It is generally agreed that U.S. Congressmen (women less) are probably the most ineffectual group of prominent Americans alive today. Most any other group you take, Hollywood actors, professional athletes, business leaders, circus performers and magicians, even those way down on the most effective list, teachers, medical doctors, and lawyers, are all more productive than the members of the House and Senate.
If there were another group to rival them in ineffectiveness it might be the pundits, the talking heads, the op ed writers. But this group gets off easy because we expect nothing from them but words, and words are certainly what they give us, a lot of them. And in fact, I’m one of their followers, myself a word man, and especially do I follow the op writers of the NYTimes.
Of the some 10 to 15 Times op ed columnists as well as some 15 to 20 or any number more of contributing writers I have settled my daily reading habits onto some five or six who have become an integral part of the start of my day. A source of ideas for my blog posts, to say the least.
These five or six whom I call regulars are David Brooks, Frank Bruni, Roger Cohen, Thomas Friedman, and Paul Krugman, and less often Ross Douthat. There are times when I’m very much attached to the one or the other. I’ve had my David Brooks and Paul Krugman periods or moments (over at this moment). And there are times when I want to almost memorize and post on my wall the op ed pieces of Frank Bruni and Roger Cohen (that’s happening right now).
Finally, I might ask, what do I do, what does one do with Thomas Friedman? Well there’s a reason he gets the interviews with the President. He’s the wisest (and also the oldest?) of them all. I don’t think he’s ever written anything from which I haven’t grown my own knowledge of the world, and have just about always agreed with.
But these five or six, while saying all the right things, mostly coming to the right opinions and conclusions regarding what’s happening in the world, are like our representatives in Congress, completely ineffectual in making real change happen. (An example, Friedman’s recent interview with the President… what did Obama do differently following his conversation with Friedman? I don’t think he even got up onto the bully pulpit.)
And it’s not the fault of the pundits. (Our representatives in the Congress, that’s something else.) Because change never happens that way. Change when it does come is forced upon us, and not by the words of the opinion makers, but by the people themselves who can’t take it any more, whatever it might be, —Jim Crow, failing schools, job losses, lack of health insurance, and have lost patience with all that’s not being done, and as a result are finally listened to, although by the candidates more than the office holders.
Now I want to take one of my favorite op ed writers, Roger Cohen, and in particular look at the issues he raises in his last four pieces, the first four of the month of August.
In all four Cohen is writing about Europe and America, about truths we would rather ignore, about serious failings of both to take much needed actions. And as you will see, athough his words have probably tens of thousands of readers, nothing out there will be changed by what he says, no more than the country’s problems will be lessened, let alone solved by the words of our representatives in Washington.
The 28 nations of the EU or European Union are first reproached by Cohen in his August 3rd piece for their failure to respond adequately to the migrant crisis (The Migrant Crisis in Calais Exposes a Europe Without Ideas). Cohen is quite simply dumbfounded by what he calls the piecemeal small-mindedness of these nations. He is dumbfounded by what is happening, by what the Union is allowing to happen:
As the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe soars to more than 100,000, European leaders are struggling to come up with solutions.
Plans to resettle tens of thousands of migrants across Europe and break up the smuggling networks have yet to be agreed upon.
(Migrants: What can Europe achieve? from Paul Adams, BBC News, 16 June 2015)
And in regard to the European Union Cohen doesn’t fail to point out that Vladimir Putin is there in the wings, waiting to make his move, whatever it may be to extend the influence of Russia into Europe proper.
Then, just a few days later, on 8/6, Cohen lets up a bit on Europe and goes after America, the one representing “social solidarity” and the other “individual self-reliance,” as he goes on to say, “the state as defender, the state as predator, the dutiful public servant and the disruptive entrepreneur. Europe purrs, America revs.”
This piece is called, Incurable American Excess. Europeans, he goes on to say, are hardwired to social protection, Americans to an individualism that rewards and ravages. Is my favorite Times op ed writer a socialist? Well I don’t think so. But he would push us a bit back from the pole of individualism to the pole of community. I’m with him in that although I would say that the line between the two hasn’t yet been drawn to the satisfaction of all, as witness the shouting matches not only between the Republican candidates for president themselves but also between the Democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders and everybody else
So the EU comes off poorly in the first piece, America in the second. What happens in the third? Well here in Europe’s Deepest Debt, Cohen is back in Europe making a point that probably should have been made months ago at the very beginning of the Grexit story, making the point that the biggest European debtor is not Greece but the leader and wealthiest member of the Union, Germany.
In other words most of what Europe lost, in riches, but even more so in the lost lives of people, can be immediately attributed to the one country Germany. How many of those 36.5 million dead during WWII are a debt that Germany incurred and will never repay? As Cohen concludes, “Germany’s debt to Europe can never be repaid. It is the real and deepest one.”
And Cohen goes on to say, “It also seems to me impossible to consider any of Europe’s current dilemmas — from the uses of German power, to Vladimir Putin’s new threat, to the fate of desperate refugees, to the survival of Europe’s common currency — without this reference point.”
That was 8/10. Where could Cohen go next. What would be up to interest level of the Union’s Migrant Crisis, America’s Excess, and Germany’s debt? From highlighting the failures, the moral failures of both the EU and America, what would Cohen turn to next? Well that’s what I admire about this guy. He knows what’s most important, and that’s what mostly gets his attention.
If you haven’t already guessed his next subject, the subject of his 8/13 piece, Why ISIS Trumps Freedom, well it’s ISIS, something we’re all thinking about. And in particular what is it about the terrorist organization that attracts young people to join the black clad young men and women in the picture below?
Cohen asks what we all ask, what is it that attracts tens of thousands of young people, from America and Western Europe, as well as from the Arab/Sunni lands of the Middle and Near East, to the battle grounds of Iraq and Syria, where thousands of them will lose their lives in battle?
For Cohen the answer is clear and simple. By donning the black shirt the young men and women become a part of something much bigger than themselves, a religion of almost their own creation and while completely off the wall, wearing the widely honored and respected name of Islam, and in doing so they relieve themselves of that condition from which they had most suffered in their lives up until then, from what had become the terrible burden of freedom.
One might say that it’s Cohen’s terrible excess of individualism in America, and now throughout the world, what they are fleeing. They are turning from us, from what they see as our irreligious, decadent, and relativist culture. And not too different from Vladimir Putin, and the far right in the countries of Europe, and even in America, they see us as being intent imposing our “subversive” values on them, and so doing under the cover of democracy, freedom and human rights promotion.
I guess finally what draws me to Cohen is his always seeming to be right on top of the major cultural and moral issues of our time. And he doesn’t hesitate to point out our failure to deal adequately with these issues. Is he truthful? Yes. Is he honest? Yes. Is he hopeful about the future? I don’t know. But he does say in his piece about America’s excesses:
The question, of course, is whether America’s virtues — its creative churn, vitality and energy — are intrinsic to these vices. My own pessimistic conclusion is that they probably are.