  Ms. Collins considers “The Pope and Clark Gable” and says a  parochial school teacher once offered twisted insight into the actor’s success and afterlife. The Catholic Church has made progress since.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

At first, he stood by that outrageously prejudiced remark, but after coming under fire from not only Muslim groups but also many conservatives, he soon tried to walk it back, to cushion and to caveat it.

On Monday night, he posted a message on Facebook that included this line: “I could never support a candidate for President of the United States that was Muslim and had not renounced the central tenant of Islam: Sharia Law.”

Then on Tuesday, at a news conference, Carson said, “It has nothing to do with being a Muslim.” He continued: “That was the question that was specifically asked. If the question had been asked about a Christian and they said, ‘Would you support a Christian who supports establishing a theocracy?’ I would have said no.”

Only his original comment was unambiguous: It had everything to do with being a Muslim. And it was bigoted.

But this isn’t Carson’s first time at this rodeo. This has become his modus operandi.

Carson has a way of speaking in a flat, sing-song-y tone while flashing his toothy, 100-watt smile, that can be utterly disarming, if not completely charming.

His undeniable pedigree as an acclaimed pediatric neurosurgeon adds an air of gravitas to his nonsensical utterances and provides some cover for what can be poisonously harmful, over-the-line invectives.

Carson says in low register what others shout in anger, and he gets a bit of a pass because of the discordant message and method of delivery.

Just because a person is soft-spoken doesn’t mean that he is well-spoken.

Since Carson used his 2013 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast to criticize President Obama’s policies to his face, he has been lionized in conservative quarters.

It’s not that others have not criticized the president before or since, but it was the particularity of the racial imagery of Carson’s critique — one smart, accomplished black man undressing another in public — that gave it particular power. It insulated the attack from racial characterization. He said things from the lips of a black conservative that roiled the minds of white ones. And it represented a prominent breaking of ranks, a slicing off of black solidarity from not only Democratic loyalty but also from fidelity with this president.

Since then, Carson’s rhetoric has seemed to get only more reckless.

He has called Obama a psychopath and a liar. He has compared Obama’s supporters to Nazi sympathizers. He has said that Obamacare is the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” even worse than the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

He has asserted that being gay is “absolutely” a choice as evidenced by people who “go into prison straight — and when they come out, they’re gay.” He later apologized in a statement that read in part:

“I do not pretend to know how every individual came to their sexual orientation. I regret that my words to express that concept were hurtful and divisive. For that I apologize unreservedly to all that were offended.”

And even when his rhetoric isn’t reckless, it can be wrongheaded.

He has used the shallowness of race as a biological construct to disavow and diminish the depth of racism as a very real cultural construct.

And he makes the mistake many people do, of using his personal story of success as a societal prescription for all problems. I have always held that working hard and following the rules are their own reward, but I am not naïve enough to believe that personal behavior can completely countervail structural oppression.

Carson knows that his outrageous antics in his role as the anti-Obama are a most profitable enterprise. He mixes political critique with Christian theological messaging to rake in quite a bit of money on the lecture circuit.As Politico reported in July, Carson “brought in nearly $2 million delivering inspirational speeches to faith-based groups like Christian high schools and pregnancy centers in 2014,” with speaking fees ranging “from $12,320 to $48,500.”

This is a sad turn — spurred, I believe, by profit motive — for such a great legacy.

I, like many other African-Americans, had come to see Carson as a hero before his foray into politics because of the resonance of his personal story — a poor inner-city child being raised by a driven single mother who valued education and instilled in him a sense of character that would allow him to become a staggering success.

Carson was the embodiment of possibility. His 1990 book, “Gifted Hands,” was required reading for many young people.

But as a political figure, his stature is diminished as he reveals himself to be intolerant, bordering on soft bigotry, and also reckless and needlessly inflammatory. No one can discount what Carson accomplished professionally, but those accomplishments must now stand shoulder to shoulder with this new persona: whisper-soft purveyor of hyperbolic hucksterism.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I should not be writing this column on Yom Kippur, in a break from shul, on an empty stomach, but there we are. Let’s put it down to another inflection in the many inflections of being Jew-ish.

Jews are a practical people. They deal with this world not the next. They are an argumentative people. They know that truth may be a matter of disputation, or may be arrived at only through disputation. They tend to accept that being Jewish, one may have to be Jew-ish at times, fall a little short, be a little approximate.

I have a column to write. Deadlines are unforgiving. Less forgiving than this Day of Atonement, whose significance was expressed in a phrase of Maimonides: “We have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”

I love that “as far as possible.” Jews, as I said, are a practical people. Their interest is in the feasible not in magic wands.

This is a day of the inward gaze, of breaking from the world. It is a time for turning the mind and soul elsewhere, away from the ephemeral toward the eternal, away from multitasking toward mercy.

A column is very much of this world. Once published, it is debated in real time, commented on, bounced across social media, its clicks counted; and so publication, no longer a singular event, becomes a process that may be protracted and distracting. Life today is a battle against distraction. You start off intent on doing one thing and end up doing another. Or not doing anything at all.

It feels good, then, to set aside pretense of action for the fecund inaction of sitting still in synagogue, in my case the beautiful 175-year-old West London Synagogue, to listen to many things (including silence); and to reflect, arrested now and then by a phrase or just by the sunlight glinting through stained glass into a place of proportions that speak of harmony.

How inexhaustible are the words of the sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?”

A couple of millennia have not produced a better summation of realism allied to humanity allied to the urgency of the deed, nor a more powerful injunction against self-delusion, selfishness and procrastination.

I had arrived in London from the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of refugees who have fled the Syrian war are entering Europe every day on inflatable rafts. “Refugees Welcome,” said a banner at the entrance to the synagogue — scarcely the general view of Britain or its government. Jews, part of what Stefan Zweig called “the ever-recurring — since Egypt — community of expulsion,” cannot in good conscience turn their backs on the expelled.

In different renderings, throughout the day, a cornerstone of Jewish ethics was expressed: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Recall what it is to be driven out of your land with no land to go to.

At no time did I hear of the God of dangerous certainties endemic to every form of fundamentalism. I did not hear of a God of revealed truths used to stoke the fires of confrontation between peoples, nor of an unforgiving God invoked by believers to justify zealotry or beheadings or discrimination or exclusive claims to land. No, this was the God of “whoever saves one soul, it counts as if he saved the whole world.”

Jews came up with the idea of a faceless God with whom they had a covenant, and that covenant — binding over thousands of years of uprooted wandering — was in essence a covenant of ethics. For a long time it was a covenant of the powerless. It would be a terrible outcome if it proved irreconcilable with the exercise of power, now that the long-awaited return to Jerusalem has occurred, and a strong and vibrant modern Israel exists whose founding charter of 1948 says the state will be based on “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

Those prophets’ word was present in the synagogue. Zealotry is not the answer to zealotry. Being a practical people who have learned through the ultimate trial that without power survival itself is at risk cannot mean Jewish acquiescence to the injustice of dominion over another displaced people, the Palestinians. The teachings of the “community of expulsion” demand ever-renewed commitment to inclusion, even when it seems hopeless. Justice and peace are incompatible with the status quo in the Holy Land.

Perhaps such ideas are Jew-ish, the delusions of which “real Jews” in their absolutist certainties have rid themselves. But I will take the “as far as possible” of the Jewish philosopher over the all-or-nothing conviction of the Messianic Jewish settler.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

We all know that Pope Francis cares deeply for the marginalized, but did you realize that his compassion bridges the species barrier? Hesuggests that animals will go to heaven and that the Virgin Mary “grieves for the sufferings” even of mistreated livestock.

“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place,” he has written.

I share his conviction that dogs go to heaven — indeed, heaven would be diminished if there were no dogs. And it’s exhilarating to see a spiritual leader whose empathy goes beyond the widow and orphan to, say, the parrot (Francis once blessed a parrot belonging to a former male stripper).

More on Francis’ empathy for animals in a moment. In a larger sense, it is this boundless compassion that has made him such a popular figure, even among non-Catholics.

Indeed, here’s the delicious irony: Pope Francis is revered even by many atheists.

The backdrop is that the Christian “brand” has suffered from culture wars, hypocritical televangelist blowhards and the sense that Christian leaders have spent more time condemning gays (whom Jesus never mentions) than helping the needy (Jesus’ passion). Some young people have gone so far as to avoid the label “Christian,” calling themselves followers of Jesus instead. It carries less baggage.

Yet I wonder if that taint isn’t beginning to fade. In the Protestant world, the baton has passed to evangelical leaders who are less interested in culture wars, and under Francis the same may increasingly be true of Roman Catholicism. In his remarks during his White House visit on Wednesday, Francis focused once again on climate change, the environment and immigrants.

Our public figures are often narcissists, utterly self-absorbed in their quest for power. And into this mix strides Pope Francis, drawn to the powerless, focused on issues like climate change and human trafficking, declaring, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined.”

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, the evangelical aid group, cites that passage and says Francis’ writing should be required reading across denominations.

“I have been deeply grieved by the damage done to the reputation of Christianity in recent years by Christians shaking their fists at the culture,” Stearns says. “Perhaps the shortest definition of God in Scripture is from 1 John 4:8, ‘God is love.’ Pope Francis is trying to show the world the simplicity of that revolutionary idea.”

Deborah Fikes, of the World Evangelical Alliance, puts it this way: “As a U.S. evangelical who has been so disappointed in how leaders from my own faith tradition have lost sight of what an authentic Christian witness really looks like, Pope Francis is nailing it, and this is resonating with Catholics and Protestants, including evangelicals.”

The excitement about Francis is about his tone as much as his substance, and he shares many of the conservative social values of his predecessors. To me, one of the most striking shifts that go beyond tone is one that has commanded almost no notice: his calls for animal rights.

“We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures,” he declared in his encyclical on the environment. “The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism.”

There are many such passages, including a warning against unnecessary experiments on animals.

It would be a mistake to say, as one animal rights group did, that the pope’s message is “go vegan,” and it’s unclear what the practical implications are. Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary has called on the pope to match his words by making the Vatican cafeteria vegetarian — but I wouldn’t bet on that happening soon.

Still, Francis is relentlessly shining his spotlight on the voiceless, whether two-legged or four-legged, and that is new.

Pope Paul VI is said to have once comforted a boy by saying that he could see his dog again in heaven, but Pope Benedict XVI contradicted that.

Charles Camosy, a Catholic theologian at Fordham University who has written a book about the theology of animal protection, says that Francis’ carefully reviewed encyclical this year constitutes the first authoritative Catholic statements that animals enjoy eternal life. Camosy says this is a milestone, although he says he would have also welcomed Francis’ clarifying our moral obligations to, say, pigs versus mosquitoes.

The pope’s sweeping empathy will benefit the poor, the refugees and, perhaps gradually, animals we abuse in factory farms. But it does more; his humility and compassion also benefit the reputation of Christianity itself, by helping to recast it from pointing fingers to helping hands.

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

Watching the nation come to a screeching halt over Pope Francis’ visit, I had a flashback to my childhood in Cincinnati. One day I saw a picture of then-Pope Pius XII on the front page of the evening paper and I was shocked — Shocked! I had no idea that anybody in Ohio outside my immediate neighborhood knew who he was.

In our Catholic school, the nuns stressed our isolation, and they kept prepping us to be ready to die for our faith at any moment. Like St. Ursula, who was on a pilgrimage with 11,000 virgins, all of whom instantly chose martyrdom rather than surrender their purity to infidel Huns. (At the time, I just knew virgins were women who hadn’t married, and I had a vision of throngs of young ladies being pursued by barbarians waving engagement rings.)

Or St. Tarcisius, a Roman boy who was carrying holy communion to imprisoned Christians. There are many versions of this story, but in the one my teachers told, the job was supposed to be performed in total silence. When his pagan playmates asked him to join their game, Tarcisius clasped his sacred package to his heart and shook his head. Then the pagan boys guessed what was up and beat him to death.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how Tarcisius might have gotten away unscathed. Maybe by pretending to have a sore throat? It seemed important to identify the best strategy, because some modern-day version of the Huns or pagan Romans could arrive at any minute.

Catholicism was, as I learned after the Pius XII incident, the largest faith in my city. Many of our teachers were probably only a generation away from being picked-on immigrants, and maybe they brought their sense of paranoia with them to the classrooms. That’s understandable, but being both the powerful majority and the persecuted minority is like having your cake and eating it, and then taking over the bakery and bolting the front door.

This brings us back to Pope Francis, a humble man who accepts that he’s very powerful. He may have a little car and a modest home, but when he looks out at the world, his gaze isn’t defensive. He wants Catholicism to thrive — on a planet without global warming. He knows there are places where Catholics are suffering terribly for their faith, but when he looks at an embattled flock, he also sees Muslim immigrants who need Christian countries to open their borders.

Almost everybody appreciates this is a terrific gift to the world. Many people were hoping for a second one: some change in the church’s dogma on sex. This seems highly unlikely. But if Francis can at least change the context, that would be terrific.

Catholic schools don’t focus on sex now the way they did when I was a student. But the current crop of bishops was probably educated in schools like mine, where the subject came up 24/7. When Clark Gable died, one of my teachers explained that since the actor had had several wives, God knew he was going to hell and had probably given him earthly success to make up for any good deeds he performed in this world.

This was not official Catholic doctrine. The reform-minded John XXIII was pope by then and he would have fainted if confronted by the Clark Gable theory. But it was an excellent example of how loopy things can get if a religion obsesses on consensual private behavior.

I remember one priest who told us that when Christ was dying on the cross, he sadly envisioned us Catholic girls sinning in the back seat of a car.

“Aren’t there any other sins?” I asked one day. I’d be sort of proud of having come up with the question if the follow-up hadn’t been such a failure. I couldn’t think of any other immediate possibilities. Nobody in my school even swore.

“Like …” I groped. “…Greed?” All I knew about greed was cartoons of Scrooge McDuck sitting on a pile of money.

There were obviously a lot of character failings we could have discussed. My friends and I were capable of floating for weeks without seriously directing attention at anything that didn’t involve ourselves. But as long as we kept away from boys’ wandering hands, we felt spiritually A-O.K.

This pope is highly unlikely to accept gay marriage, and he’ll never give abortion a pass. But in Washington he grouped abortion in a long catalog of wrongs that need to be righted: hungry children, bombing, “immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow,” old or sick people who are treated as a burden, terrorism, war, drug trafficking and environmental devastation.

It’s a long, long way from believing that God looked at Clark Gable’s soul and saw nothing but a guy who got divorced.

Kristof, Bruni and Collins

September 17, 2015

In “When Crime Pays: J&J’s Drug Risperdal” Mr. Kristof says marketing the antipsychotic got Johnson & Johnson a criminal record, big settlement costs and penalties — and bigger profits.  Mr. Bruni had “An Overdose of Donald Trump at the G.O.P. Debate,” and says the second meeting of Republican candidates often revolved around the supposedly entertaining billionaire, and that isn’t amusing.  Ms. Collins watched too.  In “At Debate, Republicans Talk the Talk” she says some of the 15 candidates on stage said things to catch viewers’ attention, but it took five long hours to hear them through.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Risperdal is a billion-dollar antipsychotic medicine with real benefits — and a few unfortunate side effects.

It can cause strokes among the elderly. And it can cause boys to grow large, pendulous breasts; one boy developed a 46DD bust.

Yet Johnson & Johnson marketed Risperdal aggressively to the elderly and to boys while allegedly manipulating and hiding the data about breast development. J&J got caught, pleaded guilty to a crime and has paid more than $2 billion in penalties and settlements. But that pales next to some $30 billion in sales of Risperdal around the world.

In short, crime pays, if you’re a major corporation.

Oh, and the person who was in charge of marketing the drug in these ways? He is Alex Gorsky, who was rewarded by being elevated to C.E.O. of J&J. He earned $25 million last year.

This tale is told in a devastating 58,000-word epic by Steven Brill that is being serialized on The Huffington Post. Some has already been covered in The Times and other papers, or in Senate investigations and innumerable court decisions, but it’s still wrenching to read the comprehensive account of how a company put profit above everything and then benefited handsomely for doing so.

The story begins when J&J’s previous antipsychotic medicine ended its patent life, so sales plunged as generics gained market share. In 1994, J&J released Risperdal as a successor, but the Food and Drug Administration said it wasn’t necessarily better than the previous version and in any case was effective primarily for schizophrenia in adults. That’s a small market, and J&J was more ambitious. It wanted a blockbuster with annual revenues of at least $1 billion.

So J&J reinvented Risperdal as a drug for a broad range of problems, targeting everyone from seniors with dementia to children with autism.

The company also turned to corporate welfare: It paid doctors and others consulting fees and successfully lobbied for Texas to adopt Risperdal in place of generics. This meant that the state paid $3,000 a year for each Medicaid patient taking it, rather than $250 a year for each, Brill says.

Building on that, J&J reached out to Omnicare, a company that provided pharmaceutical services in nursing homes. The two companies cut a deal so that Omnicare doctors would prescribe Risperdal, and the profits would be shared with Omnicare. (Yes, that’s called a kickback.)

Even though Risperdal wasn’t approved for the elderly, J&J formed a sales force, called ElderCare, with 136 people to market it to seniors. The F.D.A. protested and noted that there were “an excess number of deaths” among the elderly who took the drug.

J&J seems to have shrugged. It was making vast sums, and the F.D.A. didn’t have teeth.

At the same time, J&J was also expanding into another forbidden market: children. The company began peddling the drug to pediatricians, so that by 2000, more than one-fifth of Risperdal was going to children and adolescents.

In 2003, the company had a “back to school” marketing campaign for Risperdal, and a manager discussed including “lollipops and small toys” in sample packages, Brill says.

All this was great for business, and by 2004 Risperdal was a $3-billion-a-year drug.

One challenge was that a J&J study had found that Risperdal led 5.5 percent of boys to develop large breasts, a condition known as gynecomastia. J&J covered this up, Brill says, quoting internal documents.

I asked J&J and Gorsky for comment. In particular, I wanted to understand why an executive who presided for years over conduct that the company conceded was criminal had been elevated to chief executive.

Gorsky declined to comment, and a company spokesman, Ernie Knewitz, didn’t really want to have that conversation. Knewitz did say the company “vehemently” disagrees with Brill’s take, denies a cover-up and considers Risperdal a useful drug with real benefits.

He’s right: Risperdal is a good drug that helps people. But it was marketed too broadly, and the system failed to protect consumers.

Brill calculates J&J may in the end have to pay a total of $6 billion in settlements for its misconduct. But he estimates the company made $18 billion in profits on Risperdal, just within the United States (on $20 billion in domestic sales, and there was $10 billion more in sales abroad).

Last week the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith organization, announced it would honor Gorsky with an award as a “man of integrity” and a “corporate leader with a sense of social responsibility.”

So even though the company was caught, criminality paid off, for the company and for executives.

That’s why we need tougher enforcement of safety regulations, and why white-collar criminals need to be prosecuted (as Attorney General Loretta Lynch has promised will happen).

Risperdal is a cautionary tale: When we allow businesses to profit from crimes, we all lose.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni:

It was a debate that worked almost in spite of itself.

As the hours dragged on, the issues were indeed hashed out: whether a Republican president should immediately tear up the Iran deal or wait and see; whether the federal government should be shut down in the service of defunding Planned Parenthood; whether a wall along the Mexican border is a feasible plan or empty bluster.

But that substance had to muscle its way through the show business, by which I mean Donald Trump’s attempt to turn everything into an adolescent popularity contest and CNN’s willingness to reward that by filtering the entire evening through the prism of the Republican field’s proven ratings magnet: Trump, Trump, Trump.

What did Trump think of something mean that someone else on the stage had said about him? What did someone else think about something nasty that Trump had said about him or her?

Trump had insulted Jeb Bush’s wife: Discuss! Trump had insulted Carly Fiorina’s business career: Respond!

So it went, somewhat tediously and surreally, for many stretches of the debate on Wednesday night and especially for the first half-hour, during which Rand Paul took the precise measure of — and raised the correct question about — the egomaniacal front-runner.

“Do we want someone with that kind of character, that kind of careless language, to be negotiating with Putin?” Paul asked.

“I think really there’s a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried,” he added, and I nodded so vigorously at the “worried” part that I’m going to need balm and a neck brace tomorrow.

Paul went on to single out Trump’s “visceral response to attack people on their appearance — short, tall, fat, ugly. My goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that?”

No, we aren’t. Or at least Trump isn’t. And “junior high” is too easy on him, too kind. Trump comes from, and belongs in, the sandbox, as he demonstrated the second that Paul paused and Trump fired back: “I never attacked him on his look, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”

How lovely. And how adult. And less than an hour later, Fiorina had to stand there and try not to squirm as she was asked to react to Trump’s recent comments about her in a Rolling Stone interview: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”

Fiorina held her head, including her face, high. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she stated tightly, and with more dignity than Trump or the situation deserved.

Trump rushed in: “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.” Watch out, Carly. Next comes an invitation for a private ride in his Trump-i-copter.

I mentioned my nodding, but my real injuries came from shaking my head, over and over, because I couldn’t quite believe the Trump-centric nature of it all. I’m still mystified that he’s done this well in the polls for this long.

I know that Americans have lost faith in institutions — understandably. I know that Americans are turned off by politics as usual — justly.

But have we sunk to a point where we’re prepared to reach for someone so careless with his insinuations, so merrily and irresponsibly ignorant, that he used some of his precious time on Wednesday night to fan irrational, repudiated fears about a link between vaccines and autism?

Are we buoyed by a bully who calls anyone who disagrees with him a “loser,” promises vaguely that his presidency will be “unbelievable” (his favorite adjective, and an unintentionally telling one), and presents little besides his tumescent ego and stagey rage?

The CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who was the debate’s moderator, pressed hard to get Trump to say, with even a scintilla of specificity, why he believes that he’d be more effective in dealing with Vladimir Putin than Obama has been.

And all that Trump could muster was: “I would get along with him.”

How? Why? Not a single detail. But Trump doesn’t do details. He just crows that he will know the most, be the best and win. He’s a broken record of grandiose, self-infatuated music.

The most satisfying, encouraging moments of the debate were those when other candidates tried to point that out directly or indirectly. Chris Christie did so several times. During his opening remarks, he asked the camera to move from him to the audience, saying that the election isn’t really about the candidates, who soak up the spotlight, but the people, who deal with the consequences.

He returned to that idea after Trump and Fiorina wrangled over her past performance as the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, an exchange that followed much tussling over Trump’s business bona fides.

“While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly’s career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job, who can’t fund his child’s education, I’ve got to tell you the truth — they could care less about your careers,” Christie said to Trump and Fiorina.

“You’re both successful people,” he continued. “Congratulations.” But then he pleaded that there be more discussion of issues and an end to “this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.”

Mike Huckabee built on that, bemoaning “a lot of back-and-forth about ‘I’m the only one who has done this, the only one who has done that, I’ve done great things.’ We’ve all done great things or we wouldn’t be on this stage.”

During the second half of the debate in particular, the conversation moved far enough away from Trump for all of the candidates to strut their stuff, for whatever that stuff was worth.

But because there were eleven of them, those struts were so brief and sporadic that I don’t think anyone’s fortunes will be significantly changed.

Marco Rubio showed great confidence about foreign affairs. Fiorina’s crispness came through. John Kasich seemed to vanish for long chunks but, when present, managed to be both avuncular and authoritative: an effective, appealing combination.

Cruz predictably won the awards for Most Strident and Most Smarmy, talking directly to the camera rather than whoever had asked him a question. Carson was the anti-Trump, as docile as Trump was domineering, and he brilliantly sought to reeducate Trump on vaccines.

Did Bush find some spine and spark? Yes, but he seemed to fumble for it. He picked a fight with Trump about casinos in Florida. He spoke succinctly about his brother’s administration, no longer pantomiming a deer in headlights. He made a marijuana joke and then another joke, about his energy level, saying that he’d want his Secret Service nickname to be “Eveready.” Like the battery.

But there remains something wan about him: In a season of such garish colors, he always looks a little pale.

He’s not enough of a clown, and Trump has done his best to turn this into a circus, erasing the blurry line between entertainment and politics and beckoning commentators and networks toward uncharted summits of breathlessness.

“It is electric,” Anderson Cooper said to Wolf Blitzer in the hours before the debate began, describing the atmosphere.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than this,” Blitzer said to Cooper, and he repeatedly interrupted the pundits around him to provide updates on whether Trump had been spotted yet at the Reagan library, where the debate was held.

“Donald Trump, we’re told, is arriving!” Blitzer trumpeted at one point, minutes later adding: “Hold on! Hold on! . . . He’s walking in right now.” The camera documented it, step after step.

Were we supposed to get goose bumps? I just felt queasy.

Well…  That was much longer than it needed to be.  And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Our national attention span is … short. The Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday was … long. Really, if you throw in the earlier loser debate, it was the longest ever.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates would go on for three hours. But that was back when in many towns, the most exciting public activity of the year was pole-raising.

Are people going to remember the shallow, sassy Donald Trump from the first half-hour? (“I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ I say not in a braggadocio’s way I’ve made billions and billions of dollars.”)

Or the middle-section Trump who clearly didn’t have a clue about how to critique President Obama’s Syrian policy? (“Somehow he just doesn’t have courage. There’s something missing from our president.”)

And then there was the completely, unbelievably irresponsible Trump of the finale who claimed he knew people whose daughter got autism from a vaccine shot. (This happened, he said, to “people that work for me just the other day.”)

Remember when the vaccination issue destroyed Michele Bachmann’s political career? One can only hope.

Of course everyone wanted to hear Jeb Bush take on the front-runner. Smackdown! Bush got his opportunity very early. Where would he go? Immigration? Taxes? Foreign affairs?

Bush accused Trump of giving him campaign donations in order to get casino gambling in Florida.

“Totally false,” said Trump. “I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”

Do you think that’s what Bush was practicing over the last couple of weeks? There were six or seven people on the stage who sounded more forceful than he did. A recent poll in Florida suggested that only 52 percent of Florida Republicans want their former governor to continue running for president. At times on Wednesday, that seemed like overenthusiasm.

Bush perked up a little in the middle, when he volunteered that he’d smoked marijuana in his youth. Then at the end, when he was asked what woman he’d like to see on the 10-dollar bill, he said … Margaret Thatcher.

Nobody wanted to deal with the global warming issue. Virtually everybody made up a Planned Parenthood scenario that never existed. Ah, Republicans …

And in other activities, Carly Fiorina managed to yet again drop the name “my good friend … Bibi Netanyahu.” Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin repeated his previous debate trick of vanishing entirely into the scenery. Walker’s poll numbers are vanishing, too, and it appears his only playing card is to remind people that he fought against public employee unions. Lately he’s been desperately upping the anti-union ante so much that his next step would have to be demanding that federal employees be prohibited from talking with one another outside of work.

Marco Rubio — remember Marco Rubio? The senator who vanished all summer except the time he hit the kid in the head with a football? He definitely looked rested.

Ben Carson, at one point, appeared to be accusing Trump of socialism.

Chris Christie did pretty well. Too bad he’s such a terrible governor. New Jersey would rather have another traffic crisis at the George Washington Bridge than vote again for Chris Christie.

What do you think it is about governors in this race? Florida is deeply unenthusiastic about Jeb Bush, Wisconsin seems to hate Scott Walker, and if Louisiana had a chance to get its hands on Bobby Jindal, God knows what would happen.

The debate went on for so long it was a wonder no one fainted. And think about the viewers who made it all the way from the first segment — the one where the CNN preview featured a zipper at the bottom of the screen announcing, “PATAKI ARRIVES AT DEBATE HALL.”

“The first four questions are about Donald Trump!” former Gov. George Pataki complained. Senator Lindsey Graham repeatedly slid in the fact that his parents ran a bar and a poolroom. Graham insists he’s really enjoying himself, although when someone keeps saying “I’m running because I think the world is falling apart,” it’s sort of a downer.

Former Senator Rick Santorum and Governor Jindal tried so hard to break through the barrier of national indifference they sounded like rabid otters.

Yes, some political junkies watched Republicans debating for almost five hours Wednesday. This should be a message to the Democrats. Right now the party is engaged in a fight about whether its schedule of three debates in 2015 is too puny. There are a number of democratic nations in the world where you could easily overcome this argument by pointing out that the election is not until 2016.

But the American people are fine with more debates. Honest, there can be one every night as long as the American people are not actually forced to watch them. It could be a kind of endurance contest. Last person standing gets the nomination.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

September 10, 2015

Oh, frabjous day!  It would appear that Ms. Collins is back from book leave.  Mr. Blow says “Hillary is Hobbling, For Now,” and that the media, and possibly the public, loathes coasting. Trajectory makes a better story. And for Clinton, the only available trajectory was down.  Mr. Cohen, in “Obama’s Syrian Nightmare,” opines that Syria is the question the Obama doctrine must answer if it is not to be reduced to the point of meaninglessness.  Mr. Kristof says “Compassion for Refugees Isn’t Enough,” and that unless we address the war in Syria, the exodus will grow.  Ms. Collins offers us “A Presidential Primary Cheat Sheet,” and says let’s recap what the Republicans have been up to.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I must say that I’m starting to feel bad for Hillary Clinton. There is a sense surrounding her candidacy of building doom and imminent disaster.

She just can’t seem to shake the email controversy and the idea that the issue raises — or raises again — some kind of character flaw.

In an interview on Tuesday with ABC News’ David Muir, Clinton finally apologized for her handling of the controversy saying, “I’m sorry about that.” She continued, “I take responsibility and I’m trying to be as transparent as I possibly can.”

But every month, every week, every news cycle that the media focus is on the way Clinton is addressing the issue is a bad day for her, regardless of what she says or does about it.

And that is part of the problem. This controversy isn’t simply about Clinton. It’s as much about media as it is about her. Indeed, this presidential election cycle is particularly curious in the way that the media has made some candidates and damaged others.

I don’t find the controversy to be the scandal others have made it out to be, but that doesn’t seem to matter now. It is an issue with a life of its own.

There seems to me a gravitational pull of media desire that wants, on some level, to see her crash and burn. Twice snubbed. The “queen” goes down, again.

The media, and possibly even the public, loathes coasting. Trajectory, either up or down, makes a better story. Since Clinton started with such high expectations, the only trajectory available to her — and to those covering her — was down.

Now she can’t seem to stop the slide. She simply can’t direct the narrative away from the email and toward her policies. And this constant chatter about things other than her vision for the future and the suggestion that she is not being fully forthcoming is hurting her in the polls.

Clinton’s numbers continue to fall, and last month, when people were asked in a Quinnipiac University poll “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Hillary Clinton?” the top three responses were liar, dishonest and untrustworthy. Ouch!

But in addition to the media’s salivating for her failure, Clinton hasn’t really done herself any favors. Her cloistered, overprotective approach only creates a void that will be filled by something. It can often feel as if she is hiding herself, or something about herself, and that doesn’t read well.

Her advisers seemed to acknowledge as much in a story published by The New York Times this week:

“In extensive interviews by telephone and at their Brooklyn headquarters last week, Mrs. Clinton’s strategists acknowledged missteps — such as their slow response to questions about her email practices — and promised that this fall the public would see the sides of Mrs. Clinton that are often obscured by the noise and distractions of modern campaigning.”

Furthermore, it is hard to know what the unifying message of the Clinton campaign is. Is there a bumper sticker message? If there is, I don’t know it.

A close primary rival in the polls, Bernie Sanders, who is gaining on Clinton in Iowa and has overtaken her in New Hampshire, has such a message: He’s saying to the über rich, “You can’t have it all.” (It should be noted that many of Sanders’s supporters are also complaining about media coverage, suggesting that Sanders hasn’t received his fair share.)

Joe Biden, who is considering jumping into the race, must be looking at all of this and feeling a hand on his back. What if Clinton completely collapses? If Bernie Sanders were the Democratic nominee, could a man who identifies as a “democratic socialist” win the general election, even if people basically liked his policies?

Anything is possible, especially when you look at the disaster unfolding on the Republican side, but I assume that the Democratic establishment is getting increasingly nervous.

Clinton is attempting to reboot her campaign, but even that carries with it the mild taint of desperation. As David A. Graham put it in The Atlantic: “It’s a bad sign when your presidential campaign needs a reboot. It’s a worse sign when your advisers announce that reboot publicly.”

It’s not clear to me how this story ends other than how it appears it wants to end: badly.

The only things working in Clinton’s favor at this point are the fact that it is still incredibly early in the election cycle — and that the only thing the media likes more than a fall from grace story is a comeback story.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Syria will be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions. For more than four years now, the war has festered. A country has been destroyed, four million Syrians are refugees, Islamic State has moved into the vacuum and President Bashar al-Assad still drops barrel bombs whose shrapnel and chlorine rip women and children to shreds.

For a long time, those who fled waited in the neighborhood. They wanted to go home. They filled camps in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon. When it became clear even to them that “home” no longer existed, nothing could stop them in their desperate flight toward the perceived security of Europe. The refugee crisis is the chronicle of a disaster foretold.

The refugees do not care what “Christian” Europe thinks. They are beyond caring about Europe’s hang-ups or illusions. They want their children to live. In their homeland, more than 200,000 people have been killed. Statistics numb, but less so when you know the dead. This evisceration of a state is a consequence of many things, among them Western inaction.

American interventionism can have terrible consequences, as the Iraq war has demonstrated. But American non-interventionism can be equally devastating, as Syria illustrates. Not doing something is no less of a decision than doing it. The pendulum swings endlessly between interventionism and retrenchment because the United States is hard-wired to the notion that it can make the world a better place. Looking inward for long is a non-option for a nation that is also a universal idea. Every major conflict poses the question of how far America should get involved.

President Obama has tried to claw back American overreach after the wars without victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has responded to a mood of national weariness with foreign adventure (although Americans have not been very happy with Obama’s pivot to prudence). He has tried better to align American power with what is, in his perception, America’s limited ability to make a difference on its own at a time of growing interdependence. One definition of the Obama doctrine came from the president last year when he declared: “It avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” Or, more succinctly, “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

But that’s not enough, as Syria demonstrates. President Obama has important foreign policy achievements, including breakthrough agreements with Iran and Cuba that took courage and persistence. (How those breakthroughs will play out remains to be seen, but they constitute a victory over sterile confrontation.) Elsewhere, however, he has undersold American power. In Syria and Libya he has washed his hands of conflicts that the United States could not turn its back on. Such negligence comes back to bite America, as its experience in Afghanistan since the 1980s has shown. Nobody loves a vacuum like a jihadi. And nobody likes American wobbliness like Vladimir Putin.

In 2011, Obama said, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” At that time, as events have shown, the president had no policy in place to achieve that objective and no will to forge such a policy. His words were of a grave irresponsibility.

In 2013, with France poised to join the United States in military strikes on Syria, Obama walked away at the last minute from upholding his “red line” on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. In so doing, he reinforced Assad, reinforced Putin, declined to change the course of the Syrian war, and diminished America’s word in the world — setbacks of far greater significance than ridding Syria of chemical weapons. This was a mistake.

Yes, China and Russia have consistently obstructed concerted action on Syria in the United Nations Security Council. Yes, the shifting array of forces and interests in Syria has been a challenge to policy. Yes, even limited intervention had its dangers. But, no! Such ruination was not an inevitable outcome.

At multiple stages, if Obama could have mustered the will, the belief in American power, there were options. The Syrian aircraft dropping those barrel bombs could have been taken out. A safe area for refugees might have been created. Arming the rebels early and massively might have changed the course of the war. Counterfactuals, of course, don’t carry much weight. We will never know. We only know the facts of the Syrian nightmare now seeping, in various forms, into the West. Syria, broken, will be the rift that keeps on giving.

In Libya, Obama bombed and abandoned. In Afghanistan, Obama surged and retreated. In Syria, Obama talked and wavered. He has been comfortable with the pinpoint use of force — the killing of Osama bin Laden for example — but uncomfortable with American military power.

Syria is the question the Obama doctrine must answer if it is not to be deemed modest to the point of meaninglessness.

Yeah — let’s drop some more bombs and shoot down some planes.  And arm, MASSIVELY.  What could POSSIBLY go wrong?  (And for what it’s worth, it’s Bush’s nightmare since he’s the prime cause for ISIS.)  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Bravo to Pope Francis, Angela Merkel and so many ordinary Germans and Austrians who have welcomed refugees into their lands. Kudos to those American politicians acknowledging that we should accept more Syrian refugees — the U.S. has admitted only 1,500 since the war started four years ago, which is pathetic.

If you have a heart, you’re moved by the refugees. But if you have a head, you also know that welcoming them in Germany won’t resolve the crisis.

There are 60 million people displaced worldwide, and more will now be willing to board flimsy boats to cross the sea.

“The trickle of refugees is only going to get bigger,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “Once people see that refugees are going to be taken in by the West, they’re going to stampede. This problem is going to metastasize.”

Unless we’re careful, the upshot could be more drowned toddlers.

As we inadvertently boost this tide of refugees, beneficiaries will include human smugglers and skinheads, neo-Nazis and far-right xenophobic politicians. An anti-immigrant party now leads the polls in Sweden, and Germany has reported 340 attacks on asylum seekers, including an apparent arson this week at a home sheltering them.

So by all means let’s respond with compassion to the refugees (not as jerks, as Hungarian officials have). But above all, let’s address the crisis at its roots, particularly in the Middle East.

One essential step is to improve conditions for the 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The World Food Program was just forced to cut 229,000 refugees in Jordan off food rations because it ran out of money, and if the world won’t pay for refugees to eat in Jordan, it will have to feed them in the West.

Then there’s the far more difficult task of trying to make Syria habitable again.

This may be impossible, but let’s be clear: As things stand, we’re on a trajectory for Syria to become even more horrific than it is now. Many experts expect the war to drag on for years, kill hundreds of thousands more people, and lead to an exodus of millions more refugees. We’re likely to see street-to-street fighting soon in Damascus, lifting the suffering and emigration to a new level.

I’m shaken by pleas I’ve seen from women in the besieged Syrian city of Zabadani, which for months has been surrounded by forces supporting the government. They fear that if the government forces take Zabadani, there will be massacres.

So hundreds of women in Zabadani have signed a statement calling for a cease-fire, international protection and evacuation of the wounded. They bravely use their names, despite the risk that they will be murdered or raped if the city falls.

“I’ve never been so depressed,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst and author of a book on Syria. “There were options early on. But the options today are all costlier, riskier and come with lower returns.”

Yet as long as we’re talking about Syrian dysfunction, let’s also note European and American dysfunction. The Obama administration hasrepeatedly miscalculated on Syria and underestimated the problem, even as the crisis has steadily worsened. And some leading Republicans want to send in troops to confront the Islamic State (think Iraq redux).

The least bad option today is to create a no-fly zone in the south of Syria. This could be done on a shoestring, enforced by U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean firing missiles, without ground troops.

That would end barrel bombings. Just as important, the no-fly zone would create leverage to pressure the Syrian regime — and its Russian and Iranian backers — to negotiate.

“If they can’t use their aircraft, the day after they will know they can’t survive, and that will bring them to the table,” said Reza Afshar, a former British diplomat who now advises the Syrian opposition through his group, Independent Diplomat.

The aim of the talks, with no preconditions on either side, would be a cease-fire with a tweaking of boundary lines.

Look, this would be ugly. It would amount to a de facto partition of Syria and the partial survival of the regime, perhaps with a new Alawite general replacing President Bashar al-Assad. Yet otherwise we may be standing by as the slaughter spirals toward genocide.

Robert Ford, a former American ambassador to Syria who resigned because he found the Obama administration’s Syria policy indefensible, says a negotiation, even if successful, might drag on for two years as the carnage continued. Still, that’s better than the alternatives.

“It’s irresponsible to throw up our hands and say there’s nothing that can be done,” he added. “Then, almost certainly things will get worse.”

And now let’s welcome Ms. Collins back from book leave:

The presidential campaign is getting serious, people. Just four months to the Iowa caucuses! You’re supposed to be concerned citizens, and your friends are going to expect you to update them regularly. If you can’t, be prepared to take an active part in discussions about the Tom Brady divorce rumors.

Today, the Republicans. Things we learned this summer about Jeb Bush:

■ His first name is actually John. And there is certainly nothing wrong with “John Bush,” except that it sounds like something on a fake ID card.

■ He seems wounded that Donald Trump keeps saying he’s boring. At one Republican meeting he promised to “unleash the American animal spirits.”

■ He’s come up with a way to criticize George W. without mentioning Iraq. “He should have brought the hammer down on the Republicans when they were spending way too much,” he told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.” This presumably refers to a new entitlement — much hated by fiscal conservatives — that extended Medicare coverage to prescription drugs. Do you think John Bush is going to campaign on repealing it? As a political tactic it’s about as promising as Chris Christie’s idea that he could reboot his campaign by vowing to cut back on Social Security.

Ben Carson has been surging! It’s easy to understand his popularity. He has a compelling life story about raising himself up from poverty to become a brain surgeon, and he was the least needy-looking candidate in the first Republican debate. On the other side, it is kind of unnerving that he doesn’t believe in evolution. Most Republican candidates try to fudge that one, by changing the subject or saying something like “I am not a scientist.” But Carson really doesn’t believe in evolution. And he is, you know, a scientist.

On Wednesday Donald Trump assured a rally in Washington that his experience in marketing luxury real estate would make him a brilliant international diplomat. Meanwhile, a forthcoming biography reveals that Trump, who energetically avoided the Vietnam draft, “felt that I was in the military in the true sense” because his parents once sent him to a military boarding school. Coming soon: Trump explains that he understands the suffering of the Syrian refugees because of his experience firing people on reality TV.

Carly Fiorina is another outsider, running on her career as a C.E.O. of a Fortune 500 corporation. It is true that she was fired after a disastrous performance, but nobody’s perfect. Fiorina was the star of the backup debate in August, besting nationally known figures like Jim Gilmore, the former governor of … a state. Her performance was so outstanding that she is set to be promoted to the top-dog debate next week. But nobody is being demoted! Obviously CNN understands that what the nation really needs this September is an 11-person argument.

Pop Quiz: Who should CNN throw out to make room for Carly Fiorina?

A) Mike Huckabee — the evangelical vote has gone to Ben Carson, andJohn Kasich has taken over the conservative-with-a-heart thing Huckabee used to do until he discovered having a heart wasn’t actually all that popular.

B) The libertarian who doesn’t believe in reproductive rights.

Nocera and Kristof

September 5, 2015

In “A Silver Lining to Brazil’s Troubles” Mr. Nocera says that the economy is in tatters, but the country’s handling of a huge corruption case shows its democracy and judicial institutions are working.  Mr. Kristof considers “Refugees Who Could Be Us” and says the drowning death of a 3-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, reflected a systematic failure of world leadership.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Of all the BRICS, Brazil would seem, on the face of it, to be in the worst shape.

BRICS, of course, stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a catchphrase that was meant to connect their rapidly growing economies. But that was then. Today, their economies are sluggish at best, and their prospects no longer seem so bright.

Everybody knows about China’s troubles: its falling stock market, its slowing economy and the amateurish attempts by the government to revive them, as if they should somehow snap to when the Communist Party gives an order.

Russia’s problems are also well known: In addition to the annexation of Crimea, and the ensuing Western sanctions, the Russian economy has slowed with the decline of the price of fossil fuels, its primary export. The South African economy is in such trouble that even its president, Jacob Zuma, described it as “sick.” Although India grew by 7 percent in the second quarter, that number was below expectations, and in any case, probably overstates the health of the economy, Shilan Shah of Capital Economics told BBC News.

And then, sigh, there’s Brazil. Inflation? It is closing in on 10 percent. Its currency? The real’s value has dropped nearly in half against the American dollar. Recession? It’s arrived. The consensus view is that the Brazilian economy will shrink by some 2 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, “between 100,000 and 120,000 people are losing their jobs every month,” says Lúcia Guimãraes, a well-known Brazilian journalist.

Compounding the economic problems, many a result simply of poor economic stewardship, a huge corruption scandal has swept up both Brazilian politicians and a number of prominent businesspeople. The scandal centers on the country’s biggest company, Petrobras, whose success had been an object of real pride during the go-go years.

Although the details are complicated, as its core the scandal is “an old-fashioned kickback scheme,” as The Times’s David Segal put it in a fine story last month — a kickback scheme that has been estimated at a staggering $2 billion.

Politicians and members of the business elite alike have been arrested. The country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who was the chairwoman of Petrobras while much of the scheme was taking place, hasn’t been accused of anything, but her approval rating is in the single digits. People have taken to the streets to call for her impeachment, though there are really no grounds yet to impeach her.

Political corruption has long been a fact of life in Brazil, but rarely has it been on such vivid, and nauseating, display.

The double whammy of scandal and recession has created a mood that combines outrage, anguish and resignation. But there is something else, too. “People feel betrayed,” says Guimãraes. Rousseff’s party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) — or Workers’ Party — came to office in 2003 promising, idealistically, to create social programs that would help the poor join the middle class. Between 2003 and 2011, according to one estimate, some 40 million people have climbed from abject poverty to the lowest rung on the middle class.

“The worst thing,” a Brazilian friend of mine wrote in an email recently, “is this feeling of disappointment with the … PT, which brought so much hope to the middle class. I’d call this feeling a kind of political depression.”

And yet, as I look over the BRICS, I think there is more hope for Brazil than some of its fellow members. Admittedly, I am a lover of Brazil, and want to see it succeed, and so was pleased when, as I made phone calls and emails for this column, a surprising silver lining emerged.

It is this: For all the pain Brazilians are going through right now, its democracy and its judicial institutions are working.

“What I see, more than I’ve ever seen before, is that the country is weathering this storm,” says Cliff Korman, an American musician who has lived and taught in Brazil for decades. It has a free press, which has stayed relentlessly focused on the Petrobras scandal. It has prosecutors who are actually putting politicians and businessmen in prison, and bringing cases against companies. The judiciary is not backing down.

“Corruption is such a part of public life,” says Riordan Roett, the director of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But now people are being held accountable. There is a sense that things could actually change.”

And unlike a half-century ago, when a military dictatorship overthrew a president whose left-wing programs it didn’t like — and held power for the next 21 years — there is no hint that such a thing could happen today. No matter how the economy goes, Brazilians are going to be able to choose their own leaders, and in so doing chart their own course.

“It is the beginning of a new Brazil,” Roett says optimistically. It couldn’t happen to a nicer country.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Watching the horrific images of Syrian refugees struggling toward safety — or in the case of Aylan Kurdi, 3, drowning on that journey — I think of other refugees. Albert Einstein. Madeleine Albright. The Dalai Lama.

And my dad.

In the aftermath of World War II, my father swam the Danube River to flee Romania and become part of a tide of refugees that nobody much cared about. Fortunately, a family in Portland, Ore., sponsored his way to the United States, making this column possible.

If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant.

Aylan’s death reflected a systematic failure of world leadership, from Arab capitals to European ones, from Moscow to Washington. This failure occurred at three levels:

■ The Syrian civil war has dragged on for four years now, taking almost 200,000 lives, without serious efforts to stop the bombings. Creating a safe zone would at least allow Syrians to remain in the country.

■ As millions of Syrian refugees swamped surrounding countries, the world shrugged. United Nations aid requests for Syrian refugees are only 41 percent funded, and the World Food Program was recently forced to slash its food allocation for refugees in Lebanon to just $13.50 per person a month. Half of Syrian refugee children are unable to go to school. So of course loving parents strike out for Europe.

■ Driven by xenophobia and demagogy, some Europeans have done their best to stigmatize refugees and hamper their journeys.

Bob Kitchen of the International Rescue Committee told me he saw refugee families arriving on the beaches of Greece, hugging one another and celebrating, thinking that finally they had made it — unaware of what they still faced in southern Europe.

“This crisis is on the group of world leaders who have prioritized other things,” rather than Syria, Kitchen said. “This is the result of that inaction.”

António Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, said the crisis was in part “a failure of leadership worldwide.”

“This is not a massive invasion,” he said, noting that about 4,000 people are arriving daily in a continent with more than half a billion inhabitants. “This is manageable, if there is political commitment and will.”

We all know that the world failed refugees in the run-up to World War II. The U.S. refused to allow Jewish refugees to disembark from a ship, the St. Louis, that had reached Miami. The ship returned to Europe, and some passengers died in the Holocaust.

Aylan, who had relatives in Canada who wanted to give him a home, found no port. He died on our watch.

Guterres believes that images of children like Aylan are changing attitudes. “Compassion is winning over fear,” he said.

I hope he’s right. Bravo in particular to Icelanders, who on Facebook have been volunteering to pay for the flights of Syrian refugees and then put them up in their homes. Thousands of Icelanders have backed this effort, under the slogan “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

Then there are the Persian Gulf countries. Amnesty International reportsthat Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates haven’t accepted a single Syrian refugee (although they have allowed Syrians to stay without formal refugee status). Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s bombings of Yemen have only added to the global refugee crisis.

We Americans may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But the U.S. has accepted only about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the war began, and the Obama administration has dropped the ball on Syria — whether doing something hard like using the threat of missiles to create a safe zone, or something easy like supporting more schools for Syrian refugee children in neighboring countries.

Granted, assimilating refugees is difficult. It’s easy to welcome people at the airport, but more complex to provide jobs and absorb people with different values. (In Jordan, I once visited a refugee family hoping for settlement in the United States and saw a poster of Saddam Hussein on the wall; I wondered how that adjustment would go.)

In any case, let’s be clear that the ultimate solution isn’t to resettle Syrians but to allow them to go home.

“Stopping the barrel bombs will save more refugees dying on the route to Europe than any other action, because people want to return to live in their homes,” noted Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American writer and architect.

There has been a vigorous public debate about whether the photo of Aylan’s drowned body should be shown by news organizations. But the real atrocity isn’t the photo but the death itself — and our ongoing moral failure to save the lives of children like Aylan.

And let us all be thankful — MoDo is off today.

Blow and Kristof

September 3, 2015

In “Ratcheting Up the Rhetoric” Mr. Blow says demanding police fairness, oversight and accountability isn’t the same as promoting police hatred or harm. Mr. Kristof, in “Payday for Ice Bucket Challenges Mocked Slacktivists,” says the fund-raising campaign that went viral last year contributed to what scientists say is a breakthrough in A.L.S. research.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week, Deputy Darren H. Goforth of the Harris County, Tex., Sheriff’s Department was executed at a gas station in a Houston suburb. It was a horrific scene.

As The New York Times reported, prosecutors said that a gunman approached Goforth from behind and “emptied his 15-round handgun into the back and the back of the head of the deputy, as witnesses watched in horror and surveillance cameras captured the shooting.”

Goforth was simply pumping gas.

His killing was shocking in its brazenness. Your heart sank for this man and his family. You wanted to make sense of something that seemed to make no sense. How could someone be so callous in the taking of a life?

And yet, there were no answers to be had.

The Harris County sheriff, Ron Hickman, admitted as much in a news conference: “We have not been able to extract any details regarding a motive at this point.”

But Hickman departed from proof and protocol to deliver a dangerous, unsupported political statement.

Hickman suggested that Goforth “was a target because he wore a uniform,” but offered no evidence of this.

Hickman said further: “At any point when the rhetoric ramps up to the point where calculated, coldblooded assassinations of police officers happen, this rhetoric has gotten out of control. We’ve heard ‘black lives matter.’ All lives matter. Well, cops’ lives matter, too. So why don’t we just drop the qualifier and just say ‘lives matter,’ and take that to the bank.” Hickman offered no evidence that the shooting was connected to Black Lives Matter protesters.

The Harris County district attorney, Devon Anderson, said at the same news conference: “There are a few bad apples in every profession. That does not mean that there should be open warfare declared on law enforcement.”

Again, no evidence was offered that the killing was part of any “warfare” on law enforcement.

When a motive is discovered, the sheriff and district attorney may well be proved right, but you don’t make statements and then hope the facts support those statements. That’s operating in the inverse.

At this point, the “war on police” rhetoric is not only unsupported, it’s dangerous and reckless.

On one level, one might be able to understand the overheated language from these officials. A coworker had just lost his life in a brutal fashion. Emotions were high. The loss was still raw.

Furthermore, there was a protest over the weekend — which apparently took place after Goforth was shot — by a group of Black Lives Matter protesters at the Minnesota state fair in which some protesters were captured on video chanting, “Pigs in a blanket; fry ’em like bacon.” An organizer of that demonstration, Trahern Crews, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that the chant was chanted in a “playful” context as they joked back and forth with an officer monitoring the march.

That context is not at all apparent from the video. How you view this movement will inform how plausible you find the “playful” explanation. But whatever the context, I think we can all agree that at the very least, chants like that are ill advised in protests against police brutality. Many people took the chant literally, as a terrorist threat. And one can hardly blame them.

But many in the media who are hostile to the movement went even further, using the chant and Goforth’s tragic death as tools to support and promote a narrative that Black Lives Matter itself is a hate group that has declared war on the police, even though, at this point, there is no evidence whatsoever that the suspect, Shannon J. Miles, was affiliated with or influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.

(We do know that Miles “spent four months in a mental hospital in 2012 after being declared incompetent to stand trial in an aggravated assault case,” according to The Houston Chronicle.)

The thing that many people have criticized the protesters for — exploiting a tragedy, rushing to judgment, putting narrative ahead of facts — was precisely what they did.

Over the weekend, the Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro asked her guest, Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee County: “Is it open season on law enforcement in this country?”

Clarke responded, in part: “I said last December that war had been declared on the American police officer led by some high profile people, one of them coming out of the White House, and one coming out of the United States Department of Justice. And it’s open season right now. There’s no doubt about it.”

On Sunday, Harry Houck, Jr., a CNN law enforcement analyst and retired New York Police Department detective, said on the network that “of course there’s anti-police rhetoric out there, you know, based on lies and assumptions, helping to promote the assassination of police officers out there.” He cited the chant by the Minnesota protesters, then continued, “I put them on the same — on the same line as I would the Ku Klux Klan or Black Liberation Army.”

On Monday morning, a co-host of “Fox and Friends,” Elisabeth Hasselbeck, asked the conservative commentator Kevin Jackson:

“Kevin, why has the Black Lives Matter movement not been classified as a hate group? How much more has to go in this direction before someone actually labels it as such?”

The Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said on his show on Monday that Black Lives Matter was a hate group and declared: “I’m going to put them out of business.”

There seems to be a concerted effort to defame and damage Black Lives Matter, and one has to wonder why.

It is impossible to credibly make the case that Black Lives Matter as a movement is a hate group or that it advocates violence. Demanding police fairness, oversight and accountability isn’t the same as promoting police hatred or harm.

I actually believe that you have to peel back the vitriol to expose the fundamental, but unarticulated truth at the core of the opposition to this movement: It centers blackness in a country that “others” blackness. It elevates blackness in a country that devalues it. It prioritizes blackness in a country that marginalizes it.

It demands fairness from a society rife with — and built on! — inequity. It forces America to confront its flaws rather than wishing them away. It drags the racial caste system this country created out of the shadows and into the light.

Black Lives Matter makes America uncomfortable because it refuses to let America continue to lie to itself. It targets police brutality, but the police are simply agents of the state and the state is representative of the totality of America.

Discomfort with Black Lives Matter, is, on some level and to some degree, a discomfort with blackness itself. It’s not only about the merits of individual cases, it is also about the collective, ingrained sins of the system committed disproportionately, and by design, against people of color. The movement convicts this country of its crimes.

America has been engaged since its inception in a most gruesome enterprise: Like the mythological Cronus, it has been eating its children, the darker ones, and this movement demands — at least in one area, at least in one moment — that it atone for that abomination.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

When Americans were giddily drenching themselves with ice water during the “ice bucket challenge” a year ago, the cognoscenti rolled their eyes.

The aim of the ice bucket challenge was to raise money to combat A.L.S., also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative ailment that affects some 15,000 Americans and usually leads to death within five years. But commentators scoffed: One on declared it “problematic in almost every way.” Critics sniped that the challenge wasted water and cannibalized contributions to better causes that affect more people.

The ice bucket challenge was taken as emblematic of “slacktivism,” the derisive term for cheap ways to feel good without doing anything meaningful. Critics point to Internet campaigns, the Stop Kony movement and the ice bucket challenge as merely symbolic ways for young narcissists to preen without actually achieving any change.

But now we have evidence that the ice bucket challenge may have worked.

Scientists studying A.L.S. have reported a breakthrough that could lead to therapy, not just for A.L.S. but for other ailments, too. And they say the money raised in the ice bucket challenge was crucial.

The breakthrough, published in Science, was summarized thus: “TDP-43 repression of nonconserved cryptic exons is compromised in ALS-FTD.”

Got it?

Here’s a translation: The research focused on a protein called TDP-43 that in some circumstances is linked to cell death in the brain or spinal cord of patients. The scientists found that inserting a custom-designed protein allowed cells to return to normal.

“That becomes our therapeutic strategy,” said Philip Wong, a professor at Johns Hopkins University whose lab conducted the research. He said the research team was now testing gene therapy strategies in mice to see if these can halt A.L.S. symptoms.

If it works in mice, the following step would be to seek to conduct a clinical trial in humans, he said.

The researchers are also hoping the therapy will work for a common cause of mental deterioration, frontotemporal dementia, and for inclusion body myositis, a progressive disease that leads to muscle weakness.

Jonathan Ling, a Johns Hopkins scientist who was the lead author of the Science article, said the new work might also lead to a diagnostic test (though probably not a treatment) for Alzheimer’s. Ling said the research team was also working with experts on cancer and immunology to see if other proteins might perform similar roles as TDP-43, possibly leading to far broader implications.

The ice bucket challenge went viral in 2014, partly because it was so much fun to watch videos of celebrities or friends dumping ice water on their heads. Videos of people in the challenge have been watched more than 10 billion times on Facebook — more than once per person on the planet. (I was one of the 17 million who uploaded a video of my drenching to Facebook.)

The ALS Association says the ice bucket challenge raised $115 million in six weeks, and many participants have become repeat donors. Google also reports there were more searches for “A.L.S.” in 2014 than in the entire previous decade.

The research at Johns Hopkins on TDP-43 was already underway, but Wong says ice bucket money helped accelerate the work and allowed the team to conduct some high-risk, high-reward experiments that were critical to the outcome.

“The funding certainly facilitated the results we obtained,” he told me.

It’s true that slacktivism doesn’t always work. The online campaign to “bring back our girls” — the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year — raised attention, but the girls are still missing.

Likewise, Joseph Kony, the warlord, is still on the run despite the Stop Kony movement. But the United States and African countries directed more resources against Kony, and this has had a very significant effect: Killings by his group are down 90 percent since 2011.

So think of armchair activism as a gateway drug. It exposes people to causes and sometimes gets them hooked. And while it doesn’t always solve problems, it tends to build awareness of crises — a necessary but not sufficient step to getting them resolved.

In any case, armchair activism is preferable to armchair passivity.

With the ice bucket challenge, there’s little evidence of cannibalization that hurt other causes, and it seems to have been revolutionary for this one.

“Across the A.L.S. community, we are probably in our highest time of hope,” said Barbara Newhouse, president of the ALS Association.

So if you endured an ice dunking a year ago — or if you’re participating in the 2015 ice bucket challenge, now underway — there’s no need to apologize for having fun. Rather: Thank you!

Enough with the eye-rolling. Long live slacktivism!

Blow, Cohen and Kristof

August 27, 2015

In “Enough Is Enough” Mr. Blow says that when people refer to the press as the fourth estate, it shouldn’t be confused with a Trump property.  Mr. Cohen, in “Middle Eastern Zen,” says don’t worry about the Middle East. Worry about China. The Middle East (unlike a large chunk of your portfolio) will still be around tomorrow.  Mr. Kristof ponders “Lessons From the Murders of TV Journalists in the Virginia Shooting” and says Wednesday’s killings provide further evidence of the need for more restrictive gun policies in the United States.  Which will happen, Nick, when pigs fly.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

When Donald Trump’s security escorted the Univision anchor Jorge Ramos out of a news conference on Tuesday, I decided that I was officially done.

Maybe I should have been long before that.

Maybe I should have been done the one and only time I ever met Trumpand his first words to me were a soliloquy about how black people loved him, and he was the most popular white man among black people.

Maybe I should have been done when Trump demanded to see the president’s birth certificate.

Maybe I should have been done any number of times over the years when Trump made any number of racist, sexist comments.

Earlier this month, Politico rounded up 199 of his greatest — and vilest — hits. Here are just a few from the magazine:

9. “I have black guys counting my money. … I hate it. The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” (USA Today, May 20, 1991)

23. “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’ ” (“Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life,” 2008)

32. “… she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” (ABC’s “The View,” March 6, 2006)

35. “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (Twitter, April 16, 2015)

117. “Rosie’s a person that’s very lucky to have her girlfriend. And she better be careful or I’ll send one of my friends over to pick up her girlfriend. Why would she stay with Rosie if she had another choice?” (“Entertainment Tonight,” Dec. 21, 2006)

121. Arianna Huffington is “a dog.” (Twitter, April 6, 2015)

Need I go on? (Thanks, Politico!)

Maybe I should have been done when Trump announced his candidacy this year with an attack on Mexican immigrants, saying:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best — they’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems … drugs … crime … rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

The Ramos episode wasn’t worse than these; it was just the last straw. A member of the media who dared to raise a truly substantive issue, even out of turn, was dismissed and removed. And yet the band played on. The live coverage continued. In that moment, I was disgusted at Trump’s contempt and the press’s complicity in the shallow farce that is his candidacy. Trump is addicted to press, but the press is also addicted to him, and the entire spectacle is wide and shallow.

(Ramos was allowed back in and permitted to ask his question. I had to see this later, because when he was ejected, I stopped watching.)

Yes, the Republican Party created this Frankenstein of hatred, hubris, narcissism and nativism, but the media is giving it life.

The never-ending, exhaustive, even breathless coverage of every outrage that issues forth from this man’s mouth is not news. Every offense and attack is not news.

Every morning that Trump rolls out of bed and calls in to a news show is not news.

Covering a political phenomenon as news is one thing. See the coverage of Bernie Sanders. Creating a political phenomenon and calling it news is quite another.

I reasoned in a 2010 column that Sarah Palin was no longer an elected official and wasn’t seeking elected office, and was therefore not worthy of constant attacks. But more important, the attacks were elevating her profile, not diminishing it. As I wrote:

“This is it. This is the last time I’m going to write the name Sarah Palin until she does something truly newsworthy, like declare herself a candidate for the presidency. Until then, I will no longer take part in the left’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with her, which is both unhealthy and counterproductive.”

I kept that promise. The only other time she appeared by name in one of my columns was in a passing reference to her speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013. This column is only the second reference.

The same is true of Trump. The constant harping on him only helps him.

He is different from Palin in 2010, however. He is not only running for office, he’s leading in the polls among Republican candidates. He can’t be ignored. But coverage is not the same as drooling over the daily shenanigans of a demagogue.

I will cover Trump as he addresses issues with specific policy prescriptions and details, like answers to the question Ramos asked.

Until then, this man is not worthy of the attention he’s garnering. We in the media have to own our part in this. We can’t say he’s not serious and then cover him in a way that actually demonstrates that we are not serious.

Is he an easy target for righteous criticism? Of course he is. But is he aware that criticism from the mainstream media is invaluable among certain segments of the political right? Of course he is. Is he also aware that he’s getting more free publicity for being outrageous than he would ever be willing to buy? Of course he is.

The media is being trolled on a massive scale and we look naïve and silly to have fallen for it, even if he draws readers and viewers. When people refer to the press as the fourth estate, it shouldn’t be confused with a Trump property.

Allow me to share one more of Trump’s quotes from Politico:

89. “My brand became more famous as I became more famous, and more opportunities presented themselves.” (, 2007)

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

In case the gyrations in global markets have you confused, here’s anupdated Middle Eastern primer that will make you feel better:

1) The United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East. This infuriated Sunni Saudi Arabia, America’s ally, in theory.

2) The wealthy Saudi royal family underwrites a conservative Wahhabi Islam whose teachings are fiercely anti-American (don’t ask about the Saudi-American alliance). The Saudis have backed Sunni Islamists in war-ravaged Syria against the country’s Iranian-backed despot, Bashar al-Assad, who is from the quasi-Shiite Alawite sect. This maneuver backfired. A barbaric, tech-savvy, knife-wielding Sunni group calling itself Islamic State swept across Syria and Iraq, beheading and raping and destroying great treasures in pursuit of a medieval caliphate that would stretch across territory including modern-day Saudi Arabia. Talk about unintended consequences! Meanwhile the Saudis have bankrolled the destruction of Sunni Islamists in Egypt. This other bad sort of Sunni extremist, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, committed the ultimate lèse-majesté of believing in the ballot box as a source of authority.

3) Sunni-Shiite tensions have become regional. Saudi Arabia and other gulf monarchies are now so convinced that the United States is pro-Shiite (read pro-Iran!), and so persuaded of Iran’s anti-Sunni imperial designs, that they have embarked on a bombing campaign in — you guessed it! — Yemen. The purported aim is to stop the Houthis, seen in Riyadh as Iranian proxies.

4) In the aftermath of the Arab Spring (see below) the main functioning, stable states in the Middle East are non-Arab: Israel, Turkey and Iran. Israel has been in a stop-go war with Arabs since 1948, but is most exercised about Iran, which is not Arab, not Sunni, not on its border and not nuclear armed (see below).

5) The old Middle Eastern order is in tatters. Post-Ottoman states that were not nations, with century-old borders drawn up by Europeans, have split along sectarian lines and made nonsense of those borders. A metastasizing jihadi ideology driven by hatred of Western modernity, colonialism and perceived decadence has proved of unquenchable appeal. An independent Kurdistan, omitted from the post-Ottoman order, is now pretty close to realization. Cocktail-party nugget: Kurds and Israelis are tight.

6) The Obama administration called Syria’s Assad toast without having the means to turn him into toast. This was a huge blunder. A void ensued. Nobody loves a void like a jihadi. Enter Islamic State. America is now in a half-war with Islamic State. Half-war is like half-pregnancy: an illusory impossibility. America is still casting around for palatable nonfundamentalist Syrian opposition groups — a fool’s errand. Syria is gone, baby, gone.

7) Saudi views are increasingly identical to Israeli views (don’t sweat the details), especially on Iran. Wahhabi Islam, however, views Zionism as its implacable enemy. Hence identity of view does not translate into diplomatic rapprochement.

8) The Middle East has a longstanding cottage industry called the peace process. Palestinians are represented by the Palestinian Authority, an authority that has no authority over Palestinians in Gaza, no democratic legitimacy, no obvious claim to represent anything but itself, and no determination to change the status quo. Israel has a right-wing government with no interest in peace and every interest in quashing the very notion of Palestinian statehood — even of Palestinians themselves! The status quo suits Israel, although it involves intermittent small wars.

9) Israel has a nuclear deterrent. The United States and Israel have agreed never to talk about the Jewish state’s alleged nuclear weapons (again, don’t ask).

10) Several despots were swept out in the Arab Spring in 2011. But instead of bringing empowerment and agency through new forms of citizenship, the revolutions folded into sectarianism. Sectarianism means favoring your own and brutalizing the rest (see Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.).

11) Iran is a theocracy split between hard-liners and reformists. The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany have reached a nuclear accord with Iran. It has stopped Iran’s nuclear program in its tracks. It is, on balance, the most effective way to keep Iran from a bomb. Still, every Republican member of Congress opposes the deal. They believe the White House, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany are all deluded and they know better! Yep, they do. Plunging oil prices and America’s energy revolution have opened new strategic possibilities in the Middle East. The nuclear deal, too, could in time open new avenues for America to pursue its Middle Eastern interests. A region of recast alliances is anathema to status quo powers like Israel and the Sunni monarchies.

12) Got it? If not, don’t worry. Be Zen. There’s only so much anyone can worry about. Focus on China for now. My guess is the Middle East (unlike a large chunk of your portfolio) will still be around tomorrow.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Kristof:

The slaying of two journalists Wednesday as they broadcast live to a television audience in Virginia is still seared on our screens and our minds, but it’s a moment not only to mourn but also to learn lessons.

The horror isn’t just one macabre double-murder, but the unrelenting toll of gun violence that claims one life every 16 minutes on average in the United States. Three quick data points:

■ More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

■ More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.

■ American children are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries, according to David Hemenway, a Harvard professor and author of an excellent book on firearm safety.

Bryce Williams, as the Virginia killer was known to viewers when he worked as a broadcaster, apparently obtained the gun used to murder his former co-workers Alison Parker and Adam Ward in response to the June massacre in a South Carolina church — an example of how gun violence begets gun violence. Williams may have been mentally disturbed, given that he videotaped Wednesday’s killings and then posted them on Facebook.

“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!!!!,” Williams reportedly wrote in a lengthy fax sent to ABC News after the killings.

Whether or not Williams was insane, our policies on guns are demented — not least in that we don’t even have universal background checks to keep weapons out of the hands of people waiting to go boom.

The lesson from the ongoing carnage is not that we need a modern prohibition (that would raise constitutional issues and be impossible politically), but that we should address gun deaths as a public health crisis. To protect the public, we regulate toys and mutual funds, ladders and swimming pools. Shouldn’t we regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has seven pages ofregulations concerning ladders, which are involved in 300 deaths in America annually. Yet the federal government doesn’t make what I would call a serious effort to regulate guns, which are involved in the deaths of more than 33,000 people in America annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (that includes suicides, murders and accidents).

Gun proponents often say things to me like: What about cars? They kill, too, but we don’t try to ban them!

Cars are actually the best example of the public health approach that we should apply to guns. Over the decades, we have systematically taken steps to make cars safer: We adopted seatbelts and airbags, limited licenses for teenage drivers, cracked down on drunken driving and established roundabouts and better crosswalks, auto safety inspections and rules about texting while driving.

This approach has been stunningly successful. By my calculations, if we had the same auto fatality rate as in 1921, we would have 715,000 Americans dying annually from cars. We have reduced the fatality rate by more than 95 percent.

Yet in the case of firearms, the gun lobby (enabled by craven politicians) has for years tried to block even research on how to reduce gun deaths. The gun industry made a childproof gun back in the 19th century but today has ferociously resisted “smart guns.” If someone steals an iPhone, it requires a PIN; guns don’t.

We’re not going to eliminate gun deaths in America. But a serious effort might reduce gun deaths by, say, one-third, and that would be 11,000 lives saved a year.

The United States is an outlier, both in our lack of serious policies toward guns and in our mortality rates. Professor Hemenway calculates that the U.S. firearm homicide rate is seven times that of the next country in the rich world on the list, Canada, and 600 times higher than that of South Korea.

We need universal background checks with more rigorous screening, limits on gun purchases to one a month to reduce trafficking, safe storage requirements, serial number markings that are more difficult to obliterate, waiting periods to buy a handgun — and more research on what steps would actually save lives. If the federal government won’t act, states should lead.

Australia is a model. In 1996, after a mass shooting there, the country united behind tougher firearm restrictions. The Journal of Public Health Policy notes that the firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and the firearm homicide rate was almost halved.

Here in America, we can similarly move from passive horror to take steps to reduce the 92 lives claimed by gun violence in the United States daily. Surely we can regulate guns as seriously as we do cars, ladders and swimming pools.

When there’s bacon in the branches…

Blow, Cohen and Kristof

August 13, 2015

In “Police Abuse is a Form of Terror” Mr. Blow says it  inspires a sense of outrage that the people charged with protecting your life could become a threat to it.  In “Why ISIS Trumps Freedom” Mr. Cohen tells us that young European Muslims join Islamic State to escape alienation and the unbearable weight of individual choice.  Mr. Kristof, in “Mr. Obama, Try These Arguments for Your Iran Deal,” says the  Iranian deal is ugly and flawed, but infinitely better than the alternatives.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Writing about the wave of deadly encounters — many caught on video — between unarmed black people and police officers often draws a particular criticism from a particular subset of readers.

It is some variation of this:

“Why are you not writing about the real problem — black-on-black crime? Young black men are far more likely to be killed by another young black man than by the police. Why do people not seem to protest when those young people are killed? Where is the media coverage of those deaths?”

This to me has always felt like a deflection, a juxtaposition meant to use one problem to drown out another.

Statistically, the sentiment is correct: Black people are more likely to be killed by other black people. But white people are also more likely to be killed by other white people. The truth is that murders and other violent crimes are often crimes of intimacy and access. People tend to kill people they know.

The argument suggests that police killings are relatively rare and therefore exotic, and distract from more mundane and widespread community violence. I view it differently: as state violence versus community violence.

People are often able to understand and contextualize community violence and, therefore, better understand how to avoid it. A parent can say to a child: Don’t run with that crowd, or hang out on that corner or get involved with that set of activities.

A recent study by scholars at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale found that homicides cluster and overwhelmingly involve a tiny group of people who not only share social connections but are also already involved in the criminal justice system.

We as adults can decide whether or not to have guns in the home. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, having a gun may increase the chances of being the victim of homicide. We can report violent family members.

And people with the means and inclination can decide to move away from high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods.

These measures are not 100 percent effective, but they can produce some measure of protection and provide individual citizens with some degree of personal agency.

State violence, as epitomized in these cases by what people view as police abuses, conversely, has produced a specific feeling of terror, one that is inescapable and unavoidable.

The difference in people’s reactions to these different kinds of killings isn’t about an exaltation — or exploitation — of some deaths above others for political purposes, but rather a collective outrage that the people charged with protecting your life could become a threat to it. It is a reaction to the puncturing of an illusion, the implosion of an idea. How can I be safe in America if I can’t be safe in my body? It is a confrontation with a most discomforting concept: that there is no amount of righteous behavior, no neighborhood right enough, to produce sufficient security.

It produces a particular kind of terror, a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability, a fear that makes people furious at the very idea of having to be afraid.

The reaction to police killings is to my mind not completely dissimilar to people’s reaction to other forms of terrorism.

The very ubiquity of police officers and the power they possess means that the questionable killing in which they are involved creates a terror that rolls in like a fog, filling every low place. It produces ambient, radiant fear. It is the lurking unpredictability of it. It is the any- and everywhere-ness of it.

The black community’s response to this form of domestic terror has not been so different from America’s reaction to foreign terror.

The think tank New America found in June that 26 people were killed by jihadist attacks in the United States since 9/11 — compared with 48 deaths from “right wing attacks.” And yet, we have spent unending blood and treasure to combat Islamist terrorism in those years. Furthermore,according to Gallup, half of all Americans still feel somewhat or very worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.

In one of the two Republican debates last week, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed to be itching for yet another antiterrorism war, saying at one point: “I would take the fight to these guys, whatever it took, as long as it took.”

Whatever, however, long. This is not only Graham’s position, it’s the position of a large segment of the population.

Responding to New America’s tally, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post in July:

“Americans have accepted an unprecedented expansion of government powers and invasions of their privacy to prevent such attacks. Since 9/11, 74 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists, according to the think tank New America. In that same period, more than 150,000Americans have been killed in gun homicides, and we have done … nothing.”

And yet, we don’t ask “Why aren’t you, America, focusing on the real problem: Americans killing other Americans?”

Is the “real problem” question reserved only for the black people? Are black people not allowed to begin a righteous crusade?

One could argue that America’s overwhelming response to the terror threat is precisely what has kept the number of people killed in this country as a result of terror so low. But, if so, shouldn’t black Americans, similarly, have the right to exercise tremendous resistance to reduce the number of black people killed after interactions with the police?

How is it that we can understand an extreme reaction by Americans as a whole to a threat of terror but demonstrate a staggering lack of that understanding when black people in America do the same?

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

What leads young European Muslims in their thousands to give up lives in France, Britain or Germany, enlist in the ranks of the movement calling itself Islamic State, and dedicate themselves to the unlikely aim of establishing a Caliphate backed by digital propaganda?

The honest answer is we don’t know why a 20-something Briton with a degree in computer engineering or a young Frenchman from a Norman village reaches a psychological tipping-point. Zealotry of any kind subsumes the difficulty of individual choices into the exalted collective submission of dedication to a cause. Your mission is suddenly set. It is presented as a great one with great rewards. Goodbye, tough calls. Goodbye, loneliness.

Islamic State has been adept in exploiting the alienation felt by many young Muslims, from the “quartiers” of Paris to the back streets of Bradford. It offers to give meaning, whether in this life or the next, to meaningless lives. The group has benefited from active support by online jihadi preachers and tacit backing, or at least acquiescence, from imams in some mosques who are inclined, in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, to “quietly condone.” It has manipulated anger over America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, over Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, over Shia ascendancy in the Middle East, over bleak existences on the margins of European society.

Still, the explanations fall short. Plenty of people experience great hardship or prejudice without opting to behead infidels and apostates, practice codified rape on teenage nonbelievers, and pursue the establishment of God’s rule on earth through his chosen caliph and in accordance with Shariah law.

Every effort of Western societies, particularly since 9/11, to curb the metastasizing jihadi ideology that threatens them has failed. Some of the organizations that grew out of that ideology have been hurt. But the ideas behind them, rooted in a violent rejection of modernity (but not all its tools, witness Islamic State’s slick use of the Internet) and in an extreme, literalist interpretation of certain teachings of Sunni Islam, have proved of unquenchable appeal. It’s a long way from Yorkshire to Raqqa in eastern Syria, yet some young British Muslims go. Other recruits arrive from Saudi Arabia and Russia, Libya and Australia. Islamic State has demonstrated very broad outreach.

It is clearly tapping into something deep. Perhaps that something is at root a yearning to be released from the burden of freedom. Western societies have been going ever further in freeing their citizens’ choices — in releasing them from ties of tradition or religion, in allowing people to marry whom they want and divorce as often as they want, have sex with whom they want, die when they want, and generally do what they want. There are few, if any, moral boundaries left.

In this context, radical Islam offers salvation, or at least purpose, in the form of a life whose moral parameters are strictly set, whose daily habits are prescribed, whose satisfaction of everyday needs is assured, and whose rejection of freedom is unequivocal. By taking away freedom, Islamic State lifts a psychological weight on its young followers adrift on the margins of European society.

Mark Lilla, in an essay earlier this year in The New York Review of Books on the French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Submission” (whose central character, a disaffected literature professor, ultimately chooses to convert to Islam) made this important point:

“The qualities that Houellebecq projects onto Islam are no different from those that the religious right ever since the French Revolution has attributed to premodern Christendom — strong families, moral education, social order, a sense of place, a meaningful death, and, above all, the will to persist as a culture. And he shows a real understanding of those — from the radical nativist on the far right to radical Islamists — who despise the present and dream of stepping back in history to recover what they imagine was lost.”

Lilla concluded of Houellebecq that he sees France in the grip of “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God.”

In Europe, right now, those speaking most ardently for God tend to be Muslims. Some of them have spoken out bravely against Islamic State. A majority sees the movement as a betrayal of their religion. But the jihadi temptation to escape from freedom into all-answering zealotry is there and will not soon be curbed.

It is interesting that another foe of the West, President Vladimir Putin, attacks its culture from a similar standpoint: as irreligious, decadent and relativist, and intent on globalizing these “subversive” values, often under the cover of democracy promotion, freedom and human rights.

The great victory in 1989 was of freedom. But every triumph stirs a counter-force. The road to Raqqa is the road from freedom’s burden.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

It would be a catastrophe for American influence in the world if Congress killed the Iranian nuclear deal.

Perhaps because the stakes are so high, the debate has become poisonous. Critics are (ludicrously) accusing President Obama of appealing to anti-Semitic tropes. And Obama (petulantly) suggested that some opponents were “alarmist,” “ignorant,” “not being straight” and “making common cause” with Iranians who chant “Death to America.”

Obama’s rhetoric was counterproductive. As former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, told me, “At this point, the president has made it impossible for a Republican to vote for it.” Constituent calls to congressional offices are overwhelmingly against the deal, and with Senator Chuck Schumer defying the White House by opposing it, the opposition is more bipartisan than the support is. That’s tragic, for killing the deal would infuriate many allies, isolate America rather than Iran and ultimately increase the risk of ayatollahs with nuclear weapons.

I’ve already explained why I’m strongly in favor of the deal, and I urge President Obama to start over with his sales job and focus on three points.

First: Sure, the deal is imperfect, but it’s the best way to achieve a goal we all share passionately — preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The great majority of arms experts support the deal, some enthusiastically, some grudgingly. They recognize shortcomings, but on balance, as 29 of America’s leading nuclear scientists and arms experts wrote in an open letter last week, it has “much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation framework.”

Likewise, three dozen retired American generals and admirals released a joint letter declaring the deal “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Iran would go from maybe a few months from a bomb to a year away. The agreement doesn’t solve the underlying problem, but it may buy us 15 years.

Yes, it would be nice if Iran gave up all its enriched uranium. But isn’t it better that it give up 98 percent of its stockpile than that it give up none?

Everyone knows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel opposes the deal, but not everyone realizes other Israelis with far more security expertise support it. Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, describes it as “the best possible alternative.” And Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, says, “What is the point of canceling an agreement that distances Iran from the bomb?”

Second, it’s true that Iran may try to cheat, but it’s easier to catch and stop the cheating with the deal than without.

Critics sometimes note that President Bill Clinton reached an agreement on nuclear weapons with North Korea in 1994, only to see North Korea cheat. The lesson they draw is that it’s pointless to negotiate with untrustworthy rogue regimes.

I’ve covered North Korea since I was a young reporter in Asia in the 1980s, and the lesson is actually more like the opposite.

That 1994 agreement was indeed flawed, and North Korea violated it. But even so, in the eight years the agreement was in place, North Korea made zero nuclear weapons, according to American intelligence estimates. After the deal collapsed in 2002, the Bush administration turned to a policy of confrontation, and North Korea then made perhaps nine nuclear weapons.

Third, if all goes south, or if Iran is stalling us and after 15 years races to a weapon, we retain the option of a military strike.

I asked David Petraeus, retired four-star general and former head of the C.I.A., about that. “I strongly believe,” he told me, “that there will continue to be a viable military option should Iran seek to break out and construct a nuclear device after the expiration of many of the elements of the inspections regime at the 15-year mark of the agreement.”

To me, this deal is ugly and flawed — and infinitely better than the alternatives. The criticisms of the deal strike me as reasonable, but the alternatives that the critics propose seem unreasonable and incoherent.

So President Obama should hit the restart button. He should acknowledge that the deal has shortcomings but also emphasize that it must be judged not by a referendum on its terms but rather as a choice: deal or no deal.

He can also take steps to reassure doubters. We could boost funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency to make oversight more effective. We could do more to speak up for human rights in Iran and to counter Iranian meddling in the region, especially in Syria.

Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the patriarch of Republican security experts, tells me that he supports the Iran deal in part because it exemplifies American leadership on a crucial global issue. I agree, and for Congress to kill it will not just set back American leadership, it will also increase the odds that Iran gets the bomb.

Blow, Cohen and Kristof

August 6, 2015

In “Darren Wilson’s Quest for Distance” Mr. Blow says Wilson must have made the calculation that a magazine profile would humanize and rehabilitate him in some way. He was wrong.  Mr. Cohen, in “Incurable American Excess,” says Europeans are hardwired to social protection, Americans to an individualism that rewards and ravages.  Mr. Kristof, in “Making Life Harder for Pimps,” says credit card companies have upended the business model of sex traffickers by eliminating a way they pay for advertising.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Leading up to the first anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — and the cultural convolutions that followed — The New Yorker has published an article including extensive interviews with Darren Wilson, the police officer who pulled the trigger.

A grand jury refused to indict Wilson in Brown’s death and the Justice Department cleared him of willfully violating Brown’s civil rights. (Brown’s family is now pursuing a civil suit against the city of Ferguson, the former police chief and Wilson.)

Still, the case remains a polarizing one, as some view it as an example of a needless escalation of hostility that too often leaves a person dead; others view Wilson as a hero and now also as a victim. (Wilson says in the interviews that he has been subject to death threats, can’t move freely without worry in his own community and can’t land another police job.)

The Justice Department issued two reports in the case. The one that cleared Wilson also contradicted some claims of vocal witnesses, claims that became central to the outrage that followed. It found that Brown was not shot in the back, and it deemed unreliable assertions that Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was fatally shot.

But the second report, a comprehensive look at the Ferguson Police Department and courts, found widespread racial targeting of black citizens that permeated the system.

As Jake Halpern put it in The New Yorker article:

“Together, the two reports frustrated attempts to arrive at a clean moral conclusion. Wilson had violated no protocol in his deadly interaction with Brown, yet he was part of a corrupt and racist system.”

That is the backdrop against which Wilson’s comments in the article must stand.

Wilson and his attorneys must have made the calculation that a profile would humanize and rehabilitate him in some way, that the image that emerged of an isolated man being rebuffed by reticent police forces and barraged by threats would be empathetic and restorative. That effort, it seems to me, has backfired.

There is a calculated coldness, a willful obliviousness, a penchant for sweeping racial generalization that is unflattering, if not repugnant, in Wilson’s words.

Wilson admits that he hasn’t read the Justice Department report of systemic racism in Ferguson. (“I don’t have any desire,” he said. “I’m not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did. It’s out of my control.”) He also doesn’t seem to recognize or value Brown’s personhood. (“Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point. Do I think he had the best upbringing? No. Not at all.”)

But to me, the most fascinating part of the interview was the portion where Wilson makes the false claim others often make: that the present is divorced from the past.

“People who experienced that, and were mistreated, have a legitimate claim,” he told me. “Other people don’t.” I asked him if he thought that young people in North County and elsewhere used this legacy as an excuse. “I think so,” he replied.

“I am really simple in the way that I look at life,” Wilson said. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me. I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.” Wilson said that police officers didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on the past. “We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened thirty years ago,” he said. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment.” He added, “I’m not a psychologist.”

Ah, this is exactly why structural racism is so resilient: detachment. It requires a faith in individualism separate from systems and history, a faith in a lie. Both Wilson and Brown were operating in a cultural context informed by more than their own actions — it was born long before they were, it is ingrained, it is institutional, it is not only racially aware but racially conceived.

Nothing occurring in America can be divorced from America, the whole of America as it now exists and came to exist. Our present culture rests on historical context.

Yet this false detachment and distancing is what makes the predation of structural racism so perfect: It is an edifice without a single, maleficent architect or even a council thereof. It grows out of collective desire to perform a collective deed. It isn’t so much conscious brainchild as subliminal mind meld.

It is like the hive. No single bee need be aware of the hive’s entirety or its enormity. Just doing one seemingly innocuous task contributes to the whole. In fact, you needn’t participate at all to reap the benefits of the system.

It is as exquisite as it is insidious. It can also be deadly.

At another point, Wilson talks about the disproportionately black towns in what is called “North County” — where he chose to work, by the way, for career advancement reasons — as a kind of culturally degenerate morass. He is quoted as saying in the article of the citizens there: “They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than — what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”

Here is the exchange with the author that follows:

This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by “a different culture”? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant “pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.” He added, “It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.”

Wilson speaks of these communities as riddled with pathology rather than ravaged by poverty and, again, as if history, design and systemic racial oppressions like the ones described in the second Justice Department report play no role.

The station from which we start in the world is not arbitrarily assigned by birth lottery but preordained by legacy. Our lives are built upon past lives, those of parents and ancestors. Our access and mobility are enabled or restricted by structures, both young and ancient. I maintain that there is valor in effort, that trying to overcome is indeed a form of overcoming, that holding fast to hope in a world that would strip one naked of it is itself a herculean effort and a moral victory.

Yet I refuse to allow my abiding self-determinism to blind me to systems designed and built on devaluation and destruction. I know as others do the frustration and fatigue of swimming against a current rather than being carried by it. There are realities that must not be ignored or minimized.

Wilson’s interview doesn’t make him appear more human. It reaffirms the degree to which the American mind can seek to divest others of humanity, and it lays bare how historical illiteracy and incuriousness creates the comfortable distance on which pernicious structural racism relies.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

A few years ago, Americans and Europeans were asked in a Pew Global Attitudes survey what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.” In the United States, 58 percent chose freedom and only 35 percent a state pledge to eradicate neediness. In Britain, the response was the opposite: 55 percent opted for state guarantees and just 38 percent for freedom. On the European Continent — in Germany, France and Spain — those considering state protection as more important than freedom from state interference rose to 62 percent.

This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency. The French see the state as a noble idea and embodiment of citizens’ rights. Americans tend to see the state as a predator on those rights. The French ennoble the dutiful public servant. Americans ennoble the disruptive entrepreneur.

To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent.

In his intriguing new book, “The United States of Excess,” Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist, cites the 2011 Pew survey as he grapples with these divergent cultures. His focus is on American overconsumption of fuel and food. Why, he asks, is the United States an “outlier” in greenhouse gas emissions and obesity, and what, if anything, will it do about it? Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are about twice those of the other wealthy nations of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. American obesity (just over a third of American adults are now obese) is running at about twice the European average and six times the Japanese.

Paarlberg argues persuasively that these American phenomena are linked. He finds their causes in demographic, cultural and political factors. A resource-rich, spacious nation, mistrustful of government authority, persuaded that responsibility is individual rather than collective, optimistic about the capacity of science and technology to resolve any problem, and living in a polarized political system paralyzed by its “multiple veto points,” tends toward “a scrambling form of adaptation” rather than “effective mitigation.”

Americans, in their majority, don’t want to increase taxes on fossil fuels or tax sugar-sweetened drinks because they see such measures as a regressive encroachment on individual freedoms — to drive an automobile and consume what you want. They won’t go the German route of promoting renewables like solar and wind power by guaranteeing higher fixed prices for those who generate it because higher electricity costs would result. Whether it comes to food or fuel, they don’t want measures where “voting-age adults are being coerced into a lifestyle change.”

Individualism trumps all — and innovation, it is somehow believed, will save the country from individualism’s ravages. Paarlberg notes that: “Americans eat alone while at work, alone while commuting to work in the car, alone at the food court while shopping, alone at home while watching TV, and alone in front of the refrigerator both before and after normal mealtime.”

But if all that eating continues to generate obesity — as it will — Americans tend to put their faith in “improved bariatric surgeries, and new blockbuster diet drugs” that “will be challenges welcomed by America’s innovative and responsive private market institutions.” Rather than cut back, they prefer to consume more — whether fuel or food — and then find ways to offset excess.

With the strong policy measures needed to control excess consumption — taxes, regulations and mandates — blocked, political leaders are “tempted to shift more resources and psychological energy toward the second-best path of adaptation,” Paarlberg writes: Easier, and potentially more profitable, to develop drought-resistant farm crops or improve coastal protection systems than tackle global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

His conclusions are pessimistic. The world should not expect America to change. Its response to overconsumption is inadequate. On global warming, the country adapts but does not confront, content “to protect itself, and itself alone.” On obesity, it shuns the kind of coordinated policy action that will help the less fortunate, particularly disadvantaged minorities.

The question, of course, is whether America’s virtues — its creative churn, vitality and energy — are intrinsic to these vices. My own pessimistic conclusion is that they probably are.

Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

In the long struggle against sex trafficking, we finally have a breakthrough!

It didn’t come from Congress, or the White House, from the courts or the police. Rather, it came from credit card companies: Pimps can no longer easily use American Express, Visa or MasterCard to pay for prostitution ads in which they sell 15-year-old girls as if they were pizzas.

That upended the business model of sex trafficking. Pimps all over the country are reduced to figuring out how to pay to promote their ads with, yes, Bitcoin!

Human trafficking is one of the most insidious human rights abuses in the United States — some 100,000 minors are trafficked into the sex trade each year in America. So let me explain how we came to enjoy a triumph over traffickers.

A website called has for years dominated the sex trade advertising business. In April alone it published more than 1.4 million ads in its adult services section in the United States. Almost every time a girl is rescued from traffickers, it turns out that she was peddled on Backpage.

Last year I wrote about a missing 15-year-old Boston girl whose parents were beside themselves with worry. In their living room, I pulled out my laptop, opened up Backpage and quickly found seminude advertisements for the girl, who turned out to be in a hotel room with an armed pimp.

Backpage is allowed to operate because of a loophole in the Communications Decency Act. Attorneys general from 48 states havepleaded with Backpage to stop this exploitation, to no effect. Girls who have been sold on Backpage when they were as young as 13 have sued the company, but haven’t succeeded because of the loophole.

Then suddenly this summer, the miracle of the market intervened.

Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Ill., wrote tough letters to Visa and MasterCard, calling on them to stop allowing their cards to pay for sex ads on Backpage. Both companies effectively agreed. To its great credit, American Express in April stopped working with Backpage for adult ads, so as of the beginning of July pimps had no easy way to pay for advertisements.

Flummoxed, Backpage responded by making its basic sex ads free, but, even with a fee to promote a free ad, that’s not a business model that can sustain it. Backpage is suing Sheriff Dart, but my sense is that pimps won’t be using their credit cards again on the site any time soon.

“If it’s down for six months, that’s six months of children who aren’t raped,” says Yiota Souras of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

So bravo to American Express, MasterCard and Visa — and to Sheriff Dart — for getting results where Congress failed.

There will still be human trafficking, of course, and pimps will find other ways to peddle kids. But it may not be quite so easy for traffickers as it was.

“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike,” one girl told me late last year. She said she was advertised at the age of 15 and 16 and raped 1,000 times as a result.

My guess is that a majority of sex ads on Backpage are for consenting adults. But a significant minority are for sex with children or with women who are coerced — representing some of the largest and most mistreated classes of human rights victims in America. We don’t have the moral authority to tell other countries to end modern forms of slavery when we don’t clean up our own act.

There has also been progress in other areas. The police in America are going after pimps more, and sometimes johns, as well (that still needs to happen more).

The Nordic model to combat trafficking and exploitation, pioneered in Sweden, has been gaining ground, too. It provides for the arrest of johns while offering help rebuilding the lives of women who were selling sex. Nothing works all that well in curbing sex trafficking, but this model has succeeded better than other approaches.

Yet in some quarters, there’s still a myopia about the degree to which this is a human rights issue. Amnesty International will consider a proposal in the coming days that would call for full decriminalization of the sex trade, including for johns, on the theory that this would benefit sex workers. Nice theory, but a failed one. It has been tried repeatedly and it invariably benefited johns while exacerbating abuse of women and girls: A parallel underground market emerges for underage girls.

Let’s hope Amnesty comes to its senses and, as Swanee Hunt of Harvard put it, avoids “endorsing one of the most exploitative human rights abuses of our time.” Then we can go back to celebrating the struggles of America’s sex traffickers as their business model is upended.


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