Friday, December 31, 2010

Feeling Bored?

The Wall Street Journal describes them as “boredom enthusiasts.” Recently, they met in London to listen to William Barrett read a list of the 415 colors in a paint catalogue. He entitled his reading: “Like Listening to Paint Dry.” Link here.

To those of us who have spent too much time hobnobbing with artists, the exercise sounds like performance art. If your, like my, aesthetic refinement is of no use in judging whether Barrett’s performance is good or bad performance art, let’s take a guess and say that it sounds pretty good.

Those of us who have a more literary sensibility can regale ourselves with the idea that there is a list in listening.

Had Barrett’s performance taken place at the MOMA it would be high performance art, and Barrett would have been feted by the Tout New York.

In principle, watching paint dry means that you are gazing intently on a scene in which nothing is happening. Or better, whatever is happening is happening so slowly that you cannot really see it happening.

If that is the standard, then the list of 415 colors does not quite qualify as soul-deadening boredom.

If Barrett had pronounced the name of a single color… magenta or fuscia or blue… over and over again for several minutes, he might have been more boring and less artful.

But, then again, those of us who have not immersed ourselves in performance art are ill suited to pass judgment.

If you’re looking for real boredom, the kind that feels just like watching paint dry, you might want to screen a couple of Andy Warhol films.

As it happens, Warhol mastered the art of metaphorically watching paint dry in his films Sleep and Empire. Both are in real time. The first chronicles the movements of a man who is sleeping for a little over five hours. The second shows eight hours of slow motion footage of the Empire State Building.

I assume that Sleep is trying subliminally to get us to take more Unisom and that Empire deconstructs American imperialism… or some such thing.

Whatever it is, boredom seems to occur when nothing happens. It seems to afflict those who suffer from the sin of sloth, who are so thoroughly lacking in initiative that they do nothing but stare vacantly at their television screens.

If they have gotten beyond the television principle, to the point where they interact with their friends on Facebook or play video games, they will, as I see it, be less bored with their lives, less disengaged, less inattentive.

Which might be the reason why people like Facebook and video games.

Of the human emotions, boredom has never taken up too much space in psychological theorizing. Certainly, psychologists think that it is bad to be bored. They see it as a failure to engage, a failure to keep focused, and an inattention to one’s surroundings or activities.

In other words, psychologists see boredom as part of the complex of feelings that comprise depression. Since there are no pills or treatment programs that specifically address boredom, they prefer to talk about depression.

Apparently, people who are bored with everything, or who have made disengagement a way of life are more depressed and less healthy than those who are interested, attentive, engaged, involved.

But, you probably knew that already.

If boredom is a symptom, if it counts among the negative emotions, then we would be well within our rights to avoid it at all costs.

One way to do so is to be overstimulated. But if we live in a world where our sensations are constantly being bombarded with stimuli, where we do not even have the right to step back and take a deep breath, to clear our minds by thinking of nothing, then boredom might not be such a bad thing.

Stop the world; I want to get off. Perhaps just for a few minutes. If that is your goal, perhaps it is not such a bad thing  to listen to a man read a list of 415 colors. It might be somewhat akin to meditation.

I didn’t attend the London meeting of boredom enthusiasts. I only know what I read in the paper. So, for all I know, the meeting might even have been a step toward mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the a Buddhist-inspired state of mind where you put yourself totally in the moment by focusing on the constituent parts of an action or an object.

Under certain circumstances it might not be such a bad thing to stop time. If your life is laden with drama, then perhaps it is good to be able to step back from it all, to clear your mind, and to focus on a list of 415 colors.

If everyday life is full of insolence and insults, of rudeness and drama, of anxiety and despair, why not try to find a moment of peace and calm by involving yourself in an activity that is perfectly empty of meaning, that does not induce any interpretation and does not provide an emotional fix.

The culture seems to tell us that life should be full of surprises. Creativity should rule. We are suffering under the tyranny of the new, or at least, what we think is new.

If we follow the culture’s dictates, we will avoid routines and refuse to get bogged town by eating the same breakfast everyday and taking the same route to work.

In truth, loving spontaneity for the sake of spontaneity is one of our worst habits. It makes life chaotic, disorganized, and far more stressful than it need be. Because we have too much spontaneity, we need a moment to unwind, to compose our thoughts, to register and process what is happening. Some of us do it in a religious service; some of us go to museums; the rest of us get together with like-minded souls and listen to someone read off a list of colors.

A life filled with psychodrama is never boring. But it is never really engaging either. It’s a whirl of actions and emotions, leading to nothing very consequential, distracting us from the work at hand.

If boredom is the enemy of work, psychodrama is an even greater enemy.

Boredom is a kissing cousin of apathy. Like boredom apathy has gotten something of a bad reputation, since it has come to be identified with an I-don’t-care-about-anything attitude. People who are apathetic seem to be so self-involved that they lack empathy. We all know how bad that is.

But apathy used to have a better reputation… before, that is, it started getting involved in casual encounters with theologians and psycholgists.

Stoic philosophers glorified apathy and made it a positive goal. They believed that we needed to overcome the sodden weight of  passion (pathos) and emotion, the better to think more rationally about problems.

The stoics, bless their cold hearts, believed that if you had overcome emotion, you would think more clearly and make better decisions.

Maybe the boredom enthusiasts are on to something.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Predicting the Past?

'Tis the season for predictions. ‘Tis the time of the year when we shine up the old crystal ball and look straight into the future.

When we return from their visionary excursion we take pleasure in reporting that we have seen the future and that it is nothing like what anyone expects.

Which is a good thing.

If the future were just like today we wouldn’t need help planning for it. We do need help preparing ourselves for the outliers, the black swans, the impossibilities that are going to blindside us.

Even if, in most cases, black swan events are impossible to deal with because they are exactly what we have not been planning for.

While we were planning for airplane hijackings and hostage taking-- relatively manageable, contained events-- someone was flying hijacked airplanes into skyscrapers.

But is prognostication just an exercise in futility? None of us really knows what the future has in store. Even those semi-fallible soothsayers, the astrologers, can’t agree on what the future holds.

Wouldn’t it be smarter to focus on the past, to study history and to learn about something that we can know as a fact? Why bother making blind conjectures about what might happen in the future?

Doesn’t history repeat itself? Or, does it only repeat itself for those of us who have not learned its lessons? More ominously, we have it on good philosophical authority that life is defined by the repetition compulsion and the eternal recurrence of the same.

But, do these concepts give us a glimpse of immortal truths or do they allow us to trick ourselves into thinking that we are preparing for the future while we are really just looking back at the past?

The truth is, if you are gazing intently on the past, waiting for it to return, then you are, almost by definition, a reactionary.

Would it not be better to put the past behind you and to look toward the future, to plan for future eventualities? Isn’t it better to be more positive, more forward looking?

As therapy has demonstrated, the more you look to why you got it wrong in the past the less you will be working on getting it right in the future.

If you focus on the past you are working on a story line. If you focus on the future you will be defining yourself as someone who can take action and affect your own life. But that assumes that you can tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome in advance.

We can make a mockery of New Year’s prognostications, but we should all plan for the future eventualities. Even though we face a myriad of different possible outcomes, some of which we can influence, some of which we cannot.

At the least, we should turn our backs on the past. What‘s past is past; it‘s over and gone. It’s more difficult to prepare for an uncertain future than to rehash past events whose outcome is fixed.

For those of us who want to hone our prognostication skills, here are a few rules that are worth following.

We know that the future is not going to be a repetition of the past. Thus, if the Tea Party was the big story in 2010, the chances are very good that there will be no other third party political movement in 2011.

Another rule is that the more people believe that something is going to occur the less likely it is to occur.

Worse yet, if your predictions correspond to everyone’s expectations, then you are going to be boring. And you don’t want to be boring.

So, if everyone believes that the economic recovery is here, that the stock market is signaling that happy days are here again, and that President Obama has gotten his mojo back, you can be fairly confident that we are headed for hard economic times and that President Obama is more likely to be a one-term president.

If everyone thinks that the storm has passed, you are more likely to be in the eye of the storm. And when the eye of the storm passes, you should batten down the hatches.

Next, we need most to prepare ourselves for the unforeseeable. Thus, the more outrageous predictions are often the most useful.

Winston Churchill put it best in a 1930 book, when he described what Nassim Taleb has called black swans: “Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened.”

Of course, Churchill is not talking about his expectations that the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening. He is talking about the eternal verities, especially those that concern political dynamics and historical possibilities.

No one predicted the carnage, to say nothing of the utter insanity, of World War I. And no one thought that Hitler would effect a holocaust of European Jews.

A few years ago most people believed that houses would always go up in value. A few knew that the housing market was in a bubble and that the situation was unsustainable. Precious few had sufficient foresight to prepare for the new world that would come into being once the financial markets seized up.

Right now, we are just beginning to digest the meaning of  “too big to fail.” It’s the title of an important book and will soon be a great movie.

But now that we have thought through whether any bank or nation is “too big to fail,“ are we ready to deal with institutions or nations that are: “too big to save?”

At what point do we run out of money and what will our world look like then?

After 9/11 everyone said that we failed to foresee the terror attacks because we lacked imagination. Perhaps we refuse to think the unthinkable. We are more comfortable thinking about what we know, about a world that is familiar and comfortable.

A world where the cash machines do not have any cash, where the supermarkets do not take our credit cards… such a world is painful to contemplate, extremely unlikely to come into being… so why bother to torment ourselves unnecessarily.

It’s not that we lack imagination. The problem is that we are not sufficiently insane to imagine that the unthinkable will come to pass. True prophets are like voices crying out in the wilderness.

They sound as though they are delusional, as though they have lost touch with concrete reality. The more delusional it sounds, the more impossible it seems, the more likely it is to fall into the category of those impossibilities that become our reality.

But even if it is true that every prophet sounds like he is delusional, not every delusional soul is a prophet. Just because you hear a voice crying out in the wilderness, that does not mean that you should believe what it is saying.

"Is Bigger Better?"

My new Right Network column has just been posted. Link here. It's my way of looking beyond the debate over whether government should be bigger or smaller into the cultural attitudes that frame the issue. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Does True Love Wait?

I doubt that it’s a sign of progress, but nowadays you have to do a scientific study to discover things that everyone has always known.

For instance, if you compare married couples who have sex sooner with married couples who have had sex later in their relationships, you discover that those who wait tend to have higher levels of marital satisfaction, sexual and otherwise.

So proves a study performed by Prof. Dean Busby of Brigham Young University. Link here.

Since all of the study subjects were married, early onset sexual relations did not prevent marriage from taking place. It did have a decided effect on how happy the marriages were.

The study seems to demonstrate that couples who are willing to defer gratification until they are actually acquainted with their partner have happier marriages.

It might well be that the ability to defer sex might be a sign of better character, and that people with better character tend, over the long run, to have better marriages.

The study does not seem to say that love was the issue, but that marriage was better when people began by having sex with someone they trusted.

I know that it does not sound very romantic, but it is probably true that trust is essential to a good long term sex life.

As you might have guessed, this study has already provoked an internet reaction.

Over at Gawker Max Read happily impugned the motives of the researcher because he worked for a Mormon university.

At Jezebel, Sadie Stein offered an interesting commentary on her own chastity, explaining that she did not have sex with her first boyfriend for an ungodly long period of time, and that, by the way, the relationship did not work out very well.

To my understanding, the study was not predicting whether the early birds were less likely than the late risers to marry their hookups.

Nevertheless, I would imagine that couples who wait longer for sex will marry more often than couples who rush in. To that we can perhaps add the SadieStein corollary, namely, that you should try not to wait too long.

If we assume that the deferring couples did indulge in some forms of sexual activities, the study is really concerned with how long it took them to consummate their relationships.

To me that is the key to this discussion. Because it changes the nature of the sexual act.

Back in the bad old days coitus was the act whereby couples consummated their marriage. Nowadays, very few people think that sexual intercourse still retains that meaning. After all, people who do not even know each others’ names are very likely having wild, passionate coitus as we speak.

Like it or not, do it or not, hooking up aims at ecstatic sexual release. It is generally a one/off experience. Even if it advances into the realm of “friends with benefits” it intrinsically lacks any meaning beyond the pursuit of pleasure.

People who hook up are today’s version of what they used to call lotus-eaters. Yes, I know, that’s the first time you ever heard it called that.

If relationship formation precedes coitus, then the couple would have gotten to know each other’s names and would have discovered whether or not they have good character.

Call it sex with someone you trust, or, in contemporary terms, sex with someone your actually know.

After that point is reached, you sexual act consummates an existing, ongoing, committed relationship.

Many people today go through this process without the aid of any nuptial ceremony. The study, however, seems to find the most positive results in those couples who waited until marriage to consummate their relationship.

Of course, as it suggests, couples who wait for the honeymoon are walking down the aisle without even knowing whether or not they are sexually compatible. Or so people fear. Based on no survey whatever I would venture that these people had already been in close enough intimate proximity to have gained something of an idea of their level of attraction.

What does the study demonstrate?

First, that the concept of consummating a marriage (or a relationship) makes good sense, whether within or without the institutional commitment.

Second, that couples who refrain from the joys of immediate gratification take the institution of marriage more seriously, see themselves as social beings participating in a meaningful institution, and consider sex to an ongoing experience.

Annals of Bad Sex Advice

You might have guessed it, but I do not make a habit of reading Cosmo or Men’s Health. I have my limits.

Happily, I just found out that I was right to ignore both of them. Confirmation of my good judgment appeared in Ben Reininga’s column on Nerve. Link here.

Obviously, I consider Nerve to be superior to both Cosmo and Men’s Health. In truth, I do not read Nerve very often. Otherwise I would have known about Reininga’s column earlier and would have shared it sooner.

Anyway, Reininga has a great and high concept. He reads through the sex advice columns in Cosmo and Men’s Health, among other magazines, and saves the rest of us the trouble. Then he tells us what we have missed, and this provokes instant and profound feelings of gratitude.

In his column Reininga extracts the most ridiculous pieces of advice and highlights them. If the term “redeeming social value“ means something, his column embodies that meaning.

As you know, I am all for shaming, but only when it is used judiciously against targets that really need it. The sex advice columns in these magazines certainly qualify. So much so that I am not going to repeat their ridiculous advice, for fear of compromising this blog’s high standards.

If you open the link to Reininga’s column you will witness the sorry spectacle of mass market magazines preying on the sexual insecurities of the young.

Those of us who can no longer pretend to be young like to assume that young people today are more sexually sophisticated than we were at their age. And yet, if today's youth are lapping up the advice offered by Cosmo and Men’s Health, our hopes have clearly been misplaced.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Carefully Chosen Words"

Psychotherapy erred when it prescribed self-expression as a cure for repression.

It sold the idea by claiming that self-expression would promote mental hygiene. All of those dark, ugly emotions that were floating through your nervous system had to be expelled, the better to cleanse the system. And all of those sweet feelings also had to be gotten out, because you must, on pain of repression, share, share, and share. Even if nothing good comes of it, you’ll feel better. You will have shown the world that you are a mature, emotionally labile adult, a testimony to the greatness of therapy.

It sounds good, but it isn’t. If you use expression to regulate your emotional stress, you are defining yourself as an isolated, disconnected individual. If you take what's inside and throw it outside, regardless of the effect it has on other people, you will look to all the world as though are indulging in therapeutically-correct histrionics.

I am not against telling people how you feel. Even Aristotle believed that there were times and places where expressing anger was the right thing to do.

That does not mean all the time, in any place, with whomever. If you do not choose the words carefully, choose the time and place carefully, choose the person carefully, you will end up alienating your friends. It will be the same if you are offering up an expression of undying love.

On this score the therapy culture has failed, but the business world has offered a corrective. If therapy sees the world filled with self-contained autonomous individuals who are trying to regulate their stress levels by releasing emotional gases, the business culture wants people to learn how to manage their relationships.

To succeed in the workplace you must manage relationships with your superiors and your inferiors, with your colleagues and your team members. You will be trying to produce an atmosphere of social harmony where everyone will feel motivated to function at his or her best.

A reasonable goal, you will think. A goal that psychotherapy might even embrace. Yet, if you believe that you must express your feelings, regardless of how it effects others, the best you will do is offend your friends, insult your colleagues, demoralize your staff, and garner a reputation for tactlessness. .

I believe that how you express it is far more important than what you are expressing. It's not about how you feel, but about how you structure your sentences.

For that reason Mary Lorenz explained that when bosses are giving feedback, when they are offering guidance to their employees they need to use: “carefully chosen words.” Link here.

You can be on the most intimate terms with your feelings, but if you choose your words haphazardly, you will fail to communicate anything more than your neediness.

Even though we all think that we understand this many of us still resort to the most puerile of conversation stoppers: But that’s how I feel.

If you have just regaled a friend with a histrionic display of your emotions, he is not going to care how you feel, because you have just told him that you do not care a whit for how he feels.

Lorenz makes another important point. Using “carefully chosen words” requires work and effort and practice.

I often tell my clients that if they have to say something to someone, then need to step back, suppress the first thing that they want to blurt out, and to think about five different ways of saying the same thing.

Then they can choose the expression that is most likely to accomplish what they want to accomplish. If it sounds like grind-it-out work, that’s because it is. If it sounds like the enemy of surprise and spontaneity, that’s also because it is.

So, stop tormenting yourself about how you really, really feel and start asking yourself what effect your words will have on another person, the person with whom you want to establish, maintain, and manage a relationship.

Of course, sometimes it is best to be straightforward and direct. At other times, it is best to talk around the issue, especially if you want the other person to discover something himself.

In all cases, the proof lies in the effect your words produce, not in how good you feel for getting it off your chest.

But isn’t process rather labored? Would it not stilt your conversation, interfere with the flow, cause your relationships to grind into terminal tedium?

Not at all. You do the exercises-- like thinking through five different ways of saying the same thing-- because you want the process to feel more natural. Once you learn how to do it; once it becomes second nature; you will have more time to enjoy feeling connected with other people.

Our friends in the business world address the question through the issue of giving feedback, which is really about managing the complicated and difficult relationships they have with their staff.

It’s easy to start with what you shouldn’t say. You cannot manage an employee if you are negative, critical, arrogant, disrespectful, or contentious.

Given that therapy teaches people to generalize about their emotions, the business world advises managers to prefer the specific to the general.

Lorenz recommends that you deal with facts, not impressions. Instead of telling your employee that he seems to be disinterested in his work you do better to remark that he has been handing in assignments late.

The first approach might provoke him to defend himself by saying that he is not disinterested, or to list the personal problems that make him seem distracted. The second offers a specific situation that needs improving.

The first leads toward therapy; the second involves coaching.

Another point: Don’t use cliches like: Good job! It is better, Lorenz writes, to specify where his work exceeded expectations. In that way the recipient of your praise will know that his work, specifically, is being recognized and distinguished

Of course, if you start with a compliment, you will be better placed to point out  areas that still need improvement.

As for the wording, it is better to say that he can improve. You should avoid saying that he is doing badly. If you only name his faults, he will think that he is a disappointment, and that you have no confidence in him. He will instantly feel demoralized and will lose his motivation.

Along the same lines, Anthony Balderrama has written a column explaining how an employee should select his words when speaking with his boss.

Balderrama is talking about how an employee can mange his relationship with his manager. It’s called: managing up. Link here.

You know better than to criticize your boss or to complain about the workload. But, when he is being unclear about what he expects from you or where you can improve, then you need to ask for more specifics.

You are not going to make him feel that he is inarticulate, but that you do not want to leave things to interpretation.

Similarly, when you do not understand company policy or goals, don’t pretend that you do. If the policy isn’t clear, and you are charged with implementing it, then you are responsible for understanding it fully. If it fails, you cannot blame your boss for not explaining it well.

Obviously,if you want to advance in the company, you are not going to tell your boss that you want his job. You haven’t gotten as far as you have by making boneheaded mistakes.

If you want to advance your career, Balderrama suggests that you ask your boss how he sees your future at the company and what you need to do to put yourself in the best position to get ahead. Make it sound like it's the two of you together, not the one of you against the other.

Always, the emphasis must be on how much more you want to offer to the company, not how much more the company can do for you.

Finally, when you first hear your boss’s, or even a colleague’s idea, don’t reject it out of hand.

This does not merely apply to business planning. It works equally well in political discussions outside of the workplace.

People we respect the most are not necessarily those we agree with, but those who show us the greatest respect.

If you reject an idea without giving it a thoughtful hearing, you are also rejecting the person who gave you the idea. Obviously, this applies equally well to executives who set policy as to staff members who contribute to its formulation.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Medical Tourism in Havana?

Two or so weeks ago this blog's comments section saw an interesting debate about medical care in Cuba. Link here. Some were dismayed that I had bought into the anti-Castro propaganda and spoke ill of the wonderful country that is Cuba. Today, in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastassia O'Grady offers some inconvenient truths about the state of medical care in Cuba, mixed with some information about the availability of water and electricity. Some of you might have missed her article, so here it is. 

Frank Rich Misses the '50s

Frank Rich wants to know: “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” Link here.

It’s a bit too easy to say that Frank Rich himself belonged to the hit squad that brought down Disneyland. It’s like blaming a cheerleader for the football team’s bad season.

If Rich is neither the quarterback nor the coach, he is more than a cheerleader. Playing for team New York Times, Rich has exercised his considerable influence undermining the American, and the Disneyland, dream.

It’s more than unusually ironic, bordering on hypocritical, to see Frank Rich waxing nostalgic for the Eisenhower years. As Byron York pointed out, Rich into high dudgeon fifteen or so years ago when Newt Gingrich dared to say something positive about the ‘50s. Link here.

The young Frank Rich saw the ‘50s as a hotbed of injustice, oppression, and repression. The older Frank Rich sees the ‘50s as a time when people could get ahead by hard work, when they strove to improve themselves, and where a thriving middle class was still welcoming new members.

Strangely enough, Rich seems to have reached a conclusion that resembles my own. America has lost its work ethic.

In my, not his, view, the work ethic was a casualty of the ‘60s counterculture.

The counterculture was a full frontal assault on American values. It did not want to reform America by improving on its strengths while overcoming its weaknesses. It wanted to tear up the culture by its roots. Taking its cue from the radical leftist thinkers who were all the rage at the time, the counterculture saw America as an ongoing criminal enterprise whose successes that had been built on the backs of the underprivileged, the oppressed, and the disadvantaged.

To the counterculture “bourgeois” was a term of contempt. The Middle Class was colluding with the military-industrial elites to promote its program of colonialist, imperialistic, warmongering ... the better to oppress the world's people.

In books and movies, the Middle Class was also portrayed as a sham enterprise behind whose walls lay a cauldron of spousal abuse and child molestation.

While Rich waxes poetical about a child whose MMM slogan won his family a trip to Disneyland, let’s remember that our intellectual elites were up in arms about the organization men who kept the corrupt capitalist system humming.

Of course, politics also played a part in the cultural transformation. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty represented a massive expansion of government into the private markets. While some pieces of legislation were essential and long overdue-- the civil rights and voting rights acts-- many of the others were attempts to engineer social justice, to produce equality from the top down.

Yet, the best laid plans… oft go astray, and the law of unintended consequences often undermines our best intentions. You can declaim all you want for economic equality, but if your programs produce inequality, then you should have enough humility to recognize that they have failed.

If we date America’s decline from the post-Eisenhower years, then we must acknowledge that increased and expanded government must have played a large role.

When government interferes in the markets, when it chooses winners and losers, then people are likely to conclude that hard work is not very important.

As it happens, Frank Rich seems to believe that capitalism is at fault, as though the Great Society programs caused government’s control over private enterprise to diminish.

Changing the culture requires more than big ideas. You need to have an attractive face, a person whose life embodies the new values you are seeking to promote.

America was transformed from a can-do culture where hard work was rewarded and where people strove for greater success, into a decadent culture where pleasure trumped effort, and where everyone felt that they were entitled to a level of prosperity that they were unwilling to earn.

Whose face most closely embodies that cultural revolution? My candidate is John F. Kennedy. In my view he was the problem, not the solution. More so, considering that the nation continues to hold him in the highest esteem.

In the last election America thought that it was voting for someone who embodies the values of John F. Kennedy.

In fact, it was, but not in the way it thought.

As long as the country does not come to terms with its mindless idolatry of John Kennedy and its blind faith in the myths of Camelot, it will not get out of the predicament it is in.

For reasons that escape me entirely, most Americans still consider John Kennedy a great president. Besides getting us involved in Vietnam, making a mess of the Bay of Pigs, and provoking the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy accomplished very little during his brief time in office. Oh yes, he did lower taxes on the rich!

He brought a class of Harvard educated elites into the government, and these men, the best and the brightest, steered the nation into Vietnam, while he was alive and after his death.

Vietnam is a fundamental part of the Kennedy legacy.

John Kennedy may have promised, as Rich says: “… a New Frontier that would reclaim America’s heroic destiny, and do so with shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the lower-case democratic values central to both the American and Disneyland dreams,“ but that was not who John Kennedy was.

JFK did not earn his way. He did not work his way up from the bottom. He inherited wealth, and wore it as an entitlement. He was not especially qualified for the presidency when he ran, and won because he was charismatic.

The Kennedy clan has often been called a new American aristocracy. And the label fits. In their liberal politics they embody the values of noblesse oblige. But they also embody the values of entitlement.

Like titled aristocrats the Kennedy family received its wealth through inheritance, with a feeling of being entitled. With the exception of Joseph Kennedy, the family did not have to work for its wealth. The Kennedys did not get ahead by following a venerable work ethic. They did not have to earn it. They just received for winning a genetic lottery.

In the realm of concrete achievement, JFK had achieved more than Barack Obama at a comparable stage. Yet, he won the presidency even though he not a great legislator, a great statesman, a great diplomat, or a great general.

He was certainly not someone who earned his way to the top.It should not be too much of a surprise that the policies this liberal family has always supported value entitlement, not a work ethic, as a way of life.

JFK transformed the culture in another way. He lived at the intersection of politics with Hollywood celebrity. He embodied the values of fame, glamour, and celebrity. His father paved the way by having an affair with Gloria Swanson. Like father like son... JFK bedded Marilyn Monroe.

It also makes sense that JFK would have found celebrity culture so appealing. Who else but a Hollywood actor or a rock star would understand how ti felt to make so much money by working so little?

One of the major psychological issues for Hollywood stars is their feeling that they are being compensated out of all proportion to their work or their social value.

Isn’t that what it feels like to inherit extravagant wealth?

Many Hollywood celebrities work. Wall Street bankers and traders work very hard. But still, isn't there a gross disparity between how much they work, what they contribute to the common good, and how much they earn?

Keep in mind, that Wall Street is no longer a Republican club. It’s greatest earners were mostly staunch supporters of Barack Obama in the last election? Was it because they understood viscerally what if felt like to receive largesse out of all proportion to what you have earned?

If the meaning of your life is your feeling of being entitled, wouldn’t it make sense that you would want everyone to have similar feelings of entitlement? And wouldn’t it make sense for you to have no real interest in the good old work ethic. An entitlement culture makes you feel entitled, as though you have a title. It's a little like Disneyland where everyone can feel like a prince or a princess or a Kennedy.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Exercise is Also Good for Your Children

It must be exercise awareness day. Having just linked to one article about the benefits of physical exercise, I was happy to discover another one, explaining that exercise is not only good for you, but it is also good for your children... and especially for their minds. Link here.

Bernard Madoff vs. John Gotti

Mark Madoff hung himself because the shame was too much to bear. His father‘s actions had made the family name a stigma. The disgrace, the ignominy, and the loss of reputation were so painful that he could not live with it.

Compare the Madoff family shame with that of the family of John Gotti.

There you will find far less, if any, shame. Those who bear the name of one of the most powerful mob bosses of our time do not feel shamed by John Gotti’s actions. Nor does the general public confer on Gotti the same opprobrium that it assigns to Madoff.

Some family members have tried to use the name as a means to gain celebrity, while others have just gone on with their lives.

How do we explain the strange way the public hands out shame?

Bernard Madoff defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars. He ruined careers and lives. For his crimes he will spend the rest of his life in a prison in North Carolina. There he is permitted to socialize with the prison population.

John Gotti took part in a multitude of criminal activities, from extortion to loan sharking to hijacking to gambling to murder. For his pains he was lionized by the New York media and dubbed the Dapper Don.

When Gotti went to prison he was mostly confined to his cell. The government was so afraid that he would continue to run the Gambino crime family from behind bars that they interdicted nearly all human contact. In jail John Gotti ate his meals alone in his cell.

One might reasonably say that John Gotti was a serial killer. Yet, when he was convicted, the masses did not breathe a sigh of relief.

They were not being unreasonable, either. After all, the people Gotti killed or had killed were his fellow mobsters. Up to and including, Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino crime family, a man who had blood on his own hands.

No ululating crowds gathered to mourn the death of Paul Castellano.

The Federal government saw things differently. Obviously, it could not countenance vigilante justice. More importantly, the romance of organized crime was lost on government agents.

To them Gotti and organized crime were parasitic elements in society, sucking the lifeblood from legitimate businesses, exploiting the weakness of the citizenry.

To the citizens, the mob offered services that society had declared to be illegal. The people who availed themselves of what the mob was offering must at some level to have felt like co-conspirators.

In much the same way that the root cause of the gang violence perpetrated by drug lords in Mexico should be traced back to the insatiable American demand for illegal drugs.

If you spend your time indulging your habit for these toxic substances you are less likely to feel especially outraged at what the gangs do to bring you your fix.

In America, the mob has always tended to kill its own. If you were doing business with the mob and ran afoul of it, your life was in danger. If you minded your own business, you did not have very much to fear personally from organized crime.

As we all know, the situation is radically different in Mexico.

Strangely, perhaps, John Gotti was not a shadowy figure. He did not hide from public view. He did not live underground. He did not pretend to be an honest businessman or a sickly invalid.

John Gotti lived in the open, in public as one of the most flamboyant mob figures since Bugsy Siegel.

Everybody knew who John Gotti was. Everyone knew what he was up to. Everyone followed the cat and mouse game that he was playing with the government.

Where Bernard Madoff masqueraded as a respectable businessman with homes in Palm Beach, Montauk, and the Upper East Side, John Gotti, for all of his silk suits, continued to live in Howard Beach, Queens.

Gotti never pretended to be other than who he was. Madoff always pretended to be other than who he was.

Thus, to Madoff goes the largest measure of shame. Not only did he cheat and steal, but he pretended to be an honest money manager.

You may not like the idea of honor among thieves, but much of the fascination with organized crime lies in the fact that many of these men have a strong moral code, a strong sense of honor, and a strong sense that it is all just business.

Of course, Madoff was utterly and totally respectable. The Federal government, through the SEC, knew who he was, and had received credible information about his criminal activities. It did nothing.

How could so respectable an individual, a man which such credentials, who belonged to the best country clubs, be a vulgar criminal?

While the government was doing its level best to turn a blind eye on Madoff it was unleashing the dogs of war against John Gotti and the Gambino crime family.

John Gotti was a thug. He was a lowlife in a silk suit. Just as Bernard Madoff could do no wrong, in the eyes of the federal government, Gotti could do no right.

Back in the old days people used to say that the safest neighborhoods were the ones where mobsters lived. Members of crime families shielded their families from their business. Mostly, they did not want their children to get into the business. They did not bring their business home. Criminal actions were for someone else’s communities.

People respected them for it. Mob bosses knew the difference between right and wrong. They built a wall separating business and family. Theirs was not the same code as the one that most citizens live by, but it was a code.

Madoff was different. He preyed on his friends, his family, and his neighbors, in people who put their trust in him. Friends at the country club, people who gave him the entirety of their savings, people who accepted his word because how could he have garnered such an exalted reputation if he was not good to his word?

Madoff betrayed a community and was, along with his family, and with anyone who bore the name, ostracized by that community.

As Mark Madoff found out, there was a good reason why the masters of organized crime kept their own communities safe. If you betray your own community, if your name becomes a stigma among those you spend all your time with, then, when the proverbial s#%t hits the fan, you have nowhere to go.

The Benefits of Exercise

If you're going to make and keep a single resolution for the New Year, how about resolving to start and stay with an exercise program. Few activities provide as many benefits as cheaply. 

Unfortunately for some, exercise works best for those who work at it. 

So, it's time to get up off of the couch, whether it is the therapist's couch or the couch you lounge around on when you're watching television. 

If perchance you spend four hours a week lying on a therapist's couch talking to the walls and four hours a week on the Stairmaster, you will owe your improved mood and attitude almost entirely to your exercise regimen.

Today, I am linking an article that is addressed to women. Link here.  

Much, if not all, of what it says applies equally to both sexes. Exercise is gender neutral; it confers its benefits equally. If you are not fully involved in an exercise program, it's never too late to start.

In a way, it's the hardest advice to take. For those of us who have a more intellectual bent, the notion that we can solve a host of problems by grunting and groaning on a treadmill feels like an affront to our cognitive abilities.

It should not be a surprise that exercise does good things for your health. Surely, it beats spending all of those hours at the doctor's office. But it also improves your mental functioning, your mood, and your attitude. 

For those of us who believe in the mind and body are inexorably spit, it does not make a lot of sense to see exercise as a treatment for what appear to be mental problems, like depression and anxiety. But, as long as exercise works as a treatment, we would do well to reconsider our theories about the disconnect between mind and body.  

Serious thinkers tend to believe that inspirational epiphanies point the way to salvation. For all I know, they may be right. But, as I mentioned two days ago people who practice religion are more likely to practice exercise, so there is, apparently, no contradiction between developing your spiritual core and working on your physical core.

If you want to own your spirituality, you need to practice it religiously, If you want to own your good health and your good mood, you need to practice good habits, like exercise.

Surely, there is more to life than exercise. But, if you refuse to exercise, and if your emotional stress is elevated to the point where you are constantly overwrought, your conduct will be dictated by your emotions and your impulses. And you are not going to be become a better person by being led around by your gut.

Friday, December 24, 2010

God to the Rescue

We spend too much on medical care. Much of what we spend could be avoided if only people adopted healthier lifestyles.

When Safeway corporation decided to bribe its employees into improving their health, it made their health insurance premiums contingent on their fitness. Unsurprisingly, health care improved and health care expenses declined.

Most people know that the current health care crisis is a lifestyle crisis. One in which those who are healthy are being forced to pay for those whose bad habits have compromised their health.

People who are indolent and lazy, who indulge their appetites, who are constantly pursuing the latest trendy pleasure, and taking on imprudent risks… these people are far more likely to suffer illness. We are all in favor of fun and even pleasure, but a decadent, hedonistic lifestyle is bad for your health.

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Keep in mind that if we weren’t spending so much on avoidable health problems we would probably have plenty of money to treat those people whose illnesses are unavoidable.

But how are we as a nation going to persuade people to take better care of themselves? According to the New York Times-- yes, that New York Times-- the solution may lie in encouraging them to practice religion. Link here.

Yes, you heard that right. People who define themselves as very religious are more likely to refrain from smoking, to eat a healthy, balanced diet, and to do more exercise.

Perhaps the media and the intellectual elites of this country should spend less time bashing religion and more time encouraging people to practice their faith.

If you believe what you see in the media you will think that that religions are an oppressive, even a criminal force, that foster and condone: intolerance, child molestation, and ignorance. Considering the extent to which religion is routinely slandered, it should not be surprising that people who want to be on the side of the intellectuals are happy to declare their independence from such vulgar superstition and degenerate behavior.

It's strange, indeed, that people renounce religion because they want to be holier than thou.

According to the times, if you buy the anti-religious line, you are more likely to develop unhealthy habits and to get sicker sooner? And that is true even if you consider yourself spiritual but reject organized religion.

We give full credit to the New York Times here. While the paper is not reputed to be a bastion of godliness, it has done us all a service by reporting this information and for acknowledging the value of religion.

Regardless of whether or not you think that God is great, God is good for you.

As the Times reports, it is not enough just to believe in God. Good health is not conferred equally on all believers. Those who practice their religion receive more benefits than those who limit themselves to believing.

To gain the most health benefits you need to pray regularly, attend religious services regularly, and participate in religion-based community activities.

As we all know, atheism is very trendy. Calling yourself an atheist signals your intellectual sophistication. In some circles it is almost a password that will gain you membership in the intellectual elites.

It is very easy to criticize religion. Every imaginable horror has been committed in its name. Besides, you can make a good living trashing religion... especially if you are clever, witty, and strident about it.

In the interest of fairness and balance, we should note that nearly all of the greatest thinkers in Western civilization believed in God. Most of them were religious. Many of them also believed that their faith was perfectly consistent with reason.

In effect, one might even say that you have to be rather willfully blind to ignore the existence of metaphysical realities. Or to believe that scientifically provable truths comprise all that we can know.

For instance, most people believe that ideas exist. And yet, as Alexander Meikeljohn famously said, no one has ever seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted an idea. Thus, ideas are metaphysical entities.

Once you know that, ask yourself whether these ideas continue to exist if no human mind is thinking them? Did they exist before there were human minds?

If so, it makes rational sense to say that other-than-human minds exist. The pious call them angels or genies, but it makes sense to say that they exist. From there it does not seem like too much of a stretch to see these minds as aspects of a single greater mind.

If most of the greatest thinkers in Western civilization believed in God, why should He be thrown in the dustbin because a couple of itinerant intellectuals have found clever ways to mock Him.

It is easy to ridicule religious texts, and it is easy to get lathered up about the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of God. But it also easy to find many sound precepts and principles in religious texts, and to enumerate the good deeds that have been performed in the name of religion. 

Besides, if you want to run through  the horrors committed in the name of religion, let’s be fair and make up an alternative list of the horrors committed in the name of atheism.

In the past century we have seen several governing systems that were built on an explicit rejection of God.

Most of them proclaimed themselves to be Communist countries. Most indulged in shameless idolatry of figures like Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. By now we all know they their singular achievement lay in destroying more people in a shorter period of time than any other governing system in the history of the human race. See: The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.

When it comes to mass murder, religion cannot compete with atheistic Communism.

Your heart and your intentions might be pure as the driven snow, but if you are defending ideas, you should be able to defend what happened when real people put these ideas into political practice.

At the very least you should be able to explain why, according to the Gallup organization and the New York Times, atheism is bad for your health.

Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable speculation about why people who are more religious have healthier habits.

Is it that healthier people are naturally drawn to religion, or that the unhealthy would prefer to indulge their bad habits without feeling that they are being subject to any kind of judgment?

Perhaps people who have healthier habits look for a community where their values are shared. If that is true, then religious practice helps to sustain good habits.

Human beings always function better when they belong to a community, to a group. They need to have a place to go where people know them by name, and where they can participate in the rituals and ceremonies that bind them to their neighbors.

Human beings were not meant to go it alone. Too many of us worship at the altar of independence and autonomy-- closet idolaters that we are-- but these ideals are meaningless. As Aristotle once put it, there is no such thing as a human being living completely alone, isolated from human community.

How then to religious communities encourage people to be in good health? Does moral and communal sustenance make it less necessary to fill up your spiritual gap with Big Macs?

When you belong to a community you care more about how you look to other members of that community. And that involves looking your best.

While the therapy culture has told us that we should not care how we look to others, or how well we fit into society, people who care about how they look to others are surely more likely to want to look good and to look healthy. Very few religions promote decadence.

Of course, there’s more. People who are very religious are also more likely to pray. By now psychologists have discovered that prayer works. It de-stresses, it calms; it relieves daily anxiety.

Prayer is the original form of meditation. If meditation helps people who are suffering from anxiety disorders, why not recognize that most forms of mediation were created as part of religious practice.

But, that’s not all. People who practice healthy habits are, as I see it, more likely to respect God’s laws, as manifest in natural law, than are people who believe that natural laws are social constructs.

If you believe that there is no God, and that there are no universal truths, then you are more likely to believe that you can, by an exertion of will, exempt yourself from said laws.

If you respect the natural law that says that the human body cannot thrive on a diet of alcohol and nicotine, then you are more likely to design your lifestyle to honor that law.

If you feel that there are no universal laws, and that they are merely designed to entice the credulous and the childlike, then you might decide to eat and drink exactly what you want and even to forgo exercise.

After all, if the laws are merely relevant to believers, then they do not apply to you if you are an atheist.

Now, some will be ready to protest that I am ignoring science. You do not have to believe in God to know what constitutes healthy living. Science is at the ready, through the agency of medical professionals, to tell you how best to conduct a healthy life. And don't atheists rely on the authority of science to demolish religion.

If this is true, why do these same atheists not lead healthy lives.

In the end science does not really care whether you remain healthy or make yourself sick. Scientific principles can explain either one with equal facility.

It would appear that atheists refuse to obey a higher authority, whether that be the God of nature’s laws or the scientific evidence that confirms its existence,

It almost proves a point made by David Hume more than two and a half centuries ago. Hume declared that science can tell us what is, but it does not tell us what we should do.

In order words, science does not provide us with ethical bearings. People who rely totally on science may not have the moral capacity to go out and do what they should do.

There is a gap between knowing and doing, between conscious awareness and a plan of action. The health of our atheist friends has fallen into that gap.

As they say in 12 step programs, the first step to treating an addiction is the recognition that you cannot conquer it yourself. You can only overcome it through the intervention of a higher power.

2 step programs are based on religious principles. They were concocted by two alcoholics who sought help and guidance from religion.

If we compare their success rate, for those who participate actively in the program, with that of more scientifically-based forms of therapy, we will see that 12 step programs, existing outside of the world of science, have the better record.

All of which is my way of wishing you all a Merry Christmas, and a belated Happy Hanukkah.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Feminist Alone at the Top

As the COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg has a great deal of street cred. Before Facebook she worked at Google, so she could certainly offer some valuable advice about fast-growing high tech companies.

Instead, when she delivered a recent talk at TED she decided to advise young women on how they should live their lives. Link here.

While she has every right to speak for herself, she does not show very good judgment when she seems to criticize other women for not being just like her.

After all, she is simply regurgitating a bunch of feminist boilerplate, as though she is holding up her life story as definitive validation of her own ideological commitment.

Sandberg’s plaint is simple and not very new. She finds that there are not enough women in upper management. Imagine the indignity she experienced when she was pitching some business at a private equity firm and discovered that the male senior managers did not know where the Ladies’ room was.

Having combined marriage and children with a very exalted executive position, Sandberg is finding that it’s lonely at the top.

She has even discovered that, no matter their career achievements, women still do most of the childcare and the housework. And when an occasional man takes his child to the playground, the assembled mothers are not exactly thrilled to see him.

I daresay that we did not need Sheryl Sandberg to point this out. Yet, the feminists at DoubleX loved her talk. Hannah Rosin, Dahlia Lithwick, and Emily Bazelon all found it inspiring, uplifting, even thrilling.

As I said, this is all getting to be rather old. For more than four decades feminist bean counters have been peddling the same message. If there are not an equal number of male and female CEOs, then that proves that the business world is sexist, that is, based on a sin and a crime. The only plausible reason for this disproportion is sexism.

For Sandberg, as for many other feminists, the disproportion between male and female executives, to say nothing of the gross disproportion between male and female mothers, does not just mean that sexism exists, but it implies that all women have a sacred duty to sacrifice their lives to the cause of feminism. Meaning, as I discussed in my most recent Right Network column, that they should feel obliged to live the feminist way of life.

Never once does Sandberg consider that women might make different choices because their priorities are not the same as hers. Never does Sandberg consider the possibility that many women may simply not want to do what is required to rise up the corporate hierarchy.

Perhaps they want to have more balanced lives. Perhaps they want to have a more active role in bringing up their own children. Perhaps they do not want to work as hard as you have to work to reach the corner office?

Why should Sheryl Sandberg, in a talk to young women, ignore these possibilities?

Sandberg finds it difficult but not impossible to leave her children in order to travel on business. Other women might not feel the same way.

If we are going to respect Sandberg, ought we not also to respect women who make different choices?

What is all this choice business about anyway if the only correct choice is the one prescribed by feminism.

Are women supposed to live as Sandberg lives because she feels lonely at the top? Or because she feels that perhaps there is something strange about her choices, and that other women have a responsibility to make her feel better?

Obviously, there is nothing new in what Sandberg is saying. But she is revealing a very inconvenient truth. If, after four decades of non-stop feminist indoctrination, things are as bad as Sandberg’s caricature would suggest, then feminism has clearly failed. Feminists have not managed to repeal human nature.

Sandberg ridicules young women who are thinking of having children at their peak fertility… because they don’t even have boyfriends. Hasn’t it crossed her mind that a woman’s thoughts about having children might have something to do with her biological makeup? Or does she follow those feminist thinkers who think that female biology is just another social construct?

Besides, why would these young women have boyfriends or committed relationships? Didn’t feminism advise them against marrying young? Didn’t feminism tell them that early marriage and childbearing would ruin their career prospects... and make them bad feminists?

What if the best way for a woman to have career success and a family is for her to marry young and to bear children when she is young?

The thought never seems to cross Sandberg’s mind but there is nothing to say that women must defer, and at times, sacrifice marriage and childbearing in the interest of career advancement.

Deferring marriage and motherhood does not seem to have produced the best results for many women, so why do  feminists continue to tout it. Especially, when the statistics Sandberg cites suggest that when women defer marriage and motherhood they often sacrifice both on the altar of career success.

Sandberg believes that when married couples are true partners-- share and share alike-- women will have more time for their careers because their husbands are taking over more of the household responsibilities.

As Emily Bazelon parses this idea, this means that men must be feminists too. How has that been working for you, ladies?

Of course, as Sandberg reports, this is not the way things work in reality. In most cases it is a pipe dream.

And yet, it creates a certain level of expectation which can infect a marriage and cause contention. A man who feels that his wife wants him to be more of a mother to his children will often feel diminished and demeaned. Not because there is something demeaning in being a mother, but because there is something demeaning in being treating as something you are not.

And if he feels that her demands are interfering with his ability to focus on his job, and that this is causing him to miss out on promotions, she has not created a situation that is conducive to conjugal bliss.

If we want men and women to cooperate more, even in the sense of being partners, why not suggest that they marry young? After all, a couple that marries young will be building a life together. They will be developing their adult social habits, the kinds that make for effective partnership, as they grow up together. .

When couples marry in their mid-thirties, after they have established their careers, they will be trying to merge separate, autonomous, independent existences. And this is largely more difficult, in terms of coordination and logistics, than building a life together.

Which 35 year old woman will make the better executive? The one who is stressed out over whether her boyfriend will ever ask her to marry him, and who is even more stressed out about her biological clock. Or, the one whose children are at school and who has built a basis of trust and cooperation with a man who has been her husband for ten years?

Alter the scenario a little, and ask yourself which woman will be able to shoulder increased workplace responsibility: the 40 year old who has an infant and a baby at home, or the 40 year old whose children are entering high school?

Like most feminists, Sandberg has ignored these realities. She wants women to accept all promotions and to forge ahead on their career paths. By her reasoning this will diminish the lure of staying home and taking care of children.

The reasoning reminds me of the time Odysseus when he asked his men to tie him to the mast of his ship because, otherwise, he would never be able to resist the enchanting melodies of the Sirens.

Frankly, I think that the women who attended Sheryl Sandberg’s lecture at TED would have profited more by hearing her ideas about high tech business.

How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

For most people New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken. We all sit down at this time of the year and write out a list of bad habits we want to break. They might include: smoking, laziness, disorganization, or profligate spending.

Then, most of us resolve that we are going to marshal our mental resources, buck up our willpower, and go to war against our errant impulses. In our rich fantasy lives, we overcome our bad habits.

In reality, however, as the New Year dawns, we are well on our way toward failure. We break our resolutions more often than we break our bad habits.

This happens even if our therapy has given us serious insights into why we have the habits.

However much therapy has promised that getting to the root cause of our bad habits will make it easier to conquer them,  experience says otherwise.

Since talk therapy is about combining insight and ego mastery, and given that most everyone knows that it does not work, why does anyone still have faith in the ministrations of talk therapists?

But then, what does work?

I have found that we do best by starting with Aristotle‘s dictum: the only way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. I have mentioned the point many times on this blog. One post that directly addresses today’s topic is linked here.

I am returning to Aristotle because his basic idea has made it into Sue Schellenbarger’s column in the Wall Street Journal. Her title: “How to Keep a Resolution: Forget Willpower, Reaching a Goal Means Retraining Your Brain to Form New Habits.” Link here.

I am happy to see that today’s scholars of human behavior are sufficiently humble to allow themselves to return to yesterday’s wisdom. I feel that they should have given Aristotle some credit, but you can’t have everything.

If professionals have learned how to break bad habits, the news is taking its time reaching the larger public. Most people, Schellenbarger reports, continue to believe that weak willpower is the reason they fail to keep their resolutions.

Of course, this faith in willpower dates to Freud, though the great Viennese neurologist did observe, correctly, that when you pit the ego against the id, or willpower against impulse, ego and willpower are going to lose out.

Contemporary behavioral research has not followed Freud down a dead end street. They have simply worked out a more constructive approach.

Schellenbarger offers some useful, concrete suggestions.

Let’s be clear. While it is fruitless to try to control and to suppress your bad habits using willpower, self-discipline still has a place in the process.

When you decide to reorganize your work, you need self-control to follow the steps that you have laid out… most often, as Schellenbarger says, with a coach.

But where therapy wants people to use their willpower to try to control their worst tendencies, they do better to mobilize their discipline in favor of enhancing their best qualities.

This sounds like it would be easy. In most cases it is difficult, because the pull of habit, of the familiar, is very strong indeed. Yet, when the culture sends you on a fool's errand, offering the wrong advice, it is going to make the task nearly impossible.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'New York Times Under Fire for Controversial 'Vows'"

For those of you who would prefer a multimedia presentation of the great media kerfuffle over the Times "Vows" piece about Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla, I am happy to provide this link to the report: Link here.

If you should also be among those who prefer to see your news reported by a beautiful blond, well then, I would strongly recommend the story. You will not be disappointed. 

Collateral Damage

[These remarks follow yesterday’s about the New York Times story of the marriage of Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla.]

As you may recall, many bloggers found the Times derelict for not interviewing the jilted ex-spouses of the happy couple.

Now, Jeff Bercovici of Forbes has inteviewed Carol Anne Riddell’s jilted ex-husband, Robert Ennis. Link here.

Whatever we all think about the different issues that have come into play by this indiscreet disclosure, Ennis has a right to be heard on the matter. After all, his reputation and his children are directly affected.

As many have suspected, Ennis explains that he was not: “contacted or interviewed or given any opportunity to opine on any of it, including having my seven-year-old daughter’s picture in the paper.”

To his mind, Riddell and Partilla chose to “celebrate” their nuptials and glorify their love story in the Times because they wanted to “whitewash”  their bad behavior.

Ennis does not reproach the paper for not fact-checking a style story, but he believes that what they published was: “a choreographed, self-serving piece of revisionist history for two people who are both members of the media industry.”

Nearly all of the love stories that are given prominence in the Weddings section have a requisite quota of charm. And some of them are slightly irregular. Which is perfectly fair. Life is sometimes messy.

While I am not an aficionado of this section, I would venture that these stories never involve multiple public humiliations.

Until the story ran, Riddell and Partilla were suffering their own kind of humiliation. As the Times reported, their actions had provoked family and community condemnation.

So, they seem to have decided to go public in order to salvage their reputations, as though they are saying: how can all of you people think ill of us; all we did was fall madly in love.

If memory serves, that was exactly Woody Allen's reasoning when he tried to explain how he managed to have a cache of pornographic polaroids of his son’s adoptive half-sister.

Of course, Robert Ennis is most appalled by the way his daughter was used, in the Times photo, to legitimize bad behavior: “You could easily try to brush this off as a ... a self-serving act by a couple of narcissistic people who for whatever reason have a need to try to persuade people, except for the fact that there are lots of children involved.”

Then he adds: “These folks are well within their rights to tell whatever version of reality they want to tell, and if The New York Times is gullible enough to print it, that mostly reflects poorly on the Times…. The picture of my daughter is another matter. I sure as hell would have objected if they had told me they were going to print it.”

Ennis lets us know that this great modern love story has produced considerable collateral damage. Despite what the poets say, love does not conquer all. Character counts, and ultimately it is the deciding factor in relationships.

Riddell and Partilla seem to have acted foolishly. Having become aware of the collateral damage, they seem to have decided to throw a Hail Mary pass by telling their story to the Times.

But, should we follow Ennis in blaming the Times? I have received several emails arguing that it is really not fair to blame the newspaper. They are just trying to provoke a public reaction and to draw attention to their website. The Times is in the business of attracting readers to its newspaper, and, as they say, all is fair….

I consider it a reasonable point and I am cognizant of the fact that a newspaper is a business that must generate profits to survive.

When it comes to profitability, the New York Times, as everyone knows, has not exactly been a roaring success.

If the editors at the Times had decided to play the Riddell/Partilla love story for profits because it would freak out the blogosphere, that is their right.

And yet, it is well enough known by now that the Times has long since sacrificed objectivity to pursue its own political agenda.

The Times printed dozens of reports about Abu Ghraib because it would embarrass the Bush administration.

When John McCain was running for president, it published a hit piece about his supposed mistress.

How many Jewish New Yorkers have stopped reading the Times because they feel that its coverage is slanted against Israel?

Robert Ennis joins no less than Noam Chomsky in expressing distrust over the Times' objectivity.

Fewer and fewer people read the Times because they do not trust it to report the news objectively. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they are the Times readership and no business succeeds for very long by disrespecting its customers.

I would also add that the Times has been hurt by the growth of the internet, which has made the news widely available for free. And it has also been hurt by the financial crisis.

Obviously, the owners of the Times have every right to risk their reputation by taking down the wall between news reporting and analysis.

It isn’t for me to decide whether that is a good or a bad business plan.

If the strategy attracts more readers and more profits, it is a good thing for them.

But, since the Times is a business, the final verdict will be delivered by the marketplace. As of the past several years, the Times has been closer to bankrupt than it has been to thriving.

So, let’s say that the Times published the Riddell/Partilla love story because it wanted to gin up internet traffic, to get quoted on Gawker and Jezebel and DoubleX. It was trying to make the paper into the news.

At a time when information is readily available at the touch of a mouse click, it makes perfectly good sense for news outlets to make themselves into the news. Then, they become the place were people have to go to follow the story.

Again, it is within the Times'  right to do so.

Was it a sound business decision? That will depend on how much the paper has alienated people who have a certain expectation about what they are going to read on the Weddings page.

Personally, I felt that the story was vulgar and tasteless, but I do not subscribe to the paper and do not read the Weddings and Vows section anyway.

I was certainly interested to see how many Times readers saw the story as I did. To my knowledge, no other wedding announcement in the Times has ever had a comments section. And I doubt that the editors of the Times were thrilled to see how much hostility they had provoked.

Many faithful and loyal Times readers felt that the paper had defiled something that they considered to be sacred and solemn. You are not going to get rich by offending your readers and your customers.

All of this being true, is it fair to say that the Times was also trying to promote a cultural agenda. If so, what is that agenda?

Surely, the paper has an editorial position on the definition of marriage. I would say that it agrees with the trendy definition, whereby marriage is an expression of the deep personal affection that two people have for each other.

And that it believes that there is something of a moral imperative-- I would call it an amoral imperative-- to express your feelings by living your love.

Would any culturally correct thinker dare suggest that this couple repress their feelings and their urges? Yesterday, I quoted Emily Yoffe's advice to Carol Anne and John in yesterday's post, but I daresay that her more subtle explanation of the alternative courses of action would not have appealed to people whose culture prescribes the full and open expression, to say nothing of, sharing of emotion.

But if marriage is just about two people expressing their feelings and living their love, then any two people who fall in love ought to have every right to get married. Human institutions are nothing compared with the amoral imperative to live your love. If the Times would not see gender as relevant to who does or does not marry, why should it see their marital status as an impediment?

After all, Riddell and Partilla were just following their bliss. I suspect that they were shocked when they discovered that their friends and family did not worship them for doing so. They seem to have decided to appeal to the ultimate New York arbiter of cultural values: the New York Times.

Surely, they felt that with the imprimatur and support of the Times they would shame their friends and family into embracing them as a happy loving couple.

Apparently, they miscalculated.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

True Love in the New York Times

In olden days it would have been the talk of the town. Nowadays it is the buzz of the blogosphere.

Last Sunday in its Weddings section, the New York Times struck a blow for its own cultural values. In place of the usual charming stories that form the backdrop of the listed weddings, the Times told about the love that brought John Partilla and Carol Anne Riddell together. Link here.

When John and Carol met, when they were instantly smitten. Unfortunately, they were also both married to other people. By the way, John had three small children and Carol had two.

Gradually, their passion led them to overcome their moral responsibilities and to live their love.  They both divorced their respective spouses and got married.

Someone must have thought it was a charming love story. True love was winning out over decrepit social institutions, like marriage.

The only duty that has survived this bonfire the duty, such as it is, to sacrifice the lives of those we love, those for whom we bear responsibility, to one's passion. If their love, like that of Romeo and Juliet, does not threaten society’s values, then it cannot be true.

In their bliss the happy couple overcame all obstacles. The Times explains that: “…they faced distraught children and devastated spouses, while the grapevine buzzed and neighbors ostracized them.”

It's almost as though they were dancing through the rubble of the lives they ruined, all the while ignoring the fact that they had become social pariahs.

Surely, they struck a blow for a new morality.

Everyone finds it bizarre that the Times chose to highlight this love story in its Weddings section. Those who found it most offensive were Times readers themselves. If you read through their extensive comments, you will find that they are markedly unsympathetic to the Times' near-desecration of a sacred and solemn institution.

While many commenters would have happily cast a blind eye on John and Carol Anne’s true love, they were most shocked by the couple's willingness to bare their shame in the New York Times.

How, many asked, could they have publicly humiliated their former spouses, their parents, and their children?

Seeming to speak for all of those who were offended Joe Coscarelli addressed the couple directly in the Village Voice:  “Why would you sign up for this? Why would you apply to air your family business? WHY ARE YOU SO DAMN PROUD OF YOURSELVES? “ Link here.

He adds, that if Carol Anne feels so "terribly about the pain [she] caused [her] ex-husband," why does she want "to make him relive it all? In ink! With photos!!”

Even in the Times photo, we were not seeing the picture of one big happy blended family. One astute commenter pointed out that as the smiling couple was cutting their wedding cake no one around them is smiling.

Apparently, their happiness is not contagious. Commenters who see the couple as more selfish than loving seem to be standing on solid ground.

If your love makes everyone around you miserable, you are going to have an especially difficult time making it succeed.

Despite it all, and despite the public condemnation of their actions, the happy couple is still proud of what they did. Link here.

John Partilla also added that he and Carol Anne were both surprised to see how many people, including New York Times readers, were outraged to see them airing their dirty linen in public.

Had they anticipated the response, they would not have become quite so public about their story.

But how did an advertising executive and a television journalist fail to anticipate the public reaction? Were they blinded by love or by their idea that going public would make it alright. After all, if they were proud of themselves, no one had any right to feel differently. No one, as the therapy culture teaches, has any right to be judgmental.

For its part, the Times has stuck to its own non-judgmental stance. Being in the business of transvaluing values, as Nietzsche would have put it, it is not going to admit to fault. A Times spokesperson explained: "The Vows feature gives a close-in account of a wedding every week . . . We don't attempt to pass judgment on the suitability of the match, the narrative of the romance, the quality of the ceremony or the flavor of the wedding cake." Link here.

By the Times’ new ethical principles, breaking up two families is about as consequential as the flavor of the wedding cake.

In the Riddell/Partilla marriage there is a great deal of non-judgmentalism. As it happens, neither of the two seems to have a very high level of moral judgment.

But you also see what happens when people overcome their normal feelings of shame and throw their most fundamental responsibilities to the wind. How well do you imagine that their reputations will survive this brouhaha?

Of course, we are not children. We know that people do fall in love, and that they sometimes do it at an inconvenient time.

If that happens, what are they to do? Emily Yoffe offers a succinct answer. If it happens to you, you have three choices: “One is to conclude one’s fantasy life is getting out of control, limit contact with the object of one’s desire, and count on the lust eventually passing. (That’s got my vote.) Two is to act on the lust, have an affair, but try to keep the whole thing a secret so as to not blow up two marriages. Three is to decide blowing up the marriages is worth it to be together, despite the enormous collateral damage to one’s spouse and children.” Link here.

"Have Feminists Gotten It All Wrong?"

My new Right Network column is up: Have Feminists Gotten It All Wrong?

In it I offer some thoughts on a DoubleX article by Jessica Olien. Comparing women's lives in America and Holland Olien asked, as a feminist: "Have we gotten it all wrong?"

A good and provocative question, well worth some reflection.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Beautiful Women Are Dangerous

Is it true? Does the presence of a beautiful woman cause men to throw caution to the winds and become risk-taking maniacs? Can feminine beauty magically transform Casper Milquetoast into Evel Knievel? Or, do beautiful women make men simple-minded and stupid?

We know many stories of men being enticed to disastrous ends by great beauties. In a recent post Adam Alter named: Lilith, Delilah, Cleopatra, and Salome. Link here.

Yet, even in fiction, these stories do not always end in calamity. The beautiful Beatrice led Dante to a better place.

And pious Aeneas did manage to exercise enough discipline and willpower to resist the feminine wiles of his beloved Dido, the Queen of Carthage. His love for Dido notwithstanding, Aeneas does fulfill his destiny and make his way to Rome.

Not all beautiful women are fatal. Some lead you to salvation. And some can be resisted.

When we read a story of a man suffering a fatal attraction are we reading a cautionary tale about what might happen to the man who allows himself to risk it all for beauty? Or, do the stories show some men failing a challenge where other men might well succeed?

The influence of feminine beauty is not a new story. Lately, it has elicited considerable research from behavioral economists.

The studies conclude that men are prone to succumb to feminine beauty and thus, when they find themselves in the presence of a beautiful woman, they become weak and myopic.

Note the moral coloring of Adam Alter’s explanation: “A spate of recent studies suggests that beautiful women can indeed provoke dangerous outcomes unintentionally, because they induce men to take risks, make mistakes, gamble more freely, and generally behave impulsively.”

When Alter uses words like danger, mistakes, gamble, and impulsive, we have moved out of the realm of science into a world of moral judgment. In that world men are so weak and foolish that they cannot resist temptation.

Is it too much to imagine that there are more than a few men who are inspired to do great things because of the presence of a beautiful woman?

To be fair, we must mention that the behavioral studies were focused on skateboarders and chess players.

Unless I miss my guess, skateboarding is the province of the young. Adolescents excel at skateboarding; adults avoid it. The older you get, the less likely you are to take unnecessary and gratuitous risks to life and limb.

If most skateboarders are hormonally challenged adolescents, then perhaps they chose the sport because they get a rush out of putting themselves in danger.

I am willing to admit that the presence of a beautiful girl will motivate adolescent males to risk with life and limb, but does this mean that all men will behave the same way?

Researchers have been aware of the specific characteristics of skateboarders, so they repeated the experiments with chess players. No one is going to break an elbow by playing chess. Thus, chess players would seem to be a good control group,

And yet, chess is a game of symbolic warfare. It may look peaceful and charming, but it is really about capturing your opponent’s King and putting him out of commission.

And chess is a game that you can learn and master when you are young.

If we were to look at video games, a modern adolescent’s version of chess, we would also see that while the players do not risk life and limb, they are still involved in symbolically violent actions.

I would happily admit that skateboarders and chess players are more susceptible to feminine beauty, but I do not think it fair to present this as a sign of weakness and myopia.

Even Alter recognizes the point. Skateboarders who see a beautiful woman do riskier tricks and succeed at them more often. But they also “don’t know when to quit,” and tend to push themselves to the limits of danger. Fair enough.

Does that prove that all men become fools for love, or does it tell us that adolescents tend toward excesses. Does it mean that men are simple-minded risk takers or that adolescents lack discipline and self-control?

If so, the latter were true, it would hardly be a surprise. It would not, however, be a reason to condemn the male of the species.

For all we know, the presence of a beautiful woman might motivate a man to work harder, to strive for excellence, and to will himself to greater and greater success.

Even in the midst of a testosterone rush, a man still retains his free will and his good character. These might make him foolhardy risk-taker, but they might also make him a more fierce competitor.

As the old saying goes: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Carnival of Negative Emotions

Life would be much better if intellectual debates were conducted with more rigor.

Thanks to Prof. Martha Nussbaum we now confuse disgust over certain (but not all) sexual practices with homophobia. Worse yet, we have been convinced that disgust and phobia are the same as hatred.

One might expect that a serious philosopher who studies the question of negative emotions would distinguish between them.

Disgust is fundamentally an alimentary emotion; it involves feelings akin to nausea and causes people to avoid or to expel any ingestible or ingested object that would damage their health.

It may be true that many people feel disgust at the image of genital-anal contact; some feel disgust at the image of genital-oral contact. Others overcome such feelings in order to pursue sexual gratification.

Such feelings do not make them phobic and do not make them haters. By and large the people who feel the most disgust at the pictorial representation of sexual acts are women. We do not want to say that women are bigoted against male homosexuals for as much.

And we do not want people to overcome disgust altogether. No one would suggest that people stop washing their hands after going to the bathroom, for example.

By definition, a phobia is an excessive fear of something you have every right to be afraid of. People are phobic about spiders, heights, crowds, enclosed spaces, snakes, and rats.

A person who is phobic about snakes or rats is not, therefore, a bigot. If you are afraid of snakes and rats, that does not mean you hate them or even that you want to destroy them. It means that you are going to make a very strong effort to avoid them. If you are phobic about heights, you do not hate tall buildings. You will simply make every effort to keep your feet on the ground.

Both disgust at contaminants and fear of dangers to one’s physical existence involve biological survival.

Disgust is therefore not a social emotion; it involves your biological organism.

When individuals or even groups of people are persecuted or scapegoated disgust is rarely the issue.

It is possible to conduct a human sacrifice and not hate the person you are sacrificing. What would the sacrifice be worth if you were not sacrificing someone or something of value.

To understand human sacrifice or a human holocaust we need to understand the workings of guilt.

Some people are scapegoated to placate an angry god. When a group feels that it is being punished for a crime, it will choose someone, or even a group of people, to accept the punishment, and to pay the price of the crime.

When people are punished for being unclean, this also means that they are guilty of having transgressed a law. I recognize that the rhetoric involves a promise of social catharsis, but I do not believe that the reaction concerns disgust, as much as it involves other negative emotions, like envy and resentment.

Along with shame, guilt is an emotion that involves socialization.

You feel guilt for transgressing a law and you feel shame for failing to uphold your responsibilities as a member of society.

Guilt and shame do not involve your survival. They ensure your social being. Being a member of a group requires you to obey the group’s laws and that to fulfill your responsibilities toward others.

If you fail on either of these accounts, you will experience shame or guilt, depending on the nature of the violation.

Among the negative emotions, anxiety belongs to the complex involving guilt. It should be distinguished from fear

You feel fear when in the presence of a real danger-- be it a bear in the woods or a mugger in the alley. You can choose to fight or flee or even freeze before a threatening object or situation.

Anxiety differs from fear because when you are anxious you are aware of having done something wrong, of having broken a rule, and you anticipate punishment. When you are afraid of being punished, you will feel guilt and will anxiously anticipate punishment.

Anxiety does have one thing in common with fear. It involves fear of physical punishment. Crimes are punished either by physical incarceration or the infliction of physical pain.

But guilt, as opposed to fear, has a moral dimension and a social dimension.

Shame involves an immediate recognition that you have failed to uphold your responsibilities as a member of the community. Whether that involves keeping your pants on, showing up at appointments, or fulfilling your responsibilities as a corporate officer, the feeling of shame alerts you to your failure. Shame shows that you have let down the group.

In a culture that emphasizes shame, punishment involves ostracism and shunning rather than physical punishment. A culture that cuts off the hands of thieves is not a shame culture.

These are hardly the only forms of negative emotions. If shame and guilt involve your social being, your membership in a group, another set of negative emotions defines your status within the group.

Within this category we find: envy, resentment, contempt.

Politicians who try to provoke class warfare often attempt to cultivate these negative emotions. They want you to be resentful or envious of those who are more successful than you.

While we tend to direct our envy and resentment toward those we perceive to be our betters, however, we reserve our contempt for those we consider our inferiors.

Class warriors do not limit themselves to envy and resentment. They try to turn these into contempt, by convincing the lower classes to look down on the upper classes. Where the lower classes, for example, earn their way, the upper classes cheat and steal. Where the lower classes contain a vital human energy, the upper classes are dead inside.

As I suggested the Holocaust of European Jews involved envy, resentment, and contempt more than disgust.

Another category of negative emotions involves self-regard. When you have an exaggerated sense of your own self-worth you are either arrogant or vain. When you undervalue your own abilities, you become demoralized or desperate or helpless. Evidently, much of what we call depression falls within the category of unreasonably diminished sense of self-worth.

We feel anger toward people who threaten our self-regard, whether they are threatening our face or our illusion of face. We express anger because we seek to defend our reputation and because we want to affect a reconciliation.

When anger fails and when the offense is egregious it can turn into hatred.

Hatred is not about defending our honor but about destroying the other person… for a crime real or imagined. It is more about rough justice than about asserting your dignity. It is more about righting a wrong you believe was committed against your person.

When you hate someone you want to destroy him, to punish him for a crime real or imagined, a crime that can only be expiated by his being punished.

This gives us three sets of negative emotions. Some negative emotions sanction the kinds of bad behavior that would threaten your membership in a social group.

Others tend to undermine cooperative enterprise by making you feel that when others are more successful than you they have stolen from you. Essentially, these pervert the desire to succeed.

Finally, another class of negative emotions involves misunderstanding your value, your ability, your station, and your status.