Monday, February 28, 2011

The Last Word on Obamacare

From Dennis Gartman, stock market commentator and forecaster, proprietor of the Gartman Letter, a few words on Obamacare:

"Let's get this straight. We're going to be 'gifted' with a health care plan we are forced to purchase and fined if we don't, which purportedly covers at least ten million more people without adding a single new doctor, but provides for 16,000 new IRS agents, written by a committee whose chairman says he doesn't understand it, passed by a Congress that didn't read it but exempted themselves from it, and signed by a president who smokes, with funding administered by a treasury chief who didn't pay his taxes, for which we'll be taxed for four years before any benefits take effect, by a government which has already bankrupted Social Security and Medicare, all to be overseen by a surgeon general who is obese, and financed by a country that's broke!!


The Lure of Revolution

By now I have had my say, and then some, about the dangers of being caught up in the tide that is cheering on the revolutions currently wracking the Middle East.

Today, someone who has a better grasp of history strikes the same cautionary note. I am talking about Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson, whose previous discussion of Obama’s handling of the crisis I have already blogged about. Link here.

Today Ferguson writes: “Time and again, Americans have hailed revolutions, only to fall strangely silent as those same revolutions proceeded to devour not only their own children but many other people’s, too. In each case the body count was in the millions.

“So as you watch revolution sweeping through the Arab world (and potentially beyond), remember these three things about non-American revolutions:

“(Only the hopelessly naive imagine that thirtysomething Google executives will emerge as the new leaders of the Arab world, aided by their social network of Facebook friends.)

“They take years to unfold. It may have seemed like glad confident morning in 1789, 1917, and 1949. Four years later it was darkness at noon.

 “They begin by challenging an existing political order, but the more violence is needed to achieve that end, the more the initiative passes to men of violence—Robespierre, Stalin, and the supremely callous Mao himself.

 “Because neighboring countries feel challenged by the revolution, internal violence is soon followed by external violence, either because the revolution is genuinely threatened by foreigners (as in the French and Russian cases) or because it suits the revolutionaries to blame an external threat for domestic problems (as when China intervened in the Korean War).”

Link here.

Madoff in Therapy

When I first saw the article, I thought it was a joke. It’s bad enough that taxpayers are providing Bernard Madoff with free room and board. We are also paying for his therapy.

In case you were wondering where all those taxpayer dollars are going, some of them are being used to help Bernard Madoff restore his good name.

Steve Fishman has the story in today’s New York Magazine. Link here.

If you had any doubts about therapy, if you think that I have been portraying it unfairly, then you should read about how Madoff’s therapist is happy to absolve him of his sins. She is functioning like a modern day priestess in a secular religion.

You would have thought that therapists, as men and women of science, would abstain from passing moral judgments. As David Hume famously remarked a few centuries ago, ethical questions, questions of good and evil, questions of what you should or should not do, cannot be decided by science.

Happily for Bernard Madoff, his therapist claims that she can judge his character.

Steve Fishman reports: “And so, sitting alone with his therapist, in the prison khakis he irons himself, he seeks reassurance. ‘Everybody on the outside kept claiming I was a sociopath,’ Madoff told her one day. ‘I asked her, “Am I a sociopath?’?” He waited expectantly, his eyelids squeezing open and shut, that famous tic. ‘She said, “You’re absolutely not a sociopath. You have morals. You have remorse.’?” Madoff paused as he related this. His voice settled. He said to me, ‘I am a good person'."

Fishman continues: “There aren’t many who would agree. For most of the world, Bernie Madoff is a monster; he betrayed thousands of investors, bankrupted charities and hedge funds. On paper, his Ponzi scheme lost nearly $65 billion; the effects spread across five continents. And he brought down his own family with him, a more intimate kind of betrayal.”

(Before you ask, I have no idea why Fishman would throw the word "intimate" into that sentence. It is markedly out of place."

With what authority does this therapist declare that Bernard Madoff is “absolutely not a sociopath?”

The strange thing is, everyone but his therapist knows that Bernard Madoff is not a good person. How much training do you have to suffer before you can put your moral sense to sleep?

Actually, even within her own profession, this therapist is behind the times. As I posted last Friday, psychologists are beginning to understand the way actions influence one’s moral compass. Link here.

Psychologists have now demonstrated that if you do wrong and keep doing wrong you are going to become a bad person, regardless of your good intentions. If you do it long enough you are going to become a monster, unfit for human compassion, sympathy, and forgiveness.

Of course, compassion and sympathy is exactly what Bernard Madoff is seeking by pouring our his black heart to Steve Fishman.

Just as he mastered the art of the Ponzi scheme, Bernard Madoff is now working to manipulate the minds of the general public and salvage his reputation.

And yet, as Madoff asks for forgiveness, he does not seem to think that too many people beyond his family suffered very much from his predations. He presents himself as a warm, sympathetic man, a father who is grieving over the recent suicide of his son Mark-- for which he and he alone bears the most responsibility.

Madoff wants us to know that while everyone around him, his clients especially, were having this amazing party on his dime, he himself was suffering extreme pangs of moral anguish.

In Madoff’s words: “It was a nightmare for me. It was only a nightmare for me. It’s horrible. When I say nightmare, imagine carrying this secret …..” “Look, imagine going home every night not being able to tell your wife, living with this ax over your head, not telling your sons, my brother, seeing them every day in the business and not being able to confide in them.”

Are you feeling sorry for Bernie yet?

His son Andrew isn’t. He does not buy the “good person” line: “Andrew won’t forgive his father. He won’t grant that his father is a good person who made a mistake. Andrew finds that almost comical.”

You can’t really blame Andrew Madoff. One day, years before the scheme unraveled, he went to his father and asked to leave the business. The ever-cunning Bernie persuaded him to stick it out, to stay in the family business.

Knowing what he knew, and knowing that the business was a catastrophe waiting to happen, Madoff used every trick he could find to keep his son in the business, and therefore to force him to share the taint that would inevitably be attached to it.

Are you ready to absolve Madoff of his sins? Does this make him a good person?

While Fishman is under a journalistic obligation to sympathize with his subject-- because otherwise he would not have gotten the story-- he has also suffered the ill effects of interacting with a monster.

Writing about Madoff’s refusal to allow his son Andrew to leave the business, Fishman writes: “Persuading a son to stay in a business a father knows will eventually take everyone down is, in retrospect, an act of deep selfishness.”

Sorry to have to say it, but “deep selfishness“ is not the right way to describe an act that will ultimately destroy your son‘s life. Especially when similar actions pushed your other son to hang himself.

Strangely enough, Fishman has laced his article with so much information about emotion, about what this one and that one were feeling, that he has lost touch with the reality of Madoff's crimes. Therapy will do that for you. If you don't believe me, ask Madoff's therapist.

Fishman has had nothing to say about the pain and destitution suffered by so many of Bernard Madoff’s victim. Lest we forget, Madoff’s son Mark is not the only person who committed suicide because of Bernard Madoff. Remember Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet? If not, here’s his wife’s view of Bernard Madoff. Link here.

Is Madoff’s remorse sincere? Nothing in the article suggests that it is. And yet, everyone but his therapist can see through the ploy. This trained professional does not even know fake remorse when she sees it.

How can we tell? Madoff does pay lip service to how ashamed he is of his actions, but he denies that anyone was hurt in his fraud. Then he adds that, after all, he was just a symptom of a corrupt system.

Better yet, he didn’t run around asking people to invest their money. They all came to him. They insisted that he take it.

When Madoff tried to give them their money back before he got caught, they all refused. Now, wouldn’t you conclude that he should not feel very much guilt or shame for his actions?

While the world sees him as an evil mastermind, Bernie Madoff sees himself as a victim of circumstances, someone who was just trying to please people. You see, he wanted to be liked so he could not turn them down.

At the very least, he is using his prison time to master the art of psychobabble.

Happily for Madoff, therapy has taught him to get in touch with all of his feelings, especially the ones that allow him to shift the blame. Now he knows that he is really a good person, so he can spend his time consoling himself with the thought that he has been misunderstood.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Watch the Oscars?

If you are trying to decide whether or not to watch the Oscars tonight, Virginia Postrel wants to help you out. So she has written a column offering some much needed perspective on the event. Link here.

In her words: “The Academy Awards show is ridiculous. Guests arrive in broad daylight wearing the most formal of evening gowns. Presenters, including some of the world's most accomplished performers, read their lines with the studied cadence of high-school commencement speakers.

“In contrast to the Super Bowl, a beauty pageant or 'American Idol,' nothing happens on stage that affects the outcome of the competition. The production numbers are just padding. And, of course, the speeches are boring, the show is too long, and comedies never have a chance.”

But then, why does everyone watch the Oscars?

Many people of the female persuasion watch because they want to see what the other women are wearing. Fair enough. Most of the actresses who show up on the red carpet are styled to perfection.

For women the Oscars are primarily about fashion. About how to produce certain looks, about which looks look best on whom, about which looks simply do not work.

For some reason Postrel does not mention this reason, even though it explains a large part of the show’s popularity.

Postrel offers another possible reason: people watch because they project themselves into the winner’s circle. They identify with the winners.

In her words: “Watching the Oscars gives viewers the chance to imagine being singled out before the whole world as special, beloved and really good at their jobs.”

Of course, this makes some sense. Many people have practiced Oscar speeches before the mirror in the morning.

To be honest, I have difficulty relating to this point. The thought of giving an Oscar acceptance speech has never crossed my mind.

And most people who are really good at their jobs would probably prefer not to be singled out. Successful people are humble people. Except perhaps in Hollywood.

But I am probably not the best person to explain why people watch the Oscars. For the most part I make every effort to avoid the show. In fact, I only watch when my friends have been nominated. It happens sometimes, but not this year.

And then, I am motivated more by loyalty than by a wish to project myself onto the stage.

For the record, the last time a friend or acquaintance of mine won an Oscar was around 35 years ago. I did not know he had been nominated, and I missed the show.

Perhaps I am a bit sensitive, but the last thing in the world that I would like to do is to stand on a stage with hundreds of millions of eyes on me, holding a gold-plated statuette in my hand, explaining why I did not deserve it.

Oscars are given to people who create illusions. Directors and producers and sound technicians win awards, but most of us watch the show because we want to see the actors and actresses.

These actors are being rewarded for their ability to foster an illusion by pretending to be someone they’re not.

When Oscar time comes around, the spell is broken, and the actors appear on stage as who they really are, not as who they duped us into believing that they were.

At the Oscars, the winners show us what is behind the mask.

Enquiring minds want to know if there is anyone behind the mask. Having been tricked into paying for an illusion,we are expecting some payback. We want to see a normal, everyday human being flub his lines. And sometimes we get it.

With all respect to Virginia Postrel, that is why people watch the Oscars.

Gays Against Gay Marriage

How times change.

Twenty years ago no one had ever heard of same-sex marriage. Today, if you do not believe in it, you are a bigot and a hater, conspiring to deprive a group of citizens of their basic constitutional rights.

I have already had my say on the topic, and will not revisit it.

Today, I want to emphasize a different angle. I want to look at what the debate over gay marriage shows us about how today’s liberal intellectuals enforce dogmatic beliefs.

Most of the arguments for gay marriage can barely stand scrutiny. Yet, most people have come to believe that people of the same sex should have the right to marry each other.

Have they been convinced to support something that doesn’t make sense? Or do they not care enough about the issue to continue to defend themselves against vile accusations?

At least that’s the way it is in the great cosmopolitan metropolis. From the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side to Soho and Greenwich Village left-thinking New Yorkers are convinced that the failure of society to accept gay marriage is tantamount to slavery.

Evidently, disagreement on such a basic issue is not tolerated.

Natalie Neusch bears compelling witness to this form of unfriendly persuasion in an article on The Daily Beast. Link here.

A gay woman having doubts about gay marriage, Neusch hesitates before expressing her views to her friends.

She begins with a personal confession. When she dares to tell a gay friend that she does not think that marriage is for her, she is forced to face the inevitable reaction: “People reacted to my ambivalence as if I had just burned an American flag. How could I turn my back on the centerpiece of the modern gay-rights movement? My personal relationship choice had suddenly become a political stand.”

As a professed non-believer Neusch is well placed to offer us a glimpse at the kinds of psychological pressure that enforce ideological conformity, and that keep her from expressing her views openly and in public.

In her words: “I don't bring up these concerns very often. Questioning the idea of gay marriage makes people think your goal is to subvert the whole gay-rights agenda—we need numbers, to be unified on this matter as our top concern. For gays to talk about not wanting to get married is taboo. By expressing my doubts, I am clearly a dissenter in this persistent force for progress. But getting married, gay or otherwise, doesn't seem like progress to me.”

Expressing a personal preference is one thing. One might excuse Neusch if she were merely arguing that she would not herself want to marry another woman. And one does understand that she can defend herself better if she says that the entire institution of marriage is somehow a bad thing.

But you can tell that her doubt is more deep-seated. As she puts it: “But there's a subtler, even more insidious anxiety lurking beneath the surface of our gay-marriage win. It's the unsettling possibility that we've spent the past couple of decades fighting to fit into an institution that doesn't necessarily fit us. I wouldn't be surprised to see someone wince if I referred to my partner as my wife. And I might wince a bit myself. We've been so focused on getting marriage ‘equality‘ that we've hardly stopped to think about how we'd feel about actually being married.”

I think that Neusch is quite correct. It’s all about the wince. I find her argument against gay marriage especially persuasive because she summarized it in a single gesture, a wince, a grimace, an involuntary facial reflex that really says it all.

People are willing to go along with the fiction of same-sex marriage. Good manners forbids them from expressing an opinion that would hurt the feelings of other people. If they lack good manners, the thought police will let them know, in no uncertain terms, that such opinions are prohibited.

People will vote for gay marriage in the next referendum. But, when you get right down to it, when you get to the level of an emotion that your face reveals and that is beyond your control, most of them think it is all very strange indeed.

Because Natalie Neusch has realized that this effort to fit in, to become a full member of the community, will, in the end, make her the odd person out.

That's a great realization. Hats off to Neusch.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Let Them Eat P#$&%

Everyone knows that young men today don‘t have it so good. Mark Regnerus agrees. Link here.

Young women are racking up impressive achievements in school and on the job. By comparison, young men seem to be a slacker generation.

Regnerus describes the plight of young men: “Their financial prospects are impaired—earnings for 25- to 34-year-old men have fallen by 20 percent since 1971. Their college enrollment numbers trail women's: Only 43 percent of American undergraduates today are men. Last year, women made up the majority of the work force for the first time. And yet there is one area in which men are very much in charge: premarital heterosexual relationships.

"When attractive women will still bed you, life for young men, even those who are floundering, just isn't so bad.”

Let’s see if we understand this correctly. In most of the activities that denote manly success in the civilized world, men are losing out. Their manly pride, such as it is, cannot be in very good shape. God will punish me for saying it, but  you don't feel like more of a man if you are getting beaten by a woman.

But, don’t feel so bad, Regnerus tells young men. They get to receive a consolation prize. They receive the booby prize or the booty prize, or both.

But, let’s try to be more serious . Let’s be historical. As I reflected on this dire reality, I had a vision. It came to me from 18th century France.

In my vision a courtier barges into Queen Marie Antoinette’s salon. He is at his wits end.

He exclaims to the Queen: “Angry young men are marching on the palace. They have no jobs; they have no career prospects; no woman would ever marry them; they might never have a family. These men are hungry. And we just ran out of cake.“

The Queen looks up from her needlepoint and declares: “Well then, let them eat p#$&%!”

Aside from the fact that this sounds like it would make a pretty good Super Bowl add, it has a more serious point. Most if not all men want more out of life than cheap sex.

To think that men can be bought off with cheap sex is grossly insulting.

Men might console themselves with cheap sex when it is offered. They are unlikely to reject a woman who offers it, but most of them, I hope, do not think that they a woman’s willingness to perform a sexual favor for them makes them alpha males.

All of this notwithstanding, Regnerus is right when he says that the terms of the transaction called hooking up are markedly friendly to men and unfriendly to women.

In his words: “But what many young men wish for—access to sex without too many complications or commitments—carries the day. If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we'd be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on. Instead, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (which collects data well into adulthood), none of these things is occurring. Not one. The terms of contemporary sexual relationships favor men and what they want in relationships, not just despite the fact that what they have to offer has diminished, but in part because of it. And it's all thanks to supply and demand.”

I would only qualify the point by saying that these women are allowing men to believe that they are in charge. It’s a way of lulling them into complacency while women are eating their lunch.

There are many reasons why women might hookup. Most of them are bad for women. I have often outlined them, and I hope that my arguments have resonated for some women.

Now, we know that hooking up might also be a ploy to trick men into thinking that they are more manly than they are. While they are sitting back feeling like the ultimate dudes, they are losing their competitive spark. If they do not have to work to have sex, if they do not have to expend any energy to get laid, then they are going to be less capable competitors.

Of course, it may also be that meaningless impersonal sex is the best that this slacker generation has to offer.

Democracy in the Arab World

As the Middle East was being engulfed in turmoil, I wrote that I would not be offering my own uninformed opinions. I thought it better to provide some examples to useful and interesting analysis from people who really did know what they were talking about.

It seemed like a good idea a few weeks ago. It still does.

Above all else, I have been trying to warn everyone not to get swept up in the hope for a new democratic dawn. Reality is always more complex than our dreams, and considerably less kind to us.

Yesterday, I discovered a long interview with a man who certainly counts among America’s best academic authorities on Arab and Islamic culture.

I am talking about retired Princeton professor Bernard Lewis. In the aftermath of 9/11 when we all started thinking that we needed to learn more about Islam, Lewis’s book, What Went Wrong? became an instant best seller. And rightfully so.

Lewis has not been among the more prominent voices offering a running commentary on events in the Middle East, perhaps because he is now 94, but he did sit down for an interview that was published in the Jerusalem Post. (I will mention in passing that I sincerely hope that we are all thinking as clearly when we are 94.) Link here.

His views should count as an important corrective for the politicians and intellectuals who have mistaken the events in the Middle East for the onset of Arab democracy.

Lewis begins by pointing that what Westerners and Arabs do not see democracy the same way. He has no illusions about whether a new round of elections in Egypt is going to solve anything.

In his words: “The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy, that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does ‘democracy‘ mean? It’s a word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.

“We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections.

“If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses.”

Next, Lewis addresses the role that social media and modern communications technology has played. He believes, as I and many others have stated, that the communication media has shown these nations what the outside world looks like. Now they know that their lives are not normal, that their governments have immiserated them, and that their backward nations that have fallen behind the rest of the world.

Normally, this recognition produces shame. To overcome the shame people have become angry and resentful of their leaders.

As Lewis expresses it: “There’s a common theme of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable."

He continues: “Well, you see, two things have happened. One is that their position on the whole has been getting worse. The second, which is much more important, is that their awareness of that is getting much greater. As I said before, thanks to modern communications, they can now compare their own position with that in other countries. And they don’t have to look very far to do that. I have sat with friends in Arab countries, watching Israeli television, and their responses to that are mindboggling.”

Then, the interviewer asks Lewis whether a freedom agenda can take root in the Islamic world. Lewis responds, importantly, that the Western concept of freedom is not at all the same as the Islamic concept. If we do not understand the difference, then we will misunderstand what the people who are demonstrating, protesting, and fighting really want.

In his words: “In the Western world, we talk all the time about freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. This was a society in which slavery was an accepted institution existing all over the Muslim world. You were free if you were not a slave. It was entirely a legal and social term, with no political connotation whatsoever. You can see in the ongoing debate in Arabic and other languages the puzzlement with which the use of the term freedom was first perceived.”

He adds: “The major contrast is not between freedom and tyranny, between freedom and servitude, but between justice and oppression. Or if you like, between justice and injustice. If one follows that particular discourse in the Arab and more generally the Muslim world, it would be more illuminating.”

Given that Lewis is being interviewed for the Jerusalem Post, he is naturally asked about the role of Israel.

You know, all too well, that sophisticated opinion has long held fast to the notion that Israel is the problem in the Middle East, that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will solve all the region‘s problems, and that this will happen if only the Israelis will make more concessions and build fewer settlements.

If the current turmoil in the region means anything it means that this piece of received wisdom is pure bunk. Anyone who still refuses to see it is ignorant,  fanatical, or delusional.

I have occasionally pointed out that, for the Arab Middle East, Israel is the solution, not the problem.

According to Lewis, more and more people are beginning to have the same realization: “There are increasing numbers of people in the Arab world who look with, I would even say, with wonderment at what they see in Israel, at the functioning of a free and open society. I read an article quite recently by a Palestinian Arab whom I will not endanger by naming, in which he said that ‘as things stand in the world at the present time, the best hope that an Arab has for his future is as a second class citizen of a Jewish state.’ A rather extraordinary statement coming from an Arab spokesman. But if you think about it, he’s not far wrong. The alternative, being in an Arab state, is very much worse. They certainly do better as second class citizens of the Jewish state. There’s a growing realization of that. People would speak much more openly about that if it were safe to do so, which it obviously isn’t.”

Conclusion: if Arabs want freedom and democracy, they should move to Israel. If that is not possible, then they need but set about emulating Israel.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Becoming a Better You

A title like, “Becoming a Better You” might lead some of you to believe that I spent too much time in the self-help section recently.

In truth, there is method to today’s madness. I chose a simple and direct title for this post because the post itself is going to be difficult and somewhat complicated, even philosophical.

I was inspired by a column on The Daily Beast. There Casey Schwartz reported on some recent psychological research which concluded that performing bad actions undermines your values and ends up making you a bad person, even if were a perfectly good person beforehand. Link here.

The article's summary asks it this way: “A lack of morality can lead to bad behavior—but can behaving badly make us lose our morals? Casey Schwartz on how lying, cheating and stealing warps our sense of right and wrong.”

For me, and maybe just for me, that is not very clear and easy to grasp. It is anything but high concept.

And that is before we get to asking why psychologists would want to devise an experiment that seems to be making hapless student subjects into worse people.

Does the name of science make it acceptable to induce people to lie, cheat, and steal? Wouldn’t it be better, and would it not achieve the same results, if the psychologists were spending their grant money trying to induce people to be honest, decent, and honorable?

But do we really know what makes you a better version of yourself? Do we all know what it means to have better character? That seems like a good place to start.

If you are learning ethics from the school system you are likely to come away believing that you can build your character by volunteering at a soup kitchen and having the right feelings about the plight of the poor.

Surely, there is nothing wrong with ladling out the ham and beans, and there is nothing wrong with feeling badly about the poor, but would it not be better, and thus, more ethical, to figure out how to make it that soup kitchens are no longer needed.

Hiring people, putting them to work, paying them a salary so that they do not have to go to soup kitchens… these are certainly moral actions. They make you a better person…

Yet, children today are taught that they can only become good people if they are doling out charity to the disadvantaged and underprivileged.

And they are brought up to believe that if they have the right feelings about certain political and social issues, then they are, necessarily, good people.

If you believe the right things, then you are a good person. And, as Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy demonstrated, if you hold the right beliefs, you simply get a pass on bad behavior.

Classically, acting ethically involved building character. And that meant learning how to interact with other people in a harmonious community. Ethics was always about etiquette and sociability. It focused on doing the right thing, in the sense of practicing good behavior.

Classical ethics is not about what you believe, but about how you act toward other people in your everyday life.

When a classical ethicist talks about being a better person or a better you, he means that you should aim to improve how well you get along with people, how good a friend you are, and whether you do the right thing toward other people in your everyday transactions.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the next phase of psychological research did not involve what happens to students’ minds when they are induced to lie, cheat or steal, but what happens when they are taught good table manners?

An ethical individual is trustworthy, polite, courteous, decorous, honorable, loyal and honest. Regardless of his political beliefs.

You should act ethically in your relationships with friends and family, but also in your relationships with colleagues, mentors, managers, and subordinates. You should treat them with courtesy, kindness, consideration, and respect.

In fact, an ethical individual behaves ethically toward everyone. He does not save his good behavior for the people he cares about or the people who can advance his ambitions.

I daresay that everyone wants to improve his character. Having better character means having better relationships, and we all know the importance of having harmonious relationships.

How does one go about it? Here the answer is clear and somewhat obvious. You force yourself to do the right thing even when you do not feel like doing it. Good behavior does not well up from the depths of your mind. It is something you learn by emulating those who know it or by following instructions.

You might know that it is right and proper to RSVP an invitation, but you might not feel like doing it. You might be waiting for a better offer for that Saturday evening.

Nevertheless, the right thing to do is to RSVP. Whether you want to do it, feel like doing it, understand why you should do it… you must RSVP.

And once you do it, you will become a better person, even if only at the margins.

The idea is as old as Confucius, but it’s the point that the psychologists at Harvard were trying to demonstrate… even if backwards.

They were trying to show that if you take a good person and induce him to misbehave… then, his brain will start rationalizing and accommodating the behavior. Eventually, he will change his ethical principles to justify the bad behavior.

This implies that a person who acts badly is not expressing some inner mental conflict. He is not living out a previous unresolved trauma.

Perhaps, in the wake of a trauma, a person adopts some bad behavior as a means of coping. The idea does need to have sprung from the depths of his unconscious mind. Most likely, he will have learned it because he saw someone else doing or because someone else told him to do it.

Once he undertakes to calm the pain of trauma with the bad habit, the bad habit will feel good and it will make him a lesser person.

This implies that understanding the link between the bad habit and the trauma will not cause the bad habit to disappear.

Let’s imagine, for just an instant, that we do not want to run experiments in which we trick unsuspecting college students into behaving badly.

Let’s imagine that we only want to render them socially dysfunctional. Perhaps we have come to believe that society is bad for their libido or their creativity. If that is true, then we are doing them a favor by making it more difficult for them to function in a repressive society.

How can we do it? One way, tried and true, is to send them into psychoanalysis. If you want to develop some really dysfunctional social habits, there is nothing better than psychoanalysis. The same applies to any form of therapy that derives its inspiration from what Freud wrought.

If you think about it, psychoanalysis is a laboratory where you will be taught, in the name of treatment or cure, to develop some very bad conversational habits.

Freudian treatment should be called: How to Lose Friends and to Irritate People.

Psychoanalysis wants you to lie down on the couch and to say whatever comes to mind. Presumably, once you get over the habit of conversing with another human being and taking cues from his reaction, your mind will express itself more freely.

Were you to try this at home, you would be finding yourself without much of a home life. It is rude and inconsiderate, to say nothing of tactless. In other words, it will make you socially dysfunctional.

For some reason psychoanalysts believe that their patients can learn a habit of bad behavior and then not apply it in their everyday lives.

A classically trained psychoanalyst will also refuse to look you in the eye and will greet your verbiage with a mixture of silence and interpretation. He has been trained not to respond as a human being, not to engage in a real conversational exchange, and not to reciprocate what you are telling him.

So, a psychoanalytic patient is being taught to be rude by someone who has already mastered the art.

If it should happen that your sense of your own self-worth depends on your interactions with other human beings-- which is the case for all humans-- then, psychoanalysis will cure you of your feelings of self-worth.

Psychoanalysts offer what should be called the silent treatment. A person who receives the silent treatment is being told, whether in psychoanalysis or elsewhere, that he is basically worthless.

When psychoanalysts are not giving you the silent treatment, they are permitted only one form of verbal expression: interpretation.

That means that they are not going to be listening to what you have to say, they are not going to be taking you at your word, and they are not going to be responding to what you are saying. They will be listening for the hidden meaning. After you have lost enough of your self-worth, they might even tell you what you really mean to say.

Whatever you think you are talking about, whatever you imagine has caused your suffering, a psychoanalyst will tell what you would be saying if you were as self-aware as he is.

Researchers did not have to construct experiments to see what happens when good people are taught to behave badly. They could have used the history of psychoanalysis as their laboratory.

It is not an accident that psychoanalytic institutions have traditionally been known for the fact that no one gets along with anyone and why they have been subject to splits, schisms, and internecine warfare.

Nor is it an accident that patients who have completed psychoanalysis become true believers, to the point where they believe that their dysfunctional behavior represents a higher level of functionality, and where they believe that bad behavior is a good thing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who's Winning the Middle East?

While everyone, or, just about everyone, is cheering the outbreak of democracy in the Middle
East, two articles from liberal leaning sources beg to differ. As they portray the current situation in the Middle East, the turmoil seems mostly to have benefited Iran.

The first is from the New York Times. It is entitled: "Arab Unrest Propels Iran as Saudi Influence Declines."

The second, from the Financial Times, is: "Iran Will Benefit From This Arab Spring." 

Why Women Hate Their Bodies?

“Shocking Body-Image News: 97% of Women Will Be Cruel to Their Bodies Today”

When a link to this story popped up on my Twitter feed, I instantly pictured what it would say. Given that it emanates from Glamour Magazine, I assumed that it would be yet another attempt to blame the media for women’s low opinion of their bodies. Link here.

When I opened the link, I was welcomed by an alluring picture of an exquisitely beautiful naked woman. Whether or not her body was perfect, it was surely close enough.

It felt like some kind of cosmic irony. Glamour was going to explain that 97% of women have at least one, but mostly more, negative thoughts about their bodies because they are constantly being regaled by pictures of beautiful naked female bodies in places like Glamour magazine.

I also expected the article to be sprinkled with psychobabble about women’s low self-esteem and narcissism, followed by advice for all of these women to go out and get even more therapy.  People who write such articles rarely imagine that women might be suffering these problems because they have had too much therapy.

And I guessed that it would end up blaming it all on men.

As it happened, I was wrong, in a good way. Shaun Dreisbach’s article avoided all of those pitfalls. She even avoided the usual therapy-speak about root causes and unresolved issues. She explained to her readers that self-deprecatory thoughts are a bad habit.

A habit is not a meaningful experience. It will not go away once you gain insight into what it means.

A negative thought may begin innocuously, but once it takes hold, it will become your best friend. However abusive it is, you will have a great difficulty disembarrassing yourself of it.

Dreisbach summarizes the kinds of abusive statements women direct at themselves on a daily basis: “’You are a fat, worthless pig.’ ‘You’re too thin. No man is ever going to want you.’ ‘Ugly. Big. Gross.’ Horrifying comments on some awful website? The rant of an abusive, controlling boyfriend? No; shockingly, these are the actual words young women are saying to themselves on any typical day.”

One cannot help but notice that these ideas bear a very close resemblance to the self-critical thoughts that Aaron Beck identified as the causes of depression.

Beck invented cognitive therapy when he recognized that depressed people tend to indulge in constant self-deprecatory thinking. They tell themselves: “I am no good,” “I fail at everything,” “I am worthless,” “I never get anything right.“ He then devised mental exercises that would attack the thoughts and diminish their hold.

Beck did not care where these statements came from; he did not want them to become a meaningful expression of some past trauma.

One of the psychologists that Dreisback quotes has clearly been influenced by Beck. This professional declares that it does not much matter where a girl first hears the negative message about her body Once she hears it, and hears it again ,and starts repeating it to herself, it will come to take over her thoughts about her own body.

Worse yet, as Dreisbach points out, these negative thoughts have become something of a shibboleth. If a woman sits down with her female friends and admits that she does not hate her body or is not concerned with its imperfections, she will be immediately chastised as a liar and a fraud. Among women it is socially unacceptable to admit to feeling good about your body.

Those of us who are not women will find this hard to believe.

Be that as it may, Dreisbach deserves praise for not falling into the trap that has caught so many dimwitted academics: she does not blame it all on the male gaze.

This psychological phenomenon involves women abusing themselves. Dreisbach notes that if a man or any other human creature had dared say the same thing to a woman, he or it would be beaten to within an inch of his or its mental life.

As we all know, the male gaze is much more forgiving of bodily flaws than is the female gaze. When it comes to the female body, men are less critical; women are more critical.

We might also ask ourselves what role the activity that is euphemistically called “self-abuse” plays in this mental habit. Out of respect I will not call it by its other name and will not attempt to explore the topic.

If social interactions tend to aggravate the problem it might also be the case that certain behaviors contribute to its durability.

For example, when a woman acts as though she does not respect her body, by hooking up with strangers and by giving it away as though it has little value, will she be more likely to enter into the kind of mental self-flagellation that we call self-deprecatory thoughts?

Are these thoughts the modern equivalent to the self-punishment that medieval monks and nuns inflicted on themselves for their sins of word, thought and deed?

Do they, in other words, serve a function in a woman‘s psychological economy?

Or else, do women who are trained to think ill of their bodies when they are young girls tend to be more likely to hookup or to be less discriminating about their choice of lovers? Are they less likely to be able to form relationships because they keep telling themselves that a man cannot possibly continue to want such an imperfect body?

I would also ask one other question: do women in America today like being women? Is there anything in the culture that makes women feel inferior to men, as though they belonged to a victim class?

If women have all learned reflexively to think that gender distinctions are merely social constructs, then perhaps this effort to neutralize gender masks a refusal to take pride in being a woman.

It’s one thing to know that women have a feedback loop in their minds that is telling them that their bodies are defective. Nevertheless, as Dreisbach noted, women who were happy with their careers and relationships: “tended to report more negative body thoughts than women who were content in those areas.”

She added that when women have problems or challenges in other areas of their life they tend to fall back on the habit of thinking negative thoughts about their bodies.

Obviously, this represents a withdrawal from the world and from its challenges. Regardless of how the habit started these critical self-referential thoughts function as a distraction.

The more a woman is focused on bodily imperfection the less she is focused on the task at hand and the situation that requires her attention.

In another feedback loop, this avoidance behavior increases stress and causes her to continue to think ill of herself and her body.

This tells us that when a woman is having these negative thoughts she should take a step back and ask herself whether there is a something in her life that she is avoiding, that she is not dealing with.

A Paradigm Shift in the Stock Market

Given that it’s a subscription site I do not often link to Richard Russell’s Dow Theory Letters.

I do subscribe myself and always find that Russell, who writes a new eletter every day, is interesting and provocative.

I can’t say that this is the first time he said it, but this week Russell wrote of a fundamental paradigm shift in the markets.

In the recent past we have learned to build wealth through investing. The economy grew; the markets rose; we became more wealthy. From 1982 to 2009 we lived through a great bull market. In a bull market you want to be invested, even leveraged, to the hilt.

Clearly, there is much debate about when the last bull market ended. Some will date its demise to 2007, but that does not change Russell’s view that we are currently in an extended or secular bear market.

In a secular bear market we should try to conserve wealth and not take on debt. Russell describes the new investment paradigm: “I believe that from now on, the idea will be to hang on to as much of our wealth as we can. In other words, from here on the trick will be to avoid losing money. He who loses the least will be the winner.”

In a bear market there are very, very few ways to make money, but many, many ways to lose it.

Russell lists them:
(1) Through both inflation and deflation.
(2) By owning the wrong assets at the wrong time.
(3) By trading poorly.
(4) By listening and acting on the wrong advice.
(5) By thinking you can make money (as in the old days) by remaining in the markets.
(6) By being leveraged in items that are subtly declining.
(7) Simply by being greedy, stupid or impatient.

 From the Business Insider, link here.

Anti-Semitism in Egypt

Whatever the facts, the mainstream media has its own narrative of the events in the Middle East. Regarding Egypt it has seen the overthrow of the Mubarak regime as the dawn of a bright democratic future.

As readers of this blog know, I have taken exception to this rosy scenario. Egyptians think it normal to mutilate their daughters; they largely support the imposition of Shariah law; and they suffer from a rabid form of anti-Semitism.

Martin Krossel just posted a column about the Western media‘s failure to report on anti-Semitism in Egypt. He reported on the recent return to Egypt of the world’s most important Muslim Brotherhood cleric, one Yusaf al-Qawadari. The esteemed cleric quickly called for a Muslim takeover of Jerusalem.

Krossel also emphasized that Lara Logan was sexually assaulted because the crowd took her for a Jew and an Israeli spy. Link here.

In the tweet that brought this column to my attention Kirsten Powers remarked: “You wld have to willfully not [to] see it; it's so pervasive.” As you may know, Powers has family in Egypt and has kept close watch on the situation.

The mainstream media’s failure to report all of the facts has lulled many Westerners into a false sense of complacency about the outcome of the current turmoil sweeping the Middle East.

But there is more to the story. If the new Egypt will enshrine anti-Semitism as one of its fundamental values, this has consequences beyond Israel.

Since Israel, by our American lights, should represent a beacon pointing toward a more democratic and capitalistic Middle East, the Egyptian hatred of Israel and Jews means that it is not prepared to enact political or economic reforms that would put entail emulating the Jewish state.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Coaching Barack Obama

Looking at events in the Middle East I recalled an old Bob Dylan verse: “… something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

For our current purposes, we will substitute Mr. Obama for Mr. Jones.

Given that our current president seems especially clueless about the crises in the Middle EAst, the pundit class has been weighing in with advice and counsel.

But there are pundits and there are pundits, and it is good to distinguish among them.

While some pundits are glorified reporters; their beat is still the facts, others offer a big picture narrative, whether mythic or historic. Others still seem to think that they are drama critics.

Some report the facts; some speculate about the meaning. But all of them are looking for the narrative. They are in it for the story. Or better, for the drama. Their overarching question is most often: Why? Wanting to look at why it's happening, they have little to say about how to change the course of events.

Another class of pundits sees the event less as a drama and more as a game. A game has rules and players and moves.

But it also has its pundit class. Some members of this group cheerleads from the sidelines. Some analyze the play of the game. Still others, attempt to coach the participants, to help them improve their game.

This morning Leslie Gelb, former Defense and State Department official, former New York Times columnist and former chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote an article where he tried to coach Barack Obama on how to conduct foreign policy in the increasingly tumultuous Middle East. Link here.

Gelb leans left politically, but, for better or for worse, he is a member in good standing of the foreign policy establishment.

Gelb begins with a refreshing dose of honesty and modesty: “To be blunt, I don’t know anyone who has the foggiest idea where these revolutions from Algeria to the borders of Saudi Arabia are going or whether future leaders there will be true democrats or new dictators. Sure, we all hope that present autocratic friends will help with a peaceful and orderly transition toward real democracy. Sure, we all hope that their successors will be both real democrats and sympathetic to American interests.”

I have occasionally made the same point. And Gelb is right to advise Obama against getting swept up in  hope.

After all, hope is not a policy; it’s a campaign slogan.

Gelb doesn't say it, but he seems to know that our president is overwhelmed by events, and that confidence building measures are needed.

A leader who is in completely over his head will be more likely to become paralyzed or to overreact. Gelb seems especially worried that Obama will do something incautious and immoderate, thus aggravating the situation.

Gelb has a special challenge here. The player he is coaching has never played the game before. Neither Obama nor his Secretary of State seems to have any idea about how to manage the crisis.

That 3:00 a.m. phone call has just arrived. And no one knows what to do. It's like coaching a Super Bowl team whose quarterback who has never taken a snap or thrown a pass and whose running back has never carried the ball.

If you are coaching this duo, you are seriously worried. Yet, as a patriotic citizen, you decide to do your best. In your heart of hearts you are wishing that you had more time to break in your quarterback and running back in smaller, more controlled, arenas.

It would be bad enough if there were just one game going on. Unfortunately, there are different games occurring in different countries. Most often we do not know which game is being played where, what the rules are, or even who the players are.

When last I turned on the news, no one seemed to know who formed the opposition to Qaddafi in Libya, what they want, where they stand, and so on.

Leslie Gelb knows that it is not political theatre. He knows that he is not a drama critic. He avoids the temptation to roll it all up into an overarching narrative, one that allows us to believe that we understand what is going on.

In this case, the most common narrative involves a great revolution that is going to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East.

But he does refer to historical parallels, properly so. He is not the first to do so. Some have said that the events recall the Iranian Revolution of 1979; others that they resemble events of 1917, 1848, or even 1991.

There is much to be learned from the study of history. Yet, there is history and there is history. You teach history one way to people who want to become professional historians and in another way to people who want to become policymakers.

The first group will emphasize uncovering and organizing data. Its goal will be to construct a story that explains why things happened as they did.

The second group studies history the way generals study past battles or the way chess players study past matches.

They want to see how different games were played by different players in the past. They want to show which moves were effective and which led to calamity.

If you see yourself as a player, a potential player, or simply someone who wants to root his judgment in reality, you  do best to see history as the record of the way games have been played.

That will give you a better sense of what is really going on and how well or poorly different games are being played by today’s participants.

Of course, people who set policy are not just analyzing the past. They are setting forth an action plan for the way they will deal with a future relationship or crisis.

All of this is well and good, but how do you coach people who have no experience? Or who have none of the knowledge that can only be gained by experience.

Absorbing every detail about the game of golf while never taking club in hand does not make you a golfer. If you have never played the game you are lacking a certain kind of knowledge. Coaching can guide the acquisition of that knowledge, but it is far more difficult to do so when your team suffers from gross inexperience. In situations like that a coach will start thinking that he should put himself into the game.

Recent polls tell us that the American people are losing confidence in Obama's leadership. Link to latest Rasmussen poll here.

Americans sense that neither Obama nor Clinton know how to play the game of foreign policy crisis management.

I will close with a question. How much do you think that the course of world events is being influenced by the leadership vacuum in the American government?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"The Moral Basis of American Democracy"

If you have never heard of George Lakoff you haven’t  missed very much.

Lakoff is a Berkeley linguist who at some point morphed into a political philosopher. Having first studied with Noam Chomsky at MIT, Lakoff came to reject some of Chomsky’s philosophical positions, but still managed to follow Chomsky’s example by becoming an amateur political thinker.

How amateurish is Lakoff, the political thinker? Very amateurish, according to Stephen Pinker. His review of one of Lakoff’s books is devastating. Link here.

Pinker is a Harvard psychologist; I have no reason to believe that Pinker is some kind of a conservative, or even a Republican.

He simply wants to argue for more coherent and cogent thinking. As a man of the left he was horrified that pseudo-intellectuals would be drawn to Lakoff’s convoluted reasoning and intellectual trickery.

Pinker seems to believe that Lakoff is living proof of the problems that ensue when you live in a world where everyone thinks the same thing. It makes you mentally soft and weak. To Pinker that means that said liberal will be utterly incapable of defending his ideas against a conservative. 

Even though Lakoff’s attempts at political thought ought, by now, have been consigned to the dustbin of philosophy, three days ago he weighed in on the events in Madison, Wisconsin. His column appeared in the Huffington Post. Link here.

Taking himself to be a big picture thinker, he regaled us with his views of what was really at issue: “the moral basis of American democracy.”

Lakoff begins with something of a rhetorical ploy. He asks what conservatives really want?

As we know, he is echoing Freud’s famous question: What do women want?

I have occasionally pointed out that Freud’s question is offensive and insulting. It assumes that women do not know what they want and that only a non-female person can tell them what they want.

The possibilities for abuse are legion. I will not detail them here.

When Lakoff asks what conservatives want, he means that conservatives are deceiving the nation, pretending to want one thing while really wanting another.

Without making any effort to distinguish the different kinds of conservatives, or even to mention that many of the people who voted for the kinds of conservative policies that he abhors are not even conservatives, Lakoff assumes that conservatives are frauds. They pretend to care about budget deficits but that is really just a ruse to seduce unsuspecting independents into accepting their views on gun control.

Worse yet, the real conservative agenda seeks to create a government that will let the less fortunate starve. Lakoff condemns conservatives because they just do not care enough.

Apparently, Lakoff classes unionized government employees among the less fortunate in our society, as needing our care.

In his view, this thinking strikes at the moral basis of American democracy, which is, nothing other than CARE.

On what authority does he make this claim? On none in particular.

Does the Declaration of Independence value care above all else? Not really. Read it’s most famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While the Constitution does say that the nation should “promote the general welfare,” that is not the same as saying that we must guarantee the pension benefits of certain public employees, when those benefits were extorted as political payback for the support the unions offered to certain politicians.

For the record, here are the opening words of the Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Not a word about care.

I will spare you a reading of the Federalist Papers, but it should be fairly clear, even from a quick read of these two texts, that liberty stood out as a vitally important value.

In his HuffPost article, Lakoff justifies his theory about care by invoking a higher authority.

Above and beyond the founders of the Republic sits a former adjunct law professor from Chicago, named Barack Obama. If Obama says that the moral basis for American democracy is care and empathy, then, to Lakoff, that decides the issue.

As it happens Lakoff wants to make liberty a function of caring, meaning that he will be happy to infringe on everyone’s liberty so that he will be free to impose his values on everyone else.

Writing of Lakoff‘s conception of freedom, Pinker wrote: “It consists of appending the words ‘freedom to‘ in front of every item in a Berkeley-leftist wish list: freedom to live in a country with affirmative action, ‘ethical businesses,’ speech codes, not too many rich people, and pay in proportion to contributions to society. The list runs from the very specific--the freedom to eat ‘food that is pesticide free, hormone free, antibiotic free, free of genetically modified ingredients, healthy, and uncontaminated,’ to the very general, namely ‘the freedom to live in a country and a community governed by the traditional progressive values of empathy and responsibility.’"

To be fair and balanced, we can ask ourselves how many people would be free to starve if the Lakoff anti-agriculture model were allowed free reign?

And shouldn’t we also mention that free market economies have had more success feeding more people than have planned socialist economies.

Have we already forgotten that Stalinist and Maoist policies produced mass famines that caused tens of millions of people to starve to death?

Ah yes, Lakoff might retort: but the food was free of pesticides and hormones…

Regardless of whether or not capitalists care, they do a lot better at working an economic system that benefits real human beings.

Despite his having been smacked down by Pinker, Lakoff insists that conservatives and especially free marketeers do not care about the poor and the disadvantaged.

Ignore the fact that the union members who are deeply offended by what is happening in Wisconsin are rather more privileged than most Americans, we should also ask whether the concept of freedom extends to the freedom to vote in a democratic election and to have those who we elect enact the policies that they campaigned on.

Because, after all, Gov. Scott Walker is doing nothing more than he was elected to do. Apparently, the Lakoff concept of freedom does not extend to the will of the people as expressed in free elections.

But, if all of this care and empathy does not come to us from our founding documents, where does it come from?

One might imagine that it comes down to us from the concept of charity, the Latin of which is “caritas.”  But the etymologists assure us that it comes from another root, one that renders its meaning as concern, worry, or affection.

Care as a moral sentiment has a certain nobility to it, but one might easily say that our concern for our fellow citizens does not require us to provide a lifestyle that befits only Berkeley ideologues and cult followers.

Caring about what happens to people is not the same as feeling obliged to care for their every need. Because the more you care for everyone’s every need, the more you deprive them of the joy of providing for themselves. And depriving them of their initiative, dignity, and self-respect.

Too much care is demoralizing and depressing.

The more salient issue, and the more serious defect in Lakoff’s reasoning, lies in a more basic confusion. Surely, there are people in society whose business is care. There are even people whose business is charity, in the sense of caring for the indigent.

Traditionally, those people have belonged to religious institutions.

You see where I am going: Lakoff is attributing to government and to the economy functions that are more properly those of religions. He has confused church and state.

As it happens, conservatives are more likely to give more generously to religious charities than are liberals. Perhaps conservatives believe in the separation of church and state to the point where they want religious charities to be doing more and the government doing less. It would be difficult to say that they give more because they care less.

This does not mean that the government should do nothing to provide for the poor and the indigent. Clearly, it needs to supplement the efforts of religious institutions.

But government functions best when it creates the conditions where business can create wealth and where citizens can care for themselves.

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that Lakoff has imported the concept of care from the writings of Martin Heidegger. I will spare you the details-- and that’s assuming that I would get them right-- but Heidegger once wrote a book called Being and Time where he attempted to construct humanoid entities whose sole purpose would be to embody certain philosophical principles, namely those involved in a single verb: to be. Since verbs have tenses, he was happy to allow those humanoids to exist in time.

Once Heidegger created these humanoid creatures, he had to find a way for them to connect with other humanoid creatures. As you may know, he saw their connection in terms of another verb: care.

Given that all other social transactions, the kind that would join people in a community or in the marketplace, are proscribed, all that is left is a generalized and anxious worry about other people.

I do not want to go into too much detail about Heidegger, but you probably know that several years after he wrote Being and Time he discovered National Socialism and declared that Hitler’s Third Reich was the best embodiment of his philosophy.

Just don’t say he didn’t care.

Much of the rest of Lakoff’s article is a hopeless muddle. I will not tax your patience with an extended disquisition, but I will point out that much of his reasoning is based on a false analogy.

Lakoff says that society is like a family and that we will have to choose between a patriarchal or matriarchal family structure. In truth, society is a collection of families, joined together by a system of exchanges.

According to Aristotle-- a higher authority than Lakoff-- the state precedes the family: "Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that."

Naturally,Lakoff opposes the patriarchy, attributing all manner of evils to men… because fathers do not care.

By dismissing the vast majority of men who care enormously about their families, who work and fight and die to protect them and to provide for them, Lakoff has shown, yet again, that he is more adept at caricature than at rational argument.

It gets better. After denouncing the patriarchal family for being led by a single father who makes all of the decisions, Lakoff attempts to link this model family to the marketplace, even though, by definition, the existence of a market precludes there being a single individual who makes all the decisions.

As Stephen Pinker explains: “Lakoff strikingly misunderstands his enemies here, repeatedly attributing to them the belief that capitalism is a system of moral reckoning designed to reward the industrious with prosperity and to punish the indolent with poverty. In fact, the theory behind free markets is that prices are a form of information about supply and demand that can be rapidly propagated through a huge decentralized network of buyers and sellers, giving rise to a distributed intelligence that allocates resources more efficiently than any central planner could hope to do. Whatever distribution of wealth results is an unplanned by-product, and in some conceptions is not appropriate for moralization one way or another. It is emphatically not, as Lakoff supposes (in a direct-causation mentality of his own), a moral system for doling out just deserts.”

Which leaves us with the question: what is the moral basis for American democracy, as it is being played out in Madison, Wisconsin, and soon, in a state near you?

Simple, it’s respect for the will of the people as expressed democratically at the ballot box.

Susan Walsh on Why There Are Too Few Good Men

One of the joys of the blogosphere is the free trade in ideas. 

Today, Susan Walsh of HookingUpSmart has an excellent post about the Kay Hymowitz piece in Saturday's Wall Street Journal. She kindly refers to some of the remarks I posted about it on Saturday. Link to Susan's post here.

If you do not know Susan's blog, I will tell you that each of her posts elicits an exceptionally interesting and wide ranging discussion. She has a wonderful community of commenters. So, it is always worth while to go back to the post and check out the new comments... and even to participate.

George Friedman on Revolution in the Muslim World

As expected, George Friedman of Stratfor provides us with the most serious, cogent analysis of what is going on in the Muslim world today. Bringing his extensive knowledge of the Muslim world and the history of revolution to bear on the current situation, he does the best job I have seen of making sense of it all and of helping us to follow the actions. Link here.

His conclusion: "The West celebrates democracy. It should be careful what it hopes for: It might get it."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Can't She Find a Husband?

I like a good catfight as much as the next guy, so I was happy to see that two women writers were having at each other. Even without the visuals, it was great fun.

On the one side is Tracy McMillan, who writes scripts for The United States of Tara and Mad Men. On the other is a Jezebel columnist who calls herself Morning Gloria.

Commenters all seem to call her MoGlo, but it appears that her real name is Erin Gloria Ryan. Out of respect for the Jezebel commenters, I will call her MoGlo.

Last week McMillan tried to explain in the Huffington Post why her girlfriends had not yet found husbands. Link here.

Having spent many hours listening to them bemoan their singlehood and ask her for advice, McMillan decided that she must have a certain amount of authority and expertise on the subject. After all, she has been married three times already.

McMillan is a writer. She knows how to use language. And she knows that when you are offering advice that everyone thinks they have heard already, you need to make it feel fresh and new.

I for one am not going to tell a woman how to talk to other women. Girltalk is not my bailiwick.

Provocatively, McMillan declares that her imagined girlfriend is not married because she is: a bitch, shallow, a slut, a liar, selfish, and not good enough.

It would have been easier to blame men or the economy, but McMillan seems to believe that women have a lot more control than they think over whether or not they get married.

Morning Gloria sees it differently. In fact, she takes some very serious offense at McMillan’s attitude. Given her skill at feeling aggrieved, MoGlo adopts a defensive crouch and comes out counterpunching. Link here.

Less skilled as a writer than McMillan, MoGlo falls back on a feeble attempt at satire. She even includes her own sarcastic list of the reasons why women are not married. It amounts to a litany of complaints about men.

Forget for a moment McMillan’s tart language. She is simply saying that if a woman wants to walk down the aisle she ought to conduct her life as though that is her goal.

I have said it before. Many people have said it before. McMillan puts such a sharp point on the idea that it risks getting through to everyone ... except MoGlo.

Becasue MoGlo is really saying that she has every right-- conferred by the Constitution and the sisterhood-- to behave however she likes, and that she deeply resents any suggestion that her own behavior has anything to do with her singlehood.

She thinks that the fault lies with men.

She does not know it, and I hope you are kind enough not to tell her, but she has thereby completely disempowered herself.

In many ways, this is the most interesting part of it all. McMillan offers some very sound, empowering, if not entirely original advice, and MoGlo rejects it out of hand.

It shows us why the most difficult part of giving advice is finding someone who is willing to take it. Why do people reject good advice? Often, because accepting it would require that they accept that they have gotten something wrong.

Most people would rather go down with the ship because it makes them feel like captains, even when they aren‘t.

Be that as it may, let’s take a look at McMillan’s advice. Let’s do what MoGlo failed to do: examine the substance of her ideas. Beyond the salty language, there is very little that ought to be controversial.

McMillan starts by saying that women are angry bitches and that, instead of being kind and nice, they are bringing their rage into their relationships. Where does she think they learned to be angry? Some learned it in therapy: “You probably don't think you're angry. You think you're super smart, or if you've been to a lot of therapy, that you're setting boundaries. But the truth is you're pissed. At your mom. At the military-industrial complex. At Sarah Palin. And it's scaring men off.”

She continues: “Female anger terrifies men. I know it seems unfair that you have to work around a man's fear and insecurity in order to get married -- but actually, it's perfect, since working around a man's fear and insecurity is big part of what you'll be doing as a wife.”

Second, McMillan accuses women of being shallow. No woman wants to be considered shallow. She might be able to accept that bitchiness is empowering, but she will not sit back and be accused of being shallow.

For women, “You’re shallow” are fighting words.

It sounds provocative, don’t you think. But McMillan really means that too many women are looking for all the wrong things in a man and are thereby ignoring the one thing that really matters in choosing a husband: character.

I have often made the point myself. So much so that I am happy to step aside and allow McMillan to explain it.

In her words: “When it comes to choosing a husband, only one thing really, truly matters: character. So it stands to reason that a man's character should be at the top of the list of things you are looking for, right? But if you're not married, I already know it isn't. Because if you were looking for a man of character, you would have found one by now. Men of character are, by definition, willing to commit.”

She continues: “Instead, you are looking for someone tall. Or rich. Or someone who knows what an Eames chair is. Unfortunately, this is not the thinking of a wife. This is the thinking of a teenaged girl. And men of character do not want to marry teenaged girls. Because teenage girls are never happy. And they never feel like cooking, either.”

Note that McMillan even offers some respect for the good that is found in many men. Just the kind of idea that would offend MoGlo.

For her third point, McMillan tells her girlfriend to stop acting like a slut.

As you know, that is a fighting word. And, yes, I do know that sex positive feminists like Jaclyn Friedman have embraced the term and their own inner sluthood because they think that slutting it up is therapeutic and makes you a better feminist.

McMillan is right, of course. In her words:  “Hooking up with some guy in a hot tub on a rooftop is fine for the ladies of Jersey Shore -- but they're not trying to get married. You are. Which means, unfortunately, that if you're having sex outside committed relationships, you will have to stop. Why? Because past a certain age, casual sex is like recreational heroin -- it doesn't stay recreational for long.”

McMillan blames it on oxytocin. Since oxytocin does not discriminate, a woman should exercise judgment before becoming intimate: “And since nature can't discriminate between marriage material and Charlie Sheen, you're going to have to start being way more selective than you are right now.”

I’m not sure why this is controversial advice. It is not news. In truth, I don’t even want to know why it is controversial.

In her fourth point, McMillan accuses women of being liars. In my own experience women are extremely unlikely to be liars, so we need to examine the point more closely.

McMillan is really saying that women sometimes lie to themselves by refusing to look the cold, hard truth about their relationships in the eye. In another context, it means that they believe too much in hope and change.

Meaning that when a man tells a woman that he is not available for marriage or a relationship, she might ignore his explicit statement and imagine that he will eventually change his mind.

In McMillan's words: “It usually goes something like this: you meet a guy who is cute and likes you, but he's not really available for a relationship. He has some condition that absolutely precludes his availability, like he's married, or he gets around town on a skateboard. Or maybe he just comes right out and says something cryptic and open to interpretation like, ‘I'm not really available for a relationship right now.’”

I would add that when a woman thinks that a man is going to change his mind she should understand that she is expecting him to go back on his word and his commitment.

Which commitment, you might ask? The one he made when he told her that he was not ready for marriage. If he changes his mind then he is breaking a commitment. If he breaks a clear commitment then he lacks character.

Why would a woman be looking to marry a man she does not trust to keep his word?

As if these qualities were not bad enough, McMillan adds that her unmarried friends are selfish.

Again this is not flattering. McMillan believes that women are not getting married because they spend all their time thinking about themselves, airing their grievances, and demanding that men cater to their needs.

In her words: “If you're not married, chances are you think a lot about you. You think about your thighs, your outfits, your naso-labial folds. You think about your career, or if you don't have one, you think about doing yoga teacher training. Sometimes you think about how marrying a wealthy guy -- or at least a guy with a really, really good job -- would solve all your problems.”

How can a woman overcome her self-absorption. McMillan suggests that motherhood will cure any woman of her self-centeredness. She might also have suggested taking care of a pet.

Finally, she suggests that women are having trouble finding husbands because they think that they are not good enough.

McMillan offers this as a twist. It asserts that women are being undone by their own lack of confidence in themselves.

They believe that they are not good enough to find a husband  or else that they do not believe that they have enough to offer. Thus they seek out men who are above them, whether in status or income, and believe that the man will raise their flagging self-esteem.

If a woman thinks that marriage is therapy then she has surely had too much therapy.

McMillan concludes by saying that marriage is about what you can give, not what you can get from it. Marriage is about giving love to someone who does not seem to merit it. Once a woman learns that she will learn how it feels to love someone.

In her words: “The bottom line is that marriage is just a long-term opportunity to practice loving someone even when they don't deserve it. Because most of the time, your messy, farting, macaroni-and-cheese eating man will not be doing what you want him to. But as you give him love anyway -- because you have made up your mind to transform yourself into a person who is practicing being kind, deep, virtuous, truthful, giving, and most of all, accepting of your own dear self -- you will find that you will experience the very thing you wanted all along:


Does this feel like satire to you? Does this feel like the most offensive idea you have every heard? You really have to ask yourself what is going on in MoGlo’s mind. Why does this sensible, if provocatively expressed, advice impel MoGlo to pen an uninteresting screed that is more about herself than the issue at hand?

Because, here is the kicker that I saved for last. If you read MoGlo’s list of ten more reasons why a woman cannot find a husband, you will notice that they are all in the form: damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Where McMillan talks to her girlfriend like an adult and emphasizes character development, MoGlo is worrying about fellatio, about the seeming paradox that a woman is damned if she is good at it and damned if she is not.

Clinically speaking, this is nothing more or less than depressive thinking. The classical definition of depression, as Martin Seligman explained, is that a person finds himself facing two choices each of which, he has convinced himself, is equally bad or futile.

Believing that he can do nothing positive, he gives up and quits.

Tracy McMillan has offered young women a series of great ideas for how they can improve their relationships with men, even to get married. For a junior feminist like MoGlo, those are fighting words. Go figure.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


When the financial crisis hit, certain segments of the intelligentsia found, as they always do, that they were right. They had considered that the financial markets were a free-for-all where the only law was the law of the jungle.

When people started asking what had gone so grievously wrong, this group readily explained: the markets lacked sufficient regulation.

For people who did not trust markets to begin with, the crisis of 2008 was an intellectual windfall.

Those who had a low opinion of markets had a lower opinion of human nature. They did not see humans yearning to be free, but they saw only the dark side of the human spirit.

To them, humans were driven by an impulse to lie, cheat, steal, exploit, and oppress.

They concluded that invidious human impulses needed to be reined in, and the only force that could do it was the arm of the law.

As you might guess, many of the most prominent advocates of this position were lawyers or lawmakers or bureaucrats. Beyond the obvious fact that this theory produces an avalanche of billable hours for lawyers, it also places lawyers atop the social status hierarchy.

Above businessmen, entrepreneurs, bankers, and real estate developers were lawyers. They were the clever genies who needed to control the system.

Intellectual debate being what it is, framing the issue in these terms suggests that you, as citizen, are faced with a dire choice. Either you accept that the marketplace be even more regulated or you will see it descend into a free-for-all where the few cheat the many.

If that is your choice, then what would you decide?

But, if you allow the debate to be framed in terms of these alternatives, then you have lost the argument to the lawyers. Their Socratic method will have divested you of your powers of ratiocination.

Of course, we all fear anarchy, and rightly so. But we need to consider other ways to look at the problem of overregulation.

From a different angle, we understand that the calls for a Draconian regulatory system are based on a fundamental distrust of human motives. If you believe that you really want nothing more than to lie, cheat, steal, pillage, exploit, and oppress… will this belief motivate you to become more trustworthy and honorable?

What if we base our culture on the idea that human beings are more likely to want to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do than to do the wrong thing because they can’t help themselves?

Given a large measure of freedom over their own affairs, humans are perhaps more likely to behave as people of good character.

Of course, a culture that is based on good character needs fewer laws, fewer regulations, fewer lawyers, and, most importantly, fewer billable hours.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have often drawn this distinction, between guilt and shame cultures. The former thinks the worst of you and believes that your behavior can only be controlled by explicit threat of punishment. The latter thinks the best of you and believes that you can control yourself because you want to build your character.

Besides having written a book, called Saving Face, about the topicc, I also suggested, in the distant past, that the mania toward increased regulation of the financial markets assumed that bankers were moneygrubbers, and that if that is the way the world sees you, then the chances are that you will not want to disappoint its expectations.

Now, I am happy to report that the topic has just received the Behavioral Economics Seal of Approval-- as I would put it-- from the hand and mind of Dan Ariely. Link here.

Ariely explains the cultural divide in terms of making a business deal: “Imagine that you and I meet at a party, and I tell you about my research on behavioral economics. You see opportunities to use the principles to improve your business and think we could work together. You have two options: You can ask me to collaborate, with a handshake promise that if things work out, you’ll make it worth my while. Or you can prepare a contract that details my obligations and compensation, specifies who will own the resulting intellectual property, and so on.”

Ariely understands that we live in a culture that prefers complete contracts, contracts that are drawn up to address all of the possible contingencies, all of the ways that things can go wrong in the deal.

In his words: “Indeed, firms try to make contracts as airtight as possible—specifying outcomes and contingencies in advance, thus lowering the chances for misunderstanding and uncertainty. But complete contracts have their own flaws, and business’s increasing dependence on (I would say, fetish for) absurdly detailed contracts in every situation comes with its own downside.”

As he explains, when people are too obsessed with complete contracts, or when they fetishize regulation, they are likely to try to follow the rules to the letter, regardless of whether it is better, more efficient, or makes any sense.

Nevertheless, Ariely writes, we all prefer complete contracts to incomplete contracts, the latter being symbolized in the deal that is contracted by a handshake.

In his words: “Incomplete contracts lay out the general parameters of the exchange (the part that we shake hands over), while the unexpected consequences are covered by social norms governing what is appropriate and what is not. The social norms are what can motivate me to work with you, and what would establish goodwill in resolving problems that might arise.”

What Ariely is calling social norms I am calling the assumption that each participant is honorable and trustworthy, and that each will try to fulfill his side of the contract, and therefore to effect a satisfactory business deal… because he will profit from the transaction, but also because he will enjoy keeping his word as a person of honor and will also enjoy dealing with someone whose word is his bond and who respects social customs.

When a company relies on complete contracts, unethical behavior is almost encouraged.

Ariely explains: “As for complete contracts, they too specify the parameters of an exchange, but they don’t imply the same adherence to social norms. If something is left out, or if circumstances change, there’s no default to goodwill—it’s happy hunting season for all. When we use complete contracts as a basis for working together, we take away flexibility, reasonableness, and understanding and replace them with a narrow definition of expectations. That can be costly.”

Worse yet, if you attempt to write down all the things that can go wrong, and all the things that people are not allowed to do, you are almost waving a red flag at your partner, saying that you dare him to find the one or two things that you forgot to write down. Since it is inevitable that you are going to miss something, you have, by relying too much on complete contracts, given license to violate the spirit of the agreement while remaining within the letter of the law.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Too Few Good Men

Kay Hymowitz speaks for many women when she asks: “Where have the good men gone?”

Hymowitz has written a book entitled: Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys. It has not yet been published-- thereby I have an excellent excuse for not having read it-- but Hymowitz has offered a tantalizing sampling in today’s Wall Street Journal. Link here.

As it happens, her question is not an imponderable riddle. The answer is simple: women are having difficulty finding good men because they themselves are the good men they are looking for.

Hymowitz says that the culture has effected: “a radical reversal of the sexual hierarchy. Among pre-adults, women are the first sex. They graduate from college in greater numbers (among Americans ages 25 to 34, 34% of women now have a bachelor's degree but just 27% of men), and they have higher GPAs. As most professors tell it, they also have more confidence and drive. These strengths carry women through their 20s, when they are more likely than men to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace. In a number of cities, they are even out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.”

While I would agree that American culture has succeeded in producing a gender role reversal, I am less sure that we should be calling it a hierarchy reversal.

Nonetheless, women are brought up to be hard-working, self-sufficient, career-driven, and fully capable of protecting and providing for themselves.

Boys are most often taught that their striving toward manhood is pathological or misogynistic, thus something that they must repress and overcome.

While I disagree with Hymowitz when she starts talking about life scripts and developmental models, I agree that our culture has degraded and discredited the ethic of manly behavior.

As she puts it: “It's been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.”

As she implies, manliness is an ethic; it involves living your life according to certain values. To my mind this makes it radically different from a lift script.

When feminists declared war on men and on masculine values, they did not intend to produce a generation of post-adolescent males who can barely hold down jobs, who have no interest in getting married and settling down, and who are lying around the house drinking beer, playing video games, and stuffing themselves with chips and dip.

But when you change cultural policy, you are responsible for the outcome, regardless of whether it was what you intended. Feminists may not have intended to unman men; but, as the old saying goes: they broke it; now they own it. At the very least they should own up to it.

In a way, it is only too obvious. If women abandon the traditional feminine values connected with making a home and caring for children, well then, someone has to hold down the fort.

If you cannot afford a housekeeper and a nanny, then the only person who is left to do it is a man.

Ah, yes, but you will object here: these modern men are anything but homebodies; they are overgrown adolescents who refuse to take any responsibility for anything. They are hanging around the house making a mess; they are not doing what women used to do at home.

How can I reconcile this seeming contradiction?

Easily: these post-adolescent males are not really about to become effeminate homebodies; they are hyper males, almost a caricature of a negative masculine stereotype.

Their immaturity is nothing more than a social protest movement. They are trying to tell us that we, as a culture, discourage them from developing their true masculinity in the world, and that they have found a default position.

As they make their way through the educational system, boys are most often taught that manliness is misogynistic, abusive, and oppressive. They are taught that great men, the heroes of the past, committed unspeakable horrors and should not be emulated.

If men are so intrinsically corrupt and venal, then they must be disempowered, removed from the world where they cause so much trouble by making war and by running the financial system into the ground. Where can these evil creatures do the least trouble: at home.

Now, let’s try a quiz. Do you believe that men should protect and provide for women? Is that an essential part of the masculine ethic?

Or better: Do you think that Lara Logan should have been given special protection when she was covering the events in Tahrir Square? Given that several male journalists had already been beaten badly by the crowd, should she, as the mother of young children, have hesitated before placing herself in a potentially dangerous situation, one that would was more dangerous because she is a woman?

Do you believe that women have a specific vulnerability that requires them to be more cautious about where they go and what they do? And do you believe that this vulnerability requires men to protect and provide for them?

With a few notable exceptions, most people who have commented in public have said that Lara Logan had every right as a journalist to be in Tahrir Square last week, and that if you do not think so you are a reactionary deviant.

I am not just talking about the feminists who always scream about how anyone who wants to acknowledge feminine vulnerability or the responsibilities of motherhood is a stone cold misogynist.

Last week this same sentiment was expressed by Sean Hannity-- yes, that Sean Hannity, of all people-- who defended the feminist position that Lara Logan should have been on Tahrir Square on his television show… to the point where he declared that any other position was hopelessly misogynistic and unworthy of discussion.

I bet you did not know that Hannity had become a radical feminist.

Unfortunately, the public debate has descended so far into name-calling that it is difficult to take sides.

Here is the way the question is most often framed. Those who believe that because a woman has a gender-specific vulnerability she should be more cautious about where she goes and what she does, are publicly excoriated for meaning to say that if a woman is sexually assaulted then it is her fault or that she was asking for it.

Anyone who thinks this way should grow a brain.

It really takes a minimum of intelligence to understand that if a woman is sexually assaulted it is never her fault or her responsibility.

From there it does not follow that a woman should take unnecessary risks, even when a man might more easily assume said risks. A woman should avoid walking through dark alleys at night or taking the subway at 3:00 a.m. Every young woman has heard from her parents that she should never allow herself to be in a situation where her intentions could be misunderstood.

With the exception of feminists and Sean Hannity, most people understand that it is reasonable and ethical for a mother of young children to take less personal risk than would a man in the same situation.

For those who believe in Darwin, women are more valuable and less easily replaced than men. Thus, human societies have tried wherever possible to keep women out of harm’s way, to protect and defend them.

Where are all the men, the ones who might protect women? They are home, drinking beers, playing video games, and having a jolly good time. Their message to young women: you are on your own.