Friday, October 30, 2009

Is America Going John Galt?

I don't know about you, but I am fascinated by efforts to read the public mood. To look seriously at the complexity of public attitudes and to distill a clear and simple concept that makes things fall into place... that is a talent deserving unstinting praise.

Among those who excel at the exercise is Peggy Noonan. In her most recent column she declares that Americans are becoming increasingly disheartened, and that the governing class is not even noticing. Link here.

Disheartened, despairing, depressed... call it what you will, it represents, as I wrote yesterday in my post on "How to Recover From Failure" a state of mind where you are convinced that you cannot do anything to change things. Thus, you give up.

As Noonan puts it: Americans are starting to think the problems we are facing cannot be solved."

It is not a constructive or productive attitude. I would not recommend it for an individual facing personal problems.

Yet, what happens when the powers-that-be create a situation where it is more profitable not to work.

Now that we have invested extraordinary powers in government, business leaders are beginning to respond. Their attitude might well stand as a corollary to David Brooks' observation that the epicenter of American overconfidence has now moved from Wall Street to Washington. For my take, link here.

As Washington arrogates more and more power to itself, the productive class, especially those who are in executive positions are pushing back. Noonan does not use the phrase, but they are going John Galt.

An insurance executive commenting on the attitude of government officials told Noonan: "They don't understand that people can just stop, get out.... They don't understand that if they start to tax me so that I'm paying 60%, 55%, I'll stop."

Under the circumstances stopping work is not quite the same thing as doing nothing. It offers a way to make a statement about the current state of affairs. If no other message gets through, then perhaps doing nothing is the only way to express an opinion.

As a sidelight, a recent poll of physicians showed that while more than 60% were opposed to Obamacare, slightly over 40% declared that if it passed they would seriously consider retirement.

The insurance executive clarified his thought in this way: "...government doesn't understand that business in America is run by people, by human beings. Mr. [Barney] Frank must believe that America is populated by high-achieving robots who will obey whatever command he and his friends issue. But... they're human, and they can become disheartened. They can pack it in, go elsewhere, quit what used to be called the rat race...."

This might mean retirement; it might mean leaving high-tax states; it might even mean relocating to a foreign country.

As Noonan sees it our leaders do not see that a country that is bordering on insolvency simply cannot take their tax and spend schemes. Why do they imagine, she states more strongly, that America can tolerate that much abuse.

She answers that they have never seen really hard times.

In her words: "We're governed at all levels by America's luckiest children, sons and daughters of the abundance, and they call themselves optimists, but they're not optimists... they're unimaginative. They don't have faith. They've... never been foreclosed on. They are stupid and they are callous, and they don't even mind it when people become disheartened. They don't even notice."

This is an awfully good description of the kind of temperament Brooks was talking about: arrogant, self-absorbed, in love with themselves to the point where they have no awareness of the existence of others.

But how did this governing class become so blind to the consequences of its own policies? Why can't they see that their approach is not going to work?

Simply, because they are living a myth. Government officials, along with intellectuals, teachers, journalists, and other deep thinkers, have spent the last few decades of American prosperity losing status. Relative to their old college friends who went into finance, they have seen their incomes diminish along with their prestige.

If we assume, as I suggested in my post on overconfidence, that their resentment has been brewing for all these many years, we can also assume that they are watching the fall of the Masters of Universe with a feeling of vindication. And they also must feel that some kind of divine justice has been visited against all of those swaggering capitalists who have spend the better part of the past decades bad-mouthing government.

Now, with the epicenter of power moving to Washington, they find themselves able to right a wrong, and to avenge themselves on the fallen Masters of the capitalist universe.

Ensconced in their rectitude, convinced that God has heard their prayers, they are living a myth of justice where the undeserving rich are despoiled of their riches.

They do not know and do not care that the productive human beings who make the economy run are about to walk away from it all. They are not seeing things in terms of human beings and in terms of policies that might or might not work. They are seeing a golden opportunity to right what they perceive as a decades-old wrong. They are not going to miss the chance.

So,the new governing class is constantly attacking the productive class, vilifying them, disrespecting them, doing everything possible to lower their status. When someone is taking away the fruits of your labor and using you as their whipping boy the only way to assert your human dignity is to walk away.

Of course, the people Peggy Noonan was interviewing can presumably afford to walk away. They do not have to work and they are certainly not going to continue working if that entails jumping when Barney Frank says: Jump!

Obama's Tenacity Gap

Yesterday blogger Ann Althouse suggested that President Obama is becoming identified as a ditherer. Usually when such an epithet sticks to a name, there is something to it.

In a superb column today David Brooks argues that the real problem with Afghanistan is not troop levels or even strategy. As he has discovered from his reporting, the real problem lies in Obama's lack of tenacity. To most educated observers Obama lacks the kind of fierce determination, the clarity and purpose, that is essential to defeating the Taliban insurgency. Link here.

Brooks took what should not be a radical step for a journalist. He interviewed a group of the most intelligent experts on counterinsurgency. He discovered that they were not wringing their hands over troop levels or even strategy reviews. They felt that the biggest problem was the growing belief that Obama did not have the tenacity to keep his word.

So, it is not about troop levels; it is really all about character.

Speaking of the experts' view of Obama, Brooks wrote: "... they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know whether he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree."

However much the world likes Obama, the fact that so many people believe him to be ditherer, someone they cannot count on to keep his word, will have dire consequences.

It is not just military experts who doubt Obama's tenacity. People in Afghanistan are voting their disapproval by their actions. As Brooks explains, Afghan villagers are now "hedging their bets," refusing to inform on the Taliban because they do not know whether Obama will stand firm in the face of the insurgency.

He adds that President Karzai is being forced to forge ties with warlords because he might need their support if the United States withdraws. And other countries do not trust Obama either, so Pakistan, Russia, and Iran are obliged to maintain ties with the Taliban.

How did we get to this sorry state of affairs? Simply put, a year ago the American intelligentsia was glorying in the fact that Barack Obama had a more nuanced approach to problems, a more subtle and sophisticated mind, especially compared with the stubborn and simple-minded tenacity of George W. Bush.

No one was willing to praise Bush for his ability to fixate on a simple conviction and to follow through on it, unflinchingly, in the face of gale-force dissent.

Of course, there were a few voices last year who warned against nuance, who saw the difficulties a leader would face if he tried to be all things to all people, or if his mind was too sophisticated to formulate policy and carry through on it. Modesty prevents me from naming names here, but this post from August, 2008 might offer some evidence. Link here.

[If you are interested in this topic, I recommend Peter Wehner's remarks on the Commentary blogsite. Link here.]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Cleanliness Really Next To Godliness?

I am constantly on the lookout for new ways to motivate people to improve their behavior and build their character.

Now I have just found one more motivator to add to the list: citrus-scented Windex!

No, that is not a joke. It is a scientific fact. Were it not a fact I would not even try to make it a joke.

Researchers in three management schools collaborated on a project concerning the relationship between cleanliness and virtue. They studied the ethical responses of two groups of people in two different rooms. One of the rooms had been treated with citrus-scented Windex; the other not.

While the scent of the Windex was no longer discernible, the treated room smelled better than the untreated room.

The results of their experiments: people in the clean-smelling room were more likely to be fair, respectful, and generous. They were also more likely to respect the rules of reciprocity: as in, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Link here.

In other words, a clean room unconsciously motivates you to be your best self. Presumably, a squalid or malodorous room brings out your worst.

If, as the study demonstrates, clean smells induce good behavior, then cleanliness really is next to godliness.

Who knew?

Freud did not. As it happened, Freud believed that cleanliness was a sign of anal retentiveness. Hopefully we have all gotten beyond that insidious piece of slander.

Of course, the corollary of the new study suggests that if you are unkempt and ill groomed, this will induce you to behave badly. But if you take a shower and put on clean clothes, you will show more fairness, reciprocity, and generosity.

It is not for nothing that a well-groomed candidate will be hired ahead of someone who is slovenly. Not only does a disordered appearance bespeak a disordered mind but it also brings out your worst.

Why should this be so? It makes sense to say that people who make a point of being clean show extra respect for the sensitivities of others. Cleanliness also tends to attract other people.

The same rule seems to apply to ritual catharsis and atonement, to say nothing of religious cleansing ceremonies, like baptism.

Older research showed that when people felt badly for having made a mistake or done someone wrong they needed but to take a shower. They they would feel better and more moral. As though sins could really be washed away.

Of course, this is strange. It violates common sense. Do you believe that you can literally wash away a bad memory? Or, as the song has it, wash that man right out of her hair? Can you wash away a transgression or failure?

How can a physical action, like a bath, remove a mental stain? Could it be that philosophers who invented the mind/body problem have been torturing themselves for nothing?

Can we offer a cogent explanation for these facts? At the least, we can try.

Assume that when you are anguished, feeling guilty or ashamed, your mental state produces some kind of physiological process that causes you to emit an unpleasant or disagreeable odor. The more you are exposed to the odor, the worse you feel. The more others are exposed to the odor the more they avoid you.

To address your most reasonable objection, I would conclude by saying that when we are emitting such odors we are probably not aware of them, any more than we can consciously identify the scent of a pheromone.


Don't Take It Personally, Part 2

According to Heidi Brown, hypersensitivity is the last "unexplored" psychosocial problem. Link here.

Too many people are far too sensitive to slights; they over-interpret and take things far too personally. To the extent that this habit distracts you from what is really going on it is largely counterproductive. When you are oversensitive you are sucking reality into your own psychodrama. This must make you less objective and less balanced in your appraisal of real situations. For my own preliminary remarks on the topic, link here.

Brown suggests that today's increased hypersensitivity derives from our economic crisis. People have lost jobs, they see other people losing jobs, they feel that their way of life is threatened as never before.

All of this amounts to the kind of loss of status, stature, and prestige that can easily produce what the psychiatrists call depression. Certainly, it is part of a shame/rejection paradigm.

How has Brown learned how to deal with her own hypersensitivity? In her words: "I still hate feeling left out, but when I hear coworkers chatting excitedly about something, I get up and walk over to them instead of waiting for them to be invited to join the conversation.
Doing something is always better than sitting and stewing."

As it happens that is the same advice I found in David Silverman's article-- see the last post-- and it is still valid. My only regret is that some people will read this advice, or Silverman's advice to keep moving, and think that it is too easy and simple, thus that it is beneath their dignity.








How To Recover From Failure

Today David Silverman posts about how CEOs recover from failure. Link here.

At a time when many people have suffered setbacks or failures in their careers or relationships, the post is especially apt and, hopefully, useful.

As Silverman puts it, the key to overcoming failure is to keep moving.

His examples remind me of a thought that forms the basis for Martin Seligman's book, "Learned Optimism." Seligman reported on experiments where rats were put in a cage with two levers, one serving up a food pellet, the other serving up nothing. The rats had no difficulty figuring out which lever to press.

Then the researchers changed the experiment. They made it that neither of the levers yielded any food. At first, the rats tried to figure out the game. They went from one lever to the other. When they finally concluded that their efforts were doomed to failure, they gave up. They stopped trying.

According the Seligman, that is the mindset that afflicts people who are depressed. Clearly, Seligman, as a cognitive psychologist, recommends thought exercises to overcome the feeling of desperation.

Silverman, and others, offer what I consider somewhat better advice: keep moving. When you get to a point in your life when you believe that anything you do will lead to failure, you need to keep moving, to do something. Just don't give in to the despair.

What Not to Say at Your Next Job Interview

Anthony Balderrama has collected a number of anecdotes, from hiring officers and career coaches, of the worst mistakes people make at job interviews.

If you are about to go on an interview, check the list to see if you are prone to any of them. If not, the list provides an interesting glimpse into what I would call asocial skills.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why Shouldn't You Be Judgmental?

Maybe it's just a cultural curiosity, a verbal tic that we all use or hear every day. It goes like this: Don't be so judgmental, or, I wasn't being judgmental.

Whatever it means the term "judgmental" is endemic to the therapy culture. When required to show how the word is used in a sentence, several dictionaries offer: She was too judgmental to be a good therapist.

All therapists aspire to be non-judgmental. Presumably, they expect their patients to learn to be tolerant of all types of human behavior.

If so, they are merely teaching their patients to be socially dysfunctional. You cannot get very far in this world without being a good judge of character.

Most simply, the term calls for us to be tolerant of human diversity. In a more complicated sense it deprives us of our normal human faculty of judging people by the way they conduct their lives.

Let's try to think our way through the conceptual thicket that has grown up around one of the therapy culture's favorite sins.

A man walks into a house of worship. Unshaven, unkempt, and manifestly unwashed, he has been wearing the same clothes for a week.

Should he be judged ill for as much? We would expect that despite his appearance he will be welcomed in a house of worship. God does not care about surface appearances. God's judgment is reserved for more important matters.

Not judging is not the same as not noticing. Like therapists, those who preside over houses of worship will offer help to the disheveled and bedraggled men who appear in their midst.

Someone might say that if you are trying to help the man then you are judging that he has a problem or is in trouble. You are not condemning him for his current state, but you are not merely tolerating it or treating it as another kind of normal.

Now change the situation. A man who is unkempt and poorly dressed-- not quite as bad as the last example, but far from being appropriately attired-- walks into a job interview. Or, he arrives at a board meeting. Or, he shows up for a luncheon.

Then he would surely be judged ill. His outward appearance would elicit a harsh judgment, one that would likely result in his being rejected for the job or excluded from the meeting. It takes very little in the way of bad grooming to get you cast out of more secular groups.

Different worlds, different rules. God's house and Caesar's house do not function the same way.

Let us take a less radical situation. A man explains to his therapist that his girlfriend has broken up with him because she cannot stand his table manners. Faced with this overt example of judgmentalism, what should the therapist say?

Should she explain that this is the way of the world, and that if he wants to sustain a relationship he must stop spraying his dinner companions with food particles?

Or should the therapist try to restore his flagging self-esteem by suggesting that a woman who would reject a man for such a superficial reason is not worthy of him?

Or should she recommend that he explore the infantile traumas or parental insufficiencies that are preventing him from chewing with his mouth closed?

But why should the man's ex-girlfriend have to put up with rude and offensive behavior at the dinner table? You might want to condemn her for being judgmental, but her ex-boyfriend is also callous and insensitive to the feelings of others. Ought he not to suffer for that?

Surely, in a soup kitchen run by a church, the same rules do not apply. And they are different when we are dealing with helping professions. And yet, therapists and coaches need to know which world they want their clients to inhabit.

When it comes to the profane world of normal social interaction, people judge others all the time. They judge them by surface appearances, by their outward behavior, by the way they conduct themselves in social situations. Unless you are doing God's work you will not be able to survive in society without being judgmental.

As it happened, a man of God, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once declared that people should be judged by "the content of their character," not the color of their skin. Which is not the same as saying that you should never pass judgment on another person.

No one would disagree. Anyone who judges people by the color of their skin is not merely judgmental; he is bigoted. But would you cease judging people by the content of their character, that is, choosing your friends and associates judiciously, for fear of being judgmental?

Doubtless you know that when people condemn others for being judgmental, they are often talking about sex. They are saying that all forms of sexual pleasure are equally valid and that we should not judge anyone ill for indulging an occasional or frequent fetish or three-way.

Yet, most people would rather not know what you are doing in the privacy of your boudoir.

While some people cast aspersions on diverse sexual habits because they believe that God would not approve, others do not much care about your intimate relationships, as long as you have the good sense and common decency to keep them to yourself. You are more likely to be judged ill for your indiscretion than your BDSM.

But do the judgmentalists feel that we have the right to judge our mates ill if they cheat on us? Is it judgmental to condemn your mate for indulging the human desire for sexual variety?

Most of us believe that such betrayals are worthy of some kind of judgment.

As I see it, the concept, inflated to become one of the therapy culture's deadly sins, has one other use. Perhaps its purveyors mean to say that there is no such thing as right or wrong except that someone says so. Are they aiming for a kind of moral anarchy where you can feel that you can do no wrong as long as no one says that you have done anything wrong, as long as no one judges you ill?

This assumes that we have no instinctive moral sense, that we do not really know right or wrong, but that these values are imposed on us by societal fiat. If that is what judgmentalism is all about, they clearly we should overcome it.

If it simply means that we should be more judicious in the way we express our opinions about others, that we should be more respectful of their feelings, then it might have a positive side.

If you make a judgment that someone cannot be sufficiently trusted to be a friend or partner, then you owe it to yourself and to him not to express your opinion out loud. But certainly, you must act on your judgment.




Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Epicenter of American Overconfidence

Thankfully, David Brooks does not call it narcissism. He prefers terms like overconfidence and conceit, arrogance and hubris.

If the issue is narcissism, the problem is clinical. All you need is a few hundred hours on the couch to cure your pathological narcissism.Or, maybe not. Often, talking to a blank screen will simply enhance your narcissism, but that, after all, is the risk you take.

When Brooks talks of overconfidence and conceit, he defines the issue in ethical terms. The cure is to build character, to develop humility, and to learn to distinguish confidence from arrogance.

And that is just the beginning of the good points Brooks makes in his column, "The Fatal Conceit." Link here.

We are all prone to bouts of conceit. We all fall prey to an occasional episode of overconfidence. At best reality or its representatives will work to disabuse us of our overweening feeling of infallibility.

Problems arise when reality seems to be feeding your hubris. You think that you are the greatest; crowds gather to tell you that you are the greatest; you become wildly successful and end up thinking that your compensation confirms your self-judgment.

So it was on Wall Street, until last year. As Brooks writes: "Up until recently, people in the financial world bathed in the warm glow of their own self-approval." To say nothing of their bonuses and the public adulation and envy that accompanied them.

And then the system failed. Left to its own devices, the market would have corrected itself. But the people in charge decided that the cost in human suffering would have been too high. Thus, the government stepped in to stop the hemorrhage.

Perhaps the consequence was unintended, but, as Brooks explains, the intervention shifted the epicenter of American overconfidence from Wall Street to Washington. "Since the masters of finance have been exposed as idiots, the masters of government have concluded (somewhat illogically) that they must be really smart."

Somewhat illogically, indeed. The crisis did not prove that the bankers, brokers, and traders were idiots. It proved that they were suffering from overconfidence.

Government officials and politicians, however, attributed it to idiocy and decided that the situation had vindicated their life choices. With Wall Streeters running hat-in-hand to Washington, the politicians and bureaucrats felt that they had triumphed. They were not about to lose the opportunity to restore what they considered the proper order of things.

Government overconfidence is not the same as its Wall Street cousin. They are more philosopher kings than Masters of the Universe. They want to control the markets, not to use them to get rich.

Brooks describes government officials in these terms: "... highly rational Olympians ... attempt to stand above problems and solve them in finely tuned and impartial manner. In moments of government overconfidence, officials come to see society not as a dynamic and complex organism, but as a machine, which can be rebuilt. In such moments governance and engineering can merge into one."

I would add that these officials see markets as machines that express the worst about human beings. They insist on the need to regulate and control the markets, but what they are really trying to do is to force people to live by their own idea of justice.

Within such a moral context inexperience with the workings of the markets comes to be counted as a virtue. People who have never dirtied their hands with a derivative trade come to believe that they are morally superior to those who are slaves to the unhealthy passions that the market expresses.

People who chose to make careers of government service can hardly have been pleased to see their old friends, people who often were of equal or lesser intelligence, making vast fortunes on Wall Street while they toiled away in obscurity and worried about paying tuition. To them the financial crisis was sweet vindication.

Brooks is implying, correctly, that government officials believe that they are introducing justice into a world that runs on greed and that fosters vice.

As an example of government overconfidence, Brooks notes the recent dicta of pay czar Kenneth Feinberg. Feinberg was tasked with determining the proper pay scale for executives of the largest companies that had been bailed out by the government.

Brooks notes that no sensate individual believes that the financial crisis can be solved by limiting executive pay. The gesture has a populist appeal; it feels good to punish someone, even we are shooting ourselves in our proverbial feet by doing so.

(For more extended analysis of the executive compensation issue, see the posts by Nobel laureate Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner here.)

Surely, the gesture gives the competitors of these companies a significant advantage. And, ironically, by making the bailed out companies less able to attract talent, the government has made it more unlikely that it will ever receive the money it has given them.

But shouldn't the fallen Masters of the Universe receive some punishment? Perhaps so, but why do we imagine that the only fit punishment must involve government-administered justice.

After all, the echoes of the crash of fallen reputations have been reverberating around Wall Street for a year now. And many former Masters of the Universe lost a considerable amount of their wealth.

I would not claim that the damages have been meted out fairly. But what would make anyone imagine that when government gets involved in the marketplace, fairness ensues. Even today's compensation limits do not effect all of those who helped cause the crisis. Most of them are long gone from their executive aeries.

For those who still value them, markets offer a superior wisdom because they represent collective knowledge and action. They cannot be controlled by an individual who believes that he is so smart and so moral that he can produce an outcome that is more just than that of the market.

Those who think they can are merely exercising their resentment muscled and creating what Brooks calls a "fatal conceit."


Monday, October 26, 2009

The New Sex and/or Dating Game

Those of you who do not live in New York may not have read New York Magazine's "Sex Diaries."

This feature allows an everyday twenty-something New Yorker to share his or her week's worth of sexual and/or dating experiences.

The columns have some entertainment value, but since the writers are self-selected, it would be a stretch to draw larger conclusions from their testimonials. Moreover, real people engaging in real conversations rarely offer the level of explicit detail that are a staple of these columns. I suspect that this applies even to twenty-somethings.

Dare I say that today's younger generation has an experience of sex that seems to be wildly at odds with that of those of us who are of a more advanced age. For this reason, the rest of us are intrigued by what is going on among today's youth, almost as though it were something out of science fiction.

Now New York Magazine assigned Wesley Yang to read through all of the columns and to attempt something like a psychosocial analysis. He did a great job. I recommend his cover article to your attention, no matter what your age or proclivities. Link here.

If you are a twenty-something lost in New York's sexual funhouse, you probably have even more of a reason to cast a dispassionate eye on this phenomenon.

As I read it, Yang is painting a portrait of modern anomie. He identifies the anxiety and despair that accompany the effort to live out your sexuality as though it were more virtual than real.

What could possibly be problematical about this free and open expression of human sexuality? For one thing, as Yang puts it, there are too many choices, too many opportunities for too many sexual experiences with a maddeningly large number of possible partners.

Too many choices create a fear of making the wrong choice, accompanied by a fear of not being chosen. When the opportunities are boundless, your duty to fulfill your responsibilities becomes erased by the chance that you might find someone or something better. I am surely not taking any conceptual liberties to say that the situation throws young people into a state of anomie.

From there Yang explains that players in this game have to learn what to do with the emotional component that would accompany normal human interactions. Emotion seems to be an unwanted intruder, one that drags people away from the virtual world back into the real world, generally destroying the fun.

To become an avatar you must sacrifice sincerity, emotion, and vulnerability. Otherwise you will be expelled from the game.

We should not be surprised, as Yang puts it, that this virtual reality has taken over the lives of many participants, to the point that it has produced something like: "an internet-enabled agoraphobia."

How did young people get to this point? Yang credits pornography, or better, the fact that young people today get their sex education from porn. Young people today did not learn about sex in the steamy backseat of someone's car.

Moreover, if porn is the new norm for sex, then it makes sense that young people would consider porn something to live up to, to emulate, to imitate.

And given that porn involves full exposure, that complete immodesty is not only possible, but desirable, young people have come to believe that modesty is bad because it equals repression.

Thus, the sex diarists make it a point to be far more explicit than anyone would be in normal conversation. Yang is most intrigued by the women who write in, openly and honestly, expressing an attitude that suggests that they do not value their intimacy very highly. Where women in the past have found pornography and promiscuity to be inimical to their interests, female sex diarists seem to have no such feelings.

Yang is also correct to see that people are engaging in these sexual experiences for the entertainment value. They make for good stories and almost inaugurate a new literary genre, one that owes its inspiration to the language of texting.

In this hook-up culture sex is virtual and human connection is hanging on for dear life. People who play this new sex and/or dating game do not connect on anything like a human level. This produces what Yang calls "separation anxiety." I like his use of irony and would simply add that your need to connect with other human beings is not negated by your willingness to act as though you had become your own avatar. Technology has not yet caused the repeal of human nature.

Yang's last point is poignant and insightful. The people who are playing these games are in despair of ever being able to love.

Despite it all, the sex diarists seem still to be searching for love and relationships. The problem is that the game has wounded them so often and so deeply that they despair of ever finding it.

Finding love involves healing the wounds of this new game. To do that, they would do well to start getting real.




Don't Sell Yourself. Buy Them: Part 5

Longtime readers of this blog know that I advise people seeking new jobs to be sure to express interest in and show extensive knowledge of the company they are interviewing. Here is a link to my last post on the topic. It contains links to the previous posts. Link here.

Today I am returning to the topic to link an article by Jon Jacobs from Efinancial careers. His title is clear: "Our Take: It's Not About You." Link here

Jacobs argues cogently that your interest in and passion for your new employer is of paramount importance. In a cautionary tale he cites the example of the woman who had just been hired by Gillette. Upon meeting her new manager she said: "I never thought I'd end up spending most of my career hawking deodorant."

Jacobs adds: "The job offer was withdrawn."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Do You Know What You're Thinking?

My title question is not meant to be frivolous. It came to me after reading Carlin Romano's excellent article, "Heil Heidegger!" in the Chronicle of Higher education. Link here. For my own comments on Heidegger and deconstruction, see this post.

In his article Romano sets out to sink the reputation of a man who many consider the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. To the dismay of Heidegger's acolytes, Romano does it with ridicule rather than with argument.

He is right to do so. As it happens, Heidegger's thought is communicated more by fictional representation than by philosophical argument. It is presented as drama more than as philosophy. Heidegger is more involved with creating philosophical myths than with the work of reason.

This being the case, it should not be a surprise that Anglo-American academic philosophers have mostly ignored Heidegger, while literary scholars have adored and idolized him.

Martin Heidegger wanted to the philosopher-king of the Third Reich. He wanted to be Hitler's brain, as it were. His fate was to become the king philosopher of literature departments: progenitor of deconstruction, patron saint of multiculturalism, and presiding genius of critical theory.

After reading Romano's article, I strongly recommend that you read the comments. You will see therein that many Heideggerians are outraged by the attack on their sacred idol.

While Romano is trying to sink Heidegger, his cult followers are furiously trying to bale out his reputation. The more it takes on water, the more furiously they are working to bale him out.

If you had a problem with government bailouts, you will not be happy to see the way intellectuals are trying to bail out Heidegger.

But, why the outrage? Why the vigorous defense of a man who declared that the Third Reich was the best earthly embodiment of his philosophy?

Surely, many commenters are sorely offended at the notion that they have been duped. But it is worse than that. Romano is also following the argument of Emmanuel Frye's forthcoming book, to the effect that academic intellectuals have been propagating a mental virus, without knowing what they are doing.

Doubtless, they are immune to the kinds of actions that people who believe these things have taken in the past, but that just makes them the intellectual equivalent of what physicians call: carriers. They are passing on a disease without knowing it because they are not suffering the symptoms themselves.

This discovery does not count as good news.

So, how do you get people to think like Nazis? Simple, you tell them that if they learn to practice this kind of thought they will become bona fide radical leftists. Heidegger may have been a Nazi, they seem to be saying, but at least he wasn't a Republican?

If you want people to appreciate pogroms, you rebrand them as deconstruction. Instead of applying the technique to villages, you apply it to texts. Then, as a sidelight, you declare that villages are texts.

If you want people to believe in propaganda, thus to devalue the tradition of Anglo-American liberal thought, you convince them that there is really no such thing as objective fact or reality. If everything is propaganda, you need not feel any qualms about propagandizing your own point of view.

Ideas do not much care how they are transmitted. They simply want to grow and multiply. They want to be propagated. They want especially to stay alive.

The end of World War II seemed to spell the end of Heidegger's philosophical influence. As Karl Popper put it: "I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger."

Yet, under the aegis of French philosophers, Heidegger's reputation arose from the ashes of World War II. From there to American literature departments was not too great a leap.

Literature professors, looking to raise the status of their own discipline, were more than happy to hitch their wagons to a genuine philosophical star.

Then, in 1987 Victor Farias published a book entitled, "Heidegger and Nazism" that showed the deconstruction crowd that they had been lying in bed with a believing Nazi. For a full account of the turmoil caused by the Farias book and by the discovery that the patron of deconstruction in America, Yale Professor Paul de Man, had been a Nazi propagandist, see David Lehman's "Signs of the Times."

Obviously, it would not do. The great practitioners of deconstructions rebranded their enterprise as critical theory. This is best know for its assertion that reality, gender differences, the marketplace itself are merely social constructs. There is no reality, there is only the way we interpret things.

Reality is something we create. If we create it wrongly we should deconstruct it, or criticize it. We do not have to deal with it; we do not have to negotiate with; we can exercise our creative faculties and create it anew.

Are the theorists who promote critical theory merely carriers for Heideggerian thoughts? Are they the means through which these thoughts have gone forth and multiplied? And if so, is it about time that the reputation of Martin Heidegger was sunk, once and for all?

That is the wager that Carlin Romano makes in his article. I, for one, consider it well worth taking up.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Wonders of Bridge

This is not just another post on the joys of playing bridge, the many benefits the game can bring to your life, how bridge can slow the progress of Alzheimers and improve your immune system... Not at all. It's is just this morning's extended article about the game from the Wall Street Journal. They call it "The Game That Trumps All Others."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Are We All Just a Bunch of Liars?

A man thinks that his wife is overweight, yet he tells her she looks great. Is he lying or is he being tactful?

A woman thinks that her husband is a mediocre lover, yet she tells him that he is a sexual dynamo? Is she lying or is she protecting his self-confidence?

A married man finds himself fantasizing about his intern. If he does not tell his wife, is he lying or respecting her feelings?

According to Elizabeth Bernstein such minor-grade deceptions, fibs, and white lies are the stuff of good relationships. Complete openness and honesty is a relationship killer. Link here.

Surely, she is correct. She is aiming, I believe, at another, more intriguing, point. If these verbal gestures are the stuff of good relationships, why are we calling them lies? Do we really believe that in an ideal relationship you can and should tell your significant other everything that passes through your mind? Do we believe that when we, inevitably, fail to live up to this impossible standard, we should excoriate ourselves for being liars?

It would be retrograde to label ourselves miserable and chronic sinners. Perhaps, we have made lying and its cousin hypocrisy a class of sins for which we have to atone constantly? (For what it's worth lying does not count among the seven deadly sins.)

Have we found a way to make ourselves into a merry band of moral flagellants, worshiping at the altar of the god of Truth, needing to do penance for having violated its impossible standards.

Isn't this how a culture takes a series of conversational virtues, the lubricants of good relationships, and turns them into vices?

Being tactful, considerate, respectful, courteous... these fundamental virtues have been sacrificed on the altar of the god of Truth. Properly speaking, it is a form of idolatry. In the flush of our idealism we have been tricked into worshiping a false god.

In fact, Truth must be the ultimate in false gods.

Which reminds me of Jim Carrey's great movie, "Liar, Liar."

I assume everyone has seen it. I assume that everyone remembers it since it was, by my lights, hysterically funny. If not, it is about a man who cannot tell a lie, not in the George Washington sense of accepting responsibility, but in the sense of being forced to say everything that comes to mind, without any considerations for anyone's feelings or his own professional duties.

The results make for a delightful farce.

But why do we believe that we ought to share everything that passes through our minds? Do we imagine that all of our thoughts and dreams have an equal value, and are equally worthy of anyone's attention? To imagine that the entire contents of our minds are worthy of anyone's interest-- and that includes our own-- is surely an absurd proposition. To imagine that our fantasies provide relevant insights into who we really are is to have overdosed on psychotherapy.

How did we arrive at this level of moral deformity? The man to whom we owe it is none other than... Sigmund Freud.

The notion that there is something therapeutic, even desirable, in learning to say whatever comes to mind, without regard for the pain or boredom you are inflicting on others comes down to us directly from Freud's office.

Jim Carrey's film was simply showing what would happen if you took the basic rule of psychoanalysis seriously enough to make it a way of life. After all, if you have spent years lying on the couch saying whatever comes to mind, how is it humanly possible for you to leave your hard-earned skill in your analyst's office.

Just in case you thought that the therapy culture arose out of a desire to heal or to treat or to cure... now we know that it was a stealth effort to transform social values, to make us feel guilty about being tactful, discrete, considerate, and respectful.

In the hands of the mavens of the therapy culture these have all been transformed into offenses against the god of Truth.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

David Brooks and the Question of Character

Say you have a friend who is honest at home and dishonest at work. Would you say that he is an honest person?

Or what about the man who is courageous some of the time and cowardly the rest of the time. Would you call him courageous?

And, how would you judge a person who is courteous some of the time and rude at other times? Would you say that he has good character?

Out of such questions David Brooks generated a recent column. Link here.

Most of us would normally say that the sunshine patriot is not much of a patriot, and that the person who is honest when it is convenient is simply not honest. We would also say that the person who is courteous only when it suits him lacks character.

Getting along with other people in the world requires that we judge their character. When you are interviewing a candidate for a job and you observe that he is utterly polite and respectful towards you but is rude and disrespectful toward the waiter in the restaurant, you should conclude that he has bad character.

The same rule should apply to our choices of friends and mates. In most cases bad or inconsistent character is a deal breaker.

Character involves consistency. If I judge you to have good character that means that I feel that I can trust you and rely on you. Then I will be more likely to get closer to you and more likely to confer responsibilities on you.

In these matters I do not think that I am very different from most of you. I believe that we all agree on certain common sense ethical precepts. We may not always think about them, but we know them and act upon them.

If I am right, then David Brooks' version of character is perplexing. I was surprised to read that he thinks character is "ingrained" and "permanent."

I do not think that people are born with good or bad character. You build your character, as the common expression goes, and you cannot build anything without work. If we can improve our character or compromise it, that suggests that character is anything but permanent.

I am even more perplexed to read that Brooks, in a welcome classical spirit, declares that the wrath of Achilles and the cunning of Odysseus are character traits.

Character is who you are. Wrath and cunning are qualities you might or might not have. Wrath is a transitory emotional state. Cunning is a quality of mind.

A person of character can be angry or not, depending on circumstances. A person of character might be utterly lacking in cunning or guile. You would not say that because someone is cunning he has good character or bad character.

As it happens Odysseus did have good character. He used his cunning to invent the Trojan Horse, thus putting an end to the interminable siege of Troy. And, when he returned home after a seemingly endless voyage, he was clever enough to disguise himself as a beggar, the better to size up the situation before taking action against the infamous suitors.

In defending his home against a rowdy band that had defiled it Odysseus was demonstrating courage and loyalty. It was his home; he was responsible for its well-being. Those qualities made him a man of character, more than his cunning.

Character is not personality. You may be habitually cheerful, morose, angry, gregarious, contemplative, saturnine... all of these are personality traits. They have nothing to do with whether I or anyone else can count on you when times get tough.

This brief definition of character will help us to navigate the basis of Brooks' column. He wants to inform us all of the latest scientific research into the question of character.

I would mention, with some regret, that Brooks is too easily impressed by anything that wraps itself in the mantle of science.

Properly understood, character is part of the study of ethics. It cannot really be explained in terms of psychological motivation.

Be that as it may, Brooks reports that the most recent psychological research has proven that, contrary to common sense, when someone is courageous part of the time and cowardly the rest of the time, we are really dealing with two separate personae, almost two different people.

Apparently, this research has discovered that life is a fiction, and that we traverse it wearing a series of masks that define our roles in the different scripts that are dictating our behavior and our lines.

I am especially puzzled at this notion that science can demonstrate that life is a fiction. By definition, science deals in facts; fiction is about everything but facts.

Given our experience with Freudian pseudo-science we should be more cautious about trying to justify our beliefs by pretending that they are scientific facts.

If you sign on to this misuse of science you find yourself in an ethical bind. Let us say that you know someone you consider to be a fair-weather friend. Normally that would mean that you will place strict limits on how much you trust him. According to the new theory this person would really be two people, two personae, one of whom you can trust, and one of whom you cannot.

Does this really do anything more than confuse the issue. If you cannot trust the person most of the time, if you cannot trust him when things become difficult, that then you cannot trust him. And that means that he is not really a very good friend. There is no virtue in confusing the issue.

The new theory then makes life a fiction, or better, a theatrical performance where your relationships will be undermined and rendered more dramatic when your friends discover that you have granted yourself the right to adapt different personae as it suits you. They will be even less apt of take you into their confidence when they discover that you are hiding from responsibility by declaring that you cannot be held accountable for your actions because you were simply following the script.

Some Good Dating Advice

It struck me as I was reading Jag Carrao's article this morning that I have not offered very much in the way of dating advice lately.

One reason might be that my rather traditional approach to these matters tends to provoke rather strong negative reactions. Admittedly, I do not believe that new social customs have created a different human species. And I can only observe that for those who are looking to develop a lasting relationship, the more traditional approach works better.

So says Jag Carrao, and I agree fully with her remarks. Even though they are addressed to women, it is not a bad thing for men who are involved in the dating world to check them out too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Barack Obama and the Chill Factor

Is he inscrutable or enigmatic? Does he show boundless narcissism or preternatural cool? Does his frozen smile mean that he is hiding behind a mask or is he merely exuding an aura of imperious confidence?

What is it about Barack Obama's facial expression that has so thoroughly fascinated and mystified commentators?

On the one side, as David Carr wrote in the New York Times, Obama seems completely relaxed, completely chill. Apparently this is supposed to give the impression of being in control.

On the other side, he has declared war on Fox News, the insurance industry, and Wall Street. His representatives have been anything but chill in their frenzied attacks on these industries and institutions.

Perhaps it is not as strange as it seems. I would suggest that it is merely the facial expression of someone who comes to the presidency with an extreme experience deficit. Anyone who lacks executive and legislative experience would feel lost and befuddled upon taking the reins of the American government.

If you do not have enough real experience to understand how to run the government, the least you can do is put on a face that bespeaks leadership. Calm, cool, confident... these are words that are used to describe great leaders. Obama, quite simply, seems to be playing a role. Given his inexperience, it might be the best he can do.

But when reality escapes you, you are most likely to live in fantasy and myth. Obama inhabits a myth that appears to be something like class struggle, the rich exploiting the poor. In his mythical world the rich get rich at the expense of the poor. Then, a great leader comes along, a Robin Hood, who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. It is simply a rescue fantasy.

If it does not produce more jobs, at least it will produce something like a fictional version of justice.

These thoughts came to me as I was reading Lucy Kellaway's column about her efforts to motivate her twelve year old son to work harder in his new school. Link here.

When she asked the lad how he liked his school, he responded that he did not find it sufficiently chill. To Kellaway being chill means being vegetative, so she was dismayed to receive this reply.

Being chill seems to denote being laid back, almost as though you are in a drug-induced trance, to the point that you are not affected by anything that is going on around you.

Kellaway is worried that her son's bad habit of being chill will eventually compromise his success. In her words: "... even though to be chilled might be very zen, it does not lead to success. To succeed in corporate life-- or any competitive field-- one must be driven obsessive, hard-working." Success comes to those who are anything but chill.

Very useful points, I would say, echoed by Tom Friedman in his column today. Link here.

But then, almost as an afterthought, Kellaway lights on the reason why young people are trying to be chill. They are emulating Barack Obama.

In fact, Kellaway gives Obama the benefit of the doubt. She says that he only appears to be chill; he is really very driven. Still, he is setting a bad example: "He has pulled off the ultimate trick: to be driven and look relaxed. He is a dangerous example to the young. When they see Obama on the TV they should be told: don't try this at home. Learn your Latin vocab."

American presidents are role models, even in Kellaway's home base of Great Britain. Unfortunately, she is rather too optimistic if she believes that a mother's words, or anyone's words, will stop young people from emulating the most popular and successful person on the planet.