Saturday, August 23, 2014

William Kristol Analyzes President Obama

William Kristol has provided an excellent analysis of President Obama’s remarks about the death of James Foley.

Obama began:

Today, the entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group ISIL.


The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him. 

To Kristol the rhetoric manifested what trendy leftists thinkers call their cosmopolitanism, their refusal to believe in nations, national boundaries and national borders:

The president thinks of himself as a “citizen of the world.” Therefore he chose to speak not just for America but for “the entire world.” The entire world seems to have, according to this president, a higher moral status, a higher political standing, than the mere nation-state he was elected to lead. So the president invoked the conscience of the world rather than speaking on behalf of James Foley’s fellow citizens.

But cosmopolitanism is never quite enough. Does “the entire world,” after all, really have a conscience? So the president ventured beyond this-worldly cosmopolitanism. He asserted of the terrorists that “no just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”

Kristol is right. The whole world does not have a conscience and the whole world is not going to rise up to avenge the death of an American journalist. Moreover, no human being gains an identity by being part of the whole world.

Moreover, Obama's sentence can be read in two ways. It could mean that Allah is not a just god or it could mean that terrorists worship idols?

Then, Obama offered a trenchant critique of deconstruction:

People like [ISIS] ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.

Whatever else it is, deconstruction—which is a translation of the original German word Destruktion—is about taking apart what others have put together. Someone should pass the word to the humanities professors who think that the future belongs to those who deconstruct.

Be that as it may, Kristol points out the passive tone of Obama’s remark. Obama seemed to have been saying that time and history will finish off ISIS. He may well be right.

Nevertheless, Kristol notes, he is president of the United States. History will do its work, but it needs agents to wield the arms:

Surely all Americans join the president in praying that the killers will face a just God. Surely all Americans join the president in trusting that “people like this ultimately fail.” But Americans also know that “ultimately” might be a very long time. A lot of innocents can die before then. And that ultimate failure isn’t typically caused by the actions of “the entire world,” and perhaps not even by those of a just God. The president said that the killers fail “because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.” But to make “people like this” fail, the builders need to dedicate themselves to destroying the destroyers. In the past century, the evildoers failed because America and its allies fought them and defeated them.

Obama did eventually state that America would act against ISIS. But his voice was passive. As was that of John Kerry. Later, Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey rushed to the microphones to assert more toughness.

In Kristol’s words:

The president’s words were so vague and weak that Secretary of State John Kerry apparently felt he had to weigh in. So he took to Twitter, the bully pulpit of the 21st century, shortly after the president left for a round of golf, to send a tougher message. “ISIL will be destroyed/will be crushed,” Kerry tweeted.

Doesn’t the passive voice, though, undercut the toughness? Who is going to be doing the destroying and the crushing? And doesn’t the prophetic conceit undercut the credibility? Is John Kerry a reliable guide to the future? He hasn’t been before. His last such prophecy was that Syria’s Assad would be gone. In any case, prophecy is no substitute for policy. And Vice President Joe Biden said on the same day that the beheading of James Foley would mean no change in U.S. policy.

In fairness, Obama did say that America would bring justice to those who had murdered James Foley.

To him, this meant that he was going to sic the FBI on them. He wants to prosecute the killers in federal court.

True enough, we continue to bomb Iraq. Not to avenge James Foley. Not to punish ISIS… but for the eminently humanitarian goal of preventing genocide.

No one can object to a war against genocide. But, a war against genocide is not the same as a war to defend the American national interest.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dating Naked

Back in the day—that is, in the 1960s—television gave us The Dating Game. The show ran for a respectable number of years and was later revived in various incarnations.

The premise was simple. A bachelorette would choose a date from a selected group of three bachelors. Since the bachelors were hidden behind a screen she could not see them. She made her choice based on the way they answered her questions.

Thus, she chose based on wit, mind and personality.

It was, all agreed, a charming show. Choosing a partner for reasons that had nothing to do with looks was a great premise.

Today’s more modern version is called Dating Naked. It airs on VH-1, which used to be, if memory serves, a platform for music videos.

In the new show two people try to choose someone to date. They each have three dates, one with each other, two with two other people. During all of the dates, both parties are stark naked. Since this is television the private parts of all contestants are mostly blurred.

They are naked to each other. They are exposed to each other. They are naked and exposed to everyone on the set and in the crew. Their modesty is somewhat protected so that they do not expose themselves to the world.

At the end of the show each of the first contestants will choose another person to continue dating. The person chosen may accept or reject the advances.

Of course, the show claims that this is a more open and honest way of dating. It seems perfectly egalitarian, but still, you do not have to have had too much human experience to know that, of the two sexes, one is far more interested in seeing the other naked.

Here, equality puts the woman at a distinct disadvantage. To my knowledge the ever-vigilant Jezebelles have not noticed the sexism yet.

Most, but not all of the contestants proclaim that they are comfortable being naked, presumably because they have nothing to be ashamed of.

One notes, with some chagrin that the war against shame, the constant harping in the media about how bad shame is, how you have nothing to be ashamed of, how you should be proud of every one of your faults and foibles, has persuaded some young people that they should walk around naked in front of strangers and should proudly advertise the fact on television.

As I have been at pains to point out, those who are warring against shame do not really know what they are doing. They believe that they are helping people to overcome crippling emotions. They do not know that the first principle of shame is—to conceal your private parts.

Tell people to overcome shame and they will naturally be led to overshare, overexpose and become exhibitionists.

Which brings us to Jessie Nizewitz.

When she appeared on the third episode of the show, Nizewitz was the victim of a technical mishap. Apparently, whoever was responsible for blurring out her lady bits failed at the task and, for a brief second, Nizewitz’s sex was exposed to the world.

Nizewitz had declared herself comfortable being naked. When what The New York Post, infelicitously called the “crotch-blur” failed, she discovered that she was not that comfortable.

Viewers noticed the lapse and immediately informed the world on social media.

The Daily Mail reports:

After the episode aired, Ms Nizewitz said she immediately started hearing from people who'd seen the 'money shot,' including her parents and grandmother. 

And countless viewers posted about Ms Nizewitz on social media. A few even took screen-grabs of the moment and included them in their Tweets.

Naturally, she is suing. After all, this is America. 

Besides, a few people might have missed the shot of her exposed lady bits. 

As for the fallout, her grandmother is barely speaking to her. Her parents are annoyed. And the episode has cost her a budding relationship that she thought was headed to marriage.

The New York Post tells the sad denouement:

She added that the show cost her a “budding relationship” with a man she had been seeing for a month.

“He never called me again after the show aired. I would have hoped we could have had a long-term relationship. He was employed, Jewish, in his 30s and that’s pretty much ideal,” Nizewitz said.

I won’t prejudge her lawsuit, but I already know that were it not for the lawsuit, the story would have died on social media. Now it has been told in the international media.

If Nizewitz believes that this will restore her reputation, she has made another grievous error.

Nizewitz blames it all on the producers, and surely they were derelict in their duties. Still and all, she did choose voluntarily to bare herself to three strangers and to cavort with them in front of cameras. And she did it in front of a crew of more than a few people, to say nothing of the technicians who worked on the tape. (As you know, producing a television show involves large numbers of people, in production and post-production.)

It might have happened that her friends, family and potential boyfriends would have been nonplussed by her participation in the show. Stranger things have happened.

Still and all, participating in such a show and feeling comfortable being naked in front of strangers does not bespeak a very well developed sense of modesty.

One suspects that Nizewitz had not been dating the employed Jewish bachelor when she proclaimed her love of honest dating, but she should have foreseen that her naked antics not go down very well with the kind of serious man she wants to marry.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Embodied Cognition

New York Magazine, of all things, offers a fascinating report on the latest from neuroscience, the notion of “embodied cognition.” It’s a complicated and difficult topic, one that I discussed at length in The Last Psychoanalyst.

According to New York:

A burgeoning research area in psychology is the idea of embodied cognition — that is, not only does your brain tell your body what to do, but it works the other way around, too. In other words, the position of your body can influence your thoughts. Your yoga teacher might call it the mind-body connection; a pair of U.K. researchers, on the other hand, recently described it in the journal Frontiers as "the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems."

[The study from Frontiers is the most interesting and complete. It is too complicated to summarize on a blog, but, for those who are interested, it is well worth a read.]

We have been taught that the mind directs the body, that physical expressions, to say nothing of symptoms, are being commanded and controlled by a mind… one that Gilbert Ryle called the ghost in the machine.

If this is true, then the only way to change behavior or mood or attitude is to modify the mind that is controlling it. Many therapies take their cue from Freud and assert that the insight and awareness will cause sufficient mind-change to produce lasting symptom relief.

Others want you to get in touch with your deepest feelings, because once you learn about them you will no longer be expressing them through your behaviors.

In both cases, changing something about the mind is the royal road to changing behavior and attitude and mood. Note well that psychoanalysis, in particular, rejects the idea of changing behavior.

Unfortunately, the approach has never worked, so more savvy philosophers have suggested that we have gotten in backwards. The mind does not direct the body; behaviors do not express mental conflict. It’s the other way around.

By the alternate theory, symptomatic behaviors are bad habits and bad habits are impervious to understanding. To eliminate them you need to replace them with good habits. So said Aristotle, and his approach still works.

It may well be that this notion is new to neuroscience, but it has been alive and well in philosophy for decades now. As I mentioned in my book, the great modern thinkers in this field are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin and Saul Kripke.

When it comes to examples, New York offers yoga as an excellent example of changing your mind by adopting different bodily poses and by controlling your breathing.

Funnily enough, the message seems to have gotten garbled. Today’s paper reports that a lot more people are buying yoga apparel than are doing yoga. One suspects that wearing the clothing does have an effect on the mind, but it probably does not have the same effect as doing the exercises.

Now that I have mentioned it… how you dress, how you groom yourself, how you comport yourself… all of these have an effect on your mind. Isn’t it one of the principles that define military training?

Also in today’s news, it turns out, as many have suspected, that when a man retires from his job and spends more time hanging around the house, his mere presence is so disruptive of household routines that his wife is very likely to become depressed.

New York offers some pointers for how you can use this new research to improve yourself.

It reports that if you are having trouble solving a problem, you should try folding your arms. Apparently, this gesture, performed for no particular reason will make you more persistent in your pursuit of a solution.

And then, if you want to learn a new concept, you should move your hands, or, as they say, talk with your hands.

Rush to Judgment in Ferguson

Some time ago Nate Silver, statistician and prognosticator with the New York Times and now with ESPN divided Times op-ed columns into those that were fact-driven and those that were idea-driven.

He was distinguishing between columns that followed the facts wherever they led and columns that cherry-picked facts to affirm a prior belief.

Most, but not all of the commentaries about the conflict currently being played out on the streets of Freguson, MO have been idea-driven.

Even the governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon seemed to have prejudged the case. Of course, prejudging is another way of saying prejudice.

According to the governor and most commentators Darren Wilson murdered an unarmed teenager who was just minding his business… because the teenager was black.

A grand jury will decide, but, in the meantime there is more to the story.

Fox News reports some facts that have gotten lost in the hubbub:

Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo., police officer whose fatal shooting of Michael Brown touched off more than a week of demonstrations, suffered severe facial injuries, including an orbital (eye socket) fracture, and was nearly beaten unconscious by Brown moments before firing his gun, a source close to the department's top brass told

“The Assistant (Police) Chief took him to the hospital, his face all swollen on one side,” said the insider. “He was beaten very severely.” 

According to the well-placed source, Wilson was coming off another case in the neighborhood on Aug. 9 when he ordered Michael Brown and his friend Dorain Johnson to stop walking in the middle of the road because they were obstructing traffic. However, the confrontation quickly escalated into physical violence, the source said.

“They ignored him and the officer started to get out of the car to tell them to move," the source said. "They shoved him right back in, that’s when Michael Brown leans in and starts beating Officer Wilson in the head and the face."

The source claims that there is "solid proof" that there was a struggle between Brown and Wilson for the policeman’s firearm, resulting in the gun going off – although it still remains unclear at this stage who pulled the trigger. Brown started to walk away according to the account, prompting Wilson to draw his gun and order him to freeze. Brown, the source said, raised his hands in the air, and turned around saying, "What, you're going to shoot me?"

At that point, the source told, the 6-foot-4, 292-pound Brown charged Wilson, prompting the officer to fire at least six shots at him, including the fatal bullet that penetrated the top of Brown's skull, according to an independent autopsy conducted at the request of Brown's family.

Eventually, all of the facts will come out.

If this version is true, the reaction on the streets of Ferguson will end up looking like a rush to judgment.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Anomie Damages Your Heart

Freud had no use for the Biblical precept that you should love your neighbor. He certainly did not advise people to follow the precept that told them to love strangers.

To his mind, your neighbor wishes you nothing but ill. Therefore you should be wary when dealing with such a perfidious guttersnipe.

Therein is the difference between Freudian theory and the teaching that founded Western civilization. Freud taught mistrust. The Bible teaches trust. Freud accepted anomie. The Bible sought to help people to overcome it.

“Love thy neighbor” promotes social connection, a sense of belonging to a community. For a social being it’s a vital need.

Since Freud did not see humans as social beings, he thought that loving your neighbor was a trap, a lure, a ruse … designed to trick you into repressing your impulses and libidinous longings.

For more on the topic, see my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.

In the meantime, psychologist Eric Kim of the University of Michigan has put the idea to the test. He set out to measure the difference between people who were socially connected, who were on good terms with their neighbors, who exchanged pleasantries and information and those who were more Freudian, more distrustful and more hostile.

The results showed unequivocally that those who were more sociable and better connected had markedly less heart disease.

James Hamblin reported in The Atlantic:

People who know and trust their neighbors are less likely to have heart attacks. New research builds on the understated health benefits of a sense of belonging and community.

Social connection at the neighborhood level has long been known to be associated with good mental health, and some aspects of physical health. But this is the first study to look specifically at neighborhood social cohesion and heart attacks, which hit more than 700,000 Americans every year and cost everyone billions of dollars.

Of course, the study is subject to question and Kim has tried to address them.

According to Hamblin:

But does it really matter if you feel connected in your community, as long as you have relationships and connectedness somewhere? (Like, on the Internet?)

Rare among studies of its kind, Kim and colleagues controlled for social connectedness at the individual level. "We also controlled for dispositional factors,” he said, “thinking that perhaps optimistic people might think that they are more socially connected.” The survey included measures of optimism, and the analysis also accounted for things like age, race, income, marital status, education, mental health, and known risk factors for heart attacks like diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.

To be clear, your neighbors are a physical presence in your life. You connect with them by greeting them on the street or in the elevator. You face them and speak to them. The connection is more immediate than anything you could achieve by exchanging emails or text messages.

[One notes in passing that the champions of deconstruction believe that speech, voice and presence are valued by our civilization because they facilitate the repression of the primal instincts that would be unleashed if we spent more time communicating via writing. They might not put it exactly in those terms, but the implication is clear.]

Being a scientist, Kim does not make grandiose claims. He does not tout it as settled science. He suggests that even if the correlation does not bespeak a strict causation, being more friendly and outgoing with your neighbors cannot hurt you. [Obviously, he missed out on the Freudian formula for misery.]

In Hamblin’s words:

"Are you saying that people should get out and meet their neighbors and join community groups?" I asked.

"I don't think there's enough evidence for that,” Kim said, like a rock. “This is only a correlation; we didn't really isolate causation. But I really don't see how that could hurt."

And also:

Kim suggests that the cardiac prosperity he documented may come through people checking in on one another and noticing health problems, sharing health-related information, lending money and sharing resources, and “eyes on the street”—sociologist Jane Jacobs’ famous sociological principle that people protect people. "Since I'm a psychologist,” Kim said, “I also really believe in how helpful emotional support can be in buffering against the toxic effects of stress."

Note well, the felicitous term: “cardiac prosperity.”

Yet, the study measures only perceived social cohesion, not actual social cohesion. Surely, there is likely to be a direct correlation, but the correlation has not been demonstrated:

It's difficult to build tight-knit communities, but it's less difficult to help people feel connected. A major point in this study is that it didn’t measure actual social cohesion, just the subjects' sense of it. The journal article concludes: "Higher perceived social cohesions may have a protective effect against myocardial infarction." Emphasis mine. Does it matter if you have something, or just that you believe you have it? Everyone will define and understand cohesion differently. What do you consider trustworthy? Friendly? Does helpful mean calling 9-1-1 if you believe your neighbor is being murdered, or do you have to bring them soup whenever they look sad?

Questions remain, and clearly Hamblin, being a physician has his doubts. Still, it seems that loving your neighbor, being cordial and civil in your daily life will benefit your heart, and maybe you too.

Virtual Therapists

You knew it would come to this.

Real therapists replaced by virtual therapists.

Or, as The Economist puts it:

A virtual shrink may sometimes be better than the real thing.

This doesn’t sound like a rousing vote of confidence in the profession.

Credit to the artificial intelligence crowd, the new virtual therapists are very good indeed:

ELLIE is a psychologist, and a damned good one at that. Smile in a certain way, and she knows precisely what your smile means. Develop a nervous tic or tension in an eye, and she instantly picks up on it. She listens to what you say, processes every word, works out the meaning of your pitch, your tone, your posture, everything. She is at the top of her game but, according to a new study, her greatest asset is that she is not human.

This feels like a Freudian wish fulfillment. When Freud sat behind his patients, out of their line of sight, wasn’t he trying to trick them into thinking that he was not a human being?

Among their interesting new discoveries, computer scientists have discovered that people will be more open when speaking with an avatar.

Since some patients choose to hide some of their symptoms from their physicians, it is useful to construct a form of interaction that would facilitate disclosure of embarrassing details. This applies especially to soldiers who are suffering from signs of PTSD and who prefer not to admit to having symptoms.

Obviously, Freud took it a little too far. It’s one thing to create a form of doctor/patient interaction that will facilitate the disclosure of embarrassing symptoms. It is quite another to teach people the bad habit of treating human beings as though they were avatars.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Workforce Investment Act

Amazingly, many citizens still believe that government programs will solve all the nation’s problems.

Many politicians—both Democrat and Republican—think it’s a great idea to provide vocational training for laid off workers. They voted for the Workforce Investment Act. It must have looked great on paper. Who wants to be against investment in the future of our workforce?

The act dates to the Clinton administration. According to the New York Times:

The law was enacted in 1998 and expanded in 2009 as part of the federal economic stimulus package. As the economy has improved — which has led more of the long-term unemployed to try to re-enter the labor market — training and apprenticeships have become a central component of the Obama administration’s plan to match the unemployed with job openings. About 21 million jobless people entered retraining in 2012.

Obviously, the word “investment” has become the preferred euphemism for government spending.

But, if it was an investment, we should want to know how well it has paid off.

In practice, the Times reports, the act has left people jobless and in debt.

Here is the New York Times account of one participant in one government program:

When the financial crisis crippled the construction industry seven years ago, Joe DeGrella’s contracting company failed, leaving him looking for what he hoped would be the last job he would ever need.

He took each step in line with the advice of the federal government: He met with an unemployment counselor who provided him with a list of job titles the Labor Department determined to be in high demand, he picked from among colleges that offered government-certified job-training courses, and he received a federal retraining grant.

In 2009, Mr. DeGrella, began a course at Daymar College — a for-profit vocational institute in Louisville — to become a cardiology technician. Daymar officials told him he would have a well-paying job within weeks of graduation.

But after about two years of studying cardiovascular physiology and the mechanics of electrocardiograms, Mr. DeGrella, now 57, found himself jobless and $20,000 in debt. He moved into his sister’s basement and now works at an AutoZone.

Obviously, this case is anecdotal. To its credit the Times did the hard reporting on the program. Its conclusions are not encouraging:

Instead, an extensive analysis of the program by The New York Times shows, many graduates wind up significantly worse off than when they started — mired in unemployment and debt from training for positions that do not exist, and they end up working elsewhere for minimum wage.

Split between federal and state governments — federal officials dispense the money and states license the training — the initiative lacks rigorous oversight by either. It includes institutions that require thousands of hours of instruction and charge more than the most elite private colleges. Some courses are offered at for-profit colleges that have committed fraud in their search for federal funding. This includes Corinthian Colleges Inc., which reached an agreement last month with the federal Education Department to shut down or sell many of its campuses.

The Times examination, based on state and federal documents, school and court records, and interviews, shows that some of the retraining institutions advertise graduation and job-placement rates that often do not hold up to scrutiny.

The idea of dividing responsibility between federal and state officials was to give local and state authorities more power in helping the unemployed in their areas. But the unemployed who sign up for training are often left to navigate a bureaucratic maze with almost no guidance. To avoid any appearance of favoritism, federal job counselors are not allowed to recommend schools to job seekers, leaving many of the unemployed to unwittingly select institutions that are expensive, have a history of legal trouble or are academically substandard.

There is, for example, no mechanism for students to check in with counselors to gauge their progress or determine whether the training program is a good match. States say they investigate complaints and audit programs with poor outcomes, but students say they tend not to register formal complaints about a program’s quality.

The story is long and detailed. I cannot do it justice here.

It is great journalism, something we should always applaud.