segunda-feira, 29 de dezembro de 2008

Mildred Loving -- The Color of Love

Mildred Loving | b. 1940

The Color of Love

by Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine, December 23, 2008

In June 1963, Mildred Loving, the 22-year-old wife of Richard Loving, a bricklayer, sat down with a piece of lined loose-leaf paper and wrote a letter in neat script to the Washington branch of the A.C.L.U. “My husband is White,” she wrote, “I am part negro, & part indian.” Five years earlier, they married in Washington, she explained, but did not know that there was a law in Virginia, where they lived, against mixed marriages. Upon arriving back home, the two were jailed, tried and told to leave the state, which is how she ended up back in Washington. Her request to the A.C.L.U. was heartbreakingly humble: “We know we can’t live there, but we would like to go back once and awhile to visit our families & friends.” A judge had told them that if they set foot, together, in the state again, they would be jailed for one year. She hoped to hear from the lawyer there “real soon.”

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1965. Associated Press.

Equal Protection

The letter didn’t mention the details of the arrest: the three local authorities who let themselves into her mother’s home one hot June night, invaded the bedroom where Mildred and Richard slept and woke them with the blinding glare of a flashlight. She didn’t express the humiliation of spending five nights in a rat-infested jail (her husband, because he was white, spent only one night behind bars). She didn’t try to convey just how homesick she was for the small, rural speck of a town in Virginia where she had lived with her family all her life, just down the road from Richard, who started courting her when she was just 11 and he was 17.

Their relationship was, by all accounts, an uncomplicated love affair in Central Point, Va., an area in which racial divisions were far from straightforward. She and Richard grew up attending segregated churches and schools, but outside of those formal arenas, blacks and whites, many of whom also had Cherokee blood, freely socialized, worked side by side (Richard’s father worked for a black landowner) and occasionally fell in love. Richard first met Mildred when he went to hear her brothers play music at her home down the road.

Two young civil rights lawyers took up the case, and in 1967 the ruling came down from the Supreme Court, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren: Declaring that “the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” Warren argued that the Virginia statute violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. An unforgettable picture captures the Lovings at a news conference in their lawyers’ office the day of the ruling: Richard and Mildred, their heads leaning close, his arm draped possessively around her neck, Richard looking gruff, Mildred looking girlishly delighted. More than triumph, more than justice, the picture captured, at a glimpse, a couple in love.

In the years following the ruling, the Lovings turned down countless requests for interviews, public appearances and honors. Mildred Loving had no affiliations beyond her church and her family and never considered herself a hero. “It wasn’t my doing,” she said a year before her death. “It was God’s work.”

She resolutely lived out a private, ordinary life with its ordinary pleasures — a happy marriage, three kids, a home near family — and its sadly ordinary tragedies. One day when Mildred was 35, she and Richard were driving on a highway when another car crashed into theirs. Richard was killed instantly. Mildred, who lost her left eye in the accident, never remarried or considered it. She spent the second half of her life attending church, cooking for children and grandchildren, smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, drinking cup after cup of instant coffee with the neighbors and looking out from her back porch to a peaceful view of the fields.

Civil rights historians had pretty much accepted that they wouldn’t hear again from Mildred Loving. But last year, the 40th anniversary of the ruling, three colleagues working on behalf of Faith in America, a gay rights group, visited Loving at the small ranch house that Richard built after they moved back to Virginia. The organization was hoping to persuade her to make a statement in favor of gay marriage at a celebration of her own court ruling that the group planned to hold in Washington. “I just don’t know,” Loving told them. She hadn’t given it much thought. She listened sympathetically, a worn Bible on her end table, as the group’s founder, the furniture entrepreneur Mitchell Gold, told her of his own struggles as a teenager to accept that society would never let him marry someone he loved. She was undecided when the group left a few hours later, but told Ashley Etienne, a young woman who consulted for the group, that they could continue to chat about the subject over the phone.

Etienne, who said Loving reminded her of her own grandmother, started calling every few days. She asked Loving about how she and her husband endured their setbacks; Loving told her that she didn’t understand why two people who loved each other could not be married and express their love publicly. She talked, as she always did, about how much she loved Richard and what a kind, gentle man he was. On her own, she talked to her neighbors about the request; she talked to her children about it. And in the end, Loving told Etienne, yes, she would allow the group to read a statement in her name supporting gay marriage at the commemoration. “Are you sure you understand what you’re saying?” Etienne asked. “You understand that you’re putting your name behind the idea that two men or two women should have the right to marry each other?”

“I understand it,” Loving said, “and I believe it.”

Link to article:

quarta-feira, 24 de dezembro de 2008

George Monbiot: How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington

How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington

The degradation of intelligence and learning in American politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist?

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world's best universities and attracts the world's finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

There have been exceptions over the past century - Franklin Roosevelt, JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived - but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan's response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter - stumbling a little, using long words - carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said: "There you go again." His own health programme would have appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.

It wasn't always like this. The founding fathers of the republic - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others - were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?

On one level, this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves round the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15-year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD. But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so stupid, and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in particular fundamentalist religion - makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.

Jacoby shows that there was once a certain logic to its anti-rationalism. During the first few decades after the publication of The Origin of Species, for instance, Americans had good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and to treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin's theory was mixed up in the US with the brutal philosophy - now known as social Darwinism - of the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer's doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation. Gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is profoundly ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of social Darwinism.

But there were other, more powerful, reasons for the intellectual isolation of the fundamentalists. The US is peculiar in devolving the control of education to local authorities. Teaching in the southern states was dominated by the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters, and a great educational gulf opened up. "In the south", Jacoby writes, "what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order."

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest Protestant denomination in the US, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the south stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state's state school biology teachers believed humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.

This tragedy has been assisted by the American fetishisation of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln's career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state, is unnecessary: all that is required to succeed is determination and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when genuine self-education movements, like the one built around the Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century, were in vogue. In the age of infotainment, it is a recipe for confusion.

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Almost every day men such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rage against the "liberal elites" destroying America.

The spectre of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the election of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite - like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush - has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an over-educated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.

Obama has a lot to offer the US, but none of this will stop if he wins. Until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.

• This article was amended on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. The Southern Baptist Convention is not the biggest denomination in the US. We meant to describe it as the biggest Protestant denomination. This has been corrected.

Link to article:

terça-feira, 23 de dezembro de 2008

Ted Gup: Hard Times, a Helping Hand

Hard Times, a Helping Hand

by Ted Gup, Canton, Ohio, New York Times, December 22, 2008

The mysterious benefactor “B. Virdot,” above, and some of the checks he sent to and letters he received from desperate residents of Canton, Ohio, at the height of the Great Depression. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Enlarge This Image
The bankbook. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

From left to right, Virgina Stone, the author's mother, Minna Stone, the author's grandmother, Barbara Stone, Dorothy Stone and Sam Stone, the author's grandfather.

Samuel J. Stone.

Names and addresses have been removed from the letters above.

IN the weeks just before Christmas of 1933 — 75 years ago — a mysterious offer appeared in The Repository, the daily newspaper here. It was addressed to all who were suffering in that other winter of discontent known as the Great Depression. The bleakest of holiday seasons was upon them, and the offer promised modest relief to those willing to write in and speak of their struggles. In return, the donor, a “Mr. B. Virdot,” pledged to provide a check to the neediest to tide them over the holidays.

Not surprisingly, hundreds of letters for Mr. B. Virdot poured into general delivery in Canton — even though there was no person of that name in the city of 105,000. A week later, checks, most for as little as $5, started to arrive at homes around Canton. They were signed by “B. Virdot.”

The gift made The Repository’s front page on Dec. 18, 1933. The headline read: “Man Who Felt Depression’s Sting to Help 75 Unfortunate Families: Anonymous Giver, Known Only as ‘B. Virdot,’ Posts $750 to Spread Christmas Cheer.” The story said the faceless donor was “a Canton man who was toppled from a large fortune to practically nothing” but who had returned to prosperity and now wanted to give a Christmas present to “75 deserving fellow townsmen.” The gifts were to go to men and women who might otherwise “hesitate to knock at charity’s door for aid.”

Whether the paper spoke to Mr. B. Virdot directly or through an intermediary or whether it received something in writing from him is not known.

Down through the decades, the identity of the benefactor remained a mystery. Three prosperous generations later, the whole affair was consigned to a footnote in Canton’s history. But to me, the story had always served as an example of how selfless Americans reach out to one another in hard times. I can’t even remember the first time I heard about Mr. B. Virdot, but I knew the tale well.

Then, this past summer, my mother handed me a battered old black suitcase that had been gathering dust in her attic. I flipped open the twin latches and found a mass of letters, all dated December 1933. There were also 150 canceled checks signed by “B. Virdot,” and a tiny black bank book with $760 in deposits.

My mother, Virginia, had always known the secret: the donor was her father, Samuel J. Stone. The fictitious moniker was a blend of his daughters’ names — Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy. But Mother had never told me, and when she handed me the suitcase she had no idea what was in it — “some old papers,” she said. The suitcase had passed into her possession shortly after the death of my grandmother Minna in 2005.

I took the suitcase with me to our log cabin in the woods of Maine, and there, one night, began to read letter after letter. They had come from all over Canton, from out-of-work upholsterers, painters, bricklayers, day laborers, insurance salesmen and, yes, former executives — some of whom, I later learned, my grandfather had known personally.

One, written Dec. 19, 1933, begins, “I hate to write this letter ... it seems too much like begging. Anyway, here goes. I will be honest, my husband doesn’t know I’m writing this letter... . He is working but not making enough to hardly feed his family. We are going to do everything in our power to hold on to our house.” Three years behind in taxes and out of credit at the grocery store, the writer closed with, “Even if you don’t think we’re worthy of help, I hope you receive a great blessing for your kindness.”

Another letter came from a 38-year-old steel worker, out of a job and stricken with tuberculosis, who wrote of his inability to pay the hospital bills for his son, whose skull had been fractured after he was struck by a car.

One man wrote: “For one like me who for a lifetime has earned a fine living, charity by force of distressed circumstances is an abomination and a headache. However, your offer carries with it a spirit so far removed from those who offer help for their own glorification, you remove so much of the sting and pain of forced charity that I venture to tell you my story.”

The writer, once a prominent businessman, was now 65 and destitute, his life insurance policy cashed in and gone, his furniture “mortgaged,” his clothes threadbare, his hope of paying the electric and gas bills pinned to the intervention of his children.

A mother of four wrote, “My husband hasn’t had steady work in four years ... . The people who are lucky enough to have no worry where the next meal is coming from don’t realize how it is to be like we are and a lot of others... . I only wish I could do what you are doing.”

Another letter was from the wife of an out-of-work bricklayer. “Mr. Virdot, we are in desperate circumstances,” she wrote. They had taken in her husband’s mother and father and a 10-year-old boy. Now the landlord had given them three days to pay up. “It is awful,” she wrote. “No one knows, only those who go through it. It does seem so much like begging. ”

Children, too, wrote in. The youngest was 12-year-old Mary Uebing. “There are six in our family,” she wrote, “and my father is dead ... my baby sister is sick. Last Christmas our dinner was slim and this Christmas it will be slimmer... . Any way you could help us would be appreciated in this fatherless and worrisome home.”

The wife of an out-of-work insurance salesman added a postscript to her letter, one not intended for her husband’s eyes: She had just pawned her engagement ring for $5.

Also in the suitcase were thank-you letters from people who had received Mr. Virdot’s checks. A father wrote: “It was put to good use paying for two pairs of shoes for my girls and other little necessities. I hope some day I have the pleasure of knowing to whom we are indebted for this very generous gift.”

That was from George W. Monnot, who had once owned a successful Ford dealership but whose reluctance to lay off his salesmen hastened his own financial collapse, his granddaughter told me.

Of course, the checks could not reverse the fortunes of an entire family, much less a community. A few months after one man, Roy Teis, wrote to B. Virdot, his family splintered apart. His eight children, including a 4-year-old daughter, were scattered among nearly as many foster homes, and there they remained for years to come.

So why had my grandfather done this? Because he had known what it was to be down and out. In 1902, when he was 15, he and his family had fled Romania, where they had been persecuted and stripped of the right to work because they were Jews. They settled into an immigrant ghetto in Pittsburgh. His father forced him to roll cigars with his six other siblings in the attic, hiding his shoes so he could not go to school.

My grandfather later worked on a barge and in a coal mine, swabbed out dirty soda bottles until the acid ate at his fingers and was even duped into being a strike breaker, an episode that left him bloodied by nightsticks. He had been robbed at night and swindled in daylight. Midlife, he had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, almost losing his clothing store and his home.

By the time the Depression hit, he had worked his way out of poverty, owning a small chain of clothing stores and living in comfort. But his good fortune carried with it a weight when so many around him had so little.

His yuletide gift was not to be his only such gesture. In the same black suitcase were receipts hinting at other anonymous acts of kindness. The year before the United States entered World War II, for instance, he sent hundreds of wool overcoats to British soldiers. In the pocket of each was a handwritten note, unsigned, urging them not to give in to despair and expressing America’s support.

Like many in his generation, my grandfather believed in hard work, and disdained handouts. In 1981, at age 93, he died driving himself to the office, crashing while trying to beat a rising drawbridge. But he could never ignore the brutal reality of times when work was simply not to be had and self-reliance reached its limits. He sought no credit for acts of conscience. He saw them as the debt we owe one another and ourselves.

For many Americans, this Christmas will be grim. Here, in Ohio, food banks and shelters are trying to cope with the fallout from plant closings, layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies. The family across the street lost their home. From our breakfast table, we look out on their house, dark and vacant. Multibillion-dollar bailouts to banks and Wall Street have yet to bring relief to those humbled by need and overwhelmed by debt. Already, the B. Virdot in me — in each of us — can hear the words of our neighbors.

Ted Gup, a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of “Nation of Secrets.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 22, 2008, on page A33 of the New York edition. Link to article:

sábado, 20 de dezembro de 2008

Peggy Noonan: Who we (still) are

Who We (Still) Are

by Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2008

It's become a status symbol in New York to know someone who lost everything, as we now say, with Bernard Madoff, and to provide the details with a tone of wonder that subtly signals, "I of course was too smart for that, but I do feel compassion." It reminds me of the study I was told of years ago of soldiers who had seen a nearby comrade killed in battle. Their first thought tended to be not "Oh no!" or "Poor Joe," but "I'm not shot."

[Declarations] David Gothard

There has been criticism of Mr. Madoff's investors: How could they not have diversified? But people who were receiving quarterly reports on supposedly broad portfolios run by Mr. Madoff thought they were diversified. They didn't know he was the original toxic asset.

The most memorable line came from a Palm Beach, Fla., doyenne who reportedly said of his name last week, "I know it's pronounced 'Made-off,' because he made off with the money." A more sober observation came from a Manhattan woman who spoke, on the night Mr. Madoff was arrested, and as word spread through a Christmas party, of the general air of collapse in America right now, of the sense that our institutions are not and no longer can be trusted. She said, softly, "It's the age of the empty suit." Those who were supposed to be watching things, making the whole edifice run, keeping it up and operating, just somehow weren't there.

That's the big thing at the heart of the great collapse, a strong sense of absence. Who was in charge? Who was in authority? The biggest swindle in all financial history if the figure of $50 billion is to be believed, and nobody knew about it, supposedly, but the swindler himself. The government didn't notice, just as it didn't notice the prevalence of bad debts that would bring down America's great investment banks.

All this has hastened and added to the real decline in faith—the collapse in faith—the past few years in our institutions. Not only in Wall Street but in our entire economy, and in government. And of course there's Blago. But the disturbing thing there is that it seems to have inspired more mirth than anger. Did any of your friends say they were truly shocked? Mine either.

The reigning ethos seems to be every man for himself.

An old friend in a position of some authority in Washington told me the other day, from out of nowhere, that a hard part of his job is that there's no one to talk to. I didn't understand at first. He's surrounded by people, his whole life is one long interaction. He explained that he doesn't have really thoughtful people to talk to in government, wise men, people taking the long view and going forth each day with a sense of deep time, and a sense of responsibility for the future. There's no one to go to for advice.

He senses the absence too.

It's a void that's governing us.

And this as much as anything has contributed to the sense you pick up that people feel all trends lead downward from here, that the great days of America Rising are over, that the best is not yet to come but has already been. It is so non-American, so unlike us, to think this, and yet one picks it up everywhere, between the lines and in asides. The other night a man told me of his four children, and I congratulated him on bringing up so many. From nowhere he said, "I worry about their future." At another time he would have said, "Billy wants to be a doctor."

People are angry but don't have a plan, and they'll give the incoming president unprecedented latitude and sympathy, cheering him on. I told a friend it feels like a necessary patriotic act to be supportive of him, and she said, "Oh hell, it's a necessary selfish act—I want him to do well so I survive. We all do!"

This is a good time to remember who we are, or rather just a few small facts of who we are. We are the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world, the leading industrial power of the world, and the wealthiest nation in the world. "There's a lot of ruin in a nation," said Adam Smith. There's a lot of ruin in a great economy, too. We are the oldest continuing democracy in the world, operating, since March 4, 1789, under a vibrant and enduring constitution that was formed by geniuses and is revered, still, coast to coast. We don't make refugees, we admit them. When the rich of the world get sick, they come here to be treated, and when their children come of age, they send them here to our universities. We have a supple political system open to reform, and a wildly diverse culture that has moments of stress but plenty of give.

The point is not to say rah-rah, paint our faces blue and bray "We're No. 1." The point is that while terrible challenges face us—improving a sick public education system, ending the easy-money culture, rebuilding the economy—we are building from an extraordinary, brilliant and enduring base.

The other day I called former Secretary of State George Shultz, because he is wise and experienced and takes the long view. I asked if he thought we should be optimistic about our country's fortunes and future.

"Absolutely," he said, there is "every reason to have confidence." He told me the story of Sumner Slichter, an economics professor at Harvard 50 years ago. "He was not the most admired man in his department, but he'd make pronouncements about the economy that turned out to be right more often than his colleagues'." After Slichter died, a friend was asked to clean out his desk, and found the start of an autobiography. "It said, I'm paraphrasing, 'I have had a good record in my comments on and expectations of the American economy, and the reason is I've always been an optimist. How did I get that way? I was brought up in the West, where the future is more important than the past, in a family of scientists and engineers forever developing new things. I could never buy into the idea that we had crossed our last frontier, because I was brought up with people crossing new frontiers.'"

Mr. Shultz laid out some particulars of his own optimism. There is "the ingenuity, the flexibility, the strengths of the national economy." The labor force: "We are so blessed with human talent and resources." And the American people themselves. "They have intelligence, integrity and honor."

We should experience "the current crisis" as "a gigantic wake-up call." We've been living beyond our means, both governmentally and personally. "We have to be willing to face up to our problems. But we have a capacity to roll up our sleeves and get down to work together."

What a task President-elect Obama has ahead. He ran on a theme of change we can believe in, but already that seems old. Only six weeks after his election he faces a need more consequential and immediate. In January, in his inaugural, he may find himself addressing something bigger, and that is: Belief we can believe in. The return of confidence. The end of absence. The return of the suit inhabited by a person. The return of the person who will take responsibility, and lead.

Link to article:

terça-feira, 9 de dezembro de 2008

Roger Cohen: Paris vs. Havana

Paris vs. Havana

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, December 8, 2008

Since visiting Cuba a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the visual assault on our lives. Climb in a New York taxi these days and a TV comes on with its bombardment of news and ads. It’s become passé to gaze out the window, watch the sunlight on a wall, a child’s smile, the city breathing.

In Havana, I’d spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing — not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign — distracted me from the city’s sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro’s pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.

Such empty spaces, away from the assault of marketing, beyond every form of message (e-mail, text, twitter), erode in the modern world, to the point that silence provokes a why-am-I-not-in-demand anxiety. Technology induces ever more subtle forms of addiction, to products, but also to agitation itself. The global mall reproduces itself, its bright and air-conditioned sterility extinguishing every distinctive germ.

Paris, of course, has resisted homogenization. It’s still Paris, with its strong Haussmannian arteries, its parks of satisfying geometry, its islands pointing their prows toward the solemn bridges, its gilt and gravel, its zinc-roofed maids’ rooms arrayed atop the city as if deposited by some magician who stole in at night.

It’s still a place where temptation exists only to be yielded to and where time stops to guard forever an image in the heart. All young lovers should have a row in the Tuileries in order to make up on the Pont Neuf.

Yet, for all its enduring seductiveness, Paris has ceased to be the city that I knew. The modern world has sucked out some essence, leaving a film-set perfection hollowed out behind the five-story facades. The past has been anaesthetized. It has been packaged. It now seems less a part of the city’s fabric than it is a kitschy gimmick as easily reproduced as a Lautrec poster.

I know, in middle age the business of life is less about doing things for the first than for the last time. It is easy to feel a twinge of regret. Those briny oysters, the glistening mackerel on their bed of ice at the Rue Mouffetard, the drowsy emptied city in August, the unctuousness of a Beef Bourguignon: these things can be experienced for the first time only once.

So what I experience in Paris is less what is before me than the memory it provokes of the city in 1975. Memories, as Apollinaire noted, are like the sound of hunters’ horns fading in the wind. Still, they linger. The town looks much the same, if prettified. What has changed has changed from within.

At dinner with people I’d known back then, I was grappling with this elusive feeling when my friend lit a match. It was a Russian match acquired in Belgrade and so did not conform to current European Union nanny-state standards. The flame jumped. The sulfur whiff was pungent. A real match!

Then it came to me: what Paris had lost to modernity was its pungency. Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d’Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men.

Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.

Gone, in short, was Paris in the glory of its squalor, in the time before anyone thought a Frenchman would accept a sandwich for lunch, or decreed that the great unwashed should inhabit the distant suburbs. The city has been sanitized.

But squalor connects. When you clean, when you favor hermetic sealing in the name of safety, you also disconnect people from one another. When on top of that you add layers of solipsistic technology, the isolation intensifies. In its preserved Gallic disguise, Paris is today no less a globalized city than New York.

Havana has also preserved its architecture — the wrought-iron balconies, the caryatids, the baroque flourishes — even if it is crumbling. What has been preserved with it, thanks to socialist economic disaster, is that very pungent texture Paris has lost to modernity.

The slugs of Havana Club rum in bars lit by fluorescent light, the dominos banged on street tables, the raucous conversations in high doorways, the whiff of puros, the beat through bad speakers of drums and maracas, the idle sensuality of Blackberry-free days: Cuba took me back decades to an era when time did not always demand to be put to use.

I thought I’d always have Paris. But Havana helped me see, by the flare of a Russian match, that mine is gone.

Link to article:

quinta-feira, 4 de dezembro de 2008

Gail Collins: One Singular Sensation

Op-Ed Columnist

One Singular Sensation

by Gail Collins, New York Times, December 4, 2008

Ed Rendell can’t believe that he’s being asked about the fact that he said that Barack Obama’s nominee for head of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, has “no life.”

Gail Collins by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times.

“We’re facing the greatest crisis since the Depression, and you want to talk about this?” he complained.

This is exactly the kind of comment people used to make during the bad old days in New York, when cops ticketing cars for double-parking were always told that they should be out arresting murderous drug dealers. But what better time to have a diverting discussion about a governor’s misadventure with an open microphone? Really, there’s not much chance that we’re going to forget the big picture.

Rendell, who is governor of Pennsylvania, was chatting about Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, at a governor’s meeting (where else?) while lounging in the vicinity of a live mic. (They should put lights on those things that would flash red when they’re turned on.) He was explaining that Napolitano was “perfect” for homeland security “because, for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.”

This seemed to be the summation of Napolitano’s qualifications. Rendell himself has been on the list of Cabinet Mentions, and this is a good example of the way people around the world explain why another person got the prize instead: It was all about some random characteristic I happen to lack. (“Ted’s perfect for the job. Because for that job, you really have to speak Estonian.”) Perhaps a rather undesirable characteristic. (“For that job, you have to be able to drink those salesmen under the table and Ted’s an absolute lush.”)

And it sure sounded as if he was saying that single people like Napolitano exist in a state so dark and barren that the empty hours can only be filled up by guarding the nation’s borders against terrorists and preparing for the next hurricane.

You will not be surprised that Rendell — reached by phone in Pennsylvania and game as ever for conversation — feels as though he’s been totally, deeply and completely misunderstood.

“It was meant to include all workaholics,” said Rendell, who is married with a grown son. “I have no life. I’ll give you a perfect example.” He launched into a story about coming home late at night and watching a two-hour cable TV review of the Pennsylvania budget. Which actually, if you were a governor and it was your state’s budget, might be kind of fascinating.

“I have no life either,” he repeated. “But I couldn’t run Homeland Security because I don’t have the background.” It was about here, when he reached the exact opposite analysis from the one he made into the wrong microphone, that Rendell pointed out we were facing the greatest crisis since the Depression.

All this was a real blow to Bella DePaulo, the author of “Singled Out,” who had recently posted on her blog, celebrating the fact that after Napolitano’s nomination was announced, “I haven’t found any hints of singlism” in the articles about her.

“Oh, no!” she said, when reached by telephone Wednesday morning.

DePaulo says that “singlism” — a term she coined and for which we are prepared to forgive her — is not just aimed at unmarried women. She referred to an MSNBC interview that Chris Matthews had with the presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2004, in which Matthews demanded to know how Nader could say George W. Bush was irresponsible: “He’s raised two daughters; he’s had a happy marriage. Isn’t he more mature in his lifestyle than you are?”

This did seem strange, since there are so many excellent reasons unrelated to marital status why Ralph Nader would make a terrible president. (The list does not, however, include “likely to let the big financial firms ruin the economy due to lack of regulation.”) To be fair, Matthews also asked Nader if the fact that he did not own a car meant that he had not “had an American experience.”

But it’s unmarried women at the top who often wind up portrayed as vestal virgins who live only to serve their chief executive. (Condoleezza Rice’s public image is so extreme that people must be wondering if she plans to immolate herself on the White House lawn during the inauguration.) Instead of being celebrated for their achievements, they wind up regarded as slightly fanatic.

And single women comprise between 43 percent and 51 percent of the adult women in the country, depending on how you count. They are universally regarded as folks with time on their hands, and thus the most likely recruits for taking care of aged parents, adjusting their schedules to accommodate their married friends and working overtime. “Employers ask you to cover for everyone else,” said DePaulo.

Which actually makes them sound busier than their married peers. So perhaps single Americans have too much life. It’s a wonder they have time for anything.

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sexta-feira, 28 de novembro de 2008

Stephen S. Roach: Dying of Consumption

Dying of Consumption

by Stephen S. Roach, Op-Ed Contributor, New York Times, Hong Kong, November 28, 2008
August Heffner

IT’S game over for the American consumer. Inflation-adjusted personal consumption expenditures are on track for rare back-to-back quarterly declines in the second half of 2008 at a 3.5% average annual rate. There are only four other instances since 1950 when real consumer demand has fallen for two quarters in a row. This is the first occasion when declines in both quarters will have exceeded 3%. The current consumption plunge is without precedent in the modern era.

The good news is that lines should be short for today’s “first shopping day” of the holiday season. The bad news is more daunting: rising unemployment, weakening incomes, falling home values, a declining stock market, record household debt and a horrific credit crunch. But there is a deeper, potentially positive, meaning to all this: Consumers are now abandoning the asset-dependent spending and saving strategies they embraced during the bubbles of the past dozen years and moving back to more prudent income-based lifestyles.

This is a painful but necessary adjustment. Since the mid-1990s, vigorous growth in American consumption has consistently outstripped subpar gains in household income. This led to a steady decline in personal saving. As a share of disposable income, the personal saving rate fell from 5.7% in early 1995 to nearly zero from 2005 to 2007.

In the days of frothy asset markets, American consumers had no compunction about squandering their savings and spending beyond their incomes. Appreciation of assets — equity portfolios and, especially, homes — was widely thought to be more than sufficient to make up the difference. But with most asset bubbles bursting, America’s 77 million baby boomers are suddenly facing a savings-short retirement.

Worse, millions of homeowners used their residences as collateral to take out home equity loans. According to Federal Reserve calculations, net equity extractions from United States homes rose from about 3% of disposable personal income in 2000 to nearly 9% in 2006. This newfound source of purchasing power was a key prop to the American consumption binge.

As a result, household debt hit a record 133% of disposable personal income by the end of 2007 — an enormous leap from average debt loads of 90% just a decade earlier.

In an era of open-ended house price appreciation and extremely cheap credit, few doubted the wisdom of borrowing against one’s home. But in today’s climate of falling home prices, frozen credit markets, mounting layoffs and weakening incomes, that approach has backfired. It should hardly be surprising that consumption has faltered so sharply.

A decade of excess consumption pushed consumer spending in the United States up to 72% of gross domestic product in 2007, a record for any large economy in the modern history of the world. With such a huge portion of the economy now shrinking, a deep and protracted recession can hardly be ruled out. Consumption growth, which averaged close to 4% annually over the past 14 years, could slow into the 1-2% range for the next three to five years.

The United States needs a very different set of policies to cope with its post-bubble economy. It would be a serious mistake to enact tax cuts aimed at increasing already excessive consumption. Americans need to save. They don’t need another flat-screen TV made in China.

The Obama administration needs to encourage the sort of saving that will put consumers on sounder financial footing and free up resources that could be directed at long overdue investments in transportation infrastructure, alternative energy, education, worker training and the like. This strategy would not only create jobs but would also cut America’s dependence on foreign saving and imports. That would help reduce the current account deficit and the heavy foreign borrowing such an imbalance entails.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to come up with effective saving policies. The money has to come out of Americans’ paychecks. This can be either incentive driven — expanded 401(k) and I.R.A. programs — or mandatory, like increased Social Security contributions. As long as the economy stays in recession, any tax increases associated with mandatory saving initiatives should be off the table. (When times improve, however, that may be worth reconsidering.)

Fiscal policy must also be aimed at providing income support for newly unemployed middle-class workers — particularly expanded unemployment insurance and retraining programs. A critical distinction must be made between providing assistance for the innocent victims of recession and misplaced policies aimed at perpetuating an unsustainable consumption binge.

Crises are the ultimate in painful learning experiences. The United States cannot afford to squander this opportunity. Runaway consumption must now give way to a renewal of saving and investment. That’s the best hope for economic recovery and for America’s longer-term economic prosperity.

Stephen S. Roach is the chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia.

Link to article:

sábado, 8 de novembro de 2008

Bob Herbert: Take a Bow, America

Take a Bow, America

by Bob Herbert, New York Times, November 8, 2008

The markets are battered and job losses are skyrocketing, but even in the midst of a national economic crisis, we should not lose sight of the profound significance of this week and what it tells us about the continuing promise of America.

Voters said no to incompetence and divisiveness and elbowed their way past the blight of racism that has been such a barrier to progress for so long. Barack Obama won the state of North Carolina, for crying out loud.

The nation deserves to take a bow. This is not the same place it used to be.

Election night brought a cascade of memories to Taylor Rogers, who is 82 and still lives in Memphis, where he grew up. He remembered a big crowd that jammed a Masonic temple in Memphis on an April night 40 years ago.

“It was filled with people from wall to wall,” he said. “And it was storming and raining outside.”

The men and women, nearly all of them black, were crushed against one another as they listened, almost as one, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his final speech.

Mr. Rogers was one of the sanitation men whose strike drew Dr. King to Memphis. In the aftermath of the Obama victory on Tuesday night, he recited from memory the climactic phrases from the speech, the part where Dr. King said that God had allowed him to go up to the mountain and that he had looked over and seen the promised land.

“I remember it so well,” said Mr. Rogers. “Dr. King told us: ‘I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.’

“You could tell from the words and from the expression on his face that he really felt that something was about to happen.”

The next day, of course, Dr. King was killed.

Like so many other older African-Americans that I spoke with during this long, long campaign season, Mr. Rogers said he never dreamed that he would live to see a black person elected president of the United States.

“A black president in the White House?” he said. “In those days, you wouldn’t even have thought about going to the White House. Not unless you were a janitor or something.”

It can be easy in such a moment of triumph to lose sight of the agony wrought by the unrelieved evil of racism and to forget how crucial a role anti-black racism played in shaping American life since the first slaves were dumped ashore 400 years ago.

Blacks have been holding fast to the promise of America for all that time. Not without anger. Not without rage. But with a fidelity that in the darkest moments — those moments when the flow of blood seemed like it would never stop, when enslaved families were wrenched apart, when entire communities were put to the torch, when the breeze put the stiffened bodies of lynched victims in motion, when even small children were murdered and Dr. King was taken from us — even in those dire moments, African-Americans held fast to the promise of America with a fidelity that defied logic.

The multiracial crowds dancing with unrestrained joy from coast to coast on Tuesday night were proof that the promise of America lives — and that you can’t always hang your hat on logic.

You knew something was up when the exit polls revealed early Tuesday evening that Senator Obama had carried the white working-class vote in Indiana, one of the reddest of the red states and a onetime stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.

I got a call on Friday from David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was one of three civil rights workers slain in the searing racial heat of Mississippi in 1964.

“It’s shocking, isn’t it?” he said of the election.

I agreed.

“It’s wonderful,” he said.

Arthur Miller liked to say that the essence of America was its promise. In the darkest of the dark times, in wartime and drastic economic downturns, in the crucible of witch hunts or racial strife, in the traumatic aftermath of a terror attack, that promise lights the way forward.

This week marked a renewal of America’s promise. Voters went to the polls and placed a bet on a better future, handing the power to an unlikely candidate who promised to draw people together rather than exploit their differences.

The final tally wasn’t close.

We still have two wars to deal with and an economic crisis as severe as any in decades. But we should take a moment to recognize the stunning significance of this moment in history. It’s worth a smile, a toast, a sigh, a tear.

America should be proud.

Link to article:

quinta-feira, 30 de outubro de 2008

George F. Will: Call him John the Careless

Call Him John the Careless

by George F. Will, Washington Post, October 30, 2008

From the invasion of Iraq to the selection of Sarah Palin, carelessness has characterized recent episodes of faux conservatism. Tuesday's probable repudiation of the Republican Party will punish characteristics displayed in the campaign's closing days.

Some polls show that Palin has become an even heavier weight in John McCain's saddle than his association with George W. Bush. Did McCain, who seems to think that Palin's never having attended a "Georgetown cocktail party" is sufficient qualification for the vice presidency, lift an eyebrow when she said that vice presidents "are in charge of the United States Senate"?

She may have been tailoring her narrative to her audience of third-graders, who do not know that vice presidents have no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes. But does she know that when Lyndon Johnson, transformed by the 1960 election from Senate majority leader into vice president, ventured to the Capitol to attend the Democratic senators' weekly policy luncheon, the new majority leader, Montana's Mike Mansfield, supported by his caucus, barred him because his presence would be a derogation of the Senate's autonomy?

Perhaps Palin's confusion about the office for which she is auditioning comes from listening to its current occupant. Dick Cheney, the foremost practitioner of this administration's constitutional carelessness in aggrandizing executive power, regularly attends the Senate Republicans' Tuesday luncheons. He has said jocularly that he is "a product" of the Senate, which pays his salary, and that he has no "official duties" in the executive branch. His situational constitutionalism has, however, led him to assert, when claiming exemption from a particular executive order, that he is a member of the legislative branch and, when seeking to shield certain of his deliberations from legislative inquiry, to say that he is a member of the executive branch.

Palin may be an inveterate simplifier; McCain has a history of reducing controversies to cartoons. A Republican financial expert recalls attending a dinner with McCain for the purpose of discussing with him domestic and international financial complexities that clearly did not fascinate the senator. As the dinner ended, McCain's question for his briefer was: "So, who is the villain?"

McCain revived a familiar villain -- "huge amounts" of political money -- when Barack Obama announced that he had received contributions of $150 million in September. "The dam is broken," said McCain, whose constitutional carelessness involves wanting to multiply impediments to people who want to participate in politics by contributing to candidates -- people such as the 632,000 first-time givers to Obama in September.

Why is it virtuous to erect a dam of laws to impede the flow of contributions by which citizens exercise their First Amendment right to political expression? "We're now going to see," McCain warned, "huge amounts of money coming into political campaigns, and we know history tells us that always leads to scandal." The supposedly inevitable scandal, which supposedly justifies preemptive government restrictions on Americans' freedom to fund the dissemination of political ideas they favor, presumably is that Obama will be pressured to give favors to his September givers. The contributions by the new givers that month averaged $86.

One excellent result of this election cycle is that public financing of presidential campaigns now seems sillier than ever. The public has always disliked it: Voluntary and cost-free participation, using the check-off on the income tax form, peaked at 28.7 percent in 1980 and has sagged to 9.2 percent. The Post, which is melancholy about the system's parlous condition, says there were three reasons for creating public financing: to free candidates from the demands of fundraising, to level the playing field and "to limit the amount of money pouring into presidential campaigns." The first reason is decreasingly persuasive because fundraising is increasingly easy because of new technologies such as the Internet. The second reason is, the Supreme Court says, constitutionally impermissible. Government may not mandate equality of resources among political competitors who earn different levels of voluntary support. As for the third reason -- "huge amounts" (McCain) of money "pouring into" (The Post) presidential politics -- well:

The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that, by Election Day, $2.4 billion will have been spent on presidential campaigns in the two-year election cycle that began in January 2007, and an additional $2.9 billion will have been spent on 435 House and 35 Senate contests. This $5.3 billion is a billion less than Americans will spend this year on potato chips.

quarta-feira, 22 de outubro de 2008

Maureen Dowd: Moved by a Crescent

Moved by a Crescent

by Maureen Dowd, New York Times, October 21, 2008

Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Colin Powell had been bugged by many things in his party’s campaign this fall: the insidious merging of rumors that Barack Obama was Muslim with intimations that he was a terrorist sympathizer; the assertion that Sarah Palin was ready to be president; the uniformed sheriff who introduced Governor Palin by sneering about Barack Hussein Obama; the scorn with which Republicans spit out the words “community organizer”; the Republicans’ argument that using taxes to “spread the wealth” was socialist when the purpose of taxes is to spread the wealth; Palin’s insidious notion that small towns in states that went for W. were “the real America.”

But what sent him over the edge and made him realize he had to speak out was when he opened his New Yorker three weeks ago and saw a picture of a mother pressing her head against the gravestone of her son, a 20-year-old soldier who had been killed in Iraq. On the headstone were engraved his name, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, his awards — the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star — and a crescent and a star to denote his Islamic faith.

“I stared at it for an hour,” he told me. “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?”

Khan was an all-American kid. A 2005 graduate of Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J., he loved the Dallas Cowboys and playing video games with his 12-year-old stepsister, Aliya.

His obituary in The Star-Ledger of Newark said that he had sent his family back pictures of himself playing soccer with Iraqi children and hugging a smiling young Iraqi boy.

His father said Kareem had been eager to enlist since he was 14 and was outraged by the 9/11 attacks. “His Muslim faith did not make him not want to go,” Feroze Khan, told The Gannett News Service after his son died. “He looked at it that he’s American and he has a job to do.”

In a gratifying “have you no sense of decency, Sir and Madam?” moment, Colin Powell went on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and talked about Khan, and the unseemly ways John McCain and Palin have been polarizing the country to try to get elected. It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo.

Even the Obama campaign has shied away from Muslims. The candidate has gone to synagogues but no mosques, and the campaign was embarrassed when it turned out that two young women in headscarves had not been allowed to stand behind Obama during a speech in Detroit because aides did not want them in the TV shot.

The former secretary of state has dealt with prejudice in his life, in and out of the Army, and he is keenly aware of how many millions of Muslims around the world are being offended by the slimy tenor of the race against Obama.

He told Tom Brokaw that he was troubled by what other Republicans, not McCain, had said: “ ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no. That’s not America. Is something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”

Powell got a note from Feroze Khan this week thanking him for telling the world that Muslim-Americans are as good as any others. But he also received more e-mails insisting that Obama is a Muslim and one calling him “unconstitutional and unbiblical” for daring to support a socialist. He got a mass e-mail from a man wanting to spread the word that Obama was reading a book about the end of America written by a fellow Muslim.

“Holy cow!” Powell thought. Upon checking, he saw that it was a reference to Fareed Zakaria, a Muslim who writes a Newsweek column and hosts a CNN foreign affairs show. His latest book is “The Post-American World.”

Powell is dismissive of those, like Rush Limbaugh, who say he made his endorsement based on race. And he’s offended by those who suggest that his appearance Sunday was an expiation for Iraq, speaking up strongly now about what he thinks the world needs because he failed to do so then.

Even though he watched W. in 2000 make the argument that his lack of foreign policy experience would be offset by the fact that he was surrounded by pros — Powell himself was one of the regents brought in to guide the bumptious Texas dauphin — Powell makes that same argument now for Obama.

“Experience is helpful,” he says, “but it is judgment that matters.”

Link to article:

quinta-feira, 16 de outubro de 2008

Roger Cohen: Presley, Palin and the Heartland

Presley, Palin and the Heartland

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, October 16, 2008, Branson, Mo.

Credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

I never imagined that a Republican mayor from Bible-belt Missouri would revive my faith in American democracy, but Raeanne Presley did just that.

As a high-energy brunette running a small town, she’s been ribbed since Sarah Palin became her party’s nominee for vice president. “Guess you’ll be moving on to governor soon,” she gets told. “And up from there.”

But Presley’s not interested. She’s Midwestern practical to Palin’s rabble-rousing frontierswoman. Common sense interests her more than aw-shucks nonsense. She prefers balanced budgets to unbalanced attacks.

Presley — no relation to Elvis — runs the capital of the American heartland. Branson, population 7,500, is to country-western, country-first, evangelical culture what Haight-Ashbury once was to the hippie movement: its mother lode.

You won’t find gambling in wholesome Branson. Food gets deep-fried, Christmas gets celebrated from Nov. 1, churches get filled.

On the gridlocked “strip” — more theater seats than Broadway — nobody blows their horn. The featured speaker at veterans’ week in November will be Oliver North, the Reagan-era rogue of the Iran-contra scandal. He’ll get a cheer: this area of southern Missouri voted about 70 percent Bush in 2004.

What you do find on the strip are the 8 million tourists — more than a thousand times the population — who come here annually in search of religious, family and patriotic entertainment. Dream on, Wasilla.

(If the Branson population-tourist ratio applied in New York, the city would get upward of 8 billion tourists a year. It gets around 46 million.)

Entertainment includes country-western music, the “Dixie Stampede” rodeo show, old favorites like Andy Williams, Chinese acrobats, Irish tenors, and a Veterans Memorial Museum. A Japanese violinist does country and Cajun.

“For skimpy costumes or harsh language,” Presley, 50, said, “you go to Vegas or New York. We’ve no rules against a racy show. You’re welcome to give it a shot. But we hope you don’t succeed.”

One thing Branson does not have is foreign tourists. Head-shaking Europeans bewildered by “the other America” should check it out. The town, with its more than 50 theaters (Broadway has 39), would be an education.

My own did not go according to plan. I came to Branson and its mayor with my liberal prejudices and was disarmed. Presley reminded me of my ex-mother-in-law, another brisk, pragmatic, funny, no-nonsense Republican Midwesterner with little tolerance for debt, delinquency, dumbness, or dereliction of duty. She also reminded me of a great American virtue: getting on with it.

And it dawned on me that Palin, with her vile near-accusations of treason against Barack Obama, her cloying doggone hymns to small-town U.S.A., her with-us-or-against-us refrain, is really an impostor.

She’s the representative of a kind of last-gasp Republicanism, of an exhausted party, whose proud fiscal conservatism and patriotism have given away to scurrilous fear-mongering and ideological confusion.

It’s a party in need of a break from power after the Bush years in order to re-learn what Presley represents: the can-do, down-to-earth, honest, industrious, spend-what-you-earn civility of the heartland. That civility has been usurped into Palin’s trash talk.

Presley’s busy, in a tough economic climate, balancing a $61 million budget, trying to preserve jobs, getting a new $500 million convention center rolling, seeking a better balance between development and the environment.

I asked her about the election. “This is an exciting moment,” she said. “An African-American at the top of the Democratic ticket. As Americans we should be proud of that. A woman running for vice president. We can be proud of that, too.”

I asked her if she was a closet liberal. She laughed.

She said her oldest son, Nick, went to Stanford, and she expected him to come back from California “with a tattoo and a piercing.” But, no. He’s now working at the family’s Country Jubilee Theater.

It was one of the first to open on the strip. I’m 53, and I reckon the night I saw the show I lowered the audience’s average age to about 78. Fall is “empty-nester” season — oceans of gray hair.

The audience roared when a hillbilly idiot said something dumb and was rebuked by his father: “Next thing, you’ll believe in global warming!”

So go the culture wars in Branson.

This is red-state central, dear to evangelicals. But Presley has few illusions. Obama has been surging in bellwether Missouri with its long and almost perfect record of voting for the winner. He is now neck and neck with John McCain in the state polls.

Americans still vote their pocketbooks — always have, always will.

“I can see how the drift is going, but we’ll move on,” the mayor said.

A speech four years ago brought Obama to the national stage: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”

I found that spirit in Branson, the last place I expected. And it gave me hope, in these sobering days, for a nation aching to unite behind a new start and uplifting endeavor.

Link to article:

segunda-feira, 13 de outubro de 2008

Roger Cohen: History and the Really Very Weird

History and the Really Very Weird

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, October 12, 2008, Peculiar, Mo.
(Credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Back when he was vice president, Dan Quayle noted that: “People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have tremendous impact on history.”

He was right, as the Germans know, even if his own impact was limited by the fact the president he was understudying for stayed alive.

Quayle’s words came back to me because, like a lot Americans, I’ve come down with Palinitis: the acute fear that Sarah Palin might get into one of those “sensitive positions.”

This is no ordinary moment. More than two trillion dollars have disappeared from Americans’ retirement accounts. The hedge-fund high priests of the universe have suspended their Warhol purchases. Iceland, de-banked, has gone back to fishing (if there are any fish left). On the next president will hinge the choice between recession, with a small “r,” and Depression, with a big “D.”

It’s not a time, in history’s great sweep, for Quayle’s very weird people to run the world. Tremendous might prove an inadequate description of their impact. What we need is a safe pair of hands. Or we’ll all be fishing.

Then I pulled into Peculiar.

I’d decided to go for a spin around Missouri because this bellwether, battleground state has voted for the winner in every election since 1904, with the sole exception of 1956. In many respects, it is America miniaturized.

Of its more than 100 rural counties, all but one voted Republican in 2004. But its big cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, are another story, trending heavily Democrat. Rural, Bible-belt, America-first Missouri tends to views St. Louis as the fallen East Coast.

The growing number of conservative, Evangelical voters led John Kerry to abandon campaigning here four years ago; he lost heavily to President Bush. In Peculiar (motto “Where the ‘Odds’ are with you”), Democrats are rare. Cass County, where it’s located, voted 61.6 percent Bush.

There’s not a lot to Peculiar, a smattering of low-slung buildings off Highway 71 in western Missouri. At a general store, I asked about the name and a woman told me: “When they incorporated the town, they tried a few names, but those already existed, and somebody wrote back saying we should try something more ‘peculiar.’ And, son, we did.”

End of story.

Or not quite: America’s become a place where Peculiar folks think the city folks have lost the plot and city folks think the rural folks are peculiar.

In this culture war, where Palin’s hockey moms and Joe Sixpacks are supposed to be the only patriots left standing, believing in a woman’s right to choose gets cast as unpatriotic. (Remember: belief in regulating markets used to be unpatriotic too.)

I pulled out of Peculiar, passed a sign saying “Nothing’s hard for God,” cranked up the radio and got the Eagles: “And I wanna sleep with you/ In the desert tonight/ With a billion stars all around/ Cause I got a peaceful easy feeling/And I know you won’t let me down ...”

Man, that felt good: a peaceful easy feeling is not something I’ve had about the U.S. in a while. But around Humansville (I didn’t ask), a country music station brought me this: “I’m just a common man/ Drive a common van/ And my dog ain’t got no pedigree/ I’m just happy to be free/ Way I wanna be/ Because highbrow people lose their saniteeee ...”

That did it. Not wishing to lose mine, I asked Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University, how Missouri’s battle of the Republican common man and the Democratic highbrow crowd was going since the Dow dived and the Bush presidency began its final descent into flames.

“There’s strong movement in Obama’s direction,” he said. “He was trailing by 10 points in August, and now two polls show him ahead. You’ve got a perfect storm for him. With the financial collapse, the Republican White House gets blamed. McCain’s looking rattled and disconnected on the economy. And Palin’s become a liability because she doesn’t look qualified for a crisis.”

In Branson, in southern Missouri, I met Gail Hinshaw, a business executive. He told me he’s an independent who’s “leaned Republican.” But, he said, “I’m an orthodox Republican, not big on big government, and who’s spent more or grown government more than this president?”

Hinshaw said no person has all the answers. So he’s looking for someone who can pull people together. It’s time, he said, to paint or get off the ladder. He senses movement toward Obama as independents like him decide. “We got to do something different.”

Missouri’s still a toss-up. But if the Hinshaw drift continues in Republican areas and Obama wins the state, he’ll likely be elected president by a landslide. Compared to Missouri, most other battleground states look more comfortable for him.

I’m starting to believe in a Republican bloodbath. You can’t fool all the people all the time. As Quayle noted, “The future will be better tomorrow.”

Link to article:

sábado, 4 de outubro de 2008

Dick Cheney, Role Model for Sarah Palin?

Dick Cheney, Role Model

New York Times, October 3, 2008

In all the talk about the vice-presidential debate, there was an issue that did not get much attention but kept nagging at us: Sarah Palin’s description of the role and the responsibilities of the office for which she is running, vice president of the United States.

In Thursday night’s debate, Ms. Palin was asked about the vice president’s role in government. She said she agreed with Dick Cheney that “we have a lot of flexibility in there” under the Constitution. And she declared that she was “thankful that the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president also, if that vice president so chose to exert it.”

It is hard to tell from Ms. Palin’s remarks whether she understands how profoundly Dick Cheney has reshaped the vice presidency — as part of a larger drive to free the executive branch from all checks and balances. Nor did she seem to understand how much damage that has done to American democracy.

Mr. Cheney has shown what can happen when a vice president — a position that is easy to lampoon and overlook — is given free rein by the president and does not care about trampling on the Constitution.

Mr. Cheney has long taken the bizarre view that the lesson of Watergate was that Congress was too powerful and the president not powerful enough. He dedicated himself to expanding President Bush’s authority and arrogating to himself executive, legislative and legal powers that are nowhere in the Constitution.

This isn’t the first time that Ms. Palin was confronted with the issue. In an interview with Katie Couric of CBS News, the Alaska governor was asked what she thought was the best and worst about the Cheney vice presidency. Ms. Palin tried to dodge: laughing and joking about the hunting accident in which Mr. Cheney accidentally shot a friend. The only thing she had to add was that Mr. Cheney showed support for the troops in Iraq.

There was not a word about Mr. Cheney’s role in starting the war with Iraq, in misleading Americans about weapons of mass destruction, in leading the charge to create illegal prison camps where detainees are tortured, in illegally wiretapping Americans, in creating an energy policy that favored the oil industry that made him very rich before the administration began.

Ms. Couric asked Joseph Biden, Ms. Palin’s rival, the same question in a separate interview. He had it exactly right when he told her that Mr. Cheney’s theory of the “unitary executive” held that “Congress and the people have no power in a time of war.” And he had it right in the debate when he called Mr. Cheney “the most dangerous vice president we’ve had in American history.”

The Constitution does not state or imply any flexibility in the office of vice president. It gives the vice president no legislative responsibilities other than casting a tie-breaking vote in the Senate when needed and no executive powers at all. The vice president’s constitutional role is to be ready to serve if the president dies or becomes incapacitated.

Any president deserves a vice president who will be a sound adviser and trustworthy supporter. But the American people also deserve and need a vice president who understands and respects the balance of power — and the limits of his or her own power. That is fundamental to our democracy.

So far, Ms. Palin has it exactly, frighteningly wrong.

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