Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Good War

It’s no secret that Barack Obama is not going to base his re-election campaign on his successful management of the economy.

If he tries blaming it on the Japanese tsunami and George Bush he‘s going to open himself up to ridicule.

And he is not going to run on hope and change again.

Last time Obama ran as a blank slate. Skillfully he allowed people to project their hopes and dreams on him.

Unfortunately for him, once the campaign was over and the real task of governing beckoned, Obama kept drawing a blank.

Political candidates run on achievements. “Next time I'll be better” is not a winning campaign slogan.

It should be clear by now that Obama will be presenting himself as a great warrior, as a commander-in-chief who has won significant victories over terrorists and tyrants.

Obama took down Osama bin Laden, decimated al Qaeda with drone attacks, and helped overthrew dictators in Egypt, and Libya.

Brave, courageous, and ultimately tough, Obama will portray himself as an intrepid leader who fought “from behind” for freedom and democracy.

At the least, his actions will immunize him from the idea that the Democrats are weak on national defense. At most, his actions will be presented as the proof that the Democratic approach to national defense is effective and efficient.

The press will collude and connive with the Obama campaign. Bad news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan will be downplayed. If anything bad happens in Libya or Egypt it will be called growing pains.

Is it a great political irony or a confidence game?

The anti-war party will band together behind a warrior president. They party that won the White House by running against the Iraq War will present itself to the American people as a militaristic.

Obviously, this gives liberal columnists like Roger Cohen palpitations. How can they justify Libya while continuing to feel that they were correct about Iraq?

In his last column Cohen explains how he learned to stop worrying and love military interventions.

To his mind there are good and bad wars. They are good when they are conducted by Democrats and bad when conducted by Republicans.

To be fair, Cohen does not really put it in those terms. That would make him sound like a partisan political hack. So, he pretends to offer a rationale that finds good wars glorious and bad wars contemptible.

Iraq, he explains, was a bad war: “Whatever the monstrosity of Saddam, and whatever the great benefit to the world of his disappearance, the war as it was justified and fought — under false pretenses, without many of America’s closest allies, in ignorance and incompetence — was a stain on America’s conscience.”

Note that Cohen does not mention the fact that Iraq, after some difficulties and errors, turned out reasonably well.

He does not note that liberals insisted that we should withdraw in ignominious defeat.

Modern liberalism seems to be congenitally insensitive to issues of national pride.

Anyway, Cohen believes that we should feel guilty about Iraq. We should feel guilty about overthrowing Saddam Hussein and helping establish, against very long odds, a democratic government in Iraq.

Cohen has overcome his guilt feelings about military intervention because he can rejoice over the wars fought by liberal presidents like Clinton (in Serbia) and Obama (in Libya).

Let’s be clear where Cohen is not. The interventions in Serbia and Libya were not wars. They involved military actions but were conducted mostly from the air.

Even Obama's war against al Qaeda in Pakistan, a continuation and escalation of Bush administration policy, was conducted by aerial drone attacks.

The commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a quick strike. Boots touched down but did not stick around.

Democratic policy supports military interventionism when it involves multinational coalitions, all of America’s allies, the United Nations, and no boots on the ground.

Military action in Libya fulfilled liberal dreams of multicultural diversity. Different nations conducted different operations without overt American leadership.

This also implies that foreign countries should have the right to veto American military operations.

The liberal conscience is also soothed because there is no real national interest involved in Libya or Serbia.

Liberal guilt directs some kinds of operations and avoids others. We had to intervene in Libya to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. The same applied to Serbia.

Foreign policy does not matter or count. If we have the means to save lives then we are under a moral obligation to do so.

We are no longer in the business of defending America; we are in the business of saving lives. You would think that the American military is a charity organization.

If, for example, we had intervened militarily or even rhetorically in Iran or Syria, then it might appear that our national interest is involved.

To differing degrees these nations hate America and everything it stands for. Thus, it would look self-interested if we seemed to be trying to overthrow a government that is run by our enemies.

Liberal interventionists seem most happy to intervene in situations where the national interest is not threatened, and thus, where there is little chance that the American people find joy in patriotism.

We know that if people feel more patriotic they are more likely to vote Republican. Liberal columnists cannot countenance that.

Cohen calls the wars in Serbia and Libya good wars; I would rather call them immaculate interventions.

If we are not acting in the name of America, and if the interventions were not approved by Congress, then the immaculate interventionists can see themselves as God’s army. Assuming that they believe in God....

Interventions are qualified as immaculate because American soldiers do not step foot on foreign soil. It’s almost as though liberals are horrified at the prospect that Marines might land on the shores of Tripoli because their boots would defile foreign soil.

And yet, if we get beyond Cohen’s simple-minded division of wars into good and bad, we must note that, in all likelihood, none of the rebellions that are sweeping across the Middle East would have happened without Iraq.

And we would also notice that the Middle East is currently extremely volatile. No one knows what is going to come of these rebellions. They might turn out for the better but they also might lead to worse.

I hope that no one still thinks that it will all turn out for the best because America did not lead the way.

One ought to point out that geopolitical realities made it possible to influence the course of events in Serbia and Libya with mere air power.

Fouad Ajami writes this morning that the geopolitical realities that applied to Libya were not at all applicable to Iraq. The situations were not even remotely comparable.

Iraq was embroiled in a centuries old conflict between Sunnis and Shia. It was surrounded by enemies who actively meddled in the affairs of that country.

He might have added that the fair-weather liberal interventionists, the ones who supported the war from the beginning, turned on it with uncommon ferocity once it seemed not to be going well.

Domestic anti-war sentiment did not make it easier to conduct the war.

If liberal interventionists were to address their own attitudes toward the Iraq war and to ask whether their willingness to use it to score political points might have made it more difficult to prosecute, they would have to get back in touch with their feelings of guilt.

Surely, they do not want to do that.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gender Bent Out of Shape

Beyond its ostensible purpose-- educating the young-- college these days has turned into a massive social experiment.

In the classroom women excel. After teaching a course at Princeton, Lisa Belkin observed that: “women ... were outspoken, self-confident and unapologetic about running rings around their male cohorts in the classroom.”

And yet, to Belkin’s chagrin, once they step outside of the classroom, when men invite them to dress and act like tramps, too often they accept the invitation.

Belkin see this as evidence that equality has stopped at the schoolhouse door.

In her words: “As parents around the country send their children to campuses for the start of another academic year, what are we to make of the fact that lessons of equality, respect and self-worth have been heard when it comes to the classroom, but lost somewhere on the way to the clubs? Why has the pendulum swung back to a feeling that sexualization of women is fun and funny rather than insulting and uncomfortable? Why are so many women O.K. with that?”

We need to look at this more closely, because Belkin is not on very good terms with reality.

I recall a pre-feminist time when women attended school and classes with men. I know because I was there. Women were not an oppressed minority. They were not being beaten into intellectual oblivion by the men in their classes. They were respected as students, even when they got better grades. And they were respected outside of the classroom.

True enough, men still organized most social activities. They invited girls on dates and ran parties in frat houses and other venues. They were hardly angelic. They did not always have the best of intentions.

But they did not invite girls to dress like sluts and did not expect them to behave like sluts.

Today Belkin bemoans the fact that a Duke fraternity invites girls to come to a Halloween party dressed as sluts. Feminists protest the indignity of it all, but many girls are more than happy to answer the call.

Surely, in a world where there are more women than men, women are obliged to go an extra mile in order to be noticed and in order to have a relationship.

Still, back in the old pre-feminist days, men respected women and men liked women. Apparently, this is not longer the case.

Belkin is correct to observe the gross disparity between the way women act in class and the way they act in clubs.

She does not, however, give enough weight to her own observation: women in college are “running rings around their male cohorts.”

Are women really that much better or has the American educational system decided, as a matter of policy, to favor girls over boys? Has it systematically praised girls beyond their merits while demeaning and diminishing boys? Has it chosen to make girls successful at the expense of boys?

If women are that much better than men, perhaps the game is being rigged in favor of women. Surely, there are more than a few boys who believe this.

What happens to a group when it feels that its best efforts will never be acknowledged, that, no matter what it does, it cannot win? It becomes demoralized. It does not work as hard and does not participate as much in class.

From what Belkin reports, this is the case at Princeton. Like many other colleges and universities, it has become a female-friendly, male-unfriendly place.

What happens when the women who shine in class, who are favored and sheltered and protected by their professors, step outside of the classroom and want to develop relationships with men?

It sounds to me, from what Belkin observes, that they are going to be receiving payback.

If men are systematically subjected to discrimination, they are going at some point to feel anger at those who are favored over them. And they are going to want to diminish and demean those in whose name they themselves have been diminished and demeaned.

Given the fundamental prejudice that is built into this environment, it is not surprising that men come away not liking women and not respecting them.

If you felt that someone in your class was being favored for reasons that had no special relationship to merit you would not like the person. And you would not respect her.

If she walked up to you outside of the classroom and wanted to develop a relationship with you, you might just take the opportunity to settle a score.

It’s not a pretty picture, but it is what feminism, with its ideological zeal and its mindless pursuit of unreal goals, has wrought.

Monday, August 29, 2011

We Need to Talk

All men dread those four words: We need to talk. When she decides that their problem is so serious that they must talk it over, he knows he’s in trouble.

It’s not exactly like being taken to the woodshed. It‘s more like being taken to couples counseling.

He knows he is going to be put on the spot, asked to express his feelings, and required to feel empathy for hers.

He doesn’t like the exercise. He doesn’t think it makes sense. He believes that he is wasting his time.

He might also know that it doesn’t work.

How can you solve a problem by engaging in a form of commiseration that does not even attempt to solve problems?

Human relationships, especially the romantic variety, are not a form of therapy. They should not be modeled on therapy.

Yet, the culture has told everyone that they should be. Working on a relationship is like working on issues in therapy. The culture has persuaded everyone that the best way to solve problems is to talk them out.

Isn’t that what therapy is supposed to do? True, it’s supposed to do it, but it is all too rare for therapy to do what it says it’s doing.

Rumor has it that therapy works better for women than for men. Unfortunately, it risks turning women into empathy junkies. Finding a kindred soul does produce some good feelings, but only for women.

For men, therapy that focuses on empathy does not produce similarly good feelings. Why would any man find comfort and solace in a therapeutic process that is treating him like a woman?

When therapy does not work for men, therapists tend to think it means that men need a lot more therapy. This explanation is so self-serving that it becomes laughable.

Still, therapists have been promoting the idea that if men do not respond to therapy they are not in touch with their feminine side; they are not strong enough to accept their true feelings; they are afraid of feeling vulnerable.

Therapy does not just set up this unrealistic expectation to keep men in therapy. Through the culture it tells women that a good relationship involves the mutual exchange of empathy.

Women have been seduced by the culture into thinking that men are capable of showing themselves to be sensitive and vulnerable.

When their men do not satisfy these expectations women often become frustrated. Not because of anything that men are doing, but because women have bought into an unrealistic expectation.

It’s relationship poison.

For the antidote let’s look at a study just completed by University of Missouri psychologist Amanda Rose.

Rose reports: "For years, popular psychologists have insisted that boys and men would like to talk about their problems but are held back by fears of embarrassment or appearing weak ….However, when we asked young people how talking about their problems would make them feel, boys didn't express angst or distress about discussing problems any more than girls. Instead, boys' responses suggest that they just don't see talking about problems to be a particularly useful activity."

Uh oh. Boys are not afraid to get in touch with their feminine side. The reason they do not want to talk out their problems is that they think the exercise is a waste of time.

Boys are geared toward solving problems. They recognize-- perhaps it’s in the DNA-- that talking it over does not bring them a step closer to solving anything.

Girls, however, are differently constituted. Rose explains that girls gain comfort and solace from talking out their problems… especially with other girls. They feel “cared for, understood, and less alone.”

Girls like to commiserate with other girls. It makes them feel that they are not alone with their problems.

All of this is well and good. No one ever said that girls should not commiserate or share feelings with their girlfriends.

Unfortunately, the convergence of therapy and feminism has caused our culture to idealize this form of connection. Women have been led to believe that men are just stunted women who have not realized their ideal form.

I will tell all the young women out there that if they find men who can make them feel that they are making an empathetic connection, they should run away.

Men who can commiserate with women are usually ladies’ man, and ladies’ men are not the best relationship prospects.

Prof. Rose explains: “Women may really push their partners to share pent-up worries and concerns because they hold expectations that talking makes people feel better. But their partners may just not be interested and expect that other coping mechanisms will make them feel better. Men may be more likely to think talking about problems will make the problems feel bigger, and engaging in different activities will take their minds off of the problem. Men may just not be coming from the same place as their partners.”

Men exist. They are not the same as women. They should not be treated as though they are the same. Amazingly, we now need academic research to tell us something that we should have always known.

Undoing the damage done by the therapy culture is not going to be an easy task.

Rose’s study shows us that therapy has been in the business of trying to make men more like women. It has tried to empower women at the expense of men. In so doing it has damaged both men and women.

Men are saddled with expectations they cannot really meet and women are tricked into thinking that empathy solves problems.

Women have an enhanced capacity for commiseration, but that, in and of itself, does not solve problems. It only makes women feel less bad about having their problems.

In a better world women would be encouraged to understand that the skills that solve problems-- skills that they possess-- are not the same as those that commiserate. And they would also get over the idea that they can succeed in the workplace by bringing more empathy to bear.

The Apocalypse Next Time

No one regrets that Hurricane Irene did not live up to her billing. For the most part she spared New York City, but she did do considerable damage to other parts of the nation.

Perhaps, as everyone is saying today, she was over-hyped by a news media avid for ratings, but if she had done more damage or if our political leaders had been less involved in disaster preparation, the media would be hyping a different story.

Now, as Irene passes from the scene, serious thinkers are trying to draw serious lessons from the experience.

Lee Siegel offered this verdict: “we have become a nation of hysterics.” Howard Kurtz seemed to blame for media for making it feel like Armageddon.

Adam Gopnik earns a prize for comparing the media coverage to the hurricane itself.

In his words: “The beautiful or odd thing is that the best metaphor for this process is, well, a hurricane: a slow spiraling build of hot air begins to circulate, gathering in new voices as it grows, until at last it is a spiraling, wheeling, dousing storm which drowns and floods our capacity for reflection.”

Gopnik is implying that America is divided into the dolts who are led around by their emotions and the rational set, who see things more clearly.

I like a good metaphor as much as the next guy, but Gopnik’s exaggerates what was going on in Manhattan.

Yes, people bought some extra candles and flashlights. There were long lines at my neighborhood supermarket. The bread section was stripped bare.

As the old saying goes: better safe than sorry.

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s metaphor, but no one really lost his capacity for reflection. Many people thought the danger was being exaggerated.

New Yorkers were not running down the street screaming: The end is near.

For the most part people behaved rationally, even if more cautiously than they needed to.

To be frank I did not even think that the news coverage was inordinately sensationalistic. For many parts of the Eastern seaboard Irene caused significant damage.

Say what you want about the news coverage, it was not much ado about nothing.

Lee Siegel mines the same hysteria metaphor but uses it to ask whether we as a nation have become too afraid, too sensitive to pending calamity, overcome by feelings of weakness.

He is not asking an impertinent question.

He moves beyond the general public to focus on expect opinion: “You had to wonder, in the midst of all the tumult, why the scientists and meteorologists interviewed by the media agreed that Irene would have an apocalyptic force.”

It’s not very difficult to answer this question.

Why have we become so completely hysterical about nature? Why is it so impossible to find an expert who is willing to go public with any doubts about the worst-case scenarios that are being peddled by the media.

If these are the questions, then there is a two word answer: Al Gore.

I fail to see how Siegel could have ignored the fact that the global warming crowd has been assailing the nation with gloom and doom predictions of environmental apocalypse for years now.

How many prominent scientists have been willing to risk their careers and their grant money to denounce the hype and hysteria?

It’s not crazy to prepare yourself for the arrival of a category 1 or 2 hurricane.

Hysteria enters the picture when you start believing that a threat to the mating habits of a smelt or to the natural habitat of a lizard will, inexorably, lead to environmental Armageddon.

At that point you have lost control of your rational faculties.

Sometimes hysteria manifests itself in the decisions of bureaucrats and judges. When decisions are influenced by the mania of activists, to the point where human livelihoods are easily sacrificed to the apocalyptic hysteria of the environmentalists, you can start talking about irrational mania.

But, Siegel makes some salient points.

As a nation we are in crisis. We are suffering a major financial crisis. Few of us understand what is going on and what should or should not be done to solve it.

In his words: “We long for the clarifying crisis because the response to it is clear and direct. We will know, as a nation, what to do in response to a disaster. In every other area of politics and social issues, we have no idea, as a nation, what to do.”

I’m not sure that no one has any idea. Different people have different ideas, some better, some worse.

Yet, Siegel is correct to add that we are more afraid when we feel leaderless. It’s one thing for the ship of state to go through a storm with a strong hand at the helm. It’s quite another to do it when no one is really in charge.

Siegel explains: “Remember when Obama was presented as an elemental form of hope, like a jubilant earthquake that would topple and smash our rotten politics? Now, however, he approaches public life the way he approaches hurricanes and swine flu: cautious, fearful, and appeasing, with a kind of repressed hysteria.”

I am convinced that by now Siegel is embarrassed at his “jubilant earthquake” metaphor so I will not belabor it. No matter how you look at it, it does not connote leadership.

Siegel’s most intriguing idea is that the reaction to the hurricane has something to do with 9/11.

He writes: “As we gear ourselves up for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, during which we will self-indulgently reenact the events and the emotions of that terrible day ad nauseam, far beyond the boundaries of necessary remembrance, it’s clear that we have become a nation of hysterics.”

Obviously, these remarks are appalling for their insensitivity. If you had ever been tempted to think that liberals maintain a superior capacity for empathy, this sentence will dispel your illusion.

The notion that we ought not to commemorate the terrorist attack or that we ought not to mourn those who lost their lives is frankly obscene.

Siegel does allow us to focus on the role New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg played in the hurricane preparations and in the commemoration ceremonies.

Bloomberg was front and center during the preparations for Irene, very much the man in charge.

Yet, when it comes to 9/11 Bloomberg has not been a profile in courage.

We recall, with chagrin, that Bloomberg was willing to fight vigorously to defend the right of Muslims to build a mosque at Ground Zero.

We also know that the same Mayor Bloomberg declared at a recent Ramadan dinner that: “We are all Muslims.”

Speak for yourself, Mayor Mike.

And the mayor who is so sensitive to the delicate feelings of Muslims, has banned all Christian and Jewish clergy from the commemoration ceremony.

Who would be offended by seeing a memorial service being led by religious leaders? Is there any group that would find it especially galling to see an ecumenical ceremony? Is there one religious group that is especially hostile to ecumenism?

In addition, Bloomberg has refused to allow first responders-- those police officers, firefighters, and rescue workers-- to participate.

Is there any group that would take offense to the presence the best of American civil servants? Why would anyone even imagine excluding these brave men and women, many of whose colleagues gave their lives trying to save people from the ravages of Islamic terrorism?

Don’t these people deserve a place of honor at the ceremony?

One senses that Bloomberg is more worried about offending Muslim sensibilities than he is to mourn our losses and to celebrate our strengths on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

If anything represents fear and terror, it is Bloomberg’s public attitude. If the word were used to mean what it means, he would be manifesting Islamophobia-- fear of Islam, the kind that spells appeasement.

Then again, how did it happen that the Mayor of New York has the final say in what should be a national ceremony?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

American Literature Defiled

It’s a good thing to take pride in your achievements. Even those who believe that enhanced self-esteem will solve all of the world’s problems agree… up to a point.

They believe in achievement-based self-esteem, but they do not accept that there are objective standards for judging achievement.

To their minds, achievement means that someone tells you that you have done a great job… regardless of whether you have.

In that they fail to distinguish between pride based on objective accomplishment and false pride based on flattery.

Self-esteemism also suffers an even greater flaw. It does not see that we gain pride both from our personal achievements and from the achievements of other members of our group.

We feel a rush of pride when one of our own wins an Olympic medal. We feel pride in the exceptional work done by our military. We feel proud to be Americans when an American business succeeds in the world market. And we are proud to belong to a nation that produces great artists, novelists, musicians, and dancers.

Pride is not merely an individual achievement; it ebbs and flows depending on the achievements of other members of our group.

If we want our children to have high self-esteem we should teach them to love their country, to appreciate its successes, and to contribute to new and greater successes.

This implies that we do not gain pride by worshipping the nation’s ideals.

Ideals might inspire people to achieve, but they might also lead them to find constant fault with the nation. Believing in ideals cannot ground a sense of pride.

Now, what happens to a college student’s self-esteem when he goes off to college and is force-fed anti-American propaganda?

We sit back and laugh at the utter stupidity of what passes for academic instruction in literature departments, but we should ask ourselves how a student’s pride might be damaged by the unrelentingly anti-American bias that has found a home there..

Reviewing the Cambridge History of the American Novel, Joseph Epstein summarizes the book’s point of view.

In his words: “A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism.”

Let’s understand that contemporary literary studies are in the business of producing guilt, alienation, and anomie. And let’s not forget depression and demoralization.

If you think that this is going to enhance anyone’s self-esteem, you do not understand self-esteem.

Unfortunately, the current state of literary studies is so bad that it defies criticism. If you tell it like it is you will sound like you are suffering from your own mental affliction. It is not possible that senior professors in respected academic institutions are as bad as you say. You must be exaggerating. It cannot be true.

Sorry to say, but it is true. It would be impossible to invent anything that is as incoherent, idiotic, and badly written as what passes for great thought among the nation’s most respected literature professors.

Here is a sentence taken from someone named Judith Butler.

Butler holds a chair at Berkeley; she has taught everywhere and is being taught everywhere. Within today’s academy, she is taken to be a great mind.

Here’s one of her sentences: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Want some more? Try this from University of Chicago English professor Homi Bhabha: “If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

Full disclosure: I am perfectly familiar with the theories that Butler and Bhabha are referring to.  Calling their writing mumbo jumbo would be too kind. It is complete crap.

Academic literature departments no longer recognize standards of literary value. They no longer reward good writing and clear thinking. Within their precincts there is no such thing as objective achievement.

If we had any sense at all we would see it as a national disgrace. If the best American universities invest their prestige in this blather, America has a very serious problem.

Students and their parents need to beware.

It makes good sense that the percentage of English majors, once 7.6%, has dropped to 3.9%. It also makes good sense that no employer will hire a humanities graduate of an Ivy League college, or of most other colleges, anymore.

Frankly, I think that 3.9% is too high. The problem will not be solved until students stop majoring in literature and stop taking literature courses.

Starve the beast, I would say.

Parents should advise their children against being exposed to such pseudo-theoretical claptrap, but they should also stop contributing to major American universities.

I know that universities teach much more than critical theory, but as long as they harbor this affliction and compromise their stature by supporting it, they are sorely in need of some tough love.

Take the book I just mentioned, the one with the august title: The Cambridge History of the American Novel. The book was edited by professors from prestigious institutions like Fordham, U. Conn, and Emory.

Weighing in at 4.5 pounds, containing over 1400 pages of text, bearing the imprimatur of the publishing arm of one of the world’s most prestigious universities, this book is a complete embarrassment.

Happily, its $185 list price will dissuade most people from buying it.

Still, it is a book that commands attention and confers prestige on a demented look at literature.

Reading Epstein’s review I envisioned a bunch of anarchists running through a museum defiling the art by spray-painting over it with graffiti.

Following fast upon these anarchists is a group of literary historians explaining that the anarchists had just engaged in some serious performance art. The historians do not bemoan the damage and destruction; they want to show you how the old works have gained contemporary relevance

Epstein explains that the authors whose work fills this volume have no real sense of the value of a literary work. They cannot tell you why William Faulkner is better than Allen Ginsburg, though they are more likely to prefer Allen Ginsburg because his poetry feels more like graffiti.

They do not care to hear what the literary work has to say. They hear only what they want to hear. Not even great literature can knock them off their hobbyhorse.

Epstein quotes a sentence from the book, one that talks  about The Great Gatsby. Be prepared for some dreadful writing: “Attention to the performativity of straight sex characterizes . . . 'The Great Gatsby' (1925), where Nick Carraway's homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby offers a more authentic passion precisely through flamboyant display."

Today’s literature professor neither knows or cares what literature is about. He does not believe that it has anything to teach him.

He gains his identity from feeling like he belongs to a domestic intellectual insurgency.

He wants to slash and burn, to destroy and deconstruct, to criticize and complain.

He will pretend that he is at the cutting edge of trendiness. And yet, as Epstein remarks, literature departments have become: “… intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die. If one is still looking for that living relic, the fully subscribed Marxist, one is today less likely to find him in an Economics or History Department than in an English Department, where he will still be taken seriously. He finds a home there because English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essays—after being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelers—might yield on the subjects of race, class and gender. ’How would [this volume] be organized,’ one of its contributors asks, ‘if race, gender, disability, and sexuality were not available?’"

Heck… it might have been organized to highlight the great achievements of American novelists. It might have been organized around American contributions to world literature. It might have been organized around the eternal and immutable value that resides in great art.

But, then again, the new theorists do not believe any of that. It would get in the way of their mission to render their students socially and morally dysfunctional.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Erotic Capital

If legalizing prostitution is the solution, what is the problem?

That’s the question that sociologist Catherine Hakim, fellow of the prestigious London School of Economics, wants us to ponder.

Ponder it we will, if only because her book Honey Money  introduces what she contends is a groundbreaking concept: erotic capital.

Since Hakim presents herself as a dogged critic of feminism, she begins on a promising note.

Unfortunately, her concept is ill-defined, but she is saying that women can and should use their sex appeal to get whatever they want.

They have not done so because an unholy alliance of feminists and patriarchs has told them to suppress their sex appeal. The world finds it too threatening.

For reasons that escape me Hakim wants women to put their sex appeal on public display and to use it to manipulate men.

It sounds quaint, even old-fashioned, but it also paints a very simple minded picture of the relations between the sexes.

If her attitude toward feminism was a marketing ploy, Hakim has had a certain amount of success. She has attracted the slings and arrows of British feminists, to the point where I, for one, am tempted to defend her.

Yet, her argument is so confused that one does not know where to start defending or critiquing it.

If she simply wants young girls and women to look better, to take better care of themselves, to feel more comfortable about being beautiful, I, for one, would have no objection.

She goes further than that when she declares the way to achieve those objectives is to legalize prostitution.

I doubt very much that prostitutes gain very much of a real-world advantage from the way they choose to deploy their erotic capital.

Selling your sexuality is not the same as investing it.

Hakim may think she is paying French women the ultimate compliment when she says that they represent the best in erotic capital, but I am not so sure that they would want to find themselves in the same category as prostitutes.

Or better, as potential mistresses.

More significantly, Hakim has defined erotic capital to include everything from advanced sexual skills to proper grooming to charm and wit, so you wonder whether she knows that there is a difference between erotic capital and aesthetic capital.

French women have a very highly developed aesthetic. They are often impeccably dressed and groomed. They have a wonderful sense of style.

Yet, the do not see themselves as purveyors of erotic capital. They see themselves as ladies. This should not be confused with tarting it up.

Hakim does not seem to understand that a woman can be beautiful and respectable, and can have sex appeal, while not putting her sexuality on display in the marketplace. I would venture that some very dowdy women have great sex lives and that some very vampy women do not.

In fact, Hakim has nothing to say about respectability, something that is clearly lacking in the women she chooses as exemplars of erotic capital.

Her list of women who display erotic capital includes writers of erotic fiction like Anais Nin, Dominique Aury, and Catherine Millet.

Yet, Will Self points out, Dominique Aury’s The Story of O shows one woman exploiting the erotic capital of other women in order to keep control over her man.

Catherine Millet’s memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, is not so much about a woman using her erotic wiles to get what she wants in life as about a woman who has had sex with just about everyone. Very few women would ever want to emulate Catherine Millet‘s mastery of the art of the gang bang.

Hakim argues for the enhanced sexuality of French women because she wants to indict the Puritanical cultures of Britain and America. To her mind they have suppressed female sexuality and thus made everyone miserable and repressed

The fault, she believes, lies with Christianity, for having created Puritanism.

Hakim does not notice that France is also a Christian country, one that has claimed cultural superiority on the basis of its skills at erotic arts.

It is also true that France has led the world in the per capita consumption of psychiatric medication. One wonders what Hakim would say about that.

She is happy to promote the virtue of extra-marital affairs but she does not notice that institutionalized adultery prevails in countries that clung to the practice of arranged marriage for centuries beyond its British and American expiration.

Hakim has attracted a considerable amount of derision for saying that women would do best to display their erotic capital in the workplace.

Perhaps she hasn’t noticed, but there are, today, far too many young women who show far too much skin in the office. One hears about it all the time.

It does not enhance their career prospects. It distracts men and offends other women.

Hakim errs because she only considers two alternatives: dowdy and vampy.

A woman can be beautiful and can be a lady without looking like she is on the make. She can have a basic sex appeal without looking like she is trying to seduce the world.

Mixing the art of seduction with the art of the deal is not a winning career strategy.

Women who feel that their erotic capital gives them an advantage in the workplace most often end up being played.

When Hakim explains that a woman’s erotic capital also involves her skill in the boudoir, she fails to notice that many men are not looking to marry a woman who has advanced sexual skills.

If sexual skills were such an important part of erotic capital then no man would ever want to marry a virgin.

Among her other dubious ideas, Hakim bases her theory on what she calls the “male sex deficit.”

By that she means that men want sex more than women do. As Lucy Kellaway says, it is not exactly an earth shattering revelation.

Hakim posits that if feminine sexual favors are in short supply, then men will pay a higher price for them. It’s basic economics, isn’t it?

Yet, Kellaway responds, if men are so avid for carnal relations, then they might not worry themselves about erotic capital. Sexy is one thing; willing and available is quite another. By Hakim’s own logic, the sexual desire deficit might well lead men to take any woman who will say Yes,  attractive or unattractive.

If women are as empowered as Hakim wants them to be then, men would be the ones who are primping and preening to attract a scarce sexual resource.

The disparity in desire seems to be a bad way of trying to explain something that can easily be explained by the concept of sexual capital.

In truth, the Darwinian approach is much stronger theoretically, and does not force us to try to measure something as evanescent as strength of desire.

If you are comparing male and female desire you would have to assume that men and women both want the same thing out of sex, and even that they experience it the same way.

Sexually speaking, women and men have vastly different amounts of reproductive potential. Obviously, men can sire far more children than any woman could possibly produce.

Thus, women tend to husband their reproductive potential far more judiciously than men do. Normally this leads them to reserve their erotic capital for a man who might be good father material. “A man” is not the same as “a lot of men.”

The disparity between male and female reproductive potential explains well enough why men seem to want more sex than women do and why men are far more insouciant about the consequences..

Joe Girardi Mismanages the Yankees

New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi has a problem. It’s name is A. J. Burnett.

Formerly a great pitcher, Burnett has lost his fastball, his control, and his edge. His ERA is abysmal. His presence on the mound must demoralize the team.

His last two starts have been disasters. When he was pulled from a game several days ago he threw a tantrum.

Yankee fans have watched the saga with chagrin. Nonetheless, Burnett continues to have the confidence of his manager.

Joe Girardi didn’t think that the tantrum was a big deal. Last night he offered us an insight into his managerial mind, and we are all the poorer for it.

When asked about Burnett, Girardi said: “I'm frustrated. Part of my job is to remember it's a person out there struggling. It's not just an employee of the New York Yankees. It hurts me to see someone struggling. We've got to try and fix it."

If you want to know what it is that could cause a manager to stick with a pitcher who can no longer pitch, Girardi lays it out for you: he feels Burnett’s pain. He has empathy for the person. Thanks for sharing, Joe.

Girardi is mismanaging his pitching rotation because he thinks he’s a therapist. So much so that he cannot even bring himself to call the man a man. To the Yankees’ therapist/manager, Burnett is a person.

Could that be why Burnett can’t pitch?

Let’s get real. Girardi’s job is to win baseball games, to motivate his players to play their best. If A. J. Burnett can’t pitch effectively and cannot control his emotions on the mound, then he needs to be treated as an employee of the New York Yankees and benched.

Feeling A. J. Burnett’s pain is not part of Girardi’s job description. The last thing the team needs from its manager is empathy for a temperamental pitcher.

It is demoralizing for the team to be sent out to certain defeat because their manager feels a need to show how empathetic he is.

Friday, August 26, 2011

True Grit

I like to think that the old virtues are making a comeback. After decades of countercultural attacks, it’s about time.

By old virtues I mean that virtues that make for strength of character. They would include honor, loyalty, responsibility, trustworthiness, decency, dignity, propriety,courtesy, decorum, temperance, self-respect, and perseverance. 

You acquire these virtues by behaving well. And by doing so consistently. You do not acquire them by gaining insight into why you do not have them. 

When the therapy culture encouraged us all to indulge ourselves by following our bliss and expressing our feelings, it was, surreptitiously, undermining good character. 

When it told us that it was mentally healthy to heed the counsel of our gut it was allowing us to ignore our duties and responsibilities to others. 

Trying to find happiness by satisfying needs and desires sounds good, but in practice it promotes self-indulgence and sloth.

Now, the cultural pendulum is swinging back toward civic virtues. Since therapy helped lead us into this cultural morass, it is fitting that a group of therapists is leading the way out of it. Among them is Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, whose recent work in positive psychology and happiness has promoted the old virtues. 

Today’s post addresses a character trait that contributes mightily to success: perseverance or grit.

For background reading on grit, I recommend two articles by Jonah Lehrer. Links here and here.

Those who persevere keep working on a task until they get it right. They avoid distraction, difficulties, and even failures in a single-minded pursuit of their goal.

By this theory, success does not come to those who are well-rounded and who multitask.

Those who persevere succeed because they follow the gospel of hard work. If they do not get it right, they keep going until they do.

You can have all the natural talent in the world, but if you do not have grit, you will not be very successful in life.

But it is also true that if you do not have talent all the grit in the world is not going to do you very much good. 

In principle, a combination of limited intelligence and true grit will produce a higher measure of success than will exceptional intelligence and no grit.

This reasoning can very easily lend itself to a misinterpretation. If Beethoven became Beethoven by working on music for thousands of hours, that does not mean that if I work on music for the same number of hours I am going to become Beethoven.

In my own case, I guarantee it. 

Talent may be somewhat overrated as a predictor of success, but if you have no aptitude for a task, grit is not going to make you as successful as the person whose aptitude is complemented by true grit.

Peter Drucker once recommended that before setting your goals you should find out what you are good at. It’s easier and more fulfilling to go from good to great than it is to go from mediocre to good.

Great achievements will receive commensurate rewards, to the point that they will make the effort seem worth it. Good or middling achievements purchased by grit will not feel worth the effort. 

There is no virtue in applying yourself assiduously to a task you are never going to succeed in, for lack of the requisite talent. 

There is a clear difference, however subtle it may appear, between persevering when you have the talent and persevering when you do not have the talent.

Lehrer emphasizes the point. He wants us to distinguish between true grit and wasted effort. Perseverance in the face of futility is no virtue.

Hard work, the kind that was derided by attacks on the Protestant work ethic, must actualize potential. You cannot make yourself into anything you please by the mere application of true grit. 

How do you know the difference? How do you know what you are really good at and what you will never be great at?

Lehrer found out that he was not going to be a great novelist when his college writing teacher told him that his talent lay elsewhere. 

This implies that he could trust his teacher’s judgment. 

If you want to discover where your potential lies, do not follow your bliss or your feelings or your dreams. Find a trusted advisor who has excelled in the field.

A basketball coach can tell you whether you have the talent for the game. I cannot. Your dreams of superstardom cannot either.

And then there is the verdict of the marketplace. If you do not agree with your adviser-- everyone makes mistakes-- then you can submit your work to the judgment of the marketplace.

I know, even the marketplace can get it wrong, but it is a far better judge than your gut.

How do you develop grit? Where does it come from? I assume that there isn’t a grit gene, one that some of us possess and some of us do not.

Surely, acquiring a virtue has something to do with the way you were raised. It comes from the values your parents taught you and the values that the culture holds dear.

When you had trouble with algebra did your mother insist that your grades were not acceptable, that you could do better, that you had to keep at it, and that you would not be allowed to watch television until you had gotten it right?

If so, you probably developed grit. 

A child may have enough grit to sit alone for hours on end memorizing words for a spelling bee, but at some time or other that child had to have learned the habit. 

And I would say that the exercise cannot truly be satisfying if the child does not win a few spelling bees.

You cannot keep putting in the time and effort if your efforts do not bring you some measure of success.

A demanding taskmaster, a drill instructor, teaches grit because he shows you how to push yourself, to go beyond your limits, to persevere in the face of your natural resistance. 

Your mind might be telling you that it’s time to end the exercise and relax. A good trainer knows that you can do a little more. He pushes you beyond your own sense of your own endurance. 

Of course, this reminds us of the parenting techniques practiced by Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom.

If you want to measure your own adherence to the value of perseverance, think about how you reacted to the Tiger Mom. If you thought that her approach made sense, you understand the importance of perseverance. If you think that she was abusing her children, you have not quite arrived there.

Remember the scene from her book, the one that elicited near-universal opprobrium, where her young daughter was learning how to play a difficult composition on the piano. It was so difficult that the child simply could not get it right.

Remember that the Tiger Mom forced her daughter to sit at the piano-- no rest, no recreation, no snacks, no bathroom breaks-- until she got it right.

For the record she did get it right.

You might not think that this is what character-building looks like, but then you should rethink the question. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

If He Only Had a Heart

Those who pinned their hopes and dreams-- but not their good judgment-- on Barack Obama are now dividing into two camps.

There are the loyalists, the head-in-the-sand true believers, like Tom Friedman, and then there are the hopeful realists like Mort Zuckerman.

Friedman happily recites Democratic talking points, blaming Republicans for everything and declaring that Obama’s Grand Bargain on the budget will get us out of our economic misery.

For Friedman Obama is like Tiger Woods… a great golfer who has lost his swing.

Zuckerman sounds like far less of a satrap than Friedman. Not that it requires too much effort. He sees a “competency crisis,” an increased public awareness that the president in whom he and Friedman pinned their hopes is simply not up to the job.

But then, Zuckerman shares his deepest longings: “Like many Americans who supported him, I long for a triple-A president to run a triple-A country.” Does he know that Obama will never by that president? It's not too clear that he does.

Zuckerman would do better to explain how he managed to get duped by Barack Obama.

Considering that he has been consistently critical of Obama, it makes no sense for him to cling to his hope that Obama will become a AAA president.

While Friedman will support Obama enthusiastically, Zuckerman is sounding like someone who might also vote for him again. Old longings die hard.

Both men seem to agree that the Republican candidates are so bad that they will vote for someone who has failed to fulfill their hopes and dreams.

Back to the texts.

Friedman is correct to draw a lesson from match play golf: it’s better to play to win than to play not to lose.

Playing to win involves attacking the course. Playing not to lose involves being afraid of making a mistake. We all know, or we all should know, that the golfer who is afraid of the course will be defeated by it.

Heaven knows what Tom Friedman is smoking, but the Tiger Woods analogy strikes me as especially lame, even for him. It moves beyond wishful thinking into blind faith.

In his words: “Obama is smart, decent and tough, with exactly the right instincts about where the country needs to go. He has accomplished a lot more than he’s gotten credit for — with an opposition dedicated to making him fail. But lately he is seriously off his game. He’s not Jimmy Carter. He’s Tiger Woods — a natural who’s lost his swing. He has so many different swing thoughts in his head, so many people whispering in his ear about what the polls say and how he needs to position himself to get re-elected, that he has lost all his natural instincts for the game. He needs to get back to basics.”

We are all happy to know that Tom Friedman possesses advanced mind-reading skills. He knows exactly what is going on in Obama’s head.

You cannot with any seriousness compare a political hack like Barack Obama to one of the greatest golfers in history.

Tiger Woods gained his reputation and stature by performing at the highest level over and over again. Woods won championship after championship; he made a fortune from golf and endorsements.

In the world of golf Tiger Woods was the real deal.

Compared to Woods, Obama is a poser, a fake, a politician who managed, with the help of the media, to trick the country into taking him for something he is not… a great leader, a great communicator, a man who had so much talent and so much brilliance that his inexperience would not matter.

We should keep in mind, however, that Obama saved Friedman from the ultimate horror: Vice President Palin.

Friedman believes that Obama has accomplished a lot more than he has been given credit for. Like what? A stimulus that has had no appreciable impact on unemployment. A health care bill that the majority of the nation does not want. A massive increase in the amount of job killing government regulations.

He bemoans the fact that the opposition party seems to want Obama to fail. Did the Democratic opposition and its media enablers do everything in its power to make George Bush fail?

A good political consultant like Friedman will spin it all in Obama’s favor, but the nation seems not to have seen any real benefits from Obama’s leadership. You cannot be a great leader if no one is following.

A mere 26% of the nation approve of his performance on the economy.

When Tiger Woods had his swing, he did not need an army of apologists to explain away his failures.

Compare Friedman’s absurd comparison of Obama and Tiger Woods with Zuckerman’s more judicious evaluation: “Many voters who supported him are no longer elated by the historic novelty of his candidacy and presidency. They hoped for a president who would be effective. Remember ‘Yes We Can‘? Now many of his sharpest critics are his former supporters. Witness Bill Broyles, a one-time admirer who recently wrote in Newsweek that ‘Americans aren't inspired by well-meaning weakness.’ The president who first inspired with great speeches on red and blue America now seems to lack the ability to communicate any sense of resolve for a program, or any realization of the urgency of what might befall us.”

Yet, no Tom Friedman column would be complete without something that is completely fatuous.

As if the analogy of Obama and Tiger Woods were not bad enough, Friedman offers Obama some advice. Not based on practical experience but on a movie he once saw.

In his words: “Meanwhile, Mr. President, on a rainy day, rent the movie ‘Tin Cup.’ There is a great scene where Dr. Molly Griswold is trying to help Roy ‘Tin Cup‘ McAvoy, the golf pro, rediscover his swing — and himself. She finally tells him: ‘Roy ... don’t try to be cool or smooth or whatever; just be honest and take a risk. And you know what, whatever happens, if you act from the heart, you can’t make a mistake.’”

Yes, indeed. Tom Friedman thinks that the solution is: therapy!

What else?

And which piece of advanced psychobabble does Friedman offer Obama: “act from the heart.” In the world of therapy this is what passes for wisdom.

After all, it works in the movie. Why, Tom Friedman asks, would it not work in reality?

Of course, movies are fictions. Shouldn‘t we have gotten to the point where we know that make-believe is not real?

If it was all that easy, then a great golfer like Tiger Woods, who can certainly afford all of the world’s therapy, would have gotten his swing back a long time ago.

Since Friedman wants us to think about the tin cup, why not also think about the Tin Man. When we do we recall a song he sang in the Wizard of Oz. Where the scarecrow had sung a song called, “If I Only Had a Brain,” the Tin Man’s version is: “If I Only Had a Heart.”

Unfit for Service

I’m sure you remember the Tiger Mom. The one who did not allow her child to have sleepovers. The one who imposed an outmoded and Un-American regimen of rote learning and brutal piano practice on her daughter.

We all remember the cries of anguish coming from American parents. How dare she? How dare Amy Chua suggest for a minute that there is anything better than an All-American upbringing? Where does she come off with all that Confucian clap trap?

As we all noticed, American parents excel at tantrums and bluster. Quick to take offense; quick to express outrage; convinced that their way is better… they are, after all, Americans.

Their self-esteem may not have any basis in fact or achievement, but, gosh darn it, they have the highest self-esteem.

American parents are the best because they follow the best advice from the best psychologists. They send their children to the best schools to be taught by the best teachers. If the schools are not quite the best, at least they are the best funded.

Even if their children do not turn out the best, they have done the best that any parent can do. Isn’t that what matters?

American parents rose up to smite the Tiger Mom because they sensed that she was being judgmental. She was not doing things like the rest of the Moms. Thus, she rejected their wisdom. Her failure to follow the new American version of childrearing implies a judgment.

If rewards were being handed out for high dudgeon, American parents would win in a walk. Unfortunately for them, no one gives out an award for the best expression of manufactured outrage.

The real issue is how the children who are subjected to this new American regime are turning out.

It’s difficult to know. We can send out questionnaires or do polls about how happy and well-adjusted they are. Someone will certainly find a way to show how creative they have become. They may not have very much discipline or self-respect but they are really great at finding themselves.

If we want a more empirical way to judge the effectiveness of the American way of bringing up children, let‘s try this one:

How many of them are fit for military service? Admittedly, this is not the highest bar. The military does not expect that recruits will be fully formed adults when they enlist. There is a reason why they are called “raw” recruits.

So, how many of America’s young people are fit for induction into the military? The answer, we learn, is: 25%. Link here.

A grade of 25% does not spell success. It spells miserable failure.

Why are so many young Americans unfit for service?

Let us count the ways:

Some are too obese; some are too ignorant; some have too much ink; some cannot pass a fitness test; some have taken Ritalin or some other stimulant; some have criminal records.

To flesh it out, 30% of American adults are obese; 33% cannot pass a treadmill test; 2 million children and 1 million adults are prescribed Ritalin every month.

Perhaps the 75% number is a bit high. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps it is a mere majority. The truth seems to be that America has produced a generation of young people that that is intellectually, physically, and morally unfit for service.

At least we can comfort ourselves with the notion that they all have very high self-esteem.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Loneliness of the Alpha Male

William Deresiewicz opened his lecture on a promising note. Addressing the plebe class at West Point last year, he began by saying that his title did not make sense.

“Solitude and Leadership,” he said, contradicted each other.

In his words: “My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.”

True enough, we do not think of alpha males brooding alone in their tents. We might think of the great warrior Achilles adopting that posture, but that only happened when he retired from the fray.

But, we do not think of solitude in romantic terms either. Being alone at the top does not even vaguely resemble what we would normally call solitude.

True enough, solitude can imply a contemplative attitude, but it also, and more often, involves feelings of loneliness, rejection, and abandonment.

If this is correct, then leaders do not function in solitude or isolation. They do not gain character by introspecting. If anything, they symbolize, in their person, the group they lead. That does not make you alone.

Comparing an alpha male with a social outcast is a piece of academic sophistry. I still find it difficult to understand how West Point could have extolled his efforts.’

If you read between the lines, you will discover that Deresiewicz believes that people become great leaders by undergoing therapy.

He doesn’t quite put it in those terms, and he hedges his bets, but his formula, translated into reality, would have young cadets retreat into their souls, to think for themselves, to discover their true being, in order to become effective officers.

It is almost too obvious to say, but the attitudes Deresiewicz is peddling here will not make for a more effective army.

Take the example of a leader who Deresiewicz does not mention: Alexander the Great. Alexander studied with Aristotle. We can be fairly confident that Aristotle did not teach him how to withdraw into his mind, but rather to apply his brilliant mind to the situation at hand.

Aristotle would have emphasized hard work, meticulous observation, painstaking analysis, and constant conversation with his staff and foot soldiers.

As every plebe quickly learns, the best way to learn how to lead is to learn how to follow. Without thinking very much.

Occasions arise where you do have to think about the virtue of what you are being ordered to do, but a soldier must first learn how to follow the leader. And to do so without hesitating, and without thinking it over.

Deresiewicz draws his lessons from fiction, from academia, and from the example of one great military leader. We should immediately be suspicious of his failure to consider a wider group of military commanders.

He begins with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the book that inspired the movie Apocalypse Now. Everyone knows that it is not a story of leadership success, but of a leader gone rogue.

Then, Deresiewicz compares the military to Yale University. To his mind they are both bureaucracies and all bureaucracies are roughly the same.

He believes that Yale and West Point are both in the business of producing leaders.

In this he is simply wrong. Universities are in the business of disseminating knowledge. You do not learn to be a leader by studying medieval poetry at Yale.

In the worst cases, a place like Yale is producing people who do well at reciting liberal pieties but who are barely functional in the world of work.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who manages a small department in a larger business. He explained that he had had unfortunately hired a couple of recent Yale grads.

Both were men. And both were burdened, to the point of being crippled, by the fact that they could barely apply themselves to their job. When questioned about their attitude, they explained that they had taken the jobs in order to find themselves.

They had certainly learned the value of solitude. They embodied the virtues that Deresiewicz told the plebe class were essential to leadership. And yet, they could barely complete the most minor task effectively. They knew nothing about working with other people, following instructions, doing their best work, or embracing the company mission.

They were finding themselves.

Does it matter that they were men? Indeed, it does. My friend informed me that women were far more competent and far more devoted to their work than were these male Yalies.

Deresiewicz is aware of this problem. So he quotes a passage from the Heart of Darkness where Marlow, the ship’s captain, thinks about finding himself.

He comments on it: “Now that phrase, ‘finding yourself,’ has acquired a bad reputation. It suggests an aimless liberal-arts college graduate—an English major, no doubt, someone who went to a place like Amherst or Pomona—who’s too spoiled to get a job and spends his time staring off into space.”

The phrase has acquired a bad reputation, deservedly. Humanities majors from major universities tend to be dysfunctional. The world has noticed.

Deresiewicz disparages people who can keep the system running and who can work within a world that relies on strict routines. Yet, when we look at young people who have never learned these skills, who have gotten trapped in their pseudo-intellectual solitude, we should recognize the value of keeping the routine going.

Actually, we have fewer and fewer people who know how to keep the system running smoothly. The problem is that too many people are too withdrawn into their own thoughts, not that they are too functional.

Deresiewicz tries to refute this argument by declaring that  a fictional character, Marlow is hard-headed. He adds that Conrad himself had been a ship’s captain, so he must be putting his own thoughts in Marlow’s mind.

This feels like it must be a joke. Unfortunately, Deresiewicz seems to believe it.

He does not recognize that a fictional character is not, by definition, real, and that the words an author puts in his mind or his mouth function within a fictional world, not within the real world.

In the real world, Deresiewicz tells us, most leaders are mediocrities. They got where they are by sucking up, not by achieving things.

Do you think that this will encourage a plebe class to respect its leaders? It might be true in the academy that people get promoted without having accomplished much of anything, but in the military, there is a reality check to your ideas and your leadership.

Military ineptitude exacts a very high price. Academic ineptitude does not.

Given his academic background, Deresiewicz seems to want leaders to be great intellectuals or great thinkers.

In his words: “What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.”

He offers the example of David Petraeus: “ He’s one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons. He is a thinker. He is an intellectual.”

He continues: “No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself.  And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.”

As it happens, David Petraeus has a Ph. D. from Princeton.

And yet, everyone knows that today’s university system is violently opposed to anyone who thinks for himself. Try offering a slightly right-of-center opinion in an undergraduate course on an American campus today and you will be excoriated, perhaps even downgraded.

Universities are not in the business of training anyone to think for himself. They are about teaching students to parrot the politically correct party line.

Moreover, leadership is not about having a great idea. Leadership involves selling the idea and implementing it. If a leader cannot induce his staff or his unit to execute his idea effectively, he will not be a great leader. He should have stayed in academe.

Then again, do you really think that George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur were intellectuals? A serious leader would have learned from Aristotle that character is not based on what you think, but on what you do.

Does anyone become a leader by doing as Deresiewicz says: finding his own reality?

Leadership involves working with the reality at hand, negotiating with it, whether it is the team you command or the equipment available or the obstacles that stand in the way of your success.

Any leader who tries to find his own reality will be going there alone.

When it comes to solitary contemplation, Deresiewicz seems to want to have it both ways. He wants you to look inside your soul, the better to discover what you really believe and who you really are.

Of course, if you are a colonel you do not have to look inside your soul to know that you are a colonel. Your being is writ large in your uniform and your insignia.

No one solves problems by withdrawing from the world. You solve problems by becoming more actively engaged with reality. You do not find solutions in silent meditation but from conversation, communication with others, and the marketplace of ideas.

Apparently, Deresiewicz wants to enhance solitary contemplation with a special kind of conversation.

He writes: “So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.”

He adds: “Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.”

Before going on, I will mention that if your leader talks to himself, be very skeptical of what he is saying. As for the kind of conversation Deresiewicz is touting, there is a word for it, and it isn’t friendship. It’s therapy. If you happen to make your way into the wrong kind of therapy you will be encouraged to speak ill of yourself, to express your doubts and questions. The activity is not going to give you confidence, courage, or focus. It can only demoralize you.

The first and still the best definition of friendship comes to us from Aristotle. Let’s assume that he was teaching it to his pupil Alexander the Great.

Aristotle wrote that friends seek the best in their friends, not the worst. Friends boost morale; they give you confidence and focus. They are not around so you can confess your doubts and insecurities.

If you find someone who is going to value you for being demoralized, how will you summon up the confidence and courage to inspire the morale of your unit, to the point where they can function as a group, not as a collection of solitary individuals?

Libya's Future

I’m not quite ready to celebrate Libya’s liberation from the heinous dictator Qaddafi.

Everyone seems thrilled by the advent of democracy in Libya. Most of us are delighted to see the Obama administration get something right.

Moreover, most savvy commentators are happy to pay lip service to the obvious fact that liberal democracy is not going to arrive in Libya any time soon.

It’s doing to be a long and arduous road, they tell us. And they are certainly right.

I am not, however, convinced of the inevitability of freedom. I felt that it was  naïve to think that  Egypt was going to be come a liberal democracy in the foreseeable future. Who knows how much damage will occur in the meantime.

I have often relied on the good judgment of George Friedman of Stratfor. Friedman was among the first to ask who the Libyan rebels were and what they were really planning.

Now, as the world is awash in good feelings over the end of the Qaddafi regime, Friedman is being derided as overly pessimistic and overly realistic.

For my part I prefer skepticism and realism to idealism, especially when idealism degenerates into wishful thinking.

Keep in mind that the press and the pundit class and the politicians are selling you a narrative. Some of them are certainly reporting the facts, but they are also crafting a story through which you can interpret the facts.

The current narrative, George Jonas suggests, bears an eerie similarity to the one that gave us the Ayatollah Khomeini. Remember when Khomeini was supposed to by the great liberator, the man who would bring republican government to Iran? Remember when everyone was cheering the overthrow of the brutal despot, the Shah of Iran?

Ask yourself what the world would look like today if Iran were still being governed by the Shah’s descendants?

Better or worse?

Today, George Jonas sheds some light on the situation in Libya. Even if his opinions are just cautionary, they are worth some reflection.

In his words: “Replacing killer colonels and ophthalmologists with Taliban-types in the Arab world seemed no cause for celebration to me”

And also: “For the West to welcome the replacement of a friendly despot with an unfriendly democrat may show altruism, but welcoming the replacement of a friendly despot with an unfriendly despot shows only naiveté. As for pursuing replacement policies without finding out who is about to replace whom — well, there’s a word for that, too. It’s called negligence.”

Of course, we do not know whether Libya’s new rulers will be more like the Taliban or more like the Democratic party. But before we break out the champagne, we should know who they are and what they want.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Respecting the Military

You would think it a good thing. The American military has regained the respect and admiration of a grateful people.

You might suspect that some of the respect might not be entirely sincere. Political expediency makes for strange loyalties.

Still, you would think that everyone would be cheering. The military represents a highly effective organization, one that represents the best of our nation. Were we to more closely embody the values that animate the military, we would surely be better off.

If truth, most people are happy at this eventuality.

With sophisticated intellectuals, writers like William Deresiewicz, such is not the case. Deresiewicz considers it to be mildly alarming that the nation is embracing martial values uncritically. To him this is a sign that the nation has lost its way, and is turning its back on the values that he seems to hold sacred.

Thus, he feels that he must offer a critique of the current respect for the military.

This is not the first time that he has done as much. This time he is doing it in the New York Times by critiquing the importance that we grant to the “uniform.”

In the post World War II period, returning veterans applied the values that they learned in military service to the task of building America.

They knew how to build and work in large organizations. They embraced a culture where they know how to dress and knew to make things run well.

The great sartorial symbol of their ethos was the uniform. Or its civilian equivalent, the business suit.

As everyone knows masculine dress has always been derived from the military uniform.

Thus, if you want to diminish and demean this ethos, you do well to start by attacking the uniform.

During the Vietnam era the counterculture attacked the American military and its culture. It declared martial values to be oppressive and repressive> It hated the rigid conformity implied in the notion of wearing a uniform.

I take it that Deresiewicz considers himself and is taken to be a friend of the military. The Times tells us that an essay of his is taught at West Point. Yet, he is a critic of America’s new found respect for the military, and especially of what he calls its “sentimental” attachment to the uniform.

He opens his essay with a complaint, and a distortion: “No symbol is more sacred in American life right now than the military uniform. The cross is divisive; the flag has been put to partisan struggle. But the uniform commands nearly automatic and universal reverence. In Congress as on television, generals are treated with awed respect, service members spoken of as if they were saints. Liberals are especially careful to make the right noises: obeisance to the uniform having become the shibboleth of patriotism, as anti-Communism used to be. Across the political spectrum, throughout the media, in private and public life, the pieties and ritual declarations are second nature now: ’warriors,’ ‘heroes,’ ‘mission‘; ‘our young men and women in uniform,’ ‘our brave young men and women,’ ‘our finest young people.’ So common has this kind of language become, we scarcely notice it anymore.”

Deresiewicz is a good writer and an intelligent man. Thus, one needs to read him carefully.

In this passage he is suggesting that there is something wrong with respecting the military. More importantly, he is speaking of the military as though it were a quasi-religious cult.

If he were saying that some of our admiration and respect for the military is an effort to make amends for the appalling attitude of the anti-Vietnam protesters, one would have to concur.

If he were saying that liberals who praise the military today are not very sincere, then I for one would concur.

Unfortunately, that is not what he is doing.

He himself offers respect, but his gesture is ultimately empty: “We owe them respect and gratitude — even if we think the wars they’re asked to fight are often wrong.”

Often wrong? Who’s to say? And what kind of respect are you offering to quasi-religious cult that has been fighting wars that are “often wrong.”

How can you respect soldiers when their mission is not worth fighting for?

And a country that “often” sends its military to fight the wrong wars cannot be worth fighting for either. Can it?

Why would respect soldiers who allow themselves to be duped into fighting the wars that are “often wrong?”

Deresiewicz has paid lip service to respecting the military, while damning it with faint praise.

Recently, many people have been thinking that it is a good idea for schoolchildren to wear uniforms. Studies have suggested that wearing uniforms contributes to classroom discipline and decorum.

Yet, Deresiewicz is disturbed at “the new cult of the uniform.”

Why so? He does not quite say what would happen in a culture that did not respect uniforms, but we already know from past experience.

When our nation disrespected the military he produced a culture of creativity and spontaneity, a culture that valued sloth over work, and they promoted free, open, self-indulgent expression.

If you are among those who respect the military, Deresiewicz believes that you are the victim of “emotional blackmail.” This was visited on you during the Iraq War.

In his words: “…supporting the troops, we were given to understand, meant that you had to support the war. In fact, that’s all it seemed to mean. The ploy was a bait and switch, an act of emotional blackmail. If you opposed the war or questioned the way it was conducted, you undermined our troops.”

If you accept that you were blackmailed into respecting the military, doesn’t that make you more apt to question your respect? What if the only way to escape from this “emotional blackmail” is to cease to respect the military? Isn’t that where this is headed?

Deresiewicz sees this cult to the uniform as a bad thing, a social symptom. So he proposes to cure it by explaining where it comes from. In his view, our respect for the military derives from the fact that the nation has not had a full scale mobilization for war.

In his words: “The greater the sacrifice that has fallen on one small group of people, the members of the military and their families, the more we have gone from supporting our troops to putting them on a pedestal. In the Second World War, everybody fought. Soldiers were not remote figures to most of us; they were us. Now, instead of sharing the burden, we sentimentalize it. It’s a lot easier to idealize the people who are fighting than it is to send your kid to join them. This is also a form of service, I suppose: lip service.”

Why does this necessarily mean that we have sentimentalized the burden? Is respect equivalent to idealizing, putting people on a pedestal?

If Deresiewicz were trying to analyze the attitude of today’s liberals toward the military, he would be making some sense. Perhaps the people he knows are paying lip service to respecting the troops, because they are guilt-ridden over their behavior during the Vietnam War. In truth, many liberals are so viscerally anti-military that their children would never even imagine joining it. Does that contribute to their false displays of respect for the military? Perhaps it does.

Unfortunately, Deresiewicz is not talking about his intellectual friends. He sees his friends as typical of all Americans.

He says that we recovered our respect for the military after 9/11. And he tries to explain it as a lame attempt to assert masculine virtues.

In his words: “The cult of the uniform also bespeaks a wounded empire’s need to reassert its masculinity in the wake of 9/11.” He then adds that it represents: “desperate machismo.”

In case you did not notice, Deresiewicz is trying to lead us to see this all through the lens of the therapy culture.

He expresses no real sense that it might be a good thing to fight back when a foreign power attacks your homeland and destroys a major portion of your major city.

He almost makes post 9/11 military action an overcompensation for a masculinity deficiency. Presumably, those who refuse to fight and who hate wars are so virile that they do not need to fight.

In this mind warp weakness and timidity become signs of enhanced virility. Go figure.

Deresiewicz does not see it in military terms or in geopolitical terms or in foreign policy terms. He sees it all in terms of therapy. Or better, in terms of what therapists call acting out: “The war in Iraq, that catharsis of violence, expressed the same emotional dynamic. We’d been hit in the head with a rock; like a neighborhood bully, we grabbed the first person we could get our hands on and beat him senseless.”

Fouad Ajami, a far more reliable source on these questions, has explained, painstakingly, that Saddam Hussein was not just a neighborhood bully. He was a state sponsor of terrorism in the part of the world that served as the cultural epicenter of Islamic terrorism.

Draining the swamp that had produced al Qaeda did not just mean attacking the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. It meant taking the war to the Arab Middle East.

Things have not gone entirely according to plan, and Deresiewicz does not feel that the civilian leaders and the generals have not been sufficiently criticized: “And yet the cult of the uniform has immunized them from blame, and inoculates the rest of us from thought.”

Actually,  the strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan led the civilian and military leaders to change their tactics. As the war kept going badly, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and their generals were subjected to withering criticism. To say otherwise is fatuous.

Importantly, Deresiewicz is not interested in effective military action. He is not concerned with winning wars. He wants to restore American guilt, the guilt that allowed America to repudiate its military and to turn away from martial values.

So, he says that he wants to know how many “terrible crimes” our soldiers have committed. We have read about some of them, but he is convinced that there are more. And he is convinced that many of these crimes have been covered up.

Here he enters the realm of slander and character assassination. Lacking enough evidence to indict the military, he relies on suggestion and insinuation.

Finally, he does his best to diminish the value of heroism. He argues that the word “hero” has been so overused that it has ceased to be meaningful.

Does it feel meaningful to say that the firefighters who ran into the burning towers to try to rescue people were heroic? Does it make sense to you that the soldiers who have been fighting and winning the war in Iraq might be considered to be heroes?

He is right to say that soldiers do not use the term very often: “The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk. The military understands itself as a group endeavor.”

Surely, they are much happier to be considered heroes and to be thanked and respected for their service than they were to be spat on, as the anti-war movement did during Vietnam.

Deresiewicz continues: “It was wrong to demonize our service members in Vietnam; to canonize them now is wrong as well. Both distortions make us forget that what they are are human beings.”

It is also wrong to draw an equivalence between excessive contempt and excessive respect… even assuming that the respect is excessive.

Again, no one is canonizing our soldiers. No one is elevating them to the rank of sainthood. Deresiewicz is wrong to keep playing this religious metaphor, as though the military is a quasi-religious cult.

And he is also wrong, to say that they are really just “human beings.”

Let’s be careful here. While it is true that soldiers are human beings, so are cowards who refuse to fight and so are critics who try to diminish their achievements. Using this term levels them, and strips them of the respect they have earned.

Our soldiers are much more than human beings. They are Americans; they belong to a nation; they are members of a proud and respected organization; they fight and die for our country.

To say that they are mere mortals is to diminish them with an empty platitude.

Deresiewicz seems happy to diminish heroic enterprise: “Heroism belongs to the realm of fantasy — the comic book, the action movie — or to delimited and often artificial spheres of action, like space exploration or sports.”

Again, this is therapy-speak. It implies that those who see things realistically have put aside notions like heroism and no longer worship the cult of the military uniform.

Unfortunately, space exploration is not artificial. Neither are sports. Both are real games. Those who excel at sports are not fantasy figures; they are real players, who do not live their lives as though they are living in a psychodrama.

Heroes excel; they save lives and they win wars. They do not perform miracles, they are not aspiring martyrs. But they sacrifice their comfort and sometimes their lives for their countries.

Heroism signifies exceptional achievement, achievement that is not gained by criticizing and demeaning the accomplishments of others.

We need heroes, as we need great men and women, because we need to have something to emulate, something to aspire to.

After diminishing heroism, Deresiewicz becomes intellectually incoherent by offering the following complaint.

In his words: “We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead.”

Of course, an editor ought to have spared us the term: "marshal us to the muddle." Be that as it may, the qualities Deresiewicz is touting come from a genuine respect for the military, for the uniform, for the values that the military embodies.

They do not arise by magic from criticism of the military, from efforts to make it into a sacred cult that is hiding terrible crimes. They do not come from the guilt that Deresiewicz is trafficking.

I am genuinely amazed that an essay be Deresiewicz is being taught at West Point. Why would the military find value in the work of someone who does not respect it? On another day I will offer some comments on his essay: “Solitude and Leadership.”