Five Best Tuesday Columns

Misquoting, weak European militaries, and Congolese family planning

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The New York Times editors on Europe's free-riding militaries  The Libyan people can take credit for much of the battle that brought an end to the Qaddafi regime, but NATO air power played an undeniably important role. Britain and France should feel good about their contribution, writes The New York Times editorial board. Still, "this was NATO's first attempt at sustained combat operations with the United States playing a support role. Europe's military capabilities fell far short of what was needed, even for such a limited fight." President Obama insisted on NATO involvement, as he should have. But "shortfalls of specialized aircraft, bombs and targeting specialists plagued NATO operations. The effects would have been even more damaging if Washington had not stepped in to help plug some of these critical gaps." Most European militaries have failed to keep up with technological advances, training their armies to defend peaceful borders, and leaving themselves unable to lend a hand in engagements from Afghanistan to Libya. "For decades, European nations have counted on a free-spending Pentagon to provide the needed capabilities they failed to provide themselves. The Pentagon is now under intense and legitimate pressure to meet America's security needs more economically. It can no longer afford to provide affluent allies with a free ride."

Michael Gerson on family planning in the Democratic Republic of the Congo  Walking through a village in the Democratic Republica of the Congo, a visitor will notice many children but a lack of middle aged women. "In this part of Congo, the complications of childbirth are as dangerous as the militias in the countryside," writes Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. "Women sometimes deliver in the fields while working. Medical help can be a few days' journey away. Each birth raises the odds of a hemorrhage, infection or rupture." Gerson describes one group of about 6,000 women who have joined together to help one another. Each contributes about 20 cents a week to a common fund that pays for a woman's transportation to medical facilities. They also advise family planning, a phrase, Gerson admits, which evokes America's culture wars. But "close up, in places such as Bweremana, family planning is undeniably pro-life," Gerson argues. "When births are spaced more than 24 months apart, both mothers and children are dramatically more likely to survive... When contraceptive prevalence is low, about 70 percent of all births involve serious risk. When prevalence is high, the figure is 35 percent." This does not imply support for abortion. Even the stringent Catholic Church sees use of preventative measures as morally different from abortion, and American evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly approve of hormonal and barrier birth control methods. Yet the family planning efforts in Africa have become controversial. "Some liberal advocates of family planning believe that it is inseparable from abortion rights--while some conservative opponents of family planning believe exactly the same thing, leading them to distrust the entire enterprise." But women in the DRC have enough problems without taking on America's debates.

Brian Morton on misquoting the quotable  Sitting in a coffee shop recently, novelist Brian Morton saw a mug that quoted Henry David Thoreau: "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined." Morton found the use of the exclamation point suspect, he writes in The New York Times. He went home and looked up the quote. Thoreau's actual words, from Walden, are these: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." The meaning, Morton notes, is decidedly more subtle than the coffee mug would have us believe. Other inspirational figures, too, have had their quotes tweaked over time. Morton has found numerous examples of important figures whom we remember for pithy, inspiring phrases which they never uttered. In his favorite example, we cite Nelson Mandela saying, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?" Odd, Morton says, "laughable" even, that Nelson Mandela would emerge from years in political prison to tell us we are "fabulous." "In fact, the words aren't even his; they belong to a self-help guru, Marianne Williamson," Morton says. The men and women we misquote were important and inspiring figures. But their glossy makeovers do not emphasize enough that they each knew personal sacrifice and struggle. This is the result of a generation that thinks we can reinvent ourselves at will. "So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions... They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all."

Bret Stephens on over-reacting to Irene  On the day Hurricane Irene hit Connecticut, Bret Stephens sat in his parents' house as huge branches came crashing down, threatening to bust up the glass-walled kitchen. "Should we have found safer ground to ride out Hurricane Irene? Maybe. Then again, my parents' home in Connecticut was our family's best option after Mike Bloomberg had ordered my entire Manhattan neighborhood... evacuated by no later than 5 p.m. on Saturday," Stephens writes in The Wall Street Journal. Most New Yorkers would have been safer had they stayed put in their high rises rather than escape to less sturdy suburban houses, he argues. Bloomberg doesn't deserve all the blame, though. It can be difficult to predict what a storm like Irene will do. "What is predictable, however, is our bias toward alarm. Nobody wants another Katrina. And, as they say about war, so too about hurricanes: policy makers tend to fight the last one." People will credit Bloomberg with taking appropriate cautions because no New Yorkers died. But had a displaced New Yorker been killed by a branch that fell slightly differently, it would be a different story, Stephens says. The response to Irene would have been more effective, too, if the media had focused less on New York. Vermont was one of the hardest hit states, and yet in the coverage leading up to the storm, Stephens found two stories that mentioned it, compared with 347 that covered New York's prospects.

Dalton Conley on connectivity and a lack of intimacy  "When I was 18," Dalton Conley writes in Bloomberg View, "I did what many middle-class American college students have done ever since air travel became broadly accessible: I backpacked through Europe on a rail pass." Conley struck out on his own, calling his parents every few days for five minutes at a time to say he was still alive. He once spent far too long at the counter of a bakery in Paris, rehearsing how to ask for a baguette in French, only to be rebuffed when he got the noun's gender wrong. Young Americans' rites of passage, trips of self-discovery, have long been a tradition. "Time away from our social networks as young adults helps us figure out who we are, and become fully individual," he writes.  "As of late, however, our time in the social wilderness has been eroded by omnipresent connectivity -- that is, the mobile telecommunications device. And I'm afraid that with no solitude, we will become less, not more, connected to our friends and families. Without loneliness, our society will innovate less." It is important, Conley writes, to "have a backstage," a place and time when we can remove ourselves from the public view to understand our true selves. "Until we have (and can protect) that private self, we can't be intimate with another. Intimacy, to extend the theatrical metaphor, is like giving backstage passes to a select few. It rests on the private self remaining distinct from the public self, so that you have something to offer chosen friends and family members." A colleague Conley had never met recently announced on Facebook that he was getting a divorce. "I felt squeamish for having read this painful, personal information that I really shouldn't know. But more and more private interactions now take place in broadcast mode -- front stage." Conley hopes his own children will someday backpack through Europe, and forget to bring their cell phones.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.