Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When Religions Die

It’s a great question, not an easy one to answer.

Yesterday Bret Stephens asked: “How do religions die?”

Stephens tells us that we are watching the religion of global warming die.

It is dying, he observes, for good reasons: “Religions are sustained in the long run by the consolations of their teachings and the charisma of their leaders. With global warming, we have a religion whose leaders are prone to spasms of anger and whose followers are beginning to twitch with boredom.”

Global warmism,  as it is called, presents its dogmas as hard science. Yet, the more we read emails of its lead researchers the more we see that claiming to be science was a ruse to trick the gullible.

Of course, global warmism adds an apocalyptic vision of the earth’s future that fits perfectly the template of religious prophecy.

Global warmism is not the only modernist religion. It does belong to a unique class of religions: the secular variety.

Stephens mentions Marx and Freud, both of whom founded modernist, secular religions.

Secular religions are a reaction to the Enlightenment.It is commonly believed that the Enlightenment substituted the authority of Reason for that of religion.

People have failed to notice that worshipping at the altar of Reason is roughly equivalent to worshipping at the altar of Apollo.

Making decisions rationally is surely a good thing. Worshipping the god of Reason is pagan idolatry.

Similarly, global warmism is a cult to the Nature goddess. It, like other secular religions, tries to provide a religious experience for unbelievers.

Still, the question remains: how and why do they fail? How and why do some religions die out?

To answer the question, we should define what religions do. It is insufficient to say that religions provide access to divine or metaphysical realities.

Religions also form communities and congregations. They produce social cohesion.

If the purpose of religion, be it secular or metaphysical, is community, then, one can infer that religions fail when the communities that they form become radically dysfunctional and even self-destructive.

A religion can also disappear when the community that practices it is conquered by an alien army. If the invaders destroy the religion, it will cease to exist. The inability of a community to defend itself counts as a basic failure.

Or else, a community can implode; it can destroy itself from within.

Communism never produced harmonious human societies. It produced famine, desolation, and destruction. Based on atheist principles, communism demonstrated that a religion that believes in nothing is only capable of producing nothing.

Refusing to accept any divine authority, Communist leaders suffered from a notable absence of humility. The secular religion of Communism was destroyed because a series of leaders took themselves to be gods. 

If the leader’s Ego is the ultimate authority, people were likely to want to emulate his example. If they did they would produce anarchy. To forestall that result, Communists were obliged to practice the worst forms of oppression.

But, does the religion of global warming try to produce a new human community? I think it does. It promises that people will not only develop a new relationship with nature but will return to a more natural, pre-industrial, form of human community.

Perhaps not explicitly, but global warmism promises a return to a prelapsarian state, a state of community life that preceded the advent of factories, steel mills, steam engines, and cotton gins.

In truth, global warmism traffics in reactionary fantasies. It pretends to be ushering in a brave new world filled with children frolicking around windmill farms, where electricity will be supplied by solar panels, and where we will all live happy, healthy, long lives eating organic fruits and vegetables.

The more people understand that global warmism produces rolling and extended blackouts, higher carbon taxes, higher corn prices, and an avian holocaust, the less they are tempted to follow its high priests.

Religions die when they fail to produce what they are in the business of producing: effective human communities.

Modernist secular religions attract people who want to be part of a vanguard leading human beings to a brighter future. They die when their adherents start feeling like gullible fools.

"Desperate Demagoguery"

By now you would think that everyone knows. No one should be surprised that the Barack Obama has been stoking the nation’s divisions. He seems to see it as his last, best hope for re-election.

Yet, no less than Colin Powell sat down with Christiane Amanpour last Sunday to commiserate about how an unholy alliance of the Tea Party and the media was dividing America.

One expects as much from a fierce partisan like Amanpour, but Colin Powell should know better. Admittedly, he was responding to loaded questions, but still, Powell might have placed some responsibility on the man in charge. He didn’t, and it does not speak well of him.

In the meantime, famed hedge fund manager and former Goldman Sachs partner Leon Cooperman has seen the light.

In the world of finance Cooperman is one of the most successful and respected people you have never heard of. In his recent open letter to the president he sounds like someone who once supported Obama but who has lately joined the growing list of corporate and media titans who are disillusioned with the man from Chicago.

Cooperman’s ideas are not original. They have been widely circulated, on this blog, among other places.

But, given the source and given the passion, they are highly newsworthy.

Cooperman grants that Obama inherited a difficult situation.

(In truth, Obama did not inherit anything, in the strict sense of the word. He wanted the job. He fought to have the job. The word “inherit” incorrectly suggests a type of woe-is-me passivity.)

After Cooperman acknowledges how bad the situation was when Obama took office, he adds that: “the policy response on your watch has been profligate and largely ineffectual.”

Not exactly a vote of confidence.

Next Cooperman offers a scathing indictment of Obama’s moral leadership.

In his words: “But what I can justifiably hold you accountable for is your and your minions' role in setting the tenor of the rancorous debate now roiling us that smacks of what so many have characterized as ‘class warfare’. Whether this reflects your principled belief that the eternal divide between the haves and have-nots is at the root of all the evils that afflict our society or just a cynical, populist appeal to his base by a president struggling in the polls is of little importance. What does matter is that the divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them. It is a gulf that is at once counterproductive and freighted with dangerous historical precedents. And it is an approach to governing that owes more to desperate demagoguery than your Administration should feel comfortable with.”

I like the phrase, “desperate demagoguery.” It encapsulates the Obama leadership doctrine.

Cooperman adds some thoughts about presidential leadership: “But as President first and foremost and leader of your party second, you should endeavor to rise above the partisan fray and raise the level of discourse to one that is both more civil and more conciliatory, that seeks collaboration over confrontation. That is what ‘leading by example’ means to most people.”

Cooperman understands what Powell doesn’t. The president sets the moral tone of the national debate and that Obama has clearly chosen to divide the nation.

Perhaps Obama believes that the rich are to blame for everything that has gone wrong in his presidency. Perhaps he is simply using a cynical ploy to get elected.

At the least, we should not call it leadership.

Cooperman understands that Obama is governing like a community organizer. I hope that no one is surprised, but his analysis is on point.

Where Colin Powell and Christiane Amanpour see the Tea Party and the media standing in the way of compromise, Cooperman sees more clearly.

In his words: “With due respect, Mr. President, it's time for you to throttle-down the partisan rhetoric and appeal to people's better instincts, not their worst. Rather than assume that the wealthy are a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot who must be subjugated by the force of the state, set a tone that encourages people of good will to meet in the middle. When you were a community organizer in Chicago, you learned the art of waging a guerilla campaign against a far superior force. But you've graduated from that milieu and now help to set the agenda for that superior force. You might do well at this point to eschew the polarizing vernacular of political militancy and become the transcendent leader you were elected to be. You are likely to be far more effective, and history is likely to treat you far more kindly for it.”

Anyone who voted for Barack Obama because he thought Obama would be a “transcendent leader” should do some serious self-examination.

I am as much in favor of keeping hope alive as the next guy, but Barack Obama does not have it in him to be the kind of leader Cooperman wants him to be.

He is who he is. He is not, at this stage, going to become someone else.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Higher Education and Joblessness

The jobs are out there. Good jobs at good wages for welders, riggers, mechanics, machinists, plumbers, technicians… they exist, but they are going begging.

The Wall Street Journal reports that recruiters for industrial firms, like railroads and manufacturers, have lots of job openings. Unfortunately, the products of the American educational system cannot or will not do them.

America’s youth want to be knowledge workers, but there are not enough jobs in those fields. They want to think, not do. They want to wrestle with ideas, not fuses and lug nuts.

America’s youth do not want to do anything that resembles manual labor. And yet, that’s where the jobs are.

Bill Frezza is right to say that some part—estimated at 1 ½%-- of America’s unemployment is caused by a mismatch.

The American educational system is not giving students the right skills and is not teaching them how to navigate the real world.

The job market for museum curators, Frezza suggests, does not justify the number of students learning art history. The same applies to the job market for professional artists. In few places is there a more grotesque mismatch between the number of students wanting to be artists and the number of artists who can make a living making art.

Of  course, the educational establishment does not believe in the market. It looks down it aquiline nose at physical labor, especially the kind where you get your hands dirty. Most especially the kind that is going to reduce its importance.

Educators want everyone to have a higher education. They think that everyone should be exposed to the liberal arts. They think that college students should learn how to think, and, that once they know how to think, they will be able to think about anything whatever.

They will not know how to do very much, but they will have learned to transcend mundanity and to bask in the glow of the great Ideas.

Those who tout the supreme value of the liberal arts tend to have a financial interest in a market distortion that keeps them employed. One does well to doubt their wisdom.  

In the long run, the market will out. In the long run students will eschew liberal arts degrees that too often give them with a lifetime of debt in exchange for a degree that provides access to their parents’ couch.

Future students will be drawn to STEM studies, but also to more of what the professoriat would consider to be dirty jobs. The latter refer to jobs that, as it happens, cannot be outsourced. Anyone anywhere can program a computer, but you do not send out to Shanghai the next time you need some plumbing work.

The more students are drawn to practical studies, the smaller will be the budgets for liberal arts programs. The fewer students attend college, the smaller will be the university budgets.

It’s inevitable. But, when will it happen and how will the process be managed?

It is already happening in China. Frezza reports: “A little noticed Associated Press news story last week reported that China now plans to phase out college majors that consistently produce unemployable graduates. Any program in which 60% of the graduates failed to find work for two consecutive years would face funding reductions until supply was brought back into balance with demand.

“This Chinese hand may not be invisible, but it would be one that Adam Smith would recognize. Isn't it amazing that even self-identified communists are figuring out that markets only work when adjustment mechanisms act to reduce surpluses and shortages? Destroy those mechanisms and unemployable college graduates pile up as fast as unsold electric cars.”

Obviously, students vote on these matters with their feet. Administrators also have a say. In some ways, budgets have the final say.

On some campuses, entire Humanities departments have been eliminated. Last year SUNY Albany eliminated the French, Russian, Italian, Classics and theatre departments.

The process is taking place and the process will continue to take place. Sooner or later the market will put an end to the dream of offering everyone a college education.

Yet, Frezza raises an important question. Should government officials get into the business of pushing things along, or should it allow the markets to take their own sweet time?

In America, if it happens that a wealthy benefactor wants to fund the Classics Department at Alma Mater U., he certainly has the right to do so. In China, he would probably not be allowed. 

The benefactor does not change the market’s verdict. It means that studying the Classics has become more like joining a seminary. It does not pay for itself. You do it more for spiritual enlightenment than for practical skills.

But, ought we to be concerned about the future employability of the graduates of a subsidized Classics programs?

To my knowledge Chinese officials have not eliminated entire departments, but they have set down a marker. If 60% of the graduates in your department remain unemployed for two years, you will be adjudged not to be doing your job. Your department, and probably your job, will be eliminated.

So much for tenure.

Of course, American professors have tenure, so we are unlikely to import the Chinese approach.

Yet, in the long run, it is probably going to happen anyway. The market will out.

Some people are surprised by this development. In the past a college degree was the ticket to higher pay and a better lifestyle.

Unfortunately, the past does not always serve as the best guide to the future. College may be great for some but that does not mean that it is good for everyone.

Now higher education is in a market bubble. That does not mean that it has no value. It means that it is grossly overvalued.

When a tulip bulb is worth the price of your house, you are in a market bubble. Not because tulip bulbs do not have value, but because the current market valuation has relation to that value.

Once a market becomes irrational it will tend to correct. It will bring prices down to a more sensible valuation and to punish those who thought that the bubble prices were market prices. 

Frezza points out that if colleges are producing too many art history majors, progressives will try to solve the problem by using public money to build more museums.

If the museums cannot sustain themselves, they will either have to get more public money or go broke. Once the public money runs out, they will let their staff go. You know which ones: the young people who had been enticed to study art history and who were not allowed to find a better path earlier in life. It’s the market in action.

Or better, it’s what happens when progressives decide that they must interfere in the market.

Frezza offers this outline of the future of American universities. He writes: “College participation rates will have to go back down to historical norms. Slots will have to be reserved for students that can actually profit from them, restoring graduation rates to where they were before colleges were flooded with people who don't belong there, including illiterate freeloaders. Selection will have to be based on merit, not social engineering. Loans will have to be restricted to majors that confer capacity to pay the loans back. Dead-end programs used to train the next generation of professors - whose only skill will be to teach more such dead-end programs - will have to be limited, funded not by taxpayers but by ideological philanthropists with a hankering for fineries like literary criticism and gender studies.

“This may seem like common sense to most people, but it strikes horror into the hearts of the liberal professoriate. After years of feathering their nests so they can produce students trained only to bite the hand that feeds them, perhaps it's time to serve up a few helpings of horror. We can no longer afford to take the snobbery of academics seriously. Taxpayers just don't have the money to keep them or their young acolytes on the dole.”

By now, it’s not if, but when.

Why Therapy Makes You Miserable

It’s a radical notion in a culture that worships youth, but David Brooks asked his septuagenarian readers to share the wisdom they had gained from their human experience.

If he’s trying to bring back filial piety, he gets extra credit.

Brooks wasn’t doing a scientific study. He wasn’t doing a survey. He wasn't conducting an experiment.

And he did not offer a theoretical disquisition.

Perhaps for these reasons, I find his observations compelling. I was intrigued, though not surprised, to discover that older people consider that it is smarter to work within institutions than outside them.

Being part of a company or a profession is better than being an outlier or a rebel. People who set themselves against the world end up accomplishing little.

It probably won't, but it’s a message that ought to be sent out to the Occupiers.

Most striking to me were these two great paragraphs:

“There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

“Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.”

In these brief remarks Brooks has captured the fundamental reason why therapy does not work.

Traditional therapy teaches people to introspect, to ruminate, and to self-examine. It makes them intrepid observers of the actions within their own minds.

Brooks calls them ruminators. If you ask where they learned such a bad habit, the answer must be that they learned it in therapy.

If you learn to focus on negative emotions, you will feel worse. If you make a habit of introspecting, exploring your mind, and obsessing about your emotions, it’s going to make you miserable.

For the alternative to the bad habits inculcated by therapy Brooks coins the phrase: “strategic self-deceivers.”

I am not thrilled by the phrase, but you can’t have everything.

His concept is correct. Brooks is saying that when normal people suffer traumas, setbacks, pain and failure, they do not obsess about it. They do not think it’s a meaningful experience.

They do what normal people did until Freud convinced them that forgetting was repression and that repression was making them neurotic.

Normal people forget traumas, failures and disappointments. When something bad happens, they put it behind them.  They do not try to integrate bad events into a new personal narrative.

I wouldn’t call it self-deception. I would call it a smart way to improve your life.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Cult Surrounding JFK

A nation that considers John F. Kennedy one of its greatest presidents is not a serious nation.

Clearly, Americas have been intoxicated by the Kennedy mix of celebrity and martyrdom. They have been fed Kennedy misinformation for decades. As a result, the Kennedy myth has worked as a cultural toxin.

For my part I have suggested that JFK is the presiding genie behind the Vietnam Era counterculture. He also influenced the growth of an American celebrity culture and of an ethic that values aristocratic decadence. No other president so clearly embodied a culture of permanent entitlement.

Yesterday Ross Douthut offered his own analysis of the Kennedy myth. Since his views correspond closely with mind, I find them estimable and quotable.

In his words: “In reality, the kindest interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as ‘incomplete.’ The harsher view would deem him a near disaster — ineffective in domestic policy, evasive on civil rights and a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward. (And the latter judgment doesn’t even take account of the medical problems that arguably made him unfit for the presidency, or the adulteries that eclipsed Bill Clinton’s for sheer recklessness.)”

I and many others have tried to make clear that Kennedy’s legacy must include the Vietnam War.

Seeing the problem, the Kennedy propaganda machine has done everything in its power to absolve JFK of responsibility for the debacle. It has relied largely on a counterfactual: if JFK had not been killed, he would have withdrawn from Vietnam before it became a disaster.

It is usually not a very good sign when you have to defend your position with a fiction.

Douthut counters: “Actually, it would be more accurate to describe the Vietnam War as Kennedy’s darkest legacy. His Churchillian rhetoric (‘pay any price, bear any burden ...’) provided the war’s rhetorical frame as surely as George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speeches did for our intervention in Iraq. His slow-motion military escalation established the strategic template that Lyndon Johnson followed so disastrously. And the war’s architects were all Kennedy people: It was the Whiz Kids’ mix of messianism and technocratic confidence, not Oswald’s fatal bullet, that sent so many Americans to die in Indochina.”

And then there’s the idea, recently dusted off by Frank Rich, that Kennedy was killed by a toxic atmosphere of right-wing hatred. When Rich offered this opinion last week in New York Magazine I thought it was too ridiculous to critique. Atmospheres do not kill people.People kill people.

When I read Rich’s article, I felt that he was embarrassing himself. Sometimes he is so good at it that he does not really need too much help from me.

Douthut refutes Rich by pointing out that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-wing fanatic. He was a left-wing fanatic.

In his words: “The idea that an atmosphere of right-wing hate somehow inspired a Marxist radical to murder a famously hawkish cold war president is even more implausible than the widespread suggestion that the schizophrenic Jared Lee Loughner shot his congresswoman because Sarah Palin put some targets on an online political map.”

Clearly, Douthut is correct.

It is nonetheless fair to say that the mystery surrounding the circumstances of Kennedy’s assassination has contributed to the cultish aura that grew up around him.

Even people who agree that Oswald alone fired the bullet that killed John Kennedy still have doubts about whether or not he had planned, organized, and implemented the assassination all by himself. Even if Oswald fired the fatal shots, we do not know whether he had been recruited by some outside group.

It may be true that Jack Ruby was so overwhelmed with grief about the assassination of JFK that he decided that he had execute Oswald himself, but still, Ruby was more closely attached to organized crime than to political zealots.

Whatever Ruby’s intention, his action succeeded in silencing Lee Harvey Oswald. Whether or not this served the interests of a third party, we will likely never know.

Would a more plausible explanation make JFK less of a cult figure? Would he be less of a cult figure if Lee Harvey Oswald had gone on trial and explained what he meant when he said that he was a "patsy?" Would JFK have been less of a cult figure if he had died of heart disease? It is all worth pondering.

If some dark and evil mysterious force recruited Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK, and if that force is so powerful that it has never been brought to justice, doesn’t that suggest that JFK was an ultimate force for good?

To some people, that is certainly the way it looks.

The truth lies elsewhere. Thanks to Kennedy, Douthut explains: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.”