Archive for the ‘Navel gazing’ Category

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

February 16, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has given us a fine whine today.  In “Parental Pity Party” he sniffles that first comes the baby, and then all the whining starts about how impossible it all is.  “Dana Lawrence” from Davenport, LA had this to say:  “Don’t worry, Mr. Douthat. You were a whiner long before the baby arrived.”  MoDo is in Paris.  In “Marry First, Then Cheat” she says in France, it’s O.K. to cheat if you’re married, but not if you’re single.  The Moustache of Wisdom is back on his regular “let’s all of you be entrepreneurs” kick.  In “Start-Up America: Our Best Hope” he says the contrast between the vibe in Silicon Valley and the obstruction in Washington is quite telling.  Mr. Kristof says “Professors, We Need You!”  He says academics are some of the smartest minds in the world, and then asks a question:   So why are they making themselves irrelevant?  Mr. Bruni says “Let Our Lawmakers Hide!”  He wants us to behold the costume party that is Congress, where members wear faces at odds with their souls.  Here, unfortunately, is the Putz:

When I became a father, I expected to change in all the predictable ways — to become more responsible and more exhausted, to lose contact with friends and lean more heavily on relatives, to grow steadily balder of head and softer of belly.

What I didn’t expect is that parenthood would make me such a whiner.

I’m not sure I’ve contributed personally to the Internet’s ever-expanding Book of Parental Lamentations — what Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, calls the “endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting.” But in private conversation, I’m often the sort of parent Graham complains is scaring her away from motherhood — all too eager to Tell It Like It Really Is, and enumerate all the horrible aspects of the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.

Coming from the financially secure and happily married, this whining can feel unseemly, self-indulgent and unfair to one’s kids. In my own case, it’s also philosophically problematic, since a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.

But a not-so-quiet desperation can seem pervasive among parents, and it’s worth trying to understand why.

Fortunately, Jennifer Senior’s new book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” is an excellent primer on possible explanations for the great parental pity party. It ranges across the problems with family policy in the United States (basically, we don’t have one), the changing role of children (who went, she notes, “from being our employees to our bosses”), the unsettling of gender roles, the “having it all” stresses inherent in the maternal quest for work-life balance, and the way economic uncertainty and technological change make it hard for parents to figure out what kind of world they’re supposed to be preparing their children for.

But Senior’s most insightful emphasis, I think, is on the gap that’s opened — thanks to our society’s extraordinary wealth and libertarian social ethic — between the lifestyles and choices available to nonparents and the irreducible burdens still involved in raising children.

As she puts it, parenthood is “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” In this sense, it isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations. Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways — because babies still need what babies need — while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.

This has two consequences for young, reasonably affluent Americans. First, it creates an understandable reluctance to give up the pleasures of extended brunches and long happy hours, late nights and weekend getaways, endless hours playing Grand Theft Auto or binge-watching “New Girl.” Second, it inspires a ferocious shock when a child arrives and that oh-so-modern lifestyle gives way to challenges that seem almost medieval, and duties that seem impossibly absolute. And the longer the arrival is delayed, the greater that shock — because “postponing children,” Senior points out, can make parents “far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.”

“Welcome,” a colleague emailed me after our first daughter was born, “to unavoidable reality.” Which is exactly right: In parts of American society, death and children’s diapers are the only unavoidable realities left.

Unless, of course, you avoid the diapers by avoiding the children altogether, as the developed world’s inhabitants are increasingly inclined to do.

In an earlier column, I described this retreat from childbearing as (in part) a symptom of cultural decadence, in which modern comforts crowd out intergenerational obligations. This idea was not well received by many readers, but I think it’s actually the unacknowledged worldview behind a lot of the parental griping you find online and elsewhere: The “look how impossible my life has become since I had kids” genre is a way of passing judgment, not all that subtly, on people who have opted out of the parental mission altogether.

And though I agree with the implicit message — that parenting is tough, necessary and praiseworthy — a brag disguised as a whine about your own un-decadent hardships is probably not the best way to hold decadence at bay. Better for parents to be cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding — rather than judgment infused with envy — to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.

Which is what I pledge to do from here on out. Enjoy your lingering brunches, my childless friends, and I’ll enjoy my rushed meals and puree-stained fingers. Dirty diapers for me, dirty martinis for thee! Let peace and tolerance prevail!

And no, of course my angels had nothing whatsoever to do with that stain on your favorite sweater.

It must be béarnaise sauce.

The idea that he’s spawned is horrifying…  Next up we have MoDo, frolicking in Paris:

Only the French could have an etiquette scandal.

Let Americans get in a lather over peccadillos of state. The French are lamenting the state of propriety. No one in the land of Napoleon is following the code. And it is putting the citoyens of this once luminous empire in a dark mood. They are less concerned about their president’s slamming-door farcical adventures in amour than they are about the blow to their amour-propre. They fret that their image is more Feydeau than Rousseau.

On this Saint-Valentin weekend, as people join un kiss flash mob at the Louvre, we face another Gallic paradox, like the one about red wine and foie gras keeping you thin.

“The whole problem with this Hollande scandal is that he is not married,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, the French novelist. “Had he been married, this affair would never have been revealed.”

He observed that, as an “elected monarch,” the president has to maintain appearances. “In France, having a mistress is not considered cheating,” he says. “We are not a puritanical country. France is Catholic. We accept sin and forgiveness.”

It’s bad enough to hide under a helmet and dismiss your security and go incognito on an Italian scooter to have a tryst in an apartment that is a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace and has some tenuous connection to the Corsican Mafia. But everyone here except François Hollande seems to agree: You do not install one mistress at the Élysée when you have another mistress. That is simply bad form.

Why should the tabloids stick to the rule of the French press to ignore the private lives of presidents if Hollande breaks the rule of French presidents to lead an “exemplary” public life, which means having a real wife to cheat on?

Many now suspect the 59-year-old Hollande, a.k.a. The Living Marshmallow, allowed Mistress No. 1, beautiful 48-year-old Paris Match writer Valérie Trierweiler, to play the role of first concubine to distract her from his affair with Mistress No. 2, gorgeous 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet. Gayet is a committed Socialist who worked on Hollande’s campaign, making kittenish support videos and sporting an “I only date Super Heroes” T-shirt.

To assuage Trierweiler for being dubbed “a concubine” in the press, the Rottweiler — as she’s known for her aggressive moves in person and on Twitter — got Élysée offices, a staff of four and a monthly budget of $27,000.

But that created some mal de mer among the French, even before the White House had to destroy all its invitations with Valerie’s name when she squared off with her rival, went to the hospital with a case of “the blues,” and was dumped by Hollande in a terse press “communiqué” two weeks before his visit to Washington.

“The concept of the first lady doesn’t exist in France, and even less the first mistress,” sniffed Olivier de Rohan, a vicomte and head of a foundation that protects French art. “The protocol in France is very strict. It is not a question of choice or pleasure. The wife of the president of the republic was always seated as the wife, never paraded as the first lady. I don’t care with whom Hollande sleeps. But the whole thing is totally ridiculous, the head of a great state exhibiting mistresses, one after the other.”

Or as one French journalist murmured, “All this, in the place where de Gaulle was.”

Over good wine and small portions across Paris, there was appalled discussion that Stephen Colbert, who had filleted Hollande’s shenanigans on his show, was seated to the right of Michelle Obama at the state dinner, in the magic circle with the president where Trierweiler would have been, had she not been trundled off to the love guillotine.

“In France, it would be extremely rude to do that,” Rohan said about Colbert. “The Americans have no protocol.”

Before the dinner, Colbert joked that if the first lady were just the last person you slept with, America’s would have been Monica Lewinsky in 1998. He later crowed about the significance of his placement, yelling “I’m the first lady of France! Merci!” as he was showered with roses. His project, he said, would be “bringing Jean Valjean to justice.”

The nation that once worshipped Jerry Lewis was flummoxed by this “terrible faux pas,” as it was dubbed. (Even though Colbert shares a name with a top adviser to Louis XIV, many harbor dark suspicions that he’s Irish.) They wondered how a late-night comic outranked Christine Lagarde, a possible contender to succeed Hollande? Why were more French luminaries not invited? Why did Mary J. Blige sing for Hollande “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a famous Jacques Brel chanson begging a lover not to leave?

Did Michelle, Le Point snarked, think she was providing Colbert with “fresh material” for another searing sketch?

The French have spent centuries making fun of us for our puritanism, and now they feel the unbearable sting of our mockery, as our press and comedians chortle at a mediocre pol caught up in a melodrama with all the erotic charge of week-old Camembert. (Maybe that’s why the French got so swept up in the ridiculous but glamorous rumor about Obama and Beyoncé.)

All those French expressions we siphon because English isn’t nuanced enough — finesse, etiquette, savoir-faire, rendezvous, je ne sais quoi, comme il faut — Hollande flouted.

In the minds of many here, the French president is a loser because he’s so unrefined he might as well be American.

She’s such a bitch…  Next up we’re faced with The Moustache of Wisdom. who’s in Palo Alto:

The most striking thing about visiting Silicon Valley these days is how many creative ideas you can hear in just 48 hours.

Jeff Weiner, the chief executive of LinkedIn, explains how his company aims to build an economic graph that will link together the whole global work force with every job being offered in the world, full-time and temporary, for-profit and volunteer, the skills needed for each job, and a presence for every higher education institution everywhere offering a way to acquire those skills.

Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, explains how his online storage and collaboration technology is enabling anyone on any mobile device to securely upload files, collaborate, and share content from anywhere to anywhere. Laszlo Bock, who oversees all hiring at Google, lays out the innovative ways his company has learned to identify talented people who have never gone to college. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, explains how his start-up has, in the blink of an eye, become one of the biggest providers of overnight rooms in the world — challenging Hilton and Marriott — without owning a single room. Curt Carlson, the chief executive of SRI International, which invented Siri for your iPhone, recalls how one leading innovator just told him that something would never happen and “then I pick up the paper and it just did.”

What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: “What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?” They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination. No idea here is “off the table.”

Then, after you’ve been totally energized by people inventing the future, you go back to your hotel room and catch up with the present: the news from Washington. Two headlines stand out like flashing red lights: House Speaker John Boehner says immigration reform in 2014 is off the table and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the “fast track” legislation we need to pass vital free-trade agreements with the European Union and some of our biggest trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region is off the table. Forget about both until after the 2014 midterm elections, if not 2016.

Summing this all up, The Associated Press reported on Feb. 9 something that you could not make up: “WASHINGTON (AP) — Little more than a week after Groundhog Day, the evidence is mounting that lawmakers have all but wrapped up their most consequential work of 2014, at least until the results of the fall elections are known.”

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

True, some libertarians in Silicon Valley cheer Washington’s paralysis. But it is not so simple. There is a certain “league minimum” that we need and are entitled to expect from Washington, especially today. America just discovered huge deposits of energy and gold at the same time. That is, thanks to advances in drilling technology we have unlocked vast new sources of natural gas, which — if extracted with environmentally sound practices — will give us decades of cheap, cleaner energy and enable America to restore itself as a center of manufacturing.

At the same time, the dominance of American companies in cloud computing, and the “Internet of Things” — billions of devices with sensors — have given us a huge lead in the era of Big Data, where the winners will be those who are best at amassing, analyzing and protecting that data and use software to quickly apply what they learn from the data to improve any product or service. These data mountains and the tools to exploit them are the new gold. And we’ve got it.

In such an era, one of the two most valuable things Washington can do to create more good jobs and wealth is to open more export markets. The other is to have an immigration policy that not only provides a legal pathway to citizenship for those here illegally but enables America to attract the best brainpower and apply that talent to the data mountains and software opportunities we’re creating.

But Washington these days won’t even do the league minimum. As The Economist observed in an essay entitled “When Harry Mugged Barry,” both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with big Asian markets like Japan, which is almost done, and the U.S.-European Union trade deal, which is being negotiated, are “next generation” agreements that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.

“Studies suggest that proposed deals with Asia and Europe could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America,” The Economist added. “And that understates the benefits, since the deals would spur competition in the market for services, which make up most of rich countries’ output but are seldom traded across borders. Opening industries like finance and transport to greater competition could bring great savings to consumers.”

The U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, told me that if we’re able to conclude these two trade deals, America would have free trade with “two-thirds of the world.” If you combine that with our lead in cloud computing, social media, software and natural gas for low-cost manufacturing — plus our rule of law and entrepreneurial cultural — you understand, says Froman, why one European C.E.O. told him that America will be the “production platform of choice” for manufacturers all over the world to set up their operations and export to the world.

But it will all have to wait at least until after 2014 when we might have a week to legislate before we get ready for 2016. God forbid either party should challenge their respective bases who oppose freer trade or immigration. That would actually require leadership.

We cannot and should not abolish politics, but sometimes we can’t afford politics as usual. And this time, with rising inequality, is one of them. We need to be doing everything we know how to do to create good jobs and growth. “When your mind-set isn’t about creating abundance,” says Carlson of SRI, “you go into extractive mode, which is a death spiral.”

Start-up America is our best hope. Sure, we’re doing better than most everyone else, but just being the “cleanest dirty shirt” has never been the American dream.

Here’s what “MetroJournalist” in the NY area had to say about that:  “Here we go again. Start a new company. Have Thomas Friedman shill for it. Wash. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.”  Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published.

My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.

“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

Universities have retreated from area studies, so we have specialists in international theory who know little that is practical about the world. After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.

In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

Well, at least we have Prof. Krugman, the voice crying in the wilderness.  And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

An idea for the Senate: brown paper bags. You know, the kind in which you cut little holes for your eyes and your nose and a bigger, wider hole for your mouth. Senators could wear these in the chamber, so that the C-Span cameras and the outside world wouldn’t know precisely who’s supporting what. Or maybe ski masks, though those wreak havoc on hairdos. Alternately, the lawmakers could communicate in code: anything to obscure their actions and make it easier for them to actually cast votes in line with their best judgment and consciences. Oh, you thought they always did that? Well then I won’t spill the beans on Santa or the Easter bunny, either.

Last week was a doozy, and not in the usual way. The nation didn’t lurch toward another cliff; the suffixes -geddon and -pocalypse didn’t come out to play; the air didn’t grow thick with dire “s” words like stalemate, standoff and the direst of all, shutdown. No, last week ended with Congress’s having steered clear of disaster by passing a measure to lift the debt ceiling. Congress functioned, more or less. And yet — here’s the clincher — it looked as ugly as usual, if not uglier.

At issue was the way it functioned, a dysfunction of its own. Over in the House, Republican leaders brought the lifting of the debt ceiling to a vote so that they and a smattering of their party colleagues could pass the measure with the help of nearly all of the Democrats. You might naïvely wonder how this wouldn’t estrange the leaders from their caucus. But you’d be failing to take into account that many members of that caucus wanted the measure to succeed, recognizing that this was in the nation’s interest, but wanted at the same time to vote no, so as not to draw attacks from party extremists. In Congress, this isn’t considered a contradiction. It’s not even considered undignified. It’s considered canny self-preservation. (You serve, above all, to get re-elected.) The phenomenon is common enough that in a recent story in The Times, my colleagues Ashley Parker and Jonathan Weisman assigned it a name: Vote No, Hope Yes.

In a given chamber of Congress, the majority party usually takes responsibility for raising the debt ceiling, while the minority is permitted to balk and rail theatrically about wanton government spending. In fact Barack Obama did such balking and railing when he was in the Democratic minority of the Senate. Now Democrats run the show there, and they were poised to provide the necessary support to get the ceiling lifted. But the inimitable and irrepressible Ted Cruz insisted on a 60-vote threshold to allow the measure to be taken up, and getting past this hurdle required at least five Republicans to side with Democrats.

If the Republicans in the Senate had really cared to doom the measure, this was their big chance. But their true and ardent desire was to appear adamantly opposed without being so, and thus to appease party loudmouths without actually letting those loudmouths get their way.

This was where the brown paper bags would have come in very handy, because to avoid a filibuster and let the measure ultimately succeed, some Republicans had to step up and actually cast a vote in favor of its consideration. Their solution: to conduct this first, procedural vote in silence — an extremely rare and exceedingly curious thing — so that it wasn’t immediately clear to observers which Republicans were effectively helping to make sure the debt ceiling got raised. The theory, presumably, was that by the time it did become clear, those same Republicans would have proceeded to cast a subsequent “no” vote against the raise itself, whose passage required only the simple majority of votes that Democrats alone could provide.

The world’s greatest deliberative body at work! Make sure the children are watching! Inspiring civic lessons for all!

This isn’t just about the debt ceiling. On too many other fronts, the gulf between how lawmakers know they should behave and what they have the political courage to do is painfully wide. This has happened with Hurricane Sandy relief, with the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with budgetary matters.

The week before last, immigration reform fell apart, and not because of the number of lawmakers who think it’s a horrid idea, but because of the number who think it’s probably a good idea but don’t want to commit to that and confront any blowback.

And last week the Senate, in a 95-3 vote, and the House, by a 326-90 margin, reversed a portion of a budget agreement that would have limited cost-of-living increases in many military veterans’ pensions to 1 percent below the rate of inflation.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator and a veteran, told me that the limit, which the Pentagon endorsed, was utterly reasonable and absolutely necessary, and he assured me that most lawmakers knew this. But they worried that if they stood by that conviction, veterans groups would succeed in branding them enemies of the nation’s heroes.

“It’s all about inoculating yourself against the sound bite,” he said. “And now it’s more than a sound bite. It’s also what’s trending on Twitter.” Most lawmakers, he added, believe that the failure to rein in Medicare and Social Security represents a serious threat to the country’s future, but they’re too politically timid to reflect that in their votes.

SUCH cowardice and self-interest aren’t new. But certain wrinkles are. Kerrey mentioned Twitter and, indeed, complaints and catcalls circulate with unprecedented efficiency and reach. It’s quicker for interest groups and opponents to fasten targets on lawmakers’ backs. It’s easier to rouse the rabble.

“With the ability to use computers, it’s worsened,” Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican who served in the House for nearly two decades, said. He added that websites and social media, not to mention cable TV and talk radio, have turned the political atmosphere more broadly and instantaneously caustic. “You have that constant carping. It has made Congress a more difficult place to achieve the greater good.”

Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, noted that in the past, some votes in Congress wouldn’t even be recorded by individual lawmakers’ names. There was also more hidden back-room dealing. “That kind of insularity allowed legislators to take positions that might not be politically great but were the right thing to do,” he said.

I asked Kerrey: Do the politicians who frequently buck their own consciences at least feel misgivings about that? Struggle with it?

“Now you’re presuming that they’re in contact with their consciences on a regular basis,” he said. “I haven’t actually met many human beings who are. That’s a tough transaction: looking out for your conscience.”

Here’s what “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had to say:  “A better idea for the Senate (and the House): compulsory uniforms bearing the logos each of their top twenty direct and indirect contributors, whether they be corporations, superpacs, lobby groups or just plain folks who happen to be billionaires.”  Amen.

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Herbert and Brooks

August 3, 2010

Mr. Cohen is off today.  Bobo is playing life coach this morning.  In “The Summoned Self” he gurgles about a look at two ways of thinking about life, one that emphasizes the individual and one that emphasizes circumstances.  He also makes assumptions about how people in America life their lives.  Mr. Herbert, in “The Lunatic’s Manual,” says the death toll from combat and suicides continues to climb as our wartime misadventures grind on.  Here’s Bobo:

This is a column about two ways of thinking about your life. The first is what you might call the Well-Planned Life. It was nicely described by Clayton Christensen in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review, in an essay based on a recent commencement talk.

Christensen advised the students to invest a lot of time when they are young in finding a clear purpose for their lives. “When I was a Rhodes scholar,” he recalls, “I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth.

“That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it — and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.”

Once you have come up with an overall purpose, he continues, you have to make decisions about allocating your time, energy and talent. Christensen, who is a professor at the Harvard Business School and the author of several widely admired books, notes that people with a high need for achievement commonly misallocate their resources.

If they have a spare half-hour, they devote it to things that will yield tangible and near-term accomplishments. These almost invariably involve something at work — closing a sale, finishing a paper.

“In contrast,” he adds, “investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. … It’s not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, ‘I raised a good son or a good daughter.’ ” As a result, the things that are most important often get short shrift.

Christensen is a serious Christian. At university, he was the starting center on his basketball team and refused to play in the championship game of an important tournament because it was scheduled for a Sunday. But he combines a Christian spirit with business methodology. In plotting out a personal and spiritual life, he applies the models and theories he developed as a strategist. He emphasizes finding the right metrics, efficiently allocating resources and thinking about marginal costs.

When he is done, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.

The second way of thinking about your life might be called the Summoned Life. This mode of thinking starts from an entirely different perspective. Life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored. A 24-year-old can’t sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose. That young person — or any person — can’t see into the future to know what wars, loves, diseases and chances may loom. She may know concepts, like parenthood or old age, but she doesn’t really understand their meanings until she is engaged in them.

Moreover, people who think in this mode are skeptical that business models can be applied to other realms of life. Business is about making choices that maximize utility. But the most important features of the human landscape are commitments that precede choice — commitments to family, nation, faith or some cause. These commitments defy the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return.

The person leading the Well-Planned Life emphasizes individual agency, and asks, “What should I do?” The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?”

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation: I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs. At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.

In America, we have been taught to admire the lone free agent who creates new worlds. But for the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.

The first vision is more American. The second vision is more common elsewhere. But they are both probably useful for a person trying to live a well-considered life.

Now here’s Mr. Herbert:

The Army, to its credit, tells the story of a middle-aged lieutenant colonel who had served multiple combat tours and was suffering the agonizing effects of traumatic brain injury and dementia. He also had difficulty sleeping. Several medications were prescribed.

On a visit to an emergency room, he was given a 30-tablet refill of Ambien. He went to his car and killed himself by ingesting the entire prescription with a quantity of rum. He left a suicide note that said his headaches and other pain were unbearable.

As if there is not enough that has gone tragically wrong in this era of endless warfare, the military is facing an epidemic of suicides. In the year that ended Sept. 30, 2009, 160 active duty soldiers took their own lives — a record for the Army. The Marines set their own tragic record in 2009 with 52 suicides. And this past June, another record was set — 32 military suicides in just one month.

War is a meat grinder for service members and their families. It grinds people up without mercy, killing them and inflicting the worst kinds of wounds imaginable, physical and psychological. The Pentagon is trying to cope with the surge in suicides, but it is holding a bad hand: the desperate shortage of troops has forced military officials to lower the bar for enlistment, thus letting in people whose drug and alcohol abuse or other behavioral problems would previously have kept them out. And the multiple deployments (four, five and six tours in the war zones) have jacked up stress levels to the point where many just can’t take it.

The G.I.’s have fought valiantly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands have died and many, many more have suffered. But the wars have been conducted as if their leaders had been reading from a lunatic’s manual. This is not Germany or Japan or the old Soviet Union that we’re fighting. But after nearly a decade, neither war has been won and there is no prospect of winning.

Trillions of dollars are being squandered. George W. (“Mission Accomplished”) Bush took the unprecedented step of cutting taxes while waging the wars. And Barack Obama has set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan without having any idea how that war might be going when the deadline arrives.

This is warfare as it might have been waged by Laurel & Hardy. Absent the bloodshed, it would be hilarious. I’d give a lot to hear Dwight Eisenhower comment on the way these wars have been conducted.

July was the deadliest month yet for American troops in Afghanistan. Sixty-six were killed, which was six more than the number who died in the previous most deadly month, June. The nation is paying little or no attention to those deaths, which is shameful. The president goes to fund-raisers and yuks it up on “The View.” For most ordinary Americans, the war is nothing more than an afterthought.

We’re getting the worst of all worlds in Afghanistan: We’re not winning, and we’re not cutting our tragic losses. Most Americans don’t care because they’re not feeling any of the tragic losses. A tiny, tiny portion of the population is doing the fighting, and those troops are sent into the war zone for tour after tour, as if they’re attached to a nightmarish yo-yo.

Some kind of shared sacrifice is in order, but neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Obama called on Americans to make any real sacrifices in connection with either of these wars. The way to fight a war is to mobilize the country — not just the combat troops — behind an integrated wartime effort. To do that, leaders have to persuade the public that the war is worth fighting, and worth paying for.

What we have in Afghanistan is a war that most Americans believe is not worth fighting — and certainly not worth raising taxes to pay for. President Obama has not made a compelling case for the war and has set a deadline for the start of withdrawal that seems curiously close to the anticipated start of his 2012 campaign for a second term.

It’s time to bring the curtain down for good on these tragic, farcical wars. The fantasy of democracy blossoming at the point of a gun in Iraq and spreading blithely throughout the Middle East has been obliterated. And it’s hard to believe that anyone buys the notion that the U.S. can install a successful society in the medieval madness of Afghanistan.

For those who haven’t noticed, we have a nation that needs rebuilding here at home. Maybe we could muster some shared sacrifice on that front.

It’s time to bring the troops back, and nurse the wounded, and thank them all for their extraordinary service. It’s time to come to our senses and put the lunatic’s manual aside.

From Mr. Herbert’s lips to God’s ear.

Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Rich

August 23, 2009

Since there’s nothing important happening in the country MoDo decided to waste our time with “The Last Empress” in which she says the real question about Anna Wintour is not whether she’s warm — she has her furs for that — but whether she can stay relevant in a more down-market age.  I know I lose sleep wondering about Anna Wintour…  Feh.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Connecting Nature’s Dots,” says policy solutions for climate change, poverty, food security and biodiversity need to be as integrated as nature itself.  Well, in that case I guess we’re doomed if we have to rely on the Washington crowd.  Mr. Kristof gives us “Food for the Soul,” and says the central problem with modern industrial agriculture is not just that it produces unhealthy food. More fundamentally, it has no soul.  Mr. Rich, in “The Guns of August,” says that the simmering undertone of violence in our politics seems to be getting darker.  Here’s MoDo’s blithering waste of words:

The Devil does wear Prada.

I ended up sitting a stiletto’s throw away from Anna Wintour at the Monkey Bar, after the Museum of Modern Art screening of the new documentary about her. Nuclear Wintour looked summery in a floaty print Prada dress so au courant it hasn’t yet hit the stores.

Just like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Wintour can be seen in the new film clutching a Starbucks cup in her office and the back of her chauffeur-driven car. It seems to be her only sustenance, so I was curious to get the skinny on what the Skinny One eats.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” I told a startled waiter, who assumed I was kidding and pointed me to the part of the menu he thought suited me better: Chasen’s chili and Mrs. Carter’s butter tart.

“Anna eats steak and burgers, protein, and drinks a little wine,” said the Vogue editor André Leon Talley, mesmerizingly mountainous in a navy Armani with a white saber-toothed tiger tooth necklace and Manolo framboise velvet Woodstock sandals.

The documentary by R. J. Cutler chronicles Anna and her courtiers compiling the September 2007 issue of Vogue. Setting a record at 840 pages, 727 of them ads, and weighing as much as a preemie — 4 pounds, 9 ounces — that issue is now detritus of the Golden Age of excessive spending.

So the question invariably arises: Behind those bangs and dark glasses, is Anna human? Or did she tie Hermès scarves together and make a daring escape from District 9 in a getaway car driven by Oscar de la Renta?

On CBS’s “Early Show” on Thursday, Talley said it was a misconception that “she’s an ice floe or an iceberg and that she has no human flesh or bones.” Tom Florio, the publisher of Vogue, concedes in the documentary that “she’s not warm and friendly.”

At the screening Wednesday, towering with gorgeous girls in bondage gladiator heels and threaded with famous designers, one designer not favored by Anna muttered that she was a sartorial Star Chamber who smothered creativity.

David Letterman will probe Monday night to find out if Wintour is as frigid as we think. But there’s no need for her to drop the Cruella de Vil guise. Moviegoers want to see a brittle Anna belittle, Simon Cowell-style. We enjoy the editrix as dominatrix.

She’s a sacred monster, an embodiment of the highest standard of style, and we don’t expect our monsters to be nice.

“She’s the Sun King and you don’t want the Sun King to act like the mayor,” says Gioia Diliberto, a fashion writer for The Huffington Post.

Just like Miranda Priestly, who dismissed her assistant with a cold “That’s all,” Anna frostily murmurs “That’s it? There’s nothing else?” as she surveys photos and clothes and prods a staffer: “It’s Vogue, O.K.? Please, let’s lift it.”

She dresses down one editor for “sameness,” deems a Sienna Miller cover photo too toothy, and tells designers they should “edit” and be more exciting. Looking at a picture of a slender Jennifer Garner, Anna says ominously, “She looks pregnant.”

Her lovely daughter makes light of the gravity at Vogue, saying, “Some of the people act like fashion is life.” Indeed, the Vogue priestesses choosing glamour spreads in “The September Issue” seem just as intense as the soldiers in Iraq defusing bombs in “The Hurt Locker.”

There is friction in the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards relationship between the 59-year-old Anna and her closest collaborator, the 68-year-old flame-haired creative director and former model Grace Coddington, who is the only one willing to tweak “the Pope,” as Anna is dubbed by a staffer. Coddington tells French Vogue, “We have a real mutual respect for each other, even though sometimes I feel like killing her.”

The Vogue team and moviemakers didn’t know they were dancing on the deck of the Titanic. This September, ad pages in Vogue plummeted 36 percent and a Wall Street Journal story trumpeted “Thick Fashion Magazines Are So Last Year.”

The real question about Anna is not whether she’s warm — she has her furs for that — but whether she can stay relevant in a more down-market age and stay happy if she can’t continue to throw away $50,000 photo shoots that are not up to her exacting standards. In the new issue, there’s a small bow to democratization. A piece called “What Price Fashion?” allows that “overpriced fashion no longer makes sense” and features an Oscar de la Renta dress for under $2,000 and a Proenza Schouler executive touting the “very best skinny stretch-twill pant you’ve ever seen” for $550.

Anna herself continues to resist egalitarian impulses. As Keith Kelly wrote in The New York Post, Condé Nast may be slashing costs, but Anna is not scaling back at the upcoming fall fashion shows in Europe. She’s keeping her suite at the Paris Ritz, her chauffeured Mercedes sedans and her entourage of 10 that costs a quarter of a mill.

That’s all.

It’s really past time that the New York Times took her keyboard away.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Jao Flats, Botswana:

Who knew that deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where there are no paved roads, phones or TVs, you could find the morning paper waiting for you every day outside your tent, with the latest news, weather and sports? Who knew?

True, this is no ordinary journal. The newspaper here on the Jao Flats of the northwest Okavango flood plain is published on the roads — literally. The wetlands are bisected by hippo trails and narrow roads made from pure white Kalahari Desert sand. And every morning, when you set out to investigate the wilderness, it is not uncommon for a guide to lean out of his jeep, study the animal and insect tracks, and pronounce that he’s “reading the morning news.”

We were lucky to be accompanied by Map Ives — the 54-year-old director of sustainability for Wilderness Safaris, which supports ecotourism in Botswana — and it was fascinating to watch him read Mother Nature’s hieroglyphics.

This day’s “news,” Ives explained, studying a stretch of road, was that some lions had run very quickly through here, which he could tell by the abnormal depth of, and distance between, their paw prints. They were in stride. The “weather” was windy coming out of the east, he added, pointing to which side of the paw prints had been lightly dusted away. Flood waters remained high this morning, because the nearby hyena tracks were followed by little indentations — splashes of water that had come off their paws. Today’s “sports”? Well, over here — the hyenas were dragging a “kill,” probably a small antelope or steinbok, which is very obvious from the smooth foot-wide path in the sand that ran some 50 yards into the bushes. Every mile you can read a different paper.

It is mentally exhausting hanging with Ives, who was raised on the edge of the Okavango Delta. He points out the connections, and all the free services nature provides, every two seconds: Plants clean the air; the papyrus and reeds filter the water. Palm trees are growing on a mound originally built by termites. Yes, thank God for termites. All of the raised islands of green in the delta were started by them. The termites keep their mounds warm. This attracts animals whose dung brings seeds and fertilizer that sprout trees, making bigger islands. Ives will be talking to you about zebras and suddenly a bird will zip by — “greater blue-eyed starling,” he’ll blurt out in midsentence, and then go back to zebras.

“If you spend enough time in nature and allow yourself to slow down sufficiently to let your senses work, then through exposure and practice, you will start to sense the meanings in the sand, the grasses, the bushes, the trees, the movement of the breezes, the thickness of the air, the sounds of the creatures and the habits of the animals with which you are sharing that space,” said Ives. Humans were actually wired to do this a long time ago.

Unfortunately, he added, “the speed at which humans have improved technology since the Industrial Revolution has attracted so many people to towns and cities and provided them with ‘processed’ natural resources” that our innate ability to make all these connections “may be disappearing as fast as biodiversity.”

Which leads to the point of this column. We’re trying to deal with a whole array of integrated problems — climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, poverty alleviation and the need to grow enough food to feed the planet — separately. The poverty fighters resent the climate-change folks; climate folks hold summits without reference to biodiversity; the food advocates resist the biodiversity protectors.

They all need to go on safari together.

“We need to stop thinking about these issues in isolation — each with its own champion, constituency and agenda — and deal with them in an integrated way, the way they actually occur on the ground,” argued Glenn Prickett, senior vice president with Conservation International. “We tend to think about climate change as just an energy issue, but it’s also about land use: one-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from tropical deforestation and agriculture. So we need to preserve forests and other ecosystems to solve climate change, not only to save species.”

But we also need to double food production to feed a growing population. “So we’ll need to do that without clearing more forests and draining more wetlands, which means farmers will need new technologies and practices to grow more food on the same land they use today — with less water,” he added. “Healthy forests, wetlands and grasslands not only preserve biodiversity and store carbon, they also help buffer the impacts of climate change. So our success in tackling climate change, poverty, food security and biodiversity loss will depend on finding integrated solutions from the land.”

In short — and as any reader of the Okavango daily papers will tell you — we need to make sure that our policy solutions are as integrated as nature itself. Today, they are not.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, who is writing from where he grew up, in Yamhill, Oregon:

On a summer visit back to the farm here where I grew up, I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture. It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all.

More fundamentally, it has no soul.

The family farm traditionally was the most soulful place imaginable, and that was the case with our own farm on the edge of the Willamette Valley. I can’t say we were efficient: for a time we thought about calling ourselves “Wandering Livestock Ranch,” after our Angus cattle escaped in one direction and our Duroc hogs in another.

When coyotes threatened our sheep operation, we spent $300 on a Kuvasz, a breed of guard dog that is said to excel in protecting sheep. Alas, our fancy-pants new sheep dog began her duties by dining on lamb.

It’s always said that if a dog kills one lamb, it will never stop, and so the local rule was that if your dog killed one sheep you had to shoot it. Instead we engaged in a successful cover-up. It worked, for the dog never touched a lamb again and for the rest of her long life fended off coyotes heroically.

That kind of diverse, chaotic family farm is now disappearing, replaced by insipid food assembly lines.

The result is food that also lacks soul — but may contain pathogens. In the last two months, there have been two major recalls of ground beef because of possible contamination with drug-resistant salmonella. When factory farms routinely fill animals with antibiotics, the result is superbugs that resist antibiotics.

Michael Pollan, the food writer, notes that monocultures in the field result in monocultures in our diets. Two-thirds of our calories, he says, now come from just four crops: rice, soy, wheat and corn. Fast-food culture and obesity are linked, he argues, to the transformation from family farms to industrial farming.

In fairness, industrial farming is extraordinarily efficient, and smaller diverse family farms would mean more expensive food. So is this all inevitable? Is my nostalgia like the blacksmith’s grief over Henry Ford’s assembly lines superseding a more primitive technology? Perhaps, but I’m reassured by one of my old high school buddies here in Yamhill, Bob Bansen. He runs a family dairy of 225 Jersey cows so efficiently that it can still compete with giant factory dairies of 20,000 cows.

Bob names all his cows, and can tell them apart in an instant. He can tell you each cow’s quirks and parentage. They are family friends as well as economic assets.

“With these big dairies, a cow means nothing to them,” Bob said. “When I lose a cow, it bothers me. I kick myself.” That might seem like sentimentality, but it’s also good business and preserves his assets.

American agriculture policy and subsidies have favored industrialization and consolidation, but there are signs that the Obama administration Agriculture Department under Secretary Tom Vilsack is becoming more friendly to small producers. I hope that’s right.

One of my childhood memories is of placing a chicken egg in a goose nest when I was about 10 (my young scientist phase). That mother goose was thrilled when her eggs hatched, and maternal love is such that she never seemed to notice that one of her babies was a neckless midget.

As for the chick, she never doubted her goosiness. At night, our chickens would roost high up in the barn, while the geese would sleep on the floor, with their heads tucked under their wings. This chick slept with the goslings, and she tried mightily to stretch her neck under her wing. No doubt she had a permanent crick in her neck.

Then the fateful day came when the mother goose took her brood to the water for the first time. She jumped in, and the goslings leaped in after her. The chick stood on the bank, aghast.

For the next few days, mother and daughter tried to reason it out, each deeply upset by the other’s intransigence. After several days of barnyard trauma, the chick underwent an identity crisis, nature triumphed over nurture, and she redefined herself as a hen.

She moved across the barn to hang out with the chickens. At first she still slept goose-like, and visited her “mother” and fellow goslings each day, but within two months she no longer even acknowledged her stepmother and stepsiblings and behaved just like other chickens.

Recollections like that make me wistful for a healthy rural America composed of diverse family farms, which also offer decent and varied lives for the animals themselves (at least when farm boys aren’t conducting “scientific” experiments). In contrast, a modern industrialized operation is a different world: more than 100,000 hens in cages, their beaks removed, without a rooster, without geese or other animals, spewing out pollution and ending up as so-called food — a calorie factory, without any soul.

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

“It is time to water the tree of liberty” said the sign carried by a gun-toting protester milling outside President Obama’s town-hall meeting in New Hampshire two weeks ago. The Thomas Jefferson quote that inspired this message, of course, said nothing about water: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” That’s the beauty of a gun — you don’t have to spell out the “blood.”

The protester was a nut. America has never had a shortage of them. But what’s Tom Coburn’s excuse? Coburn is a Republican senator from Oklahoma, where 168 people were murdered by right-wing psychopaths who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Their leader, Timothy McVeigh, had the Jefferson quote on his T-shirt when he committed this act of mass murder. Yet last Sunday, when asked by David Gregory on “Meet the Press” if he was troubled by current threats of “violence against the government,” Coburn blamed not the nuts but the government.

“Well, I’m troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government,” the senator said, “but we’ve earned it.”

Coburn is nothing if not consistent. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, he was part of a House contingent that helped delay and soften an antiterrorism bill. This cohort even tried to strip out a provision blocking domestic fund-raising by foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas. Why? The far right, in league with the National Rifle Association, was angry at the federal government for aggressively policing America’s self-appointed militias. In a 1996 floor speech, Coburn conceded that “terrorism obviously poses a serious threat,” but then went on to explain that the nation had worse threats to worry about: “There is a far greater fear that is present in this country, and that is fear of our own government.” As his remarks on “Meet the Press” last week demonstrated, the subsequent intervention of 9/11 has not changed his worldview.

I have been writing about the simmering undertone of violence in our politics since October, when Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential candidate of a major political party, said nothing to condemn Obama haters shrieking “Treason!,” “Terrorist!” and “Off with his head!” at her rallies. As vacation beckons, I’d like to drop the subject, but the atmosphere keeps getting darker.

Coburn’s implicit rationalization for far-right fanatics bearing arms at presidential events — the government makes them do it! — cannot stand. He’s not a radio or Fox News bloviator paid a fortune to be outrageous; he’s a card-carrying member of the United States Senate. On Monday — the day after he gave a pass to those threatening violence — a dozen provocateurs with guns, at least two of them bearing assault weapons, showed up for Obama’s V.F.W. speech in Phoenix. Within hours, another member of Congress — Phil Gingrey of Georgia — was telling Chris Matthews on MSNBC that as long as brandishing guns is legal, he, too, saw no reason to discourage Americans from showing up armed at public meetings.

In April the Department of Homeland Security issued a report, originally commissioned by the Bush administration, on the rising threat of violent right-wing extremism. It was ridiculed by conservatives, including the Republican chairman, Michael Steele, who called it “the height of insult.” Since then, a neo-Nazi who subscribed to the anti-Obama “birther” movement has murdered a guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington, and an anti-abortion zealot has gunned down a doctor in a church in Wichita, Kan.

This month the Southern Poverty Law Center, the same organization that warned of the alarming rise in extremist groups before the Oklahoma City bombing, issued its own report. A federal law enforcement agent told the center that he hadn’t seen growth this steep among such groups in 10 to 12 years. “All it’s lacking is a spark,” he said.

This uptick in the radical right predates the health care debate that is supposedly inspiring all the gun waving. Nor can this movement be attributed to a stepped-up attack by Democrats on this crowd’s holy Second Amendment. Since taking office, Obama has disappointed gun-control advocates by relegating his campaign pledge to reinstate the ban on assault weapons to the down-low.

No, the biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism remains panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change. As the sociologist Daniel Bell put it, “What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world — now overwhelmingly technical and complex — that has changed so drastically within a lifetime.”

Bell’s analysis appeared in his essay “The Dispossessed,” published in 1962, between John Kennedy’s election and assassination. J.F.K., no more a leftist than Obama, was the first Roman Catholic in the White House and the tribune of a new liberal order. Bell could have also written his diagnosis in 1992, between Bill Clinton’s election and the Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton, like Kennedy and Obama, brought liberals back into power after a conservative reign and represented a generational turnover that stoked the fears of the dispossessed.

While Bell’s essay remains relevant in 2009, he could not have imagined in 1962 that major politicians, from a vice-presidential candidate down, would either enable or endorse a radical and armed fringe. Nor could he have imagined that so many conservative intellectuals would remain silent. William F. Buckley did make an effort to distance National Review from the John Birch Society. The only major conservative writer to repeatedly and forthrightly take on the radical right this year is David Frum. He ended a recent column for The Week, titled “The Reckless Right Courts Violence,” with a plea that the president “be met and bested on the field of reason,” not with guns.

Those on the right who defend the reckless radicals inevitably argue “The left does it too!” It’s certainly true that both the left and the right traffic in bogus, Holocaust-trivializing Hitler analogies, and, yes, the protesters of the antiwar group Code Pink have disrupted Congressional hearings. But this is a false equivalence. Code Pink doesn’t show up on Capitol Hill with firearms. And, as the 1960s historian Rick Perlstein pointed out on the Washington Post Web site last week, not a single Democratic politician endorsed the Weathermen in the Vietnam era.

This week the journalist Ronald Kessler’s new behind-the-scenes account of presidential security, “In the President’s Secret Service,” rose to No. 3 on The Times nonfiction best-seller list. No wonder there’s a lot of interest in the subject. We have no reason to believe that these hugely dedicated agents will fail us this time, even as threats against Obama, according to Kessler, are up 400 percent from those against his White House predecessor.

But as we learned in Oklahoma City 14 years ago — or at the well-protected Holocaust museum just over two months ago — this kind of irrational radicalism has a myriad of targets. And it is impervious to reason. Much as Coburn fought an antiterrorism bill after the carnage of Oklahoma City, so three men from Bagdad, Ariz., drove 2,500 miles in 1964 to testify against a bill tightening federal controls on firearms after the Kennedy assassination. As the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his own famous Kennedy-era essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” these Arizona gun enthusiasts were convinced that the American government was being taken over by a “subversive power.” Sound familiar?

Even now the radicals are taking a nonviolent toll on the Obama presidency. Obama complains, not without reason, that the news media, led by cable television, exaggerate the ruckus at health care events. But why does he exaggerate the legitimacy and clout of opposition members of Congress who, whether through silence or outright endorsement, are surrendering to the nuts? Even Charles Grassley, the supposedly adult Iowa Republican who is the Senate point man for his party on health care, has now capitulated to the armed fringe by publicly parroting their “pull the plug on grandma” fear-mongering.

For all the talk of Obama’s declining poll numbers this summer, he towers over his opponents. In last week’s Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, only 21 percent approve of how Republicans in Congress are handling health care reform (as opposed to the president’s 41 percent). Should Obama fail to deliver serious reform because his administration treats the pharmaceutical and insurance industries as deferentially as it has the banks, that would be shameful. Should he fail because he in any way catered to a decimated opposition party that has sunk and shrunk to its craziest common denominator, that would be ludicrous.

The G.O.P., whose ranks have now dwindled largely to whites in Dixie and the less-populated West, is not even a paper tiger — it’s a paper muskrat. James Carville is correct when he says that if Republicans actually carried out their filibuster threats on health care, it would be a political bonanza for the Democrats.

In last year’s campaign debates, Obama liked to cite his unlikely Senate friendship with Tom Coburn, of all people, as proof that he could work with his adversaries. If the president insists that enemies like this are his friends — and that the nuts they represent can be placated by reason — he will waste his opportunity to effect real change and have no one to blame but himself.

Warner and Herbert

December 30, 2008

Judith Warner, in “The Lure of Opulent Desolation,” says the “baby busters” of the ’60s never rebelled against the trappings of domesticity represented by their images of the 1950s. Many of them, deep down, yearn for it.  Mr. Herbert says we should “Add Up the Damage.”  He says he doesn’t think George W. Bush should be allowed to slip quietly out of town. There should be a loud, collective angry howl and demonstrations over the damage he’s done to this country.  Amen, brother!  Here’s Ms. Warner:

About seven years ago, not long after settling into a little house on a tree-lined street in a city neighborhood all but indistinguishable from the suburbs surrounding it, I developed a brief obsession with mid-20th-century American anomie. I read “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “The Organization Man.” I re-read “The Feminine Mystique.”

And I devoured Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” a then largely overlooked book that I found one day among the paperbacks in our local bookstore, snatching it up for what its jacket promised would be “the most evocative portrayal” of suburban “opulent desolation.” (“What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?” was the sort of gratifying payoff I found within its pages.)

I approached these books, I’ll admit, with a kind of prurient interest, a combination of revulsion and irresistible attraction, thoroughly enjoying the sad and sordid sexual repression, the infantilization of women, the cookie-cutter conformity imposed upon men. I couldn’t get enough of the miserable domestic underbelly of life in the period we like to call “the Fifties,” an era that spans the late ’40s to the mid-’60s. Some of the fascination was a kind of exoticism. More, however, came from the fact that, I found, in our era of “soccer moms,” “surrendered wives” and “new traditionalism,” the look and sound of the opulent desolation was eerily familiar.

I soon had a steady stream of new material to feed my craving for Lucky Strike- and martini-scented domestic disturbances. The films “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours.” The TV series “Mad Men.” And now, of course, “Revolutionary Road,” the movie, repackaging what USA Today recently called “the savagery of post-war domesticity” for the Oscars.

Why is there such a desire, even a hunger, to recreate images from such an unhappy past? A past characterized by every possible form of bigotry? A past, furthermore, that people like the “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner and the directors of “Revolutionary Road,” “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours” can’t possibly remember, having been born, like me, in the 1960s?

“Part of the show is trying to figure out,” Weiner told The Times’s Alex Witchel last June, “what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are.”

There’s some of that, I think. But there’s also much more.

Unlike the baby boomers before us, we “baby busters” of the ’60s never rebelled against the trappings of domesticity represented by our images of the 1950s. Many of us, deep down, yearn for it, having experienced divorce or other sorts of family dislocation in the 1970s. We keep alive a secret dream of “a model of routine and order and organization and competence,” a life “where women kept house, raised kids and kept their eyebrows looking really good,” as the writer Lonnae O’Neal Parker once described it in The Washington Post Magazine.

But that order and routine and competence in our frenetic world proves forever elusive, a cruel ideal we can never reach.

The fact is: as an unrebellious, cautious, anxious generation, many of us are living lives not all that different from those of the parents of the early 1960s, yet without the seeming ease, privileges and benefits. Husbands have been stripped of the power perks of their gender, wives of the anticipation that they’ll be taken care of for life.

How we seem to love and hate those men and women we never knew. What we would give to know their secrets: how Dad managed to come home at 5 p.m. to read the paper or watch TV while Mom fixed dinner and bathed the kids. How Mom turned up at school, every day, unrumpled, coiffed, unflappable. And more to the point: how they managed to afford the lives that they led, on one salary, without hocking their homes to pay for college, without worrying about being bankrupted by medical bills.

How we make them pay now, when we breathe them back into life. Our cultural representations of them are punishing. We defile the putative purity of the housewives — those doe-eyed, frivolous, almost simple-minded depressives — by assigning them drunken, cheating, no-good mates. We discredit the memory of the organization men by filling them with self-loathing and despair. Each gender invites its downfall, and fully deserves the comeuppance that history, we know, will ultimately deal it.

That’s where the pleasure comes in. No matter how lost we are, no matter how confused, no matter how foolish we feel, we can judge ourselves the winners.

Whatever…  Here’s Mr. Herbert:

Does anyone know where George W. Bush is?

You don’t hear much from him anymore. The last image most of us remember is of the president ducking a pair of size 10s that were hurled at him in Baghdad.

We’re still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel is thrashing the Palestinians in Gaza. And the U.S. economy is about as vibrant as the 0-16 Detroit Lions.

But hardly a peep have we heard from George, the 43rd.

When Mr. Bush officially takes his leave in three weeks (in reality, he checked out long ago), most Americans will be content to sigh good riddance. I disagree. I don’t think he should be allowed to slip quietly out of town. There should be a great hue and cry — a loud, collective angry howl, demonstrations with signs and bullhorns and fiery speeches — over the damage he’s done to this country.

This is the man who gave us the war in Iraq and Guantánamo and torture and rendition; who turned the Clinton economy and the budget surplus into fool’s gold; who dithered while New Orleans drowned; who trampled our civil liberties at home and ruined our reputation abroad; who let Dick Cheney run hog wild and thought Brownie was doing a heckuva job.

The Bush administration specialized in deceit. How else could you get the public (and a feckless Congress) to go along with an invasion of Iraq as an absolutely essential response to the Sept. 11 attacks, when Iraq had had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks?

Exploiting the public’s understandable fears, Mr. Bush made it sound as if Iraq was about to nuke us: “We cannot wait,” he said, “for the final proof — the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

He then set the blaze that has continued to rage for nearly six years, consuming more than 4,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. (A car bomb over the weekend killed two dozen more Iraqis, many of them religious pilgrims.) The financial cost to the U.S. will eventually reach $3 trillion or more, according to the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

A year into the war Mr. Bush was cracking jokes about it at the annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association. He displayed a series of photos that showed him searching the Oval Office, peering behind curtains and looking under the furniture. A mock caption had Mr. Bush saying: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.”

And then there’s the Bush economy, another disaster, a trapdoor through which middle-class Americans can plunge toward the bracing experiences normally reserved for the poor and the destitute.

Mr. Bush traveled the country in the early days of his presidency, promoting his tax cut plans as hugely beneficial to small-business people and families of modest means. This was more deceit. The tax cuts would go overwhelmingly to the very rich.

The president would give the wealthy and the powerful virtually everything they wanted. He would throw sand into the regulatory apparatus and help foster the most extreme income disparities since the years leading up to the Great Depression. Once again he was lighting a fire. This time the flames would engulf the economy and, as with Iraq, bring catastrophe.

If the U.S. were a product line, it would be seen now as deeply damaged goods, subject to recall.

There seemed to be no end to Mr. Bush’s talent for destruction. He tried to hand the piggy bank known as Social Security over to the marauders of the financial sector, but saner heads prevailed.

In New Orleans, the president failed to intervene swiftly and decisively to aid the tens of thousands of poor people who were very publicly suffering and, in many cases, dying. He then compounded this colossal failure of leadership by traveling to New Orleans and promising, in a dramatic, floodlit appearance, to spare no effort in rebuilding the flood-torn region and the wrecked lives of the victims.

He went further, vowing to confront the issue of poverty in America “with bold action.”

It was all nonsense, of course. He did nothing of the kind.

The catalog of his transgressions against the nation’s interests — sins of commission and omission — would keep Mr. Bush in a confessional for the rest of his life. Don’t hold your breath. He’s hardly the contrite sort.

He told ABC’s Charlie Gibson: “I don’t spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history. I guess I don’t worry about long-term history, either, since I’m not going to be around to read it.”

The president chuckled, thinking — as he did when he made his jokes about the missing weapons of mass destruction — that there was something funny going on.

21 days, only 21 more days…