Friday, December 19, 2014

Effortless Trying

Some people believe, erroneously, that they can find moral truths and ethical precepts in brain waves.

Others prefer to examine the work of the great moral philosophers. In the West, we cite Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant et al. In the East we look to Confucius and Lao Tse (author of the Tao Te Ching.)

Confucius saw humans as social beings. His philosophy aimed at showing people how to get along with others while living in groups. Yet, it also shows how to develop good habits.

Taoism is more about personal self-interest.

Thus, Confucius and Lao Tse were not of one mind.

According to Prof. Edward Slingerland, the difference revolves around the concept of wu wei, which means effortless trying. It’s easily confused with what we call being oneself.

One arrives at effortless trying by expending a great deal of effort. One might say that it takes an enormous amount of work to make anything look effortless.

John Tierney reports:

Dr. Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, argues that the quest for wu wei has been going on ever since humans began living in groups larger than hunter-gathering clans. Unable to rely on the bonds of kinship, the first urban settlements survived by developing shared values, typically through religion, that enabled people to trust one another’s virtue and to cooperate for the common good.

But there was always the danger that someone was faking it and would make a perfectly rational decision to put his own interest first if he had a chance to shirk his duty. To be trusted, it wasn’t enough just to be a sensible, law-abiding citizen, and it wasn’t even enough to dutifully strive to be virtuous. You had to demonstrate that your virtue was so intrinsic that it came to you effortlessly.

It’s one thing to follow the rules. Effortless trying involves following the rules and meaning it.

A faked apology is better than no apology, but you ought to aim toward making sincere apologies.

Some Western thinkers would say that the difference lies in the state of mind and that one should reconfigure one’s beliefs in order to make the rule-following more meaningful. To these minds, adding some understanding will make the gesture meaningful.

Such was not the Confucian way. As Tierney explained, the key for the Sage was that following the rules consistently, regardless of the effort required, will show you that they are the right rules and will make them feel natural, thus, second nature.

As it happens, anyone who gets it right without appearing to be straining himself will exude confidence and will attract people to him.

Tierney writes:

However wu wei is attained, there’s no debate about the charismatic effect it creates. It conveys an authenticity that makes you attractive, whether you’re addressing a crowd or talking to one person. The way to impress someone on a first date is to not seem too desperate to impress.

If you appear to be acting out of desperation, people will feel that you are pushing them away. They will feel that you are so self-absorbed that you are refusing to connect with them.

If you are treating depression, this philosophy recommends that you identify the behaviors that signify desperation and replace them with behaviors that signify confidence.

For Confucius, a right action that becomes second nature will become sincere.

Sincerity is not a state of mind except in the sense that the more natural it feels to follow the rules the more you will be able to do so effortlessly.

If you are making an effort to practice virtue, others will suspect that you are going through the motions, not really meaning what you are doing.

Tierney explains:

Through willpower and the rigorous adherence to rules, traditions and rituals, the Confucian “gentleman” was supposed to learn proper behavior so thoroughly that it would eventually become second nature to him. He would behave virtuously and gracefully without any conscious effort, like an orator who knows his speech so well that it seems extemporaneous.

He reports on how the concept of wu wei was defined two centuries after Confucius:

Hence the preoccupation with wu wei, whose ancient significance has become clearer to scholars since the discovery in 1993 of bamboo strips in a tomb in the village of Guodian in central China. The texts on the bamboo, composed more than three centuries before Christ, emphasize that following rules and fulfilling obligations are not enough to maintain social order.

These texts tell aspiring politicians that they must have an instinctive sense of their duties to their superiors: “If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience. You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.”

Taoists, Tierney adds, had a different idea:

Taoists did not strive. Instead of following the rigid training and rituals required by Confucius, they sought to liberate the natural virtue within. They went with the flow. They disdained traditional music in favor of a funkier new style with a beat. They emphasized personal meditation instead of formal scholarship.

Rejecting materialistic ambitions and the technology of their age, they fled to the countryside and practiced a primitive form of agriculture, pulling the plow themselves instead of using oxen. Dr. Slingerland calls them “the original hippies, dropping out, turning on, and stickin’ it to the Man more than 2,000 years before the invention of tie-dye and the Grateful Dead.”

Hopefully, this sounds somewhat familiar. Taoists were more introspective. They sought to liberate their impulses and instincts. They believed that they could do so without working very hard. Some of them even believed that hard work would prevent them from accessing their inner selves.

It is reasonable to ask how well the Taoist life plan worked out. How well did they do when they retired to the countryside to get in touch with their more primitive instincts? As well as the hippies?

Bailing Out the Castros

Why has Communism fail in Cuba? On the political left the answer is clear: American sanctions. Totalitarian Communism did not fail on its own. It failed because that great bully, America made it fail.

While the New York Times, among others, is cheering the new Obama administration policy on Cuba, the Washington Post, of all places, has denounced it as yet another ill-conceived bailout.

The Post editorialized that the Castro regime was on the brink of collapse. It had been on life support, surviving only because of the largesse of Russia and Venezuela.

Now that the price of oil has broken down, those countries can no longer keep propping up the Castro brothers. Thus, the end of Cuban Communism was in sight.

Enter President Obama:

On Wednesday, the Castros suddenly obtained a comprehensive bailout — from the Obama administration. President Obama granted the regime everything on its wish list that was within his power to grant; a full lifting of the trade embargo requires congressional action. Full diplomatic relations will be established, Cuba’s place on the list of terrorism sponsors reviewed and restrictions lifted on U.S. investment and most travel to Cuba. That liberalization will provide Havana with a fresh source of desperately needed hard currency and eliminate U.S. leverage for political reforms.

It does not seem like too much of an exaggeration to say that the Obama administration exchanged something of great value for very little. Then again, an administration that traded five senior Taliban leaders for an army deserter is, as Sen. Rubio noted, one of the world’s worst negotiators.

Like Venezuela more recently, Cuba has always been a troublemaker, a thorn in America’s side.

Why not leave Cuban Communism to fail on its own, thus to discredit an ideology that has brought nothing but misery to the people of that island?

Why did Obama do it?

You might think that President Obama is punishing America for repudiating him in the last election.

You might also think that a president who began his first term with an apology tour is closing out his second with a surrender tour.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Is Deconstruction?

The practice of deconstruction is a way, not of reading texts, but of taking them apart. You do not deconstruct a text to see what makes it tick, but to expose the “subliminal” messages that it contains.  These messages are corrupting us by purveying the repressive values that founded Western civilization.

Deconstructionists want you to read the great books of the Western canon. But they really want you to learn how to immunize yourself against their pernicious influence. They do not want you to learn from them, but to deconstruct them.

Once you identify the alien and corrosive elements in any text you can isolate them and remove them by placing them in a new text where their influence will be neutralized.

In more general terms, deconstruction is to a text what a pogrom is to a community.

The modern founder of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida might have been shocked and seriously offended to discover that the progenitor of the practice, Martin Heidegger was a true-believing Nazi, but apparently he was so dazzled by the great ideas that he missed the most obvious point.

Surely, he did not see that deconstruction teaches you to think like an extremist… like a Nazi, if you like.

According to Derrida, Western civilization is organized conspiracy to repress writing in favor of speech. By placing special value on the speech act, it valorizes the voice and presence while repressing the visual and the absent.

The civilization places special value on the elements of a speech act, like the voice and like presence. You cannot speak to people who are not present, whether in person or on the telephone.

Also, Derrida associates speech with sameness, perhaps because when you speak to someone you occupy the same space or share the same time. Thus, it is part of a conspiracy to repress difference.

Derrida founded deconstruction when he misspelled a word: differance. He said it was about difference with an a. The difference between the two, dare I say, is something that can be seen, but not heard.

I cannot vouch for every resonance this phrase might have in French, but in English one says commonly that children should be seen and not heard. For whatever reason, this commonplace effort to repress the speech of children tells a story that contradicts Derrida.

To his mind, Western cultures repress the visual in favor of the vocal and the aural.

Since Derrida, like Heidegger and even Freud, wanted to recreate human beings as beings of desire, he believed that he needed to found his system on absence. Desire only exists when you are missing something, when something is absent. You cannot, by definition, desire something that is fully present and at hand.

And yet, a moral agent must be present to take action and to take responsibility for his action. If writing were to prevail over speech, human beings would not be held directly and personally responsible for their actions. If an individual is absent, he is being evasive, and is failing to take responsibility for his actions.

Someone might be absent because he is hiding or is being elusive. He might be trying to get away with something. He does not want to step up and take responsibility, so he makes a fetish of absence.

Obviously, when you are speaking, your conversation will be influenced by the presence of your interlocutor. Thus, you will not be saying exactly what you think. You will be keying off the facial expressions and the tone of voice of you friend. You might or might not be able to express yourself as you would have wished, but you have willingly sacrificed that goal in order to make a social connection.

Such a sacrifice, the practitioners of deconstruction would say, represses your desire. It also offers a way to avoid all responsibility for your actions—if you were absent you cannot be held accountable.

Absence is a great alibi.

Neither Martin Heidegger nor Derrida’s friend Paul de Man ever took real responsibility for their actions, not for their actions in supporting the Third Reich, and not, in de Man’s case, for abandoning wife and children, being a bigamist, a thief and a pathological liar.

When called upon to explain de Man’s moral dereliction Derrida could do no better than to offer him compassion. Then, Derrida wrote a long and detailed reading of the Nazi propaganda that de Man was churning out in occupied Belgium… the better to explain that it did not mean what it said or say what it meant.

If it’s all in the writing, to the point that there is only the activity of writing, the author, the moral agent who would be responsible for the text, is elided, you can eliminate all personal responsibility.

One hesitates to cast aspersions on such a beautifully constructed theory, or should I say, practice. And yet, if we imagine that some of these ideas mean what they say and say what they mean, surely, they are implying that writing is better than speech and that if you have to speak to people you should block out the other person’s presence and act as though you are reading from a script.

I myself once tried to converse with someone who seemed to be reading from a script. It is a disconcerting experience, one that makes you feel that you are not there. For the record, the individual with whom I had this interaction was Jacques Derrida.

But, does this theory withstand scrutiny? We might ask whether human relationships better now that people, especially young people prefer texting to talking.

Those who practice deconstruction might not accept this comparison, though their theories make it inevitable. It may be heresy to suggest that words about speech and writing mean what they say and say what they mean, but still the theorists do not own the language.

Whether Elizabeth Wurtzel was inspired by the debate about deconstruction, her recent essay on the value of talking, even talking on the telephone, draws our attention. Call it a practical application of the theory.

I suspect that those who purvey the theory of deconstruction do not believe in practical applications, but there is no reason the rest of us should submit to such willful self-blinding.

Wurtzel  explains the problem:

Who talks on the phone anymore? What is the point of my 900-minute mobile plan? It used to be not nearly enough. We have moved on to email and MMS. The world is silent with people staring hopefully at screens, waiting for something to happen. It turns out we prefer to be more impersonal and less confrontational. Given the opportunity to communicate in text, we take it. Given the chance to avoid discussing it, we are thrilled. We are lousy.

She continues:

There is nothing better than a phone call for taking care of business or creating pleasure. Our humanity is in our voices. … What will become of the hours we used to spend flirting on the phone? What will become of conversation? The ring that interrupted dinner, the nervous teenage boy on the other end who was hoping the girl might answer and then got stuck asking for her when Dad picked up, the butterflies of waiting for her to come grab the receiver, the whole wreck of courtship: It is all over. Now he sends an iMessage to her iPhone, and what’s the big deal? Spellcheck turns hello into heave-ho, but what is the worst thing that can happen?

Wurtzel is looking at a world where things get done, where people get together, where connections are made. To get ahead in the world, she says, you need to ask. And it is better to ask via the phone—or in person—to someone’s face… because that makes you a more serious individual, someone who does not cower in the corner pretending to be absent.

She makes this case:

The world works in a simple way: You get what you ask for. People will agree to the craziest hullabaloos, but you have to demand magic. You have to plead your case, courageously. It is hard to say no to a bold proposition, to an adamant plan. It is impossible to say no if you make it impossible to say no. You have to call. If you are wondering why your life is stuck and nothing ever happens, it is because you did not call.

Strangely, she emphasizes that the mania over texting and emailing allows us to waste time in frivolous pursuits. She notes that Facebook, already disparaged by David Goldman as a symptom of a cultural decline, is one of the great ways to waste time.

Going through your inbox takes time. We prefer it because we love to waste time. Facebook would not exist if we did not truly, madly, deeply love to waste time. We are surely crazy: The only thing we can’t get more of is time. Blithely unaware of our own mortality, happily forgetting the specter of death, blissfully ignoring the inevitable, we surf the Internet when we should be falling in love or making money or going for a lovely leg-stretch on a bright shiny day. We buy eye shadow we don’t need, we look at tweets that say nothing, we read about Amanda Bynes. We take the time to thumb in a message because it is still easier than calling, because, well, who needs it? What a pain to talk.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Note on Motivation

I hope it does not reflect their IQ, but far too many denizens of the therapy culture have cranked up their minds and concluded that shame is bad and that guilt is good.

They are right in part. It is bad to feel shame.

But, while guilt is the right emotion when you have committed or thought to commit a crime, it is hardly transformative. The honor belongs to shame.

Some therapists believe that guilt is more likely to provoke a change in behavior than is shame. If this were true, psychoanalysis would be far more effective than cognitive and behavioral therapies. Since we know that the opposite is the case, this judgment should be dismissed as so much junk thought.

There is one way to avoid shame.

You keep your pants on. You behave with dignity, propriety, decorum and responsibility. If you make these habitual, you will have shielded yourself from shame.

If you prefer not to avoid shame, you have other options.

You can drop your pants and demand to be praised for your candor. It doesn’t make any sense, but some people make it a point of pride to show off their shamelessness, that is, their lack of pride.

Also, if, upon getting caught with your pants down, you do not immediately pull them up, you can numb yourself to the shame by denouncing those who would judge you ill for your shamelessness.

With guilt, there is one basic way to reduce it. You accept punishment.

Since guilt is an anticipation of punishment for a transgression or crime, you dissipate it with one or another form of punishment, with penance or self-criticism or even self-flagellation.

To each his own.

Now behavioral economists have come to believe that the threat of punishment is a great motivator. One questions their use of the notion of punishment here. True enough, sanctions matter. Shame is a sanction. Guilt anticipates a different kind of sanction.

Thus, we will want to know what sanction they have in mind.

I question the use of the term punishment, largely because it is most often associated with guilt, not shame. When Peter Ubel reports on the latest experiments, he is not showing outcomes that involve punishment. The sanction that applies when someone fails to fulfill a commitment is shame.

Since guilt ensues when you break a law, not when you fail to fulfill a commitment. If you do not show up for dinner on time or do not hand in an assignment when it is due, you do not feel guilt; you are embarrassed. Embarrassment is a mild form of shame.

The issue applies directly to the question of motivation. The studies suggest that you are more motivated to complete a task when you have promised someone else that you would do so.

If you take it out of your mind and put it into a conversation with another individual you will be more motivated. Presumably, you are more concerned with the way you look to the other person than with the way you feel about yourself.

Your willpower, however strong it is, does not motivate as well as your wish to be seen as the kind of person who keeps his or her word.

The wish to avoid shame will propel you to complete a task. Guilt feelings will make you self-absorbed.

According to the researchers, you are more motivated when you make what they call a pre-commitment. Here again the vocabulary is misleading. When you promise someone that you will hand in a paper, you have made a commitment, not a pre-commitment. You have given your word. You have pledged something.

If you fail to complete the assignment on time you will feel shame. If you complete it on time you will feel pride. 

For the record, the primary motivation might be to feel pride, even more than the fear of shame.

My caveats notwithstanding, we can understand well what Peter Ubel reports:

But [Prof. Janet] Schwartz’s unusual enticement recognized that people will adopt precommitment strategies when they recognize the desirability of a goal but believe that their will power will not, absent the threat of punishment, be strong enough to resist temptation. Graduate students employ precommitment devices when they promise their mentors that they will bring a draft of the paper to next Tuesday’s meeting, thus facing potential shame if the draft is not delivered on time. And millions of Americans use it when they commit to having income tax withheld from their paychecks throughout the year, in order to receive a large refund after April 15th. The idea behind these precommitment strategies is simple: if the harms of a behavior are not enough to motivate you to change your ways, then you can opt to add to those harms.

I would only qualify this conclusion in one sense. People are not motivated by the fear of shame as much as they are by the more positive wish to affirm their good character.

The Meaning of No

For the most part Megan McArdle writes about economics. Her columns are usually enlightening and engaging.

In a recent column on rape culture, she also offers a valuable insight into psychology.

She does so while explaining why women have difficulty saying No and why their word is not always respected.

In the terms I have most often used on this blog, the meaning of the word No depends in part on the default position. In olden days, the default was No. It did not need to be stated or asserted. It was understood that women would not be offering their sexual favors to men they just met. If a woman did not explicitly say Yes, it was assumed that she was saying No.

In those antediluvian times the issue was not whether or not women liked sex as much as men. It was assumed that sex for a woman was not the same as sex for a man and thus that the difference needed to be respected. Better yet, as McArdle explains, it was a time when everyone knew that “nice girls don’t.”

In that time, women were protected and cosseted by colleges.

Skip forward twenty-five years to McArdle’s generation. By that time nice girls who didn’t have sex were denounced as repressed prudes, suffering from severe neuroses.  What was lost was choice. A woman could either have sex and like it or be denounced as a repressed neurotic. Virginity became a four-letter-word. No girl wanted it; all girls wanted to rid of the taint of virginity.

Describing the atmosphere when she entered college a quarter century ago, McArdle analyzes the difference:

My generation drank more than our mothers had, so that women were more frequently incapable of saying no, or much of anything else. There were no parietal rules to keep us out of each other's rooms, or force us to come home at an early hour. Nor could we fall back on "nice girls don't"; we had to refuse this specific man each time, not on the grounds that some external force was stopping us, but because we simply didn't want to have sex with him. That's an uncomfortable conversation, and modern though we may be, most of us still hated uncomfortable conversations, especially if we'd had a few and just wanted to go to sleep.

I'm not calling for a return to single-sex dorms, curfew rules, and the presumption that "nice girls don't." I'm just pointing out that these things gave our mothers an easy way to say "no" that didn't have to be explained or defended, and wouldn't be taken as a specific rejection of this person right in front of you. We were chanting a slogan designed for a world that no longer existed. In the world where we lived, it required an assertiveness and a confident self-knowledge that a lot of 19-year-old girls found hard to muster. It required actions we weren't always willing to take, like loudly saying "no," and leaving if he persisted. In other words, it left us vulnerable, though not in the same way that our mothers had been.

In the new culture the import and impact of saying No changed. A woman who said No was no longer asserting her virtue; she was effectively branding herself a repressed reactionary. Moreover, saying No was no longer respected as her policy. It was something that a man would take personally.

No had become a personal rejection. A woman who was presumed to like and to want sex as much as a man was not rejecting sex per se; she was rejecting the man.

As McArdle astutely observes, rejecting someone personally is far more difficult than asserting personal virtue or having to be back in the dorm by midnight.

For that reason, more than a few young women, she explains, have yielded to a man’s sexual advances when they had no desire to do so.

She does not quite say it, but when No is a personal rejection the recipient of the rejection risks getting angry. It is fair to say that members of the more vulnerable and weaker sex are instinctively programmed to avoid provoking the anger of someone who is stronger and more powerful.

If so, a woman might say Yes when she really means No. At that point, the notion that No means No loses some of its force.

How does one solve this problem?

McArdle believes that young women need to learn how to be more forceful and more assertive. Since she just argued that it is enormously difficult for young women to do so, one is left puzzled.

A more sensible solution is for young women not to allow themselves to get into positions where there might be any ambiguity.  One understands that feminists will bridle at the notion that a woman ought to restrain herself when matching a man shot for shot. To their minds a woman should be free to get drunk, get naked and get into bed with a man and not be violated.

In the abstract, they are correct. No behavior is an invitation to rape.

And yet, if the woman finds herself incapable of saying No, the situation becomes murkier.

Would it not be better for young women to follow their mothers’ advice?

That means, not putting themselves in situations where the only thing that might stop them from being raped is a single word, a word that they will be hesitant to assert.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Test of Australia's Empathy

Oft have I warned of the danger of making a fetish of empathy. I wrote about it at length in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.

Today’s therapy culture has elevated the ability to feel the pain of others into something of a moral absolute.

Since moral precepts define what you should do, making empathy a moral law upends ethics by enjoining us, not to do something, but to feel the right feelings.

Under the rule of empathy, it doesn’t really matter what happens to the poor and disadvantaged in our great nation. What matters is that you feel the correct feelings about the problem. They shield you of all responsibility for the consequences of the policies you have supported.

It’s a lose/lose situation that feels like a win/win.

Recently, presumptive presidential candidate Hillary Clinton-- whose husband rode “I feel your pain” to the White House and to no small number of sexual conquests-- recently announced that we need to empathize with our enemies.

By the Hillary doctrine, we do not need to defeat our enemies. We do not need to feel their pain. We need to be sensitive to the pain that is causing them to want to kill us.

Like it or not, discussions of empathy quickly degenerate into mindless cant.

Yesterday, as soon as the terrorist hostage taking in Sydney, Australia  been suppressed, the Sydney Morning Herald embarrassed itself with an editorial about the need for empathy.

At the least, the paper demonstrated that wallowing in empathy diminishes mental capacity.

If only in passing, note that the forces of order in Sydney showed no empathy for the terrorist who had held seventeen people captive in a chocolate shop. They stormed the place, behind stun grenades and automatic fire.

The SMH, however, sees it in terms of empathy:

First and foremost, we have faced yet another test of our empathy. Like the Bali bombings and myriad natural disasters, our thoughts are with the innocent victims: those inside the cafe who were caught up in a tragic situation for no other reason than they were going about their daily lives. Our thoughts are with their loved ones, too, for the hard times ahead.

Whatever does that mean? Surely, we all feel sympathy for the victims of any crime or disaster. It is a perfectly normal human emotion. And we feel sympathy for those who have lost loved ones.

But, we are not being tested. No one can be insensitive to the feelings of the people whose loved ones were killed by a terrorist.

After that warm-up, the SMH moves on to the crux of its argument:

Perhaps we face an even more difficult test of our empathy as well. How should we feel for the perpetrator so far witnessed and his family? While we do not know his story or his motivation, we know he was once someone just like those people whose lives he has now treated with such disdain. He must have loved ones, too. Forgiving him will be very difficult, and it will take time. Without forgiveness, though, we have to live with destructive hate.

One understands that this is therapy-speak. One is tempted to say that it is girl-talk, but  if Margaret Thatcher had read it she would have thrown up. When the Iron Lady was faced with IRA terrorists on a hunger strike, she refused to have them force fed.

For all I know the editorial was written by a man pretending to be in touch with his feminine side. If so, it’s insulting to women.

For the editorial board of the SMH the issue is not what to do about the cancer in their midst, but how they should feel about it.

Do you think that that will deter future terrorists?

The editorial implies that after 9/11 we should have ginned up our empathy and felt for Mohammed Atta’s loved ones. If we didn’t, did we fail the empathy test?

As absurd as that sounds, one suspects that Senator Feinstein’s recent indictment of the CIA was designed—consciously or unconsciously—to make us feel empathy for the terrorists who had undergone advanced interrogation.

As psy-ops go, feeling for the families of your attackers, the ones who will suffer the most if you destroy your enemies, is guaranteed to make you weaker and more ineffectual.

And, what is this nonsense about forgiveness? Do you think that Australia now needs to forgive Mon Haron Monis his horrific actions? Do you believe that if they do not forgive him they will be eaten alive by hatred?

If so, you have certainly had too much therapy. In the real world, if you forgive your enemy you will encourage him to hit you again.

What is especially infelicitous in the SMH’s call to feel empathy for the family of Monis is that he behaved monstrously toward his family. Monsters do not deserve empathy; they deserve contempt.

The Daily Mail reports in detail. Consider it an empathy test:

Court documents show that the dead gunman behind the siege of a Sydney cafe was facing up to 50 sexual offence charges, including aggravated sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault and inciting a teenage girl to commit an indecent act.

Man Haron Monis painted the breasts and bodies of women with water, massaged their breasts and rubbed his genitals against them and raped them in 'spiritual healing' sessions all over Sydney going back 13 years, the documents allege.

The 50-year-old committed the sexual offences against women at his Spiritual Consultation business in the Sydney suburbs of Burwood, Liverpool, Westmead and Belmore between September 2001 and September this year, according to the documents.

Monis, whose name is recorded in the documents as Mohammad Hassas Manteghi, was due to face court on February 27 next year.

Further documents allege that he threatened to shoot the mother of his two sons at Minchinbrook McDonalds in western Sydney almost two years before Noleen Hayson Pal was murdered.

According to an interview conducted at St Marys Police Station on July 27, 2011, Monis threatened Ms Pal after they split up and had demanded full custody of their children, then aged seven and three-and-a-half.

Ms Pal, who told police she was afraid of Monis, had met him at the McDonald's a week earlier to discuss custody of their children.

Police say Monis told her, 'If I can't see the kids more than I am now, you're going to pay, even if I have to shoot you'….

Ms Pal, who became Monis' s de facto wife around nine years before she was murdered, died in a brutal killing on the afternoon of Sunday, April 21 when she was set upon, stabbed 18 times, doused with accelerant and then set alight.

It was not until seven months later, in October 2013, that police arrested and charged Monis' s girlfriend, Amirah Droudis with murder and charged Monis with accessory to murder before and after the fact.

It sounds as though the police officers who shot Monis did his family a very large favor. Do you think that we should feel badly for their having lost him?

The Daily Mail asked the right question:

Why was this man out on bail?

Did the Australian criminal justice system believe that his murderous ways were a test of their empathy? Did Australia sacrifice two lives in order to pass an empathy test?

Look at the closing line in the SMH editorial:

To find the answers of the Martin Place siege, we need to remain calm, retain perspective and embrace all sections of the community to ensure we can all go about our everyday lives free of fear.

It’s a nice feeling, to be free from fear. And yet, when you have enemies who are hell bent on destroying you, a little fear is a good thing. If you do not fear those who would murder you, you are out of touch with reality.

It’s also nice to embrace all segments of the community, but that does not tell us what to do with those who do not want to be embraced, who do not want to belong to our communities and who see your embrace as a sign of weakness, an invitation to commit heinous actions.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Marriage in Today's America

Yesterday, Ross Douthat wrote an excellent column on marriage in today’s America. In particular, he asked whether the more progressive idea of marriage—the one that is apparently practiced by the upper classes—should be exported to the lower social classes.

More specifically, he questions whether what I call the feminist life plan works for upper class Americans and thus whether it should be adopted by the lower classes.

Two questions  arise immediately.

First, does the feminist life plan produce more stable and durable marriages? Or is there another explanation for the seeming lower divorce rate in this cohort. (NB, the current divorce rate of 33% is better than the previous rate of 50%, but it is really not that encouraging... especially since it only applies to the first seven years of marriage.)

I expressed my own view in a recent post entitled: Did Feminism Save Marriage?

Discussing whether the lower classes should imitate the upper classes, Douthat describes the plan that they are being asked to imitate:

Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.

One might rejoin that if the plan worked as well as its defenders say, we would not need to encourage anyone to imitate it. People tend naturally to emulate their betters, especially when they see something that works.

For their part, progressives believe that lower-class men are rejecting the feminist life plan because they have been caught up in an outmoded concept of masculinity.

Douthat writes:

The core idea here is that working-class men, in particular, need to let go of a particular image of masculinity — the silent, disciplined provider, the churchgoing paterfamilias — that no longer suits the times. Instead, they need to become more comfortable as part-time homemakers, as emotionally available soul mates, and they need to raise their children to be more adaptive and expressive, to prepare them for a knowledge-based, constantly-in-flux economy.

Seeing how well this argument fulfills the feminist dream, one suspects that it is ideologically driven. When facts are cherry-picked to sustain an ideology you can be fairly certain that something is wrong.

For his part Douthat grants that today’s marriage is not the same as yesterday’s:

For Americans of every social class, the future of marriage will be more egalitarian, with more shared burdens and blurrier divisions of labor, or it will not be at all.

And yet, the story is more complex than progressives would like.

Their professed beliefs notwithstanding, upper-class Americans, Douthat notes, are more socially conservative in their behavior than the lower-class:

First, it [the argument] underestimates the effective social conservatism of the upper-class model of family life — the resilience of traditional gender roles in work and child rearing, the continued role of religion in stabilizing well-educated family life, and the conservative messages encoded even in the most progressive education.

Notwithstanding their more egalitarian attitudes, for instance, college-educated households still tend to have male primary breadwinners: As the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox points out, college-educated husbands and fathers earn about 70 percent of their family’s income on average, about the same percentage as working-class married couples.

Douthat adds that these households remain more traditional:

The college-educated are also now more likely to attend church than other Americans, and are much less likely to cohabit before marriage than couples without a high school degree. And despite a rhetorical emphasis on Emersonian self-reliance, children reared and educated in the American meritocracy arguably learn a different sort of lesson — the hypersupervised caution of what my colleague David Brooks once dubbed “the organization kid.

Again, this might show that those who choose to marry tend to be more traditional. In lower class households men increasingly do not make enough money to support a family. Thus, they are less likely to marry.

There is more to the story. Attributing it all to economics seems short-sighted. Andrew Cherlin agrees that the cultural revolution that began the 1960s and 1970s has destabilized marriage.

Wilcox summarizes Cherlin’s views:

It’s also about mores. And here Cherlin tells a largely conservative story. He notes that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s—i.e., the sexual, feminist, and therapeutic revolutions of this tumultuous era—played a key role in making divorce, single parenthood, and nonmarital childbearing more acceptable to the public at large. Without the shifts in mores ushered in by these revolutions, the United States might have seen a decline in marriage rates in the last half-century, but it would not have seen the dramatic increase in family instability and single parenthood among the working class that it did. The Great Depression is instructive here, as Cherlin notes: “Despite a terrible job market in the 1930s, there was no meaningful rise in nonmarital childbearing because cultural norms had not changed.” So, America’s family problem is not just about money, it’s about changes in mores that have weakened the links between lifelong marriage and parenthood.

More surprisingly, Douthat continues, working and lower class men tend to practice the progressive cultural model more faithfully than do their upper class counterparts:
Meanwhile, as cohabitation and churchgoing trends suggest, many working-class Americans — men very much included — have gone further in embracing progressive models of identity and behavior than many realize, and reaped relatively little reward for that embrace.

It’s almost as though these people are following the feminist life plan more scrupulously and more unconsciously.

Douthat explains:

Near the end of “Labor’s Love Lost,” his illuminating new book on the decline of the working-class family, the Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin cites research suggesting that many working-class men, far from being trapped in an antique paradigm of “restricted emotional language,” have actually thrown themselves into therapeutic, “spiritual but not religious” questing, substituting Oprah-esque self-help for more traditional forms of self-conceiving and belonging.

Surely, it’s a fascinating observation. New Ageism, spirituality without a religion, produces anomic individuals who are seeking self-fulfillment without the concomitant sense of belonging to a community.

One suspects that the New Ageism comes to these men from their Oprah-watching wives. In the past machismo has thrived within matriarchal cultures. Jobless men are more likely to adopt more caricatured versions of male behavior… all the while depending on their wives and mothers for their support. Let's emphasize: machismo is a caricature of masculinity.

One wonders how the cohort of lower class men divides on racial and ethnic lines.

In conclusion, Douthat writes:

We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster.