Saturday, March 10, 2007

This morning it’s Judith Warner discussing the death of Cinderella and Rory Stewart on Politics Lite. Here’s Ms. Warner:

We were laid out on the couch the other weekend, stopped in our tracks by an unforeseen afternoon broadcast of “Maid in Manhattan,” when an importantmoment of sociological revelation arose.

Ralph Fiennes’s character, the Senate candidate Christopher Marshall, and Jennifer Lopez’s Marisa Ventura, a hotel maid mistaken by Marshall for a socialite, locked eyes for a searing moment. “I only came to tell you that this, you and me, can’t go anywhere beyond this evening,” J. Lo said.

“Well then,” purred the man best known for his impersonation of a sadistic Nazi, “you should’ve worn a different dress.”

“Why’d he say that?” asked my daughter Emilie, who is nearly 7.

“He said that,” I answered, “because he is arrogant. He’s a man who’s used to getting his way. He figures that he knows better than she does why she’s wearing that dress.”

“Tradition! Tradition!” Nine-year-old Julia was booming upstairs, simultaneously embroidering, dressing the dog, cleaning her room, listening to Bill Harley and practicing for her school musical.

“It’s just a fairy tale, Em,” my husband, Max, said with a sigh. “A Cinderella story.”

“A stupid Cinderella,” she countered. But nothing then — not Monopoly, not War, not even a go at the hypertoxic crystal-making kit — could make her peel her eyes away.

I shouldn’t have worried. And I could have spared her the lesson in dime-store feminism. Truth is, in the real world, the fantasy of a highly successful man swooping down to make off with a winsome, wide-eyed maid is pretty well dead. Instead, according to recent sociological research, what these alpha males are doing is marrying equally high-octane women.

It’s the latest twist in what social scientists call “assortative mating” — like marrying like, in normal-people-speak — and it’s been going on pretty much forever. But until recently, according to the sociologist Barbara Risman at the Council on Contemporary Families, the phenomenon played out in terms of race, ethnicity or the social class of origin. “It never before meant men and women were choosing each other or were like each other in terms of achievement level in the work world,” she said.

The coming together of equally well-educated and successful people can be very good, particularly when worldly ambition doesn’t fly to extremes and the partnership translates into more equal task-sharing and co-parenting. But the mating of like-wired colleagues and college pals is raising some questions as well.

Some economists worry that the concentration of income in high-achieving two-earner homes is aggravating the wealth gap. Some evolutionary psychologists say that pumping up certain kids’ genes for intelligence will increase the achievement gap (by creating supersmart kids with an even more unfair advantage than their smart parents had).

In Britain, Simon Baron-Cohen, the Autism Research Center director at the University of Cambridge, postulates that assortative mating among people with great skills in understanding and building systems, like engineers and economists, may be linked to the greater numbers of autistic children. Similar hypotheses have been floated around to explain the increased and earlier incidence of bipolar disorder and anorexia (too many perfectionists marrying perfectionists, too little “hybrid vigor”).

This is all speculation. For our family, though, the message is clear: if Emilie persists in her declared career path of being “a artist,” she isn’t likely to be swept off her feet by an investment banker and to spend her life working within the velvet bondage of having him pay her Bergdorf’s bills. She’s more likely to marry a guy she meets in art school, whose economic prospects will be as dim as her own.

All that bodes badly for a future in which she was supposed to grow up and take care of her parents, writers who bonded over their mutual dislike of Thomas Wolfe — “O rock, o leaf, o pretzel,” Max wrote to me — and over their shared ambition of reading as many books as possible while living as expensively as possible and working, perhaps, not at all.

Julia plans to spend her life swimming with dolphins. It just goes to show: if you’re going to marry your soul mate, better beware of the content of your soul.

Correction: In my last column, the names Clare Boothe Luce and Ted Sorensen were misspelled (shades of idiocracy!).

Judith Warner is the author of “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. She is a guest Op-Ed columnist this month. You are invited to comment on this column on Ms. Warner's blog, Domestic Disturbances.

And now here’s Rory Stewart:

The accepted wisdom in British political circles is that Tony Blair won three elections by giving the British voters charisma and energy unfettered by dull or controversial policies. The Tories have now taken the lesson to heart. They are fighting back with feel-good, idea-light campaigns of their own, and it seems to be working. They are now significantly ahead in the polls.

This is not just electoral strategy. Many of them believe that we live in a postideological age, that there are no great questions anymore and that there can be no new solutions for domestic poverty or problems with immigration, energy or the economy.

But why do people stand as politicians if they have no policies? Many politicians claim privately that they are simply concealing their policies until they are elected. It is more likely that when the winds of office change in their favor, they will find their faces frozen into an expression of affable inaction. The role of a modern politician is apparently to be likable, to tinker with existing institutions and to manage occasional crises.

Churchill has been replaced by Bertie Wooster.

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands have died over the last few years and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent by the U.S.-led coalition. The international system is fractured; the Islamic world is angry. Yet both major British political parties still refuse to admit the problem and instead tweak the current mission: withdraw some troops from Iraq, put a few more in Afghanistan.

A million people took to London’s streets to stop the invasion. Thirty million now think we should withdraw from Iraq. Whatever the correct policy, there should be a fierce practical and ideological political debate. But it is not happening in Parliament.

Even though Britain is in a crisis, its other major policy issues seem to be approached with the same complacency. In many parts of the country, Asian Muslim and white communities live separate lives; people shun each other at school and in the streets and defend themselves in gangs.

This very wealthy country has pockets of shameful poverty. I have encountered a level of random hostility, aggression and bitterness in Scottish public housing that I have never seen in an Afghan village. British “civilization” is as tainted by this inequity as Rome by the Colosseum.

The Labor Party continues to invest in child poverty, but three weeks ago a U.N. agency ranked Britain 18th out of 18 rich countries in a study of children’s well-being. (The United States was 17th.) Islamist terror is answered with unprecedented levels of money and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and comparatively little investment in intelligence and security, community relations and politics at home.

In Kabul I work with a local government councilor called Aziz, who was a champion wrestler. For 40 years, he has dealt with war, pogroms and government. He is assessed by members of his community on whether he is generous to the poor, courageous even in the face of death, a powerful representative of their interests and able to keep his promises. He and they believe that leadership is an exercise in moral virtue and courage, that politics should be a noble profession and politicians virtuous. A British voter might think that is naïve. But I believe Aziz is right.

It is patronizing to assume that voters can’t handle demanding, imaginative and risky policies. More Britons voted for the contestants on the TV programs “Big Brother” and “Pop Idol” last year than in the national elections. But the way to persuade people to vote is to make politics less, not more, like “Big Brother.”

We are as reluctant to acknowledge the popularity of the Taliban as we are to acknowledge poverty in Glasgow. We are as reluctant to believe in the Iraqis’ ability to build a nation without us as we are to believe that our citizens will make sacrifices to prevent global warming. Courage, honesty about problems and faith in the population is as necessary domestically as it is abroad. Our failure in these areas explains our hubristic confidence internationally and our cynicism and lack of ambition at home.

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month. Maureen Dowd is on leave.

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