Bobo has taken to his fainting couch, clutching his pearls. In “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” he moans that the attack in France reminds us to look closely at our own speech codes, and to remember that offensive speech should be discouraged socially but never legally. In the comments “P Catalano” from Helena, MT points out the obvious: “The title of this op-ed should be not “I am not Charlie” but “I Do False Equivalences.”” Prof. Krugman, in “Voodoo Time Machine,” says that leaders in the Republican Party seem to be wrong on everything that counts, but no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds. Here’s Bobo:
The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.
Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.
Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.
Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.
So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.
The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.
We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.
But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.
Moreover, provocateurs and ridiculers expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are people who take everything literally. They are incapable of multiple viewpoints. They are incapable of seeing that while their religion may be worthy of the deepest reverence, it is also true that most religions are kind of weird. Satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should.
In short, in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.
If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation. It’s almost always wrong to try to suppress speech, erect speech codes and disinvite speakers.
Fortunately, social manners are more malleable and supple than laws and codes. Most societies have successfully maintained standards of civility and respect while keeping open avenues for those who are funny, uncivil and offensive.
In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.
Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.
And Bobo can go and eat his huge plate of salted dicks out on the porch, since he’s not fit to sit at the kids’ table. Here’s Prof. Krugman:
Many of us in the econ biz were wondering how the new leaders of Congress would respond to the sharp increase in American economic growth that, we now know, began last spring. After years of insisting that President Obama is responsible for a weak economy, they couldn’t say the truth — that short-run economic performance has very little to do with who holds the White House. So what would they say?
Well, I didn’t see that one coming: They’re claiming credit. Never mind the fact that all of the good data refer to a period before the midterm elections. Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, says that he did it, that growth reflected “the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”
The response of the Democratic National Committee — “Hahahahahahaha” — seems appropriate. I mean, talk about voodoo economics: Mr. McConnell is claiming not just that he can create prosperity without, you know, actually passing any legislation, but that he can reach back in time and create prosperity before even taking power. But while Mr. McConnell’s self-aggrandizement is funny, it’s also scary, because it’s a symptom of his party’s epistemic closure. Republicans know many things that aren’t so, and no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds.
At least Mr. McConnell didn’t do what many of his colleagues have done when faced with inconvenient facts: resort to conspiracy theories.
Consider, for example, how some Republicans dealt with good news about health reform. Before Obamacare went into effect, they overwhelmingly insisted that it would be a disaster, that more people would lose insurance than would gain it. They were, of course, delighted by the technical problems that initially crippled the program’s website. But those problems were fixed, and enrollment soared. Their response? “They are cooking the books,” declared Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who now leads the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
But that was then. At this point we have multiple independent confirmations — most recently from Gallup — that Obamacare has dramatically expanded insurance coverage. So what do they say now? The law “will collapse under its own weight,” says Representative Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Speaking of Mr. Ryan: Almost four years have passed since he and many others in his party lambasted Ben Bernanke, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve, for policies that they claimed would lead to high inflation and “debase the dollar.” The inflation never materialized, and the dollar proceeded to strengthen, but Mr. Ryan gave no sign of having been chastened — and many conservatives, including favorite intellectuals like Niall Ferguson of Harvard, became “inflation truthers,” insisting that the government is hiding price rises.
Now, everyone makes predictions that turn out to have been wrong; it’s a complicated world out there, and nobody’s perfect. The point, however, is that Congress is now controlled by men who never acknowledge error, let alone learn from their mistakes.
In some cases, they may not even know that they were wrong. After all, conservative news media are not exactly known for their balanced coverage; if your picture of how health reform is working is based on Fox News, you probably have a sense that it has been a vast disaster, even though the reality is one of success that has surprised even the law’s supporters.
The main point, however, is that we’re looking at a political subculture in which ideological tenets are simply not to be questioned, no matter what. Supply-side economics is valid no matter what actually happens to the economy, guaranteed health insurance must be a failure even if it’s working, and anyone who points out the troubling facts is ipso facto an enemy.
And we’re not talking about marginal figures. You sometimes hear claims that the old-fashioned Republican establishment is making a comeback, that Tea Party extremists are on the run and we can get back to bipartisan cooperation. But that is a fantasy. We can’t have meaningful cooperation when we can’t agree on reality, when even establishment figures in the Republican Party essentially believe that facts have a liberal bias.
MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today. In “The Retreat to Identity” The Pasty Little Putz says that after Ferguson, it’s harder to make a case for optimism about race and politics in America. In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say: “In pretending to diss identity politics, Ross perpetuates them. This dog-whistle of a screed immediately signals its intent with the specious claim that “racial cleavages are still less dramatic” than in days of yore. What a shame that the reality had to impinge upon his lollipops-and-roses world. So he has to do a quick propaganda reset, in which liberals still have the chutzpah to talk about a fair economy! And the GOP, for some reason unfathomable to Ross, just can’t get its family values message to resonate with “those people” even as its plutocrat-friendly policies absolutely guarantee their continued misery and oppression.” Putzy obviously didn’t read Mr. Kristof’s column, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5,” in which he asks a question: How can we address the racial biases embedded in our society? In “Just Plane Ugly” Mr. Bruni says Look! Up in the sky! It’s the very worst of us. Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:
Last summer, around the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I wrote a column making — gingerly — a case for optimism about race and politics in America.
My argument was basically this: As much as racial controversy has marked the presidency of Barack Obama, our race-related policy cleavages are still less dramatic than at any previous point in America’s history. It isn’t just that there’s no contemporary equivalent of the conflict over Jim Crow, in which one side had to be defeated utterly for racial progress to be possible. It’s that on many racially entangled issues, from education to criminal justice to various socioeconomic challenges, the key policy debates are less polarized than in the 1970s and 1980s, and the impact of potential reforms on whites and blacks seems much less zero sum.
But after watching as Ferguson, Mo., seethed and smoldered, it’s worth offering a case for greater pessimism. Not because the optimistic arguments are no longer credible, but because we’ve just had an object lesson in why they might be proved wrong.
This lesson isn’t exactly new; indeed, it’s been offered by both parties throughout this presidency. Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.
In the Obama era, though, neither coalition has done a very good job selling such a vision, because neither knows how to deliver on it. (The left doesn’t know how to get wages rising again; the right doesn’t know how to shore up the two-parent family, etc.) Which has left both parties increasingly dependent on identity-politics appeals, with the left mobilizing along lines of race, ethnicity and gender and the right mobilizing around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.
For a while the media has assumed that this kind of identity-based politics inevitably favors the left, because 21st-century America is getting less white every day.
But that’s too simplistic, in part because the definitions of “white” and “minority” are historically elastic. If a “white party” seems sufficiently clueless and reactionary, it will lose ground to a multicultural coalition. But as African-Americans know from bitter experience, “whiteness” has sustained itself by the inclusion of immigrants as well as by the exclusion and oppression of blacks. That history suggests that a “multicultural party” may always be at risk of being redefined as a grievance-based “party of minorities” that many minorities would prefer to leave behind. (And leadership matters, too: A protean figure like Barack Obama can put together a genuine rainbow coalition, but it’s not clear how many other politicians can do the same.)
The key point here, though, is that whichever coalition is ascendant in this scenario, a politics divided primarily by identity is likely to be more poisonous than one in which both parties are offering more-color-blind appeals.
Unfortunately, identity is also the most primal, reliable form of political division. And Ferguson has provided a case study in exactly how powerfully it works.
There was a moment, early in the debate over the death of Michael Brown, when it felt as if this story might vindicate the case for optimism about racial politics — that the original tragedy might be sufficiently transparent, the subsequent police misconduct in quelling protests sufficiently clear-cut, for Ferguson to become a more powerful exhibit in the increasingly bipartisan case for various criminal justice reforms.
But then it became clear that the situation was murkier — that the cop had witnesses and physical evidence supporting his side of the story, that police had to deal with looters as well as peaceful protesters. As John McWhorter wrote in Time magazine, by the time the grand jury handed down its non-indictment the original narrative about Ferguson could only survive with “a degree of elision” and “adjustment.” Which meant, predictably, that the potential for consensus receded, and how people felt about the story became primarily a matter of identification instead.
Do you identify more with a black teenager or with a cop? With protesters menaced by playing-soldier cops or with business owners menaced by the protest’s violent fringe? With various government spokesmen or with, say, Al Sharpton?
Again, this is not unusual; this is how political division and racial division often interact.
And there’s still nothing inevitable about this interaction. Rand Paul, the Republican who’s pushed hardest to change the old paradigm on race and crime, is still talking about criminal justice reform in the wake of Ferguson. The path to a less identity-driven kind of politics is still open.
But it’s clearer today how easy, how human, it will be to leave that path untaken.
Now here’s Mr. Kristof. Maybe somebody will sit Putzy down and read this to him:
We Americans are a nation divided.
We feud about the fires in Ferguson, Mo., and we can agree only that racial divisions remain raw. So let’s borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.
The model should be the 9/11 commission or the Warren Commission on President Kennedy’s assassination, and it should hold televised hearings and issue a report to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps it could be led by the likes of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey.
We as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life. Two economists, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, found that white N.B.A. referees disproportionally call fouls on black players, while black refs call more fouls on white players. “These biases are sufficiently large that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games,” Price and Wolfers wrote.
If such racial bias exists among professional referees monitored by huge television audiences, imagine what unfolds when an employer privately weighs whom to hire, or a principal decides whether to expel a disruptive student, or a policeman considers whether to pull over a driver.
What we whites notice is blacks who have “made it” — including President Obama — so we focus on progress and are oblivious to the daily humiliations that African-Americans endure when treated as second-class citizens.
“In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,” a 23-year-old black man wrote in May 1992. “In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall, they follow me.”
He described an incident when he was stopped by six police officers who detained him, with guns at the ready, and treated him for 30 minutes as a dangerous suspect.
That young man was future Senator Cory Booker, who had been a senior class president at Stanford University and was a newly selected Rhodes Scholar. Yet our law enforcement system reduced him to a stereotype — so young Booker sat trembling and praying that he wouldn’t be shot by the police.
My sense is that part of the problem is well-meaning Americans who disapprove of racism yet inadvertently help perpetuate it. We aren’t racists, yet we buttress a system that acts in racist ways. It’s “racism without racists,” in the words of Eduardo Bonillo-Silva, a Duke University sociologist.
This occurs partly because of deeply embedded stereotypes that trick us, even when we want to be fair. Researchers once showed people sketches of a white man with a knife confronting an unarmed black man in the subway. In one version of the experiment, 59 percent of research subjects later reported that it had been the black man who held the knife.
I don’t know what unfolded in Ferguson between Michael Brown, a black teenager, and Darren Wilson, a white police officer. But there is a pattern: a ProPublica investigation found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.
If you’re white, your interactions with police are more likely to have been professional and respectful, leaving you trustful. If you’re black, your encounters with cops may leave you dubious and distrustful. That’s why a Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that 64 percent of African-Americans believe that Officer Wilson should be punished, while only 22 percent of whites think so.
Most troubling, America’s racial wealth gap, pay gap and college education gap have all widened in the last few decades.
There are no easy solutions. But let’s talk.
And now we get to Mr. Bruni:
The woman in 27E doesn’t have only one carry-on plus a small bag for a laptop or personal items. She has one carry-on plus a purse the size of a bassinet plus some canvas vessel for all of her electronics plus two different plastic totes for various pillows, blankets and possibly an ottoman and a coffee table. Shuffling down the aisle, she looks more like a Peruvian llama than anything human. She grunts and buckles.
She must have heard the announcement that the flight was full and the plea that everyone not bring too much aboard, because those words blared every 45 seconds. But there’s no selective hearing loss like that of the airline passenger. She reaches her row, predictably discovers that there’s insufficient space under the seat in front of hers and proceeds to colonize the space under the seat in front of yours. You arrive to find that what little legroom you’d counted on is gone. She pretends not to see that you’re glaring at her.
A tiff has erupted in Row 18. The man in Seat C has used the overhead for his jacket, which is lovingly folded there, and is protesting any and all attempts to move it. He has miles. He has status. That’s why he was invited to board the aircraft earlier than almost everybody else, and he’s hellbent on milking that privilege for all that it’s worth.
I’m not describing a flight that I just took. Among my Thanksgiving blessings was an avoidance of the unfriendly skies. I’m describing every other flight that I’ve taken over the last year. I’m describing a flight that many Americans surely suffered through this weekend.
And I’m doing it not simply to rue the horrors of air travel these days, which have been rued aplenty. I’m doing it because there are few better showcases of Americans’ worst impulses, circa 2014, than a 757 bound from New York to Los Angeles or from Sacramento to St. Louis. It’s a mile-high mirror of our talent for pettiness, our tendency toward selfishness, our disconnection from one another and our increasing demarcation of castes. It’s a microcosm at 30,000 to 45,000 feet.
Most of the passengers start out in a bad mood, because there’s no good way to get to the airport. The thrifty, efficient rail links that exist in many Asian and European cities remain uncommon in the United States, a reflection of our arrogant and damnable inattention to infrastructure. Even in recent years, during an economic downturn that cried out for the kinds of big projects that create jobs, we made only meager investments. Our airports and the roads and nonexistent tracks around them show it.
“Our infrastructure is on life support right now,” Ray LaHood, the former transportation secretary, told Steve Kroft in a segment of “60 Minutes” from one week ago. It was titled, fittingly, “Falling Apart.”
Kroft noted that there was “still no consensus on how to solve the problem,” which had grown more severe because of “political paralysis in Washington.”
One of the impediments to consensus is manifest on a plane: There’s little sense of a common good, no rules that everybody follows so that nobody gets a raw deal. Instead there’s an ethic of every passenger for himself or herself. The existence of, and market for, the Knee Defender, that device that prohibits the person in front of you from reclining, says it all.
On second thought, no, this does: Immediately following news coverage of a flight that had to be diverted when two passengers scuffled over a Knee Defender’s use, sales of the device reportedlyincreased.
Courtesy is dead. The plane is its graveyard. There’s a scrum at the gate and then another scrum in the aisle that defy any of the airline’s attempts at an orderly boarding process. There’s no restraint in the person who keeps smacking the back of your chair; no apology from the parent whose child keeps kicking it; no awareness that certain foods, unwrapped in a tight space, turn one traveler’s lunch into every traveler’s olfactory reality.
And nobody really communicates. Conversation between strangers becomes rarer as gadgets get better, enabling everyone to hunker down with his or her own music and own movies and own video games, to shrink the world to the dimensions of a smartphone’s or tablet’s screen, to disappear into a personalized bubble of ceaseless entertainment and scant enlightenment.
On the plane, as in the economy, most people are feeling squeezed. Financially, every flight is a death by a dozen cuts. There’s the baggage fee, the meal fee, the wireless fee. All the base price gets you is a perch that’s tighter than ever and getting tighter still. In The Daily Beast two days before Thanksgiving, Clive Irving described airlines’ sophisticated, inch-by-inch stratagems to “engineer you out of room,” and they sounded like experiments in orthopedic torture. What the rack was to medieval times, Seat 39B is to modern ones.
But Seat 2A? That’s a different story. A different world. The gap between first class and everyone else is writ vivid on a plane, and crossing from one side of the divide to the other seems to be growing more difficult. Frequent-flier programs are being tweaked to reward dollars spent on tickets instead of miles flown, and to give more bonus miles to people who are already at a high status than to people who aspire to be.
“United Continental’s Miles Program to Penalize Average Fliers,” said a headline in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. The article went on to explain that the airline was “becoming the latest carrier to shift its loyalty program to favor bigger spenders.”
A recent story in The Journal explored this further, noted that Delta was making similar adjustments, and explained, “People who fly on expensive business-class and first-class tickets and have top-tier status in frequent-flier programs will see their accounts flooded with miles.”
In the clouds as on land, the rich get richer, social mobility wanes and people are funneled ever more ruthlessly into gradations of privilege: those in sections with names like “economy comfort”; those eligible for the exit row; those who get to board in the first, second or third waves; those consigned to later stages and middle seats.
Some blot out all of this sorting with Candy Crush. Some seethe. Too many of us lose sight of more than the earth. We forget that simply being up in the air is an experience that others seldom if ever get. If there’s one thing in even shorter supply than legroom, it’s empathy.
Bobo must have gone to Colorado, or he’s smoking something illegally. In “The Governing Party” he actually tries to convince us that Republicans detoxify the brand with deep roots in the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations. In the comments “Mary Scott” from NY has this to say: “Republicans won big Tuesday because they brought government to a complete standstill by their constant obstruction, blamed the gridlock they caused on President Obama and Democrats, vowed to fix the problem that they created and a majority of voters bought that big lie. … The only thing they’re good at is winning elections. I’ll give them that but it’s laughable to suggest that they have even the slightest ability or inclination to govern.” To counterbalance Bobo’s fantasy world we have Prof. Krugman, who considers “The Triumph of the Wrong.” He says it’s not often that a party that is so wrong about so much does as well as Republicans did on Tuesday. Here’s Bobo:
Every party in opposition goes a little crazy. For Republicans in the early Obama era, insanity took the form of the Sarah Palin spasm. Veteran politicos took the former Alaska governor seriously as a national figure. Republican primary voters nominated the likes of Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. Glenn Beck seemed important enough to hold a big rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
Fortunately, serious parties eventually pull back from the fever swamps. That’s what’s happening to the Republican Party. It has re-established itself as the nation’s dominant governing party. Republicans now control 69 of 99 state legislative bodies. Republicans hold 31 governorships to Democrats’ 18.
When the next Congress convenes in January, Republicans will have their largest majority in the House of Representatives since 1931; they will have a majority in the Senate, dominate gubernatorial power in the Midwest, and have more legislative power nationwide than anytime over the past century.
Republicans didn’t establish this dominant position because they are unrepresentative outsiders. They did it because they have deep roots in four of the dominant institutions of American society: the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations.
Look at the Republicans who were elected to office on Tuesday:
The next governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, is the founder of The Hogan Companies, a real estate development firm. He co-chaired a bipartisan commission to reform county government in his state and then founded Change Maryland, an activist group.
David Perdue, who was elected senator in Georgia, was senior vice president for Asian operations for the Sara Lee Corporation. He moved to Haggar Clothing before becoming C.E.O., successively, of Reebok, Pillowtex and Dollar General.
Thom Tillis, elected senator in North Carolina, led a research team at Wang Laboratories before going to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then IBM.
The next governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, was chairman of the private equity firm GTCR, after having graduated from Dartmouth and Harvard. In 2008, Rauner was named the Philanthropist of Year by the Chicago Association of Fundraising Professionals. Rauner has given more than $20 million toward improving Chicago public schools. He’s also given time and money to a range of causes, including the Y.M.C.A., the A.C.L.U., Morehouse College, the Red Cross and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The new senator from Oklahoma, James Lankford, got a divinity degree and ran Falls Creek, the nation’s largest Christian camp.
Tom Cotton, elected senator in Arkansas, graduated from Harvard before working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, serving in the Army and going off to McKinsey.
Let’s pause over some of the institutions mentioned in these mini-bios: IBM, Reebok, the Red Cross, McKinsey and the Army. These are not fringe organizations. These are the pillars of American society.
Republicans won this election in part because they re-established their party’s traditional personality. The beau ideal of American Republicanism is the prudent business leader who is active in the community, active at church and fervently devoted to national defense.
During the primary season, groups like the Chamber of Commerce chased away or defeated renegade conservatives and opened the way for the triumph of this sort of institutional conservative. These candidates won in the general election because working-class voters will trust Republican corporate types so long as they are deeply embedded in their communities, so long as they have demonstrated loyalty to the whole society and not just the upper crust.
This year, Republicans won among white-working-class voters by 30 percentage points. They tied Democrats among Asian-Americans. They severely cut their losses among Hispanics.
The new Republican establishment is different from the old one. It is more conservative. It’s shaped more by the ideas of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute than it is by the mores of the country club. But, at least judging by the postelection comments coming from all corners, it does believe in politics, in legislating, in compromise.
During the Palin spasm, Republicans seemed to detest the craft of governing. Hothouse flowers like Senator Ted Cruz preferred telegenic confrontation to compromise and legislation.
But current party leaders are talking about incremental progress, finding areas where they can get bipartisan support: on trade, corporate taxes, the XL oil pipeline, the medical devices tax, patent reform, maybe even tax reform generally.
Republicans are also talking about restoring the traditional practices of the House and Senate. Let individual members introduce bills. Let those bills work through the committee structure and get votes. Pass budgets on time and according to the rules.
If the party is to fully detoxify its image, something will have to pass next year. Midwestern Republican governors will have to develop a compelling governing model. And the volcanic effusions of the Palin era will have to look like 1970s neckties — inexplicable oddities from another age.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet midterms to men of understanding. Or as I put it on the eve of another Republican Party sweep, politics determines who has the power, not who has the truth. Still, it’s not often that a party that is so wrong about so much does as well as Republicans did on Tuesday.
I’ll talk in a bit about some of the reasons that may have happened. But it’s important, first, to point out that the midterm results are no reason to think better of the Republican position on major issues. I suspect that some pundits will shade their analysis to reflect the new balance of power — for example, by once again pretending that Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposals are good-faith attempts to put America’s fiscal house in order, rather than exercises in deception and double-talk. But Republican policy proposals deserve more critical scrutiny, not less, now that the party has more ability to impose its agenda.
So now is a good time to remember just how wrong the new rulers of Congress have been about, well, everything.
First, there’s economic policy. According to conservative dogma, which denounces any regulation of the sacred pursuit of profit, the financial crisis of 2008 — brought on by runaway financial institutions — shouldn’t have been possible. But Republicans chose not to rethink their views even slightly. They invented an imaginary history in which the government was somehow responsible for the irresponsibility of private lenders, while fighting any and all policies that might limit the damage. In 2009, when an ailing economy desperately needed aid, John Boehner, soon to become the speaker of the House, declared: “It’s time for government to tighten their belts.”
So here we are, with years of experience to examine, and the lessons of that experience couldn’t be clearer. Predictions that deficit spending would lead to soaring interest rates, that easy money would lead to runaway inflation and debase the dollar, have been wrong again and again. Governments that did what Mr. Boehner urged, slashing spending in the face of depressed economies, have presided over Depression-level economic slumps. And the attempts of Republican governors to prove that cutting taxes on the wealthy is a magic growth elixir have failed with flying colors.
Then there’s health reform, where Republicans were very clear about what was supposed to happen: minimal enrollments, more people losing insurance than gaining it, soaring costs. Reality, so far, has begged to differ, delivering above-predicted sign-ups, a sharp drop in the number of Americans without health insurance, premiums well below expectations, and a sharp slowdown in overall health spending.
And we shouldn’t forget the most important wrongness of all, on climate change. As late as 2008, some Republicans were willing to admit that the problem is real, and even advocate serious policies to limit emissions — Senator John McCain proposed a cap-and-trade system similar to Democratic proposals. But these days the party is dominated by climate denialists, and to some extent by conspiracy theorists who insist that the whole issue is a hoax concocted by a cabal of left-wing scientists. Now these people will be in a position to block action for years to come, quite possibly pushing us past the point of no return.
But if Republicans have been so completely wrong about everything, why did voters give them such a big victory?
But the biggest secret of the Republican triumph surely lies in the discovery that obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy. From Day 1 of the Obama administration, Mr. McConnell and his colleagues have done everything they could to undermine effective policy, in particular blocking every effort to do the obvious thing — boost infrastructure spending — in a time of low interest rates and high unemployment.
This was, it turned out, bad for America but good for Republicans. Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process. So all they saw was that the man in the White House wasn’t delivering prosperity — and they punished his party.
Will things change now that the G.O.P. can’t so easily evade responsibility? I guess we’ll find out.
Bobo seems to have lost what passed for his mind. In “Party All the Time” he actually tells us that the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision strengthens democracy by enabling the parties to take back power from major donors. “Eric Flatpick” of Ohio sums the thing up succinctly: “What pigheaded sophistry.” Mr. Flatpick had more to say about it, but the summation says it all. Mr. Cohen has a question in “In Search of Home:” If you had a few weeks to live, where would you go? In “Rube Goldberg Survives” Prof. Krugman tells us why those seven million enrollments in Obamacare matter. Here’s Bobo’s delayed April Fools Day POS:
Over the last several decades, the United States has adopted a series of campaign finance reform laws. If these laws were designed to reduce the power of money in politics, they have failed. Spending on political campaigns has exploded. Washington booms with masses of lobbyists and consultants.
But campaign finance laws weren’t merely designed to take money out of politics; they were designed to protect incumbents from political defeat. In this regard, the laws have been fantastically successful.
The laws rigged the system to make it harder for challengers to raise money. In 1972, at about the time the Federal Election Campaign Act was first passed, incumbents had a campaign spending advantage over challengers of about 3 to 2. These days, incumbents have a spending advantage of at least 4 to 1. In some election years, 98 percent of the incumbents are swept back into office.
One of the ways incumbents secured this advantage is by weakening the power of the parties. They imposed caps on how much donors can give to parties and how much parties can give directly to candidates. By 2008, direct party contributions to Senate candidates accounted for only 0.18 percent of total spending.
The members of Congress did this because an unregulated party can direct large amounts of money to knock off an incumbent of the opposing party. By restricting parties, incumbents defanged a potent foe.
These laws pushed us from a party-centric campaign system to a candidate-centric system. This change has made life less pleasant for lawmakers but it has made their jobs more secure, and they have been willing to accept this trade-off.
Life is less pleasant because with the parties weakened, lawmakers have to do many campaign tasks on their own. They have to do their own fund-raising and their own kissing up to special interests. They have to hire consultants to do the messaging tasks that parties used to do.
But incumbents accept this because the candidate-centric system makes life miserable for challengers. With direct contributions severely limited and parties defanged, challengers find it hard to quickly build the vast network of donors they need to raise serious cash. High-quality challengers choose not to run because they don’t want to spend their lives begging for dough.
The shift to a candidate-centric system was horrifically antidemocratic. It pushed money from transparent, tightly regulated parties to the shadowy world of PACs and 527s. It weakened party leaders, who have to think about building broad national coalitions, and gave power to special interests.
Then came the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which managed to make everything even worse. It moved us from a candidate-centric system to a donor-centric system. Donors were unleashed to create their own opaque yet torrential money flows outside both parties and candidates. This created an explosion in the number of groups with veto power over legislation and reform. It polarized politics further because donors tend to be more extreme than politicians or voters. The candidate-centric system empowered special interests; the donor-centric system makes them practically invincible.
Then along came the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision this week. It has been greeted with cries of horror because it may increase the amount of money in politics. But this is the wrong metric. There will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise. The crucial question is where is the money flowing.
The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and “super PACs.” It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.
In their book “Better Parties, Better Government,” Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora propose the best way to reform campaign finance: eliminate the restrictions on political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates; loosen the limitations on giving to parties; keep the limits on giving to PACs.
Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks. They foster coalition thinking. They are relatively transparent. They are accountable to voters. They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one. Strengthened parties will make races more competitive and democracy more legitimate. Strong parties mobilize volunteers and activists and broaden political participation. Unlike super PACs, parties welcome large numbers of people into the political process.
Since the progressive era, campaign reformers have intuitively distrusted parties. These reformers seem driven by a naïve hope that they can avoid any visible concentration of power. But their approach to reform has manifestly failed. By restricting parties, they just concentrated power in ways that are much worse.
Sweet baby Jesus on a tricycle… I guess Bobo missed the spectacle of pretty much all the Republican “front runners” prostrating themselves before the loathsome Sheldon Adelson. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
In a fascinating recent essay in The London Review of Books, called “On Not Going Home,” James Wood relates how he “asked Christopher Hitchens, long before he was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live. Would he stay in America? ‘No, I’d go to Dartmoor, without a doubt,’ he told me. It was the landscape of his childhood.”
It was the landscape, in other words, of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.
That question is worth repeating: If I had only a few weeks to live, where would I go? It is a good way of getting rid of the clutter that distracts or blinds. I will get to that in a moment.
In the essay, Wood, who grew up in England but has lived in the United States for 18 years, explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.
He speaks of existences “marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end.”
This is a widespread modern condition; perhaps it is the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety. Wood does not focus on the psychological effects of what he calls “a certain outsider-dom,” but if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: displacement anguish.
Wood describes looking at the familiar life of his Boston street, “the heavy maple trees, the unkempt willow down at the end, an old white Cadillac with the bumper sticker ‘Ted Kennedy has killed more people than my gun,’ and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there — just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: How did I get here?”
Having spent my infancy in South Africa, grown up and been educated in England, and then, after a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, found my home in New York, I understand that how-did-I-get-here panic. But Wood and I differ. He has no desire to become an American citizen.
He quotes an immigration officer telling him, “‘A Green Card is usually considered a path to citizenship,’ and continues: “He was generously saying, ‘Would you like to be an American citizen?’ along with the less generous: ‘Why don’t you want to be an American citizen?’ Can we imagine either sentiment being expressed at Heathrow airport?”
No, we can’t. And it’s that essential openness of America, as well as the (linked) greater ease of living as a Jew in the United States compared with life in the land of Lewis Namier’s “trembling Israelites,” that made me become an American citizen and elect New York as my home. It’s the place that takes me in.
But it is not the place of my deepest connections. So, what if I had a few weeks to live? I would go to Cape Town, to my grandfather’s house, Duxbury, looking out over the railway line near Kalk Bay station to the ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. During my childhood, there was the scent of salt and pine and, in certain winds, a pungent waft from the fish processing plant in Fish Hoek. I would dangle a little net in rock pools and find myself hypnotized by the silky water and quivering life in it. The heat, not the dry high-veld heat of Johannesburg but something denser, pounded by the time we came back from the beach at lunchtime. It reverberated off the stone, angled into every recess. The lunch table was set and soon enough fried fish, usually firm-fleshed kingklip, would be served, so fresh it seemed to burst from its batter. At night the lights of Simon’s Town glittered, a lovely necklace strung along a promontory.
This was a happiness whose other name was home.
Wood writes: “Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness,’ which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: It is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”
Yes, being not quite home, acceptance, which may be bountiful, is what is left to us.
And now we get to Prof. Krugman:
Holy seven million, Batman! The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start. As the March 31 deadline for 2014 coverage approached, there was a surge in applications at the “exchanges” — the special insurance marketplaces the law set up. And the original target of seven million signups, widely dismissed as unattainable, has been surpassed.
But what does it mean? That depends on whether you ask the law’s opponents or its supporters. You see, the opponents think that it means a lot, while the law’s supporters are being very cautious. And, in this one case, the enemies of health reform are right. This is a very big deal indeed.
Of course, you don’t find many Obamacare opponents admitting outright that 7.1 million and counting signups is a huge victory for reform. But their reaction to the results — It’s a fraud! They’re cooking the books! — tells the tale. Conservative thinking and Republican political strategy were based entirely on the assumption that it would always be October, that Obamacare’s rollout would be an unremitting tale of disaster. They have no idea what to do now that it’s turning into a success story.
So why are many reform supporters being diffident, telling us not to read too much into the figures? Well, at a technical level they’re right: The precise number of signups doesn’t matter much for the functioning of the law, and there may still be many problems despite the March surge. But I’d argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees.
The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. The biggest risk to reform has always been that the scheme would founder on its complexity. And now we know that this won’t happen.
Remember, giving everyone health insurance doesn’t have to be hard; you can just do it with a government-run program. Not only do many other advanced countries have “single-payer,” government-provided health insurance, but we ourselves have such a program — Medicare — for older Americans. If it had been politically possible, extending Medicare to everyone would have been technically easy.
But it wasn’t politically possible, for a couple of reasons. One was the power of the insurance industry, which couldn’t be cut out of the loop if you wanted health reform this decade. Another was the fact that the 170 million Americans receiving health insurance through employers are generally satisfied with their coverage, and any plan replacing that coverage with something new and unknown was a nonstarter.
So health reform had to be run largely through private insurers, and be an add-on to the existing system rather than a complete replacement. And, as a result, it had to be somewhat complex.
Now, the complexity shouldn’t be exaggerated: The basics of reform only take a few minutes to explain. And it has to be as complicated as it is. There’s a reason Republicans keep defaulting on their promise to propose an alternative to the Affordable Care Act: All the main elements of Obamacare, including the subsidies and the much-attacked individual mandate, are essential if you want to cover the uninsured.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration created a system in which people don’t simply receive a letter from the federal government saying “Congratulations, you are now covered.” Instead, people must go online or make a phone call and choose from a number of options, in which the cost of insurance depends on a calculation that includes varying subsidies, and so on. It’s a system in which many things can go wrong; the nightmare scenario has always been that conservatives would seize on technical problems to discredit health reform as a whole. And last fall that nightmare seemed to be coming true.
But the nightmare is over. It has long been clear, to anyone willing to study the issue, that the overall structure of Obamacare made sense given the political constraints. Now we know that the technical details can be managed, too. This thing is going to work.
And, yes, it’s also a big political victory for Democrats. They can point to a system that is already providing vital aid to millions of Americans, and Republicans — who were planning to run against a debacle — have nothing to offer in response. And I mean nothing. So far, not one of the supposed Obamacare horror stories featured in attack ads has stood up to scrutiny.
So my advice to reform supporters is, go ahead and celebrate. Oh, and feel free to ridicule right-wingers who confidently predicted doom.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work ahead, and we can count on the news media to play up every hitch and glitch as if it were an existential disaster. But Rube Goldberg has survived; health reform has won.
The Pasty Little Putz has produced a turd called “The Terms of Our Surrender” in which he asks a question: What comes after the inevitable ruling on same-sex marriage? He’s hyperventilating and wringing his hands, of course. His typical tell? This sentence: “I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.” I find it telling that the Times is not allowing comments on this piece of crap. MoDo says you should “Brace Yourself for Hillary and Jeb,” and she also has a question: America has 320 million people, so how do we keep ending up with the same two surnames running things? It’s interesting that in this particular hit piece, allegedly about two families, the Bushes take no incoming fire. In “From the Pyramid to the Square” The Moustache of Wisdom says an Oscar-nominated documentary about the revolution in Egypt has resonated with protesters from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev. Mr. Kristof has a question in “The Compassion Gap:” Why didn’t readers of a column on the need for early-childhood interventions see a caring mom instead of her old tattoos? Here’s The Putz:
It now seems certain that before too many years elapse, the Supreme Court will be forced to acknowledge the logic of its own jurisprudence on same-sex marriage and redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states.
Once this happens, the national debate essentially will be finished, but the country will remain divided, with a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage.
So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.
In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”
But there’s another possibility, in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion. In this scenario, the unwilling photographer or caterer would be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business — which is the intent of recent legal actions against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, and a baker in Colorado.
Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power. Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.) Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.
In the past, this constant-pressure scenario has seemed the less-likely one, since Americans are better at agreeing to disagree than the culture war would suggest. But it feels a little bit more likely after last week’s “debate” in Arizona, over a bill that was designed to clarify whether existing religious freedom protections can be invoked by defendants like the florist or the photographer.
What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.
Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.
I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.
But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.
Now we get to MoDo:
Oy. By the time the Bushes and Clintons are finished, they are going to make the Tudors and the Plantagenets look like pikers.
Before these two families release their death grip on the American electoral system, we’re going to have to watch Chelsea’s granddaughter try to knock off George P.’s grandson, Prescott Walker Bush II. Barack Obama, who once dreamed of being a transformational president, will turn out to be a mere hiccup in history, the interim guy who provided a tepid respite while Hillary and Jeb geared up to go at it.
Elections for president are supposed to make us feel young and excited, as if we’re getting a fresh start. That’s the way it was with J.F.K. and Obama and, even though he was turning 70 when he got inaugurated, Ronald Reagan.
But, as the Clinton library tardily disgorged 3,546 pages of official papers Friday — dredging up memories of a presidency that was eight years of turbulence held steady by a roaring economy and an incompetent opposition, a reign roiled by Hillarycare, Vince Foster, Whitewater, Webb Hubbell, Travelgate, Monica, impeachment, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Marc Rich — the looming prospect of another Clinton-Bush race makes us feel fatigued.
Our meritocratic society seems increasingly nepotistic and dynastic. There was a Bush or a Clinton in the White House and cabinet for 32 years straight. We’re Bill Murray stuck at 6 a.m. in Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece, “Groundhog Day.” As Time’s Michael Crowley tweeted on Friday, “Who else is looking forward to potentially TEN more years of obsessing about Hillary Clinton’s past, present and future?”
The Clintons don’t get defeated. They get postponed.
Just as Hillary clears the Democratic field if she is healthy and runs, a major Romney donor told The Washington Post that “if Jeb Bush is in the race, he clears the field.” Jeb acknowledged in Long Island on Monday, referring to his mom’s tart comment that “if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly,” that “it’s an issue for sure.” He added, “It’s something that, if I run, I would have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way. Let’s keep the same standards for everybody.”
We’ve arrived at the brave new world of 21st-century technology where robots are on track to be smarter than humans. Yet, politically, we keep traveling into the past. It won’t be long before we’ll turn on the TV and see Lanny Davis defending President Clinton (the next one) on some mishegoss or other.
When the Clintons lost to Obama, they simply turned Obama’s presidency into their runway. Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and a passel of other former Obama aides, are now helping Hillary. And Bill is out being the campaigner-in-chief, keeping the Clinton allure on display in 2014.
The new cache of Clinton papers is benign — the press seems more enamored of speechwriters’ doodles than substance — but just reading through them is draining. There are reams of advice on how to steer health care, which must have filled the briefing binders Hillary famously carried. But did she absorb the lessons, given that health care failed because she refused to be flexible and make the sensible compromises suggested by her husband and allies? She’s always on listening tours, but is she hearing? As one White House health care aide advised in the new document dump, “We need to be seen as listening.”
Just as in the reminiscences compiled by Hillary’s late friend, Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas — some of which were printed in the Washington Free Beacon three weeks ago — the new papers reflect how entangled the Clintons’ public and private lives were in the White House.
In a 1995 memo, Lisa Caputo, the first lady’s press secretary, sees an opportunity for the upcoming re-election campaign by “throwing a big party” for the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary.
“We could give a wonderful photo spread to People magazine of photos from the party coupled with old photos of their honeymoon and of special moments for them over the past 20 years,” Caputo wrote, adding that they could turn it into “a nice mail piece later on.”
Both sets of papers are revealing on the never-ending herculean struggle about how to present Hillary to the world, how to turn her shifting hairstyles and personas into one authentic image.
“Be careful to ‘be real,’ ” media adviser Mandy Grunwald wrote to her before the launch of her listening tour at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s farm in upstate New York. “You did this well in the Rather interview where you acknowledged that of course last year was rough. Once you agree with the audience’s/reporters’ reality like that, it gives you a lot of latitude to then say whatever you want.”
Grunwald advises the first lady to “look for opportunities for humor” and “Don’t be defensive.”
It’s hard to understand why so many calculations are needed to seem “real,” just as it’s hard to understand how Hillary veers from feminist positions to un-feminist ones.
In the Blair papers, Hillary’s private view of the Monica Lewinsky affair hewed closely to the lame rationales offered by Bill and his male friends.
“HRC insists, no matter what people say,” Blair said, after talking to Hillary on the phone, “it was gross inappropriate behavior but it was consensual (was not a power relationship) and was not sex within any real meaning (standup, liedown, oral, etc.) of the term.” The president dallying with a 22-year-old intern was not “a power relationship” and certain kinds of sex don’t count?
Like her allies Sidney Blumenthal and Charlie Rangel, Hillary paints her husband’s mistress as an erotomaniac, just the way Clarence Thomas’s allies painted Anita Hill. A little nutty and a little slutty.
“It was a lapse,” Blair wrote, “but she says to his credit he tried to break it off, tried to pull away, tried to manage someone who was clearly a ‘narcissistic loony toon’; but it was beyond control.”
The cascade of papers evoke Hillary’s stressful brawls — with her husband, the press, Congress and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. And they evoke the issue about her that is so troubling and hard to fathom. She is an immensely complex woman with two sides. She is the tireless and talented public servant. And she is the tired warrior who can be insecure and defensive, someone who has cleaved to a bunker mentality when she would have been better served getting out of her defensive crouch.
Talking to her pal Blair, Hillary had a lot of severe words for her “adversaries” in the press and the G.O.P. Blair also said Hillary was “furious” at Bill for “ruining himself and the presidency” by 1994.
Hillary may have had a point when she said in 1993, after criticism of the maladroit firing of the veteran White House travel office staff, that the press “has big egos and no brains.” But it speaks to her titanic battles and battle scars.
Hillary has spent so much time searching for the right identity, listening to others tell her who to be, resisting and following advice on being “real,” that it leaves us with the same question we had when she first came on the stage in 1992.
Who is she?
A better woman than you are, MoDo, even though I don’t want her to run. And for what it’s worth, the next time you decide to write a hit piece about two families running things you might include the Bushes in your field of fire. Bitch. Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:
The Egyptian strongman Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was recently in Moscow visiting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Putin reportedly offered Sisi $2 billion in arms — just what a country like Egypt, where half the women can’t read, needs. The whole meeting struck me as so 1960s, so Nasser meets Khrushchev — two strongmen bucking each other up in the age of strong people and superempowered individuals. Rather than discuss arms sales, Sisi and Putin should have watched a movie together.
Specifically, Sisi should have brought a copy of “The Square” — the first Egyptian film ever nominated for an Oscar. It’s up this year. Sisi has a copy. Or, to be more precise, his film censor’s office does. For the last few months, the Egyptian authorities have been weighing whether to let the film — an inspiring and gripping documentary that follows six activists from the earliest days of the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by Sisi in 2013 — to be shown in Egypt.
Meanwhile, pirated and downloaded copies of the film, which is also on Netflix, have spread virally across Egypt and been viewed by many Egyptians in homes and coffeeshops and discussed on social media. What’s more, it was recently dubbed into Ukrainian and downloaded (some 300,000 times) by protesters there and shown in the Maidan, which also means the Square, in Kiev. A dubbed version is now spreading in Russia, too, said the film’s director Jehane Noujaim, who also directed “Control Room.”
“This is the globalization of defiance,” Noujaim said to me. “With cheap, affordable cameras and Internet connections, anyone now can change the conversation” anywhere. It’s true.
The film resonates with those who gathered in squares from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev, added the film’s producer, Karim Amer, because it captures an increasingly universal phenomenon: average people uniting and deciding “that the Pharaoh, the strongman, won’t protect us” and the religious sheikh “won’t cleanse us.” We can be and must be “authors of our own story.” It has long been said, added Amer, that “history is written by the victors. Not anymore.” Now versions can come from anywhere and anyone. Power is shifting “from the pyramid to the square” — from strongmen to strong people — “and that is a big shift.”
And that’s why Putin and Sisi need to see the film. (Disclosure: the filmmakers are friends of mine, and I have been discussing their project with them for two years.) It captures some of the most important shifts happening today, starting with fact that in today’s hyperconnected world wealth is getting concentrated at the top, but, at the same time, power is getting distributed at the bottom and transparency is being injected everywhere. No palace will remain hidden by high walls, not even the giant one reportedly being built for Putin on the Black Sea.
But people now can’t just see in, they can see far — how everybody else is living. And as Tahrir and Kiev demonstrate, young people will no longer tolerate leaders who deprive them of the tools and space to realize their full potential. The Square has a Facebook page where Egyptians are invited to answer questions, including: “Who would you most like to watch this movie with?” One answer, from Magda Elmaghrabi, probably spoke for many: “I would watch it with my dad who passed away 9 years ago. He emigrated to the States not for lack of wealth, but for his fears of what would happen in the future for Egypt and whether there would be opportunities for my 2 older brothers. I would love to have discussed what occurred and see his emotional reaction as the Egyptians stood up for what they believed in.”
Another reason Putin, Sisi and all their protesters need to see “The Square” is that it doesn’t have a happy ending — for anyone, not yet. Why?
The Egyptian protesters got sidelined by the army, because while they all wanted to oust the Pharaoh, they couldn’t agree on a broader reform agenda and translate that into a governing majority. But Putin and Sisi will also lose if they don’t change, because there is no stable progress without inclusive politics and economics. I understand the need and longing by those not in the squares for “stability” and “order.” Putin and Sisi both rose to power on that longing for stability after so much revolutionary ferment. But both men have to be asked: Stability to do what? To go where? To jail not just real terrorists, but, in Sisi’s and Putin’s cases, legitimate journalists and opposition and youth leaders? Many Asian autocrats imposed order, but they also built schools, infrastructure and a rule of law that nurtured middle classes that eventually delivered democracy.
So the protesters are long on idealism but short on a shared political action plan. Sisi and Putin are long on stability but short on a politics of inclusion tied to a blueprint for modernity (and not just rising oil prices). Unless they each overcome their deficiencies, their countries will fail to fulfill their potential — and all their “squares” will be stages for conflict, not launching pads for renewal.
Last up today is Mr. Kristof:
Some readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.
A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.
“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”
On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”
“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”
To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.
There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.
To break cycles of poverty, we have the tools to improve high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancies and increase employment. What we lack is the will to do so.
There may be neurological biases at work. A professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.
Likewise, psychology experiments suggest that affluence may erode compassion. When research subjects are asked to imagine great wealth, or just look at a computer screen saver with money, they become less inclined to share or help others. That may be why the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.
The generosity of the poor always impresses me. In West Virginia, I visited a trailer that housed eight people and sometimes many more. A woman in the home, Lynmarie Sargent, 30, was once homeless with a month-old baby, and that discomfort and humiliation seared her so that she lets other needy families camp out in her trailer and eat. Sometimes she houses as many as 17.
Sargent is an unemployed former addict with a criminal record, struggling to stay clean of drugs, get a job and be a good mom. She has plenty to learn from middle-class Americans about financial planning, but wealthy people have plenty to learn from her about compassion.
A Pew survey this year found that a majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is “lack of effort on his or her part.”
It’s true, of course, that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible. So are the rich, with less consequence.
Critics note that if a person manages to get through high school and avoid drugs, crime and parenting outside of marriage, it’s often possible to escape poverty. Fair enough. But if you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.
So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.
Researchers also find that financial stress sometimes impairs cognitive function, leading to bad choices. Indian farmers, for example, test higher for I.Q. after a harvest when they are financially secure. Alleviate financial worry, and you can gain 13 points in measured I.Q.
The tattoos that readers saw on Truffles are mostly old ones, predating Johnny, and she is passionate about helping him. That’s why she enrolled him in a Save the Children program that provides books that she reads to him every day. In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.
Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.
MoDo has been confusing TV shows with real life again. In “Beautifying Abbey Road” she wails that as Americans decry a Dickensian class divide, they fawn over a British soap opera of manners. She really needs to get a life. I’ll let “Pilatius” from NYC handle what needs to be said about her POS: ““It’s television!! Perhaps we can take the next column and discuss the socio-ecomic implications of General Hospital.” The Moustache of Wisdom says it’s “Not Just About Us” and that as the headlines from the Arab world get worse and worse, there is talk of the “power vacuum” in the region. Getting overlooked is the “values vacuum.” He manages to write the whole thing without the word “Israel” appearing once. Stunning… Here’s MoDo:
In real life, Americans may keen about income inequality. But on TV, they’re keen for it.
“Downton Abbey” continued its upward ascent with viewers Sunday night, a gushing embrace of class snobbery that hasn’t been seen since friends clustered across the country in 1981 — wearing black tie and clutching Teddy Bears and champagne glasses — to watch “Brideshead Revisited.”
I’ve resisted the “Downton Abbey” ferver. My grandmother and her nine sisters were tall, strapping women who immigrated to America from Ireland in the second decade of the 20th century and found jobs as maids, cooks and nannies for rich families with names like Gore and Mellon. So heaven forfend that I would enjoy watching Lord Grantham erupt in horror when his youngest daughter wants to marry the cute Irish chauffeur.
At the start of the fourth season, Maggie Smith’s caustic Dowager Countess still can’t stomach calling the Irishman by his first name, even now that the widowed Tom Branson is the estate manager and father of her great-granddaughter (dubbed a wicked “crossbreed” by the nanny.) As my great-aunts worked tirelessly to grasp shards of the American dream, they were not gliding about mansions playing confidantes to malleable employers, much less co-conspirators in moving the bodies of dead lovers.
It was a much tougher life than the democratized fantasy shown in “Downton Abbey.” Sure, Julian Fellowes’s servants have to iron the newspapers, choose cuff links and scan for scratches in the silver candelabra, but basically the upstairs-downstairs hierarchies work in contented concert, mingling like family — warmly and sometimes spitefully.
Just as there is a yawning gulf between “Gone With the Wind” and the harrowing “12 Years a Slave,” there is a yawning gulf between the Panglossian PBS soap opera of manners and the dehumanizing life most servants led.
In “Castle Rackrent,” an 1800 work that was a pioneer of the historical novel, Maria Edgeworth skewered her own British landlord class for viciousness to the Irish peasantry. Speaking of the grand lady of the house, Edgeworth wrote: “She was a strict observer, for self and servants, of Lent, and all fast-days, but not holidays. One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep soul and body together, we put a morsel of roast beef in her mouth, which came from Sir Murtagh’s dinner, who never fasted, not he; but somehow or other it unfortunately reached my lady’s ears, and the priest of the parish had a complaint made of it the next day, and the poor girl was forced, as soon as she could walk, to do penance for it, before she could get any peace or absolution, in the house or out of it.”
Niall O’Dowd, the founder of The Irish Voice, IrishCentral.com and Irish America magazine, asserted: “For this generation of Americans, the ‘Downton Abbey’ ‘Yes, m’Lady’ servants are the equivalent to the old minstrel shows on the Bowery. It reflects the colonial cringe, casting an ameliorating light over a period that was full of pretty desperate stuff for people trapped in a rigid, notorious caste system.”
Americans cast off the British monarchy, but they go nuts for Kate Middleton’s procreation story. (“Rich woman has baby,” O’Dowd notes dryly.) And they savor watching a Downton aristocrat dress down a servant for noting inelegantly, “Dinner is on the table.”
We believe in upward mobility. Yet some of the new American moguls are taking on the worst traits of the old British class system: Silicon Valley’s up-and-coming tech titans who complain about having to look at the tatty homeless spoiling their San Francisco “utopia.” The Dickensian conservatives who don’t give a fig about a social safety net ensuring that poor people have food on the table.
As Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money” asked MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, “Wasn’t this settled in 1848-1850 with the Irish potato famine? I’m not kidding. Lord John Russell believed what the Republicans did, which is, you know, let them eat potatoes even if they’re rotten.” The issue of laissez-faire, Cramer said, “was decided many years ago by Queen Victoria’s insolence toward the Irish.”
I relented on “Downton” when I read Alessandra Stanley’s review in The Times last week pointing out that the allure “isn’t Anglophilia or a vestigial yearning for a monarch” but the fact that it’s a “show about class differences that panders to contemporary notions of democracy and equality.”
Watching the saga from the beginning this week, I saw the extent of the subversive fantasy: The servants rule the masters. The bad ones manipulate the lords and ladies into doing their bidding. And the good ones instruct and nag their superiors into making the right moves in their royal lives, both personally and professionally. In Sunday’s season premiere, Lady Mary frostily informed Carson the butler that he had overstepped the mark in urging her to move past her grief over her husband’s death and get more involved in running the estate. But she soon humbly apologized for having the cheek to criticize Carson’s cheek. The marble beauty in long black gloves melted into sobs in his arms and then bucked up to rejoin the world.
The butler did it.
Jeez. I think we ought to make her watch every “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” episode and then write a hissy little column. Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
Every day the headlines from the Arab world get worse: An Al Qaeda affiliate group, aided by foreign fighters, battles with seven different homegrown Syrian rebel groups for control of the region around Aleppo, Syria. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut is bombed. Mohamad Chatah, an enormously decent former Lebanese finance minister, is blown up after criticizing Hezbollah’s brutish tactics. Another pro-Al Qaeda group takes control of Fallujah, Iraq. Explosions rock Egypt, where the army is now jailing Islamists and secular activists. Libya is a mess of competing militias.
What’s going on? Some say it’s all because of the “power vacuum” — America has absented itself from the region. But this is not just about us. There’s also a huge “values vacuum.” The Middle East is a highly pluralistic region — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Druze and various tribes — that for centuries was held together from above by iron-fisted colonial powers, kings and dictators. But now that vertical control has broken down, before this pluralistic region has developed any true bottom-up pluralism — a broad ethic of tolerance — that might enable its people to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above.
For the Arab awakening to have any future, the ideology that is most needed now is the one being promoted least: Pluralism. Until that changes, argues Marwan Muasher, in his extremely relevant new book — “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism” — none of the Arab uprisings will succeed.
Again, President Obama could have done more to restrain leaders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria from going to extremes. But, ultimately, argues Muasher, this is the Arabs’ fight for their political future. If 500,000 American troops in Iraq, and $1 trillion, could not implant lasting pluralism in the cultural soil there, no outsider can, said Muasher. There also has to be a will from within. Why is it that some 15,000 Arabs and Muslims have flocked to Syria to fight and die for jihadism and zero have flocked to Syria to fight and die for pluralism? Is it only because we didn’t give the “good guys” big enough guns?
As Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, put it in an interview: “Three years of the Arab uprising have shown the bankruptcy of all the old political forces in the Arab world.” The corrupt secular autocrats who failed to give their young people the tools to thrive — and, as a result, triggered these uprisings — are still locked in a struggle with Islamists, who also have no clue how to deliver jobs, services, security and economic growth. (Tunisia may be an exception.) “As long as we’re in the this zero-sum game, the sum will be zero,” says Muasher.
No sustainable progress will be possible, argues Muasher, without the ethic of pluralism permeating all aspects of Arab society — pluralism of thought, pluralism in gender opportunities, pluralism in respect to other religions, pluralism in education, pluralism toward minorities, pluralism of political parties rotating in power and pluralism in the sense of everyone’s right to think differently from the collective.
The first Arab awakening in the 20th century was a fight for independence from colonial powers, says Muasher. It never continued as a fight for democracy and pluralism. That war of ideas, he insists, is what “the second Arab awakening” has to be about. Neither the autocrats nor the Islamists can deliver progress. “Pluralism is the operating system we need to solve all our problems, and as long as that operating system is not in place, we will not get there. This is an internal battle. Let’s stop hoping for delivery from the outside.” This will take time.
Naïve? No. Naïve is thinking that everything is about the absence or presence of American power, and that the people of the region have no agency. That’s wrong: Iraq is splintering because Prime Minister Maliki behaved like a Shiite militiaman, not an Iraqi Mandela. Arab youths took their future in their own hands, motivated largely by pluralistic impulses. But the old order proved to be too stubborn, yet these youth aspirations have not gone away, and will not.
“The Arab world will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships,” writes Muasher. But “these forces will also fade, because, in the end, the exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people’s needs for better quality of life. … As history has demonstrated overwhelmingly, where there is respect for diversity, there is prosperity. Contrary to what Arab societies have been taught for decades by their governments to believe — that tolerance, acceptance of different points of view, and critical thinking are destructive to national unity and economic growth — experience proves that societies cannot keep renewing themselves and thereby thrive except through diversity.”
Muasher, who is returning to Jordan to participate in this struggle for diversity, dedicated his book to: “The youth of the Arab World — who revolted, not against their parents, but on their behalf.”
The only charitable explanation is that Bobo wrote his column yesterday and it’s a particularly ham-handed attempt at a joke. In “Freedom Loses One” he actually says that if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, it will be a victory for living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations. Now he’s just fcking with us… Mr. Nocera, in “Investor Activism Gone Wild,” says that if J.C. Penney succumbs to its financial troubles, a shareholder activist will shoulder much of the blame. Mr. Bruni likes it “When TV Takes Its Time.” He says the answer to too many “Housewives” and too much forensic hullabaloo? The gentle tempo and steadfast puzzles of shows like Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.” Yeah, Frank. On the Sundance channel… We’re on a fixed income and can’t afford all those premium channels like HBO and Showtime, etc., etc., etc., so I guess I’m doomed to continue watching “Hoarders.” (I file that one under “shit that makes me feel normal.”) Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:
I don’t think we’ve paused sufficiently to celebrate the wonderful recent defeat for the cause of personal freedom. After all, these sorts of defeats don’t happen every day.
Over the past 40 years, personal freedom has been on a nearly uninterrupted winning streak. In the 1960s, we saw a great expansion of social and lifestyle freedom. In the 1980s, we saw a great expansion of economic freedom. Since then, we’ve had everything from jeans commercials to rock anthems to political conventions celebrating freedom as the highest ideal.
People are much more at liberty these days to follow their desires, unhampered by social convention, religious and ethnic traditions and legal restraints.
The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community.
Other big thinkers believed that if people are left perfectly free to follow their desires, their baser ones will end up dominating their nobler ones. For these writers, the goal in life is not primarily to be free but to be good. Being virtuous often means thwarting your inclinations, obeying a power outside yourself. It means maintaining a balance between liberty and restraint, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence. As Edmund Burke put it:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Recently, the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack. People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited. The results are as predicted. A decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate. Decline in marriage. More children raised in unsteady homes. Higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings.
But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.
Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.
Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.
And far from being baffled by this attempt to use state power to restrict individual choice, most Americans seem to be applauding it. Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.
Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it. Once Americans acknowledged gay people exist, then, of course, they wanted them enmeshed in webs of obligation.
I suspect that this shift in public acceptance will be permanent, unless it turns out that marriages are more unstable when two people of the same gender are involved.
And, who knows, maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice. Maybe there will be sumptuary codes that will make lavish spending and C.E.O. salaries unseemly. Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home. Maybe voters will restrain their appetite for their grandchildren’s money. Maybe more straight people will marry.
The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.
It’s been a while since I’ve served up a large plate of salted weasel dicks for Bobo, but this one deserves it. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
William Ackman, the investor-activist who runs the $12 billion hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, is like one of those guys you used to see in a certain kind of old-fashioned comedy. On one shoulder sits an angel, encouraging his better nature. On the other sits a devil, whispering temptation.
When he listens to the angel, Ackman does amazing things. He made a $25 million contribution to the Newark school system, an early and important match against the $100 million that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, put up in September 2010. Yet unlike virtually every other actor involved in the Zuckerberg grant, who have been squabbling ever since, Ackman attached virtually no strings to his donation. He wants his money to be used to help Newark’s schoolchildren — not to push someone’s reform agenda.
Then there’s his current Herbalife crusade. After making a $1 billion bet that the stock would fall, Ackman released a lengthy report alleging that the company was running an illegal pyramid scheme. I have been sadly constrained from writing columns about the Ackman-Herbalife battle because the company had the wit to hire my fiancée’s employer, David Boies, after Ackman unveiled his attack. I was, as they say, “conflicted out.”
But I will say this: Pyramid schemes are a hidden scourge, hurting millions of people seduced by their get-rich-quick promises. Until Ackman began agitating, the federal government had largely capitulated to the “multilevel marketing” industry (as it likes to be called), even exempting it from a law passed a few years ago specifically aimed at curbing pyramid schemes. Ackman has been heroic in taking on this litigious, well-financed industry. Not since Jim Chanos went after Enron has a hedge fund manager been willing to question whether a company was actually a criminal enterprise. That takes guts.
Also, his track record as an activist has been good; you don’t get $12 billion in assets if you don’t win more than you lose.
But there is always that devil on the other shoulder. A few years ago, Ackman took a position in Target’s stock. Because of the recession, retailers such as Target were struggling. To get the stock up, Ackman began throwing out ideas that amounted to financial engineering. He then mounted an expensive proxy fight to get on the board, which thankfully, he lost. The stock has since rebounded. Target didn’t need financial engineering; it just needed a better economy.
Which brings me to his latest retail foray, J.C. Penney. Is there a single word that can sum up what has befallen J.C. Penney since Ackman took a stake in the company? Yes: disaster.
J.C. Penney had long catered to lower-middle-class families searching for sales. Its chief executive, Mike Ullman, who had been at the helm since 2004, was widely viewed as solid, if a tad unimaginative. He had led J.C. Penney to some of the most profitable years in its history. But, by the fall of 2010, hurt by the same recession that hurt Target, Penney’s stock was way down. That’s when Ackman showed up.
Being a big-time activist-investor, Ackman could hardly allow Ullman to remain at the helm. Activists have to be, you know, active. Within a year, he landed the executive everyone in retail wanted: Ron Johnson, who had built Apple’s retail business. Imagine: a Steve Jobs disciple was going to run downmarket J.C. Penney. What could possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything. Johnson decided to eliminate the sales that had always been J.C. Penney’s trademark and move to everyday low prices. He thus alienated the core J.C. Penney customer. He kept talking about how he was going to apply the lessons he had learned at Apple to J.C. Penney, even though the companies sold completely different products to completely different customers. As the core customers departed, Johnson and J.C. Penney didn’t have the merchandise or cachet to attract a more upscale, Target-type customer. People abandoned J.C. Penney.
At the end of 2012, J.C. Penney announced that its revenues had fallen by a staggering $4.3 billion. It has laid off some 20,000 people. Walter Loeb, the former longtime retail analyst at Morgan Stanley who now blogs for Forbes.com, is predicting that its revenues will decline another 22 percent in the first quarter of 2013.
Lately, Johnson has brought back sales and devised a new strategy, revolving around “stores within stores” — selling merchandise much the way Bloomingdale’s does. One of its ministores will be devoted to Martha Stewart-designed home goods. You may have read about that. Macy’s, which says it has a contract that prevents Martha Stewart from selling housewares to other retailers, has sued. On the stand during the trial, I’m told, Johnson kept referring to his experience at Apple. Some people never learn.
The question is no longer whether Johnson will learn in time. If the quarter is as bad as Loeb is predicting, he’ll be gone soon. The question is whether Ackman has learned anything. The next time the devil whispers in his ear, let’s hope he doesn’t listen.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who enjoys classy TV shows:
If you haven’t caught “Top of the Lake,” a cryptic mini-series on the Sundance Channel right now, you owe yourself a peek, if only to behold and savor Holly Hunter, whose character is a mash-up of Pocahontas, the oracle at Delphi and Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” She’s all hair, her silvery mane accounting for easily half of her body weight and seemingly destined to sweep the ground. Perhaps when the character isn’t providing terse counsel to the damaged women around her at an odd spiritual retreat, she moonlights as a broom.
Most of the women at the retreat, built from a network of colorful cargo containers arranged like gigantic Legos on the lip of the aforementioned lake, are on the lam from destructive relationships with men. One is on the lam from a destructive relationship with a chimpanzee as well. Still they can’t help themselves. Their eyes rove to the scruffy local lads in the gorgeous patch of New Zealand where the story is set, and in the third of what will be seven episodes, a woman leaves her container to spend the night in the less Spartan digs of a lakeside drug lord. Minor spoiler alert: as she slips into his bed, he announces that he’s impotent, and the day after, as they frolic sexlessly in the woods, he stumbles across his mother’s grave, kneels in front of it and begins flagellating himself. This is a pretty good definition of a really bad date.
I’m mesmerized by “Top of the Lake,” which is now halfway through its run, and friends who are watching it constantly bring it up. And what we’re mainly responding to isn’t the meat of the yarn, which focuses on the effort to unravel what happened to a 12-year-old girl who is about five months pregnant. It’s the ancillary riddles and vaguely explained curiosities, like the interludes in Lego land. It’s the gentle pacing. It’s the way in which the mini-series, one of whose principal writers and directors is Jane Campion, insists on a certain opaqueness and bucks the bulk of what’s on television, even in this golden age of the medium.
“Top of the Lake” belongs to a budding genre that several critics, including Alessandra Stanley in The Times and Matt Zoller Seitz in Salon, have called Slow TV. Stanley sagely noted the parallel to Slow Food, which rebelled against the metastasis of McDonald’s outposts. Slow TV pushes back at the instant gratification and empty calories of too many elimination contests, too many reality shows, too many efficient, literal-minded forensic dramas that perhaps keep certain plot threads dangling but tie up the episode’s main mystery by the hour’s end.
The term Slow TV has multiple meanings, and has been applied to full-length chronicles of actual, incrementally unfolding events, like a ship’s voyage, and to the practice of spacing out viewings of a fictional serial’s episodes rather than watching them in a marathon session. But I think it’s best deployed in the way Stanley and then Seitz, writing about such shows as “Treme” and “Game of Thrones,” used it: to describe unrushed, atmospheric narratives.
Slow TV mines the pleasures of ambiguity, which are affirmed, as it happens, by one of the best movies I’ve recently seen, “Room 237,” a documentary in limited theatrical release and on cable TV. The title refers to a detail in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining,” and the documentary recounts the riot of messages and meanings that obsessive fans have read into Kubrick’s lone foray into horror.
It’s a testament, hilarious at times, to the human genius for overanalysis. One “Shining” fan points to a German-made typewriter in the movie to support his theory that it’s a Holocaust parable; another cites the feathered-headdress logo on baking-powder cans in a few scenes for his belief that “The Shining” is about the massacre of American Indians. A desktop paper tray is determined to be a metaphoric erection, and so on. The abstruseness of some of “The Shining” is arguably a flaw, but “Room 237” reminds you that only an artistic work that resists tidy explanation can accommodate such enjoyable flights of interpretive fancy.
Ambiguity has never been what TV values most, “Twin Peaks” excepted. But it was central to “The Killing,” which highlighted an additional characteristic of Slow or Slowish TV, the willingness to wander off the main road and down an intriguing cul-de-sac, as “Girls” did in a discrete episode with Patrick Wilson as a guest star. Another HBO series, “Enlightened,” partly redeemed its irritations with its habits of straying, and of lingering: on a sigh, on a glare, on a soulless office building. It cared as much for mood as for plot.
The same is true of “Top of the Lake,” which preserves some enigmas, hirsute and otherwise, and surrenders others on its own timetable, making you wait and making you work. Just like life.
Bobo has produced another one of his glorious false equivalency columns. In “The Next Four Years” he gurgles that it seems as though everything is in place for President Obama’s second term to be filled with more aggressive recriminations and bulldozing. What false equivalency, you may ask? Here you go: “Just as Senator Mitch McConnell made defeating President Obama his main political objective, Democrats seem likely to make winning back the House their primary political objective.” Oh, as a cherry on top of the sundae he moans about the end of the era of The Grand Bargain… Mr. Cohen, in “The Blight of Return,” says Illusion and division sap the Palestinian national movement at a time when its West Bank achievements have laid the basis for statehood. Prof. Krugman addresses “The Dwindling Deficit” and says the budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem. Not by a long shot. In fact, to a large degree, it’s mostly solved. Here’s Bobo:
President Obama’s second inaugural comes at an interesting moment, what you might call the end of the era of the Grand Bargain. Throughout his first term, Democrats and Republicans didn’t achieve a Grand Bargain on spending and taxes, but there was a sense that history was moving in that direction.
The Simpson-Bowles commission sketched out a vision of what a Grand Bargain might look like. Obama and John Boehner tried to craft some semi-Grand Bargains. There was a lot of talk at think tanks of what the best combination of tax reform and entitlement reform might be.
The “fiscal-cliff” fiasco has persuaded many smart people that a Grand Bargain is not going to happen any time soon. A political class that botched the fiscal cliff so badly are not going to be capable of a gigantic deal on complex issues. It’s like going into a day care center and asking a bunch of infants to perform “Swan Lake.”
Polarization is too deep. Special interests are too strong. The negotiators are too rusty. Republicans are not going to give up their vision of a low-tax America. Democrats are not willing to change the current entitlement programs.
So as the president enters his second term, there has to be a new controlling narrative, a new strategy for how to spend the next four years.
As you know, I am an earnest, good-government type, so the strategy I’d prefer might be called Learning to Crawl. It would be based on the notion that you have to learn to crawl before you can run. So over the next four years, legislators should work on a series of realistic, incremental laws that would rebuild the habits of compromise, competence and trust.
We could do some education reform, expand visa laws to admit more high-skill workers, encourage responsible drilling for natural gas, maybe establish an infrastructure bank. Political leaders would erode partisan orthodoxies and get back into the habit of passing laws together. Then, down the road, their successors could do the big things.
I may be earnest, but I’m not an idiot. I know there is little chance that today’s partisan players are going to adopt this kind of incremental goo-goo approach. It’s more likely that today’s majority party is going to adopt a different strategy, which you might call Kill the Wounded. It’s more likely that today’s Democrats are going to tell themselves something like this:
“We live at a unique moment. Our opponents, the Republicans, are divided, confused and bleeding. This is not the time to allow them to rebuild their reputation with a series of modest accomplishments. This is the time to kick them when they are down, to win back the House and end the current version of the Republican Party.
“First, we change the narrative. The president ran in 2008 against Washington dysfunction, casting blame on both parties. Over the years, he has migrated to a different narrative: The Republicans are crazy. Washington could be working fine, but the Republicans are crazy.
“At every public appearance, the president should double-down on that theme. The Democratic base already believes it. The media is sympathetic. Independents could be persuaded.
“Then, wedge issues. The president should propose no new measures that might unite Republicans, the way health care did in the first term. Instead, he should raise a series of wedge issues meant to divide Southerners from Midwesterners, the Tea Party/Talk Radio base from the less ideological corporate and managerial class.
“He’s already started with a perfectly designed gun control package, inviting a long battle with the N.R.A. over background checks and magazine clips. That will divide the gun lobby from suburbanites. Then he can re-introduce Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform. That will divide the anti-immigration groups from the business groups (conventional wisdom underestimates how hard it is going to be for Republicans to back comprehensive reforms).
“Then he could invite a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling — make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy. Along the way, he could highlight women’s issues, social mobility issues (student loans, community college funding) and pick fights on compassion issues, (hurricane relief) — promoting any small, popular spending programs that Republicans will oppose.
“Twice a month, Democrats should force Republicans to cast an awful vote: either offend mainstream supporters or risk a primary challenge from the right.”
Just as Senator Mitch McConnell made defeating President Obama his main political objective, Democrats seem likely to make winning back the House their primary political objective. Experts are divided on how plausible this is, but the G.O.P. is unpopular and the opportunity is there.
This isn’t the Washington I want to cover, but it’s the most likely one. How will Republicans respond to this onslaught? I have no idea.
They’ll double down on the batshit crazy, David. That’s how they roll nowadays. Sweet FSM, I really hope that Pierce dissects this one… Here’s Mr. Cohen:
A couple of years ago I had an exchange with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, that went like this:
“You’re working for a two-state solution?”
“And Hamas is not.”
“It is true.”
This fundamental issue, at the core of the division of the Palestinian national movement, endures. As John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee to become secretary of state, prepares for office and talk stirs for the umpteenth time of a push for Middle East peace, it is critical to confront the problem, whose dimensions have recently been underscored.
First there was Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, and his awful speech on his first visit to Gaza last month. “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north,” he declared. In other words, forget compromise on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps: Annihilation of the state of Israel remains the goal.
Then there was Mohamed Morsi. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, now the Egyptian president, was chief of the Brotherhood’s political arm. This week it emerged that in this role in 2010, he said: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” He called Zionists “bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” And he called for all Palestine to be freed.
Morsi’s vile anti-Semitic remarks are of a piece with the old blood libel: Jews with horns, Jews with tails, goats and devils defiling Christian women. And nursing children on hatred? Instilling hatred in the innocent is tantamount to instilling self-destruction.
And so it has been. When the United Nations called in 1947 for the partition of Mandate Palestine and the establishment of Jewish and Palestinian states, the proposed Palestinian state occupied about 42 percent of the territory. Arab armies went to war and lost. Today, with the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians stand to get about 22 percent of the land under any two-state peace. The annihilation ambition has been a recipe for Palestinian defeatism, victimhood and loss.
Wide swaths of the Palestinian leadership have drawn the lesson. The West Bank, under President Mahmoud Abbas and Fayyad, has seen dramatic change over the past several years. New policies — of nonviolence, responsible governance, elimination of militias, central control of security and economic growth — have been embraced to lay the groundwork of statehood, a state explicitly envisaged as existing side-by-side in peace and security with Israel.
The achievements in Ramallah have been widely lauded, including by the World Bank, but Israel has held back, one reason for its current isolation. Rather it has pursued West Bank settlements, to the dismay of Obama, who, according to a Bloomberg column by Jeffrey Goldberg, is convinced that, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” The settlement expansion is indeed self-defeating. It precludes the two-state peace Israel needs to remain a democratic and Jewish state. But it is in line with the platform of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, which says that, “Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.”
Netanyahu may be returned to power in elections this month at the head of an even more right-wing coalition. The ambition to hold all the land is not the exclusive preserve of certain Palestinians. Extremes feed on each other; a majority in the middle is ready for a reasonable compromise that places the future above the past.
That, in part, is what the two-year-old Arab Spring has been about: the future over the past. However faltering (what revolutionary movement was ever smooth?), the awakening has been about overcoming an Arab culture of victimhood, conspiracy and paralysis in the name of agency, engagement and debate. The dinosaurs of the Palestinian movement, like Meshal, should take note.
Pursuit of all of the land, with its accompanying “right of return,” is a form of perennial victimhood, one that has spawned some 4.7 million Palestinian refugees, several times the number who were driven from their homes in the war of 1948. The right of return would be better named the blight of return. It is a damaging illusion that distracts from an achievable peace in the name of Palestinian children and grandchildren nursed on hope. There is the possibility of compensation, but there is in history no right of return. Ask the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Turks of Greece, the Germans of Danzig and Breslau (today Gdansk and Wroclaw) — and the Jews of the Arab world.
When I was in Cairo recently, I saw a senior Western official who meets regularly with President Morsi. She told me she has no doubt of his belief in Israel’s right to exist and the urgent need for a two-state peace. Power is responsibility; it can change people. The United States should test Morsi by pressing him hard to forge Palestinian unity in pragmatism. That would remove an Israeli excuse for oppression that tramples on the Jewish state’s own best interests.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
It’s hard to turn on your TV or read an editorial page these days without encountering someone declaring, with an air of great seriousness, that excessive spending and the resulting budget deficit is our biggest problem. Such declarations are rarely accompanied by any argument about why we should believe this; it’s supposed to be part of what everyone knows.
This is, however, a case in which what everyone knows just ain’t so. The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot. Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should.
It’s true that right now we have a large federal budget deficit. But that deficit is mainly the result of a depressed economy — and you’re actually supposed to run deficits in a depressed economy to help support overall demand. The deficit will come down as the economy recovers: Revenue will rise while some categories of spending, such as unemployment benefits, will fall. Indeed, that’s already happening. (And similar things are happening at the state and local levels — for example, California appears to be back in budget surplus.)
Still, will economic recovery be enough to stabilize the fiscal outlook? The answer is, pretty much.
Recently the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities took Congressional Budget Office projections for the next decade and updated them to take account of two major deficit-reduction actions: the spending cuts agreed to in 2011, amounting to almost $1.5 trillion over the next decade; and the roughly $600 billion in tax increases on the affluent agreed to at the beginning of this year. What the center finds is a budget outlook that, as I said, isn’t great but isn’t terrible: It projects that the ratio of debt to G.D.P., the standard measure of America’s debt position, will be only modestly higher in 2022 than it is now.
The center calls for another $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction, which would completely stabilize the debt ratio; President Obama has called for roughly the same amount. Even without such actions, however, the budget outlook for the next 10 years doesn’t look at all alarming.
Now, projections that run further into the future do suggest trouble, as an aging population and rising health care costs continue to push federal spending higher. But here’s a question you almost never see seriously addressed: Why, exactly, should we believe that it’s necessary, or even possible, to decide right now how we will eventually address the budget issues of the 2030s?
Consider, for example, the case of Social Security. There was a case for paying down debt before the baby boomers began to retire, making it easier to pay full benefits later. But George W. Bush squandered the Clinton surplus on tax cuts and wars, and that window has closed. At this point, “reform” proposals are all about things like raising the retirement age or changing the inflation adjustment, moves that would gradually reduce benefits relative to current law. What problem is this supposed to solve?
Well, it’s probable (although not certain) that, within two or three decades, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted, leaving the system unable to pay the full benefits specified by current law. So the plan is to avoid cuts in future benefits by committing right now to … cuts in future benefits. Huh?
O.K., you can argue that the adjustment to an aging population would be smoother if we commit to a glide path of benefit cuts now. On the other hand, by moving too soon we might lock in benefit cuts that turn out not to have been necessary. And much the same logic applies to Medicare. So there’s a reasonable argument for leaving the question of how to deal with future problems up to future politicians.
The point is that the case for urgent action now to reduce spending decades in the future is far weaker than conventional rhetoric might lead you to suspect. And, no, it’s nothing like the case for urgent action on climate change.
So, no big problem in the medium term, no strong case for worrying now about long-run budget issues.
The deficit scolds dominating policy debate will, of course, fiercely resist any attempt to downgrade their favorite issue. They love living in an atmosphere of fiscal crisis: It lets them stroke their chins and sound serious, and it also provides an excuse for slashing social programs, which often seems to be their real objective.
But neither the current deficit nor projected future spending deserve to be anywhere near the top of our political agenda. It’s time to focus on other stuff — like the still-depressed state of the economy and the still-terrible problem of long-term unemployment.
Bobo thinks he knows “Why Hagel Was Picked.” He squeals that as our budget braces for Medicare’s tyranny, we just need a good overseer to manage the inevitable military decline. Jesus… Mr. Cohen, in “Israel’s True Friends,” says the Hagel nomination will spur a much-needed debate in America on what constitutes friendship toward Israel. In “Bloomberg Takes on the N.R.A.” Mr. Nocera says the country needs New York’s mayor to lead it to a saner gun policy. Mr. Bruni, in “For Each Age, Its Agonies,” says “This is 40” and “Girls” uphold the tradition of deeming your own juncture of life the most significant of all. Here’s Bobo’s latest tirade against old farts like me:
Americans don’t particularly like government, but they do want government to subsidize their health care. They believe that health care spending improves their lives more than any other public good. In a Quinnipiac poll, typical of many others, Americans opposed any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 percent to 25 percent.
In a democracy, voters get what they want, so the line tracing federal health care spending looks like the slope of a jet taking off from LaGuardia. Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade. This is the crucial element driving all federal spending over the next few decades and pushing federal debt to about 250 percent of G.D.P. in 30 years.
There are no conceivable tax increases that can keep up with this spending rise. The Democrats had their best chance in a generation to raise revenue just now, and all they got was a measly $600 billion over 10 years. This is barely a wiggle on the revenue line and does nothing to change the overall fiscal picture.
As a result, health care spending, which people really appreciate, is squeezing out all other spending, which they value far less. Spending on domestic programs — for education, science, infrastructure and poverty relief — has already faced the squeeze and will take a huge hit in the years ahead. President Obama excoriated Paul Ryan for offering a budget that would cut spending on domestic programs from its historical norm of 3 or 4 percent of G.D.P. all the way back to 1.8 percent. But the Obama budget is the Ryan budget. According to the Office of Management and Budget, Obama will cut domestic discretionary spending back to 1.8 percent of G.D.P. in six years.
Advocates for children, education and the poor don’t even try to defend their programs by lobbying for cutbacks in Medicare. They know that given the choice, voters and politicians care more about middle-class seniors than about poor children.
So far, defense budgets have not been squeezed by the Medicare vice. But that is about to change. Oswald Spengler didn’t get much right, but he was certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn’t do both.
Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting. As late as the 1990s, Europeans were still spending 2.5 percent of G.D.P. on defense. Now that spending is closer to 1.5 percent, and, amid European malaise, it is bound to sink further.
The United States will undergo a similar process. The current budget calls for a steep but possibly appropriate decline in defense spending, from 4.3 percent of G.D.P. to 3 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But defense planners are notoriously bad at estimating how fast postwar military cuts actually come. After Vietnam, the cold war and the 1991 gulf war, they vastly underestimated the size of the cuts that eventually materialized. And those cuts weren’t forced by the Medicare vice. The coming cuts are.
As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history. Keep in mind how brutal the budget pressure is going to be. According to the Government Accountability Office, if we act on entitlements today, we will still have to cut federal spending by 32 percent and raise taxes by 46 percent over the next 75 years to meet current obligations. If we postpone action for another decade, then we have to cut all non-interest federal spending by 37 percent and raise all taxes by 54 percent.
As this sort of crunch gradually tightens, Medicare will be the last to go. Spending on things like Head Start, scientific research and defense will go quicker. These spending cuts will transform America’s stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today. This is why Adm. Mike Mullen called the national debt the country’s biggest security threat.
Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.
All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary. The real question is, how will he begin this long cutting process? How will he balance modernizing the military and paying current personnel? How will he recalibrate American defense strategy with, say, 455,000 fewer service members?
How, in short, will Hagel supervise the beginning of America’s military decline? If members of Congress don’t want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.
Disgusting. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
President Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel, a maverick Republican with enough experience of war to loathe it, as his next secretary of defense is the right choice for many reasons, chief among them that it will provoke a serious debate on what constitutes real friendship toward Israel.
That debate, which will unfold during Senate confirmation hearings, is much needed because Jewish leadership in the United States is often unrepresentative of the many American Jews who have moved on from the view that the only legitimate support of Israel is unquestioning support of Israel, and the only mark of friendship is uncritical embrace of a friend.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, fired an opening salvo by telling CNN that, “This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”
The comment, based on Hagel’s lack of enthusiasm for war on Iran and his single allusion to advocates of Israel as “the Jewish lobby,” was of a piece with last year’s in-your-face Republican line that Obama, a strong supporter of Israeli security, had thrown Israel “under the bus.”
Jewish voters, who overwhelmingly favored Obama once again, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unsubtle nudges, demonstrated at the ballot box what they thought of this characterization of the president.
Identifying Israel’s enemies is easy. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, illustrated why when he declared: “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land. We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take.”
That is the sort of absolutist, annihilation-bent position that has been a losing proposition since 1948 and will continue to undermine the legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood alongside a secure Israel — the one embraced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — for as long as it is advocated by self-serving merchants of hatred.
But deciding who Israel’s real friends are is more difficult — and that decision is critical both for Israel itself and for the future of U.S. policy toward the Jewish state.
The question has been on the president’s mind for a long time. During the 2008 campaign, in a meeting with the Cleveland Jewish community, Obama said: “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”
He suggested that to equate asking “difficult questions” with “being soft or anti-Israel” was a barrier to moving forward.
Five years on, that needed dialogue has scarcely advanced. Self-styled “true friends” of Israel now lining up against the Hagel nomination are in fact true friends only of the Israeli right that pays no more than lip service to a two-state peace (when it even does that); scoffs at Palestinian national aspirations and culture; dismisses the significant West Bank reforms that have prepared Palestine for statehood; continues with settlement construction on the very shrinking land where a Palestinian state is envisaged (and was granted nonmember observer status at the United Nations last November by 138 votes to 9 with 41 abstentions, including Germany); cannot find a valid Palestinian interlocutor on the face of the earth despite the moderate reformist leadership of Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; ignores the grave implications for Israel of its unsustainable, corrosive dominion over another people and the question of how Israel can remain Jewish and democratic without a two-state solution (it cannot); bays for war with Iran despite the contrary opinions of many of Israel’s intelligence and military leaders; and propels Israel into repetitive miniwars of dubious strategic value.
These “true friends” shout the loudest. They are well-organized and remorseless.
Then there are the other friends of Israel, the quieter ones, the many who are unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security within its 1967 borders (with agreed land swaps); who believe continued settlement expansion in the West Bank is self-defeating and wrong; who hold that a good-faith quest for a two-state solution that will involve painful compromises on both sides (Palestinian abandonment of the “right of return” and Israeli abandonment of conquered land) is the only true path to Israeli security and the salvaging of its core Jewish values; who counsel against go-it-alone military adventurism against Iran; and who are troubled by a rightward nationalist drift in Israel whose central political tenet seems to be that holding on to all the land is doable and sustainable.
Hagel, like Obama, is a quiet strong friend of Israel. The movement against him is a relic of a binary with-Israel or against-Israel vision that does not have the true interests of Israel or the United States at heart.
Next up is Mr. Nocera:
TO: Michael Bloomberg
FROM: Joe Nocera
RE: Your Next Act
Dear Mayor Bloomberg,
This time next year, as you’re keenly aware, you will no longer be the mayor of New York. We all know how much you love the job, and how much you’ll miss it. No question about it: though you have had your critics (including, at times, me), you’ve been a very good mayor.
They say that you’re thinking a lot these days about what to do next. When you step down you’ll be 71, and plenty vital enough to do something significant. And of course, with a net worth of $20 billion or so, you certainly have the financial wherewithal to affect the issues that are important to you. You showed it in the last election, ginning up a super PAC and spending around $10 million on a handful of elections across the country where you thought your money could make a difference. Even though you got into the game late, you won more than you lost.
I know you have lots of interests, but after listening to you these past few weeks — ever since the horrible massacre in Newtown, Conn. — I am hoping you will direct your postmayoral energies to one issue: gun control. There is, quite simply, no one else in America who has a better chance of moving the country toward a saner gun policy than you. It is an effort worthy of your talents, and your money.
First, there is your obvious passion for the issue. They say it was your experience as mayor that sensitized you to the issue — and how could it not, with the funerals you’ve had to attend, and the mothers of murdered children you’ve had to console? Since the Newtown tragedy, no other high-profile politician has been as forceful in condemning gun violence and demanding “immediate action” in Congress. Millions of Americans — indeed, a majority of them — agree with you. They are looking for somebody to lead the charge against the National Rifle Association.
Second, though your message has been blunt, your tactics have been politically shrewd. In 2006, you started a new organization to fight gun violence: Mayors Against Illegal Guns. You thought that mayors had the credibility to reframe the issue as one of crime control, rather than gun control. Mayors Against Illegal Guns now has more than 800 mayors, and nearly one million “active supporters.” It has lobbyists in Washington and elsewhere, and has had success resisting recent N.R.A. legislative initiatives. Its short-term agenda — ban assault weapons, require background checks for all gun sales, make gun trafficking a federal crime, and so on — is a good, sensible place to start regulating guns.
Third — and let’s not be coy here — you’re rich. The N.R.A. has an annual budget that is reported to be $300 million. In 2011, the combined budgets of all the groups trying to prevent gun violence came to around $16 million. The best-known of those groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has seen its support and its funding dwindle in recent years. Meanwhile, the N.R.A. and its allies have done a brilliant job at pushing through laws that make it nearly impossible to prevent gun violence. There are more than 200 members of Congress who regularly get a perfect score from the N.R.A. It is going to take money to change that because money is what Congress responds to.
To be honest, Mr. Mayor, I wish you could start tomorrow. With each passing day, the urgency that accompanied the Newtown shooting slips further away. President Obama, who seems absolutely terrified to take on the gun lobby, didn’t even mention guns when asked about his second-term priorities. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has said that the first months of the new Congressional session will be devoted to the issue of federal spending. Guns, he said, will just have to wait.
In recent years, even in states that experienced horrific mass killings, gun laws have only become looser. In Virginia, the State Legislature repealed a law that barred people from buying more than one handgun a month, and passed a law “to allow permit holders to carry concealed and loaded weapons into bars and restaurants,” according to ProPublica. That same article reported that in Texas, two years after the Fort Hood shooting, legislators “gave gun carriers greater freedom to take their weapons to more places.”
The only two gun bills President Obama has signed were laws that expanded gun rights. “The country needs his leadership,” you said of Obama after he announced that Vice President Joe Biden was going to lead a panel making a new effort to reduce gun violence.
With all due respect, sir, what the country needs is your leadership on this issue. The sooner the better.
We’ll see a rational gun policy in this nation when pigs fly. Teatard lunatics made a show of carrying weapons to political rallies and that was just fine (remember, IOKIYAR), but OWS peaceful protesters were pepper sprayed. You think we’ll get gun control? I don’t. Here’s Mr. Bruni:
In the new movie “This is 40,” the writer and director Judd Apatow casts the arrival of life’s four-decade mark as a uniquely brutal crossroads, flagged by sputtering libido, suffocating commitments and curdled dreams.
Judd, buddy, add another eight years, then talk to me. Your body will be even wobblier, your obligations weightier, and time running out more ruthlessly on the gaudiest of your plans. This is 48: in the mail last week, I got a solicitation from AARP. It included a membership card, ready to be activated just as soon as I send in dues, which won’t be anytime soon. And while that premature come-on reflects the group’s relentlessness more than anything else, it’s an accurate reminder that I’m closer to when I’ll quit working than to when I started, my hopes and my hair so fluffy and intact.
That was in my 20s, a period with travails all its own, depicted in another project that Apatow is involved in, as an executive producer. I speak of “Girls,” whose post-college, pre-mortgage heroines flail professionally, fumble romantically and make deeply puzzling wardrobe choices, their outfits emblems of their befuddlement.
The half-hour comedy-drama will begin its second season this coming weekend, and HBO made the first few episodes available to us media types, who have proved that we simply can’t stop gnawing on it. “Girls” is to cultural arbiters what rawhides are to cocker spaniels.
The new episodes immediately reintroduce Lena Dunham’s naked body, which was introduced aplenty in the old episodes. At this fleshy point I could draw it, I could paint it, I could probably reproduce it in clay. Dunham’s character, Hannah, has a new roommate, gay, and a new playmate, Republican. There’s considerable friction, out of bed as well as in.
And there’s a portrait of the period between 20 and 30 as one of peerlessly keen neediness and doubt. You yearn to believe that you’ve figured out the dating game, not yet realizing that it’s eternally unfathomable. You ache for an assurance that you’re pointed in a purposeful direction, but suspect that you’re going nowhere fast. Your desire to project confidence is inversely proportional to your store of it, and you have some really, really bad furniture. I recall, from my mid-20s, a lacquered black table with fake gold accents that cost me next to nothing except, for many years afterward, an undying, unspeakable shame.
We’re a self-absorbed species, and one wrinkle of our self-absorption is our tendency, reflected in our art and entertainment, to believe that there’s no passage of human existence as fraught with perils and as peculiarly significant as the one we just so happen to be going through. Dunham is 26, and “Girls,” which she created, is predicated on the notion that the 20s herald an inimitable sequence of humiliations and unrivaled state of ambivalence. Apatow is 45, and his new movie maintains that to enter your 40s is to encounter an especially messy set of questions about the road taken and the unsmooth pavement ahead. Could any other age compare?
Well, the 30s are no picnic, as we learned in the television drama “thirtysomething,” whose four-season run began in 1987, when its sires, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, turned 35. The characters they hatched were roughly their age peers, and turned soul searching into an exercise so vigorous it practically burned calories. Angst overwhelmed them as surely as hormones capsize teenagers.
Speaking of teens, they support whole submarkets of publishing and series of movies dedicated to reassuring them that their pimply predicament is by far the worst: cliques, virginity, trigonometry. But I’m clinging to the conviction that the late 40s are tougher — just try to find a 17-year-old whose left shoulder creaks like mine, and who suddenly has to pitch in thousands toward his apartment building’s new elevators — so that I can congratulate myself for every day I successfully muddle through, every smile I courageously summon.
Then again, this passage isn’t really so insufferable. By 48 you’ve come to know, and quite possibly accept, the well-intentioned wretch that you are, and you most likely have the furniture situation worked out.
The 20s, too, have their perks. You get the freedom of full-fledged adulthood but can make big mistakes without paying huge prices, because there are still so many opportunities ahead for amends.
Dunham isn’t blind to this. In “Girls” she finds the exhilaration amid the mortification. And Apatow’s new movie ultimately understands that being weighed down is just a pessimist’s way of looking at — and talking about — being grounded, which so many of us struggle to achieve. What feel like tethers one day feel like roots the next.
This is 25 and 35 and 40 and, I’ll wager, 50: a matchless kind of awful, a particular stripe of wonderful and just another phase in a struggle that, like our narcissism, is ageless.
Bobo is whistling past the graveyard again. In “The Republican Glastnost” he gurgles that speeches this week by Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan were the faint beginnings of a Republican revival. No, Bobo, they weren’t. They were fine examples of pandering, but not revival. And let’s not forget that Mr. Rubio thinks the world was created 6000 years ago. Mr. Cohen says “Thanks for Not Sharing,” and that there is a new urge to behave as if life were some global high-school reunion at which everyone has taken a horrific tell-all drug. Prof. Krugman looks at “The Forgotten Millions” and says the “fiscal cliff” has everyone talking about a fiscal crisis. But what we should be talking about is a very real job crisis. Here’s Bobo:
Senator Marco Rubio won the Jack Kemp Foundation’s Leadership Award earlier this week. In his speech accepting the award, he sketched out his Republican vision. Some of the policies he mentioned were pretty conventional for someone of his party: limiting regulations, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline. Some were less conventional, at least as the Republican Party has recently defined itself: creating more community health centers, investing in more teacher training, embracing Pell grants.
But the speech really began to sing toward the end. Rubio made an oblique rebuttal to some of the Republican gaffes during the campaign: “Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed. That too many people want things from government. But I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had: a chance.”
Then he recalled an episode: “I was giving a speech at a fancy hotel in New York City. When I arrived at the banquet hall, I was approached by a group of three uniformed employees from the hotel’s catering department. They had seen my speech at the Republican convention, where I told the story of my father the banquet bartender. And they had a gift for me. They presented me with this name tag, which says, “Rubio, Banquet Bartender.”
As he was telling this story, Rubio motioned to some of the service staff at the Kemp dinner. They stopped to listen to him. “It all starts with our people,” Rubio continued. “In the kitchens of our hotels. In the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods. In the late-night janitorial shifts that clean our offices. There you will find the dreams America was built on. There you will find the promise of tomorrow. Their journey is our nation’s destiny. And if they can give their children what our parents gave us, the 21st-century America will be the single greatest nation that man has ever known.”
People at the dinner say that there was a hushed silence for a second as Rubio concluded with this refrain. Then a roaring ovation swelled and filled the room.
The Republican Party has a long way to go before it revives itself as a majority party. But that speech signifies a moment in that revival. And I would say the last month has marked a moment.
Over the past month, the Republican Party has changed far more than I expected. First, the people at the ideological extremes of the party have begun to self-ghettoize. The Tea Party movement attracted many people who are drawn to black and white certainties and lock-step unity. People like that have a tendency to migrate from mainstream politics, which is inevitably messy and impure, to ever more marginal oases of purity.
Jim DeMint, for example, is leaving the Senate to go lead the Heritage Foundation. He is leaving the center of the action, where immigration, tax and other reforms will be crafted, for a political advocacy organization known more for ideological purity and fund-raising prowess than for creativity, curiosity or intellectual innovation.
Second, politics is being reborn. For a time, Republican candidates like Richard Mourdock of Indiana proudly declared that they didn’t believe in compromise. Political activists spent more time purging deviationists than in trying to attract new converts.
But that mania has passed. There are increasing signs that House Republicans are willing to unite behind Speaker John Boehner so he can cut a deal to avert the “fiscal cliff.” There has been an epidemic of open-mindedness as Republicans try to win minority votes and create a version of their party that can be competitive in states like Connecticut and California.
Finally, there has even been some shifting of economic values, or at least in how the party presents those values. The other speaker at the Kemp dinner was Representative Paul Ryan, who spoke about how to alleviate poverty. He didn’t abandon any of his fundamental beliefs, but he framed those beliefs in a more welcoming way and opened up room for growth and new thinking.
The obligations to combat poverty, Ryan said, are beyond dispute. “The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government — by voluntary action or by government action. The truth is, there has to be a balance. Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.”
Like Rubio, Ryan projected a more balanced and attractive vision. He spoke with passion about those who long to rise.
The Republicans may still blow it. If President Obama is flexible and they don’t meet him partway, Republicans would contribute to a recession that would discredit them for a decade. But they are moving in the right direction and moving fast. These are first steps, and encouraging ones.
You keep on whistling, Bobo… Here’s Mr. Cohen:
Let us ponder oversharing and status anxiety, the two great scourges of the modern world.
The third, by the way, is the safety obsession of today’s “wuss generation.” But I’ll leave that for another day.
So let us absorb the mass of unwanted shared personal information and images that wash over one, like some great viscous tide full of stuff one would rather not think about — other people’s need for Icelandic lumpfish caviar, their numb faces at the dentist, their waffles and sausage, their appointments with their therapists, their personal hygiene, their pimples and pets, their late babysitters, their grumpy starts to the day, their rude exchanges, their leaking roofs, their faith in homeopathy, their stressing out, and all the rest.
Please, O wired humanity, spare me, and not only the details.
It is tempting to call this unctuous ooze of status updates and vacation snaps seeping across Facebook and Twitter and the rest information overload. But that would be to debase the word “information.”
Now I was determined to get through 2012 without doing a peevish column, not wishing to appear cantankerous or curmudgeonly, determined to be sunny and youthful as the times demand, but everyone has a tipping point. Mine occurred when I came across this tweet from Claire:
“Have such a volcanically deep zit laying roots in my chin that it feels like someone hit me with a right cross.”
Good to know, Claire.
I was just recovering from that when I found Deanna tweeting that she had “picked up pet food” and was heading to “the dreaded consult on colon stuff. The joys of turning 50.” As for Kate she let the world know the status of her labor: “Contractions 3 minutes apart and dilated at 2 cm.”
Social media does not mean that you have to be that social.
And then there was a Facebook post from Scott telling Addie how she is “my lover, my heart” and — my own heart sank — his “best friend.” It is very fashionable these days to call the love of one’s life one’s best friend. I cannot imagine why. Surely one has best friends in part in order to be able to talk to them about the problems with one’s loves.
What is this compulsion to share? Sometimes, of course, it is just a mistake, the wrong button hit, or mishandling of privacy settings on Facebook. But there is a new urge to behave as if life were some global high-school reunion at which everyone has taken some horrific tell-all drug.
My theory is this. Humanity has always been hardwired to fear. That is how we survived. But the fear used to be of wild beasts prowling, the encroaching Visigoths, plague, world war. Now, in the pampered present, all that anxiety has to find a new focus. So, having searched long and hard, and helped by technology, we have come up with being anxious that our status might be falling or — the horror, the horror! — disintegrating.
Number of Twitter followers shrinking or not growing as fast as your friends’? Status anxiety attack begins. No e-mails or texts received in the past 78 minutes? Status anxiety attack accelerates. Got unfriended or discover by chance on LinkedIn that your 29-year-old college roommate is now running an agribusiness fund out of St. Louis that has assets of $47 billion and owns half of Madagascar? Status meltdown kicks in.
The only antidote, the only means to push that status up again, it seems, is to keep sharing more and more. Here I am — the posts and tweets and pix say — a being not anonymous but alive. I overshare therefore I am.
As you have seen, dear reader, oversharing and status anxiety are twinned phenomena turning humanity into crazed dogs chasing their tails.
I thought reading snail mail might provide some relief only to open a letter today from my dentist reminding me that I am due for a visit to the hygienist (I know, I am oversharing here.) The letter went on: “Surveys have shown that the first thing people notice when they meet is a smile. If you would like some advice on how we can help you improve your smile then please ask at your next visit and we’d be happy to advise you on the best solution.”
Being in a dark mood, I imagined some advice like: “After long reflection, sir, we are sorry to inform you that the best solution would be to change your face.”
Aaah, well, I decided to go up and see my 15-year-old daughter who, astonishingly, had her laptop open and was on Facebook. “I can’t believe this girl from camp,” she said. “She’s so in love she shares everything.”
Adele read a couple of Amanda’s recent posts: “Lying in bed wearing my boyfriend’s sweatshirt wishing I could be with him.” And: “If I could reach up and hold a star for every time you’ve made me smile the entire evening sky would be in the palm of my hand.”
We laughed. You have to.
Last but not least, here’s Prof. Krugman, still a voice crying in the wilderness:
Let’s get one thing straight: America is not facing a fiscal crisis. It is, however, still very much experiencing a job crisis.
It’s easy to get confused about the fiscal thing, since everyone’s talking about the “fiscal cliff.” Indeed, one recent poll suggests that a large plurality of the public believes that the budget deficit will go up if we go off that cliff.
In fact, of course, it’s just the opposite: The danger is that the deficit will come down too much, too fast. And the reasons that might happen are purely political; we may be about to slash spending and raise taxes not because markets demand it, but because Republicans have been using blackmail as a bargaining strategy, and the president seems ready to call their bluff.
Moreover, despite years of warnings from the usual suspects about the dangers of deficits and debt, our government can borrow at incredibly low interest rates — interest rates on inflation-protected U.S. bonds are actually negative, so investors are paying our government to make use of their money. And don’t tell me that markets may suddenly turn on us. Remember, the U.S. government can’t run out of cash (it prints the stuff), so the worst that could happen would be a fall in the dollar, which wouldn’t be a terrible thing and might actually help the economy.
Yet there is a whole industry built around the promotion of deficit panic. Lavishly funded corporate groups keep hyping the danger of government debt and the urgency of deficit reduction now now now — except that these same groups are suddenly warning against too much deficit reduction. No wonder the public is confused.
Meanwhile, there is almost no organized pressure to deal with the terrible thing that is actually happening right now — namely, mass unemployment. Yes, we’ve made progress over the past year. But long-term unemployment remains at levels not seen since the Great Depression: as of October, 4.9 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months, and 3.6 million had been out of work for more than a year.
When you see numbers like those, bear in mind that we’re looking at millions of human tragedies: at individuals and families whose lives are falling apart because they can’t find work, at savings consumed, homes lost and dreams destroyed. And the longer this goes on, the bigger the tragedy.
There are also huge dollars-and-cents costs to our unmet jobs crisis. When willing workers endure forced idleness society as a whole suffers from the waste of their efforts and talents. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that what we are actually producing falls short of what we could and should be producing by around 6 percent of G.D.P., or $900 billion a year.
Worse yet, there are good reasons to believe that high unemployment is undermining our future growth as well, as the long-term unemployed come to be considered unemployable, as investment falters in the face of inadequate sales.
So what can be done? The panic over the fiscal cliff has been revelatory. It shows that even the deficit scolds are closet Keynesians. That is, they believe that right now spending cuts and tax hikes would destroy jobs; it’s impossible to make that claim while denying that temporary spending increases and tax cuts would create jobs. Yes, our still-depressed economy needs more fiscal stimulus.
And, to his credit, President Obama did include a modest amount of stimulus in his initial budget offer; the White House, at least, hasn’t completely forgotten about the unemployed. Unfortunately, almost nobody expects those stimulus plans to be included in whatever deal is eventually reached.
So why aren’t we helping the unemployed? It’s not because we can’t afford it. Given those ultralow borrowing costs, plus the damage unemployment is doing to our economy and hence to the tax base, you can make a pretty good case that spending more to create jobs now would actually improve our long-run fiscal position.
Nor, I think, is it really ideology. Even Republicans, when opposing cuts in defense spending, immediately start talking about how such cuts would destroy jobs — and I’m sorry, but weaponized Keynesianism, the assertion that government spending creates jobs, but only if it goes to the military, doesn’t make sense.
No, in the end it’s hard to avoid concluding that it’s about class. Influential people in Washington aren’t worried about losing their jobs; by and large they don’t even know anyone who’s unemployed. The plight of the unemployed simply doesn’t loom large in their minds — and, of course, the unemployed don’t hire lobbyists or make big campaign contributions.
So the unemployment crisis goes on and on, even though we have both the knowledge and the means to solve it. It’s a vast tragedy — and it’s also an outrage.