Thursday, April 9, 2020

Good Grief!

Now everyone is wondering what the therapy culture has to offer those who are locked down at home, who are missing their everyday routines, their interactions with colleagues and co-workers. So, New York Magazine has trotted out famed therapist Esther Perel to shed some insight on the problem.

Perel is a media star, a best selling author of books on maintaining sexual desire in marriage, a couples counselor who charges exorbitant fees. Her degree is in expressive art therapy. Of course, the term itself is a misnomer. If you are producing art in order to express yourself you do not know anything about art. It would be nice if people understood that making art is a grueling enterprise, only to be undertaken by those who have real talent for it. It is a job, a business and hopefully a career. The number of people who succeed at making art is infinitesimal, so the notion that art is therapy or that it can express your deepest feelings is a lure to trap unsuspecting young people.

Anyway, Perel is a popular author, but not, by my understanding, one of the leading intellectual lights in the therapy world. Call her a practitioner of pop therapy. She might be very good at it, but once we examine her thinking we are going to suffer some serious disappointment. Fair enough, we are not at the level of Jean Holloway, the therapist at the center of the television series “Gypsy,”-- see yesterday’s blog post-- but Perel still resorts to standard psychobabble and various forms of sophistry. 

New York Magazine offers some of Perel’s pearls of pseudo-wisdom, beginning with this explanation of what happens when couples are forced to spend all day and all night with each other. And thus, what happens when people shelter in place, under lockdown:

First it’s the fact that usually in a family or in a couple you have multiple roles of which there is a location for these roles. There is a place to be the parent, there’s a place to be the lover, a place to be the partner, place to be the friend, the professional, the worker. Here you have a collapse of all the roles in one space and they are intersecting with each other all the time. The only boundary left is the mute button on your Zoom. Then you have the fact that people are experiencing prolonged uncertainty, acute stress, the grief that comes with the world that you have known no longer being nearly as predictable and no one knowing really where this is going.

Here, Perel starts out well. People do have roles. Roles define relationships within specific places. When people are sheltering in place, the roles do not collapse as much as they suffer disruption. Since the shutdown occurs within the space of the home, the presence of a male being will cause a disruption in his wife's household organization. This problem is not difficult to understand. It is difficult to navigate.

As for the role of grief, you may or may not know that grief is a very trendy psycho concept these days. From within the world of grief counseling, every change in your life is like having a loved one die. In truth, these are not the same thing, so the discussion of grief is based on a specious analogy. And yet, if therapy did not have specious analogies, it would have very little to offer.

I will note that grief is based on an event that cannot be undone. In effect, funneling all human disruptions into grief can only make people feel helpless, even hopeless. We do not want people to feel helpless or hopeless. We want them to know that they can succeed at reorganizing their lives, and that their lives will, in time, return to normal. The process is already taking place around the world, so it will eventually come here.

Couples who are trying to reorganize their lives are not mourning a loss. And yet, Perel seems to think that it’s all about dealing with the unknown. She does not mention that many people do not see death as the great unknown.

Still, it’s not about the unknown at all. Husbands and wives are not unknown to each other. They normally spend time together without going to work. The new order is an expansion of what was already known. It’s about different people trying different ways of reorganizing their new world and to overcome the psychological effects of disruption. And yet, in nearly all cases, no one has died. Only those who have lose loved ones are mourning. The rest of us are carrying on.

But people don’t mention it as grief, so what they have is different coping styles about how they deal with the unknown. Those who become clear organizers because it’s as if order will provide a bulwark against the chaos of the external world and the one that is rising inside of us and those who are wanting to talk all the time with other people and check in and have a sense of what’s going on with everyone and those who are thinking that their partner is making too big a deal of it and those who are thinking that their partner is not cautious enough. And so you have this polarization going on around the way that people deal with fear, with anger, with the preparations if you want to this impending disaster that is literally coming at us.

Of course, America is polarized, especially politically. In truth, the national effort to combat the coronavirus is, to some extent, helping to bring people together. That people living within a single household are stepping all over each other, derives from the disruptions that have been caused by the lockdown.

Perel then explains that she sees disaster as accelerants. They precipitate decision making. This may or not be the case, but grief, in the sense of the sense of loss you feel when a loved one dies, does not precipitate decision making. It decelerates it. But, don’t let that apparent inconsistency bother you:

And then I think what your colleague described here, which is also interesting, disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship. It means that life is short, mortality is hitting you. It’s like in the shadow right here. And then either people say, “Life is short, let’s get married, let’s have babies. What are we waiting for?” Or on the other side, “Life is short. I’ve waited long enough, I’m out of here.” And so we’ve known that there is generally a spike in divorce and a spike in marriage and babies that follows disasters.

One understands that blackouts, as in the time when the lights went out in New York, do entice people to produce more babies. This is well-enough known. But, does this happen because of some existential crisis or because, once the television and radio and stereo no longer function, there is nothing else to do to pass the time… but to have sex. One notes that the lockdown of business now threatens to produce a condom shortage.

Next, Perel shares some of her incoherent thoughts about grief. She might or might not know it, but this notion that death is the meaning of life comes to us from existential philosophers. Non philosophers trot it out to show that they are sophisticated thinkers. The philosophers are wrong about this, as is Perel. Death is the end of life but that does not mean that it is the end of life, as in the meaning of life. As for Perel’s suggestion that the pandemic will cause the death of a worldview, I find it idiotic. People might change their worldview-- how much remains to be seen-- but metaphorizing it in terms of death merely obscures the issue.

Once you define everything in terms of death you remove people from their social groupings and make them into biological organisms. Like frogs and toads and tatantulas. And once you identify as a biological organism, you will become naturally alienated from your social groups, as well as from the duties and obligations that inhere in them.

Moreover, it is positively absurd to suggest, for example, that a child going off to college is grieving the loss of high school. No one died when a child goes to college. No one holds a funeral for high school. People celebrate the end of high school. If you watch the television series, 13 Reasons Why, you will understand that there is nothing to grieve about in leaving high school.

When we are dealing with death we are most often dealing with an event that we did not cause. When a child goes to college, he has made decisions, has worked at a process that has placed him in a different social environment. Once he is there, he will need to construct a circle of friends, of colleagues, of teammates and will need to learn to function within an academic environment.

True enough, when a family member or friend dies, you will need to spend time adjusting and adapting to the absence and the loss. But the pain of true grief derives from the fact that you are not responsible for the fact, but that you will need to adjust to it.

Grief is not just about death in the physical sense. It’s the grief that accompanies a worldview. And what happens when you have a plague, when you have a pandemic, is that you are reminded that death can randomly exterminate you and it can throw your world upside down like that. Yesterday they were still running in the park and today he’s gone. We know it, but the level, the frequency and the intensity at which we’re experiencing this right now. So there is the sense of the world that we’ve known, there is the sense of the routines that we’ve had, the relationship that we’ve known. It’s that sense of impending loss that we talk about with grief or what is often called anticipatory grief.

Despite what Perel suggests, a disruption in your routines is not the end of the world. It might in some part coincide with what happens when a family member dies, but only an existential psychologist would want us, at that time, to ruminate about our mortality. If we do, we will of course, be avoiding the work that is required to put our lives back in order.

Naturally, no whining about grief would be complete without Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief. Perel treats us to them, as though they were scientific fact:

So in the process of grief you have different stages and different ways that people react. Now these are not linearly laid out. People go back and forth with each other and inside themselves or in their community. So you have the people at first that are getting into gear and began stockpiling and began preparing and knew it very early on. They kind of knew something bad is happening and you had the other people that were considered in denial. Why?

And so then you have stages, denial, anger, bargaining. You bargain, you create order, you think you’re going to be super productive, you’re going to work much better, and then you realize that in fact your productivity is much lesser. People are all over the world, they’re working more and they’re producing less and they are using the very devices that used to keep us apart as the prime way to stay connected.

Whatever is she talking about? People around the world are hunkering down. They are working less, for the most part. Considering the spikes in unemployment, people are not working more. For the most part people accept this new order because they know that it is temporary. For the record, and for those who still know how to think, death is not temporary. It is permanent.

Naturally, people are exhausted with the effort of reorganizing everyday life. They are exhausted because they are often out of work. They are exhausted because the new routines that they are creating are only temporary, not permanent. They are exhausted by the need to care for and to educate children. They are certainly worried about the state of the economy.

Perel sees little of this. She believes that people are exhausted because they are not running around searching for meaning. In times of trouble psycho professionals often tell us to search for meaning. In Perel’s case, and she is not alone at this, the meaning of life is death. And that is what we should be thinking about. How else can you let despair take hold.

People talk about feeling exhausted and part of the exhaustion is because you try to organize your life in practicalities and not think about the bigger issue, the bigger meaning of what is happening, which is we are vulnerable creatures and no matter how much toilet paper you bought, you can only protect yourself up to a certain point and that is a much more sombering, sad, less resilient American effort optimism kind of approach.

One will give her a pass on this largely incoherent and illiterate sentence. She is not a native speaker of English, so we will not criticize the sentence. And yet, we will not give the editors of New York Magazine a pass. They ought at least to have introduced some correct punctuation, the better to make Perel at least sound coherent.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Therapy as Farce

Fair enough, I am behind the curve on this one. About three years behind, if you’re counting. And yet, and yet, and yet, I feel compelled to post something about a now deceased Netflix series called “Gypsy.”

It has nothing to do with gypsies in any serious way, but, who’s counting?

Since the show is about a New York therapist, I feel a moral obligation to comment on it. The show demonstrates definitively that my descriptions of today’s therapy practice are far too generous. Just in case you think that I am begin too harsh on run-of-the-mill therapists, stream "Gypsy."

The show shows-- to coin an expression-- that therapy has passed beyond the stage of being a caricature of itself. Now it has become pure farce. 

Therapy began when Freud declared that we were all living out Greek tragedies. It ends as farce. Where have we heard that one before?

Naomi Watts does a fine acting job as New York therapist, Jean Holloway. Watts is clearly very talented. Yet, the script is appallingly bad; but that is not her fault. She tries valiantly to rescue it. Billy Crudup, as her lawyer husband, seems lost in his role, a mediocre actor playing a mediocre role. Their daughter, naturally, is having gender dysphoria issues. She’s 9. Mother Jean barely notices or cares.

The show presents some of the most pathetically mindless and soulless therapy sessions I have ever seen. The supposedly licensed and credentialed therapist traffics in buzzwords, meaningless terms that are thrown around so patients will imagine that they have actually gained some insight. Obviously, words like: feeling, control, boundaries, power… if these words disappeared from the language, most therapists would be struck dumb. Surely, Jean Holloway would.

And the therapists are constantly obsessing about the Freudian issue of what people really, really want. Or, was that the Spice Girls version?

And like members of a cult, Jean and her fellow therapists obsessively repeat the word “work,” as though what they are doing with their patients ever rises above tedious, boring conversation in a pretentious salon.

For the record, and for your edification, Jean does declare herself to be a cognitive-behavioral therapist, at a point where she offers some warmed-over Freudian insights about something she knows nothing about. But, since we have seen her in action in her office, we know, beyond any doubt, that her practice is neither cognitive nor behavioral. It is touchy feely, to an extreme, and embarrassing, at that.

As it happened, the show was so bad that Netflix canceled it after one season. Since the last episode was open-ended, we are led to understand that the showrunner had expected it to continue. Putting an end to it was an act of kindness.

But, the worst part, and the part that resonates for me, is that audiences loved the show. The critics panned it. See James Poniewozik’s splendid review in The New York Times.

As I have often noted, the obsession with inner mental life, with soulful longings and empathetic drooling removes us from the reality of people’s live and makes patients into emotional basket cases.

Poniewozik sees it clearly:

The therapy sessions — Jean also treats the controlling mother of an adult daughter and a drug addict in an unhealthy relationship — are like “In Treatment,” but without the nuanced attention to the lives of the patients. 

I will conclude, if I may, that viewers saw the show as validation of their own experiences in therapy. If such is the case, we certainly feel some serious compassion for them. But, don’t say they weren’t warned-- by this blog, at least.

And yet, the story does not limit itself to therapy. It is not a remake of the far more interesting “In Treatment.” It shows that therapist Jean has her own problems. Her practice bleeds into her private life, and vice versa. It all happens when she takes on a new identity and develops a love affair with a comely barista, an aspiring chanteuse, named Sidney.

Apparently, all you need to have a new identity is to give your barista a pseudonym when you order that caramel pumpkin latte. So, Jean pretends to be Diane and begins to strike up a relationship with Sidney.

And, here is where the show goes off the rails. You see, Jean has a patient named Sam. He is consulting with her because, despite his being clearly in his late 20s, he seems never to have exited adolescence.  He is whining, bitching and moaning about his lost love. He is obsessed with her. He can’t get her out of his mind. He misses her. He does not know what to do about it. In fact, neither does Jean. She offers some embarrassing role playing-- by telling Sam to pretend that she is Sidney-- but it is clearly an exercise in futility.

Now, gird your loins, here is the show’s MacGuffin. You might know that Alfred Hitchcock coined the term MacGuffin to designate a plot device, something that is not entirely credible, but that we must believe in order for the story to have any substance. In the case of “Gypsy,” the MacGuffin is that Sam’s lost love is none other than Sidney, the very object of Jean’s crush.

The problem is: once Jean discovers the uncanny coincidence, she does not break things off with Sidney. She does not recuse herself as Sam’s therapist. She continues to both pursue Sidney and to influence Sam to give up on Sidney. A considerable part of the series’ suspense derives from the possibility that Sam might  discover what is going on behind his back. 

Jean and Sidney gain a kind of adolescent delight in playing with the possibility. It's more pathetic than dramatic.

The problem with the MacGuffin is, quite simply, that it is not credible at all. It is ridiculous. Surely, some therapists have stretched boundaries. Some have even broken rules. But Jean Holloway, a woman who is largely portrayed as sympathetic cannot also be committing professional suicide. She cannot also be undermining her patient’s life to make manifest her own moral deficiency.

I would say, for the sake of argument, that no serious or conscientious therapist would ever have done what she did. If you do not believe that that is a reason to throw the series in the trash, I would simply suggest that if you want to portray a character as a caring and decent human being, a loving mother and wife, you cannot at the same time make her into a moral degenerate and all-around bottom feeder. 

You might think that the show is about exposing the fact that Jean’s life is a sham, that her marriage is a fraud and that her profession is simply a way to manipulate other people. And yet, the show does not present it this way. It presents Jean as a caring and considerate therapist, one who cares deeply for a drug-addicted female patient, one who strikes up a relationship with the estranged daughter of one of her other patients. 

As it happens, Jean decides that she is going to live out a new life by adopting a new persona, that of Diane, lover of Sidney. If she were trying to satisfy her curiosity, as the saying goes, we could accept it. But since it is obviously professional suicide, we cannot. One trusts that there are other women out there who would happily enjoy a fling with Jean.

Similarly, Jean involves herself in role playing with her husband-- the better to spice up their marriage-- but such activities are charming, at the least. They do not signal someone who has breached professional ethics and is manipulating her patient in order to satisfy her curiosity.  

Of course, it gets worse. That is, it becomes totally boring. Poniewozik describes it aptly:

But the scripts and hazy characterizations undermine [Watts]. We’re told Sidney has an obsessive effect on her lovers, but her mystery is generic (has British accent, sings in band). The episodes are a slide show of sleek interiors and tastefully shadowed bars, the pacing logy without being suspenseful. Binge-watching it is like binge-drinking cough syrup.

A good point. Nothing about the show tells us why Sidney has the effect that she supposedly has. It's fine for her to be a vixen, but nothing in the show sustains the notion.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A World-Changing Pandemic?

Yesterday, I suggested, slightly facetiously, that if everything believes that the current pandemic is going to change the world, the odds are: it will not.

Today, Niall Ferguson responds to a list of supposedly pending changes... succinctly and, doubtlessly, correctly.


Most succinct statement I've yet seen of the "massive enduring social and economic change post-pandemic" hypothesis. I'd be more persuaded if there were evidence of comparable changes after the (much more lethal) 1918-19 influenza pandemic.
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Balaji S. Srinivasan
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The 20th century is ending. - Offices ⭢ remote work - NFL, NBA ⭢ esports - Movie theaters ⭢ streaming - TV news ⭢ YouTube stars - College ⭢ ISAs, MOOCs - K-12 ⭢ internet homeschooling - Corporate journalism ⭢ citizen journalism - EU/EEC ⭢ 27 sovereign states

Biden's Blithering Babbling

But seriously, this man is about to become the presidential candidate of a major American political party. And you want other countries to become more like us. Huh?

Joe Biden: “We cannot let this, we’ve never allowed any crisis from the Civil War straight through to the pandemic of 17, all the way around, 16, we have never, never let our democracy sakes second fiddle, way they, we can both have a democracy and ... correct the public health.”

Does Coronavirus Prove Trump Right?

Nadia Schadlow used to work for the Trump National Security Council. Today, she works at a think tank. Two days ago she wrote an article for The Atlantic, suggesting that President Trump was right about China. And that Trump was right to place the national interest ahead of impotent international governing bodies, like the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Better yet, Schadlow asserts, Trump has understood that China is competing against America and the West. We have occasionally tried to clarify this point by saying that being a competitor in the clash of civilizations is not the same as being an enemy. A competitor will try to beat you at your game. It will take every advantage you allow. But it will not, as would an enemy, attempt to destroy what you built. While China is a competitor, radical Islam, from the 9/11 terrorists, to al Qaeda, to ISIS, to the Iranian theocracy constitutes an enemy threat.

One does well to distinguish the two. And our political leaders would do well to tone down the rhetoric about punishing China-- assuming that we had the power to do so-- because they have failed to understand that China counterpunches. You would have thought that watching President Trump would have taught people the logic of counterpunching, but apparently, it has not. 

By the by, Trump has consistently touted his good relationship with Chinese President Xi, and has pointed out that China has more respect for him than it did for his feckless predecessors… because they, from Clinton to Bush to Obama, failed to defend American national interest.

Schadlow explains cogently that the Trump-hating left has failed to understand that Trump was right about his foreign policy priorities, and that the coronavirus proves the point.

Consumed by hatred of Trump, these thinkers have had only one priority: to blame Trump for the virus. Since they have been saying the same thing about Trump from the onset, their words ring hollow. They have long since compromised their credibility. I would say that they have compromised it fatally.

In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.

In what ways has Trump been right? Schadlow lists them:

And yet even as the current emergency has proved him right in fundamental ways—about China specifically and foreign policy more generally—many respectable people in the United States are letting their disdain for the president blind them to what is really going on in the world. Far from discrediting Trump’s point of view, the COVID-19 crisis reveals what his strategy asserted: that the world is a competitive arena in which great power rivals like China seek advantage, that the state remains the irreplaceable agent of international power and effective action, that international institutions have limited capacity to transform the behavior and preferences of states.

Note well, the world is a “competitive arena.” While the West has gone all goo goo eyes on the power of international institutions, China has played them for competitive advantage:

Instead of becoming a “responsible stakeholder”—a term George W. Bush’s administration used to describe the role it hoped Beijing would play following China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001—the Chinese Communist Party used the advantages of WTO membership to advance a political and economic system at odds with America’s free and open society. Previous National Security Strategy documents had tiptoed around China’s adversarial conduct, as if calling out that country as a competitor—as the 2017 document unequivocally did—was somehow impolite.

In truth, one might take exception to Schadlow’s attempt to tar the Chinese Communist Party for not creating a free and open society. Ask yourself this: who has been America’s leading proponent of an open society? The answer is: George Soros.

If you do not believe that China is practicing a form of capitalism you will need to explain how China’s spectacular economic progress over the past four decades was produced by Communism. As for our own love of democracy-- bless our idealistic souls-- it is worth pointing out, if only in passing, that the American military is not run like a democracy. Nor are America’s great corporations. Nor is the medical profession or the average classroom. 

And of course, no less than James Madison wrote that the American Constitution did not mandate democracy, in the sense of government by referendum, but instituted checks and balances, among the branches of government. And American governance also involves a distribution of power among federal, state and local branches.

And when one of our two political parties has been in gross breach of democratic decorum for three years now, by refusing to accept the results of a fair election, it is somewhat rich to call out other nations for not being democratic.

Prior to Trump,American leaders effectively failed to compete against China, to call it out for stretching the rules.

For the decade and a half prior to 2017, Republican and Democratic leaders publicly worried about China’s unwillingness to play by the rules, but were reluctant to deal head on with China’s authoritarian government and statist economy. The bipartisan U.S.-China Economic Security Commission has consistently called out China’s unfair practices. In 2010, President Barack Obama lambasted China before the G-20 for its currency manipulation. The need to compete effectively with the policies of the Chinese Communist Party is one of the few points of agreement between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Even as he seeks to find ways to conclude reciprocal trade agreements, his administration has not lost sight of China’s aggressive rise.

Refusing to trust in global institutions, President Trump has chosen to emphasize the national interest and the importance of nation states. Now, as we are seeing another grandiose attempt at globalism, in the European Union, appear to be disintegrating, it is worth emphasizing Trump’s argument:

At least as controversial as Trump’s critique of China is his emphasis on the importance of sovereignty and his insistence that strong sovereign states are the main agents of change. But states are the foundation of democratic governance and, fundamentally, of security. It is the citizens of states who vote and hold leaders accountable. And it is states that are the foundation of military, political, and economic power in alliances such as NATO, or organizations like the United Nations.

But, the coronavirus has also exposed the fact that we depend almost entirely on China for medication and medical equipment. This makes it all the more important to develop domestic supplies, but it also tells us that threatening to punish your supplier-dealer is not the smartest thing you can do. As you know, what with our enhanced awareness of supply chains, China does not just produce drugs.

Dependence on China for crucial medical equipment throughout the pandemic has illuminated the dangers of a hyper-globalized economy. Experts had warned of American dependence on key drug ingredients from China. The Wall Street Journal has reported that China is the only maker of key ingredients for certain classes of drugs, including established antibiotics that treat a range of bacterial infections such as pneumonia. American reliance on Chinese suppliers for other pharmaceuticals and medical supplies is also worrisome. Americans should not depend on an authoritarian rival state for its citizens’ health—any more than the United States and other free and open societies should give Chinese companies, and by extension the Chinese Communist Party, control over communications infrastructure and sensitive personal data.

Schadlow concludes that international multilateral organizations have been powerless to deal with China.

Many of President Trump’s critics in the foreign-policy community put great stock in the ability of multilateral and international organizations to constrain the misbehavior of China and other states. These organizations, at their best, promote concerted action against commonly recognized problems. But Trump’s critics tend to view them mainly in their idealized form and as the central instruments to solve global problems and advance values shared by all. In practice, though, how international organizations perform is profoundly influenced by power relationships among member states.

In effect, it does not matter whether these organizations had good intentions. They have no real power to do anything. 

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy challenged the assumption that international organizations are always driven by a common global good.