Saturday, August 30, 2008

Learning to Win

Recently Brett Steenbarger wrote on his blog that the inability to deal with trauma is often a trader's enemy. Not sexual trauma, not childhood traumas, but the trauma of losing money.

Ever since Freud psychotherapy has labored under the notion that the best way to deal with trauma is to talk it out. It has recommended telling the story of your trauma, gathering up a few insights, and then pretending that you understand the meaning of what happened to you. This enhanced consciousness is supposed to constitute cure.

Need I mention that it never works. In some recent posts Steenbarger offers a good explanation of why. Losing money in a bad trade or in a series of bad trades sets up a conditioned response, one that bypasses thought and reflection. Negative experiences-- like losing money-- are more powerful and influential because they cause people to vow "never again." If you have been hurt badly at some activity the chances are good that you will avoid, not only that activity, but anything that remotely suggests it.

Steenbarger adds that since traumas bypass thought to create automatic responses they cannot be influenced by more and better thinking.

Let us say that a trader was traumatized by a loss? How will he conduct himself to avoid it every happening again?

He may be too quick to take small profits because he panics about the possibility that they will disappear. He might allow his bad positions to decline too long because he refuses to take a small loss.

In the end he might become accustomed to losing money because he has gained extensive experience at it. And he will accept it because he will feel that trauma has defined him as a loser.

No one is going to get over this by talking it out or talking it over or talking it through. No one is going to learn to win by discovering why he likes to lose or why he wanted to lose.

Once traumatized a person might well need a trading coach to guide him back into the markets. A coach will teach him how to get out of his Self and back into reading the markets. He will not do as many therapists do and puff up his self-esteem. As Steenbarger said: "It's not about thinking more positively about yourself; it's about removing the self from pure performance skill."

Still and all, someone who has gotten too used to losing must figure out some way to learn how to win. And as Steenbarger suggests, he must do it through experience, through the experience of winning.

How do you do that? East... you take up golf... or tennis or bridge. You go outside of trading to find an activity where you can learn to win with humility and lose with grace.

Golf is like meditation, only with a competitive kicker. You do not have to introspect to discover how good your concentration is... the trajectory of the ball provides an instant reality check.

Golf will teach you how not to get too full of yourself when you sink a long putt or make a great chip shot. It will teach you how to get your concentration back when your drive lands in the lake.

Similarly, with bridge. If you are not in the bridge world you may not know but a great many of the finest bridge players are also traders, generally options traders.

I would add here that children need to learn how to win and how to lose, that is, how to complete, when they are growing up. This ought not to need emphasis, but there are enough mentally-deficient educators in our country who want to ban dodge ball and spelling bees, to say nothing of grades, because they are afraid someone's feelings will be hurt. What they are really doing is creating children who are incapable of dealing with failure. It is a sorry legacy of the self-esteem movement, and one can only hope it has not infected too many school systems.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Is Virtue Its Own Reward?

Let's talk money and markets. Specifically, the skills required to trade markets. For that we are going to turn to Brett Steenbarger. Having worked in the field of brief psychotherapy Steenbarger now coaches stock market traders. The point that most intrigues me in his approach is the bald assertion that social skills and trading skills are the same!

First, a caveat. For most people trading markets-- moving into and out of them quickly-- is very, very difficult. It is not for the faint of heart or the short of funds. It is inherently risky.

If you are not a professional, and if you have not trained yourself for trading, you would do better by investing, that is, buying stocks and bonds and holding them for the longer term.

That much said, even investors must decide when to buy and to sell. When you stock is moving ahead smartly, should you let your profits run or should you take some off the table? And when your stock is falling like a rock, should you take your losses, hold on for dear life, or buy more?

There is always an element of trading in any investment decision. And there is also an element of psychology, what market players call sentiment.

The best-known principle of market psychology is this: whatever the strongest prevailing sentiment, do the opposite. If everyone is long energy and short financials, then short energy and go long financials. This is called contrarian investing.

In ethical terms, it is a play on temperance. It says that you should always go against emotional extremes.

Legendary investor John Templeton told people that going against the crowd was a sign of moral virtue. If people want your stock that badly-- by offering a ridiculous price for it-- you can be a good person by letting them have it. And if they want to get rid of their stock that badly-- by offering it an an absurdly low price-- you can be a good person by taking it off their hands.

In practical terms, when everyone at CNBC tells you that it can never come down, you should sell it. When they say that it can never go up, you should buy.

Of course, you must have a notion of value to play the game. Sometimes people will sell you something cheaply because it is worthless. John Templeton was one of the world's great value investors.

Beyond that, Templeton's idea suggests that virtue is not merely its own reward. It pays off in other ways too.

I was reminded of this when I was reading Brett Steenbarger's blog, TraderFeed. Yesterday he wrote:
"I personally find it interesting that traders who lack social skills-- who don't read people well-- also seem to struggle with markets. I listen carefully to the market views of defensive, abrasive, or socially inept people; they're uncommonly wrong, which makes their opinions useful in unintended ways."

To most people this is not self-evident. Many of us learned about Wall Street traders by reading Michael Lewis's book, Liar's Poker.
There Lewis offered that the great bond traders at Salomon Bros. had dubbed themselves: Big Swinging Dicks.

Apparently these overgrown frat boys were aggressive, rude, and abrasive to an extreme. A BSD would throw his mother off a cliff for an eighth of a point, and would gamble on anything, like the arrival time of the pizza delivery boy.

The value of Lewis' take lay in the notion that these were not traders, they were gamblers. And gamblers always lose in the long run.

As for the Big Swinging Dicks from Salomon Bros.... where are they now? One of the major BSDs was John Meriwether who went on to found Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund that could not fail... until it did. The collpse of LTCM was extravagant to an extreme. It nearly destroyed the financial system. You can read the story in Roger Lowenstein's book, When Genius Failed.

Steenbarger's advice is intriguing because it runs directly counter to the ethos of the Salomon Bros. bond traders. Clearly, his is the more sober, sensible, and profitable direction.

He is telling us that successful traders do not get caught up in the emotion of the moment; they do not follow their bliss or their despair. And he was telling us that the same applies in your relationships with other people. Good social skills are essential to good trading, good investing, and a good life.

Why? Because people who succeed in the markets are people who respect the markets. As Steenbarger brilliantly put it: "It is not about imposing your views on what markets 'should' be doing; its about reading what they 'are' doing...."

In more interpersonal terms, people who are abrasive and obnoxious are trying to impose their will on others. They believe in their genius; they are convinced that they are right; they believe that they can and must control others. They become so totally enamoured of their own genius that they miss the signs that other people are turning away from them.

A market is made up of billions of individual decisions. To imagine that you can walk into it and make it do what you think it should do is a recipe for financial ruin. Humility, not pride, will make you a better trader and a better person.

Steenbarger is telling us that people who respect other people do better than people who want to assert their own needs, no matter what. Can you, for example, tell when your friends are tiring of your complaints or when they feel you are depriving them of your presence? Do you persist in the face of subtle discouraging cues or do you insist that they keep listening? When someone offers a subtle hint that they do not want to go out with you, do you keep asking or do you withdraw gracefully?

Reading people well is like reading markets well. A lot of it involves following subtle cues and knowing how to take a hint. Despite what many therapists say, it is a bad thing to have to spell everything out, to explain yourself all the time, to insist on satisfying your needs, and to assert yourself against friends and neighbors.

Being tactful and considerate, respecting other people's feelings... these are the ways to get along with others, and they are at the core of the kind of ethical behavior that will improve your life and your trading.

You can be as right as rain, but forcing your truth on others is simply wrong. As Steenbarger might suggest... if you disagree, try forcing your truth on the stock market.

Virtue may be its own reward, but it may also reward you in other, less mysterious ways.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Forever Nuance

You would have thought that one of the great lessons of the 2004 presidential election was: whatever you do, do not do nuance. Apparently not.

The word has recently been floated as the best explanation of Barack Obama's less than stellar performance last week at Saddleback.

When the candidate did not give straight answers to Pastor Warren's straight questions, the pundits lined up to explain that his mind was so subtle and so brilliant that it sees all sides of all issues. Only a great mind can see the complexities of all issues and weight all of the possible and imaginable considerations. The pundits want us all to think that Obama's answers exist on a higher plane, one that would barely be intelligible to people from Kansas. That plane is the plane of nuance.

The defense is similar to one offered by James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly. Fallows declared that Obama was not very good in the candidate debates because he was the thinking person's candidate. Just like Pres. Adlai Stevenson.

Nuance did not work last time and it will not work this time... and not because it's a French word.

A president leads by setting policy, not by inspiring people with lofty thoughts or impressing them with how smart he is. A candidate must tell us what he is going to do. When he traffics in nuance people think that he is inviting them to wallow in his indecision.

Perhaps this appeals to people who have done a lot of therapy. They, in particular, have learned to refrain from taking action, the better to introspect, to free associate, to express their feelings, and to develop their poetic side. If you follow those guidelines strictly you will not become president, you will become dysfunctional.

If the candidate does not have a clear policy to address a problem then people will rightly assume that he is either not going to do anything or that he is going to make it up as he goes along.

If public policy were based on nuance then we would be writing the history of the Cuomo presidency. Policy has to be clear, precise, concise, and intelligible to large numbers of people. Otherwise how will the staff understand what it is supposed to do.

Given the choice between a wrong policy and no policy, an intelligent electorate will usually choose the former. Not for lack of intelligence but because they are smart enough to know what makes for leadership.

Most people would rather do something than nothing. In 1948 Harry Truman ran a successful campaign against a do-nothing Congress.

Deep thinkers love nuance. They love to get lost in their thoughts because then they feel that they are masters of their domain. The more detached they are from reality the more they love nuance.

They love it when a candidate offers nuanced answers because that makes them feel that he is one of them, and that he is raising their status in the world. They love it when they can feel that he is bright like them. Unfortunately then end up supporting candidates who would rather be bright than president.

Policy is like what Hollywood producers call "high concept." Anyone who has ever pitched a screen play knows that it must have a concept, a one-sentence plot synopsis. An effective script, like an effective presidency, must have a unity of action.

A policy is not a theme; it is not an inspirational message. To grasp what it is, take a few examples. Among the better know policies is: containment. George Kennan first proposed this one-word policy as the guiding principle of American conduct of the Cold War. It was surely different from the allied policy in World War II, which was: unconditional surrender.

The New Deal was a series of policy proposals. So was the Contract with America. In 2006 Congressional election Democrats ran on an end-the-war policy. Republicans seemed to be running on more-of-the-same. Of course, the Democrats won.

Both McCain and Obama became presumptive nominees because they articulated clear Iraq policies. McCain revived his candidacy by proposing a policy called: the surge. Obama rode his policy of "end the war" to the Democratic nomination.

Of course, that policy debate is now past history. Both candidates now need to redefine themselves by proposing new policies to address other issues.

This is being played out in the current debate over energy independence. McCain and the Republicans have been winning the debate because their policy: Drill here; drill now... is much clearer and actionable than any Democratic alternative. We may not be able to drill out way out of the problem, but we are certainly not going to think out way out of it.

I invite anyone to explain the Obama energy policy in four words or less. The Democrats may be right; they may be wrong. They are not going to win an election on an incoherent set of contradictory ideas that appear to be a grab-bag for special interest groups.

Despite what David Brooks says, I do not think that the Obama campaign needs a theme. I also do not think that it has been losing ground because it has been ineffective at counterpunching. And I do not believe that Obama is being dragged down by the company he kept in the past.

No, Obama's problem is that his candidacy is not defined by any policies. His master themes are not policies. "Change" is not a policy; "hope" is not a policy. A grammatically incorrect book title-- I hope I am not the only one who has noticed that The Audacity of Hope is incorrect in English grammar-- does not lead to policies.

For the Obama convention to succeed it must go beyond stirring rhetoric and inspirational messages. As the McCain campaign has already figured out, these easily lend themselves to ridicule. Obama is running for Commander in chief, not pastor in chief.

Success or failure will be measured by whether or not you can say after the convention what Obama's policy proposals are.. in one sentence or less. If you cannot do that, get ready for Pres. McCain.

When democracy is at its best political debate and decision-making concerns alternative policies. Isn't this more uplifting than the notion that it is all an exercise in psychological manipulation, whether through a duel of competing personal narratives or a contest between alternative dramatic spectacles?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Enablers Anonymous

The John Edwards saga is beginning to recede from public consciousness, but not without a final spasm, this time, about Elizabeth Edwards.

Opinion is divided. Some consider Elizabeth to be a martyr, a victim of her husband's bad character, a woman who suffered mental anguish in order to keep her family together and to protect her children. Others have accused her of being a co-conspirator, more the problem than the solution.

In this last camp we find the Washington Post's Sally Quinn. In a column last week Quinn implied that Elizabeth Edwards should be joining Hillary Clinton and Silda Spitzer at their Enablers Anonymous meetings.

By which she meant that Elizabeth enabled her husband by allowing him to run for president. She does not, of course, suggest that his adultery reflects on how good a wife she was.

In Quinn's own words: "The problem is: SHE LET HIM DO IT. She not only agreed to his run for the presidency, she encouraged him to do it, knowing the toll it would take on the family given her health problems. But, worse, she let him do it knowing that he had had an affair."

High dudgeon, indeed.

From the little I know of Sally Quinn-- no more than appears in the press-- I would choose her to be the perfect arbiter of the moral complexities of the Edwards debacle. Can you imagine anyone more sensible, more ethical, more politically savvy than Sally Quinn. I cannot.

That is why it pains me to disagree with her. Look at it this way. Say that a man has tickets to the Super Bowl. The morning of the game his wife falls ill; she spikes a fever. No one knows what is wrong with her. She is taken to the emergency room and is hooked up to tubes and monitors. She is floating in and out of consciousness.

Imagine that at some point she opens her eyes and tells her husband not to worry about her. The fever will soon subside; the doctors are doing everything they can. He does not need to stay with her. She wants him to go to the game. She will still be there when he comes back.

Does this mean that she is letting him go to the game? Does it mean that he is encouraging him to abandon her, the better to increase her stress level?


She is saying that she knows how important the game is. She is showing that she regrets the fact that her illness is causing him to miss it. She is being considerate and empathic. She is not telling him what to do or what not to do.

In fact, she is leaving the decision up to him.

Her encouragement is a ploy. If a man does not know enough to scrap his plans while his wife is in the ER, then nothing she can say will make him change his mind.

She is giving him the option of making a free choice, without pressure and without taking sides one way or the other.

Wives and husbands tend to avoid telling each other what to do. At least, if they have learned how best to get along with each other. Spouses do not really give each other permission to do this or that. Most of them know that pushing one way or the other will merely elicit push-back.

So Elizabeth granted John the freedom to make his own decision about his own political future. She knew that the best way to do that was to offer encouragement. Had she refused to take a position-- You make up your own mind, honey-- he would have understood it as pressure against his candidacy.

So, my advice to husbands: when you have to choose between doing the right thing and doing what your wife is telling you to do, pray that the two are the same. If they are not, do the right thing. That is what she really wants you to do anyway.

What do you think would have happened if John Edwards had told his wife that, under the circumstances, he had decided to forgo his run for the presidency because the time was not right for the family. do you think that Elizabeth would have thrown him out of the house for being a sanctimonious wimp?

Even if we accept, as Sally Quinn says, that Elizabeth Edwards should have known the difficulties and risks of a candidacy, doesn't that mean that John Edwards should have known it too? Would it be too much to expect that a real man would know enough to put his political ambition on hold, even if that meant rejecting his wife's encouragement.

One more word about the notion of enabling. A wife is not her husband's keeper. The fact that a wife cannot stop her husband from indulging bad habits does not mean that she has offered tacit encouragement. It may make for a better story, but it oversimplifies complex decision-making.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Nation of Whiners

How does culture influence the way we deal with trauma? That question animates a recent David Brooks column in the NY Times.

In it Brooks recounts his interviews with survivors of the recent Sichuan earthquake. A catastrophe of mammoth proportions, the quake took around 70,000 lives. Brooks wanted to know how they were dealing with the trauma and the grief.

Three months after the quake Brooks was shocked to discover that the villagers he interviewed, all of whom seem to have lost loved ones, were not suffering any visible emotional aftershocks. None seemed mired in grief; none was consumed by rage against the government or the gods. All of them seemed, to Brooks, in relatively good humor.

And yet, none of them had undergone psychotherapy. None had had the opportunity to give full expression to their feelings; none had used talk therapy to process the pain of trauma.

A lesser thinker than David Brooks might have denounced them for being in denial. To Brooks' credit he emphasized their resilience. They had thrown themselves into the task of rebuilding their towns and villages and were gaining sustenance from their community spirit.

Of course, we know nothing of their private psychic pain. All we can say is that they chose not to share it with an American journalist. They had not been taught by their culture how to turn personal tragedy into international psychodrama.

We do not know these people's feelings. We know that their way of dealing with trauma has little to do with the prescribed Western approach.

When Brooks asked them point blank how they were handling the pain of their losses, they seemed almost nonchalant. They said that they tried their best to put such thoughts out of their minds. Again, Brooks grants them the benefit of the doubt. He does not say that they are repressed or that we should be awaiting the return of the repressed.

A less savvy American would have showered these people with a disbelief bordering on contempt, and would have added a blanket imperative: Get thee to a therapist!

After all, if people can get over the worst kinds of human trauma without direct therapeutic intervention, how will therapists stay in business?

My only quibble with Brooks is his ending. There he compares the Chinese response with the inane histrionics of our reality show contestants. People who appear on these shows have an unusual talent for making themselves into public spectacles. Why compare a self-selected group of shameless self-promoters with a group of humble villagers in central China.

It would have been better to compare the trauma-processing behavior of these villagers to the way everyday New Yorkers responded to the attack on the World Trade Center.

Surely, America responded by mobilizing an army of psychotherapists. Do-good organizations ran multiple television commercials advertising the availability of these services.

And yet, as Dr. Sally Satel remarked in a NY Times op-ed New Yorkers showed an unexpected psychological resilience. The people who availed themselves of therapeutic services were mostly people who had done so before. The rest stood together as a community and worked quietly to put their lives back in order.

Obviously, there were differences in the way New Yorkers processed the 9/11 attacks. But that is likely because there is a fundamental difference between a natural disaster and a terrorist attack.

So Brooks was not quite on point when he compared the Chinese villagers to reality show contestants. Still, he was correct to note that Americans do complain a great deal. Perhaps not at a time of national emergency, but when it comes to everyday traumas, Americas have learned that the right way to respond is to complain, criticize, and psycho-dramatize.

This approach is a culturally-induced distortion of normal human behavior. Brooks does not say it but I suspect he would agree with me that the Chinese approach is more normal than our own therapeutically-sanctioned mode of seeking solace by expelling emotional gas.

The therapy culture has not given us a new and better way to deal with trauma. It has given us a fictional narrative that tells us how we should feel when we have suffered a trauma and what kind of drama we should live out in order to palliate its effects.

Does this new way work? Not really. It is surely less effective than the methods adopted by a group of humble villagers in central China.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

But Is It Art? 2

Until recently I had never heard the name of performance artist Paul McCarthy. Now, thanks to an act of God, I have. I do not feel better for as much.

McCarthy was already famous in certain circles for seminal works like, "Santa Claus with Buttplug," an inflatable work or balloon that was displayed in Antwerp, perhaps as a try-out for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Whatever the reason Macy's did not include the work in its parade.
Undeterred the artist has not produced a new inflatable piece, a dog turd the size of a house. Recently, it was placed in the sculpture garden of the Paul Klee Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

I can only guess at the meaning, but I assume that the artist wants us to imagine the dog that produced said turd. And that would point us to the giant Snoopy balloon that we have so often seen floating down Central Park South on Thanksgiving Day.

Anyway, a coterie of curators must have decided that the turd was art. After all, someone chose to put it in a museum.

As a product placement this was intriguing. Did the artist and the curators want to defile the sculpture garden and the work that was exhibited there?

If so, the ultimate meaning is clear. If you cannot create something of artistic value yourself, then you can make a name for yourself by defiling, denigrating, or, dare I say, deconstructing the work of others.

But is it art? Perhaps it is merely inflated art criticism.

We do not need to decide right away. As it happened, God did not think it was art, so He, or one of his pagan surrogates, sent a powerful gust of wind into the sculpture garden. Unceremoniously, the wind picked up the inflated dog turd and flew it 200 meters across the city where it broke a powerline and a greenhouse window before ending up in a schoolyard.

For all you or I know the artist had planned this denouement. Didn't it show us how art could deconstruct capitalist hegemony?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Big Bad John

To the regret of many the John Edwards saga has not yet gone away. Too many unanswered questions remain; too many untruths have yet to be explored fully. Enquiring minds want to know...

Of course, people have been drawn to the lurid details. Many people have been seriously creeped out by Edwards insisting that when he began his affair his wife's cancer was in remission.

This is supposed to make us feel more sympathetic toward Edwards, as though he had been showing respect to his suffering wife by taking up with a low-rent Heather Mills subsequent to her mastectomy.

The press has surely wanted to protect Elizabeth Edwards. Covering up for Elizabeth seemed to many to be the right thing to do.

But keep in mind that after the couple's oldest son died in an automobile accident, Elizabeth bore John two other children: the first, a girl, when she was 48; the second, a boy, when she was 50.

Many people have respectfully refrained from wondering whether these children were also hers, and how important it was for either of them to have a son to replace the one they had lost.

All of this to say that John Edwards had incurred a substantial debt to his wife. We do not what treatments she underwent and what the after-effects of those treatments might have been.

Surely, she deserved much, much better from her husband.

So, there was something especially revolting about the Edwards affair. It was not just another cheating spouse who had shown pathetically poor judgment in choosing a paramour. After all, Bill Clinton had already mapped out that territory.

And Edwards was not in the same league as Eliot Spitzer who had engaged in acts that he himself had prosecuted as crimes. Other political figures have been punished for much less, largely because we do not want to hear about such things, and we are not very forgiving when poor judgment throws it in our face.

A writer on wrote yesterday that we never hear about the politicians who exercise good judgment in choosing their lovers. That sounds a bit glib, but it is surely correct.

How many of us have marveled that this man could have been so weak as to fall for such a pathetic line.

We are often surprised by the lines that lure vulnerable women into compromising themselves. But what about the supposedly great and accomplished man who cannot resist a party girl who picks him up at the bar at the Regency-- not exactly a private venue-- by telling him that she sees him as the reincarnation of Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

Here we are dealing with bad character, not with an untreated psychiatric condition. And we are shocked to see such weak character in someone who was something of a hero in certain political precincts.

It is a story of the seducer who was seduced, the seducer who was so confident of his charms that he did not even notice when he was being played by someone who was better at the game.

John Edwards used seduction, not achievement, to rise in the political world. He was not a distinguished and respected member of the legal profession. He was not an appellate judge or a U.S. Attorney or the king of torts or a litigator or an expert in contracts.

No, John Edwards made his fortune being a personal injury attorney, a sub-specialty that has aptly been labeled: ambulance chasing.

Within the field of ambulance chasing Edwards specialized in infants that had been born with birth defects or congenital diseases. he was famous for channeling the spirit of sick and injured babies, larding it all in junk science, and convincing juries to vote him and his clients massive malpractice awards.

Edwards rode his success at duping juries into the United States Senate, where he served an undistinguished term. His lack of accomplishments did not prevent John Kerry from choosing him as his running mate in 2004. Kerry had imagined that the silver-tongued trial lawyer would be great attack dog, nipping at the heels of the Bush administration.

It was not to be. Edwards was a disappointing candidate. He was revealed to be more gloss than substance.

In the absence of substance Edwards ran for the presidency this year on the basis of his family narrative. Many people bought the story and bought the Edwards line. They were sorely disabused when the Rielle Hunter revealed the man behind the machinations.

No one likes to be tricked into voting for someone who is not what he seems to be. Everyone likes to see such a man get tricked by someone who is more adept than he at the art of seduction.

Why did Edwards think he could get away with it? Didn't he realize that the American public is so Puritanical that it will never love an adulterer?

If so, you have a peculiar reading of American politics. If marital fidelity were an important character trait, something that the American people valued in their leaders, then surely George W. Bush would be far more popular than his poll numbers suggest.

And keep in mind, at exactly the same stage of his presidency, Bill Clinton was enormously popular. After Gennifer, Paula, Kathleen, Juanita, and Monica... after stories that were infinitely more sordid than anything John Edwards ever imagined, Bill Clinton rode a wave of public adulation out of the White House and into a very lucrative post-presidential career.

When you ask yourself why these men think they can get away with it, answer that Bill Clinton did. Gennifer Flowers did not prevent him from being elected president twice, and Monica Lewinsky did not make less loved by the American people.

True enough, the Lewinsky affair made it nearly impossible for him to govern, but, for better or worse, the American people did not, in the end, hold it against him.

What John Edwards did, they will hold that against him.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

John Edwards (sort of) Apologizes

John Edwards timed it well. He chose to apologize for his affair with Rielle Hunter during the open ceremony for the Olympic games. Knowing that he could not wait for the Super Bowl he chose to apologize on ABC at a moment when everyone's eyes were glued to NBC. A profile in courage it wasn't.

For weeks and months the mainstream media had been covering for Edwards, leaving the impression that the story was merely tabloid fodder. When that firewall began breaking down Edwards chose the Olympic spectacle to distract people from taking the full measure of his shame.

It is a good thing to apologize when you do wrong. But, as Confucius might have said, the truth lies in the sincerity behind the apology. When you calculate the moment of the apology to garner the least possible attention, sincerity is not the word that leaps to mind.

Apology at its best is a public ritual. The Japanese seem to have perfected it, perhaps as a more civilized version of old Samurai rite of seppuku. In place of the ritual suicide of seppuku a contemporary Japanese businessman who has failed his duties will abandon his office and retire from society for a period of time.

Taking responsibility for failure means paying a very high price. The virtue and courage involved in public apology derives from the fact that the person offering the apology is sparing everyone else the pain of removing him from office.

To be clear, apology involves dereliction of duty more than it involves specifically criminal behavior.

Americans are usually considered to be late-comers to the apology game, but we still do it, sometimes well, and sometimes not so well.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno apologized in 1993 for the loss of life that followed the assault she ordered on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Her voice broke, her face fell, her posture suggested that she truly felt awful for the dozens of people who had been incinerated at Waco. She certainly seemed to be sincere in expressing her feelings.

And yet, if she was really sincere she would have resigned from her office. An apology does not merely mark a bump in the road. Taking responsibility means giving something up... something like your position in a company or a community.

I guess that Reno did not resign because she was taking the fall for someone else who was more fully in charge.

Bill Clinton apologized for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, but he was combative, contentions, defensive, and hostile. No one seriously thought that his was a sincere apology.

Fast forward to John Edwards. Note the obvious: Edwards did not face the cameras alone. He apologized in the course of an interview with ABC's Bob Woodruff. That, in itself, is a sign of insincerity.

Why? Because shame isolates you, stigmatizes you, and makes you a social pariah... to the point where no one will be on speaking terms with you. Apology is a form of auto-excommunication. You cannot offer a sincere apology when communicating face-to-face with another human being.

By definition, shame is a loss of face.

Edwards began his apology by saying, quite properly, that he and he alone is responsible for his actions. But then he performed a deft rhetorical pirouette and blamed it on everyone else.

He blamed it on his fame, his notoriety, his celebrity status, and the adulation he had been receiving from the masses. He had come from nothing; how would it not all go to his head?

Is that intended to excuse his dereliction? Of course, it is. It is a plea for understanding, something that he might well have gotten from a $600 an hour therapist.

When Edwards went on to declare himself to be narcissistic and egotistical, it sounded to me that his explanation and diagnosis had been purchased from a therapist. This is yet another reason to think that therapy is in the business of helping people to avoid taking responsibility.

Is a therapist also responsible for the fact that Edwards bragged that he had told his wife every last detail of his affair?

Think about it. How many wives do you know who want to hear a detailed account of their husbands' sexual dalliances, or, for that matter, of anyone's sexual activities. Wouldn't a wife find such an account to be cruel and unusual punishment. Only a therapist would have the gall to consider that telling it all would be salutary.

Most wives I know would consider it to be grossly disrespectful to tell them everything about an extra-marital affair.

Another strange aspect of the Edwards saga is the fact that his wife Elizabeth, for whom I have nothing but admiration, posted her own commentary on a website called The Daily Kos.

In itself this is a bizarre choice. The Daily Kos is a hyper-partisan website, the kind you would want on your side if you were a politically-active Democrat.

So, when your shame has caused you to renounce your political ambitions-- assuming that it has-- you do not want your wife to post her thoughts and feelings on a partisan site. If she felt the need to speak out for herself, you would want her to send her post to a respectable news outlet.

Put it all together, and it does not spell sincerity. My own cursory glance at the different posted comments suggests that no one really believed that John Edwards told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If he was not honest, how could he be sincere.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Zizek on Violence

The prolific Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has just published yet another of his meditations, this time on violence. Zizek is constantly churning out these volumes, chapbooks of advanced free association mixed with self-deprecating humor and fuzzy thinking.

Zizek has gained his measure of fame by being one of the few serious thinkers who is still proud to be a Marxist and a Communist. Surely, it takes a peculiar warp of mind to persist in defending political systems whose only distinction lay in their extraordinary capacity to destroy human life.

But Zizek is not merely a retrograde Marxist apologist. He is an academic whose elucubrations address the concerns of post-Marxist intellectuals. He appeals to the reactionary left, to people who learned critical theory because they believed it would undermine capitalism, and who have had their hopes dashed by, among other things, the emergence of China as a twenty-first century beacon of capitalism.

Keep in mind that French thinkers of Zizek's generation pledged their youthful allegiance to Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a last ditch effort to destroy the remnants of capitalism, by marginalizing and disempowering "capitalist roaders" like Deng Xiaoping.

When Deng was rehabilitated after the death of Mao, when he had the infamous Gang of Four arrested, and when he launched China's great leap into capitalism... the junior French intellectuals who had supported Mao were bereft and forlorn. Where could they go for solace? In fact, they went into psychoanalysis. Many even became psychoanalysts.

American critical thinkers faced a similar problem, though later. What were they to do with their training after the fall of Communism? How do you undertake your intellectual labor when facts on the ground have rendered it empty and useless? What if it is all you know how to do? What if you are getting paid to do it?

One thing that they did not do was heed the advice of John Maynard Keynes: "When the fact change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Instead, this merry band of outmoded thinkers has lifted its heads from a landscape littered with the corpses produced by modern communist practice and decided to follow Zizek's advice: keep on criticizing.

For those who are impelled toward political action, who are impatient to overthrow imperialism and liberal democracy, Zizek counsels them to: Do nothing. Why waste you time trying to change the world when the theories you have expounded have become historical detritus.

Unfortunately, you do not become a great thinker by beating a dead theory. And Zizek, dare I say, is a master at beating dead theories. He does it with verve and panache, with energy and boundless enthusiasm. He embellishes his books with a flood of cultural references and cherry picked historical details. Surely, he is more mythmaker than analyst.

Nonetheless, there is something ultimately futile about the exercise. Point that I believe Zizek knows only too well. Fortunately, he has been sufficiently influenced by certain currents in French philosophy to find a redeeming social value in futility.

Meantime, Zizek's new book begins with a distinction he borrowed from the French Marxist Etienne Balibar. He divides violence into the subjective and the objective. Perversely, he calls real acts of violence "subjective," and declares that the violence perpetrated on the human species by capitalistic exploitation constitutes "objective" violence.

Like any good Marxist Zizek believes that the latter is the cause of the former, thereby allowing us to excuse most acts of terrorism as dialectical inevitabilities. In his more impish moments Zizek labels terrorism an act of love.

Thus, the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center was "subjective" violence, while the people who were working in the building would be considered by Zizek: "agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for the explosion of subjective violence."

As I said, Zizek does not counsel resistance or rebellion. That course might be good for those who are dispossessed or dislocated in society. For the rest of us Zizek's advice is to do nothing. Literally. "Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts the ultimate function of which is to make the system run more smoothly."

Disregarding the clunky syntax, this advice is vapid and useless. At best, it will produce more depression, and more prescriptions for Prozac. Fortunately, Zizek's persona of class clown makes it that no one takes what he says as rules to live by.

Obviously, the use of terms like "subjective" and "objective" in a way that defies their normal meaning is intentional. But don't imagine that this transformation makes you some kind of cultural revolutionary. The fact is, these terms are being used as shibboleths: they identify the user as a member of an outlaw gang. Nothing more, nothing less.

Zizek's larger argument begins with the proposition that all human groups have been founded on violence. This echoes Freud's notion that civilization was founded on the repression of human libido.

Zizek presents it as an axiomatic truth. It is not. It does, however, serve a purpose. If all groups have been founded in violence, we cannot condemn anyone's violent acts. The world, as Zizek notes, is divided between those who commit violence and those who want to commit violence. Again, this is reheated Freudian theory.

If all human societies are founded in acts of violence, this also implies that they were not founded on free choice or the free consent of their members. This means that when Marxists dream of a world in which people are deprived of their free choice, they are thinking that they are helping disabuse the masses of the illusion of freedom.

Hopefully, no one needs a reminder that the radical left has no use for freedom. It has no use for an economic system like capitalism that runs on billions of decisions made by millions of individuals in the marketplace.

The great thinkers on the left (and right) believe that they should do the thinking for everyone. Like their favorite modern philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who wanted to serve the Third Reich as Hitler's philosopher-king, they dream of becoming court philosophers to despots and tyrants.

Then their minds will rule the world without their having to dirty themselves with practical politics. Where previous great thinkers like Michel Foucault and Juliette Binoche have heaped praise on the despotic Ayatollahs in Iran, Zizek has expressed great fondness for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

But there is a therapeutic side to Zizek's project. It is not for nothing that he is constantly offering snippets of psychoanalytic theory. The psychological issue is this: Should the thinkers who supported Lenin, Stalin, and Mao feel guilty for the carnage that they produced? Should they feel anxious that they will be punished for having promoted these Communist horrors?

If that is their problem, then Zizek tries to show them how to manage their guilt. If, as he says, all human societies are predicated on violence, then guilt puts you in closer touch with the truth, especially compared with those deluded souls who refuse to accept that their capitalistic system is dialectically responsible for all the terror that was committed by those trying to overthrow it. All the violence perpetrated in the name of Marx was the proper reaction to the monstrous hegemony of capitalism. Doesn't that make you feel better?

Another way to manage guilt is to shift the blame. In a silly example of dialectical unreason, Zizek denounced hedge fund operator and philanthropist George Soros: "The same Soros who funds education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and is so doing has created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces."

Whether it is coming from Zizek or from Bill O'Reilly blaming the world's ills on speculators is surely in mode. Remember when the speculators were being blamed for the high price of oil. Now, of course, the same speculators are causing its rapid descent.

Be that as it may, the important point in Zizek's statement is the number: "thousands of lives" have been ruined by George Soros.

This from someone who supports a political philosophy whose practical application has murdered tens of millions and ruined the lives of hundreds of millions more. Oh, the irony of it all!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Deep Thinking

From time to time I am amused to see what passes for serious thinking. Take this sentence from Slavoj Zizek's most recent book on violence:
"One thing that never ceases to amaze the native ethical consciousness is how the very same people who commit terrible acts of violence towards their enemies can display warm humanity and gentle care for the members of their own group."

Beyond the obvious fact that Zizek needs a better translator-- I assume that he is talking about naive, not native, ethical consciousness-- his sentence makes no sense.

It says that the rubes of this world are constantly surprised-- as opposed to occasionally surprised-- by the fact that people who violently defend their families are not equally violent towards the people they are defending.

But doesn't common sense tell us that a man who goes out to fight people who want to harm his family intends to spare them harm... not to inflict it himself?

Simple-minded rubes have no difficulty grasping this concept. I would not say the same about supposedly great philosophers. Who but a philosopher would think it logical that simple-minded people are so sophisticated that they can believe that a man who is capable of violence in one circumstance is a violent man in all circumstances.

If such were the case, the person would be fighting off enemies to have the thrill of inflicting violence on his family himself. Dare I say that the common people of this world are smart enough not to be surprised by this phenomenon. I would not say the same of philosophers.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Speaking Up

Way back when, in the good old days, when psychoanalysis was thriving, Janet Malcolm wrote a great book entitled: Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.

The book recounts the career of a distinguished New York psychoanalyst for whom Malcolm invented the pseudonym, "Aaron Green."

At a distance of nearly three decades I still recall my and, I believe, Malcolm's amazement at the fact that, for all of his years of analytic treatment, Dr. Green was afraid to speak in public.

For a psychoanalyst this is not an occupational hazard. A certain reticence might even be an advantage in such work.

But didn't it ever strike you as somewhat strange that psychoanalytic treatment, which aims specifically at helping the trainee to articulate his unconscious thoughts and feelings, should consign him to a profession where he must spend the better part of his professional work... in silence.

In any event, if a psychoanalyst is going to retain one unanalyzed symptom, this would be the symptom of choice.

More seriously, it was strange to me, even then, that the best psychoanalytic treatment had been ineffective in eliminating Dr. Green's fear of public speaking.

I recalled this issue last week when I was reading a column by the always-engaging Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times.

Kellaway posted a letter from a male manager whose inability to speak up at meetings was proving to be an obstacle to his career advancement. Acting meek and timid at meetings, choking on your words or whispering them to no one in particular... this do not improve anyone's career prospects.

In the three dozen or so replies only person recommended that this man go into therapy to discover why he was afraid to speak in public. No one suggested that he address his larger anxiety issue.

This self-selected group of people who had had the same problem or who simply wanted to be helpful... completely ignored the possibility of going into therapy.

Many of them suggested training and coaching. They offered that a speech coach, an acting coach, even a singing coach would be helpful for this man. Some recommended Yoga, especially breathing exercises, as a way to learn how to project one's voice and to assume a more confident and resonant tone. And many people mentioned a group called Toastmasters which provides people an opportunity to practice speaking in public.

After a week of such comments Kellaway offered her own solution, apparently from personal experience. It is worth quoting: "There is only one solution to your difficulty and that is to force yourself to open your mouth in meetings. If you do this often enough the nerves will eventually go away."

Some will find this advice horrifying. I consider it a breath of fresh air. A culture that traffics in the notion that you are not really cured until you have resolved all of your issues, and that imagines that once you are then the words will flow freely from the wellsprings of your authentic being, needs to hear that sometimes you just have to push yourself to do what you have to do. Not only that, but you have to do it often, until it becomes second nature, even if it does not feel very good, and even if you flub your lines every once in a while.

Kellaway has not allowed herself to be intimidated by the cultural juggernaut that routinely denounces coaching for repressing one's authentic self. If you merely want to solve the problem at hand, then you should follow Kellaway's guidelines. If you want to wallow in your emotions for years on end and still not be able to speak up in a meeting, then find a therapist and work on your issues.

Finally, Kellaway adds another piece of advice, one that she hesitated to mention because it was so obvious. She told this man to take a half-hour before each meeting to write down the points that he wanted to contribute. This is almost too obvious, but, as Kellaway notes: "almost no one plans in advance what they say at meetings."

Why would this be so? Perhaps because they belong to a cult that values spontaneity above all else. They may even believe that preparation would compromise their verbal spontaneity.

The moral of the story, is that if you follow those guidelines you are likely to veer between histrionic outbursts and pure silence.