Archive for the ‘The Moustache of Wisdom’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

February 18, 2015

Today we’ve got The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni.  In “Democracy Is in Recession” TMOW says Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger trend around the world.  Gee, I wonder why?  “Marie” from Texas hit on the cause in her comment:  “If our “democracy” is looked to as the gold standard that all others should aspire towards and emulate, the recent degradation of so many fledgling democratic systems around world is perfectly understandable. These countries are not, in fact, averting their eyes from our beacon, but have instead fixated their gaze on it. They are doing a wonderful job of following our lead in expediting the changes towards increased militarization, plutocracy, corruption, inequality, callousness, polarization and anti-intellectualism we have been pioneering for some time now. In this, “American Exceptionalism” and Imperialism is alive and well.”  Mr. Bruni considers “College, Poetry and Purpose” and says he reconnected with his Shakespeare professor to get her thoughts on the humanities and higher education today.  Here’s TMOW:

Every month now we get treated to another anti-Semitic blast from Turkey’s leadership, which seems to be running some kind of slur-of-the-month club. Who knew that Jews all over the world were busy trying to take down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Last week, it was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s turn to declare that Turkey would not “succumb to the Jewish lobby” — among others supposedly trying to topple Erdogan, the Hurriyet Daily News reported. This was after Erdogan had suggested that domestic opponents to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., were “cooperating with the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence arm. So few Jews, so many governments to topple.

Davutoglu’s and Erdogan’s cheap, crude anti-Semitic tropes, which Erdogan now relies on regularly to energize his base, are disgusting. For the great nation of Turkey, though, they’re part of a wider tragedy. It is really hard to say anymore that Erdogan’s Turkey is a democracy. Even worse, it is necessary to say that Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger global trend today: Democracy is in recession.

As the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond argues in an essay entitled “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession” in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy: “Around 2006, the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states). … The number of both electoral and liberal democracies began to decline after 2006 and then flattened out. Since 2006 the average level of freedom in the world has also deteriorated slightly.”

Since 2000, added Diamond, “I count 25 breakdowns of democracy in the world — not only through blatant military or executive coups, but also through subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedure. … Some of these breakdowns occurred in quite low-quality democracies; yet in each case, a system of reasonably free and fair multiparty electoral competition was either displaced or degraded to a point well below the minimal standards of democracy.”

Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey are the poster children for this trend, along with Venezuela, Thailand, Botswana, Bangladesh and Kenya. In Turkey, Diamond writes, the A.K.P. has steadily extended “partisan control over the judiciary and the bureaucracy, arresting journalists and intimidating dissenters in the press and academia, threatening businesses with retaliation if they fund opposition parties, and using arrests and prosecutions in cases connected to alleged coup plots to jail and remove from public life an implausibly large number of accused plotters. This has coincided with a stunning and increasingly audacious concentration of personal power by … Erdogan.” Rule of law in Turkey is being seriously eroded.

Meanwhile, Freedom House, a watchdog group, found that, from 2006-14, many more countries declined in freedom than improved. This trend has been particularly pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, where declining transparency, crumbling rule of law and rising corruption are becoming the norm.

Why this trend? One reason, says Diamond, is today’s autocrats are fast learners and adapters. They have developed and shared “new technologies of censorship and legal strategies to restrict civil society [groups] and ban international assistance to them,” and we haven’t responded with new strategies of our own. Also, old habits of corruption and abuse of power went into hiding during the 1990s and 2000s, when post-Cold War democracy was ascendant, “but now corrupt autocrats feel the heat is off and they can rule as nastily and greedily as they want.”

Moreover, China, which has no democracy standards or problems with corruption abroad, has displaced the U.S. as the most valued foreign aid provider in much of Africa, while Russia has become more aggressive in undermining virtually every democratic tendency on its borders. Finally, post-9/11, we let the “war on terror” supplant democracy promotion as our top foreign policy priority, so any autocrat who collared terrorists won a get-out-of-jail-free-card from America.

But, Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

Diamond urges democrats not to lose faith. Democracy, as Churchill noted, is still the worst form of government — except for all the others. And it still fires the imagination of people like no other system. But that will only stay true if the big democracies maintain a model worth following. I wish that were not so much in question today.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Philadelphia:

Over four decades at two universities, Anne Hall has taught thousands of students, enough to know that they come to college for a variety of reasons, with a variety of attitudes. Many are concerned only with jobs. Some are concerned chiefly with beer.

All would like A’s. And too many get them, she said, even from her, because a professor standing up to grade inflation is in a lonely place.

But what, in an overarching sense, should students be after? What’s the highest calling of higher education?

When I asked her this on Monday night, she shot me a look of exasperation, though it gave way quickly to a smile. And I remembered that smile from 30 years earlier, when she would expound on Othello’s corrosive jealousy, present Lady Macbeth as the dark ambassador of guilt’s insidious stamina and show those of us in her class that with careful examination and unhurried reflection, we could find in Shakespeare just about all of human life and human wisdom: every warning we needed to hear, every joy we needed to cultivate.

She answered my question about college’s purpose, but not right away and not glibly, because rushed thinking and glibness are precisely what she believes education should be a bulwark against. She’s right.

I introduced her in a column last week, writing that when I was recently pressed to describe a transformative educational experience, what came to mind were her voice and her animation as she read aloud the wondrous words of “King Lear.”

Her field is Renaissance poetry. I studied that and Shakespeare’s plays with her when I was an English major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s. I never got to know her well, though. I didn’t keep in touch.

But after my column appeared, she sent me an email. It included a lament about changes in the humanities that made me want to hear more. I was curious to know what the professor who was the highlight of my time in college thought of college today.

So I visited her in Philadelphia, where she has been a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania since 1998. She’s 69.

She expressed regret about how little an English department’s offerings today resemble those from the past. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable,” she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favor, as have courses devoted to any one of the “dead white men,” she said.

“Chaucer has become Chaucer and …” she said. “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There’s Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

And while she applauds the attempt to engage students and diversify instruction, she worries about an intellectual vogue and academic sensibility that place no one masterpiece, master, perspective or even manner of speech above others.

Not long ago, she said, she asked students to try to go for an entire class without letting the word “like” drop needlessly — part conjunction, part stutter — into their speech. One of them responded that Hall was a “cultural capitalist” defending her particular “cultural capital.”

She has qualms about the way a university now markets campus amenities to students and marvels at “how many sites there are for feeding them.” The increased weight given to the evaluations that they fill out can be a disincentive for professors to be rigorous.

“The student became the customer who’s always right,” she said.

And yet, she said, there are still many earnest young men and women who come before her wanting nothing more or less than to be bigger, better. She praised an undergraduate business major in the class that she is currently teaching, Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece.

“She said that going to college develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles,” Hall told me, adding that she agreed with the student.

That brought Hall to her own answer about college’s mission: “It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

Friedman, solo

February 4, 2015

In “A Bad Mistake” The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  What’s behind the coming address to Congress by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel?  In the comments “Rob Campbell” from Western MA can answer:  “A bad mistake? This action is not a bad mistake, it’s an outrage. Protocols are well established. This move by Boehner and Netanyahu is a flagrant showing of disrespect for our President, his office, and our system.  The insult is against the American people, not just Obama.”  Here’s TMOW:

The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner to cook up an address to Congress by Netanyahu on why the U.S. should get tougher on Iran is churlish, reckless and, for the future of Israeli-American relations, quite dangerous.

If Netanyahu wants some intelligent advice, he should listen to the counsel of his previous ambassador in Washington, the widely respected Michael Oren, who was quoted as saying that the whole gambit was creating the impression of “a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran.” He urged Netanyahu to cancel the speech.

And if Netanyahu and his current ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who organized the gambit with Boehner, want to know how offensive the whole thing is to average Americans they should listen to conservative Fox News Sunday talk-show host Chris Wallace, not a usual critic of Israel, who gutsily said of the Bibi invite on Friday, Jan. 23: “To make you get a sense of really how, forgive me, wicked, this whole thing is, the Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Israeli ambassador to the United States for two hours on Tuesday, and Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, according to the State Department, never mentioned the fact that Netanyahu was in negotiations and finally agreed to come to Washington, not to see the president, but to go to Capitol Hill, speak to a joint session of Congress and criticize the president’s policy. I have to say I’m shocked.”

Imagine that Israel’s Labor Party invited President Obama to address its Parliament about why Israel should give negotiations on Iran more time, and it was all worked out with the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv behind the back of the Likud Party prime minister. A lot of Israelis would see it as an insult to their democratically elected leader. I’ve polled many of my non-Jewish friends, who follow world politics and are sympathetic to Israel, and they really don’t like this. It doesn’t only disrespect our president, it disrespects our system and certain diplomatic boundaries that every foreign leader should respect and usually has.

You know how this happened: Netanyahu; his ambassador; the pro-Israel lobby Aipac; Sheldon Adelson, the huge donor to Bibi and the G.O.P.; and Boehner all live in their own self-contained bubble. You can tell that nobody was inside there telling them: “Bibi, this speech to Congress two weeks before your election may give you a sugar high for a day with Israeli voters, but it’s in really poor taste for you to use America’s Congress as a backdrop for your campaign. Many of Israel’s friends will be uncomfortable, and the anti-Semites, who claim Israel controls Washington, will have a field day.”

Already, in reaction to this maneuver, 10 Senate Democrats — who had advocated putting more sanctions on Iran now — have instead parted company with the Republicans and granted the White House the two-month reprieve it was seeking to see if negotiations can still work. It was exactly the opposite of what Netanyahu wanted, and it shows how upset are many Democrats.

But this isn’t just churlish. For Israel’s leader to so obviously throw his lot in with the Republicans against a Democratic president is reckless. Israel and its defenders are already under siege on college campuses across America, where many university boards are under pressure to divest from companies doing business with Israel. Making support for Israel more of a Republican cause is not at all in Israel’s interest — or America’s. Israel needs the support of more than just Congress or one party.

Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran are not without merit. But his aggressiveness is also not without critics in Israel. If Congress wants to get Israel’s perspective on how to deal with Iran, then it should also invite the top Israeli intelligence and military officers, current and retired, who have been arguing publicly against Netanyahu’s threatened use of force against Iran. Why are we getting only one Israeli view? How is that in America’s interest?

Personally, I’m still dubious that the U.S. and Iran will reach a deal that will really defuse Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Such a failure would be very serious and could end up, one day, with the U.S. deciding it has to use military force to set back Iran’s program. We surely don’t want Iran to get a bomb that sets off a nuclear arms race in an already unstable Middle East.

But, even if we do use force, success is hardly assured and the blowback unpredictable. That is why it is absolutely not in Israel’s interest to give even the slightest appearance of nudging America toward such a military decision. Israel should stay a million miles away from that decision, making clear that it is entirely a U.S. matter. Because, if we do have to strike Iran, plenty of Americans will not be happy. And if it fails, or has costly consequences for us and our military, you can be sure a lot more Americans will not be happy — and some will ask, “How did we get into this mess?” One of the first things they’ll dig out will be Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Why in the world would Israel risk putting itself in that situation? Just lie low, Mr. Netanyahu. Don’t play in our politics. Let America draw its own conclusions.

Blow, Friedman and Bruni

January 28, 2015

In “Reducing Our Obscene Level of Child Poverty” Mr. Blow says a new report on our nation’s “moral disgrace” reminds us that allowing child poverty to remain this widespread costs more than eliminating it would.   The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Czar Putin’s Next Moves:”  Is anyone paying attention to the awful things President Vladimir Putin of Russia is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country?  Mr. Bruni says “We Dodged Icy Doom.  Let’s Gripe.”  He explains that whether they prepare for too little snow or too much, politicians can be assured of our unhappiness.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I’m not someone who believes that poverty can ever truly be ended — I’m one of those “the poor will always be with you” types — but I do believe that the ranks of the poor can and must be shrunk and that the effects of poverty can and must be ameliorated.

And there is one area above all others where we should feel a moral obligation to reduce poverty as much as possible and to soften its bite: poverty among children.

People may disagree about the choices parents make — including premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births. People may disagree about access to methods of family planning — including contraception and abortion. People may disagree about the size and role of government — including the role of safety-net programs.

But surely we can all agree that no child, once born, should suffer through poverty. Surely we can all agree that working to end child poverty — or at least severely reduce it — is a moral obligation of a civilized society.

And yet, 14.7 million children in this country are poor, and 6.5 million of them are extremely poor (living below half the poverty line).

Today, the Children’s Defense Fund is releasing a report entitled “Ending Child Poverty Now” that calls this country’s rate of child poverty “a moral disgrace.”

As the report points out:

“America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith. In fact if they had been born in 33 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries they would be less likely to be poor. Among these 35 countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania, whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.”

It points out many of the corrosive cruelties of childhood poverty: worse health and educational outcomes, impaired cognitive development and the effects of “toxic stress” on brain functions. It also points out the “intergenerational transmission” properties of poverty:

“In one study, people who experienced poverty at any point during childhood were more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 as those who were never poor as children. The longer a child was poor, the greater the risk of adult poverty.”

But the report is more than just an excoriation of the hollowness of our professed American values and our ethical quandary. It also serves as an economic manifesto, making the point that allowing child poverty to remain at these unconscionable levels costs “far more than eliminating it would,” calculating that an immediate 60 percent reduction in child poverty would cost $77.2 billion a year, or just 2 percent of our national budget.

For context, the report puts it this way:

“Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion — six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The report cites the M.I.T. Nobel laureate economist and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dr. Robert Solow, who wrote in his foreword to a 1994 C.D.F. report, “Wasting America’s Future”: “As an economist I believe that good things are worth paying for; and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money.”

To pay for the effort, the report calls for some of the same things the president called for in his State of the Union speech last week, like closing tax loopholes and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy. But it also called for a reduction in the military budget. This is an echo, in a way, of the concerns Martin Luther King had about military spending sapping money from efforts to help the poor, which he laid out in his not-nearly-cited-enough 1967 anti-Vietnam speech at the Riverside Church:

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

What would we get for our $77 billion, anyway? Things like the creation of subsidized jobs, an increase in the earned income tax credit, a raise of the minimum wage, an expansion of child care subsidies and housing subsidies, and an increase in SNAP benefits.

The report holds up Britain, which took some of the same steps as a case study of how such an approach can work because they “managed to reduce child poverty by more than half over 10 years, and reductions persisted during the Great Recession.”

We can do this too, if just stop seeing helping these children as an us-versus-them struggle between makers and takers, if we stop getting so hung up on prudishness about sex and traditional views of what constitutes a family, if we stem our impulse to punish children for their mothers giving birth before marriage.

By the way, Britain’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is even higher than ours.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Zurich:

Last March, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, supposedly in defense of Russian-speakers there, was just like “what Hitler did back in the ‘30s“ — using ethnic Germans to justify his invasion of neighboring lands. At the time, I thought such a comparison was over the top. I don’t think so anymore. I’d endorse Mrs. Clinton’s comparison purely for the shock value: It draws attention to the awful things Putin is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country, whose credit rating was just reduced to junk status.

Putin’s use of Russian troops wearing uniforms without insignia to invade Ukraine and to covertly buttress Ukrainian rebels bought and paid for by Moscow — all disguised by a web of lies that would have made Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels blush and all for the purpose of destroying Ukraine’s reform movement before it can create a democratic model that might appeal to Russians more than Putin’s kleptocracy — is the ugliest geopolitical mugging happening in the world today.

Ukraine matters — more than the war in Iraq against the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS. It is still not clear that most of our allies in the war against ISIS share our values. That conflict has a big tribal and sectarian element. It is unmistakably clear, though, that Ukraine’s reformers in its newly elected government and Parliament — who are struggling to get free of Russia’s orbit and become part of the European Union’s market and democratic community — do share our values. If Putin the Thug gets away with crushing Ukraine’s new democratic experiment and unilaterally redrawing the borders of Europe, every pro-Western country around Russia will be in danger.

“Putin fears a Ukraine that demands to live and wants to live and insists on living on European values — with a robust civil society and freedom of speech and religion [and] with a system of values the Ukrainian people have chosen and laid down their lives for,” Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s finance minister, told a Ukraine seminar at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

The U.S. and Germany have done a good job organizing the sanctions on Russia. While the Obama administration recently decided to deploy some American soldiers to Ukraine in the spring to train the Ukrainian National Guard, I’d support increasing our military aid to Ukraine’s Army now so it can better defend itself from the estimated 9,000 troops Putin has infiltrated into Ukraine.

Ukraine also needs $15 billion in loans and grants in the next year to stabilize its economy, in addition to its bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Ukrainians had dug themselves into a deep, deep hole with their 20-plus years of industrial levels of corruption from a series of bad governments after Kiev became independent of the Soviet Union. The reason for hope is that the revolution and latest elections in Ukraine have brought in a new generation of reformers, who are rapidly transforming ministries and passing tax and transparency regulations. They are actually welcoming hardheaded, good-governance benchmarks as a condition for Western aid. But if they deliver, we must deliver.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been traveling across Europe this week in part to lock in the aid package for Kiev. The U.S. has committed its share, but the European Union is still balking a bit. Putin’s aim is to sow enough instability that the West will hold back aid so the Ukraine reformers will fail to deliver and be discredited. That would be a shame.

Global financier George Soros, who’s been helping foster Ukrainian reform, told the Davos gathering that “there is a new Ukraine that is determined to be different from the old Ukraine. … What makes it unique is that it is not only willing to fight but engage in executing a set of radical reforms. It is up against the old Ukraine that has not disappeared … and up against a very determined design by President Putin to destabilize it and destroy it. But it is determined to assert the independence and European orientation of the new Ukraine.”

Ukraine could also impact the price of oil. The two biggest actors who can shape that price today are Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, and Russia’s czar, Putin. If the Saudis decide to cut back production significantly, the price of oil will go up. And if Putin decides to fully invade Ukraine, or worse, one of the Baltic states, and test whether NATO will really fight to defend either, the price of oil will go up. With his economy in shambles, Putin’s regime is now almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports, so he’s really hurting with the oil price collapse. The odds of Putin fully invading Ukraine or the Baltics are low, but do not rule out either.

Triggering a big geopolitical crisis with NATO is an easy way for Putin to shock the oil price back up. Putin’s covert Ukraine interventions up to now have not succeeded in that. In sum: Today’s oil price will be most affected by two men — King Salman and how he uses his spare capacity to produce oil and Czar Putin and how he uses his spare capacity to produce trouble.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

“You can’t be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather,” Bill de Blasio said right after the snow.

Oh really? On Tuesday morning we hurled second guesses and grievances the way Tom Brady tosses an inadequately inflated football.

By “we” I mean not just us New Yorkers, who were promised the icy end of the world and then forced to make do with something less dramatic, but also all of those who gazed upon the city, state and region and gleefully joined a chorus of instant complaint.

We grilled de Blasio, wondering if he might be using an emergency — and his role as responder in chief — to shake off that nastiness with the police and turn the page.

We put Andrew Cuomo on the hot seat, noting that as long as he was gasping at the possibility of a record-breaking blizzard, he didn’t have to deal with the actuality of jaw-dropping corruption on his watch.

And we marveled that Chris Christie was even present in New Jersey. He spent months gallivanting around the country collecting i.o.u.s for a presidential campaign, then thundered home just in time to close roads and prophesy disaster? What a storm queen.

That’s one perspective, and a sizable share of the cynicism is warranted. These guys are showboats who always preen and play the angles. It’s called getting elected.

But before we reflexively shovel too much censure on them, let’s get a few things straight.

None of them hallucinated those forecasts of two feet (or more) of snow, nor did they cherry-pick apocalyptic ones. Meteorologists and broadcasters aplenty tripped over their adjectives to describe the frigid horrors in wait for residents of the northeastern United States.

Our politicians heard what we heard, and the same tidings that had us picking grocery-store shelves clean and standing in epic checkout lines had them cordoning off bridges and tunnels. Everyone braced for the worst, which is a whole lot smarter than hoping for the best.

“All signs were that this was going to be very bad,” Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security, told John Berman and Kate Bolduan on CNN, adding that for de Blasio not to take many or most of the steps that he did “would have been complete negligence.”

And it was indeed a bad storm. In New England, people did get several feet of snow. They also got that much in areas of Long Island that aren’t all that far from the New York City border, as the mayor noted at his news conference on Tuesday.

But from the howls of inconvenience and accusations of overreaction in the city itself, you would have thought that Central Park’s snowfall (almost 10 inches) was everybody’s. Untrue. In matters meteorological as in others, Manhattan is solipsism central.

Still, there are questions to be fairly asked. Was it really necessary, at 11 p.m. Monday, to take the extraordinary step of shutting down the subways? Especially when it turned out that some trains were still running, empty, as a way of maintaining the system?

That was Cuomo’s call, and it could have waited, if indeed it ever had to be made. Friends who’ve lived through Moscow’s brutal winters tell me that its mass transit never lets up. And while Russia’s people are hardier, their vehicles are not.

To varying degrees, Cuomo, de Blasio, Christie and other politicians overreacted, at least slightly, but who’s to blame? They’ve seen leaders past — including the New York mayors John Lindsay in 1969, Michael Bloomberg in 2010 and de Blasio himself just a year ago — endure or be undone by charges of insufficient girding for snow.

And they know that these days, thanks to Twitter and the like, the verdict will be especially hasty and the jury unusually large and loud. TV networks, pressed for money and ratings, will pay rapt attention, because weather is an easy news story to cover: straightforward, theatrical. The correspondents get to wear their ski-chalet best and to roar over the wind’s whisper.

In a more nuanced environment, the politicians in the snow’s path could have charted a better midcourse between readiness and run-for-cover alarm. They could have trusted us to understand that their talents don’t include soothsaying and that their plans will never be precisely right.

But that’s not the climate we live in. No, ours is so gripe-happy that not long after dawn Tuesday, on the Business Insider website, Henry Blodget reacted to the transportation shutdown with this sweeping judgment: “New York has become a nanny state.”

Perhaps. But imagine if all the snow predicted had arrived and scores of motorists were stranded. We’d be asking those nannies why they’d abandoned us, and we’d be looking for their replacements.

Friedman and Bruni

January 21, 2015

In “Say It Like It Is” The Moustache of Wisdom says you can’t dance around the topic of radical Islam.  In the comments “Lymond Crawford” of Brooklyn had this to say:  “Interesting that Marine Le Pen made much the same argument in her Times Op-Ed today. And not to diminish the point, but when Thomas Friedman comments on radical Islam one cannot help but remember that the war Mr. Friedman so enthusiastically embraced in Iraq (which many others accurately predicted would breed generations of terrorists) has been such an inspiration for Islamic extremists. Every piece he ever does on the subject should begin with that acknowledgement.”  Amen.  In “Cradle to Ivory Tower” Mr. Bruni says college is crucial, and so is all that leads up to it.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve never been a fan of global conferences to solve problems, but when I read that the Obama administration is organizing a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism for Feb. 18, in response to the Paris killings, I had a visceral reaction: Is there a box on my tax returns that I can check so my tax dollars won’t go to pay for this?

When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd.

Last week the conservative columnist Rich Lowry wrote an essay in Politico Magazine that contained quotes from White House spokesman Josh Earnest that I could not believe. I was sure they were made up. But I checked the transcript: 100 percent correct. I can’t say it better than Lowry did:

“The administration has lapsed into unselfconscious ridiculousness. Asked why the administration won’t say [after the Paris attacks] we are at war with radical Islam, Earnest on Tuesday explained the administration’s first concern ‘is accuracy. We want to describe exactly what happened. These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it.’

This makes it sound as if the Charlie Hebdo terrorists set out to commit a random act of violent extremism and only subsequently, when they realized that they needed some justification, did they reach for Islam.

The day before, Earnest had conceded that there are lists of recent ‘examples of individuals who have cited Islam as they’ve carried out acts of violence.’ Cited Islam? According to the Earnest theory … purposeless violent extremists rummage through the scriptures of great faiths, looking for some verses to cite to support their mayhem and often happen to settle on the holy texts of Islam.”

President Obama knows better. I am all for restraint on the issue, and would never hold every Muslim accountable for the acts of a few. But it is not good for us or the Muslim world to pretend that this spreading jihadist violence isn’t coming out of their faith community. It is coming mostly, but not exclusively, from angry young men and preachers on the fringe of the Sunni Arab and Pakistani communities in the Middle East and Europe.

If Western interventions help foster violent Islamic reactions, we should reduce them. To the extent that Muslim immigrants in European countries feel marginalized, they and their hosts should worker harder on absorption. But both efforts will only take you so far.

Something else is also at work, and it needs to be discussed. It is the struggle within Arab and Pakistani Sunni Islam over whether and how to embrace modernity, pluralism and women’s rights. That struggle drives, and is driven by, the dysfunctionality of so many Arab states and Pakistan. It has left these societies with too many young men who have never held a job or a girl’s hand, who then seek to overcome their humiliation at being left behind, and to find identity, by “purifying” their worlds of other Muslims who are not sufficiently pious and of Westerners whom they perceive to be putting Muslims down. But you don’t see this in the two giant Muslim communities in Indonesia or India.

 Only Sunni Arabs and Pakistanis can get inside their narrative and remediate it. But reformers can only do that if they have a free, secure political space. If we’re not going to help create space for that internal dialogue, let’s just be quiet. Don’t say stupid stuff. And don’t hold airy fairy conferences that dodge the real issues, which many mainstream Muslims know and are actually starved to discuss, especially women.

The Arab journalist Diana Moukalled, writing in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat last week, asked: “Don’t all these events now going on around us and committed in our name require us to break the fear barrier and begin to question our region and our societies, especially the ideas being trafficked there that have led us to this awful stage where we are tearing at one another’s throats — to mention nothing of what as a result also happens beyond our region?”

And a remarkable piece in The Washington Post Sunday by Asra Q. Nomani, an American Muslim born in India, called out the “honor corps” — a loose, well-funded coalition of governments and private individuals “that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam.” It “throws the label of ‘Islamophobe’ on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion. … The official and unofficial channels work in tandem, harassing, threatening and battling introspective Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere. … The bullying often works to silence critics of Islamic extremism. … They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells.”

I know one in particular.

Well, when you find yourself quoting Rich “Sparkle Pants” Lowry you’ve pretty much told everyone exactly where you stand.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Leaving aside all of the other good arguments both for and against it, I have one big problem with the proposal for free community college that President Obama recently outlined and described anew in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

It’s awfully late in the game.

I don’t mean that he should have moved on it earlier in his presidency. I mean that our focus on getting kids to and through higher education cannot be separated from, or supplant, our focus on making sure that they’re prepared for it. And we have a painfully long way to go in that regard.

College is somehow tidier to talk about; I talk about it quite a bit myself. It’s an attractive subject for several reasons. There’s a particular mythology and romance to college, a way in which it’s synonymous with the passage into adulthood and with a lofty altitude of competence, knowledge and intellectual refinement.

It’s totemic. And it comes with handy metrics: specifically, data showing that the acquisition of a college degree translates into various benefits over the course of a lifetime, including higher earnings. So we look to, and lean on, college as a way to increase social mobility and push back against middle-class wage stagnation. That’s important context for not only Obama’s frequent invocations of college but also for a new report, “Expectations and Reality,” by America Achieves, a nonprofit organization that does educational research, policy development and advocacy. I was given an advance copy.

It demonstrates, for starters, that while hope may spring eternal, it springs in error where college is concerned. Using a survey of hundreds of parents and looking at college graduation rates, the report concludes that middle-class parents who expect their kids to finish four-year college degrees are wrong more than half the time.

The same survey, conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group for America Achieves, revealed some cold-eyed realism amid that unwarranted optimism. More than 70 percent of parents expressed the worry that their children’s chances of achieving a middle-class lifestyle would be diminished if their pre-college education didn’t become more challenging.

They’re right. We need to raise standards. That’s in fact what the Common Core is ideally about, and that’s why the education secretary, Arne Duncan, under harsh attack, remains wedded to a certain amount of testing. High standards without monitoring and accountability are no standards at all.

The goal is to lift children from all income groups up — and to maximize their chances of success with higher education. Their failure to complete higher education isn’t just a function of financial hardships and related stresses, though those are primary reasons. Academic readiness factors in.

Jon Schnur, the executive chairman of America Achieves, said that there’s a significant difference in graduation rates between students who need remediation after they’ve enrolled and those who don’t. The failures of elementary, middle and secondary schools shadow them.

Those failures persist, and they’re demonstrated every three years when PISA tests — which compare 15-year-olds in countries around the world — are done. American kids tend to perform in the middle of the heap.

The America Achieves report, looking at PISA results from 2003 to 2012, which is when the tests were last administered, had a bit of good news. While American kids from middle-class families haven’t markedly improved their international standing in math and science over recent years, kids from poorer families have done precisely that.

Poverty may well make educational advancement much harder, but doesn’t prohibit it. If we take the right steps — including more aggressive recruitment and rewarding of exemplary teachers and the continued implementation of higher standards — we can help kids at every rung of the economic ladder.

“All of these need to be backed by funding,” Schnur, who has advised the Obama administration on education, told me. “There are great examples of what works, such as quality preschool and early learning for low-income children.”

In the State of the Union both last year and the year before it, President Obama called for universal preschool (to no avail). Some studies have shown that disadvantaged children start falling behind even before that point.

The moral is this: Education is a continuous concern and must be a continuous investment, cradle to Ivory Tower. If we don’t recognize and act on that, our reality will never meet our expectations.

Friedman and Bruni

January 14, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom says “We Need Another Giant Protest.”  He asks how about a million-person march by Muslims for Muslims?  In “Mitt and the Melee” Mr. Bruni says Romney and Perry and Santorum and Huckabee? Here we go again, but even more chaotically.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

President Obama was criticized for failing to attend, or send a proper surrogate to, the giant antiterrorism march in Paris on Sunday. That criticism was right. But it is typical of American politics today that we focus on this and not what would have really made the world feel the jihadist threat was finally being seriously confronted. And that would not be a march that our president helps to lead, but one in which he’s not involved at all. That would be a million-person march against the jihadists across the Arab-Muslim world, organized by Arabs and Muslims for Arabs and Muslims, without anyone in the West asking for it — not just because of what happened in Paris but because of the scores of Muslims recently murdered by jihadists in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and Syria.

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, one of the most respected Arab journalists, wrote Monday in his column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: “Protests against the recent terrorist attacks in France should have been held in Muslim capitals, rather than Paris, because, in this case, it is Muslims who are involved in this crisis and stand accused. … The story of extremism begins in Muslim societies, and it is with their support and silence that extremism has grown into terrorism that is harming people. It is of no value that the French people, who are the victims here, take to the streets. … What is required here is for Muslim communities to disown the Paris crime and Islamic extremism in general.” (Translation by Memri.org.)

The truth is there is a huge amount of ambivalence toward this whole jihadist phenomenon — more than any of us would like to believe — in the Arab-Muslim world, Europe and America. This ambivalence starts in the Muslim community, where there is a deep cleavage over what constitutes authentic Islam today. We fool ourselves when we tell Muslims what “real Islam” is. Because Islam has no Vatican, no single source of religious authority, there are many Islams today. The puritanical Wahhabi/Salafi/jihadist strain is one of them, and its support is not insignificant.

Ambivalence runs through Europe today on the question of what a country should demand of new Muslim immigrants by way of adopting its values. Is Stratfor’s George Friedman right when he argues that Europeans adopted multiculturalism precisely because they didn’t really want to absorb their Muslim immigrants, and many of those Muslim immigrants, who went to Europe to find a job, not a new identity, didn’t want to be absorbed? If so, that spells trouble.

Ambivalence runs through Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia. Ever since jihadists took over Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca in 1979, proclaiming that Saudi Arabia’s rulers were not pious enough, Saudi Arabia has redoubled its commitment to Wahhabi or Salafist Islam — the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic and anti-women version of that faith. This Saudi right turn — combined with oil revenues used to build Wahhabi-inspired mosques, websites and madrassas across the Muslim world — has tilted the entire Sunni community to the right. Look at a picture of female graduates of Cairo University in 1950. Few are wearing veils. Look at them today. Many are wearing veils. The open, soft, embracing Islam that defined Egypt for centuries — pray five times a day but wash it down with a beer at night — has been hardened by this Wahhabi wind from Arabia.

But U.S. presidents never confront Saudi Arabia about this because of our oil addiction. As I’ve said, addicts never tell the truth to their pushers. The Saudi government opposes the jihadists. Unfortunately, though, it’s a very short step from Wahhabi Islam to the violent jihadism practiced by the Islamic State, or ISIS. The French terrorists were born in France but were marinated in Wahhabi-Salafi thought through the web and local mosques — not Voltaire.

Also, the other civil war in Islam — between Sunnis and Shiites — has led many mainstream Sunni charities, mosques and regimes to support jihadist groups because they’re ferocious fighters against Shiites. Finally — yet more ambivalence — for 60 years there was a tacit alliance between Arab dictators and their Sunni religious clergy. The regimes funded these uninspired Muslim clerics, and these clergy blessed the uninspired dictators — and both stifled the emergence of any authentic, inspired, reformist Islam that could take on Wahhabism-Salafism, even though many Muslims wanted it. An authentic reformation requires a free space in the Arab-Muslim world.

“Muslims need to ‘upgrade their software,’ which is programmed mainly by our schools, television and mosques — especially small mosques that trade in what is forbidden,” Egyptian intellectual Mamoun Fandy wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. (Also translated by Memri.org.) “There is no choice but to dismantle this system and rebuild it in a way that is compatible with human culture and values.”

In short, jihadist zeal is easy to condemn, but will require multiple revolutions to stem — revolutions that will require a lot of people in the Arab-Muslim world and West to shed their ambivalence and stop playing double games.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

There’s an adage in my business that it’s not news when a dog bites a man, only when a man bites a dog.

By that reasoning, the political story of the year so far is Paul Ryan’s announcement that he will not run for president.

Seemingly everyone else in his party will. Rick Santorum’s back. George Pataki’s back. Mike Huckabee’s back, with an alliterative new book (“God, Guns, Grits and Gravy”) that sounds like an agenda hijacked by a Denny’s menu, or maybe a sequel to “Fried Green Tomatoes” starring Mel Gibson and a howitzer.

Even Rick Perry’s back. I’d tick off three reasons that he’s crazy to try again except that I can remember only two. He’s a whole new candidate, at least on the accessories front. It’s been said that Americans give you 10 additional I.Q. points if you have a British accent; he’s betting on an extra five for eyeglasses.

And now — the heart quickens and the flesh quivers — Mitt Romney’s back. That’s the word this week: that he’s inching ever closer to another presidential bid, which we know because he’s articulated as much to donors.

Doesn’t it pretty much say everything about our political process right now that candidates flag their intentions first to the people they’ll be hitting up for money? And that the way they attempt to clear the field isn’t with a surge in polls but with a fortune in the bank? I bet some of them form PACs before they bother to tell their spouses what’s up. It’s called priorities.

By one count that I just came across, there are 25 Republicans of some standing who have signaled at least a flickering interest in the 2016 race. This certainly explains the dip in unemployment. Thousands of Republican presidential strategists and advisers have been added to payrolls.

It also explains the difference between the parties. Democrats want to expand government. Republicans want to expand auditions for it.

A Romney candidacy would be curious in the extreme. In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the popular vote and lost the presidency by dint of a Supreme Court ruling; he nonetheless let someone else carry the Democratic banner in 2004.

That person was John Kerry, who came closer to winning than Romney did, and yet he, too, didn’t circle back four years later for more punishment.

From what I hear, Romney began mulling a third bid for the presidency months ago, when the Republican establishment remained skeptical of Chris Christie and when it wasn’t at all certain that Jeb Bush would join the race. Romney was poised to rush in like a cinematically coifed superhero and save the party from the deliriums of Rand Paul and the diatribes of Ted Cruz.

By the time Bush began all the maneuvering of the last four weeks, Romney had developed the itch. He also apparently believes that Bush’s support for Common Core educational standards and immigration reform will cripple him in the primaries.

If Bush formalizes a candidacy and Romney follows suit, he’d run to Bush’s right. But Bush is the one with the truly conservative record as a governor, in Florida, while Romney is the one with a moderate record from Massachusetts. He’d be flipping the script, and if his political orientation was confusing last time around, it would be only more so this time.

He’s reportedly concerned that Bush’s financial dealings will make him acutely vulnerable to attacks. So the solution is … Romney?

His campaign would be predicated on buyer’s remorse: Voters could have had him and now get a do-over. But the buyers may be growing less remorseful. Romney had promised them that by the end of his first term, unemployment would be at or under 6 percent. It’s there already, in half the time.

Romney, Perry and others forget that when they’re not candidates, they’re well loved. When they are, they’re well trashed. Today’s fascination is tomorrow’s flop on “Meet the Press,” a hapless porterhouse for the panel to carve up.

Some Republicans (and Democrats) are simply chasing higher speaking fees, maybe a book like Huckabee’s, hold the gravy.

But there’s a cost to us. An overcrowded field of candidates doesn’t mean a more spirited exchange of ideas; it means so many voices that none get properly heard (or vetted).

Remember those early Republican debates during the last cycle, when so many contenders fanned out across the stage that they looked like misbegotten Rockettes? We could have twice that number in 2016. We could have a crowd scene in “Cats.”

So I’d say to Romney what he said to The Times’s Ashley Parker when she asked him early last year about one more campaign:

“Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”

Friedman and Bruni

December 24, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Is Vacation Over?”  He says we haven’t seen the ramifications of the drop in global oil prices yet.  In “The Pope, Beyoncé and Me” Mr. Bruni says that by reaching out to Cuba while admonishing his own cardinals, Francis sends the right Christmas message.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

More than we may realize, the world has been riding a lucky streak since the global financial meltdown in 2008. How so? The years between 2008 and late 2013 were — relatively speaking — a rather benign period of big power politics and geopolitics. This allowed the major economic powers — the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, Brazil and Japan — to focus almost exclusively on economic rehabilitation. But now there are strong indications that our vacation from geo-instability is over.

The last time the world witnessed such a steep and sustained drop in oil prices — from 1986 to 1999 — it had some profound political consequences for oil-dependent states and those who depended on their largess. The Soviet empire collapsed; Iran elected a reformist president; Iraq invaded Kuwait; and Yasir Arafat, having lost his Soviet backer and Arab bankers, recognized Israel — to name but a few. Admittedly, other factors were involved in all these events. But, in each case, steep drops in direct or indirect oil revenues played a big role.

If today’s falloff in oil prices is sustained, we’ll also be in for a lot of surprises. Some will have happy endings. Cuba’s decision to bury the hatchet with America had to have been spurred in part by Havana’s fears of losing some or all of the 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day it gets from the now cash-strapped Venezuela. Others could be very destabilizing. Today’s world is much more tightly interconnected and interdependent than in the last oil price drop-off, which was before the spread of the Internet. And today’s world has so many more actors — superpowers and superempowered individuals and hackers who can destabilize companies and countries with cyberweapons. See dictionary for “Sony” and “North Korea.”

When I hear President Vladimir Putin of Russia bragging that lower oil revenues won’t affect the Russian people because they are stoic — look what they tolerated in World War II — my reaction is: “Mr. Putin, that was before there was a significant urban middle class in Russia, one you helped to build with trickle-down oil and gas revenues.” A lot more Russians today have gotten used to traveling abroad, owning a car (note Moscow’s traffic jams), consuming Western goods and seeing how the rest of the world lives. Let’s see how stoic they are today. Russia’s former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin was quoted by The Financial Times on Monday as saying, “There will be a fall in living standards. It will be painful. Protest activity will increase.”

The Western sanctions on Putin’s banks, combined with the sudden sharp drop in oil prices and capital flight also triggered by the sanctions, mean that Russia has a dangerous gap between the funds flowing into its economy and what it needs to send out to pay its debts and finance its imports. Putin can’t relieve the pressure without a lifting of Western sanctions. That would require him to reverse his seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine.

If Putin admits his Ukraine adventure was a mistake, he will look incredibly foolish and the long knives will be out for him in the Kremlin. If he doesn’t back down, Russians will pay a huge price. Either way, that system will be stressed with unpredictable spillovers on the global economy. Remember: Russia’s 1998 economic collapse — also triggered by low oil prices and the moratorium it declared on payments to foreign debtors — helped to sink the giant American hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, sparking a near meltdown on Wall Street.

A prolonged drop in oil prices will impact Algeria, Iran and Arab Gulf states, where aging regimes have used high oil prices to increase government salaries to buy quiet from their people during the Arab Spring. Also, in an age when machines and software are ensuring that average is over for workers in developed countries, and everyone needs to be upgrading their skills, what happens to the developing Arab states and Iran, who have used oil money to mask their deficits in knowledge, education and women’s empowerment? Egypt’s military-led government is highly in need of Arab oil money to get through its crisis. A bit of good news: The Islamic State, which depends on oil smuggling, will fail at governing even faster than it already has.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s increasingly tyrannical president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been arresting domestic opponents, is looking like “Vladimir Putin Jr.” Erdogan is a tragic figure because he did much to build Turkey’s economy into a powerhouse. But, today, according to The Financial Times, Turkey now “needs more than $200 billion of foreign financing a year, more than a quarter of gross domestic product, to maintain its current level of growth.” There will be less Arab and Russian oil money for that and, last week, with Erdogan being criticized by the European Union (a big source of investment income) for arresting his opponents, the Turkish lira hit a low against the dollar. Watch that space.

High oil prices covered many sins and fostered many sins. If they stay low again for long, a lot of leaders will have to pay retail for their crazy politics, not wholesale. The political and geopolitical fallouts will be varied — good and bad — but fallout aplenty there will be.

Probably in a Friedman Unit or two…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

There was a Christmas Eve a little more than a decade ago when I did something that was, for me, rare, at least on a holiday typically spent in full-party mode, with booze, food, family and friends. I went to church.

No one had died. No one was getting married or baptized. This visit was entirely volitional — and, I told myself, ornamental, which was true to a point.

The church, you see, was St. Peter’s Basilica. I was The Times’s correspondent in Rome. And because I covered the Vatican, I had dibs on prime seats relatively close to the altar. Forgive the following mixture of profane and sacred, but you don’t have to be a Beyoncé devotee to say a quick yes to free tickets in the front rows. You go for the pageant and the privilege.

Pope John Paul II presided over the Mass, as best he could. He struggled to form coherent words, a man disintegrating before the world’s eyes, month by painful month. Many of us in the press corps who kept tabs on him and trailed him — to Guatemala, to Croatia, to Poland — were essentially on a deathwatch.

And some of us occasionally wondered if that vigil extended beyond him, to the Roman Catholic Church itself, and if he were both man and metaphor. Especially in Western Europe and the United States, the church was sliding into a sort of obsolescence.

It often resisted engagement with modernity. It denounced sin in the world while indulging it in the priesthood. And it spoke with a censoriousness that seemed antithetical to Christianity.

After John Paul came Benedict; little changed. More and more of the Catholics I knew located their faith as far outside of the Vatican as they could.

Now there’s Francis. And things are different. Not different enough, not by a long shot. The church remains wrong on women and wrong on gays, and I’ve noted repeatedly the shameful discrepancy between Francis’ kind words and the unkind firings of lesbian and gay employees by Catholic institutions in the United States.

But almost two years into his papacy, it’s impossible to deny the revolutionary freshness of his posture: humble, receptive, even casual. The pomp is gone and, with it, the air of thundering judgment. If the rules haven’t been rewritten, they seem less like bludgeons than in the past.

Francis doesn’t hold himself high, an autocrat with all the answers. He crouches to a level where questions can be asked, conversations broached, disagreements articulated.

He insists that other church leaders lower themselves as well, and used a traditional Christmas address on Monday not to chide the flock for its transgressions but to remind the shepherds of theirs.

He accused some of the cardinals, bishops and priests in the upper echelons of the church bureaucracy of straying so forgetfully from their true mission and ministry that they were afflicted with a kind of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”

He said that they had fallen prey to the “pathology of power” and needed to beware the “terrorism of gossip.” All in all, the Vatican as described by Francis sounded like an Aaron Spelling drama, although with looser-fitting clothes, odder hats and lower Nielsen ratings.

By taking the church out of the clouds, he’s putting it into the fray. All accounts of the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba cast Francis as a key player, and that’s more than a diplomatic victory. It’s an assertion of the church’s sustained relevance.

He’s also putting the church within reach of those who would rather find a place for it in their lives than have to figure out a life without it. They are many.

I’ve never been able to believe in one dogma, one institution, as a possible repository for all truth and as a compass trumping any other. And I’ve been troubled by the frequency with which individual religions divide rather than unite. The Catholic Church has certainly been guilty of this.

But it has also done, and continues to do, enormous good. Its soldiers are present at almost every humanitarian crisis, their courage and caring inextricable from the best strands of the faith.

That faith provides many pilgrims with a harbor they can’t find elsewhere. They look to it not necessarily for a precise code of conduct but for a crucial inspiration to be less selfish, more charitable. It gives them a sorely needed peace, so long as they don’t feel shoved away.

By not shoving, Francis is serving them well. By not shouting, he’s being heard.

In St. Peter’s this Christmas Eve, he’ll be at center stage. Except he won’t, in another sense, because he’s redefined his role. If I were in the pews once again, it wouldn’t be to savor the spectacle. It would be to see the man.

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

December 21, 2014

In “North Korea and the Speech Police” The Putz howls that Sony’s self-censorship isn’t really so surprising in an era of hypersensitive political correctness.  In the comments “azlib” from AZ has this to say:  “Oh, please Ross. It wasn’t a “liberal” institution that caved to North Korea. It was a capitalist corporation only concerned with its bottom line. It is also a false equivalence to compare the protests against some political speaker (which is also free speech) with the serious hacking done by North Korea against Sony.  Also, it is interesting you do not include all the right wing hissy fits done to silence liberal critics of the Iraq War. Is that part of our so called censorship culture or is there a double standard going on here?”  Mr. Cohen has a question:  “What Will Israel Become?”  He says the country’s choices narrow. Peace? Or annexation?  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question:  “Who’s Playing Marbles Now?”  He says there was a lot of Putin envy going around earlier this year. Oh how things have changed.  In “The Gift of Education” Mr. Kristof says in this holiday season, let’s take a moment to celebrate those who share the transformative opportunity of an education.  Mr. Bruni’s panties are in a knot.  In “Hacking Our Humanity” he squeals that conversations aren’t confidential. Spontaneity is ill-advised. This is bigger than Sony. We’re all exposed and diminished.  Well, Frankie, you don’t really have to tell everyone everything about your life by Twitter-twatting and FBing…  Here’s the Putz:

Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

So why should anyone be remotely surprised that Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?

Let’s get some qualifiers out of the way. The North Korean regime is arguably more evil than any other present-day dictatorship, its apparent hack of Sony Pictures is a deadly serious act of cyberterrorism, and the response by Sony — the outright withdrawal, after theater chains balked at showing it, of the offending comedy, “The Interview,” in which the North Korean dictator is blown to smithereens — sets a uniquely terrible precedent.

It’s terrible for cinema, since the film industry, already wary of any controversy that might make its blockbusters hard to sell in Asia, will no doubt retreat even further into the safety of superhero franchises. More important, it’s terrible for any future institution or individual hacked or blackmailed by groups seeking similar concessions.

So the Sony affair is more serious than many other debates about speech and power in the West right now. But the difference is still one of magnitude, not kind.

After all, the basic strategy employed by the apparently North Korean-backed hackers is the same one employed for years by Islamic extremists against novelists and newspapers and TV shows that dare to portray the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light (or in any light at all). And the weak response from Hollywood, where the town’s movers and shakers proved unwilling to even sign a George Clooney-organized public petition pledging solidarity against the hackers, isn’t so very different from the self-censorship by networks and publishers and even opera houses that have fallen afoul of Islamist sensitivities over the years.

Moreover, the demand that “The Interview” be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully — as it most certainly does — isn’t all that different from the arguments behind the various speech codes that have proliferated in Europe and Canada of late, exposing people to fines and prosecution for speaking too critically about the religions, cultures and sexual identities of others.

Nor is it all that different from the arguments used in the United States to justify canceling an increasing number of commencement speakers — including Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christine Lagarde — when some hothouse-flower campus activists decided they couldn’t bear to sit and hear them. Or the mentality that forced out the C.E.O. and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, when it was revealed that he had once donated money to a ballot initiative that opposed same-sex marriage. Or the free-floating, shape-shifting outrage that now pervades the Internet, always looking for some offensive or un-P.C. remark to fasten on and furiously attack — whether the perpetrator is a TV personality or some unlucky political staffer, hapless and heretofore obscure.

The common thread in all these cases, whether the angry parties are Hermit Kingdom satraps or random social-justice warriors on Twitter, is a belief that the most important power is the power to silence, and that the perfect community is one in which nothing uncongenial to your own worldview is ever tweeted, stated, supported or screened.

And the other common thread, of course, is the pathetic response from the cultural entities that are supposedly most invested in free speech in our culture — universities, Internet companies, the press and the film industry, all of which seem disinclined to risk much on behalf of the ideals they officially cherish.

As a conservative, you take for granted that these institutions are often political monocultures — that the average commencement speaker, like the average academic, will be several degrees left of center, that Silicon Valley isn’t the most hospitable place to be a religious conservative, that when Hollywood gets “edgy” or “controversial” it’s usually a right-wing ox that’s being gored.

But it would be far easier to live with this predictable liberalism if these institutions, so pious about their commitment to free expression, weren’t so quick to knuckle under to illiberalism in all its varied forms.

“We cannot have a society,” President Obama said on Friday, when asked about the Sony hack, “where some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”

In theory, that’s absolutely right. But in practice, Kim Jong-un has our culture’s number: Letting angry people impose a little censorship is just the way we live right now.

Putzy, here’s a big pile of salted dicks for you to munch on.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Jerusalem:

Uneasiness inhabits Israel, a shadow beneath the polished surface. In a violent Middle Eastern neighborhood of fracturing states, that is perhaps inevitable, but Israelis are questioning their nation and its future with a particular insistence. As the campaign for March elections begins, this disquiet looks like the precursor of political change. The status quo, with its bloody and inconclusive interludes, has become less bearable. More of the same has a name: Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his third term as prime minister. The alternative, although less clear, is no longer unthinkable.

“There is a growing uneasiness, social, political, economic,” Amos Oz, the novelist, told me in an interview. “There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.” The author, widely viewed as the conscience of a liberal and anti-Messianic Israel, continued, “Unless there are two states — Israel next door to Palestine — and soon, there will be one state. If there will be one state, it will be an Arab state. The other option is an Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”

If that sounds stark, it is because choices are narrowing. Every day, it seems, another European government or parliament expresses support for recognition of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian-backed initiative at the United Nations, opposed in its current form by the United States, is aimed at pushing Israel to withdraw from the West Bank by 2017. The last Gaza eruption, with its heavy toll and messy outcome, changed nothing. Hamas, its annihilationist hatred newly stoked, is still there parading its weapons. Tension is high in Jerusalem after a spate of violent incidents. Life is expensive. Netanyahu’s credibility on both the domestic and international fronts has dwindled.

“We wake up every morning to some new threat he has found,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist. “We have grown tired of it.”

This fatigue will, however, translate into change only if a challenger looks viable. Until recently nobody has. But in the space of a few weeks something has shifted. The leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, has been ushered from unelectable nerd to plausible patriot. Polls show him neck and neck with the incumbent. Through an alliance forged this month with Tzipi Livni, the recently dismissed justice minister and longtime negotiator with the Palestinians, the Labor leader created a sense of possibility for the center left. A post-Bibi Israel no longer seems a fantasy.

“This cannot go on,” Herzog, a mild-mannered man working on manifesting his inner steel, told me. “There is a deep inherent worry as to the future and well-being of our country. Netanyahu has been leading us to a dead end, to an abyss.” Summing up his convictions, Herzog declared, “We are the Zionist camp. They are the extreme camp.”

Here we get to the nub of the election. A battle has been engaged for Israel’s soul. The country’s founding charter of 1948 declared that the nascent state would be based “on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” This is the embodiment of the Zionism of Herzog and Livni. They are both descendants of important figures in Israel’s creation — Chaim Herzog, a former president of Labor sympathies, and Eitan Livni, a former commander of the rightist Irgun militia. For all their differences Labor and Likud, left and right, did not differ on the essential democratic freedoms for all its citizens, Jew and Arab, that Israel should seek to uphold. The new Herzog-Livni alliance looks like an eloquent reaffirmation of that idea.

It is a fragile idea today. Tolerance is under attack as a wave of Israeli nationalism unfurls and settlements grow in the West Bank. This virulent, Jews-first thinking led recently to a bill known as the nationality law that would rescind Arabic’s status as an official language — and proved a catalyst to the breakup of Netanyahu’s government. It also finds expression in the abuse hurled at anyone, including the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, who speaks up for Arab rights. “Traitor” has become a facile cry.

Danny Danon, a former deputy defense minister who is challenging Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, told me his long-term vision for the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as he calls it, “is to have sovereignty over the majority of the land with the minimum amount of Palestinians.” The two-state idea, Danon said, “is finished, and most Israelis understand that.”

In fact the two-state idea is alive but ever more tenuous. It is compatible with an Israel true to its founding principles. It is incompatible with an Israel bent on Jewish supremacy and annexation of all or most of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It can be resurrected, because there is no plausible alternative, despite the fact that almost a half-century of dominion over another people has produced ever greater damage, distrust and division. It can be buried only at the expense of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, for no democracy can indefinitely control the lives of millions of disenfranchised people — and that is what many Palestinians are.

“This election is a critical juncture,” said Ofer Kenig, a political analyst. “We have to choose between being a Zionist and liberal nation, or turning into an ethnocentric, nationalist country. I am concerned about the direction in which this delicate democracy is heading.”

A child of 9 in Gaza has memories of three wars in six years. The child may stand in the remains of the Shejaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City, gazing at tangles of iron rods, mountains of stone, jagged outcrops of masonry, and air thick with dust. The child may wonder what force it is that wrought such destruction, so repetitively, and why. It is safe to say that the adult this Palestinian child will one day become does not bode well for Israel. The child has no need for indoctrination in hatred.

I was there the other day, in the rubble. Children stood around. I chatted with the Harara family, whose houses were flattened during the 50-day war with Israel that began this summer. Every day Mustafa Harara, 47, comes to gaze at the cratered vestige of his house. He asks where else he should go. It took him 26 years to build. It took five minutes for Israel to demolish it. The reason is unclear. He is no Hamas militant. His electricity business, located in the same area, was also destroyed.

Since the war, he has received nothing, despite the billions for reconstruction pledged by gulf states and others. In June, President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new government that grew out of the reconciliation pact his Palestine Liberation Organization had signed with Hamas. There is no unity and, in effect, no government in Gaza.

The Egyptian border is closed. Movement through the Israeli border amounts to a minimal trickle. Israeli surveillance balloons hover in airspace controlled by Israel. The 140-square-mile area is little better than an open-air prison. As incubators for violent extremism go, it is hard to imagine a more effective setting than Gaza.

Abbas has not visited since the war broke out. To come after such suffering would have been courageous; not to was craven. Now he is regarded as a stranger by most of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Gaza, the absent father of a nation in desperate need. “Abbas is the one who destroyed us,” Harara says. “What reconciliation? You cannot mix gasoline and diesel.”

This is the abject Palestinian reality behind the speeches about new paradigms, internationalization of the conflict, United Nations resolutions and the like. The legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood is undermined by debilitating division that Abbas is either unable or unwilling to address. In January, he will have been in power for a decade. He shows no sign of organizing the election needed to confer legitimacy on his rule or to reveal the real power balance in Palestinian politics. The citizens of Gaza represent a significant proportion of Palestinians in the Holy Land. How the Palestinian push for statehood can be effective without real unity and the painful compromises between Fatah and Hamas needed to achieve it is a mystery. Surely it is Job 1.

Everyone in Gaza seems to expect another war. “We are dying slowly, so why not die quickly?” is a common refrain. People seem dazed. There is, quite literally, no way out.

Lutfi Harara, the younger brother of Mustafa, whose home was also destroyed, took me to see the little house with a corrugated iron roof he had cobbled together since the war. He showed me photographs of Haifa, his memories of the Israel where he used to work as an electrician before divisions hardened. From rockets and artillery shells found in the rubble of his home, he has fashioned lamps and a vase and a heavy bell dangling from an olive tree — his version of swords into plowshares, and the one hopeful thing I saw in Gaza.

From his home I went to see a hard-line Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar. He lambasted Abbas — “he is living on stories” — and told me to forget about a two-state compromise at or near the 1967 lines. “Israel will be eliminated because it is a foreign body that does not belong to our area, or history or religion,” he said. Referring to Israeli Jews, he continued, “Why should they come from Ethiopia, or Poland, or America? There are six million in Palestine, O.K., take them. America is very wide. You can make a new district for the Jews.”

Zahar, with his hatred, is almost 70. Abbas will be 80 in March. Many Palestinians in their 20s and 30s whom I spoke to in Gaza are sick of sterile threats, incompetence and the cycle of war.

“There is no such thing as a happy compromise,” Amos Oz told me. “Israelis and Palestinians cannot become one happy family because they are not one, not happy and not family either. They are two unhappy families who must divide a small house into even smaller apartments.” The first step, he said, is to “sign peace with clenched teeth, and after signing the contract, start working slowly on a gradual emotional de-escalation on both sides.”

Israel is a remarkable and vibrant democratic society that is facing an impasse. It must decide whether to tough it out on a nationalist road that must lead eventually to annexation of at least wide areas of the West Bank, or whether to return to the ideals of the Zionists who accepted the 1947 United Nations partition of Mandate Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab (the Arabs did not accept the division and embarked on the first of several losing wars aimed at destroying Israel).

This election constitutes a pivotal moment. Herzog told me, “We are not willing to accept that mothers and fathers on the other side don’t want peace. They also want it, and I understand that they have a lack of hope just like here.” He smiled, as a thought occurred to him. “You know, I would be very happy to visit my mother’s birthplace in Egypt as prime minister.”

Now we finally get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

In March, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers, was asked on “Fox News Sunday” how he thought President Obama was handling relations with Russia versus how President Vladimir Putin had been handling relations with the United States. Rogers responded: “Well, I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. And I don’t think it’s even close.”

Hmmm. Marbles. That’s an interesting metaphor. Actually, it turns out that Obama was the one playing chess and Putin was the one playing marbles, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say today that Putin’s lost most of his — in both senses of the word.

Rogers was hardly alone in his Putin envy. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Fox News has had a veritable Putin love fest going since March: Sarah Palin opined to the network that: “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Fox contributor Rudy Giuliani observed on the same day that in contrast with Obama, Putin was “what you call a leader.”

Only if leading your country to economic ruin is a form of leadership. And this is not Monday-morning quarterbacking. It has been obvious for months that Putin was fighting the market, Moore’s Law, Mother Nature and human nature all at once.

He bet almost his whole economy on oil and gas that only can be exploited long-term at the risk of disruptive climate change; he underestimated the degree to which technological innovation has enabled America to produce more oil, gas, renewable energy and greater efficiency, all at the same time, helping to undermine crude prices; he talked himself into believing that Ukrainians toppled their corrupt leaders only because the C.I.A. told them to — not because of the enduring human quest to realize a better future for their kids; and he underestimated how integrated and interdependent Russia is with the global markets and how deeply sanctions, over time, would bite him.

Let us not mince words: Vladimir Putin is a delusional thug. He created, fell in love with and is now being disabused of a fantasy notion of his and Russia’s power. Might he lash out militarily now to distract his people with more shiny objects? Yes, he might, but then he’d only be violating another rule of geopolitics: “The First Rule of Holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

I say that with no satisfaction. In fact, I say it with deep regret. I opposed NATO expansion and our unilateral ripping up of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, when Russia was weak. I wanted — and still want — to see America partner with Russia to help stem global disorder, because in many places in the world we can’t be effective without a Russian partner. Alas, we expanded NATO — and unintentionally helped to foster the political conditions in Russia for Putin’s xenophobic, grievance-based politics to flourish.

But Putin also went nuts. Oil at $110 a barrel went to his head. He thought all of this was about him, his decisions, the economy he and his cronies built and on some Russian geopolitical entitlement based on history. In reality, he had bet everything on drilling oil and gas, not on building his people and their talents. He rode the price up and now it is riding him down.

Along the way, Putin lied to the world and deluded himself. His big lie is that the popular toppling of the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev was just a Western plot to bring Ukraine into NATO. In Putin’s spook-defined world, no one has agency — except the Central Intelligence Agency (or K.G.B.). It is inconceivable to him that a critical mass of Ukrainians might have looked over at Poland and envied how well it had done since freeing itself from the Kremlin’s orbit and joining the European Union — that they might have then said to themselves, “We want that”— and that to get it they might have taken to the streets and overthrown Putin’s ally in Kiev, demanding a less corrupt, more transparent, democratic government.

Putin cast all of that as a C.I.A.-NATO plot in order to rally the Russian people to his side and justify his ugly grab of Crimea and his Ukraine intervention, which included indirect involvement in the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner. The real truth is that Putin is not afraid of NATO expansion to Ukraine. That was never in the cards. He is afraid of European Union expansion. He does not want Ukraine to join the European customs union, adopt its anti-corruption and transparency regulations and begin to build a successful economy on European principles that every day would stand as a contrast to and critique of the nontransparent kleptocracy Putin and his oil-and-gas clique have built in Russia.

His big delusion is that his mind-set is trapped in a 19th-century worldview, where Russia is entitled to and will always have “spheres of influence” on its borders. But spheres of influence are not like some honorary degree you get from Moscow University and can keep forever. Today, spheres of influence have to be earned and re-earned. Because, today, thanks to technology, emergent citizens are able to articulate and organize for their own aspirations much more effectively. These are “people of influence,” and they’ve asserted themselves in squares from Tahrir to Taksim to the Maidan in Kiev. Ukraine may be the first battleground in history where people of influence have squared off against a sphere-of-influence thinker. I am still betting on the people.

Russia’s decline is bad for Russians, but that doesn’t mean it is good for us. When the world gets this interconnected and interdependent, you get a strategic reverse: Your friends, through economic mismanagement (see Greece), can harm you faster than your enemies. And your rivals falling (see Russia and China) can be more dangerous than your rivals rising. If Russia, an economy spanning nine time zones, goes into recession and cannot pay foreign lenders with its lower oil revenues — and all this leads to political turmoil and defaults to Western banks — that crash will be felt globally.

Warren Buffett observed during the 2008 economic crisis that “only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.” Well, the oil tide has gone out, and it revealed that Putin was swimming naked. In doing so, the country he threatens most today is Russia — but not Russia alone. A triumphant, oil-fueled Russia riding a petro-surge is dangerous; but a defeated, angry, increasingly impoverished Russia is dangerous as well. So despite all of the above, I’d be willing to see the West work with Putin to ease the sanctions on Russia, but only if Putin is ready to stop stealing other people’s marbles, only if he is truly ready to be part of the solution in places like Ukraine — not the problem.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Port-au-Prince, Haiti:

Most of us in Nikenson Romage’s situation would have given up.

His dad died when he was 3, and his mom — a food vendor — often couldn’t afford his school fees. So he got kicked out of school occasionally for nonpayment, a humiliating ordeal that leads some kids to drop out forever.

But Nikenson would sneak back onto the school grounds and stand outside the open classroom windows to eavesdrop, day after day. He studied on his own, keeping pace so that when his mom scraped together a few dollars, he could re-enter class — until the next time school fees were due.

Against all odds, Nikenson graduated from high school this year, first in his class, with straight A’s, and was elected class president by his peers. Nikenson is a reminder of the basic aphorism of life today: talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

Fortunately, with the help of American donors, Nikenson is now receiving a university education that will propel him into Haiti’s elite. He’s a beneficiary of a program started by Conor Bohan, a young American who was teaching in a Haitian high school and distressed that a top student in the school couldn’t afford $30 to register for college. He sacrificed his savings to send her to college (she’s now a doctor). Then he hit up family and friends to help other Haitians go to college. The program grew and became the Haitian Education and Leadership Program, or HELP, sending hundreds of young men and women to Haitian universities.

“Education works,” Bohan said simply. “Good education works for everybody, everywhere. It worked for you, for me, and it works for Haitians.”

Tackling global poverty is harder than it seems, and Haiti is a case in point. Its streets are full of white S.U.V.’s ferrying around aid workers, yet it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Over time, I’ve concluded that education may be the single best way to help people help themselves — whether in America or abroad. Yet, as a nation, we underinvest in education, both domestically and overseas. So, in this holiday season, I’d suggest a moment to raise a glass and celebrate those who spread the transformative gift of education.

A few days ago, we saw the news of the horrific Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. The Taliban attacks schools because it understands that education corrodes extremism; I wish we would absorb that lesson as well. In his first presidential campaign, President Obama spoke of starting a global education fund, but he seems to have forgotten the idea. I wish he would revive it!

I’m particularly impressed by the HELP model in part because of a nifty way to make the program sustainable: Winners commit to giving back 15 percent of their incomes for their first nine years in their jobs. That’s a hefty sum: HELP graduates earn an average of $15,000 a year, compared with per capita income in Haiti of a bit more than $800, and university tuition is very cheap by American standards.

One brilliant new high school graduate, Elice Oreste, was working as an apprentice carpenter in a remote village and earning just $50 a month. HELP sent him to college to study industrial engineering, and he just graduated — and promptly found a job at a European company as a maintenance engineer for $1,500 a month.

“The only difference is his access to education,” notes Bohan.

A HELP scholarship is also transforming the trajectory of Anne Martine Augustin, an orphan who is studying electrical engineering. She designed an app for disaster readiness in Haiti that won a World Bank programming competition.

The greatest unexploited resource in poor countries isn’t oil or gold; it’s people like her. So, with the backing of mostly American donors, HELP scours the country for brilliant but impoverished high school graduates. Once selected, the students also get coaching in English, computer use, and leadership and public service. The aim is to nurture an elite corps of change-makers to build up the country.

“Nobody knows Haiti better than Haitians,” says Leonardo Charles, chosen for a scholarship after he scored in the top five in nationwide exams while also serving as high school class president and student newspaper editor “If there is to be change, it will be from us.”

So I raise my eggnog to toast all those promoting education at home and abroad, thereby spreading opportunity. It’s the updated version of giving a person a fishing pole rather than a fish.

At a party, a Western aid worker once asked Bohan whether HELP graduates would be able to find jobs.

“Look around this room,” Bohan says he replied. “I can replace every white person in this room with a Haitian.”

And now finally we get to Mr. Bruni:

There’s a square in the upper right-hand corner of your computer keyboard that probably looks more banged up than it did a week or two ago. It’s the one marked “delete.” I’ll bet that you’ve been giving it a workout lately, pressing it hard and often, moving relentlessly backward over your emails, fretting and fussing and killing off nearly as many words as you birth. Are they open to misinterpretation? Is their tone too mischievous or meanspirited? Delete, delete, delete. Better safe than Sony’d.

And I’ll bet that it’s all been coming back to you and coming to a head: the invasive games that Facebook has played, the data that Uber holds, the alarms that Edward Snowden sounded, the flesh that Jennifer Lawrence flashed to more people than she ever intended. The Dear Leader is late to this wretched party, and the breach that his regime in North Korea apparently orchestrated is less revelation than confirmation. You can no longer assume that what’s meant to be seen by only one other individual won’t find its way to hundreds, thousands, even millions. That sort of privacy is a quaint relic.

The lesson here isn’t that Hollywood executives, producers, agents and stars must watch themselves. It isn’t to beware of totalitarian states. It’s to beware, period. If it isn’t a foreign nemesis monitoring and meddling with you, then it’s potentially a merchant examining your buying patterns, an employer trawling for signs of disloyalty or indolence, an acquaintance turned enemy, a random hacker with an amorphous grudge — or of course the federal government.

And while this spooky realization prompts better behavior in certain circumstances that call for it and is only a minor inconvenience in other instances, make no mistake: It’s a major loss. Those moments and nooks in life that permit you to be your messiest, stupidest, most heedless self? They’re quickly disappearing if not already gone.

It’s tempting to try to forget that by homing in on other strands of the stories that bring it to our attention. As last week ended, the discussion about Sony turned to the entertainment industry’s hasty capitulation to threats of terrorism.

“I think they made a mistake,” President Obama said on Friday, referring to Sony executives’ decision to pull the movie “The Interview” from theaters. “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” He added that the America government would respond to North Korea’s actions “proportionally,” but that it hadn’t yet determined how.

Days earlier, the focus was as much on the adolescent nastiness that the hacking of Sony’s systems exposed as on the vulnerability to exposure that it underscored. You could gape at the way all of those temperamental titans typed and decide that they got what they deserved, just as you could chalk up those naked celebrity selfies to spectacularly bad judgment.

But there’s a bigger picture, and it’s terrifying. We’re all naked. The methods by which we communicate today — the advances meant to liberate us — are robbing us of control. Smartphones take photos and record audio. Voice mail is violable. Texts wind up in untrustworthy hands (just ask Anthony Weiner). Hard drives and even the cloud have memories that resist erasure. And the Internet can circulate any purloined secret fast and infinitely far.

The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.

“Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology — absolutely nothing at all — is guaranteed to stay private,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a “reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don’t do it. Don’t email, don’t text, don’t update, don’t send photos.” He might as well have added, “Don’t live,” because self-expression and sharing aren’t easily abandoned, and other conduits for them — landlines, snail mail — no longer do the trick.

WE “don’t have real choice,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Times’s Claire Cain Miller last month. “It’s not like picking up the newspaper and realizing ice cream has too many calories and you can start eating frozen yogurt, information that people can act on.” Rotenberg was explaining a remarkable survey that had just been published by the Pew Research Center, which found that overwhelming majorities of Americans seriously questioned the confidentiality and security of their social-media activity, their online chats, their texts — and yet pressed on with all of these.

This isn’t a contradiction. It’s more accurately labeled a bind.

Many people have begun to sanitize their exchanges, in manners that could be silencing important conversations and gagging creativity. Late last year, the PEN American Center surveyed 528 of its members, including many journalists and fiction writers, and found that 24 percent of them said that they’d avoided some topics in emails and phone calls for fear of surveillance or exposure. Sixteen percent had at times refrained from Internet research for the same reason. There were issues they didn’t dare to engage, stories they didn’t want to touch.

One unnamed writer who participated in the survey complained of “a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don’t think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent.”

Another expressed the worry “that by the time we fully realize that we live in this condition, it will be too late to alter the infrastructure patterns.”

Maybe encryption services will help. Maybe what Manjoo called an “erasable Internet” will come to the rescue. But that still leaves some essential forms of communication unaddressed, and enhanced protections could be trailed in short order by newly ingenious routes around them.

“The hackers are going to get better,” Obama conceded. “Some of them are going to be state actors. Some of them are going to be nonstate actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated, and many of them can do some damage.”

It’s not just creativity that’s in jeopardy. It’s not just candor. It’s secure islands of unformed thought and sloppy talk, places where people take necessary vacations from judgment, allowances for impropriety that make propriety possible. And these aren’t, or shouldn’t be, luxuries.

Delete, delete, delete. That’s a bit of your humanity being snuffed out.

Friedman and Bruni

December 17, 2014

In “This Israeli Election Matters” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us a nation struggles with its identity.  Mr. Bruni, in “Confronting an Ugly Killer,” says Alzheimer’s is deadly, costly and finally getting the blunt discussion it needs.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has set new elections in Israel for March 17. Israel has had critical elections before, but this could be its most important, because the Israeli right today is no longer dominated by security hawks and free-marketeers like Netanyahu. It is dominated by West Bank settlers and scary religious-nationalist zealots like Naftali Bennett, who, if they run the next government and effectively annex the West Bank, will lead Israel into a dark corner, increasingly alienated from Europe, America and the next generation of American Jews.

At the same time, the neighborhood Israel lives in has never been so full of threats. If the Israeli center-left and center-right want to avoid the South African future that the Israeli far right is offering them, then they have to create a coalition that can persuade the Israeli silent majority that they understand, and can blunt, those threats — and allow Israel to securely withdraw from most of the West Bank, either in a negotiated deal with the Palestinians or unilaterally.

“The importance of the 2015 election cannot be too highly emphasized,” Ari Shavit, the Haaretz columnist wrote last week. “This time the question isn’t about the price of an apartment or cottage (cheese), but whether there will be a home for us at all. This time the struggle isn’t about convenience but about the core of our existence. Because this time the forces threatening Israeli democracy and the Zionist enterprise from within are unprecedented in their power.”

So how might the Israeli center contest this foundational election? The best approach I’ve heard comes from Amos Yadlin, Israel’s former chief of defense intelligence, and the pilot who dropped the bomb through the roof of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor. Yadlin, who now directs Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, argued to me that Israel’s center needs to run on the core values of its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. That is an Israel, he said, “that understands the limits of power of a small country,” and is focused solely on building “a state that has a Jewish majority, a state that is democratic where all citizens are equal, a state that is secure even in a threatening environment and a state whose higher moral caliber is as valued as it was in the past.” And that means a state with a clear, secure border with its Palestinian neighbors.

Yadlin is a tough-minded analyst. He worries that the Israeli right is completely out of touch with the nation’s standing in the world and the left with the dangers in the neighborhood. While he knows that all his Ben-Gurion goals may not be achievable (and Israel may not have a Palestinian partner), he wants the next Israeli government to get caught trying — and trying again — to achieve them. What distinguishes him from Netanyahu and the Israeli right is that Yadlin is not looking for excuses to say that Israel has no negotiating partner, the way Netanyahu did out of fear that genuine negotiations about borders would blow up his right-wing ruling coalition, or the way the Jewish settlers do, because they know genuine negotiations would blow up their messianic vision for forever controlling the West Bank.

Yadlin says he wants the next Israeli government to take “all of Israel’s innovative spirit and brains” and apply them to “out-of-the-box thinking” to find a secure way forward. He sketched three paths for me based on the Israeli-designed traffic management application Waze.com. “As with Waze, if one route is blocked, one recalibrates and chooses a different route to the same destination,” said Yadlin. “We propose: the bilateral negotiations route; the Arab Peace Initiative route; and the independent route.”

The preferred route, argues Yadlin, “is that of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians to reach a permanent agreement. If this track is impossible, as was proven in 2013-14, then it is time to move to the second route, that of a revised Arab Peace Initiative.” Try to leverage the willingness of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel if it reaches a deal with the Palestinians. The more the Arab states put on the table, the more Palestinians can, in effect, offer Israel and the more cover Palestinians will have for concessions they will have to make. “If this route, too, proves to be blocked,” he said, “we must move to an independent track that will ensure that the viable two-state solution is kept. Israel will deploy along borders that guarantee a Jewish majority and a secure state.”

Netanyahu will still be a formidable candidate, but, interestingly, his popularity plummeted when he called for new elections. I know why: Israelis, though dubious about Palestinian intentions and terrified of their region, are tired of a leader who keeps telling them: there is no exit, everyone hates us and the future will be full of yesterdays. In a country whose national anthem is “Hatikvah” — “The Hope” — the prime minister came to symbolize the opposite to many Israelis, who still want someone with the attributes of Ben-Gurion to test and retest whether hope is possible. The Israeli candidate or party that understands that will have a great chance of winning.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

My maternal grandmother lives in my memory as two distinct images. Two distinct people, really.

The first: She’s coming off a plane, and she’s in a pillbox hat, a tailored suit and white gloves. That was how she dressed to fly, back in the days when people actually dressed to fly. We’d meet her at the airport, then drive home in a car suffused with Jungle Gardenia, which wasn’t just her scent. It was her armor and ecosystem, the way she told the world and reassured herself that she was a proper lady.

The second image: She’s on the couch in our TV room. Her blouse has come undone. So have her slacks, which are wrinkled and smudged. She’s spilling out of everything and she’s oblivious, a dazed, haunted look in her eyes. If she’s wearing any Jungle Gardenia, I no longer smell it.

These images are separated not just by years but by illness. My grandmother, Kathryn Owen Frier, developed Alzheimer’s. It turned a fastidious woman with a fiendish talent for crosswords into a slovenly one who couldn’t figure out a stoplight. I remember how mortified I felt for her, how quickly I turned my eyes away. And I remember how awful I felt for having that reaction.

She died more than a quarter century ago. For a long time afterward, I rejected any impulse to write about the way she went, worried that I’d somehow be dishonoring her.

But the world is different now. Much of the unwarranted shame surrounding Alzheimer’s has lifted. People are examining it with a new candor and empathy.

If most Oscar handicappers are correct, the next Best Actress statuette will go to Julianne Moore for her heartbreaking work as a university professor battling early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” to be released nationally next month. And while Moore isn’t the first star to shed a light on the disease — Judi Dench in “Iris” and Julie Christie in “Away From Her” also did so — her performance comes amid other intimate portraits of the toll that Alzheimer’s takes.

A new documentary, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” chronicles its recent impact on the singer who made “Rhinestone Cowboy” a megahit in the 1970s.

And one of the most acclaimed novels of 2014 is “We Are Not Ourselves,” by Matthew Thomas, which hinges on an agonizing case of Alzheimer’s. The book became an instant best seller.

“As baby boomers approach their 70s and Alzheimer’s disease becomes increasingly commonplace, more and more fiction writers are attempting to reach into that obscure space,” noted Stefan Merrill Block in The New Yorker last August.

Block himself reached into it for his first novel, “The Story of Forgetting,” in 2008. The novel “Still Alice,” on which the movie is based, was published around that time and went on to sell more than a million copies.

Its author, Lisa Genova, told me that its success underscores not only how many families have been touched by Alzheimer’s but how many had been trapped in silence. “Any disease of the brain has a stigma,” she said. “It’s not like the heart or the kidney. This is something that’s wrong with you.”

After “Still Alice” came out, she was struck by all the real-life stories that people suddenly shared with her. Thomas had the same experience when he promoted “We Are Not Ourselves.”

“I was surprised by how willing people were to be vulnerable,” he told me. Alzheimer’s was something that they desperately needed to talk about.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an advocacy group, the estimated number of Americans with the disease will rise from more than five million now to as many as 16 million in 2050, and the cost of caring for them and older Americans with other forms of dementia could reach $1.2 trillion annually.

Angela Geiger, the association’s chief strategy officer, calls Alzheimer’s “the unaddressed public health crisis of this decade.” And she told me that while there have been significant increases in federal funding for research, current spending doesn’t adequately reflect the disease’s status as the sixth leading cause of death in this country, one for which there’s “no treatment that slows the progression.”

It’s a hellish riddle, eroding the identities of those it afflicts and depriving us all of our cherished illusions of control. “Alzheimer’s disease is the opposite of modern life,” wrote Thomas, whose father had it, in Time magazine. “It’s the ascendancy of entropy and chaos.”

It’s not perfumed. It’s not gloved. But it’s what happens to many people and will happen to too many more, especially if we don’t stare unblinkingly at it.

“If we’re shy about it, then we don’t have a sense of urgency,” Genova said. We’re conquering the shyness. With the urgency, we have a ways to go.

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

December 14, 2014

Oh lordy…  The Pasty Little Putz has extruded a turd called “The Imitation of Marriage” in which he has a question:  Can progressive ideas really save the working-class family?  (As if he gave half a crap about the working class family…)  In the comments section “Richard” from Bozeman had this to say:  “This essay is SO smug that it ascribes values to liberals that are abhorrent to most of us. As for the sexual revolution, what would Douthat know of that?”  Well, Richard, there was the “chunky Reese Witherspoon” incident during his college years.  Mr. Cohen, in “Trying to Reinvent Italy,” says the prime minister struggles to get the country to change its ways.  The Moustache of Wisdom wants to tell us “Why 2014 Is a Big Deal.”  He says this could have been the year that tipped the scales toward action on climate change. Then the price of oil started falling.  Mr. Kristof tells us of “A Shooter, His Victim and Race.”  He says a black man did a terrible thing as a teenager and has been locked up his whole adult life. The white woman he shot in the face now wants him released. Let’s learn from them.  Mr. Bruni, who really should go back to reviewing restaurants, has decided to tell us all about “The Many Faces of Jeb.”  He squeals that we like to pigeonhole politicians, and the ones who might run for president in 2016 don’t make that easy.  Frankie, all I need to know about Jeb is his last name.  Here’s The Putz:

In the last two weeks, my colleagues at The Times’s data-driven project, The Upshot, have offered two ways of looking at the most important cleavage in America — the divide, cultural and economic, between the college educated and the struggling working class.

The first article, by Claire Cain Miller, discussed the striking decline in divorce rates among well-educated Americans, whose families seem to have adapted relatively successfully to the sexual revolution and the postindustrial economy.

The second, by Binyamin Appelbaum, looked at the decline of work itself among less-educated men, and the forces driving this decline: low wages and weak job growth, the availability of safety-net income, the burden of criminal records, and the fraying of paternal and marital bonds.

Appelbaum’s piece is a great jumping-off point for arguments about how policy might improve the fortunes of the unemployed and the working class. But the two articles read together also raise a crucial cultural question: To what extent can the greater stability of upper-class family life, and the habits that have made it possible, be successfully imitated further down the socioeconomic ladder?

Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.

The core idea here is that working-class men, in particular, need to let go of a particular image of masculinity — the silent, disciplined provider, the churchgoing paterfamilias — that no longer suits the times. Instead, they need to become more comfortable as part-time homemakers, as emotionally available soul mates, and they need to raise their children to be more adaptive and expressive, to prepare them for a knowledge-based, constantly-in-flux economy.

Like most powerful ideas, this argument is founded on real truths. For Americans of every social class, the future of marriage will be more egalitarian, with more shared burdens and blurrier divisions of labor, or it will not be at all. And the broad patterns of upper-class family life do prepare children for knowledge-based work in ways that working-class family life does not.

But the idea that progressive attitudes can save working-class marriages also has some real problems. First, it underestimates the effective social conservatism of the upper-class model of family life — the resilience of traditional gender roles in work and child rearing, the continued role of religion in stabilizing well-educated family life, and the conservative messages encoded even in the most progressive education.

Notwithstanding their more egalitarian attitudes, for instance, college-educated households still tend to have male primary breadwinners: As the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox points out, college-educated husbands and fathers earn about 70 percent of their family’s income on average, about the same percentage as working-class married couples.

The college-educated are also now more likely to attend church than other Americans, and are much less likely to cohabit before marriage than couples without a high school degree. And despite a rhetorical emphasis on Emersonian self-reliance, children reared and educated in the American meritocracy arguably learn a different sort of lesson — the hypersupervised caution of what my colleague David Brooks once dubbed “the organization kid.

Meanwhile, as cohabitation and churchgoing trends suggest, many working-class Americans — men very much included — have gone further in embracing progressive models of identity and behavior than many realize, and reaped relatively little reward for that embrace.

Near the end of “Labor’s Love Lost,” his illuminating new book on the decline of the working-class family, the Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin cites research suggesting that many working-class men, far from being trapped in an antique paradigm of “restricted emotional language,” have actually thrown themselves into therapeutic, “spiritual but not religious” questing, substituting Oprah-esque self-help for more traditional forms of self-conceiving and belonging.

Cherlin, working from progressive premises, sees this as potentially good news: a sign that these men are getting over Gary Cooper and preparing to embrace the more egalitarian and emotionally open patterns of the upper class.

But given that this shift has coincided with lost ground for blue-collar men, another interpretation seems possible. We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster.

If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Italy has long suffered from inertia, its individual vitality smothered by the bureaucracy and opacity of the state. Italians are rich, prudent savers. Their state is poor, profligate and inefficient. For 30 years now, since I was a correspondent in Italy, I have watched the country deploy its ingenuity to evade modernization, culminating in the orgy of baroque escapism known as the Berlusconi years.

So it was with some astonishment that I found Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sweeping in to meet me the other day in jeans and a white open-neck shirt (“I hope you don’t mind, it’s casual Friday!”), without the obsequious retinue of past Italian leaders, bearing a message of change. His aim: the creation of “un paese smart” — a smart country — that has “stopped crying over itself.”

Renzi, who has been in office less than 10 months, is 39. This in itself is something unthinkable for the political gerontocracy that was Italy, the lugubrious state epitomized by the late Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister seven times. “The new generation should do politics the American presidential way, two mandates and out,” he told me during an hourlong interview in his office at Chigi Palace. “I give myself a maximum of eight years if I win the next election, and then I’ll leave politics.”

He is a man in a hurry: constitutional reform, electoral reform, sales on eBay of a fleet of official luxury cars, women thrust into top jobs (half the cabinet is female), plans to slash the number of members of Parliament and senators (currently almost 1,000 of them). “In America, notoriously smaller and less important than Italy, you have 535 representatives and senators,” Renzi said, smiling, raising his eyebrows. Message received.

He held up his portable device and said he wants the whole labyrinthine Italian public administration simplified on an app. “This is the future of our administration!” he said. “How much pension do I get — all will be here.”

Un paese smart.

The jeans and app talk send a message — no more business as usual. As a European politician in an age when national politics often seem a charade, outpaced by borderless finance, Renzi knows that symbolism is important in producing substance. The “Jobs Act,” Renzi’s pivotal economic reform, was approved by Parliament this month. It simplifies the labor code, makes it easier for companies with over 15 employees to fire workers, and links workers’ protection to their length of service. By Italian job-for-life standards, it is a revolutionary step. To have a job was always to be “sistemato,” which roughly meant security within the system forever.

I asked Renzi why the legislation has an English name. “Because I like what Obama did,” he said. “The most interesting things he’s done have been on the domestic front. He took an economy in crisis in 2009, intervened, relaunched growth, and created jobs, all things that Europe has not succeeded in doing.”

That sounds nice, but of course the American economy is hard-wired for growth, labor mobility and innovation. Italy’s is hamstrung. It is saddled with climbing public debt and recession. Unemployment is over 13 percent. When I arrived in Italy, I found central Rome closed by protests against the “Jobs Act.” Renzi has a big fight on his hands to get Italians to change their ways.

His room to maneuver and pump up the economy is limited. The European Commission is warning that Italy may find itself in breach of the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact, which sets tight limits on budget deficits and stringent regulations on reducing debt. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said this month that any breach would be “negative for Europe.”

This sort of talk gets Renzi exercised because he believes it makes growth impossible. His Democratic Party is just seven years old. In a Europe where extremist and xenophobic parties have been growing, a reflection of widespread anger at high unemployment and stagnation, it represents an exception: a mainstream party of the center-left that has surged.

This success has set up Renzi as perhaps the second-most-powerful politician in Europe after Merkel. In schematic terms, he’s Mr. Anti-Austerity versus Ms. Austerity. He’s also the only new game in town, with Britain caught in a debilitating debate over a possible exit from the European Union and France turning in circles under weak leadership.

“Here a lot of people have accused Merkel of being the guilty one in the crisis,” Renzi said. “But the fault is not hers. It’s ours. We got ourselves into this. If we had done labor reform 10 years ago, when Germany did it, we would have been a lot better off.” Still, he went on, something has to give in a Europe caught “in a dictatorship of bureaucrats and technocrats,” unwilling to accept that “politics is the realm of flexibility.” Iron Frau, take note.

The European economic model, Renzi declared, is wrong. “We cannot go on reasoning only on the basis of austerity and rigor. In a phase of deflation and stagnation, we can’t. We have to keep our accounts in order, spend money well, yes, because Germany is preoccupied that southern countries don’t spend money wisely — and it’s true — but the central point is that if we tackle our problems, European economics must change in favor of investment in growth.”

I asked Renzi how. He said investment in strategic areas — digital broadband, education, research, energy, the green economy — “should be outside the calculation of the Stability Pact, which is the instrument of rigidity and austerity.”

How, he asked, can he fight criminality and massive unemployment in Sicily if some Stability Pact formula on deficits and debt blocks him?

The eurozone, in which Italy is the third-largest economy, is an unwieldy entity — tied by a shared currency, divided by everything from fiscal policy to culture. Anger over stagnation is boiling over. Renzi is right: Something has to give for Europe and its jobless youth. In the past, even Germany has broken Stability Pact rules in a time of need. Now it’s payback time. But if Renzi gets some margin of budgetary flexibility, he must deliver. Waste and corruption are endemic to Italy. Curtailing them is a Sisyphean task. “First I must put my own country in order,” Renzi acknowledged. “Otherwise I will never be credible.”

A spell has been broken in Italy. Politics have shifted. He compared the country to “a sleeping beauty in the enchanted wood that can be woken up.”

The beauty is certainly stirring. Whether she will now bound forward remains to be seen. Italians, versed in the rise and fall of powers and the vanity of ambition, tend to be skeptical of transformation. It will be an arduous journey. But I’m inclined to give Renzi the benefit of the doubt.

Next up we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

I was just about to go with a column that started like this: When they write the history of the global response to climate change, 2014 could well be seen as the moment when the balance between action and denial tipped decisively toward action. That’s thanks to the convergence of four giant forces: São Paulo, Brazil, went dry; China and the United States together went green; solar panels went cheap; and Google and Apple went home.

But before I could go further, the bottom fell out of the world oil price, and the energy economist Phil Verleger wrote me, saying: “Fracking is a technological breakthrough like the introduction of the PC. Low-cost producers such as the Saudis will respond to the threat of these increased supplies by holding prices down” — hoping the price falls below the cost of fracking and knocks some of those American frackers out. In the meantime, though, he added, sustained low prices for oil and gas would “retard” efforts to sell more climate-friendly, fuel-efficient vehicles that are helped by high oil prices and slow the shift to more climate-friendly electricity generation by wind and solar that is helped by high gas prices.

So I guess the lead I have to go with now is: When they write the history of the global response to climate change, 2014 surely would have been seen as the moment when the climate debate ended. Alas, though, world crude oil prices collapsed, making it less likely that the world will do what the International Energy Agency recently told us we must: keep most of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves in the ground. As the I.E.A. warned, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” — otherwise we’ll bust through the limit of a 2-degree Celsius rise in average temperature that scientists believe will unleash truly disruptive ice melt, sea level rise and weather extremes.

Technology is a cruel thing. The innovators who’ve made solar panels, wind power and batteries so efficient that they can now compete with coal and gas are the same innovators who are enabling us to extract oil and gas from places we never imagined we could go at prices we never imagined we would reach. Is a third lead sentence possible? There is. In fact, there is an amazing lead waiting to be written. It just takes the right political will. How so?

Let’s go back to my first lead. The reason I thought we were decisively tipping toward action was, in part, because of news like this from the BBC on Nov. 7 in São Paulo: “In Brazil’s biggest city, a record dry season and ever-increasing demand for water has led to a punishing drought.” When a metropolitan region of 20 million people runs dry because of destruction of its natural forests and watersheds, plus an extreme weather event scientists believe was made more intense by climate change, denialism is just not an option.

Then you have the hugely important deal that President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China struck on Nov. 12 under which the United States will reduce its carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China will peak its carbon emissions by or before 2030. China also committed to build by 2030 an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of clean power — or nearly as much new renewable energy in China as all the electrical capacity in America today. That will greatly spur innovation in clean tech and help do for solar, wind and batteries what China did for tennis shoes — really drive down global prices.

Also, last February, Google bought Nest, for $3.2 billion. Nest makes a $250 smart thermostat that can save homeowners tons of money by learning their temperature preferences and automatically managing their air-conditioners and home heating systems for the greatest efficiency. Also this year, Apple announced the development of the Apple HomeKit, which will enable customers to remotely manage their appliances and home energy systems on their iPhones. When Apple and Google start competing to make homes more energy efficient, watch out. We will likely see nonlinear improvements.

But what if Verleger is right — that just as the cost of computing dropped following the introduction of the PC, fracking technology could flood the world with cheaper and cheaper oil, making it a barrier to reducing emissions? There is one way out of this dilemma. Let’s make a hard political choice that’s a win for the climate, our country and our kids: Raise the gasoline tax.

“U.S. roads are crumbling,” said Verleger. “Infrastructure is collapsing. Our railroads are a joke.” Meantime, gasoline prices at the pump are falling toward $2.50 a gallon — which would be the lowest national average since 2009 — and consumers are rushing to buy S.U.V.’s and trucks. The “clear solution,” said Verleger, is to set a price of, say, $3.50 a gallon for gasoline in America, and then tax any price below that up to that level. Let the Europeans do their own version. “And then start spending the billions on infrastructure right now. At a tax of $1 per gallon, the U.S. could raise around $150 billion per year,” he said. “The investment multiplier would give a further kick to the U.S. economy — and might even start Europe moving.”

So there is a way to make 2014 that truly decisive year in confronting both climate and rebuilding America, but only our political leaders can write that lead.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, who continues to remind us that yes, Republicans, it IS about race:

Ian Manuel is a black man who has spent most of his life in prison. Yet he still has a most unusual advocate calling for his release: a white woman whom he met when he shot her in the face.

Manuel fired the bullet when he was barely 13, and he fit all too neatly into racial stereotypes, especially that of the black predator who had to be locked away forever. One of the greatest racial disparities in America is in the justice system, and fear of young black criminals like Manuel helped lead to mass incarceration policies that resulted in a sixfold increase in the number of Americans in prison after 1970. Yet, as his one-time victim points out (speaking with a reconstructed jaw), it’s complicated.

Manuel grew up in a housing project here in Tampa to a mom with drug problems, without a dad at home, and he drifted early to crime. By the time he was 13, he had had 16 arrests. He desperately needed help, but instead the authorities kept returning him to a dysfunctional home.

Then, as part of a gang initiation, he was handed a gun, and he joined a couple of other teenagers on July 27, 1990. They confronted Debbie Baigrie, a stay-at-home mom who had gone out with friends for the first time since the birth of her second child.

“Give it up!” Manuel remembers shouting, as he pulled the gun. Baigrie screamed and Manuel fired wildly and repeatedly. One .32-caliber bullet entered Baigrie’s mouth, ripped through her jaw and teeth and went out her cheek. She began running away, awkwardly on high heels, blood pouring down her face and drenching her shirt.

Manuel fired after her, missing, and then he ran away with his friends. Later, arrested in an unrelated case, he confided to a cop without realizing the trouble he could face. “You know that lady that got shot downtown the other night?” he said he told the officer. “I’m the one who did it.”

Although he had just turned 13, prosecutors charged him as an adult, and the judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, the lawyer now representing him, says that every single child 13 or 14 years old sentenced to life without parole for a nonhomicide has been a person of color.

Manuel found himself the youngest, tiniest person in a men’s prison — by his account, abused and fearful. One day as his second Christmas behind bars approached, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie.

Baigrie debated whether to accept the charges. She said her dentist had wept when he had seen her jaw, for the bullet had torn out five teeth and much of her gum. She faced 10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries, requiring tissue from her palate to rebuild her gum.

Still, she was curious, so she accepted the charges. Manuel said he wanted to apologize for the shooting. Awkwardly, he wished her and her family a Merry Christmas.

“Ian,” she asked bluntly, “why did you shoot me?”

“It was a mistake,” he answered timidly.

Later he sent her a card showing a hand reaching through prison bars to offer a red rose. Baigrie didn’t know whether to be moved or revolted. “I was in such pain,” Baigrie remembers. “I couldn’t eat. I was angry. But I’d go back and forth. He was just a kid.”

Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” he wrote in one letter.

“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”

Over time, Baigrie became friendly with Manuel’s brother and mother. Baigrie began to feel sympathetic because, as she says: “When you’re 13, you do stupid stuff.”

Baigrie was also troubled by the racial dimensions of the case. “If he was a cute white boy at 13, with little dimples and blue eyes, there’s no way this would have happened,” she says.

Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’ ” Baigrie recalls.

Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.

Manuel, now 37, did not adjust well to prison, and his prison disciplinary record covers four pages of single-spaced entries. He was placed in solitary confinement at age 15 and remained there almost continually until he was 33. For a time, he cut himself to relieve the numbness. He repeatedly attempted suicide.

Returned to the general prison population, Manuel did better. He earned his G.E.D. with exceptional marks, including many perfect scores. He drafts poems and wrote an autobiographical essay, which Baigrie posted on her Facebook page. His mother, father and brother are now all dead; the only “family” he has left is Baigrie, who sometimes regards him as a wayward foster son.

Race in America is a dispiriting topic, a prism to confirm our own biases. Some will emphasize the unarguable brutality of Manuel’s crime, while others, myself included, will focus on the harshness of a sentence that probably would not have been given to a white 13-year-old. In other columns, I’ve focused on racism that holds back perfectly innocent people because of their skin color; those are the easiest cases, while Ian is a reminder that racial injustice also affects those who made horrific mistakes or committed brutal crimes. It’s still injustice.

There’s a tragic symmetry here. We as a society failed Manuel early on, and he, in turn, failed us. When you can predict that an infant boy of color in a particular ZIP code is more likely to go to prison than to college, it’s our fault more than his. The losers aren’t just those kids but also crime victims like Baigrie — and, in a larger sense, all of us. Manuel never had a chance to contribute to society and is costing us $47.50 each day he is in prison. That’s a waste of money, of human talent, of life itself.

Overcoming the racial gulf in this country will be a long and painful task, but maybe we can learn something from Baigrie’s empathy.

“Walk a mile in his shoes,” she says. And if Debbie Baigrie and Ian Manuel can unite and make common cause, linked by a bond of humanity that transcends the faint scar on her cheek, then maybe there’s hope for us all.

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni, here to tell us about a passenger in the 2016 Clown Car:

As brothers who governed large states at the same time, each Bush was bound to be defined in terms of the other. George was the impulsive one who’d stumbled and then swaggered toward success. Jeb was the cogitator, the toiler. George was the extrovert: He worked the room. Jeb was the introvert: He read the books.

That was how they were discussed back in 1999 and 2000, and the word on their ideological differences was that George was perhaps a bit more moderate, while Jeb was the truer conservative.

What a difference a decade and a half make. How the sands of politics shift.

As Jeb Bush seemingly leans toward a presidential run, many observers are casting him as a centrist. And there are indeed elements of his current message that suggest that if he won “the nomination as well as the presidency, it could reshape Republican politics for a generation,” as Jonathan Martin wrote in The Times late last week. But Martin noted other elements of Bush’s message and record as well, the ones that explain why a separate camp of observers look at him and see someone else. For instance, in Politico Magazine, the journalist S. V. Dáte observed that for him and others “who covered Jeb’s two terms in Tallahassee,” characterizations of Bush as a moderate are “mind-boggling.”

Just what kind of Republican is Jeb Bush? That question is being asked with increasing frequency. And the absence of a clear answer, coupled with the insistence on one, is instructive.

It speaks to the fact that most successful politicians aren’t fixed in one place forevermore. They’re the products of certain unwavering convictions and certain adaptations to circumstance, and the measures of each are different at different moments in their careers.

The futile tussle to define Bush also reflects the way ideological yardsticks change over time. Above all else, it exposes the poverty of our political vocabulary.

Left, center, right. Liberal, moderate, conservative. We reach fast for these labels and itch to put pols in these boxes, no matter how untidy or impermanent the fit. Some of the expected candidates for 2016 are great examples.

Hillary Clinton: liberal or moderate? Depends on which point in her past you choose. Toward the beginning of Bill’s successful 1992 quest for the presidency, she was part of his decision to steer away from the left, as The Times’s Peter Baker and Amy Chozick recently reported. They noted that in the recollection of Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, Hillary pledged, “We’re going to be a different kind of Democrat by the convention.”

But there were chapters after Bill’s election when she came across as a familiar kind of Democrat, and then there’s the present, when she’s seen as someone so estranged from some traditional Democratic principles that there’s a movement to draft Elizabeth Warren to challenge her. It apparently gathered steam last week, just as Clinton topped a CNBC poll of 500 millionaires who were asked about their preference for president in 2016. She got 31 percent of the vote, while Bush was second with 18. I await a new “super PAC,” Mills for Hills.

The Republican field is almost always broken down into candidates of the right and those of the center: a schematic to which we journalists cling. It’s hugely flawed this time around. Rand Paul evades it so completely that he gets his own adjective — libertarian — even though some of his positions on social issues contradict it.

Chris Christie gets the moderate box, because he was twice elected governor of a blue state; signed legislation granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants in New Jersey; pushed criminal-justice reforms that stress rehabilitation; outlawed therapy that aims to turn gay teenagers straight; and accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. And right after Hurricane Sandy, he and President Obama had their soggy, windswept bromance.

But Christie also opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights. He has vetoed some sensible gun-control legislation. And he sidesteps questions about immigration reform. He’s not exactly a paragon of moderation.

Marco Rubio, another possible presidential contender, isn’t easily labeled either. Back in 2010, when he won election to the Senate, he was presented as a mascot of the right, a Tea Party darling. But he has endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And his proposals for making college more affordable and student loans less onerous aren’t just bold. They’re progressive.

Bush’s categorization as a moderate owes much to the passion he brings to the issues of immigration and education and his dissent from hard-line conservatives on both. These rebellions are meaningful.

So was his commentary from the sidelines of the 2012 presidential race. After a Republican primary debate in which all eight candidates said that they would refuse a budget deal that included $10 of reduced spending for every $1 in tax increases, he made clear that he didn’t agree with the pack. And he said that his party had drifted rightward enough that someone like Ronald Reagan would have difficulty finding a receptive home in it.

That assessment suggested one reason Bush is now deemed a centrist: The poles have moved.

But much of his record in Florida is that of the “headbanging conservative” he claimed to be during a first, unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1994. (He won the next time, in 1998.) He slashed taxes. He was a friend to gun owners: Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was enacted on his watch.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman deemed by many physicians to be in a persistent vegetative state, he intervened on the side of her parents — but against the wishes of her husband, who was her legal guardian — to prevent the removal of a feeding tube. And he was an assertive opponent of abortion rights. He still opposes them, and same-sex marriage.

But he learned between his 1994 defeat and 1998 victory to reach out to minorities and speak inclusively and hopefully. When he recently told an audience in Washington that a person had to be willing to lose the Republican primary to win the general election, he was in part alluding to that lesson, and he was telegraphing the tone that a Bush campaign would take. He was also signaling a suspicion of labels and boxes.

We should be similarly wary of them, because we’ve routinely seen leaders defy our assumptions. Jeb’s brother George, for example, campaigned for the presidency as someone cautious about overextending the American military and adamant about fiscal restraint. And while we took him for an inveterate backslapper, he now spends much of his time alone at an easel.

That’s how it goes with so many politicians. We think we’ve figured them out, but we’re hasty and they’re slippery.

The NY Times Editors and Friedman

December 10, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  Since The Moustache of Wisdom offered up a whining apologia for torture titled “We’re Always Still Americans” in which he snivels that the Senate committee’s torture report shows that fear after 9/11 was terribly corrosive I thought I’d start off with today’s lead editorial in the New York Times, “The Senate Report on the C.I.A.’s Torture and Lies:”

The world has long known that the United States government illegally detained and tortured prisoners after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and lied about it to Congress and the world. But the summary of a report released Tuesday of the Senate investigation of these operations, even after being sanitized by the Central Intelligence Agency itself, is a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach.

The report raises again, with renewed power, the question of why no one has ever been held accountable for these seeming crimes — not the top officials who set them in motion, the lower-level officials who committed the torture, or those who covered it up, including by destroying videotapes of the abuse and by trying to block the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of their acts.

At one point, the report says, the C.I.A. assured Congress that the behavior of the secret jailers and interrogators was nothing like the horrors the world saw at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. That was the closest the agency seems to have come to the truth — what happened appears to have been worse than what took place at Abu Ghraib.

The Senate committee’s summary says that the torture by C.I.A. interrogators and private contractors was “brutal and far worse” than the agency has admitted to the public, to Congress and the Justice Department, even to the White House. At least one detainee died of “suspected hypothermia” after being shackled partially naked to a concrete floor in a secret C.I.A. detention center run by a junior officer without experience, competence or supervision. Even now, the report says, it’s not clear how many prisoners were held at this one facility, or what was done to them.

In that, and other clandestine prisons, very often no initial attempt was made to question prisoners in a nonviolent manner, despite C.I.A. assertions to the contrary. “Instead, in many cases the most aggressive techniques were used immediately, in combination and nonstop,” according to the summary of the declassified and heavily censored document. “Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads.”

Detainees were walked around naked and shackled, and at other times naked detainees were “hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.”

The C.I.A. appears to have used waterboarding on more than the three detainees it has acknowledged subjecting to that form of torture. During one session, one of those detainees, Abu Zubaydah, an operative of Al Qaeda, became “completely unresponsive.” The waterboarding of another, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the 9/11 attacks, became a “series of near drownings.”

Some detainees, the report said, were subjected to nightmarish pseudo-medical procedures, referred to as “rectal feeding.”

That some of these detainees were highly dangerous men does not excuse subjecting them to illegal treatment that brought shame on the United States and served as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups. To make matters worse, the report said that at least 26 of the 119 known C.I.A. prisoners were wrongfully held, some of them for months after the C.I.A. determined that they should not have been taken prisoner in the first place.

The C.I.A. and some members of the President George W. Bush’s administration claimed these brutal acts were necessary to deal with “ticking time bomb” threats and that they were effective. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, an avid promoter of “enhanced interrogation,” still makes that claim.

But “at no time” did the C.I.A.’s torture program produce intelligence that averted a terrorism threat, the report said. All of the information that the C.I.A. attributed to its “enhanced interrogation techniques” was obtained before the brutal interrogations took place, actually came from another source, or was a lie invented by the torture victims — a prospect that the C.I.A. had determined long ago was the likely result of torture.

The report recounted the C.I.A.’s decision to use two outside psychologists “to develop, operate and assess” the interrogation programs. They borrowed from their only experience — an Air Force program designed to train personnel to resist torture techniques that had been used by American adversaries decades earlier. They had no experience in interrogation, “nor did either have specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

They decided which prisoners could withstand brutal treatment and then assessed the effectiveness of their own programs. “In 2005, the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the C.I.A. Shortly thereafter, the C.I.A. outsourced virtually all aspects of the program,” the summary said. And it noted that, “the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009.”

The litany of brutality, lawlessness and lack of accountability serves as a reminder of what a horrible decision President Obama made at the outset of his administration to close the books on this chapter in our history, even as he repudiated the use of torture. The C.I.A. officials who destroyed videotapes of waterboarding were left unpunished, and all attempts at bringing these acts into a courtroom were blocked by claims of national secrets.

It is hard to believe that anything will be done now. Republicans, who will soon control the Senate and have the majority on the intelligence panel, denounced the report, acting as though it is the reporting of the torture and not the torture itself that is bad for the country. Maybe George Tenet, who ran the C.I.A. during this ignoble period, could make a tiny amends by returning the Presidential Medal of Freedom that President Bush gave him upon his retirement.

And now here’s Little Tommy “Friedman Unit” who’ll explain how it’s all understandable:

Why do people line up to come to this country? Why do they build boats from milk cartons to sail here? Why do they trust our diplomats and soldiers in ways true of no other country? It’s because we are a beacon of opportunity and freedom, and also because these foreigners know in their bones that we do things differently from other big powers in history.

One of the things we did was elect a black man whose grandfather was a Muslim as our president — after being hit on Sept. 11, 2001, by Muslim extremists. And one of the things we do we did on Tuesday: We published what appears to be an unblinking examination and exposition of how we tortured prisoners and suspected terrorists after 9/11. I’m glad we published it.

It may endanger captured Americans in the future. That is not to be taken lightly. But this act of self-examination is not only what keeps our society as a whole healthy, it’s what keeps us a model that others want to emulate, partner with and immigrate to — which is a different, but vital, source of our security as well.

We’ve been here before. In wartime, civil liberties are often curtailed and abused, and then later restored. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. During World War II, we imprisoned more than 127,000 American citizens solely because they were of Japanese ancestry. Fear does that.

Fear after 9/11 was equally corrosive. I have sympathy for people who were charged with defending the nation’s security after that surprise attack. It was impossible to know what was coming next — for which they would be held accountable. But it is hard to read the summaries of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report and not conclude that some officials and the C.I.A. took the slack we cut them after 9/11 — motivated by the fear of another attack — and used it in ways, and long past the emergency moment, that not only involved torture, but abuse of institutions and lying to the public and other departments of government. If not exposed and checked, such actions could damage our society as much as a terrorist attack.

The Times had amazing coverage of this report, as did others. I came across an interactive feature on washingtonpost.com that distilled charges in the report in a way that turns your stomach.

It said: “Click a statement below for a summary of the findings,” offering a grim laundry list of links to the report’s torture conclusions: “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence,” “rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness,” “brutal and far worse than the C.I.A. represented,” “conditions of confinement for C.I.A. detainees were harsher,” “repeatedly provided inaccurate information,” “actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight,” “impeded effective White House oversight” … “coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved,” “rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable,” “ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections,” “inherently unsustainable,” “damaged the United States’ standing in the world.”

And there were more. The list told you that our post-9/11 fears led us to tolerate some terribly aberrant, dishonest and illegal behaviors that needed to be fully exposed, because big lies being tolerated lead to little lies being tolerated lead to institutions and trust being eroded from the inside.

I have no illusions: more terrorists are out there and they want to use the openness of our open society precisely to destroy it. And if there had been another 9/11 after the first 9/11, many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wants, civil liberties be damned. Our sentries who prevented further attacks were protecting our civil liberties as well.

We want to keep attracting to our security services people who will have that sense of duty and vigilance. Our bargain is that we have to let them know we understand their challenge and will let them go to the edge of the law — and in rare, ticking time-bomb emergencies even over it, if justified — to protect us.

But their bargain with us has to be that they will take the slack and trust we give them and not go over that edge out of habit, laziness, convenience, mendacity or misguided theories, and in the face of internal protests — all of which damage our country. The report is about how that bargain broke down, and it represents an important step in rebuilding it.

I greatly respect how Senator John McCain put it: “I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. … But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.” Even in the worst of times, “we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.”

Okay, Tommy, now why don’t you lead the jingoistic chant for us:  “U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!”


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