Monday, January 31, 2011

Your Relationship on Porn

[In case it isn’t clear, my  title is a play on the tag line in an old anti-drug ad. The ad showed an egg being fried in a frying pan, and described it as: Your brain on drugs. Here’s a link]

As it happens, I have written about this topic before. Link here.

Today New York Magazine offered up an article by Davy Rothbart about what happens to a couple‘s sex life when the male partner spends too much time looking at porn… and does what many men do when they watch porn. Link here.

Yesterday I wrote about the fragile mental health of college coeds. It seems fair to point out that while things are better on the other side of the barrier that divides the sexes, they are not that much better.

Young men in college today enjoy a decided advantage over young women in the dating marketplace because they are a relatively scarce commodity. Isn't ironic that these same young men has become the most porn-addicted generation in human history.

Clearly, pornography is an addictive substance. This does not mean that it should be banned-- that would be like closing the barn door after the cow has escaped-- but it does mean that it should only be indulged in limited quantities.

Because if you get addicted to porn, you will need, as Rothbart suggests, and as others have said before, to go cold turkey.

Your sex life, and your marriage, will depend on it.

People do need to be aware of how an excessive indulgence in porn damages sexual relationships.

When a young man becomes addicted to porn, it effects his ability to respond to sexual stimuli.
Responding to an image is not the same thing as responding to a woman. And it is certainly not the same thing as responding to a woman who is attracted to you.

Porn addiction resembles having a fetish. If specific circumstances and/or objects become  uniquely arousing, no real woman will be able to compete. Porn as fetish is always there, always available, always ready to get it on or get it off.

No woman can compete with that.

As New York Magazine suggests, and as I have argued, once a man’s sexual responses become modified by pornography, his woman will feel that she is competing against porn stars for his attentions. And if he has fetishized certain kinds of behaviors, she will feel compelled to re-enact them with him, lest he lose interest or fail to find sexual release.

It gets worse. Rothbart explains that when either member of a couple is acting a role that he or she has seen or heard about in porn, then neither is really having sex with the other person.

If two people are not making love with each other, but are each acting roles in porn scripts, both will be alienated from their own sexuality. It is not a formula for a good sex life.

A woman who is being forced to do what porn stars do, to follow a script that her man has found on Xtube, will feel that she no longer owns her sexuality.

It does tell us one very good reason why women do not like pornography, and why they are offended  by its widespread availability.

Today‘s women do not protest and do not call for porn to be banned. They are too cool for that. But they are not less offended for as much.

But men ought to recognize, that when it comes to their natural desire to enhance their sex lives, pornography is not their friend. It is their sworn enemy.

How Unique Do You Really Want to Be?

True enough, we are all unique. We all have a unique set of life experiences, most of which do not interest anyone beyond those who are near and dear to us. Sometimes, not even them.

And yet, we all have a great deal in common. Most of what we have in common is banal, to the point where our lives, as Neil Genzlinger writes in his wonderful takedown of the memoir craze, can be perfectly fulfilling without having the kind of drama that will excite a mass audience. Link here.

To his great credit Genzlinger captures the essential point. The memoir craze has worked to define what counts as a good life. Yet, he adds, memoirs have gotten it backwards. He concludes, correctly, that if your life is not worthy of a memoir: “congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”

But why would anyone imagine that a good, honorable life, filled with quiet dignity is somehow shameful?

Certainly, our celebrity culture contributes to this. It tells us that we can be famous by being shameless, without having done the work required to accomplish anything. Beyond it lies the therapy culture, with its incessant emphasis on psychodramas and hidden family secrets.

Nowadays, even if you cannot recall any family scandals that serves as proof, not of how utterly normal your childhood was, but of how thoroughly you have repressed your dark, dirty past.

Anyone who has become persuaded that psychodrama is normal and that he must do something to make himself unique and newsworthy is following the precepts of the therapy culture.

One subject I have scrupulously avoided on this blog is: Me. In part from modesty, but more importantly I want this blog to be thought-provoking, not sensational. I have chosen to spare you the post-mortem of my last bridge game, my walks around town, my friends and family, my visit to galleries and museums.

I like to think that people have better things to do with their minds than to rummage through someone’s dirty (or clean) linen.

I realize that this makes me something of a relic. So be it. Today’s young people have an unusual number of opportunities to reveal more about their private lives than they should. In the debates that are raging about these questions, I have taken the side of discretion, and, naturally, I do need to practice what I preach.

So, I follow Shakespeare‘s dictum: “The better part of valor is discretion.” To me, those are words to live by. Not only because of the emphasis on discretion, but because it says that there is courage in discretion.

Nevertheless, I did once write a book in which I appeared as a character. Admittedly, I was anything but a central character in my book: Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero, but I did write it from the perspective of my own experience.

You may know, I did not use the book to reveal what I had discussed or learned from my own psychoanalysis.

If memoirs involve relentless self-exposure, my book does not qualify.  I used my personal experience to capture a moment in intellectual history. The central character was Jacques Lacan, so much so that most people would probably consider the book more biography than autobiography.

Happily enough, given the flood of empty memoirs, (the kind that Genzlinger encourages people to stop writing,) mine does qualify as one of those that he would count as worthy of the trees that were killed to print it.

According to Genzlinger, the art of the memoir has descended into the realm of the insignificant and the trivial. Memoirs are now being written, he says, by: “… a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.

“That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.
No one wants to relive your misery.”

In fact, no one really wants to relive anyone’s misery, especially when its exposure costs the person his or her dignity.

Writing about someone’s memoir of his mother’s death from cancer, Genzlinger is appalled by the fact that the author: “… pummels us with the details of every intubation, change in medication and debate with doctors. Why does he do this? It’s certainly not to memorialize his mother; not only does he tell us little about her, but he also strips her of any and all dignity by describing in voyeuristic detail her vomiting, diaper changes and such. Why does he do this? It’s certainly not to memorialize his mother; not only does he tell us little about her, but he also strips her of any and all dignity by describing in voyeuristic detail her vomiting, diaper changes and such.”

No one's mother’s dignity is worth the royalties. Nor is your own dignity, because what kind of son would willingly offer a vision of his mother that strips her of her basic human dignity.

No one believes that we ought to return to ancestor worship, but this form of disrespect gives us yet another reason to wonder whether it was really such a good idea to abandon of filial piety.

Monday Morning Briefing: The Situation in Egypt

There’s a good deal of interesting and informative reading on the situation in Egypt this morning.

George Friedman of Stratfor has a comprehensive and thoughtful analysis here.

News reports come to us from: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Economist.

While many analysts are focusing on the story of the revolt against an oppressive state, the London Telegraph explains the role that higher food prices have played. The combination of 30% unemployment with food price inflation has certainly played a role Link here.

The Times also has a story about how Arab executives at Davos appraise the situation. Link here. It's always a good idea to take account of the views of the people who live in the neighborhood, and whose lives and livelihoods are directly or indirectly on the line.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why the Kids Aren't Alright

Now that we know that the kids are not alright, we want to know why.

How did it happen that college freshmen rate their mental health so poorly? Why, in particular, are college girls so likely to be depressed and demoralized?

What happened to all of those lessons in heightened self-esteem?

Kristina Dell attempted to explain it in the Daily Beast. Link here.

Dell she went out and interviewed experts to discover why so many college girls where having so much trouble holding it together.

Some of the explanations are almost comical: boys play stress reducing video games while girls are out socializing and volunteering.

In which planet do video games make you less depressed than socializing? Why didn’t they say that boys are less stressed because they watch more porn?

Dell also discovered that psychologists and counselors agree that girls are more easily wounded than boys, that they are more sensitive to slights, and that they take everything more personally and seriously.

I am not going to object to this as a description of young women who are suffering depression or who are feeling demoralized. It describes how it feels to be thin-skinned and in despair.

But, it does not explain anything; it simply describes an experience.

If we want to understand why, we need to look elsewhere.

Writing in the New York Times, John Tierney offered more of an explanation. In his words: “But, my sense is that most of the students at this school spend enormous amounts of time watching television, checking out Facebook, and otherwise engaging in totally unproductive activity. They certainly don't read anything!  In fact, I would say that the number one problem in contemporary American education is that students do not read enough.  Their reading comprehension is horrible.  Their vocabularies are impoverished.  They cannot talk about anything outside their own closed little worlds.”

That’s a better idea: young people are depressed because they are addicted to unproductive activities. They do not read books and do not know how to converse with their friends.

Be truthful, that would make you depressed too, wouldn’t it?

Of course, wasted time and energy are really a sign of poor character. These young people are suffering because they have no self-discipline.

This suggests that their parents have not taught them good ethical principles in them.

Tierney offers an interesting coda in his column, one that will, I am sure, brighten up your day: “But I have the uncomfortable feeling that this larger problem -- the waste of time on television and Facebook and video games, and, worst of all, the absence of any reading life -- is endemic among young people today.   If so, we're in big trouble.  They don't know anything and, worse yet, they seem uninterested in anything.

“What to do about this? The Tiger Moms of the world may, or may not, have the right approach.  But the rest of us haven't exactly figured it out, either.”

For other explanations of this psychological phenomenon, let’s look at the simple fact that most colleges and universities are majority female these days.

The experts applaud this, but throw up their arms in wonderment at the fact that this brave new gyno-centric world has not produced happier and healthier young women.

They ignore the fact, noted by many, that this disparity actually works to the detriment of girls… especially in the dating marketplace.

Yes, I know, college students do not date any more; they just get drunk and hook up.

But still, in a world where women outnumber men, the marketplace will grant men power over women.

If men are scarce and women are overabundant, each woman will have to compromise more often than she might like if she wants to receive male attention or to sustain male romantic interest.

The more women there are the more difficult it is for any individual woman to maintain her power in a dating or relationship.

Thus, the best laid feminist plans seem to have disempowered young women in the dating market. Who knew?

The moral of this story tells us that it is a bad idea to manipulate markets in order to produce specific outcomes.

The other part of the problem is something that some women recommend as part of the solution.

A group of women who call themselves sex-positive feminists recommend hooking up as a solution to emotional despair. After all, if you feel that you have low self-respect, why not act as though you do not respect yourself? That makes a lot of therapeutic sense.

I have opined on this topic before (link here); I believe that sex-positive feminists ought really to be called women-negative feminists.

Their advice, as every woman I know has told me, is detrimental to the emotional well-being of women. For that reason, I have been at pains to recommend that young women ignore it.

Beware of zealots who claim to be your friends. They are far too attached to their own ideas to be friends with any real human being.

The surveys tell us that young women need confidence boosters; they need to regain their pride and self-respect. The sex-positive feminists have told them how not to do it.

Recently I was reading an interesting article by Amelia McDonald-Parry, editor of a website called The Frisky. Link here. Via HookingUpSmart.

McDonald-Parry is apparently a graduate of the Jaclyn Friedman School of Heartbreak Repair. After her fiance broke off their engagement and their relationship, she decided to restore her wounded pride by drinking a lot and sleeping around.

When Jaclyn Friedman did the same thing--- thought perhaps with less alcohol-- she declared that she was getting in touch with her inner sluthood, which she had apparently been oppressing because the  patriarchy that is terrified of promiscuous women.

Anyway, Amelia McDonald-Perry seems to have missed my posts on Friedman, or else she decided that I was wrong. She decided to find out for herself.

She describes her experience, thusly: “ In the last six months, I have dated up a storm. I’ve slept around and, for the most part, had a good time. Magically, drinking on dates has given me the confidence I lack in my daily life. It gives me liquid courage, but more importantly, it gives me liquid confidence. It relaxes me, it makes my fears of rejection and abandonment melt away, it makes me feel like the kind of woman that would never happen to again.”

She is saying that drinking gave her back her confidence; it gave her “liquid courage.” In fact, she is self-medicating her depression. It gives her a boost in false pride, nothing more....

And McDonald-Parry also seems to have tried to add feelings of being in control by engaging in random, anonymous hookups.

She actually claims that such sex is a great ego boost:  “Sex takes that up about 10 notches. In bed with someone, I feel like a f**king goddess. I feel hot, smart, funny, sexy, beautiful, all of it. I feel in control. Control is what I have been grasping for ever since I was blindsided by my fiance calling things off. And I don’t feel like I’m lacking anything. In bed with someone, I feel whole.”

I can't speak for women here, but I do know something about men. I can share with all of you the fact that for a man you just men to go home with you and to have sex with you... you do not really have to be a goddess.

Anyway, McDonald-Parry describes this as a thoroughly therapeutic experience. In much the same way that most controlled substances make you feel good. You would not be tempted to become addicted to them if that were not the case.

The problem is the aftershocks. Somehow or other McDonald-Parry always seemed to want more than just another hookup. And when she did not get what she wanted, she reacted badly: “After bawling my eyes out last night after the pattern repeated itself once again, I’ve finally come to a conclusion. I have to take ownership of my feelings and behavior. It’s not enough to acknowledge that I’m an extreme emotions junkie. I need to figure out and manage why those extreme emotions come up. I need to feel confident completely in who I am without a drink in my hand or a man in my bed. I need to really see and believe, 24/7, that I am a whole person who is lacking nothing, rather than depending on a man or a buzz to give me that validation.”

Does this tell us why the kids are not alright? Does it tell us at least why the girls are not alright?

It does tell us that the path to cure involves going cold turkey on alcohol and hookups. That is McDonald--Parry's solution, and it is vastly superior to Jaclyn Friedman's.

Were she to ask my advice-- she didn’t-- I would tell her that if her goal is marriage, then she would have done better not to regale us all with her adventures in the land of the hookups.

Morning Briefing: The Situation in Egypt

We are all trying to understand what is happening in Egypt, so here are a few interesting and worthwhile reports.

First, Stratfor distributed this briefing yesterday. Link here.

Second, major mainstream journalists are on the scene. Here are reports from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Finally, thanks to commenter Susan, here are some analytic and opinion-oriented pieces from Pajamas Media. They are by Abraham Miller, Barry Rubin, and Michael Leeden.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Do Apologies Fail?

Many years ago I wrote a book called: Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame. Ostensibly, and actually, I wanted to clarify the distinction between two of the most important negative emotions, two emotions that involve social sanctions for bad behavior: shame and guilt.

Since most people use the terms interchangeably, as though they were just two sides of the same coin, clear distinctions seemed needed and desirable.

Differentiating guilt and shame is not that difficult. Guilt involves breaking the law. If you commit a crime or transgression, you will feel guilt.

Guilt is an anxious anticipation of punishment. Once you receive the punishment, your guilt is over and done with.

Shame is about failure. When you let the team down, do not show up for an appointment, use the wrong fork, or lead your company into bankruptcy… you feel shame. Since there are different levels of social responsibility, there are different degrees of shame.

In none of those cases have you broken any laws or committed any crime or transgressed any taboos.

Since shame involves a loss of reputation, overcoming it is far more difficulty than overcoming guilt. You can only overcome shame through several clearly defined steps.

First, you should apologize, thereby announcing in public that you take sole responsibility for your own failure. An apology must be stated with sufficient sincerity to be credible and meaningful.

Saying you are sorry is not enough. If your face is not contorted in a severe grimace, your apology will feel insincere.

Second, when you apologize you are vowing never to do it again. If you apologize for failing to show up or for failing to keep your composure, and if you should then fail to show up or lose control, your actions will have voided your apology.

If the purpose of the apology is to erase the mark of disrepute you have brought on yourself, going back on your vow will make that mark more indelible.

Third, in most, but not all cases, an apology should be accompanied by your making some amends for your failure. If you have failed your corporate or political responsibilities, you will need to resign your position and to withdraw from society for a time.

Shame involves ostracism; it’s primary sanction is isolation from the group. An apology accompanied by self-withdrawal saves the group the trouble of ostracizing you. You should not, in other words, apologize and then go back to work as though nothing had happened.

In the long run, apology will put you on the path toward restoring your reputation. It says that the failing was yours and yours alone, but that it is not the meaning of your life. It says that even though you showed yourself to be untrustworthy, you want people to overlook your failing and to trust you again.

Thus, apology erases a failure in the sense that it declares that the action was not a meaningful expression of who you are.

Often shame and guilt are confused. Under some circumstances you can feel both at the same time.

When a financial officer embezzles company funds he is committing a crime. Unless he is a sociopath he will feel some guilt. Hopefully, he will be prosecuted and incarcerated.

At the same time he has failed to uphold his responsibility to his company, his colleagues, and his family. Thus, he should also feel ashamed and owes many people an apology.

On the other hand, a neighbor who had promised to water your plants during your vacation but forgot to do it will feel shame, but not guilt. He has not broken any laws; he will not be indicted and prosecuted. He owes you an apology and should make amends.

I am reviewing these points because a reputable publication, Scientific American, recently reported on some research into the power of apology and grossly misunderstood the issue. Link here.

Worse yet, it drew conclusions that can easily mislead people.

The research in question claims that apologies fail to live up to expectations. It suggests that, as a general rule, people feel much better about an imagined apology than they do about a real one.

One might read this and conclude that apology as a tool of relationship repair is overrated, and thus, that when you offer one, you are essentially engaging in an empty ritual. Such a conclusion would not tend to encourage sincere apologies.

Since I have often argued in favor of the ritual of apology, I naturally find this all to be unacceptable.

Apology is a social ritual. It does not fail. People may fail when their actions do not conform to what the ritual requires. When that happens apology does not do what it should be doing. But that does not mean that it has failed. It means that you have failed.

There are many problems with the research.

First, it suggests that people apologize for transgressions. In the experiment the researchers invented, those who receive an apology have been cheated out of some money.

As I suggested, apology, by definition, does not focus on transgression, thus sin and crime. It involves a failure to fulfill a social obligation.

When people apologize for cheating you, they do owe you an apology, not for transgressing or cheating, but for betraying your trust and confidence.

Second, the researchers assert that our “cultural wisdom” sees apology as “the first step in mending a broken relationship.”

Actually, apology is the first step to repairing a broken reputation. Hopefully, restoring your reputation will help to repair your relationships, but the two are not the same.

Third, the research suggests that the purpose of apology is to help us to “forget about the bad things that have happened.”

Even though apology is a first step in that direction, it is not about erasing bad events, but about helping people to forget your failures, to encourage them to see you differently.

Apology is only a first step in a long process. The fact that an immediate apology does not produce the expected results in the experiment's subjects does not cast aspersions on the social ritual as much as it does on the failures of these researchers to understand the terms of their experiment.

Fourth, in the research experiment those whose trust was betrayed received written apologies.

If apology expresses shame and if shame involves the loss of face, an effective apology should be offered face-to-face. At the very least, the person’s face should be visible.

Reading facial expressions is one of the most important ways he have of telling how sincere the apology is. Sending an apology by letter, by email, or by text deprives you of that information.

Fifth, in the experiment, the subjects receive apologies for having been cheated, but they do not actually receive any recompense.

If they found this reality less satisfying than an imagined apology, good for them. They were rejecting faked apologies but maintained their belief in the effectiveness of apology.

Their imagined apologies were closer to the correct ritual than were those offered in the experiment.

As I suggested, the experimental subjects understood something that the researchers missed: apologies don’t fail. People fail. If you don’t understand that, you do not understand apology.

What's Happening in Egypt

Since I have very, very limited knowledge of the situation in Egypt, I want to provide some analysis from people who are much better versed in these matters. I have tried to choose people who are not in the business of politicizing the events, or of spinning them to make them fit within an ideological framework. It's always a good idea to start with reality before jumping to opinion.

For an objective overview of the situation, here’s an interview with Stratfor director, George Friedman. Link here. Clear and level-headed, fully informed about geopolitics, Friedman is always a first source for foreign policy analysis.

And then, of course, I am happy to provide a link to a commentary by Fouad Ajami, long a favorite foreign policy analyst of mine, a man of Egyptian origin. Link here. Ajami puts the events into the context of Egyptian.

Finally, the inimitable Caroline Glick offers what she calls a more pragmatic view-- some would call it a more conservative view-- from the neighborhood. Glick writes from Israel and gives us some added information about the actors and the history… from an Israeli perspective. Evidently, she is far less sanguine about the chances that democracy is going to emerge from the Egyptian rebellion.  Link here.

Friday, January 28, 2011


I can’t say that I fully grasp what is happening in Egypt.

If it’s possible, the situation seems far murkier than the one in Tunisia.

And it’s not just because of the fog of war. I am not well enough versed in foreign policy or the particularities of Egypt to offer anything resembling an intelligent or thoughtful opinion.

That’s not modesty; that is a cold, hard fact.

At moments like this, when we feel like something important is happening, when we feel that we do not understand what is happening, or how it will affect our lives, we should all ask ourselves one and only one salient question.

Do we trust our foreign policy team to manage the situation effectively, to the extent that the situation can be managed from Washington?

For my part, considering the foreign policy experience that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton bring to the table, I am afraid that the answer is: No.

When Girls Rebel Against Feminism

If you thought that Tiger Mom was bad, wait until you get a gander at Feminist Mom.

That’s right, just as our world is coming to terms with Amy Chua’s book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, one Peggy Orenstein has brought forth a new book on feminist mothering: Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

Keep in mind that Chua wrote about her experience bringing up girls. She is bringing them up to be accomplished, successful women… not CEOs and not radical feminists.

While Chua has been roundly denounced for being authoritarian, when one of them, at age 13, threw a tantrum over her mothering technique, Chua took responsibility and modified her approach.

You might be seeing her as authoritarian; the truth is closer to trial-and-error.

Did Chua’s daughters go through the kind of extreme princess phase that Orenstein is railing against? They may have; they may not have.

More importantly, Chua did not become obsessed with her girls’ gender identities. She wanted them to be the best version of who they were; and that included being girls.

A gender bending feminist like Orenstein is obsessed with her daughter’s gender identity.While she does talk about academic achievement, when this talk is placed next to her rants about princess behavior, it feels like lip service.

As we will see, therein lies the most important difference between these books.

Pity poor Peggy Orenstein. There she was, bringing up a perfectly neutered three year old, when her daughter went to school one day and came home a princess.

Here is one writer’s summary of this defining moment: Here is the way one writer summarized it: “Orenstein's own daughter didn't start out princess-obsessed. Daisy marched into her first day of preschool in Berkeley, Calif., in her favorite pinstriped overalls and carrying a Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. (Gender-neutrality achieved!) But it would be less than a month before the now-7-year-old would scream as her mother tried to wrestle her into pants, begging for a "real princess dress" with matching plastic high heels.” Link here.

What happened to transform her daughter from gender neutered to defiantly feminine? Simple: a boy had told her that girls do not play with trains.

For some parents, the princess phase, like tomboy phases, like a lot of other phases, is part of growing up. They focus on more important matters, like math homework and violin practice.

Even if we accept that the princess phase, the girlie-girl persona, has become as overblown as Orenstein thinks it has, perhaps the reason is that it is trying to find its was in a world where feminism has made itself the enemy of feminine women.

Thus, for a feminist zealot like Orenstein, her daughter's princess phase is an existential crisis. It threatens the very existence of the feminist cult.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong or right with overalls and Thomas the Tank lunchboxes. And there‘s nothing right or wrong with a princess phase.

Problems do not arise until you make it into a feminist issue. Someone ought to ask why this feminist is losing her mind over her daughter’s wish to feel like Cinderella.

Why is it so important that the girl be dressed in overalls, and carry a train-themed lunchbox? Surely, every one of Orenstein’s feminist cult followers will find that to be a perfect example of gender-bending, the hallmark of responsible parenting.

But what are these Feminist Moms saying to their daughters. Are they trying to make these girls-- at age 3-- be more boyish, more of a cross dresser, more butch, or just plain neutered.

As we know, modern feminism originated in Betty Friedan’s critique of “the feminine mystique.”

Like it or not, feminism declared war on femininity, and on everything that signified it. It wanted to teach all girls to repress their femininity, because it believed that a feminine woman was necessarily going to become a household drudge.

In the feminist playbook, career success was visited on women who were more manly or even more gender-neutered.

When today’s gender-bending feminists see femininity making a comeback, in exaggerated and caricatured form, through their daughters’ tastes and preferences, they think that they are seeing the return of the repressed. Or better, they are seeing their daughters, from a very early age, rebel against their efforts to bring them up as gendered neutered.

As it happens, feminists are not very self-aware. As  Orenstein rolls out her indictment of marketers, manufacturers, and the media, she neglects the one element that might really make some sense of this preschool rebelliousness: the anti-feminine side of feminism.

When Amy Chua’s daughter rebels against violin lessons, the world’s intellectuals stand up and cheer for her. When Peggy Orenstein’s daughter rebels against her mother’s feminist zeal, the world stands up with Orenstein and blames Walt Disney.

Once her daughter gets older Orenstein will blame Conde Nast.

This extended exercise in blame shifting means one thing: Feminist Mom has no sense of how she is contributing to her daughter’s rebelliousness.

When Orenstein asks why her daughter, brought up in the perfectly politically correct precinct of Berkeley, CA can still be influenced by the princess culture, she concludes that if the poison has  reached Berkeley it must be very pervasive indeed.

But it might also be the case that Berkeley is the kind of place where gender bending is the law of the land. In Berkeley, I surmise, Feminist Moms are doing their darndest to wring the femininity out of their daughters.

Wouldn’t Berkeley be a logical place for rebellion?

And yet, even in Berkeley, some mothers look askance at Orenstein’s efforts to break her daughter of her love of princesses.

They actually suggest that Feminist Mom is “brainwashing” her daughter because she is depriving her of her ability to choose what she buys, what she wears, and what she plays with.

In a breathtaking failure to accept responsibility, Orenstein replies that it is really Walt Disney who has deprived her daughter of choice.

Orenstein is at considerable pains to say that she wants her daughter to grow up to be a strong woman who marries and has a family. For all I know, she really feels that.

But what if that strong woman who marries and has a family, who is as comfortable in overalls as she is dressed up like a vamp, becomes Sarah Palin?

Considering the venom and vitriol that feminists have been throwing at the prototypical Mama Grizzly, you know that that would be yet another existential crisis. The girl would be disinherited.

Feminist Mom is not at all interested in having her daughter grow up to be what I have called, in reference to Palin, “a woman in full.” She wants her daughter to grow up to be a fully zealous feminist.

As I have been at pains to point out, Sarah Palin possesses a kind of femininity that feminists have been working to eliminate from the culture. And that, in princesshood, has been roaring back.

As the title of her book suggests, Orenstein considers Cinderella to be the enemy. She entitled her book:  “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.”

Ask yourself: how much ideological zeal does it take to make Cinderella into either a cannibal or a child molester?

That’s not the only reason why this is strange.

Just look at the story of Cinderella. It is a story of oppression, of women's inhumanity to a woman.Wasn’t Cinderella a beautiful young woman who was oppressed by her wicked and envious step sisters?

The stepsisters are so jealous of Cinderella’s beauty and her sex appeal that they force her to do all of the household chores. They turn her into a drudge, a maid, a girl that no man would ever want.

Still and all, feminine charms win out in the end, and Cinderella marries the prince.

But if a girl were to be given the choice between being Cinderella and being one of the stepsisters, which would she choose?

Strangely enough, people are railing against Amy Chua for wanting her daughters to do their very best, to achieve great things. And they are applauding Peggy Orenstein for trying to brainwash-- as her friends have said-- her daughter into being an ideological zealot.

Which do you think is better?

Perhaps the next time someone decides to write a history of feminism, she will call it: "The Stepsisters' Revenge."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Kids Are Not Alright

Now is the time when the world’s movers and shakers, the global economic elite, descend on a sleepy Swiss town called Davos.

Ostensibly, they are participating in the World Economic Forum, but clearly they are there to network. Both with their fellow world leaders and with prospective clients. One world leader told Andrew Ross Sorkin that Davos was “like freebasing clients.“

Clearly, Davos targets people for whom Facebook and Linkedin are not enough.

Anyway, George Soros is there to talk about the future of the Euro. Jamie Dimon is there defending the banking industry. French president Sarkozy is there discussing the G20.

Oh, and by the way, Harvard Professor and former high government official, Larry Summers, is there debating with… you’ll never guess… Prof. Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom, herself. Link here.

To his credit, Summers summed up the dispute over the Tiger Mom clearly and directly: “I think you have to decide whether achievement is the route to self-esteem or whether self-esteem is the route to achievement. I think you guys think self-esteem is the route to achievement, and I think you’re wrong.”

Given that this echoes my own view of the conflict, I find it to be completely on point.

Strangely enough, in seeming contradiction, Summers then proceeded to defend American self-esteemist pedagogy on the grounds that it produced more creativity and innovation. After all, he says, most of what you learn by hard work and discipline can now be done by computers anyway.

Strange idea, suggesting that there is no other value in hard work and discipline than to do rote, mechanical tasks. And who does Summers think is programming all of those computers, if not the ace programmers who are no longer to be found in America, but who are mostly in India.

As Summers put it, two Harvard dropouts, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, were responsible for creating major industries.

I am not sure what that says about the abiding value of a Harvard education… but we’ll leave that for another day.

Whatever you think of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the world does not really need that many of them. A world where everyone is Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg would be utterly and totally dysfunctional.

And every time you mention the name of a great innovator, you should also have to tell us how many young people have failed in life because they felt that they had to grow up to be like Gates or Zuckerberg.

Whenever you hold these two out at exemplary products of the American system, you should also ask yourself how much time and effort the two of them put into their work.

As Malcolm Gladwell explained, actualizing your potential as a genius requires many, many hours of intense labor. You are more likely to become great if you have been tutored by the Tiger Mom than if you have been brought up to be well rounded.

Many of Amy Chua’s critics have asserted that American parents are happy that they are not bringing up maniacal overachievers. They want their children to be well rounded, happy, fun-loving, wholesome, happy adults.

No one mentions the fact that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are really closer to being maniacal overachievers than to being well-rounded humans who have actualized all of their potential.

Anyway, those who have attacked the Tiger Mom also raise the issue of the mental health of her children, or of any children who are brought up in a Confucian system.

And they note, with some undisguised Schadenfreude, that these Confucian children are at greater risk of committing suicide.

They are implying, with no real subtlety, that Tiger Mother parenting, as it is practiced in America-- in a culture that rejects its values-- will make your children mentally ill.

Take that, Tiger Mom!

Since these critics raised the issue, it is useful to discuss a new UCLA survey that evaluates the mental health of today’s college freshmen. Link here.

Most of these children, I would surmise, have been brought up with a steady diet of unearned compliments and accolades, have had the play dates and sleepovers that the Tiger Mom forbid her daughters, and have followed David Brooks’ direction by learning to socialize in the cafeteria, are emotionally troubled.

True enough, they are optimistic about their futures, but they are more likely to be stressed out, in need of or taking psychiatric medication, lacking confidence and focus, and depressed.

Given that the Pied Pipers of self-esteem have insisted that building self-esteem would lead to better mental health and thus to higher levels of achievement, it should come as something of a surprise to discover not only that American children are chronic underperformers, but that they are suffering from poor mental health.

However optimistic they are, one has to wonder what exactly these children are optimistic about, and why this optimism has not, as we have been promised, made them happier.

Is their optimism based on achievement or on hope? Are they like the young American Idol contestants whose voices are underdeveloped, who lack experience and real talent, but who want so badly to go to Hollywood that you can taste it.

Have we brought up a generation that has come to believe that success comes, not to those who work hardest and earn their way, but to those who want it more badly?

Now, how can we know why these students feel so overwhelmed by what is required of them, why they are so stressed out, and why females are more likely than males to be in poor emotional health?

The study’s authors suggest that these freshmen are suffering the fallout of the economic crisis. Their parents, especially their fathers, are more likely to be unemployed. Thus, they have to take on very large debt loads to attend college.

We can easily understand why this factor would cause greater stress. It is less clear why it would cause the students to feel optimistic about their futures. And it is even less clear why this would affect girls more than boys.

If American parents feel that the Tiger Mom was too harsh in making demands on her daughters, how does it happen that American students who are not subject to these demands are still feeling overwhelmed by their schoolwork?

Here is it difficult to interpret the results. All I can do is to speculate.

As for the first option, that all of these children were brought up by Tiger Moms, that does not seem very plausible.

If that is not the problem, they might be suffering because they never learned discipline and focus, and thus feel overwhelmed by tasks that a more disciplined child would be able to confront.

Or perhaps, they have been taught how best to complain, and are simply exercising a skill that they have mastered. When it comes down to a choice between managing your relationships and complaining about them, American culture today seems to side with the complainers.

Or perhaps these students are overcommitted, not simply with school work, but with sleepovers, play dates, cafeteria coffee klatches, school spirit days, community service, saving the polar bears, Facebook friends, and everything else that a well rounded American child is doing these days.

Or perhaps, their parents, especially their mothers, do not spend enough time with them. After all, Tiger Mothering requires a great deal of time and energy, and many of those mothers who attacked Prof. Chua insisted that they did not have the time to do what she did, even if they had wanted to.

When a child grows up with inadequate parental supervision, he or she might also feel stressed for having to make too many decisions that are above his or her age grade.

Let us not ignore the fact that well-rounded American children are living in a hookup world, without having many moral principles to guide their decisions. Most parents today feel that-- Use a condom-- provides moral guidance.

As it happens, and as I and many others have often argued, girls are most likely to be the victims of this freewheeling hookup world. Especially if they have been influenced by what is called sex positive feminism.

Now that we are speaking about high school girls and college women, it is worth mentioning that, for decades now, feminist educators have been working relentlessly to raise their self-esteem.

This effort has pushed teachers to over-grade and over-compliment girls while under-grading and demeaning boys.

Obviously, this classroom bias detaches achievement from hard work. Boys and girls are awarded or criticized based on their gender, not on their abilities.

In some ways the worst part, is that this self-esteemist pedagogical technique gives students a daily diet of lies about how good they are. How can these children feel confident in their abilities if they have no real idea of how good they are, how much more work they need to do, and how fairly they will be judged?

How stressful can it be not to know how good or bad you are? And how stressful is it to have to go to school every day to be lied to?

"Herbert Obama"

The following is from David Rosenberg, chief economist and market strategist at the Canadian investment firm, Gluskin Sheff. I read Rosenberg's daily eletters religiously and recommend that everyone do the same.

Today, Rosenberg has offered the best commentary I have yet seen on Obama’s State of the Union address. It consists in a series of juxtapositions between Obama's statements and those of Herbert Hoover. Rosenberg received the material from a colleague and reader, and declared that he was blown away. The title of this post, "Herbert Obama" is Rosenberg's.

The comparisons speak for themselves:

Obama’s State of the Union:

“Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”

Herbert Hoover, May 1st 1930, US Chamber of Commerce Meeting:

“While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover.”

Obama’s State of the Union:

“Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans’ paychecks are a little bigger today. Every business can write off the full cost of the new investments they make this year. These steps, taken by Democrats and Republicans, will grow the economy and add to the more than one million private sector jobs created last

Herbert Hoover, October 22, 1932, campaign speech in Detroit:

“It can be demonstrated that the tide has turned and that the gigantic forces of depression are today in retreat. Our measures and policies have demonstrated their effectiveness. They have preserved the American people from certain chaos. They have preserved a final fortress of stability in the world.”

Obama’s State of the Union:

“But now that the worst of the recession is over...”

Herbert Hoover, June 1930, to a delegation requesting a public works project:

“Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.”

Obama’s State of the Union:

“The steps we’ve taken over the last two years may have broken the back of this recession…”

Herbert Hoover, State of the Union, December 6, 1932:

“The unprecedented emergency measures enacted and policies adopted undoubtedly saved the country from economic disaster…”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Having Sex With Your Friends

Apparently, the practice has become so prevalent that it merits its own movie. Or two.

Today everyone is rushing out to see Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman hook up in “No Strings Attached.”

Soon enough we will be watching Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis hook up in a film called: “Friends with Benefits.”

If this confluence of cinematic endeavor means something, it may mean that the trend of “friends with benefits” is peaking and about to decline.

But, what does it mean to be friends with benefits? When two people who are otherwise friends engage in sexual activity that is, by mutual agreement, meaningless… they are, as I understand it, friends with benefits.

But why was it necessary to choose a term that completely obscures what is going on. “Benefits” is not a word that you would normally associate with libidinous pleasures or orgasmic rapture.

If these young people are so proud of what they are doing, why not call it by a more appropriate name: having sex with your friends.

These arrangements are a subcategory of hook ups, since hook ups refer generally to meaningless sexual acts that are random and anonymous.

As opposed to sex with benefits, hooking up has more power as a visual metaphor. Still, it hides the nature of the acts in question.

While a friends with benefits arrangement does involve hookups, other kinds of hookups do not require that the parties involved be friends, or even acquainted.

However it takes place, hooking up represents a denial that sex has any meaning, on an emotional or a physiological or social level. It is asserting that sex is about pleasure, and nothing but pleasure.

To be clear, it asserts that procreative and non-procreative sexuality are indistinguishable. Young people who hook up or who are friends with benefits are making a political and ideological point; they are asserting that they can have pleasurable sex without there being any relationship involved. Thus they are sacrificing their sexuality to a cause.

Friends with benefits are not involving themselves in a relationship; they are not expressing any emotion for each other; they do not project a future together; and they are not intending to present themselves in public as a couple.

In principle, friends with benefits agree to keep their dalliances a secret. If neither person is committed to the other, then both are looking for a real relationship. Telling the world that you are friends with benefits would not improve your prospects for finding a romantic relationship or commitment.

If the arrangement is a secret, however, public and private selves will be split. These two people will be presenting themselves as one thing in public and acting as something else in private. They will be living a lie.

Of course, we recognize that some couples go from being friends with benefits to being lovers and even spouses. Yet, the truth remains that friends with benefits is a simulated relationship, a sham, if not a scam. If it’s a scam, then the chances are quite good that the woman is the one who is being scammed.

Practices like anonymous hookups and friends with benefits exist within the world of youthful idealism. Under the aegis of certain philosophers, young people learn that pleasure is the only real meaning of sex, and that if two people agree to use each other for sexual pleasure, then they are not really using each other.

As it happens, they are wrong. Your consent to abuse does not make it less abusive. Even if someone has accepted that you use her for your sexual pleasure, that does not mean that you are not really using her. It simply means that she has agreed not to file any grievance you, whether legal or moral.

In other ways, these people are reinventing the wheel. Since they refuse to follow the lessons of the experience of past generations, they seem fated to learn these lessons the hard way.

Eventually, the ruse will out and they discover, in the best of cases, that there is more to a meaningful relationship than having sex with a good friend.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wall Street Values or American Values

Both films have just been nominated for Best Picture Oscars. I have not seen either of them. That tells you more about my movie-going habits than about the value of the films.

Last Sunday Frank Rich opined about how “True Grit” and “The Social Network” depicted two different sets of values and thus, two different Americas. Link here.

Some will find it strange, but I think that Rich was correct to see “The Social Network” as a reflection of the world that brought us the financial crisis and “True Grit” as an exemplar of a lost America that values loyalty, perseverance, and honor.

From having once been a dogged defender of the counterculture, Frank Rich has lately been turning toward a better set of cultural values.

I have mentioned his pivot before, and I think it is important to recognize it.

I have not been an admirer of Frank Rich-- though I have always recognized that he writes well-- but when a Times columnist takes up themes that have usually belonged to those on the other side of the culture wars, we should take notice.

Rich argues that the values of frontier justice and loyalty that define “True Grit” are a welcome respite from the Wall Street values that have nearly led the nation to financial rack and ruin.

In his words: “That kind of legal and moral cost-accounting seems as distant as a tintype now. The new 'True Grit' lands in an America that’s still not recovered from a crash where many of the reckless perpetrators of economic mayhem deflected any accountability and merely moved on to the next bubble, gamble or ethically dubious backroom deal. When Americans think of the law these days, they often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, A.I.G. and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust. A virtuous soul like Mattie would be crushed in a contemporary gold rush even if (or especially if) she fought back with the kind of civil action so prized by the 19th-century Mattie.”

It almost makes you think that Frank Rich is joining the Tea Party.

Keep in mind, as we rarely do, that the people who were running the financial system into the ground were for the most part Ivy League educated Democrats.

The heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the heads of Citigroup and most Wall Street investment banks, the chairman of the New York Fed… all of them were Democrats.

Let us not forget the congerie of white shoe lawyers, government regulators, private auditors, and media enablers. Given that they were mostly living in Manhattan and Washington, D. C., and mostly over-educated, nearly all of them were Ivy League educated Democrats.

Wall Street money flowed like water into the campaign coffers of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. A few dollars were offered to Republicans in the last presidential cycle, but most of the Goldman Sachs money went to Democrats.

Today, Wall Street has been disgruntled with Obama, but the administration is doing its darndest to kiss and make up.

And they may well succeed. Unless the bankers and lawyers begin to understand that they were duped by Obama the last time, they will set themselves up to be duped again.

As I said yesterday, shame on them.

Frank Rich is right to see Wall Street, whether bankers, lawyers, or regulators, as a world where loyalty counted for nothing and where predatory capitalism was the rage.

He is also correct to argue that Wall Street became more like what we think of as the primitive Wild West than the world of “True Grit.”

Wall Street became more of a free-for-all, dog-eat-dog world than the one inhabited by Rooster Cogburn.

But if Wall Street did not become a Wild West show by emulating traditional, American frontier values… where did it go to school to learn these things? It didn‘t learn them from the Tea Party.

As I suggested above, Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe honed their skills and learned their values in the Ivy League.

In truth, and it is not a secret, Ivy League professors have, for quite some time now, been implacable foes of capitalism. Most of them think that the Democratic party is a right wing organization.

More important is the way they teach capitalism, not so much within economics departments, which are often fair and balanced, but within the Humanities.

There, critical theorists portray capitalism as a predatory, oppressive system that sucks the lifeblood out of the economy to line the pockets of the capitalists themselves.

Call it vampire capitalism, if you like, but when the products of these universities alight on Wall Street, they play the game the way they have been taught.

As they do so, they manipulate the system for their advantage. Protected by the endless machinations of government and the legal profession, they usually escape justice.

As Rich puts it: “When Americans think of the law these days, they often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, A.I.G. and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust.

“While ‘Social Network‘” fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.”

Enter the Tea Party…

But Rooster Cogburn does not just embody frontier justice. He also typifies, to paraphrase Rich, the values of prudence, perseverance, modesty, and benevolence.

The Ivy League does not teach these things. It is far more likely to teach that the Protestant work ethic is outmoded, declasse, demode, oppressive and repressive of everything that is valuable… like following your bliss and expressing your deep feelings of greed.

As I suggested, Rich sees Wall Street as more like Harvard than the Wild West. He is performing a very deft rhetorical pirouette here, but he is saying that values that people attack as belonging to the Wild West are not really Wild West-- read that, Tea Party-- values. They are somehow being taught and inculcated in places like Harvard.

In Rich’s words: “While ‘Social Network‘ fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.

“In ‘Social Network,’ the landscape is Cambridge, Mass., but we might as well be in the pre-civilized Wild West. Instead of thieves bearing guns, we have thieves bearing depositions. Instead of actual assassinations, we have character assassinations by blog post. In place of an honorable social code, we have a social network presided over by a post-adolescent billionaire whose business card reads ‘I’m CEO ... Bitch!’”

I am amused to see Rich calling Cambridge, Mass. a “pre-civilized” world.

Today, with everyone and his brother is calling for a return to civility, it is useful to understand that Ivy League values, those that favor creativity, spontaneity, impulsiveness, and charisma are promoting a return to barbarism.

For example, you would have difficulty getting through too many Humanities courses without reading Freud’s  "Civilization and its Discontents.” Even though the book has no real interest to mental health practitioners, it still stands tall for being an unabashed attack on human civilization. It’s thesis is that civilization is built on a foundation of repressed libido.

We don't need any more of the kinds of values that are embodied in "The Social Network," Frank Rich says. What we really need is: “an honorable social code.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, even if I have been trying to do so for more than a few years now.

Calling Tiger Mom

We all remember last week’s ferocious debate over the relative merits of Confucian childhood pedagogy.

Critics and pundits excoriated Prof. Amy Chua, aka Tiger Mom, for being an abusive parent, for traumatizing her daughters, and for depriving them of the manifold joys of an American childhood. I think it fair to mention that none of the negative reviewers gave the least thought to how abusive they were being toward Amy Chua.

Chua's daughters might have excelled in math and music, but America’s children were better at having fun.

Whatever the virtues of that old fashioned Confucian system, America’s children were leading the world in self-esteem, enhanced creativity, and sophisticated social skills.

After all, their parents had given them the opportunity to learn how to get along on play dates and sleepovers. They might not excel in math and music, but they exude charisma, and, as David Brooks seems to believe, the future belongs to the charismatic.

How could those Confucian automatons compete with that?

But, something funny happened on the way to the great new visionary and charismatic future. American children forgot to learn anything about science.

The Washington Post reported this morning: “More than two-thirds of the nation's fourth-graders failed to show proficiency in science in 2009, the federal government reported Tuesday, meaning that the average student was likely to be stumped when asked to interpret a temperature graph or explain an example of heat transfer.” Link here.

You do not have to know advanced math to know that a 70% failure rate is not a good thing.

Fortunately, children in later grades did slightly better: “Roughly six out of 10 eighth-graders and 12th-graders also fell short of science proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a key measure of performance in a subject that President Obama and business leaders call crucial for American competitiveness.”

Is anyone alarmed about this? Do you think that these children can make up the distance that separates them from the Confucian crowd by working on their sleepover skills or by excelling in having fun?

The real story behind the ruckus over the Tiger Mom is that American children are failing. We can start by recognizing that something is seriously wrong with the way we are educating children, and then ask how we can go about reversing the trend.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Obama's Metamorphosis

He certainly caught me by surprise. I had not expected that Barack Obama would have performed such a perfect pivot to the center in such a short period of time.

How did Jeremiah Wright’s adopted son wake up one morning and discover that he was Ronald Reagan’s love child?

We all understand why it happened. Having been shellacked in the midterm elections, Obama was simply responding to the will of the America.

Throughout the first two years of his presidency, he managed to ignore public opinion and infuriated large segments of the electorate by jamming his agenda down their collective throats. Now, however, he had become utterly responsive to their will.

But, does anyone really believe it? If one of your close personal friends underwent a radical metamorphosis from one day to the next, you would start thinking either that he was trying to trick you or that he had a brain tumor.

If the polls are any indication, the American people, bless their hearts, seem to be buying it. They have rediscovered the candidate they voted for in 2008, and seem more than willing to forgive and forget the president they had seen in  action in 2009-10.

The same holds true of some of the right leaning members of the pundit class. Great thinkers who had thrown their prestige behind the hope and change candidate had been hiding out in their bunkers, feeling that they had bee duped in 2008.

Now, the despair has lifted and they have crawled out into the light of day, breathing a great sigh of relief. Just as they had suspected, they were right all along.

When it comes to intellectuals, nothing is more appealing than the thought that they were right all along. Anything is better than the anguish that befalls you when you think that your great mind has been tricked by a second-rate poser.

So now, Obama has morphed back into the person his most fervent supporters believed they were voting for. He has done it quicker even than Bill Clinton did. And Bill Clinton was an exceptionally gifted politician, to say nothing of… seducer.

You do not have to have lived to long to know that quick and total transformation cannot be convincing. To a rational mind, it is a sign of deceit and deception, of a lack of principle and conviction. We do not need to know the meaning of the deceit, but we should hesitate before accepting it as real.

Of course, a few dead-enders still refuse to believe in the transformation. As expected, they have been denounced as cynics and haters.

Some of them have had the temerity to point out that since Obama accomplished most of his legislative goals in his first two years, his best tactic right now is to get himself re-elected. In that way he can thwart those who want to roll back his legacy. He is doing what he has to do to preserve his transformative agenda. Wouldn’t you?

But, cynicism is as cynicism does. And Obama, give him this credit, might be sufficiently cynical to believe that if he starts playing a different tune the American people will  happily forgive and forget the last two years.

Maybe it’s time to dust off an old adage: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Why We Should All Love Miss Manners

For quite some time I have considered Miss Manners to be one of our great moral philosophers.

Hopefully, you will not be smirking or thinking that I am setting you up; I am entirely serious.

Many of us have been led to believe that etiquette-- the field in which Miss Manners has excelled-- is just a trivial aspect of ethical behavior. If we have accepted that idea, we need but remind ourselves that George Washington-- yes, that George Washington-- consumed etiquette books with uncommon ardor.

Washington believed that he could only found a Republic if he knew the proper rules for kindness, consideration, and courtesy. He also believed that etiquette books would help him to create rituals and ceremonies that would allow citizens to participate in it.

Today‘s thinkers tend to believe that America was founded on ideas. George Washington understood that a nation cannot live on ideas alone.

Even if that were not true, etiquette would, Miss Manners has been at pains to teach us, make life more pleasant and enjoyable.

The word ethics comes from the Greek word “ethos” which means character. Ethics is about how to build good charcter, the better to have more harmonious personal interactions and to live in a more functional community.

Ethics aims at social ties. It concerns what happens between friends, not what happens in the family.

The basic ethical principles were written down in religious texts and by philosophers like Aristotle. No one has really added anything substantive since. Principles have been disputed, especially by those who want to rationalize unethical behavior, but they have not been expanded or revised in any significant way.

The basic ethical principles are relatively easy to understand. Problems arise when it comes to their practical application.

Knowing the principle of negotiated compromise is one thing. Knowing how to effect a compromise between two parties who are lunging at each other’s throats is quite another.

Which leads us to Miss Manners. She does not express her ethical thought via a philosophical treatise, but in newspaper columns where she examines specific problems offered by individual readers and tries to shed some ethical light on them.

They are, as a young therapist once told me, essential reading for anyone training to do therapy or coaching. Isn’t it better to learn how to evaluate real moral dilemmas than to ram a patient’s experience into a grand narrative where he is enacting his one true Freudian desire-- to copulate with his mother?

Wouldn’t it be better for therapists to see their patients as normally constituted human beings confronting difficult, even insoluble, moral dilemmas? Wouldn’t that be better than assuming that they are sick or deranged or perverted?

Not because mental illness does not exist. It does and it should be taken seriously. Yet, most people who consult with therapists and coaches are not sick; they need moral guidance more than they need medicine.

In her column this morning Miss Manners confronts the kind of problem that arises for people who live in a society that does not value privacy. Link here.

A woman writes in to explain that she is dating and loves a man who does not belong to her social circle. She is shy, a prim and proper church-going lady. Her boy friend is a self-described red neck.

People who come from different communities often have different values. How can this young couple reconcile theirs?

The man in question seems to feel that their bedroom antics are worthy of public display. When he exposes them to her circle, she gets angry and embarrassed. He dismisses her concern as a symptom of her feeling embarrassed to be dating a red neck.

Her evident discomfort has not caused him to refrain from continuing to spill their intimate secrets.

Despite it all, she loves him, and she has come to believe that once she figures out how better to express her feelings to him he will naturally want to stop.

Of course, Miss Manners will have none of it. Basing her thinking on the venerable idea that we should respect the feelings of other people, she expresses her dismay that the woman’s boyfriend would not cease and desist as a gesture of respect for his girlfriend’s feelings.

She writes: “Meanwhile, he should be restraining himself, whether he understands or not, because it is important to you. That much anyone ought to be able to do out of love.”

A wonderful response, most especially because Miss Manners is also saying that doing the right thing does not require you to understand why. As I have been discussing the past few days, insight should never be a precondition for good behavior.

The boyfriend should do it here and now, because it will take too much time for this woman to offer him a long course in basic ethical principles. How can you explain to someone who lives in a “tell-all” culture, why privacy matters? And why in a culture that honors intemperate self-expression over all other social values, you should respect the feelings of other people?

In her words: “It will be quite a job for you to explain, in a tell-all society, that there is dignity in reticence, beauty in modesty and pleasure in having your own intimate world for just the two of you. These are subtle concepts which will take a while to get across as you point out examples in others and in your own lives.”

Miss Manners does not tell this woman what to do about her relationship. She merely tells her what she has a right to expect from a man who loves her.

Happily, she also corrects the woman’s therapy-induced misapprehension: that the man needs to understand the basic principles of privacy before he shuts up about their private life.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Portrait of a Failed Marriage

Of course, the story piqued my interest. It isn't every day that someone tries to tell you that divorce is therapeutic. Yet, that is what Lisa del Rosso claims in her Modern Love column today in the New York Times. Link here.

She adds that divorce has been therapeutic for her ex-husband too.

Oh, and that they are still together in an arrangement that resembles what young people might call: friends without benefits.

Before we get to this supposedly happy ending, del Rosso paints a full-on portrait of a failed marriage. Even if you do not buy her story about how divorce eliminated the negative emotions that she had allowed to consume her, it is instructive to see how and why a marriage fails.

As often happens in Modern Love columns, Lisa del Rosso is a writer. In the brief bio that she placed at the end of her column, she called herself a writer and a professor.

In truth, she is an adjunct assistant professor at NYU. If you have ever taught in universities, as I have, you know that “adjunct assistant professor” is not really the same as “professor.” To me it feels like a bit of resume padding.

For my own curiosity I looked her up on RateMyProfessors, and discovered, to her credit, that her students consider her a very demanding teacher and a very hard grader. Good qualities, by my lights.

And yet, one male student called her: “an intense feminist who hated all the men in the class.”

To me, that feels excessive, the kind of hyperbole that would flow from the pen of a disgruntled college student. On the other hand, feminist teachers have for some time now felt that they had to raise up the self-esteem of their female students at the expense of their male students.

In her column del Posto does not mention feminism.

Be that as it may, del Rosso’s column shows a woman who does not have a clue about how to conduct a marriage. To the point where you have to wonder what would lead her to expose her personal failings as openly as she did. Unless, of course, she felt that the failings were not hers, but her husband’s and the marital institution‘s. Which seems to be the case.

I suspect that her failure is ideologically-driven, and I had suspected, before looking up the student evaluations, that the ideology in question was feminism. After all, what other ideology tells women how to conduct marriages? And that has sabotaged more marriages?

Once upon a time, an aspiring playwright and teacher married a college drop-out who was working as a waiter. Lisa married Yash. If you care about power imbalances, you see that this one was tilted toward the more educated partner.

Given their different career paths, Lisa and Yash did not have any real opportunity to establish household routines. Del Rosso seems to believe that marriage is about accumulating common memories and sharing a past. I prefer to think that it is more about couple-based routines.

In fact, Lisa and Yash shared, and still share, lots of memories. Unfortunately, they could not function as a married couple. Reading the story, one comes away with the impression that they did not know how.

As del Rosso opens her column, one day Yash cracked the bathroom door. She does not tell us how he managed this or whether the crack created a peep hole in the door. She does tell us that the crack was visible on both sides of the door, and that Yash, having admitted that he had caused the crack, promised to fix it.

Del Rosso took the first initiative, and fixed the crack on the outside of the door. She expected that her husband would do the same for the inside surface.

He didn’t.

If you are analyzing this potentially combustible situation, you need to know that it is going to be a question of equality.

In a world where men and woman are equals, he fixes one side of the door and she fixes the other.

As it happens, Lisa begins by doing more than her fair share. She fixes one side of the door, even though she did not break it. More than that, Yash promised to fix the door and he has not. This places her on the moral high ground.

Knowing that she is entirely in the right, del Rosso seems to feel that this gives her the right to go to war against her husband. Apparently, she believes that abuse and harassment are what he needs to fix the door. If the first rounds do not get him to do as she wants him to do, she believes that he just needs more abuse.

If you have been brought up to see life in terms of grievances, you are always at the ready to pounce on a grievance and to show how ferociously you can fight for what it right.

Evidently, del Rosso has nary a clue about how to encourage or motivate someone to do something.

But she does know how to browbeat her husband and to subject him to withering criticism. Their class struggle, turned gender struggle, continues for three years. In the last phases, she is reduced to posting nasty messages on the bathroom door that attest to her husband’s inadequacy.

Somehow or other she does not understand why he has not given in. She sees it as a contest of wills, a point of personal pride, and she refuses to back down. In truth, her husband did not back down either. Someone with a less charitable soul might suggest that she is talking to her husband as she would be talking to a servant. The imbalance in gender power seems not to be consistent with the imbalance in social power.

We may argue whether marriage is always a struggle for power and dominance. Surely, many feminists believe that that is the essence of patriarchal marriage. Whether or not del Rosso believed in this ideological trope, she acted as though it was running through her veins.

At first, the issue might have been whether or not Yash was going to fix his side of the door. After de Rosso showed us her fangs and revealed her inner harridan, the issue became: would he give in to her demands? At that point, the dynamic of the marriage had been destroyed, along with conjugal intimacy.

To get down to basics, del Rosso is showing us how she sacrificed her marriage for a crack on a bathroom door. Did it never cross her mind just to let the matter drop and perhaps to fix it herself? Apparently, not.

If you are married or otherwise involved with another human being, it is always good to ask yourself whether the issue you think you want to confront is worth the trouble you are going to cause by confronting it.

I am old enough to understand that for to an ideologically-driven feminist, these are not trivial issues. From that we should conclude that women would do best to keep feminism out of their marriages, especially if they want to continue to enjoy conjugal bliss.

It is also fair to say that a zealot cares more for an idea-- here, equality-- than for the simple practicalities and compromises we need to make if we are going to sustain relationships.

But that was not the only point of marital contention. In describing another one, del Rosso shows us more of deficient marital skills: “On beautiful Sunday afternoons I’d ask him to go for walks with me in Riverside Park, and he’d always decline, saying he had work to do. Hours later I would return to find that nothing had been done, and we would have screaming fights standing in front of his computer. I felt as if I had become Yash’s mother, pleading, cajoling, praising, shouting.”

I don’t want to sound like a simpleton, but if you keep getting the same answer, you might think to stop asking the same question. You might also ask yourself whether the two of you might perhaps find another Sunday afternoon activity that you would both like.

As if it weren’t bad enough that del Rosso continued to harass her husband, she took his excuses literally and made it her business to hold him to them.

Each time she returned from a solitary walk, she checked up on her husband, to see how much work he had really accomplished. Legalistic to a fault, she never imagined that he might have been offering a polite demurral to yet another of her imperious demands.

When she found out-- horror of horrors-- that he had not been working when he said he was, she was consumed by rage and started screaming and shouting at him.

Apparently, she never imagined that he might have had a perfectly happy afternoon of peace and quiet, before his shrewish wife returned from her perambulation.

Anyway, del Rosso felt that his refusal to walk in Riverside Park had subjected her to a grievous wrong. If she had learned anything from feminism, it seems to have been: how to redress grievances.

Once she ran out of curses and insults, she decided that she could best avenge herself by having affairs. She does not say how many, but lets us believe that they were numerous.

As might be expected, the marriage of Lisa and Yash eventually met its fated end: divorce.

But, much to del Rosso‘s surprise, divorce was therapeutic.  All of a sudden, the rage that she had been stoking vanished, evaporated, and disappeared. It was like instant catharsis.

Indeed, if ever there was a bad message to send out over the media, this must certainly be it: divorce cures.

Let’s try to do better: if you want to sacrifice your life or your marriage to ideology, you should follow del Rosso’s lead. If you believe that marriage is a patriarchal plot to oppress women, then your ability to function within one would amount to a betrayal of your cause and your principles. Thus, there is a silver lining to dysfunction.

If marriage is a form of domestic servitude that has favored male masters over female slaves, then the right and proper response for a zealous feminist is to engage in open rebellion, the better to impose her will on her husband.

In marrying a college drop-out/ waiter del Rosso seems to have thought that she had found a man she could control. If anything shocked her senseless, it was the fact that Yash had just enough pride left to refuse to give in to her demands.

Today, Lisa and Yash are not longer married. In some ways, they are much improved. Therefore, she no longer feels the need to make her relationship into a battleground where she can rebel against the patriarchy.

In del Rosso’s words: “But we have both changed profoundly, I think; there are no more expectations, because the words ‘wife‘ and ‘husband‘ no longer intrinsically carry any. We are kinder, more accepting, more forgiving. We are no longer married but choose to be together still. He is the person I want to come home to, tell my stories to, share my life with.”

Apparently, del Rosso has managed to align herself with some of the commenters who found my advice against confessing extra-marital affairs to be seriously wrong.

So, she told her ex-husband about all the times she cheated on him. In addition, she succeeded in taking the humiliation to a whole new level by announcing it to the world on the pages of the New York Times.

Lisa has not given up on her effort to diminish, demean, disparage, and subjugate Yash.

Unfortunately, he seems to have become more compliant. She describes it: “Did getting divorced fix my marriage? Somewhat. Not totally. There are things we have not dealt with yet. I did tell Yash about the affairs and he has forgiven me, he says, unless he really thinks about it.”

Now the happy couple is living together, in a rather chaste marriage, because there is strictly no intimacy. As del Rosso describes it: “… I am no longer married to Yash: not for about a year and a half now. Yet I still call him husband, and he calls me wife. We are each other’s emergency contact. We share an apartment and meals, but not the bed. The bed sort of looms each night, but dissolves into nothingness, because the bed, or the lack of what goes on in the bed, is not discussed. Not yet.”

Apparently, it's OK to use the terms "husband" and "wife" as long as they don't mean anything, as long as it feels like you're playacting your way through your life.

As I said… friends without benefits.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Trouble with Insight

By the purest coincidence, just after I put up my last post, I ran across this article about the role of insight in therapy. Written by Dr. Richard Friedman it is entitled: “When Self-Knowledge Is Only the Beginning.” Link here. (The article had been published a few days earlier, but, inexplicably, it did not make my Twitter feed until yesterday.) Dr.Friedman is a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

I think it will be especially informative for those very few people who still think that I caricature the current state of psychotherapy.

I am certainly not alone in arguing that insight does not cure, and long time readers of this blog know that I have been consistent on the point. Yesterday's post was the most recent in a rather long series.

Now, you can read a description of therapy offered by someone who is a pillar of New York psychiatry, and you will see that however many inroads cognitive approaches have made, the old insight-oriented treatment model is still hanging on. I suspect that it is hanging on for dear life, but it is still hanging on, and not among the lesser members of the therapy world.

Here is Dr. Friedman’s description of therapy: “It is practically an article of faith among many therapists that self-understanding is a prerequisite for a happy life. Insight, the thinking goes, will free you from your psychological hang-ups and promote well-being.”

Having described the current state of therapy, Dr. Friedman begins to argue against this idea. He begins with some clinical material. He writes: “Not long ago, I saw a young man in his early 30s who was sad and anxious after being dumped by his girlfriend for the second time in three years.…”

Dr. Friedman is not dealing with a novice. This man is a veteran of therapy. Naturally, his many years of therapy has given him insight into the origin of this feeling:  “He could even trace this feeling back to a separation from his mother, who had been hospitalized for several months for cancer treatment when he was 4. In short, he had gained plenty of insight in therapy into the nature and origin of his anxiety, but he felt no better.

“What therapy had given this young man was a coherent narrative of his life; it had demystified his feelings, but had done little to change them.”

There you have it. You lose the girl and the other girl and yet another girl. You spend years in therapy, you don't get the girl, but you walk away with the consolation prize: a narrative. That is very expensive storytelling.

We are not surprised that therapy has done nothing to help him hold on to a relationship, or, for all we know, to choose a woman with whom he might want to sustain one.

The patient has learned to focus on his past, not his present. If you ask why therapy wants him to do this, Dr. Friedman answers that it is an article of faith.

Let’s be clear. We are in the realm of storytelling and faith. We are not in the world of medicine or science. Surely, a physician will find a medical treatment for the sadness and anxiety, but, as Dr. Friedman notes, it is not abnormal to have these feelings after having been dumped for the n-ieme time.

As for the reality of the patient's relationships, we know nothing. No physician can reveal detailed patient information in a newspaper, but it is also true that therapy does not deal with reality. It seeks to make your life fit into a pattern, then to construct a narrative that pretends to explain it away.

If there are differences between the different situations with the different women, we do not know. Many therapists do not even care to find out.

At the least, the time the patient has spent trying to connect current events to past events has been time not spent on examining the way his relationships develop or expire.

Of course, Dr. Friedman has brought up this case to show us what insight can and cannot do for a patient. In this case, the correct conclusion seems to be that insight cannot do very much, if anything.

But, then, what does help people get better in therapy? Here, Dr. Friedman reports the prevalent view of why some people get better in therapy. I have occasionally mentioned it myself.

In his words: “Since the common ingredient in all therapies is not insight, but a nonspecific human bond with your therapist, it seems fair to say that insight is neither necessary nor sufficient to feeling better.” Of course, forging a solid human connection is neither science nor medicine.

This does not mean that insight is anodyne. It might actually make things worse.

Referring to another patient, Dr. Friedman writes: “He had been in therapy for years before I saw him and had come to the realization that he had chosen his profession to please his critical and demanding father rather than follow his passion for art. Although he was insightful about much of his behavior, he was clearly no happier for it.

“When he became depressed, though, this insight added to his pain as he berated himself for failing to stand up to his father and follow his own path.”

The point deserves emphasis. Since insight seems to involve self-criticism or to lend itself to self-deprecation, it can feed a depression.

In addition, therapy that is directed toward gaining insight inhibits action. By pretending that it is not important to take action or to change conduct, it promises that once the patient gains the proper insight he will naturally act more effectively.

If a long term therapy patient gains insight and cannot change the way he conducts his life, he will be prone to blame himself.

If ever he should try to cast aspersions on therapy or his therapist, he will quickly be accused of resisting the truth.

To be fair, Dr. Friedman still thinks that insight has a use and a purpose. He is a leading psychiatrist in a leading psychiatric facility where many of the professionals still cling doggedly to their faith in insight.

His experience, however, seems to have led him to conclude that the search for insight is, at best, a waste of time.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Managing Personal Change

Therapy has traditionally been a mind-over-matter enterprise. It has assumed that if you change the way you think and feel you will naturally change the way you conduct your life.

Therapists have believed so strongly in the power of mind that they have tended, until relatively recently, to downplay the possibility that you can change behavior without knowing why.

All of the talk about root causes has told people that they will never make any real change until they discover why they keep getting things wrong.

Again, it’s all mind-over-matter.

Remember the old therapy joke: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

The answer is: one, but only if it really wants to change.

Saying that people have to want to change is a way to rationalize clinical failures: if you’re not getting better it’s because you do not want it badly enough.

So, a therapy patient has to want to change and has to delay changing his life until he has gained the proper insight into why he has his problems in the first place.

Once he has gained that insight and gotten in touch with his feelings he can consciously choose to follow his bliss… even if it leads him off of a cliff.

This seems to be true even in the more sophisticated theoretical models. As reported last week by David Brooks (see my commentary), they want you to arrive at the point where your conscious choices align perfectly with your tastes.

As Brooks puts it, you should enthusiastically choose the cloudberry gelato because you really enjoy cloudberry gelato.

I questioned this principle before, on the ground that you might be diabetic and you might not be able reasonably to afford the object you are lusting after. Now, I will add, what if you develop a taste, not for peach sorbet, but for your neighbor’s wife? Ought you to choose to follow your strong inclination, regardless of the consequences.

To see life in terms of choosing the right flavor of ice cream is too simplified to be useful.

How does therapy want to help a patient deal with his bad habits? It assumes that if he understands where they are coming from he will gain enough self-control to overcome them.

For decades now, this paradigm has been under question. To take the most obvious example, 12 step programs have asserted that, when it comes to addictions like alcoholism, banking on your self-control is a very bad idea.

It may seem too obvious to belabor, but AA has always believed that you can stop drinking without knowing why you are drinking. If you insist that you need to uncover the root cause, you are, essentially, giving yourself permission to keep on drinking in the meantime.

For alcoholics the first step to changing their lives is to stop drinking. The first step toward overcoming  this bad habit is to stop it.

But you cannot just rely on your self-control The only effective way to get rid of bad habits, as Aristotle says, is to replace them with good ones.

The other day business coach Tony Schwartz addressed these questions in an excellent article entitled, “Six Keys to Changing Almost Anything.” Link here.

He, as I, follows Aristotle, in seeing that most of what we do in life is habit. We perform habitual behaviors automatically, as though they are not being generated or directed by thought.

Reporting on recent research, Schwartz says that 95% of our actions are performed by rote.

Think about walking down the street. Your conscious mind is not giving each muscle group a continuous stream of instructions, ordering it to expand or contract, to move this way or that.

Your walking is automatic; it’s almost as though your body has a mind of its own. If you were to decide to take conscious control over all of the actions that constitute a good walk, you will probably trip over yourself and reduce a three mile hike to a hundred yard stumble.

In order to get into the flow of any action, you need to overcome the impulse to control it with your conscious mind.

Schwartz quotes philosopher Alfred North Whitehead on the topic: "It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."

Why would this be so? Perhaps, it is because habitual actions require less effort and energy. They are more economical.

Once an action becomes habitual, we are inclined to repeat it because it is the path of least resistance.

Which is well and good if you have good habits. It is not so good if you have a number of bad habits.

And yet, replacing them with good ones, as Schwartz explains, is a lot easier said than done. A long-standing bad habit is like an old friend: familiar, reliable, and effortless.

If you try to change the habit, you will be embarking on a journey toward something strange and uncertain. And you will have to replace effortless activity with something that feels like very hard work.

Happily enough, Schwartz offers us some useful guidelines.

One of them seems like a page out of the 12 step playbook: if you are tempted by chocolate or big Macs or alcohol, do your best to avoid them.

Do not imagine that your self-control will keep you from consuming the forbidden fruit. The bad habit will, as the 12 step program says, eventually overwhelm your self-control.

Increased exposure to alcohol does not strengthen the alcoholic’s self-control It wears it out. After a while, you will do an ergonomic analysis and decide that it is more economical to take a drink.

But it does not suffice for an alcoholic to avoid bars. He must also develop the new habit of replacing the daily trip to the local bar with daily attendance at an AA meeting.

The more often he goes to a meeting, the more it will become habitual. As Schwartz explains:  “Put simply, the more behaviors are ritualized and routinized — in the form of a deliberate practice — the less energy they require to launch, and the more they recur automatically.”

How else can you go about effecting real change in your life? The first one Schwartz chooses seems obvious, but it is so obvious that we usually do not think about it.

You’ve probably heard it before, but it bears repeating. Set specific goals!

If you need to start an exercise regimen, don’t just tell yourself that you are going to exercise more. Join a gym, make a specific schedule of when you are going to be there, for how long, on which piece of equipment.

For some people, having a trainer or joining a class works to specify the time and place when they will exercise.

The second piece of advice is also sound: take on one habit at a time. While you are hard at work making exercise a routine, don‘t also try to make other changes in your lifestyle. Only after exercise has become routine should you think about that healthier diet.

If you try to do everything at once, you will be disrupting so many of your routines that you will no longer feel like you recognize yourself. This, in itself, will draw you back into your old habits.

If it is wrong to do to much at once, Schwartz adds that it is also a bad idea to take up a challenge that feels too small.

By that he means, if replacing your bad habit with a good one does not feel stressful, if you do not feel that you are struggling against resistance, then you are probably not addressing it correctly.

If you decide that you need to exercise, it is not sufficient to say that you are going to add a leisurely stroll to your daily routine.

If you are not working to establish a constructive new habit, then you will not feel that it is your habit. You need to earn new habits in order to feel that they are yours.

And then, Schwartz adds, there is perseverance.  You will need to persevere because you are very likely to fail in your first attempts. The key to successful change lies in getting back up when you feel that you have been knocked off course.

Think of an alcoholic doing a 12 step program who falls off the wagon. He will only be able to succeed in the program if he picks himself up and starts again on the road to sobriety.

Perseverance will lead him to success. Not because he wants to but because he knows that he has to.