Mr. Kristof is off today. The Pasty Little Putz has taken a leaf out of MoDo’s book. In “I Love Lena” he ‘splains to us that there is a reason cultural conservatives like “Girls” and its critique of modern liberal life. MoDo has a question in “Too Many Secrets, Not Enough Service:” Did gender play a role in Julia Pierson losing her job as the chief executive of the Secret Service? In “ISIS, Boko Haram and Batman” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that a bit of dialogue from “The Dark Knight” rings relevant in today’s world of disorder. Is everyone taking a leaf out of MoDo’s book today? Mr. Bruni addresses “The Church’s Gay Obsession” and says a rash of cruel firings shows how selectively Catholic leaders enforce their laws. Here’s The Putz:
Here are some things you may know about Lena Dunham, if you happen to have opened the pages of any New York periodical at any point in the last few years. She is the youthful impresario behind HBO’s series “Girls,” which has launched at least one think piece for every viewer in its audience; she is also the show’s star, in which capacity she frequently disrobes; and she is the author of a memoir-ish new book, which debuted to much attention last week. She is also a frequent agitator for liberal causes, most famously in the ad she cut for President Obama in 2012, which compared the experience of casting one’s first vote to, well, a different sort of magical first time.
Here is something you might not know about her: She has a number of reactionary admirers.
I’m using “reactionary” rather than “Republican” advisedly: I don’t mean to imply that Tea Party activists are lining up to buy “Not That Kind of Girl,” Dunham’s comic (sort of) foray into non-fictionalized self-exposure, or that there’s a Fox News talk show waiting in her future.
But within the small (but fun!) world of cultural conservatives who watch too much HBO, Dunham has a fan base. Let me explain why.
Like most television shows about young urbanites making their way in the world, “Girls” is a depiction of a culture whose controlling philosophy is what the late Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism” — the view that the key to the good life lies almost exclusively in self-discovery, self-actualization, the cultivation of the unique and holy You.
This is a perspective with religious and political corollaries: It implies a God-as-life-coach theology, the kind that pulses through Oprah Winfrey’s current revival tour, and a politics in which the state is effectively a therapeutic agent, protecting the questing self from shocks and deprivation.
And to be a cultural conservative today means, above all, regarding expressive individualism as an idea desperately in need of correction and critique.
Often the roots of this kind of conservatism are religious, since biblical faith takes a rather dimmer view of human nature’s inner workings, a rather darker view of the unfettered self. But the conservative argument is also a practical one: We don’t think expressive individualism actually makes people very happy.
We have some sociological evidence for this contention, in the disintegration that has proceeded apace in poorer communities as American society has become more individualistic. But further up the income and education ladder, life is much more prosperous and stable, which means that the case against expressive individualism rests on impressions and experiences — on hard-to-prove generalizations about narcissism, anomie and quiet desperation among the young and well-to-do.
Those impressions, those generalizations, are rarely reflected in pop culture. The best of contemporary TV is dark dark dark, but it’s the darkness of exotic realms — Westeros or Walter White’s meth lab, mob life or deep Louisiana. The defining portraits of younger, well-educated blue-state life, from “Friends” to “Sex and the City” to their imitators, are essentially propaganda for expressive individualism, sometimes allowing room for nuance but never for a real critique.
Except for “Girls.” The thing that makes Dunham’s show so interesting, the reason it inspired a certain unsettlement among some of its early fans, is that it often portrays young-liberal-urbanite life the way, well, many reactionaries see it: as a collision of narcissists educated mostly in self-love, a sexual landscape distinguished by serial humiliations — a realm at once manic and medicated, privileged and bereft of higher purpose.
Now there is plenty of charm and fun and human interest on the show as well, and I’m quite sure that Dunham does not intend the reading I’ve just offered. More likely she agrees with Elaine Blair, whose New York Review of Books article chided the show’s “nervous” liberal critics, and praised “Girls” for depicting the ways in which, thanks to the sexual revolution, “all of us can know more people in more ways than was ever previously allowed,” with “the ultimate prize to be wrung from all of these baffling sexual predicaments” being “a deeper understanding of oneself.”
This is Expressive Individualism 101. But the show is observant enough, artistic enough, to allow room for contrary interpretations. There are scenes — an extremely dark sexual encounter involving an otherwise likable male character near the end of season two — that make Blair’s sexual happy-talk seem frankly absurd. There are moments — a messed-up daughter’s encounter with her feckless dad, a character’s rant against her close friends’ self-absorption — that are almost puritanical (in a good way!) in their moral perspective.
Any reactionary affection for her work is doubtless unrequited. But it’s merited, because Dunham is doing a rare thing: She’s making a show for liberals that, merely by being realistic, sharp-edge, complicated, almost gives cultural conservatism its due.
He really is a consummate horse’s ass. (With apologies to horses. Their asses are lovely.) Here’s MoDo:
Did Julia Pierson get pushed off the glass cliff?
Writing in The New Republic, Bryce Covert suggests that Pierson’s gender — she was the first woman to run the Secret Service in its 149-year-history — played a role in her demise.
“Time and again,” Covert wrote, “women are put in charge only when there’s a mess, and if they can’t engineer a quick cleanup, they’re shoved out the door.”
She added: “As with Pierson, women are often put in these positions because rough patches make people think they need to shake things up and try something new — like putting a woman in charge. When it’s smooth sailing, on the other hand, men get to maintain control of the steering wheel. Women are also thought to have qualities associated with cleaning up messes.”
Other feminists also debated if top women have a shorter leash than men.
In this case, though, the shorter leash was on the White House guard dogs. It is hard to believe, but the officers in charge two weeks ago when an Iraq veteran named Omar Gonzalez clambered over the White House gate and ran, with a limp because of a partially amputated foot, past an unlocked door into the East Room did not unmuzzle the Belgian Malinois.
It seems as though they weren’t sure if the dogs would get confused by the chaos and tackle the intruder or the officers converging to chase the intruder.
If you can’t let the dogs out, why count on them at all?
Pierson should have given canine duty to Cairo, the Belgian Malinois that went on the Osama bin Laden raid. The cool Navy SEAL dogs can parachute and sometimes have a titanium bite.
It is true that women often get top jobs, like evening news anchor or Hollywood studio chief, after the institutions have lost their luster. But, in Pierson’s case, she earned her abrupt exit fair and square. It’s no blot on the copybook of women. She withheld crucial information and helped paper over fiascos at an agency where mismanagement and denial put the president’s life (and his family’s lives) in jeopardy.
Presidents are hesitant to ride herd on the agency because, as one White House insider noted, “these people know everything about him, his wife, his kids, his in-laws, all of his secrets. You feel a little vulnerable when people know things about you.”
Pierson, 55, benefited from her gender in getting the powerful post. The White House thought it would be good optics — that most egregious word — after a dozen Secret Service agents, including two supervisors, were caught cavorting with hookers in Cartagena, Colombia.
It is often assumed that women bring a certain set of skills to the workplace, like consensus-building, forthrightness, a resistance to gratuitous belligerence and inclusivity. But that doesn’t always hold true. Hillary Clinton scuttled her dream of health care for all by taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach and supported gratuitous belligerence by backing W.’s vanity invasion of Iraq.
Pierson, a 30-year veteran of the agency, was anything but forthright on the botched response to Gonzalez, who easily penetrated what is supposed to be one of the most secure places on earth.
A gang of Secret Service hotshots couldn’t bring down a guy sprinting across the White House lawn? The agency made a risibly disingenuous statement saying that the intruder was caught “after entering the White House North Portico doors” and that the officers had shown “tremendous restraint and discipline in dealing with this subject.”
Pierson was anything but inclusive with the president when she failed to notify him that his agents had let an armed private contractor with a troubling record, acting in a troubling way, into the elevator with him during his visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. This, even though they had a meeting in the Oval Office eight days later. She also did not reveal it during the congressional hearing where she accomplished the impossible, uniting the parties in outrage against her robotic testimony full of excuses and bureaucratese about “the totality of the circumstances.”
The White House only found out about the elevator incident minutes before The Washington Examiner broke the story.
That’s nuts. The president shouldn’t have to worry about being in danger when getting into an elevator.
The Washington Post reported that Pierson got angry in the spring at stringent security measures her team was planning for the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit meeting held by the president.
She told some startled supervisors that the White House needed to be more like the place she worked, in costume, when she was in high school. “We need to be more like Disney World,” she said. “We need to be more friendly, inviting.”
When not bungled, secure and inviting are not mutually exclusive.
Pierson shattered the glass ceiling, but she also helped shatter the concept of an invulnerable Praetorian Guard — a lapse that puts the president in greater danger from all America’s crazed enemies.
Two women reacted like champs, as the elite guards focused more on protecting their reputation than their charges’ lives. Michelle Obama was rightfully livid about the lapses and presumably had a hand in the shake-up. And, in a 2011 incident in which a man shot at the White House, shattering a window on the Truman Balcony while Sasha and her grandmother were inside, Secret Service Officer Carrie Johnson was a heroine.
The Washington Post reported that, unlike some of her colleagues who ludicrously thought the shots were coming from a gang fight even though gang fights near the White House are hardly a regular occurrence, Johnson realized they were under attack and broke into a gun box to pull out a shotgun. But the agency’s culture was so warped that she did not challenge her dunderheaded superiors about their gang-fight conclusion “for fear of being criticized.”
It shouldn’t be that hard to protect the White House with a $1.6 billion budget. The agency says there’s a manpower shortage. But the problem really is that it’s another bloated, mismanaged bureaucracy full of favoritism, bickering and leaks. It’s terrifying how poorly conceived the security for the president is. There’s nothing creative or modern or smart about it.
After 9/11, the government was revamped and departments and czars were created to make sure we would never fall asleep at the switch again. But it keeps happening, with everything from ISIS to the Secret Service. The Secret Service these days is performing about as well as the Iraqi security forces have been against ISIS. On both fronts, the White House is saying that this time it will work better. But nothing has really changed.
In the movie, “In the Line of Fire,” John Malkovich’s ex-C.I.A. psychopath muses to Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent: “You have such a strange job. I can’t decide if it’s heroic or absurd.”
Can we have more heroic and less absurd?
Let’s see what we can think of about this president that’s different than any other presidents before him… Not that it would make ANY difference, of course… Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
What’s the right strategy for dealing with a world increasingly divided between zones of order and disorder? For starters, you’d better understand the forces of disorder, like Boko Haram or the Islamic State. These are gangs of young men who are telling us in every way possible that our rules no longer apply. Reason cannot touch them, because rationalism never drove them. Their barbarism comes from a dark place, where radical Islam gives a sense of community to humiliated, drifting young men, who have never held a job or a girl’s hand. That’s a toxic mix.
It’s why Orit Perlov, an Israeli expert on Arab social networks, keeps telling me that since I can’t visit the Islamic State, which is known as ISIS, and interview its leaders, the next best thing would be to see “Batman: The Dark Knight.” In particular, she drew my attention to this dialogue between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth:
Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”
Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”
Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”
Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”
Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”
Bruce Wayne: “How?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”
We can’t just burn down Syria or Iraq or Nigeria. But there is a strategy for dealing with the world of disorder that I’d summarize with this progression:
Where there is disorder — think Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Chad, Somalia — collaborate with every source of local, regional and international order to contain the virus until the barbarism burns itself out. These groups can’t govern, so ultimately locals will seek alternatives.
Where there is top-down order — think Egypt or Saudi Arabia — try to make it more decent and inclusive.
Where there is order plus decency — think Jordan, Morocco, Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates — try to make it more consensual and effective, again to make it more sustainable.
Where there is order plus democracy — think Tunisia — do all you can to preserve and strengthen it with financial and security assistance, so it can become a model for emulation by the states and peoples around it.
And be humble. We don’t have the wisdom, resources or staying power to do anything more than contain these organisms, until the natural antibodies from within emerge.
In the Arab world, it may take longer for those natural antibodies to coalesce, and that is worrying, argues Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford political scientist whose new, widely discussed book, “Political Order and Political Decay,” is a historical study of how decent states emerge. What they all have in common is a strong and effective state bureaucracy that can deliver governance, the rule of law and regular rotations in power.
Because our founding fathers were escaping from tyranny, they were focused “on how power can be constrained,” Fukuyama explained to me in an interview. “But before power can be constrained, it has to be produced. … Government is not just about constraints. It’s about providing security, infrastructure, health and rule of law. And anyone who can deliver all of that” — including China — “wins the game whether they are democratic or not. … ISIS got so big because of the failure of governance in Syria and Iraq to deliver the most basic services. ISIS is not strong. Everything around it was just so weak,” riddled with corruption and sectarianism.
There is so much state failure in the Arab world, argues Fukuyama, because of the persistence there of kinship/tribal loyalties — “meaning that you can only trust that narrow group of people in your tribe.” You can’t build a strong, impersonal, merit-based state when the only ties that bind are shared kin, not shared values. It took China and Europe centuries to make that transition, but they did. If the Arab world can’t overcome its tribalism and sectarianism in the face of ISIS barbarism, “then there is nothing we can do,” said Fukuyama. And theirs will be a future of many dark nights.
And now we get to Mr. Bruni:
Repeatedly over the last year and a half, I’ve written about teachers in Catholic schools and leaders in Catholic parishes who were dismissed from their posts because they were in same-sex relationships and — in many cases — had decided to marry.
Every time, more than a few readers weighed in to tell me that these people had it coming. If you join a club, they argued, you play by its rules or you suffer the consequences.
The rules of this particular club prohibit divorce, yet the pews of many of the Catholic churches I’ve visited are populous with worshipers on their second and even third marriages. They walk merrily to the altar to receive communion, not a peep of protest from a soul around them. They participate fully in the rituals of the church, their membership in the club uncontested.
The rules prohibit artificial birth control, and yet most of the Catholic families I know have no more than three children, which is either a miracle of naturally capped fecundity or a sign that someone’s been at the pharmacy. I’m not aware of any church office that monitors such matters, poring over drugstore receipts. And I haven’t heard of any teachers fired or parishioners denied communion on the grounds of insufficiently brimming broods.
About teachers: When gay or lesbian ones are let go, the explanation typically cites their contractual obligations, as employees of Catholic schools, not to defy the church’s strictures, which forbid sexual activity between two men or two women.
But there are many employees of Catholic schools nationwide who aren’t even Catholic, who defy the church by never having subscribed to it in the first place. There are Protestant teachers. Jewish ones. Teachers who are agnostic and, quite likely, teachers who are atheists and simply don’t advertise it. There are parish employees in these same categories, and some remain snug in their jobs.
“Is it more important to believe in the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage than to believe in the Resurrection — or even that God exists?” asked the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the author of the 2014 best seller “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” “I don’t hear anyone calling for the firing of the agnostic parish business manager.”
The blunt truth of the matter is that during a period when the legalization of gay marriage has spread rapidly in this country, from just six states in 2011 to more than three times that number today, Catholic officials here have elected to focus on this one issue and on a given group of people: gays and lesbians.
Their moralizing is selective, bigoted and very sad. It’s also self-defeating, because it’s souring many American Catholics, a majority of whom approve of same-sex marriage, and because the workers who’ve been exiled were often exemplars of charity, mercy and other virtues as central to Catholicism as any guidelines for sex. But their hearts didn’t matter. It was all about their loins. Will the church ever get away from that?
Pope Francis seems inclined to do so, and is nudging other Catholic leaders with his carefully chosen words and artfully orchestrated symbols. He’s probably not telegraphing any major shift in church teaching — which, by the way, changes plenty over time — but he’s signaling that Catholics who run afoul of it needn’t be vilified.
Just three weeks ago, he presided over the marriages of 20 couples from the Diocese of Rome, including brides and grooms who had already been living together or been married before. One bride had a grown child conceived out of wedlock.
The pope’s actions don’t jibe with the way many Catholic leaders in the United States are treating gays and lesbians. The National Catholic Reporter said recently that it could find, since 2008, about 40 public cases of employees’ losing jobs at Catholic institutions in this country because of issues connected with homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Seventeen of these occurred just this year.
When I discussed the issue with Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, she wondered aloud if Catholic superiors would dismiss someone or deny him or her communion for supporting the death penalty, which is against Catholic teaching. She and I alike marveled at how little we heard from American church leaders during all the news months ago about botched executions.
“The bishops have picked up gay marriage ever since the 2004 presidential election as a special cause that they are against,” Cahill noted. She said that they were “staking out a countercultural Catholic identity” that doesn’t focus on “social justice and economic issues.”
“It’s about sex and gender issues,” she said, adding that it might be connected to the disgrace that church leaders brought upon themselves with their disastrous handling of child sexual abuse by priests. Perhaps, she said, they’re determined to find some sexual terrain on which they can strike a position of stern rectitude.
“They’re trying to regain the moral high ground, no matter how sure it is to backfire,” she said. Having turned a blind eye to nonconsensual sex that ravaged young lives, they’re holding the line against consensual sex that wounds no one.
It’s crucial to remember that in many cases in which the church has punished same-sex couples, their homosexuality and even their same-sex partnerships were widely known and tacitly condoned for some time beforehand. What changed was their interest in a civil marriage, suddenly made possible by laws that are evolving more humanely than the church is. The couples in question stepped up and made loving commitments of a kind that the church celebrates in other circumstances. For this they were spurned. It’s shameful.
And it contradicts Catholic principles apart from those governing same-sex relations, as Martin observed in a column in the Catholic magazine America earlier this year. Catholic teaching, he wrote, “also says that gay and lesbian people must be treated with ‘respect, sensitivity and compassion.’ ”
Some American church leaders indeed question what’s going on. Asked by a reporter recently about the banishment of gay workers, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said that the situation “needs to be rectified.” No time like the present.
What’s happening amounts to persecution. And it’s occurring not because the workers in these situations called any special attention to themselves or made any political fuss. No, they just loved in a fashion displeasing to many church officials, whose concerns with purity are spasmodic and capricious.
Martin said that those officials weren’t ferreting out and flogging people who fail to pay fair wages to their employees or to be charitable to the poor, which are mandates of Catholic social teaching.
“If you’re going to apply these litmus tests, apply them across the board,” he said, not recommending as much but making the point that if that happened, “We would empty out Catholic institutions of all of their employees, and no one would be able to present themselves in the communion line.”