Saturday, July 31, 2010

America's New Ruling Class

I don't know about you, but whenever someone tells me that I must read something because everyone else is reading it, I start thinking about how I can avoid it.

If they are that insistent, I reason, then the article probably can't defend itself. Besides, whatever makes them think that I want to be like everyone else.

To be honest, when push comes to shove, I am probably going to read the thing anyway. With this week's must-read article, I'm glad that I did.

I am talking about a long, intricate, impassioned article by Boston University Professor Angelo Codevilla in The American Spectator. It is entitled: "America's Ruling Class-- and the Perils of Revolution." Link here.

If you want the short version of Codevilla's concept and want to know whether or not you belong or aspire to belong to the ruling class, you need but ask yourself a simple question.

If you are evaluating two candidates for political office, one of whom went to an Ivy League college, the other of whom went to Idaho State, would you naturally assume, based solely on these academic credentials, that the Ivy Leaguer was intrinsically more qualified to govern the nation? And would you maintain your belief if you knew that the Idaho Stater possessed far more executive experience?

If you said Yes, then welcome to the American ruling class. You belong to or sympathize with an oligarchy that has taken power in Washington and beyond and that is hard at work perpetuating its influence and authority.

You may be a Wall Street banker, a titan of technology, or a media mogul who is as rich as Croesus... still you will be in awe of academic credentials that you mistake for signs of unquestionable genius.

Given their adoration of credentials, masters of the financial and economic marketplace become rubes in the marketplace of ideas.

But if they work in conjunction with the government they will happily and wholeheartedly worship the brilliance of those who can make their lives very unhappy indeed.

And they are not being cynical about it. Somehow or other the world's greatest bankers can persuade themselves that someone who would never be considered to run a company, who has no executive experience, is just what the nation needs in a president.

The rest of the country-- Codevilla calls it the country class-- has recently coalesced around the Tea Party movement. It has finally understood what is happening and is beginning rebel against the fundamental insult that founds this oligarchy and its claim to authority.

That insult would  be: if you do not belong to the ruling class, the ruling class does not believe that you ought to be freely deciding how to conduct much of your life.

This, just in case you were wondering why so many people are so angry these days.

How do you get to belong to the ruling class? It is not based on family ties or ethnicity; it is not even based on raw intelligence. It is based first on ideological conformity. You start by embracing the ideology that is being peddled in our best universities, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

But it is not just ideas, it is also about being part of a culture. Joel Kotkin might say that the ruling class is a tribe and that it demands tribal loyalty. 

As Codevilla describes it: "Today's ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as taste and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters... serves as a badge of identity."

But don't think that those who belong to the ruling class are the best and the brightest. The credentialing system has been corrupted by the ruling class and they dole out honors and plaudits more to those who are like them than to those who have earned them.

Codevilla explains: "It is an open secret that 'the best' colleges require the least work and give out the highest grade point averages. No, our ruling class recruits and renews itself not through meritocracy but rather in taking into itself people whose most prominent feature is their commitment to fit in. The most successful neither write books and papers that stand up to criticism nor release their academic records. Thus does our ruling class stunt itself through negative selection. But the more it has dumbed itself down, the more it has defined itself by the presumption of intellectual superiority."

Think about that for a second. Many of the shining lights of the ruling class are nowhere near as bright as they think they are or as they have been told they are. But then they must harbor a deep sense that they are impostors. The last thing they want to find out is that their vaunted sense of their own importance and genius is really a fraud. For this reason, they are often violently loyal to their ruling class.

They will defend their false status vigorously because if they had to make their way based on their real achievements they would suffer repeated indignities.

Look at it another way. When have we ever seen a Supreme Court nominee with as flimsy a record of judicial achievement as Elena Kagan? She never really practiced law; she published three law review articles; she is anything but an authority on constitutional law.

But, her defenders will say, she taught at the University of Chicago; she was a successful administrator at Harvard Law School. What else do you want? She must be very smart.

By definition, the ruling class hates the disorderly order of the free market. How could it be possible that a mass of inferior minds could ever work together to produce anything at all? Inferior minds need to be led; they need to be told what to do; they have no real right to independent, rational judgment.

Thus, the ruling class holds the rest of the country in utter contempt. It has no truck with claims for freedom and rational decision-making. It knows better, and if you do not agree you will be mocked and ridiculed mercilessly.

In Codevilla's words: "This dismissal of the American people's intellectual, spiritual, and moral substance is the very heart of what our ruling class is about. Its principal article of faith, its claim to the right to decide for others, is precisely that it knows things and operates by standards beyond others' comprehension."

Just wait until more people figure out that the reason it is beyond their comprehension is because it is really unintelligible.

Codevilla writes: "While the un-enlightened are stuck with the antiquated notion that ordinary human minds can reach objective judgments about good and evil, better or worse through reason, the enlightened ones know that all such judgments are subjective and that ordinary people can no more be trusted with reason than they can with guns. Because ordinary people will pervert reason with ideology, religion, and interest, science is 'science' only in the 'right' hands. Consensus among the right people is the only standard for truth. Facts and logic matter only insofar as proper authority acknowledges them."

He offers the following example: "Parents are not allowed to object to what their children are taught. But the government may and often does object to how parents raise children. The ruling class's assumption is that whatever it mandates for children is correct ipso facto, while what parents do is potentially abusive."

Members of the rule class constitute a group of philosopher-kings. They are in love with their abstract theories; dependent for their livelihoods on maintaining their membership in an elite tribe; and simply do not care what you or I think about them.

If no one accepts their ideas because these have a tendency, when put into practice, to fail spectacularly, that is a sign of stupidity. It simply means that they did not go to the best schools, do not think the right thoughts, and are not one of ours.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Higher Education Worth It?

We live in a time where people are increasingly unwilling to take on debt. They are thinking twice about their expenses, economizing when possible, and doing their best to pay down their debt.

 It should hardly come as a surprise that more and more people are questioning the value of higher education. Perhaps your child's life will be enhanced by going to an Ivy League school, but with a price tag of around a quarter million dollars, you are likely to think long and hard before committing to the expense.

Yesterday, Sue Schellenbarger wrote in the Wall Street Journal about parents who had chosen not to spend money to send their children to graduate school. Instead, they had decided to take the money and buy their children a start-up businesses. Link here. 

It should not surprise anyone that these young people are having a difficult time learning about how to run a real business. Some of them must feel that they have been thrown in the deep end of the pool before they know how to swim.

Their college experience taught them about ideas, but not about experience. Their work experience has turned it around, which may be the best thing for them.

Strikingly, these affluent parents are choosing not to invest in increased education for their children. Said parents seem to believe that real-world experience will do their children more good than will another stay in the halls of academe.

In part, this strategy reflects the increasing difficulty young people are having getting jobs. But, it must also count as a vote of no confidence in our educational system.

As I started researching this post I came across more and more evidence that our universities, especially those that are supposed to be the best, are doing a bad job preparing students for the real world.

Foundation president Robert Atkinson interviews and hires people from the best and the brightest universities. In an article he wrote for the Huffington Post a few weeks ago he explained how surprised he was to find English majors who did not know how to write and philosophy majors who did not know how to think. Link here.

In his words: "One applicant, a recent Princeton grad, submitted a test that was full of spelling and grammar mistakes. Didn't they teach 'spell check' at Princeton? A Boston University grad couldn't accurately complete a simple excel spreadsheet."

Today Michael Schrage argues a similar point in the Harvard Business Review. Link here.

In his words: "Knowledge may be power, but 'knowledge from college' is neither predictor nor guarantor of success. Growing numbers of informed observers increasingly describe a higher education 'bubble' that makes a college and/or university education a subprime investment for far too many attendees."

Schrage differentiates between having raw, abstract, theoretical knowledge and possessing the skills required to apply that knowledge to a problem.

He even sees the defect in students who are studying the most rigorous disciplines: "I know doctoral candidates in statistics and operations research who find adapting their superb technical expertise to messy, real-world problem solving extraordinarily difficult. Their great knowledge does not confer great skill."

How did things get to this point? Perhaps our institutions of higher education been taken over by people who gaze on the great Ideas, but who have no concern with teaching students how to implement those Ideas in the real world.

To me this feels like a newer version of the old mind/body problem, the one created by Descartes. If you follow Descartes and go off in search of a pure mind, abstracted from all real experience, then you will never be able to find your way back into the real world?

The best example of this thorny, and not immediately self-evident problem is  an old New Yorker cartoon where a man from the city gets lost while driving through the country. He stops and asks a local farmer for directions. The farmer replies: "Come to think of it, you can't get there from here."

In another way the difference between theory and practical skills recalls the great philosophical debate over which comes first, mind or experience, which is a debate between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies.

Should education begin and end with endless lucubrations over abstract theoretic concepts. To the exclusion of concerns about experience and practical skills? Or should it begin with an analysis of practical problems, how to analyze them, how to solve them, and what it might mean once we do?

Students who begin and end with theory tend to be lost when faced with real world problems. While theory is no substitute for experience, you can develop theories based on your practical experience.

But you cannot develop theories from experience unless you know that theory is there to serve experience, and not vice versa.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Many thanks to the commenter who has dubbed herself: (queer)bitch. I thank her for trying to correct my misunderstandings of Jaclyn Friedman's article about her newly discovered and embraced sluthood. Hers is the next to last comment on this post. Link here.

(Queer)bitch wrote: "congratulations for completely misconstruing the entire piece, and doing exactly what she discussed in her article: slut-shame. whether or not I choose to go out and do the same is not important, but I will defend any woman's choice to be a 'slut'."

I guess that if you are going to misconstrue something, it is better to miss it completely, and not just some of the parts.

Anyway, what is this thing called slut-shaming?

I suspect that I know where (queer)bitch is coming from, so let's fill in some of the theoretical background.

Presumably, for the properly deconstructed mind, when you call someone a slut you are shaming her. Certainly, there is some truth to this. But does this also mean that if no one calls anyone a slut then there will be no more slutty behavior? Or better, does it mean that the behavior previously derogated as slutty will come to be accepted as normal and positive?

Of course, one might reply that refusing to say that someone has the flu has no real influence on whether or not he has the flu. Saying that the world is flat does not make it any more or less round.

One needs to be careful about attributing too many magical powers to language and thought.

By (queer)bitch's logic, Friedman would be martyring herself for a cause, the cause of reducing or erasing the stigma associated with the word slut and thus liberating female sexuality from the patriarchal strictures that have attempted, for these many millennia, to keep it under control.

Does that sound like an accurate representation of (queer)bitch's point of view? I hope it does.

If I am right, then Friedman is saying that the free and open expression of female sexuality means that nothing is off limits or out of bounds. To her mind the last frontier would be a woman's ability to enjoy dangerous sexual encounters with anonymous men she finds on Craigslist.

Perhaps I live in a bubble, and perhaps I have missed the point completely, but from my limited experience I would say that most women would seriously object to that characterization of their intimacy. And that one of the ways they have of asserting the integrity of their own intimacy is by calling women who do not respect themselves... sluts.

Not one of the commenters, to say nothing of Friedman's defenders in other locales, seems to consider it pertinent that it is women, far more than men, who label other women as sluts.

For all I know many women become incensed by what they see as a caricature of their sexuality, and fear that they will have to suffer the consequences that will follow when men are persuaded that sluthood is intrinsic to female sexuality.

You can rant all you want about patriarchal misogyny-- and I am happy to provide a forum in the comments section-- but when you are dealing with slut-shaming you are dealing with the way women treat other women.

I am assuming that people are not so completely trapped in their theories that they have turned a blind eye to human behavior.

As for men, they rarely spend their time slut-shaming women, but, dare I say they have no real problem with a woman declaring herself to be a slut.

It's not going to make too many women happy but most men would join (queer)bitch in defending a woman's choice to call herself a slut. I am sorry to have to inform you that they would conclude that the label tells them what to expect and what not to expect from such a woman.

I understand that many people find this offensive. And I also know that Friedman herself declared that the men who read her article and planned to treat her according to their idea of what a slut was should not do so.

I  would say that if you want to have a say in the way people see you and relate to you, it would be much better to present a different portrait of yourself to the world.

Telling people not to look at you in a certain way, after you have gone out of your way, to the point of compromising your dignity, to insist that they do, makes no sense at all.

Given the disconnect between your behavior and the way you say you want to be treated, most men are likely to take the behavior as a better indicator of what to expect from you.

But, what happens when a woman or a girl is unjustly accused of being a slut? This may occur if she is as chaste as the driven snow or is sexually active within a relationship. Would this injustice be eradicated if we followed Friedman and started seeing sluthood as a badge of honor? Or would the women who are inclined to use this calumny simply find another word?

If slut-shaming means something, and if people are guilty of it, then it should be limited to those instances where women unjustly denounce other women as sluts. I suggested that they do so in order to defend the integrity of their own sexuality. But they might also do so, justly or unjustly, in order to gain a competitive advantage in the mating game.

When a woman is unjustly accused of being a slut she should respond swiftly and unequivocally. She should defend herself and  should not engage in any behavior that would lend credence to the charge.

So, I feel that (queer)bitch was wrong in saying that I was slut-shaming Jaclyn Friedman. By definition, it is impossible to slut-shame a woman who proudly proclaims herself a slut.

If the label still feels pejorative, then perhaps Ms. Friedman's sacrifice was for naught.

To say that what she meant is not the same as what the word means in normal usage, and then to blame people for taking the word to mean what it normally means, reflects two errors.

In the first place words do not mean what you want them to mean. Thinking that you have that much power is arrogant. In the second place, if you do not like the conclusions people draw from your self-definition, then you can take some of the responsibility on to yourself and nor try to shift the blame to others.

Much of the misunderstanding around these topics involves the concept of shame. I have written a book about this, and have spent much time studying it. I am happy to share some of my observations about shame.

Shame involves how you look to other people. Do they see you as a member of their group? Are you a friend or a foe? And do they see you someone who is worthy of greater or lesser respect within the group?

You feel shame when you are isolated from the group, when you feel rejected or ostracized. And you can feel a slightly different kind of shame when you have lost some measure of respect within the group.

Human beings are intrinsically social beings. As Aristotle said, there is no such thing as a human being living in total isolation, outside of any group.

What is the basis for human community? Simply, it is our ability to respect the separation between public and private. This separation is roughly equivalent to the separation between church and state, between sacred and profane.

This means, and I want to be very clear here, that neither I nor any other stranger cares what you or (queer)bitch or Jaclyn Friedman does in their private life.

Once you parade your private life around on the public square, it does become everyone's business, because you have insisted that they look at your intimacy. It tells them that you do not care about their community, their standards or decorum and propriety, and the orderly running of their society.

If you do it on purpose you will be seen as shameless.

Let's say that a woman reads Jaclyn Friedman and decides that she has so fully embraced her sluthood that she wants to expose it to the world. Or better, that she wants to expose it to everyone in her office.

Don't we all know by now that the good functioning of a business requires standards of decorum and propriety? Don't we know that women who want to pursue career success ought not to dress provocatively on the job, for fear of being distracting?

Friedman understands that her public exposure of her sluthood is not practicable for most women in the real world. But then, does she want to make the real world more accommodating to women who want to dress slutty? Or is she advising young women to strike a blow for women's liberation by dressing like sluts at work?

Anyway, when you fail to respect the separation between public and private, your emotional alarm goes off and you feel shame. Shame is a universal human emotion; it has a distinctly social purpose. It means the same thing no matter who feels it?

You feel shame when you have been caught with your pants down. Voluntary or involuntary overexposure produces feelings of shame.

The same applies when you expose your intimacy to someone who is effectively a stranger. This might happen in a random, anonymous sexual encounter; it might happen when your clothing malfunctions on the dance floor; it may happen when you reveal more than you want or should on Facebook.

When you feel shame, the shame is telling you something. It is telling you to put your pants back on. Or it might be telling you that you have made a mistake, that you have failed to show proper respect for the sensibility of others.

Shame is probably the most unpleasant human emotion. It is trying to tell you in no uncertain terms that your social being is in severe danger.

What happens when it's not so easy to put your pants back on? What happens when a compromising photo of you has circulated through your school or office?

Obviously, this is much more difficult and requires much more work to regain your respectability. If a woman's intimacy has been compromised she will not solve the problem by declaring that she has done nothing shameful, but that she feels good about her body.

That is not a solution; it compounds the problem because she is saying that she does not want to regain respect because she is happy that she has none.

Again, emotions try to tell you things. Shame tells you to cover up; fear tells you that you are in physical danger.

As Ari Mendelson wrote me in an email this morning, it is striking that Friedman feels afraid before her first hookup, but chooses to ignore what the emotion is trying to tell her.

I don't know how much psychology you need to have studied to know that when your emotion is signaling that you are in danger you must take it seriously.

You cannot write off danger, especially the danger that will exist when you put yourself in the  vulnerable position of having carnal relations, by telling yourself that you have taken some karate classes.

What happens when you decide to ignore whatever your shame is telling you. Surely, Jaclyn Friedman felt something like shame after her first hookup. And she chose to try to overcome it.

Here is how she describes her emotions after her first hookup: "Driving home late that night, I was overcome with an uneasy feeling. What had I just done? What did it mean? What would my friends think? Was this who I wanted to be? I sat in my parked car, paralyzed, for ten minutes that felt like an hour."

She continues: "I woke up the next morning feeling unmoored. Like something inside me had been knocked loose, but I didn't yet know if it was a part I needed, or something that had been in the way."

She observes: "Because any woman who indulges these urges carries with her a lifetime or censure and threat. That's a loud chorus to overcome.... A slut alone is a slut in difficulty, possibly in danger."

I find that a good description of a normal shame reaction, a reaction that is telling her that she should not have done what she did, or better, that she should not repeat the experience.

Effectively, recognizing that you have erred, not telling others about your experience, and not doing it again would have worked to help her to overcome the shame.

Everyone makes mistakes. As long as you are willing to accept that the mistake is not who you really are, thus, as long as you do not insist on repeating it and do not divulge it to others... the shame will eventually go away.

But this is not what Friedman did. She seemed to have thought that the patriarchy was trying to make her ashamed of her sexuality. In order to counter the negative judgment that she was suffering on her own, she told her girlfriends about what had happened.

Once she did, she discovered that they all thought that she had done something wonderful. Rather than judging her ill, they were cheerleading her exploits. As I said, they were enabling her to try to overcome shame by pretending that she had done nothing wrong, but that the world was wrong for seeing her as though she had.

This means that people who do not understand how to deal with an experience of shame are especially vulnerable to the siren song of anyone who tries to deflect the responsibility onto the ambient community and its values.

In the end it takes more than a friend to overcome the shame. It takes a group, even a cult where everyone opens their arms to you and makes you feel loved. For Friedman the group involves her participation and membership in the feminist cause.

One final question remains today, one that another commenter raised?

Is there a male equivalent for slut?

Let's understand first that there is no such thing as a human society where women take pride in random, anonymous sexual encounters. Thus the special censure that the term implies.

But what about men? You might, as Gray suggested, say that the male equivalent of slut is the womanizer, but usually womanizer is a man who is involved in a relationship or a marriage.

I would think that the closest is the Don Juan or even gigolo. Clearly, a Don Juan commands more respect than a gigolo, but not by a lot. Both figures merit serious disrespect.

Neither, however, involve themselves in random, anonymous sex. Don Juans and gigolos seduce women into thinking that they have found true love and a meaningful relationship.

But, someone should be asking, how is it that women are subject to so much more shame the men over sexual indiscretions? Is it because the stakes and the risks are higher for a woman? Or have we unjustly identified women with the sacred, with a fertile space?

In terms of the separation of public and private, if the important part of the experience of shame is exposure and disclosure, only a woman runs the risk of showing unmistakable signs of her indiscretion.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can You Fight Your Way to a Happy Marriage?

What we call a culture represents society's values. It contains customs and mores, along with prescriptions for how we should best live our lives.

The therapy culture tells us the most therapeutic way to live, thus the way that would most fully enhance our mental health. Of course, it also promotes the interests of the therapy industry.

Other cultures might offer ways to achieve social harmony, thus the most harmonious social relationships.

One might imagine that the therapy culture also tries to encourage behaviors that would make for more harmonious relationships. For some therapists, that is surely the case. For others, those of a more dialectical bent, it is not.

Take the following piece of conventional therapeutic wisdom:

All couples fight. Some fight fair; others fight mean. Some fights contribute to a couple's conjugal bliss; others destroy it. A good fight shows mutual respect and caring. A bad fight is laced with ad hominem attacks, criticism, and disrespect.

Thus, your goal, if you want your marriage to follow the precepts of the therapy culture, you need to learn how to fight well.

Sounds about right, doesn't it? You can read a good article on it by Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal. Link here.

Bernstein's title says it all: "Fighting Happily Ever After."

As I was reading her article, I had a strange thought. Perhaps, therapists are actually encouraging people to settle disagreements by fighting and arguing.

If you have learned that all couples fight, are you also learning that it is normal and healthy to indulge an occasional fight? If you are not fighting from time to time, does that mean that your marriage is not normal? Does the absence of fights signify problems in your marriage?

Why, in other words, are therapists encouraging fights when it is more constructive and more caring and more respectful to sit down and negotiate differences?

As it happens, some of the tactics that therapists use-- you can find them in Bernstein's article-- to teach couples how to fight fairly do involve basic negotiation skills.

Still and all, it sounds to me like these therapists are assuming that couples always fight. They are also assuming that if these couples were left to their true impulses, they would engage in some rather nasty fights.

Thus, therapists are trying to control a wayward and hostile impulse, rather than teaching that it is more normal and more adult to negotiate differences.

Why else do couples fight? Perhaps they have learned, from the culture, that disagreements are a zero sum game, an interaction where one will win and the other will lose. If that is what they believe, then they will be compelled to fight.

Perhaps both members of the couple have learned from the culture that they are autonomous individuals whose needs must be fulfilled and whose emotions must be expressed. If so, then their disagreements will very often lead to nasty fights.

This to say that if you follow the values that the therapy culture says should govern your life, you are probably going to have far more fights than you need to. It is a good thing that this culture has devised ways to take some of the sting out of those fights, but that does not make it less complicit in this fight game.

Instead of teaching people how to fight fairly, why not teach them how to negotiate effectively, so that each person can walk away from the discussion satisfied that he or she has gained something. Perhaps not everything, certainly not nothing, but something.

Negotiation is an acquired skill. So is conflict avoidance. You might take a step in their direction by learning how to fight fairly, but it would certainly be better if you did not think that fighting were inevitable.

You cannot fight your way to happiness. A fair fight is better than a brawl, but not fighting is best of all.

Jaclyn Friedman Proclaims Herself a Slut

Yesterday I wrote a post about Jaclyn Friedman's discovery of her inner slut. (Scroll down for post and comments.) Apparently, Ms. Friedman took some serious offense to my post and goaded her minions to attack it.

This they dutifully did, in the comments section of the post. Rarely has that section seen such passion or incivility. I am sorry to say that Ms. Friedman's minions are neither great minds nor great wits.

I do, however, appreciate the attention. So, thank you, Jaclyn Friedman. You have earned a follow-up post.

Apparently, her minions' best developed intellectual resource is name calling. If I do not agree that slutty behavior is therapeutic-- which is Friedman's central point-- then I must be a judgmental misogynist or worse.

Apparently, encouraging young women to go out and develop their sluthood shows respect.

Go figure!

To those of us of a more advanced age their comments bring to mind Charles De Gaulle's famous quote: Le reforme, oui; le chienlit, non.

But that is neither here nor there. I do want to reply to some of the arguments raised against my post, but I do not want to bury it in the comments section. So here goes.

I think it fair to say that the word "slut," even used by someone who proudly proclaims herself to be one, still retains a negative emotional charge. That many commenters would think that I, by my lonesome, could define the word or its usage or its connotations is flattering indeed.

If they believe that Friedman and her minions can change the meanings or usages of words by their lonesome, they are suffering an extremely narcissistic illusion.

People still get agitated when you suggest that a woman is a slut, because they understand that words mean something and that labels have consequences.

Clearly, Friedman is trying to remove the negative connotation from the word. She is trying to make sluttiness a positive, liberating, and therapeutic experience.

I would not deny that the connotations of words change over time. The way people use and abuse language often produces subtle, but meaningful, changes.

The way language is used resembles a marketplace. And just like a real market it contains many participants and players. The fact that one person, or small group of people, does not like the connotations attached to a word does not change the way the word is used.

If you believe that your experience is more positive than the word "slut" suggests, then try using a different word.

I agree with Friedman that teenage girls ought not to be hounded to death by being called sluts. I also do not think that they should be sexting or otherwise behaving in ways that might attract the label.

Neither I nor the rest of the patriarchy has very much control over the behavior of teenage girls. I fear that they will read people like Friedman and decide that they should embrace their inner slut. If they do they will suffer unexpected social and romantic consequences. Social consequences that they are ill prepared to deal with.

Should teenage girls be led on by a false promise of liberation into a situation that neither they nor Jaclyn Friedman can control? I think not.

If they know the consequences of their behavior, if they are old enough to understand these consequences, and if they fully understand the consequences of advertising their sluthood, then the choice is freely theirs.

The cold, hard truth is that if you jump in an empty swimming pool you are going to get hurt. If your friends are goading you on, that is not a good thing. If someone comes forth to say that the picture painted on the bottom of the pool creates a mirage that looks like water, he is not trying to spoil your fun, but to protect you.

And trust me, the pool is equally empty whether I say it or not. Reality does not bend to the demands of your ideology.

I find it hard to believe that anyone still believes that advertising your slutty behavior will have no effect on your ability to engage a long term relationship. If they do, then they should simply get out of their cave and try a few moments in the sun.

Friedman understands it. She says so.Why would people defend her article by saying that it does not.

As for some of the specific points, many of which revealed that Friedman's minions do not read very carefully, I did state clearly that Friedman's dry spell antedated the depressive episode that led her to Casual Encounters.

She had experienced that dry spell as a trauma, and thus, had excluded the possibility of doing as Hephzibah Anderson had done.

And yes, I did note clearly that Hephzibah Anderson did not give up all sexual activity, but only gave up coitus. I wrote that she engaged in what used to be called foreplay, but maybe the reference was too opaque or outmoded.

I am not sure what a "straw slut" is or why my response reveals patriarchal propriety. As I just said, and as I said in the post, sluttiness as a pejorative is far more often used by women against women, by girls against girls.

Keep in mind that Friedman suggests that the experience was therapeutic. She felt it was liberating. She encourages others to embrace it.

Caring about what will happen to the girls who follow her down that "primrose path of dalliance" does not feel to me to be an effort to burn anyone "at the stake of patriarchal propriety."

I offer my compliments to the commenter who came up with that phrase, especially since the most famous woman who was burned at the stake, Joan of Arc, was also called La Pucelle. I will leave you all to look that one up too.

As for the notion that someone can take sovereign possession of her sexuality by giving it away for free, I disagree. Unless of course you want to say that Friedman's gesture is a kind of feminist potlatch.

(FYI, potlatch is an Indian custom where two chiefs compete with each other to show who has more riches. They each burn their possessions, to show that, in our terms, they are so rich that they have it to burn.)

As for the person who wanted to know why Friedman is wrong, I did not go into too much detail because Friedman does it herself. She is wrong because her sluttiness and her public proclamation of same throws up an obstacle in the face of her relationship goal.

It is also wrong, as Friedman knows, and as Susan Walsh mentioned in the comments, because it is dangerous behavior. Her musings about an axe murderer suggests that she has a real fear of the possibilities of such casual encounters.

It may not be the best thing in the world to go out and have a casual encounter. It is probably not the worst either. So be it.
But it is worse if you try to overcome your embarrassment by doing it over and over again, to the point where you come to see it as defining who you are.

The worst idea is announcing your new habit to the world and insisting that the world accept it as a good thing.

Until the thought police arrive you cannot have that level of control over the minds of other people. Nor should you even expect to. It is profoundly disrespectful.

I hope that clarifies things.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Finding Her Inner Slut

In all honesty, I rarely use the word "slut." And not just because it is more commonly used by women to refer to other women. I don't use it because there is no good reason to resort to name-calling.

Now, Jaclyn Friedman has not only given us permission to call her a slut, but she has fully accepted and embraced her recently-acquired sluthood.

Having discovered the uses of sluttiness in her mid-thirties Friedman has chosen to tell us all about it, and even to proclaim that the experience was therapeutic. She entitled her article, "My Sluthood, Myself," taking off on the old feminist classic, "Our Bodies, Ourselves," but forgetting that for most people sluthood does not involve taking control of one's body, but giving it away. But why quibble.

Friedman's is not a cautionary tale about the wages of sin. It defends the practice by claiming that sluttiness has conferred extraordinary psychological benefits.

She knows that writing her story is going to cause some pain to those near and dear, is going to hold her up to some level of public disapproval, and is going to render her goal of finding true love that much more difficult to attain.

Nevertheless, she lets it all hang out, because she has found a higher calling. She wants all of the young women out there to embrace their own inner sluttiness.

In a sense Friedman is martyring herself for a cause, and attempting to lure young women into going home with men they don't know to explore their sexuality and liberate themselves from....

Friedman does not say it, but women who engage in these behaviors most often liberate themselves from their modesty and dignity. But why quibble.

Friedman is not martyring herself for just any cause. She is a card-carrying feminist and is helping to recruit young women into her own cause.

For anyone who is still puzzled by how it happens that so many young women have chosen to participate in the hookup culture, Friedman provides more evidence that feminists have been encouraging the behavior. Not all feminists, of course, but more than enough to influence young women.

For the purposes of this blog, the more important question is whether this behavior is really as therapeutic as Friedman claims it is?

More importantly, it offers an opportunity to address another crucial issue: when someone like Friedman has undergone what she calls "good long term therapy" that has helped her "to heal at a deeper level" how does she then deal with romantic adversity, with a lost love?

When we are asking about the results that anyone can expect from therapy, we not asking whether the patient feels better or believes in her treatment. We really need to know what coping skills she has learned and how she uses them the next time she finds herself in a difficult situation.

It is fair to mention that Friedman tells us that she was a victim of sexual violence, and that she still finds herself acting as though her behavior were a function of the trauma.

Still, we are within our rights to examine her public exposure of the way she dealt with the loss of a relationship that she had believed was going to be forever.

Let's offer a counterpoint, an alternative, to Friedman's approach to her pain. You may have seen or heard of Hephzibah Anderson's new book Chastened. You may also recall my post on same: Link here.

Like Friedman, Anderson was dealing with romantic adversity. She was feeling that something was wrong, and that she had lost touch with her feminine side.

To heal herself and to recover her womanhood, she decided to suffer a year without coitus. It was a year containing relationships, romance, and even some of what is commonly called foreplay. It did not include sexual intercourse.

Anderson found it an enriching experience, on many levels.

Friedman took a different tack. Feeling lost and alone, seemingly lacking in resources to deal with a breakup, she threw herself back into dating like someone who was desperate.

In her words: "A I crawled out of the acute grief stage of my breakup and into the Land of Reboundia, I launched myself somewhat full-throttle into dating. It was comforting to me to find that there were other people I found appealing who felt similarly about me. But each person I'd meet, if there was any kind of a click at all, I'd throw myself at them whole-hog, wanting so badly for them to be The One that proved I wouldn't have to die alone with a shriveled-up vagina and no cats... And then... when something would inevitably go wrong, however or silly or minor, however nascent the connection was, it would feel overwhelming. Like I was dying. Like I was broken all over again."

The despair is palpable. So is the vulgarity.Less clear is the fact that acting out of despair is never a good tactic. Even less clear is the fact that Friedman was clearly jumping the proverbial gun with these relationships. She had had sex before the relationships had had time to develop.

Such connections are rarely sustained.

Yet, she does not step back and ask what she might have been doing wrong. She seems to believe that if she sleeps with a man he ought to become The One, and thus to love her forever.

In the end, she seems to have fallen into severe doubt about her own sexual attractiveness. Where Anderson profited from a year without sex, Friedman had had a very different reaction to an eighteen month dry spell, one that had occurred before her most recent and most traumatic breakup.

In her words: "Didn't feel too good. Made me feel like I would never be touched or loved again. Made me feel, in a word, desperate. You know what's not a great emotional state for making important life decisions? Desperation."

Anderson was worried that no one would lover her again. And she believed that her sexual adventurousness was making her less than lovable.

Friedman was worried that no one would ever want to have sex with her again. Her previous experience had told her that she could not handle chastity. Therefore she did not turn to chastity, but to Craigslist Casual Encounters.

Was she acting out of desperation? According to her own testimony, she was. But she needed to feel that someone wanted her, no matter how gross they were, no matter how little she wanted them.

At the least, one can say that therapy did not provide her with very many skills for appraising her situation and acting in a way that did not affirm her desperation.

Friedman was thinking, not that something was better than nothing, but that just about anything was better than nothing.

Amazingly enough, Friedman believes that her newly discovered sluttiness will free her from entering into "another committed relationship just to satisfy my basic need for sex and affection." She continues: "It gives me more choices, it makes room for relationships to evolve organically, to take the shape they will before anyone defines them."

Of course, that is also what Anderson was trying to achieve. And we will have to say, if you believe that feelings are everything, then Friedman is expressing her feelings and her wishes accurately.

Unfortunately, her chances of developing a long term relationship after publishing a confession of how much of a slut she is are slim indeed. And they are made even slimmer still by the fact that she seems to be suggesting that while she is allowing a relationship to develop organically, she might still be indulging her inner slut through Craigslist Casual Encounters.

Therapy seems to have taught her to get in touch with her feelings. But it also seems to have lured her into mistaking her feelings for reality.

But, she might reply, she knows it herself, better than you and I.

Maybe so. But there's knowing and there's knowing. Friedman does not know it well enough to prevent herself from engaging in the ultimately self-defeating rebranding of herself as a slut.

I should mention that when Friedman has her first and sexually successful hookup-- though she never uses that term-- she does not feel all that good about herself.

She discovers that in order to maintain her sluthood, she needs a merry band of enablers.

In her words: "... sluthood requires support. Because any woman who indulges these urges carries with her a lifetime of censure and threat. That's a loud chorus to overcome. A slut needs a posse who finds her exploits almost as delicious as she finds them herself, who cares about her safety and her stories and her happiness but not one whit about her virtue. A slut alone is a slut in difficulty, possibly in danger."

As I said, these other women are enabling a bad habit.

Surely, it is Friedman's right to do as she pleases with her own sexuality. I still find it offensive for her to encourage young women to follow the same path. At that point, she is not just a slut, but she is an enabler.

I suppose it proves the truth of the old saying: Misery loves company.

Monday, July 26, 2010

So Long, Citizen of the World

In July, 2008 candidate Obama traveled to Germany to proclaim himself a citizen of the world. No one really knew what that meant. Many Americans were queasy at the notion that they were being called upon to trade their patriotism for a nebulous non-identity-- citizen of the world.

Unfortunately, come November, 2008, not enough Americans were queasy enough.

Even if global citizenship is gussied up and said to be another way to be cosmopolitan, still and all, a truly cosmopolitan New Yorker is still, locally, a New Yorker. He or she is not a citizen of the globe.

What did Obama mean? Some of his defenders have suggested that he was trying to say that some problems are global in nature and thus can only be solved by global citizens.

Perhaps that is true, but why would nation states not be able to form alliances to deal with global problems.

Obama's detractors have suggested that his real goal, a goal he shares with left thinking people the world over, is to deconstruct patriotism and national pride. So argues Roger Kimball in a column today. Link here.

If we are all citizens of the world, wouldn't it be retrograde to defend your country? And why should we still be talking about competing against the Chinese or Japanese if we are all citizens of the same world?

However we understand what it means to be a citizen of the world, surely it is time, as Joel Kotkin suggests, to rid ourselves of the cosmopolitan illusion that has invaded and occupied so many of our best minds. Link here.

In Kotkin's words: "Time to chuck into the dustbin the cosmopolitan notions so celebrated at global conferences: a world run by wise men of the United Nations, science-driven socialists or their ostensibly more pragmatic twins, global free marketers. We are leaving the age of abstractions and entering one dominated by deep-seated ethnic, religious and cultural loyalties, some with roots form centuries and millennia ago."

Seen this way, being a citizen of the world means submitting yourself to the rule of an international coterie of philosopher kings, people who have overcome outmoded concepts like patriotism and national pride and who can lead us to a brave new world that feels strikingly similar to the New Jerusalem.

When you define yourself as citizen of the world or as a member of the human species, you are joining a group where you do not have to do anything to be a member.

Why would you want to join a group that has no criteria for membership and where there is nothing you can do or not do that would change your status within the group?

Loyalty does not mean anything when there is no price for disloyalty.

The cosmopolitan illusion is a rank denial of human society. It seeks to detach people from their families, communities, and nations... in order to ensure that they feel at one with a group of true believers.

Paradoxically, Kotkin explains, the more the cognoscenti rail on about being citizens of the world, the more the peoples of the world become committed to their tribes.

In his words: "Yet the more we struggle to be true cosmopolitans, the more humanity expresses our fundamentally tribal nature."

On this topic I recommend Kotkin's fine book, Tribes.

Call it pushback if you like, but the more our leaders deny their pride in our nation, the more our nation's people insist on the importance of their national identity.

If world citizenship does not require any duties or responsibilities, then it does not offer a human identity either.

Worse yet, if you do not belong to any constituted group, any group that can include or exclude, then you are effectively suffering the status of the ultimate outsider, the pariah, the man without a country.

In passing, Kotkin points out that tribal loyalty does not just involve Chinese and Indians and Arabs and Jews. It can also occur in groups of people who work in the same industry: like computer geeks, IT professionals, journalists, criminal defense attorneys, and pathologists.

As he says: "Smaller tribes like investment bankers, techno-geeks or gays each share their own iconography, rites of passage, tastes in politics and culture. They cluster not only in cyberspace, but in the same neighborhoods, conferences and resorts, and increasingly intermarry."

But aren't these groups more noble for not being joined by ethnic and blood ties, or even by shared civic virtues? Kotkin replies: "These secular tribes often insist they, unlike ethnic groups, are motivated by a more enlightened spirit of science, global consciousness or individual self-awareness. But don't be taken in by such protestations. Nothing could be more tribal."

A group of lawyers or dermatologists may feel tribal loyalty, but they function as something like a guild.

Other tribes are more like cults, because they involve ideological commitments. One such group would be today's feminists. Another would be environmentalists.

In Kotkin's words: "Green activists are united by a passionate
'group feeling' as powerful as that which mobilized Mohammed's followers: just substitute 'sustainable' for holy."

The only question remaining is how different tribal loyalties effect one's loyalty to country. Is your loyalty to the trial lawyer's bar consonant or dissonant with your loyalty to your nation? We would all agree that the two kinds of loyalty are thoroughly consonant.

But what of loyalty to a cause, like environmentalism? Is that tribal loyalty consonant or dissonant with your loyalty to your nation? Here the question becomes less clear.

Finally, if there is such a thing as global citizenship, is your citizenship in America consonant or dissonant with your being a good global citizen? Or do you have to downgrade your national pride in favor of a cosmopolitan illusion?

What's the Matter with California?

Thomas Frank notwithstanding, there's a lot more wrong with California than there is with Kansas.

You may recall Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas.
In truth, after decades of being ruled according to a political philosophy that Frank abhors, California is in deep trouble.

How best to understand California's problems, and to grasp the functional inefficiencies that occur when ideals are allowed to dictate the uses of labor?

To understand it, I would recommend a story that Richard Russell received from a subscriber and reprinted on his Dow Theory Letters. Link here. (It's a subscription site.)

Here it is:

: The Governor of California is jogging with his dog along a nature trail. A coyote jumps out, bites the Governor and attacks his dog.

1. The Governor starts to intervene, but reflects upon the movie "Bambi" and then realizes he should stop; the coyote is only doing what is natural.

2. He calls animal control. Animal Control captures coyote and bills the State $200 testing it for diseases and $500 for relocating it.

3. He calls a veterinarian. The vet collects the dead dog and bills the State $200 testing it for diseases.

4. The Governor goes to hospital and spends $3,500 getting checked for diseases from the coyote and on getting his bite wound bandaged.

5. The running trail gets shut down for 6 months while Fish & Game conducts a $100,000 survey to make sure the area is free of dangerous animals.

6. The Governor spends $50,000 in state funds implementing a "coyote awareness" program for residents of the area.

7. The State Legislature spends $2 million to study how to better treat rabies and how to permanently eradicate the disease throughout the world.

8. The Governor's security agent is fired for not stopping the attack somehow and for letting the Governor attempt to intervene.

9. Additional cost to State of California: $75,000 to hire and train a new security agent with additional special training re: the nature of coyotes.

10. PETA protests the coyote's relocation and files suit against the State.

Arizona: The Governor of Arizona is jogging with her dog along a nature trail. A Coyote jumps out and attacks her dog.

1. The Governor shoots the coyote with her State-issued pistol and keeps jogging. The Governor has spent $0.50 on a .45 ACP hollow point cartridge.

2. The Buzzards eat the dead coyote.

And that, boys and girls, is why California is broke....

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Stop Bad-Mouthing Your Husband

Life coach Lisa Hayes offers some great advice for married women. It applies equally well to women involved in relationships they want to nurture.

Her title tells the story: "Bad-Mouthing Your Man Will Slowly Kill Your Marriage." Link here. Via Instapundit.

Why is this advice specifically directed toward women? Perhaps because it is so rare for a group of men to get together over coffee or brunch to complain about their wives. They are much more likely to bond over discussions about sports, politics or the market.

I would guess that the habit of bad-mouthing a husband or boyfriend comes down to us from Sex and the City. It seems to represent the vestiges of young women's emulation of Carrie and Co.

If so, it shows yet again why it is a bad idea to make life imitate art.

If bad-mouthing is merely a bad habit, that means that it does not necessarily reflect the state of anyone's marriage. And it does not reveal anything especially compelling about the people who are doing it.

According to Hayes, a woman may begin slowly by sharing a complaint with a girlfriend. Soon a group will form where all the women bad-mouth their husbands and boyfriends.

If each woman wants to feel like she belongs to this informal group, she knows that complaints are the price of admission. She will also know that she can improve her status within the group by offering more and better complaints.

Thus, it becomes a group-sustaining bad habit.

It will feel like commiserating. It will feel like an exercise in advanced empathy. It will also kill your marriage.

Of course, each member of the group will be telling herself that what happens in the group stays in the group. None would ever bring their bad-mouthing habit home to their husbands.

But that is easier said than done. As Hayes reports, one woman felt so thoroughly empowered by her gripe sessions with her friends that she confronted and nagged her husband more strongly than she had before.

Feeling like he was under attack, he withdrew and froze.

Even if the woman in question had never complained to her husband, I am confident that her negative feelings would have expressed themselves in numerous other ways.

As a side question, ask yourself this. If you attend therapy sessions where you are encouraged to bad-mouth yourself, your parents, your spouse, your children, or your friends, do you think that this attitude, so scrupulously nourished in therapy, is going to remain within the therapist's office?

Hayes' client improved her attitude and conquered her habit after her mother brought it to her attention.

As always, the best way to overcome a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. Why not offer your husband praise, not blame? Praise is a much better motivator than blame and reproach.

The difficult part is that the woman in question felt obliged to withdraw from the group that was based on bad-mouthing husbands.

This is hard medicine indeed, especially if all your closest girlfriends belong to this group.

Alternately, the woman can try to change the basis for the group, first by complaining less about her husband, or even by taking a leadership role and recommending that everyone try to begin conversations with a statement of what they like about their husbands.

As a last thought, one that applies to everyone equally, ask yourself why you would want to spend your time and energy bad-mouthing anyone. There is no special virtue involved in finding fault with other people. At the very least, a critical temperament will make you less than likeable and less than a good friend.

And if that is true, there is also no special virtue in finding fault with yourself. If you do not like yourself, the chances are good that other people will not find much to like in you either.

A Mosque at Ground Zero? Part 2

A few days ago I was happy to join those who oppose allowing a mosque to be built at Ground Zero. Link here.

Today I read Andrew McCarthy's excellent analysis of what is at stake culturally in this proposed construction. I recommend it highly. Link here.

I think it fair to say that building the mosque is an act of defiance, a defiance of American values, especially the value of freedom, and that it is part of a cultural war being waged against American and Western culture.

Many Western Europeans have figured it out, and have voted to ban the burqa and hijab.

Too many New Yorkers believe that their own zealous self-righteousness must trump all other considerations. They are even more intransigent because they believe that they are on the side of a great idea.

The majority of Americans do not agree. 54% disapprove, while 20% approve. Link here.

Self-righteous New Yorkers, starting with Mayor Bloomberg, would do well to remember Justice Robert Jackson's words: "There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the Constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why Do Women Cheat?

What's wrong with this picture?

Thea moves to a new city with her husband. Her husband settles into a job that requires long hours and high focus. Thea feels lonely and abandoned. Her husband has a full day of social contacts; she does not even have friends.

Her solution: she joins a website called Ashley Madison, whose purpose is to facilitate extramarital affairs. Of course, she succeeds in finding what she was looking for.

Analyzing Thea's situation, Tammy Worth opines on WebMD that Thea was looking for attention and affection. Her husband was so involved in his new job that he had been neglecting her. Link here.

See also this article from CafeMom site: link here. Via Instapundit.

Thus, her action is simply a reaction to her husband's increased distance. Given that he has a full life and she has an empty life, what's a girl to do?

Perhaps, she envies her husband his life; perhaps she resents the competition his new job presents; perhaps she blames him for taking her away from her friends and family. At some level, she seems to be trying to get back at him.

One should mention here, as the article does not, that if her husband discovers her affair, or even if he senses it, this will probably cause him no small amount of emotional turmoil. And this, in turn will make it more difficult for him to devote himself to his new job.

Just a thought.

Anyway, as I said: What's wrong with this picture?

First, if she is feeling lonely and bored, why doesn't she go out and get a job? And if she does not want to work, what prevents her from making new friends. Is she the only woman who is at home during the day in her neighborhood? Are there no possibilities for volunteering at local hospitals or involving herself in political activity?

If we remain within the parameters set by the article, these are the most obvious questions. And yet, they do not address the issue that the article does not mention, even in passing. The dog that didn't bark, the elephant in the room, is: why she does not think to have a child?

But then again, she may have a child or children. And the children might be at school all day. The article tells us nothing about this married couple's reproductive status.

About this question we can barely speculate. The article is so politically correct that it attempts, no matter what the cost, to eliminate the reproductive aspect of her decision-making.

We do not know why this couple does not have children, whether they want children, whether they can have children... and so on.

To say that what is missing from the marriage is an emotional connection is simply a convenient way to obfuscate the reproductive issue and, effectively, to blame her husband and his job.

Thanks to a poorly researched article we do not know the answers to any of these questions. We are left in the dark.

Let's take this occasion to remind ourselves of the basic Darwinian explanation for why women cheat. Amazingly, it is the one explanation that Tammy Worth does not bother to mention. Simply put, women cheat because they are looking for better genes.

Darwinian theory has an easy explanation for why men cheat: they want to produce the most offspring, to spread their genetic material far and wide.

It's not about-- the more the merrier-- the notion that the more there are the more likely are some to survive. That must have been the question at the dawn of humanity.

As we know, men are more likely to cheat because they can more easily walk away from the aftereffects of their actions.

But that feels like a truncated version of human reproductive psychology. Men are also programmed to protect and provide for their offspring. This means that they need to know whether said offspring are really theirs. Men who discover that their wives have tricked them into protecting and providing for a child that is not genetically theirs often react very badly.

As we know, and as Tammy Worth and her experts make clear, a woman who cheats is running a much higher risk than is a man. Biologically, a woman has much more difficulty walking away from the possible consequences of extramarital sex than does a man.

Thus, women are much more thoughtful about choosing when, where, and with whom to commit adultery.

Again, according to Darwinian theory, a woman is looking for the best genes, but she is also looking for a man who will stay around to protect and provide for her children. Thus, she will require an emotional connection, but she will also be attuned to evidence of good character in the men she might choose.

Yet, finding both in one man requires something of a compromise. A man's willingness to stay around and help care for children must involve his willingness to compromise of his impulse to spread his seed.

I would mention in passing that a woman might cheat with a man because he is physically prepossessing, but is not good husband material. The fact that he does not want to settle down does not make him unattractive.

A woman might feel that she is programmed to respond to such men. On the other hand, she will also feel an enduring sexual attraction to a man who is also trustworthy and reliable.

Sometimes a woman will marry a man who appears to be trustworthy and reliable, only to discover that he is not.

If so, she might feel a need to protect herself by looking elsewhere. If her husband is emotionally detached, she will read that as meaning that he is otherwise involved. Risking abandonment, she might well seek out a new man with better character.

Then again, if her husband is too attached to her, if he is too clingy, that might mean that he is compensating for his inability to provide for her and their children. Thus, she might be motivated to seek out a man who is a better provider. Then, she may look for a man who is emotionally more distant.

All of which to say that this issue is far more complicated than we imagine.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Italian Work Ethic

We all need a concept to grasp the world financial crisis, so how about this one: the Italian work ethic.

I could have chosen the Greek work ethic, the Spanish work ethic, or the Portuguese work ethic, but the New York Times has a great story today about how Fiat Motors is trying to introduce a serious work ethic into one of its Italian factories, so we are stuck with the Italian work ethic. Link here.

The concept feels like an ironic take-off on sociologist Max Weber's famous concept of the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. That's because it is. Link here.

Weber posited that Northern European and other Protestant cultures were defined by a work ethic that was largely absent from Southern European and more Catholic countries.

Europe is divided into North and South. America is divided into North and South, and these divisions, culturally speaking, involve different attitudes toward the value of work.

When you think of the Protestant or Puritan work ethic, you feel austerity, a hardscrabble life, one that is largely lacking in fun and pasta. Imagining the Protestant work ethic does not bring a smile to your mind.

On the contrary, the concept of an Italian work ethic offers a wry, ironic amusement, because we do not associate Italy with the greatest commitment to hard work.

And that is a problem. If you want to live well and enjoy life, normally you need to earn enough to pay for it. If you want to live well and enjoy life but do not earn enough to pay for it, you have to find someone else who is willing and able to do so.

You might have a generous trust fund that pays you to do nothing. Otherwise you will need an equally generous credit line from which you can borrow and borrow and borrow... until you simply run out of credit.

And that, as the Times reports, is the situation that Southern Europe is trying to come to grips with today.

Given that Italy and its neighbors have figured out that they cannot borrow their way to prosperity, and thus, that their model of social democracy has run out of credit, our brilliant president has chosen to try to turn America into a Southern European style social democracy!

Go figure!

Within the Fiat factory in Pomigliano, the debate has been engaged. Workers have awakened to the notion that if they are going to compete in the world economy, keep their jobs, and pay off the nation's crushing debt, they are going to have to work longer and harder.

And that will require a massive cultural revolution. One that devalues hedonism and revalues work.

As one might expect, some have suggested that work makes people miserable, that work kills, and that work is bad for your health.

Nonetheless, chronic unemployment without a generous line of credit is not a lot of fun either, so the workers have voted to recommit themselves to their jobs, even if that means showing up consistently, and on time.

Yet, one man's sloth is everyone's loss of productivity. When teams of workers are responsible for different aspects of automobile production the absence of a few workers here and there has a deleterious effect on productivity. Almost, self-evidently.

But the signs of transformation are there too. As the Times reports: "Yet for every worker resisting the [cultural] shift, many more have decided that having a job is better than unemployment. After months of tension, 63 percent of the employees voted in June to accept Fiat's plan, which would penalize employees for abusing sick days, give them shorter lunch breaks and forbid them from striking during periods of high demand."

Will the new austerity and a new work ethic save these Southern European countries and the Eurozone? We do not yet know.

For now the storm seems to have passed. The governments of Southern Europe have adopted severe austerity measures. And people seem to have reached an understanding of the need for a new work ethic.

And yet, these countries may also be in such a deep hole that more forced austerity, in the form of a severe recession or even a depression, might be unavoidable.

The storm seems to have passed, but that may also mean that we are in the eye of the storm.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Left's Identity Crisis

If we're to believe John McWhorter-- and I have no reason not to-- people who occupy the left side of the political spectrum are having a branding crisis. Link here.

Psychologists would call it an identity crisis.

It occurs when people do not know what to call themselves. For lack of a proper label, they do not know where they stand or if they stand for anything at all. Lacking a brand they do not know who they are or what they are.

How do you attract adherents to your cause or to your political perspective if you cannot label it.

Worse yet, if your brand does not express a clear concept, that means that you are less capable than the folks who sell detergent and cereal. Those folks are masters of branding.

Compared to the masters of branding, you are floundering in search of a brand that will give you some self-definition.

McWhorter likes the liberal brand, but this brand has lost some of its appeal. Around 20% of Americans consider themselves liberal while around 40% consider themselves conservative.

If you were selling soap, you would be losing market share, and thus in need of either rebranding or rethinking of your beliefs.

As everyone knows, and as McWhorter and Timothy Garton Ash have stated, the term "liberal" has somehow become a pejorative, a term of derision. For Ash's article, see here.

Whether it was because of the machinations of Ronald Reagan or the rhetorical skills of Ann Coulter, the great minds of the American left have been unable to defend their liberal brand.

For failing to defend it, they lost it. Having let themselves be defined by Ann Coulter most of them are too embarrassed to reclaim it.

If there really is a market in ideas, liberalism's stock has been in an extended bear market.

Without in any way diminishing the havoc that Ann Coulter has wrought on the liberal brand, I would respectfully suggest that today's liberals might also be somewhat queasy about claiming the brand because, truth be told, they are really not very liberal.

Classical liberals, the kind that produced many of the most basic economic and political principles in the Anglosphere, would today be considered libertarians. Except, as Ash notes, on the European continent where liberal still refers to someone who believes in free market capitalism.

Today's American liberals do not believe in free markets, free trade, free speech, or free elections.

They want to regulate and control markets, even to the point of having government bureaucrats determine the socially just distribution of goods and services.

They have done everything in their power to stymie free trade agreements, the better to serve their labor union masters.

When they find speech that they do not like, they label it hate speech and try to have it banned from the airways... by invoking something called the fairness doctrine.

As for free elections, today's liberals believe in what is called card-check, which deprives workers of the right to vote by secret ballot on whether or not they want to join a union. And we haven't even mentioned the work of ACORN.

If the results of free markets and free debate and free elections do not correspond to their fantasies, then these so-called liberals want them to be declared null and void.

Back in the old days people were called liberal minded if they respected differing opinions. Far too many of today's liberals believe that differences of opinion are signs of mental illness or moral corruption.

Or, examine Ash's definition of liberalism: "Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting-- to put the matter a tad frivolously-- some unholy marriage of big government and fornication."

When it comes to sex, it is fair to say, liberals are thoroughgoing free spirits. You might find this to be somewhat contradictory, but I don't think so.

In the first place, liberalism tends to promote a sexuality as an instrument to produce social anarchy. They want to use sexual energy to subvert the capitalist order.

Sorry to have to say it, but making sexual freedom into sexual license does not really enhance individual pleasure. It works to inhibit the advance of civilization.

Based on the unproven, and absurd, premise, that primitive sexuality was much more fun than our more civilized version, liberals have wanted people to get back in touch with their inner sexual demons, the better to return to a more primal source of their being and a simpler social order.

Be that as it may, left thinking people have basically abandoned the notion of calling themselves liberal. They have tried substituting the term: progressive. Doubtless because they feel some special fondness for our greatest progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, and his jingoistic militarism.

The pusillanimous left, having caved before the fearsome words of Ann Coulter, decided to rebrand itself as progressive.

Unfortunately, McWhorter reports, the term is not sticking. Only a quarter of those who think they are liberal will cop to being called progressive. That would comprise something like 5% of the population.

Perhaps the term has not been sticking because it too, like liberal, is a misnomer. It does not make a lot of sense to call yourself progressive when you do not really believe in progress.

Left thinking people tend not to believe in the great march of civilization. In fact, they tend to think that civilization's progress was purchased on the backs of an exploited working class, or even a sexually repressed middle class.

They do not believe that advanced industrial society is a good thing; they tend to believe that it is destroying the environment.

They do not believe in free individuals using their rational faculties to make decisions in the marketplace. They think that we are all prey to irrational emotions and impulses, and thus, need the benevolent, but strong, hand of government to rein us in.

They do not accept the free market's way of distributing goods and services, or the free market's way of allocating income, and want the government to redistribute and reallocate in a way that corresponds to their ideals.

To use McWhorter's word, they are not progressive as much as they are retrogressive. One might well argue that conservatives (and libertarians) are more truly progressive than those who insist on labeling themselves as such.

In his words: "After all, conservatives do not typically see their views as urging us backward. Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist revered by American conservatives, argued that democratic socialism threatened a form of brutal tyranny that all supporters of a free society would view as primitive and unenlightened-- retrogressive, as it were."

If the left insists on returning us to a more natural state, a state where our primitive impulses have freer reign, then it is surely not promoting progress.

And if it insists that everyone accept its tenets as unshakable and indisputable dogma-- whether global warming or same-sex marriage or social justice-- then it is clearly trying to return us to the dark days before the Enlightenment and before the free trade in ideas.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Mosque at Ground Zero?

For some people, knowing that Sarah Palin is on one side of a question will send them scurrying to the other side. These last few days the issue has been whether or not an Islamic group should be building a mosque at Ground Zero.

If Sarah Palin is against it, then, opposition to the mosque must be racist. That was the enlightened comment mayoral aide Andrea Schlesinger posted on her Twitter account.

When a reporter asked Michael Bloomberg to comment on the charge against Palin, he did bring himself to declare that he did not think Palin was a racist. Still he disagreed with her strongly. Link here.

He added that he was in favor building the mosque because: "Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness."

Not to be too legalistic about it, but America stands for freedom and equality, and, unless I miss my guess, these are not quite the same thing as tolerance and openness. Not that there is anything wrong with tolerance and openness....

I am sure that Bloomberg would not be tolerant of the practice of honor killings or the impositions of Sharia law in New York? Or does he think that we should be tolerant of any and all religious practices, regardless of whether they trample on anyone's freedom.

Even if we understand that our fundamental values involve freedom and equality, we should also know that free speech, that most sacred of rights, does not give us the right to yell "Fire" in a crowded theater.

Context matters to the exercise of rights.

And while we have the right to bear arms, we do not have the right to carry any kind of gun we please anywhere we please. At least not in Michael Bloomberg's New York, we don't.

Look at it this way. Is it racist and intolerant to oppose the building of a Carmelite nunnery on the grounds of Auschwitz?

Of course, the Holocaust was not perpetrated in the name of Catholicism. The nuns who wanted to build a convent there wanted to pray for the victims, a small number of whom were Catholic.

As it happens, the convent was taken down. Would Mayor Bloomberg consider that a triumph of intolerance and racism?

Now, let us look at the question of what Sarah Palin called common decency and basic sensitivity.

When Muslims decided to build a mosque at Ground Zero, were they showing sensitivity or insensitivity toward the feelings of those whose friends and relations had perished there?

Would the mosque be a gesture of compassion, as the Carmelite convent was, or would it have been a gesture of triumphalism?

Sarah Palin quoted the sister of a victim of the 9/11 attacks. In the sister's words: "This is a place which is 600 feet from where almost 3,000 people were torn to pieces by Islamic extremists. I think that it is incredibly insensitive and audacious really for them to build a mosque, not only on that site, but to do it specifically so that they could be in proximity to where that atrocity happened."

Would you consider that to be a statement of prejudice and intolerance? Does it belie a deep seated racism?

Writing in the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby reports the views of a variety of Muslims, from imams to community leaders, who declare that building a mosque on Ground Zero would be an insult to America, designed to provoke intolerance. Link here.

Why would religious leaders in the Muslim community want to provoke intolerance toward Muslims? Perhaps they are afraid that as Muslims assimilate in America more and more of them will be tempted to convert. And, as you know, in Islam conversion is an extremely serious crime, punishable by death.

Why else would an Islamic group want to build a mosque on the site where people claiming to represent their religion massacred thousands of people?

As John Hawkins explained, Islam has a history of marking its conquest of foreign territories by building mosques at the site of the conquest. Link here.

As Hawkins points out, it is not an accident that the Muslim center that would house the mosque at Ground Zero had originally been named Cordoba House. As he says, the Grand Mosque in Cordoba, Spain was just such a triumphalist gesture.

So, the question is: Was Michael Bloomberg standing up for America or was he bowing down to Islam? Whatever he thought he was doing, how do you think his defense of the mosque will be understood in the Islamic world?

If Sarah Palin's opposition is not enough to make you want to see a mosque arise at Ground Zero, Robert Wright tries to persuade you by having you ask yourself this: What would Osama bin Laden want? Link here.

It sounds like Wright's rhetorical vehicle is just about out of gas. It's running fumes.

Anyway, Wright tells us that once we discover what Osama bin Laden would want, we need only to do the opposite. As though bin Laden should be the arbiter of moral judgment, one way or the other.

In some quarters this passes for serious thought. It is mental drool.

Since bin Laden is not answering my phone calls these days, any more than he is answering Wright's, we can only guess here.

Wright answers his own question by saying that, really, bin Laden would want us to stop the building of the mosque because he wants to have Ayman Zawahiri do a YouTube video saying that in America you can build a church or synagogue anywhere you want, but you cannot build a mosque at Ground Zero.

Wright believes that this will be a powerful recruiting tool. No mosque, lots more terrorists. That's his equation.

Does he really believe that bin Laden declared holy war on the United States because he thought that America was not sufficiently tolerant of Islam? He would more likely find it horrifying to see that America is tolerant of Islam.

Do you think that the leaders of al Qaeda are worrying their black hearts over the idea that America will conquer the moral high ground?

If I had to guess, I would imagine that they are a lot more worried about whether or not the next missile strike finds their tent.

Bin Laden's goal is simple: to have mosques everywhere, and to have churches and synagogues nowhere. His strategy would be advanced if there were a mosque at Ground Zero. Then, at least, wanna-be terrorists would know exactly where to go to pray for the soul of Mohammed Atta.

For all any of us know, some relics of Atta, some microscopic remains of his body, might still be on the grounds of the new mosque.

The Obama Perplex

The more we see of him, the more we hear him, the more we are all perplexed by Barack Obama. The American people voted for him and wished fervently for his success, but increasingly they feel, as Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post, that "he casts no shadow." Link here.

This should not be too surprising. When you vote for a fictional character, you will likely get a fictional character. If you thought that Obama was going to redeem America's original sin of racism, and that this would heal the nation's financial plight, you were obviously deluded. And if you thought that the financial crisis was punishment for America's sins, you are far more religious than you think.

When Cohen said that Obama does not cast a shadow he meant, I assume, that when it comes to Obama there is no there there. When you take away the preening and the posturing, when you strip away the rhetorical swirls, his animadversions and circumlocutions, you will find yourself faced with someone who is fundamentally insubstantial.

Last weekend Cohen was reading some suggestions about how Obama might recover his poll ratings and salvage something of his presidency. All were written by serious pundits.

While the pundits all had cogent suggestions, none of them really resonated for Cohen. He simply did not see how Obama could implement any of them.

In order to act a leader has to be someone; he has to have presence. And Obama, Cohen suggested, is not someone. Neither Cohen nor anyone else has any real idea of Obama is.

When Obama called himself a blank screen on which people project whatever they want him to be, he was saying that he was simply not sufficiently present to take up space and to assert his leadership.

This sounds a bit metaphysical. It is as difficult to grasp as Obama's character, but it is worth the effort.

Among other things, it means that just because you have received the most electoral votes and have been duly installed in the office of the President of the United States, that, in and of itself, does not make you the president.

As I and many others have pointed out, Obama did not work his way up the ladder and did not really earn his place at the top. He was not made president because he had accumulated a series of great achievements. He was elected because he had accomplished nothing, and therefore, he offered people the opportunity to imagine anything they wanted about him.

Obama was cast in the role of president. Somehow or other the American people had been convinced that they were voting for the next American Idol or the next Top Model. They redefined the role of voter and transformed it into casting agent. They were not asking: Who can best lead? But, who best can play the part?

So, Obama was cast in a role and, therefore, he has always looked like something of an impostor.

Then Cohen took his reflection a step further. He was reading about comparisons between Obama and Ronald Reagan, and again, something went tilt in his mind.

With Reagan, Cohen wrote, people always knew who he was; they knew what he stood for. They might have voted for or against him, but they knew what they were voting for or against.

Reagan might have started out as a movie star, but he had worked his way up to the office. And therefore, this actor occupied the office better and more surely than does Barack Obama.

In Cohen's words: "Reagan ... was not defined solely by gauzy campaign ads but by countless speeches, two contentious and highly controversial terms as California governor, and a previous race for the presidency. There was never a question about who Reagan was and what he stood for. Not so Obama. About all he shares with Reagan at this point are low ratings."

And also: "What has come to be called the Obama Paradox is not a paradox at all.... He supported the public option, then he hasn't. He's been cold to Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu and then all over him like a cheap suit. Americans know Obama is smart. But we still don't know him. Before Americans can give him credit for what he's done, they have to know who he is. We're waiting."

Why don't we know who he is? Because he doesn't know who he is.

Why doesn't he know who is? Because he does not keep his word. You do not know whether he is the man who is going to close Gitmo or the man who is going to keep it open. You do not know whether he is the centrist he was during the campaign, or the leftist he has governed as.

This means that he is intrinsically untrustworthy. And that means that there is no there there.

Being good to your word is the most important element in human character. If you say one thing and do another, there is no way that you or anyone else can know which is the real you.

By default, they will feel obliged to take your actions as more truthful than your words, but that will also force them to disregard everything your say. They will be living in a state of anxiety, never certain that you will do what you say or will not.

If people do not know you as a man or woman of your word then you cannot exist as a person of character, as a leader, or even as a reliable friend. As Cohen says, people liked Ronald Reagan. They do not much like Barack Obama.

Human identity is based on the connection between what you say you will do and what you actually do. If the two are not closely connected, to the point where everyone knows that when you say you will be there or do that, then you lack identity, and are simply not there.

To his credit, Cohen first saw this aspect of Obama in July 2008 he wrote: "Obama is not noted for sticking to a position or a person once that position or person becomes a political liability.

"He has been for and against gun control, against and for the recent domestic surveillance legislation and, in almost a single day, for a united Jerusalem under Israeli control and then, when apprised of U.S. policy and Palestinian chagrin, against it.

"I know that Barack Obama is a near-perfect political package. I'm still not sure, though, what's in it." Link here.

Many people have spent much time trying to figure out the Obama perplex. It does not make much sense comparing him to previous presidents, so they have more often evoked fictional characters.

Prominent among them is Chance the Gardener, aka Chauncey Gardiner, the lead character in the book and movie: Being There. Link here.

Chance the Gardener is one of the best fictional embodiments of mistaken identity.

A simple and not very smart gardener, Chance is mistakenly assumed to be a wealthy man named Chauncey Gardiner.

Once he has been renamed, people start believing that whatever he says is brilliant, cogent, and extremely valuable. He can offer some innocuous comments on the seasons, and people think he is giving great advice about fiscal policy. The president of the United States takes him for a genius and people are talking about making him president himself.

Chance or Chauncey is the perfect embodiment of someone who is not there, but who is taken to be there by nearly all of those who meet him.

If you do not believe in intrinsic merit or intrinsic value, and for those who believe that interpretations create reality the story of Chance the gardener dramatizes your belief system.

Now, of course, Barack Obama is a new Chance the gardener. He was the perfect candidate for the media elites who had learned their elite universities that there is no such thing as intrinsic merit or intrinsic.

Barack Obama was simply the creation of those elites, a creation that they skillfully sold to the general public.

The journalists and media executives who compromised their integrity in order to get Obama elected had studied at the best universities. There they learned that there is no such thing as intrinsic value or merit.

The might have learned this idea in a literature course. There, their professor might have explained that there is as much value in a comic book or a porn flick as there is in Shakespeare or Aquinas.

The latter are held up as intrinsically brilliant because their ideas sustain the power of the patriarchy or the capitalists.

People who learned these lessons in college applied them well in creating Barack Obama. The fact that he did not manifest the intrinsic merit that we normally seek in the president did not matter.

His merit was transcendent. He was purer for not having gotten himself dirty working in politics or business.

They may not have seen his academic transcripts or his college boards, and they may have been surprised to hear that he was the only president of the Harvard Law Review who never published an article during his tenure, but they knew that all they had to do was to keep saying he is smart for him to become smart.

No matter what he said, they pronounced it brilliant. By now, you cannot even say Obama's name without adding that he is very smart.

If he got something wrong, his fans in the media interpreted it to make it sound right. If he contradicted himself, they said that the system was forcing him to do it.

And as we now know, when anyone dared question or challenge a candidate who was, effectively, their very own creation, leftist journalists would band together and start accusing people of being racist.

In many ways Barack Obama was the product of a perfect political and media storm. But that does not mean that we really know who is or that he can function effectively as President of the United States.

As Richard Cohen put it, you have to be someone before you can do something. Right now, most people are beginning to see that Barack Obama is not someone.