Archive

November 17th, 2015

Gifts With Meaning

    It’s time for my annual holiday gift guide, the chance to recommend presents more meaningful than a tie or sweater.

    For $20, through Heifer International (heifer.org), you can buy a flock of ducks and help a family work its way to a better life. Or $74 through CARE (care.org) pays for a schoolgirl’s books and supplies so she can attend school for a year — and girls’ education may be the highest-return investment available in the world today.

    Here are some other ideas:

    — We’re seeing painful upheavals about race on university campuses these days, but the civil rights issue in America today is our pre-K through 12th grade education system, which routinely sends the neediest kids to the worst schools. To address these roots of inequality, a group called Communities in Schools (communitiesinschools.org) supports disadvantaged kids, mostly black and Latino, in elementary, middle and high schools around the country.

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Date Night With the Democrats

    This weekend’s Democratic debate is going to be a tough sell. Two hours on a Saturday night, and not a single candidate who appears to be certifiably deranged.

    There are only three Democrats left in the contest, and none of them has compared the competition to a child molester. None seems to have an unusually creative theory on why the pyramids were built. Yawn. CBS News, which is airing the debate, has promised to focus on the economy, so there probably won’t even be a pop quiz about which woman the candidates would like to see on the 10-dollar bill. Although I suspect they’d all have a better answer than Jeb Bush’s “Margaret Thatcher.”

    Maybe there will be music. Requests from the audience? Martin O’Malley plays in a band. And Bernie Sanders actually once made an album. In fact, if you’re going to watch this event, an excellent way to prepare would be by listening to Sanders talk his way through “This Land Is Your Land.”

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Republicans’ Lust for Gold

    It’s not too hard to understand why everyone seeking the Republican presidential nomination is proposing huge tax cuts for the rich. Just follow the money: Candidates in the GOP primary draw the bulk of their financial support from a few dozen extremely wealthy families. Furthermore, decades of indoctrination have made an essentially religious faith in the virtues of high-end tax cuts — a faith impervious to evidence — a central part of Republican identity.

    But what we saw in Tuesday’s presidential debate was something relatively new on the policy front: an increasingly unified Republican demand for hard-money policies, even in a depressed economy. Ted Cruz demands a return to the gold standard. Jeb Bush says he isn’t sure about that, but is open to the idea. Marco Rubio wants the Fed to focus solely on price stability, and stop worrying about unemployment. Donald Trump and Ben Carson see a pro-Obama conspiracy behind the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rate policy.

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Free speech vs. racial respect? Why not both?

    Two important principles are clashing on university campuses these days from Yale to Missouri and beyond. On one side we have the principle of free expression. On the other, the principle that minority students -- and their allies -- should have "safe spaces," protected from "micro-aggressions" and other tone-deaf insults.

    You can see the problem already, can't you?

    Freedom from being offended is a noble goal but it's not always possible, partly because we all have vastly different ideas about what offends us.

    Those issues came to a head on the University of Missouri campus when a media studies professor bullied a student photographer in videos that quickly went viral.

    In the video, Melissa Click -- an assistant professor in the university's Communication Department, of all places, -- tells reporters to leave the quad that black student protesters had occupied and she loudly calls for "muscle" to force the move.

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How to deflate the polls

    Now that one of the Republican presidential debates has focused on substantive examination of the candidates' policy views, it's not too late to address the glaring injustice of choosing the participants by their standing in the public-opinion polls.

    The travesty in the first four rounds of relegating some of them to the "undercard" never should have happened. It was as if the election process was like another night of boxing at Madison Square Garden and should not continue excluding from the main event some of party's most accomplished politicians.

    At the outset, the Republican National Committee and the sponsoring news outlets decided that in the television era, having the then-17 declared GOP presidential aspirants all on one stage would be unwieldy. So the top 10 finishers in an amalgam of the major polls got to appear in the first one, and the remainder were assigned to a sort of junior-varsity debate.

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The Islamic State's trap for Europe

    Last week, President Barack Obama said that the Islamic State is "contained" in Iraq and Syria, but the group's attacks in Paris soon afterward showed that it poses a greater threat to the West than ever. The Islamic State is executing a global strategy to defend its territory in Iraq and Syria, foster affiliates in other Muslim-majority areas, and encourage and direct terrorist attacks in the wider world. It has exported its brutality and military methods to groups in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now it is using tactical skills acquired on Middle Eastern battlefields to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash that will generate even more recruits within Western societies. The United States and its allies must respond quickly to this threat.

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Is posting support for Paris on Facebook narcissistic, or heartfelt?

    We were in Paris, but we were more than a mile from the attacks, enjoying a quiet Friday night dinner at an Alsatian restaurant, just as people on vacation do. Our first indication that something bad had happened wasn't the sound of gunfire or explosions, but the buzz of a text from a family member back home: "Are you ok?"

    We hurried out of there, and 15 minutes later, safe in our hotel room, my husband updated his Facebook status. I did the same.

    As the night wore on, I was prompted by Facebook's "Safety Check" feature: A message on my app asked, "Are you OK?" I marked myself safe. It got more than 100 likes. And that's when I started to feel guilty. Did broadcasting my safety imply that I had actually been in danger, inserting myself into a tragedy I didn't witness? Or was it just an efficient way to tell friends and family not to worry?

    Chatting with fellow travelers on the train from Paris to London the next morning, some told me they found such use of social media distasteful.

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Ukraine's civil (service) war

    The grim, Soviet-era concrete block that houses the regional government here has sprouted an unlikely appendage: an airy glass box crammed with gleaming new workstations and a team of lawyers. Its purpose is to field the complaints of the deeply frustrated people of this historic Black Sea port, which belongs to Ukraine but which Vladimir Putin considers a rightful part of Russia. In its first three weeks, it was swamped with 3,500 cases.

    The author of this experiment in responsive government is a still more unlikely figure: Mikheil Saakashvili, the revolutionary-turned-president of Georgia, whose decade-long drive to consolidate a pro-Western regime in that former Soviet republic made him the nemesis of Putin and a polarizing figure in Western capitals. Driven out of Georgia after a lost election, Saakashvili has installed himself and a multinational team in the middle of Ukraine's turbulent effort to fend off Putin's military invasion and create an economy and political system purged of Putin's corrupt authoritarianism.

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'Act of war' is good rhetoric, bad terror policy

    When French President Francois Hollande said Friday's attacks on Paris were an "act of war," he was following a script set by George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Rhetorically, invoking the language of war to describe a terrorist attack sends a message of seriousness and outrage. But as the United States's post 9/11 wars show, it isn't always wise to elevate a terrorist group to the level of the sovereign entities that traditionally have the authority to make war.

    This was a mistake with respect to al-Qaida, but it's a greater mistake when it comes to Islamic State, whose primary aspiration is to achieve statehood. By saying that Islamic State is in a war with France, Hollande is unwittingly giving the ragtag group the international stature it seeks.

    The consequences of Hollande's declaration go beyond the public relations boon to the Sunni militant group, which has otherwise been struggling to stay in the headlines and gain the adherents it needs to control territory. A head of state who says that war has been made against his country must have a credible response in mind.

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Choosing the right kind of war on terrorism

    Big terror attacks have a way of forcing governments into action, and so it is already proving with Friday night's slaughter in Paris. The question -- and not just for France -- is what action.

    It is so easy to get this wrong, as the United States proved with its "war on terror" in Iraq after 9/11. This isn't about the words. French President Francois Hollande said Friday's highly organized, multi-fronted terrorist operation was an act of war and it surely was. It's about what the words are used for.

    Before Hollande decides what "pitiless" response to make against Islamic State, he needs to clarify two questions: What war? And against whom is Islamic State waging it?

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