Saturday, December 31, 2011

Streetwalking Through the New York Times

When it’s not telling us what to think the New York Times is telling us how to feel.

Recently, it did a puff piece about a 52 year old streetwalker. You know, the kind who sells herself in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, the kind who has been on the streets for decades.

As you might guess, the Times is not judgmental. It does not cast aspersions on Barbara Terry. She is just doing her job, like you and me and everyone else.

I’m sure you feel better already.

The Times glosses over the fact that her chosen profession is illegal. It does report that she has been arrested more than one hundred times and adds that her job comports certain risks: “All the women out here have had friends attacked or cut or dumped dead somewhere.”

The article says nothing about the risk of STDs, because, after all, it’s the New York Times and it does have some standards left.

Anyway, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Just like anyone else doing any other kind of business.

In case you were wondering the Times asks the burning question: How did Terry survive with a pimp?

The newspaper of record answers that Barbara Terry had God on her side. Her mother and grandmother were praying for her.

How long will it take before the New York Times, aka the Old Gray Lady, is born again?

Being fair and balanced the Times also shares some of the good things in streetwalking. Barbara Terry explains: “I love the excitement of coming out here and seeing all these beautiful people I know….Even my dates are a comfort. This place has made me strong. It keeps you young.”

If you are a woman and you want to know how to stay young and strong, the New York Times has a brand new idea: streetwalking. Call it: news you can use.

It all leads us to wonder what is going on at the New York Times. Having long since let my subscription lapse I am not the best person to answer.  

Ann Althouse, however, has been following the paper’s descent into mindless fluff. I yield to her expertise. She offers the most cogent explanation for the Barbara Terry article: “Why would the NYT publish this? Because the NYT is all about helping its aging female readers feel good about themselves.”

Apparently, the New York Times is now reaching out to its women readers.

For the first time in its history it is being edited by a woman, Jill Abramson, so it’s been running more features that might interest women.

If Althouse is correct, it is soon going to be retitled: The New York Woman’s Times.

Althouse explains herself more clearly in the comments section of her blog: “All kinds of whores read the NYT, and they're often quite cheered up by seeing what kind of whoring the other whores are doing.”

In truth, most women do not find stories about streetwalkers uplifting. Most women are decidedly unsympathetic to prostitutes. They certainly have no sympathy for the possibility that their men, husbands and boyfriends, might be frequenting prostitutes.

Apparently, the Times is assuming that women maintain a negative attitude toward streetwalkers and other prostitutes because they have been brainwashed by the patriarchy or the vast right wing conspiracy.

Good feminists believe that sisterhood is powerful. How could Upper West Side liberal women fail to notice that streetwalkers are their sisters?

The Times thinks that women have the wrong feelings. Now it wants to perform a therapeutic intervention, the better to tell New York women what they should feel. To do so it has chosen to humanize a streetwalker, to make her look and sound just like any other woman trying to support her family in difficult circumstances.

The Times communicates her pride: “She raised a family while working the streets, and boasts that in 30 years she never had to work a square’s job.”

The Times no longer cares about reporting the news. When it is not offering slanted news coverage designed to tell you what to think it is telling you what you should be feeling.

My guess is that most Times readers did not even notice. They felt warm fuzzy feelings for Barbara Terry because that is the way the Times told them to feel.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Propaganda, New York Times Style

Different kinds of propaganda can be spiced differently.  First, there’s strong, sharp propaganda, the kind the packs a spicy wallop.

You know it’s propaganda. You know that the facts are being distorted to influence your opinion. Still, you keep reading it because you have stopped noticing how spicy it really is.

It’s like eating very, very spicy foods. At first bite your mouth goes numb. After that, you keep eating because you no longer sense how spicy it really is.

Then there’s the more subtle kind of propaganda, the kind that is only mildly spiced, to taste. It has a pleasant taste, does not pack a wallop, but lulls you into complacency and tricks you into thinking that it is really offering facts.

You don’t even know that you are feeding on propaganda. It seems right; it tastes good; you keep eating.

Take a major American propaganda organ, the New York Times.

When it comes to strong propaganda, the kind that you know is propaganda, think about this.

The New York times had a policy of referring to the al Qaeda operatives in Iraq as al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

The Times had decided to deny that al Qaeda was in Iraq because it wanted to end the war in Iraq. It imagined that if the American people knew that al Qaeda was committing terrorist acts in Iraq they would believe that the Iraq War was justified.

The Times did not think so. As an organ of anti-administration propaganda it was doing everything in its power to undermine the war effort.

It was so flagrant, so embarrassing, that the Times should have been laughed out of town.

It wasn’t. Times readers, inured or numbed to this kind of distortion, did not rise up and cancel their subscription. They kept on eating.

The mind of the average Times reader has been so completely numbed by the paper’s strong, sharp propaganda that it did not even register the blatant falsification involved in: al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

And then there’s the less pungent, more subtly spiced everyday Times propaganda, the kind that it directs at women.

Yesterday, the Times reported that unemployment rates have been diminishing because more and more women have been dropping out of the workforce.

Were they not dropping out, the unemployment rate would be approaching 11%.

Be that as it may, Catherine Rampell told the story: “Workers are dropping out of the labor force in droves, and they are mostly women. In fact, many are young women. But they are not dropping out forever; instead, these young women seem to be postponing their working lives to get more education. There are now — for the first time in three decades — more young women in school than in the work force.”

Could it be that these young women want to devote more of their time to their homes and their children? In the New York Times they don’t.

Rampell compares them to the soldiers who came back from World War II and earned college degrees under the G.I. Bill.

Rampell writes: “Though young women in their late teens and early 20’s view today’s economic lull as an opportunity to upgrade their skills, their male counterparts are more likely to take whatever job they can find. The longer-term consequences, economists say, are that the next generation of women may have a significant advantage over their male counterparts, whose career options are already becoming constrained.”

Let’s see: women who are going back to school in order to qualify for jobs in non-profits are being compared with soldiers coming back from a war. In the world of dumb analogies this one rates very high.

The Times tells us that women who are dropping out of the work force and incurring significant debt will eventually have a “significant advantage” over men.

Of course, it recognizes that many of these women have husbands who are supporting them. And many of them have what Rampall calls “family responsibilities” that might be more important to them than doing night shifts or working ten hours a day.

Yet, Rampell sees these women as a warrior class that will naturally come back into the workforce and take over the world.

Of course, this is the way the world looks when you are living in feminist fantasyland.

The Times reports the story without even hinting that these women are like Douglas MacArthur proclaiming: I shall return.

In truth, the women in question do not see themselves as feminist warriors. They are repudiating the feminist life plan.

Feminism has told women that they should put career first and then add a husband and children after they have become professionally established.

I will not outline the price women have paid for following this plan. I have done so in many other posts.

Yet, the New York Times does not want young women to think that dropping out of the workforce is a new rejection of feminism. In truth, feminism tries to tell women that no matter what they do they can still be feminists. They are required, however, to vote Democratic.

Rampell offers the correct feminist interpretation of the current exodus of women from the job market. She says that men are more willing to take lesser jobs because they suffer from what is now being called the masculine mystique.

Despite four decades of feminist propaganda men still believe that they should be breadwinners. And now, God forbid, women are starting to act as though they agree.

In the New York Times a man who feels some responsibility for providing for his family is a relic, an anachronism that needs to be beaten out of the culture. Let's not call this reporting all the news that's fit to print.

None Dare Call It Failure

During the darkest days of the Vietnam War Vermont Senator George Aiken proposed that we “unilaterally declare victory” and go home.

After all, he said, nothing else was working.

Today Jonah Goldberg suggested that the year 2011 was defined by people trying to turn failure into success by declaring victory. Concomitantly, they have also worked hard to turn success into failure.

As he puts it, 2011 “was all about pretending to be winning while really losing.”

Aiken’s idea did not freeze in time. After all, Goldberg  says, it defines President Obama’s strategy in Iraq.

Goldberg trots out an impressive gallery of losers pretending to be winners. Celebrities have led the parade.

First among equals was Charlie Sheen. Having lost his job and whatever was left of his reputation Sheen went on talk shows to bask in the blow of victory.

Kim Kardashian received special mention for having turned her “success” as a porn star into a celebrity empire. When Kim K topped it off by walking down the aisle as a blushing bride, she had, presumably, found redemption in the arms of a loving husband.

Isn’t that one of America’s great cultural problems: how can we maintstream porn stars?

As you know, Kim’s marriage had a very short shelf-life. We are now anxiously waiting for her to transform that conspicuous failure into success.

If anyone can spin straw into gold, Kim K can.

And you thought that alchemy was dead!

Cultural attitudes are formed by the media. Last year the Tea Party enjoyed an extraordinary electoral success. For that the media labeled them losers.

The Republican electorate has happily accepted the judgment. It is now preparing to nominate a presidential candidate who is furthest from the Tea Party.

In Congress, House Republicans promoted the policies and passed the bills that their constituents favored.

Senate Democrats let all the bills die.

The media told the world that the House Republicans had failed.

The media portrayed the Tea Party as a bunch of losers. When a psychotic Jared Loughner opened fire in Tucson, injuring Gabrielle Giffords and killing one of her aides, the media was happy to blame Sarah Palin and Tea Party rhetoric.

When liberals and progressives used more incendiary rhetoric against Republicans the media that they were showing great strength and fortitude. 

Naturally, the media portrayed the Occupy crowd as winners. Having accomplished nothing they became media darlings.

In Goldberg’s words: “Speaking of protest, consider the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not since the Hebrews killed themselves at Masada has there been a group that more obviously won by losing. Of course, the Jews at Masada were freedom fighters battling Roman imperialism. The Occupy Wall Streeters think they’re fighting imperialism when they throw a tantrum about having to pay their debts.”

He continues: “Back home, tea-party politicians who truly won historic midterm-election victories are cast as dangerous losers. The Occupiers lost their bongs and yurts to bulldozers in cities across America, but museums around the country are nonetheless desperate to acquire authentic Occupy-movement artifacts to commemorate their glorious but unspecified successes. Unfortunately, the tea parties cannot work the refs of history this way, because they clean up their mess after they get together.”

The administrations’ foreign policy failures in the Middle East have been masterfully spun as great successes.

Picking up the success/failure theme today Caroline Glick shows how foreign policy failure has been spun as success: “Obama's decision in February to abandon then-president Hosni Mubarak, the US's most dependable ally in the Arab world, in favor of the protesters in Tahrir Square was hailed by Obama's supporters as a victory for democracy and freedom against tyranny. By supporting the protesters against the US ally, Obama argued that he was advancing US interests by showing the Muslim world the US favored the people over their leaders.

“Ten months later, the Egyptian people has responded to this populist policy by giving jihadist parties a two-thirds majority in parliamentary elections. For the first time in 30 years, the strategic anchor of US power in the Arab world - the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty - is in danger. Indeed, there is no reason to believe it will survive.”

Turning failure into success is not just this year’s theme: it characterizes the age of Obama.

No American president came to the White House with fewer real successes. To promote the Obama presidency media propagandists have had to tout his failures as successes while painting the real successes of other people as failures.

It doesn’t matter how the economy is doing. Obama declares it a success.

Goldberg writes: “The economy continued to languish while the president declared victory over a Depression that never was and touted himself as the most legislatively successful president ever — with the ‘possible exceptions’ of FDR, LBJ, and Lincoln. 

“Meanwhile, we are approaching the third year of the long winter Obama once celebrated as a ‘recovery summer.’ Its chief selling points are an unemployment rate statistically lowered by more Americans giving up hope of finding a job, and the claim that millions of jobs have been ‘created or saved.’ This bogus locution allows Obama to claim every job he doesn’t destroy as a win.”

So, the Obama-loving media has helped transform hope into hype. If your candidate can’t govern, you do not have too many other options.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Is It Really the Thought That Counts?

For reasons that are easily explained this phrase has great currency over the holidays: “It’s the thought that counts.”

Yet, it sounds more like a cheap excuse than a pearl of wisdom.

It’s what you want your friends and family to be thinking when they open up a disappointing gift.

Now, the behavioral economists and cognitive neuroscientists tell us that it really is the thought that counts. Better yet, they can prove it scientifically.

Or, so reports Jonah Lehrer.

In my view, the burgeoning field of behavioral economics is a vast improvement over the pseudo-wisdom promulgated by the therapy culture.

Behavioral economics has much more to do with science than do, for example, Freud’s musings.

On the other hand, behavioral economics should not be taken as holy writ. Or as settled science. Or as precepts to live by.

Let's leave it to naïve columnists like David Brooks to embrace the latest psychological experiment as the ultimate truth about human nature.

Under no circumstance should we allow science to take over the work of ethics.

One has also noticed that the Obama administration has been trying to use behavioral economics to manipulate the public mind and economic behavior. With little success.

It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last, where science or superior knowledge has been evoked as a reason to deprive individuals of their free will.

Now, science is here to tell us that gift-giving is all in the mind. If you think it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. If you think it tastes good, it does not matter whether it tastes good.

Researchers show subjects two paintings, one, a real Rembrandt, another, the work of one of his students.

If they are shown the imitation and told that it is the real thing their brain waves will react as though they are seeing a real Rembrandt.

If they are offered a glass of cheap wine but are told that it is expensive wine, they will savor it as though it were an excellent vintage.

Lehrer reports that research has proven these basic truths. Neither he nor the researchers tell us whether the research subjects have any taste.

He also does not seem to consider that the subjects might be more interested in fulfilling the researchers’ expectations than offering an objective judgments about the wine. Or that their wish to be seen as savvy colors their experience of taste.

Of course, if you follow the logic behind this science you might end up thinking that when you attend your New Year’s Eve party you can save money by pouring some sparkling white wine into an empty Veuve Cliquot or Dom Perignon or Kristal bottle. No one will know the difference, because, you see, it’s all in the mind. 

For the sake of argument we shall overlook the difficulties of getting the cork back in the bottle, but still, the experiments show that if people believe they are drinking expensive wine it will taste better than if they are told that they are drinking Two-Buck Chuck.

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s platitudes, but still, how thoughtful is it to deceive your friends into thinking that you have offered an expensive gift?

Even that is not the strangest part. Wrapping himself in the mantle of science Lehrer delivers a homily about the true meaning of the holiday season.

I would not call it an original thought. It is certainly not a scientific fact.

Lehrer tells us that the newest research proves that we have become too materialistic.

In his words: “We live in an age that is obsessed with things. We fill our homes with the latest gadgets and fashions and then, when we run out of space, rent a storage unit.

“This obsession is most vividly on display during the holidays, especially now that the weeks after Thanksgiving have become a frenzy of mad sales, long lines and endless emails promoting free shipping. Christmas has become a collective excuse for consumption, as if the best way to celebrate the spirit of the season is to rack up credit-card debt buying stuff for others. The implicit assumption is that happiness can be gift-wrapped.

“Here's the problem: Material things can give us jolts of pleasure, but that pleasure isn't rooted in the thing itself. As a result, we end up squandering Christmas looking for joy in all the wrong places.”

No one can dispute that the true meaning of Christmas does not lie in the quantity or quality of the presents you give or receive. Every clergyman will tell you as much, more eloquently.

And yet, gift-giving and consumption are not the same thing. They are not even close to being the same thing.

Moreover, the practice of exchanging gifts—which is not the same as consuming them—is intrinsic to social interactions. It binds people in society. 

If you receive a gift but do not give one, you are on the way to losing a friend. Gift-giving is a way to manifest the rule of reciprocity: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The rule does not say: think unto others....

Shouldn't students of behavioral economics understand the social significance of gift-giving?

True enough, the thought counts, but it only counts as that it is made manifest in the gift. Exchanging gifts affirms your relationship. 

If you love someone and give him a gift that he would never want or like, you are showing that what you feel as love for him is not really love for him.

Besides, if it’s only the thought that counts, why give any gifts at all. Why not just give thoughts? Assuming that you know how to give thoughts.

Lehrer offers the scientifically-correct advice: “The real moral of this research is that even the most wonderful things in the world—and what's more wonderful than Rembrandt and fine wine?—aren't wonderful for purely material reasons. Instead, the joy and beauty we find in these objects depend on all those feelings and beliefs we bring to them, infusing the lifeless possessions with the life of mind. It really is the thought that counts.

“Given this psychological reality, we should reassess our holiday priorities, spending less time shopping and more time with the people we're shopping for.”

Infusing lifeless objects with the life of the mind, as Lehrer so inelegantly puts it, is not a psychological reality. It is a metaphor.

It should be reasonably obvious that neither a Rembrandt nor a glass of port comes alive because you have been told what it is.

If the mind has a magical power to infuse lifeless objects with life, doesn’t that imply that there is no real substantive difference between champagne and sparkling white wine, between a Rembrandt and your child’s last finger painting?

If it’s all in the mind then works of art have no intrinsic value, beauty does not exist, and great art is an optical illusion. Worse yet, there is no real difference between a glass of champagne and a glass of sparkling white wine.

Just because group of college students can be tricked into confusing the real from the fake does not mean that objects are lifeless receptacles of mindfulness.

As for the value of a gift, it does depend on who gives it to you on which occasion. That's what it means when we say that a gift or gesture thoughtful. A thoughtful gift that does not bankrupt you might be more meaningful and more representative of your relationship than a thoughtless gift that costs too much and is not your taste or style.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Cure for Childhood Obesity

Here’s the latest research about overweight children: Children who hate their mothers tend to put on more weight than children who love their mothers.

It sounds easy. America is suffering an obesity crisis. A third of American children are overweight. 17% are clinically obese. The numbers are triple what they were in 1976.

This does not count the children who are so anguished about the possibility of weight gain that they develop eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Link here.

Now we know that the problem lies in the way children relate to their mothers.

The Daily Mail reports on the research: “Children who have a poor emotional relationship with their mother are more than twice as likely to become obese, research claims.

“A study found toddlers who struggle with their mothers are at higher risk of being grossly overweight by the time they are 15.

“Those who had the worst emotional relationship were almost two-and-half times more likely to be obese at 15 than those with a strong bond.”

Love and hate are strong words. They work well in newspaper headlines, but do not really describe how the study was conducted.

The researchers did not measure love and hate specifically. They measured the strength of the bond between mothers and toddlers.

They wanted to see how well mother and toddler connected, how well they related to each other, how much they enjoyed playing together.

Some toddlers were active and engaged with some mothers, lothers less so. 

One would assume that toddlers are more connected with mothers who are more present and involved themselves.

Strangely, the headlines seem to put the onus on the children. It refers to children who either love or hate their mothers.

Shouldn’t we really be asking why some toddlers connect with their mothers while others do not? Doesn’t it seem obvious that the way children interact with their mothers has a great deal to do with the way these mothers are bringing up their children?

A mother who is distant, detached, or even absent might very well provoke strong negative emotions in a child. These emotions are telling the mother to spend more of her  time and energy with her child.

Prof. Sarah Anderson correctly suggests that childhood and adolescent obesity can best be addressed by working to improve the emotional ties between mothers and their children. This is far better than framing the question in terms of the relationship between a child’s appetite and food. It is certainly better than blaming it all on fashion models and women's magazines.

Anderson posits that children whose mothers did not teach them “coping skills” are more likely to compensate or self-medicate with food.

I applaud Anderson for saying that mothers are responsible for giving “coping lessons,” but still, there is much more to mother-child interactions than coping skills.

To my mind it is more important to look at how much time and attention mothers give to their children.

The problem of mother/child interaction seems to be most acute when the mother works.

In Great Britain, for example, researchers discovered that working parents spend, on the average, 19 minutes a day with their children.

The Daily Mail reported: “A typical working parent spends just 19 minutes a day looking after their children, official figures revealed yesterday.

“The startling research shows the devastating impact that working full-time has on children who hardly see their parents.

“With less than 20 minutes spent with their parents every day, this is only enough time to eat a quick breakfast together or have a couple of bed-time stories.”

Hopefully, everyone will understand that it’s not a question of “quality time.” Nineteen minutes cannot possibly be quality time.

Of course, “parents” is a euphemism for “mothers.” A child’s strongest attachment is to his mother. When he feels abandoned or neglected by his mother he is likely to make his feelings known. He is also likely to self-medicate with food.

If the problem of childhood obesity was less acute in 1976, that may have been because there were far fewer working mothers then.

In truth, women understand the problem. Many of those who are working would much prefer to be at home with their children. Economic necessities are forcing them to neglect their children.

The Daily Mail explained: “On average, a working woman toils at work for over five hours a day, although this figure appears low because it includes holidays and weekends when no work is done.

“Recent research showed that most mothers with young families would prefer to stay at home and look after their children.

“A survey of working mothers found that just six per cent wanted to work full-time, according to Prima magazine.

“Half wanted to combine bringing up their children with a part-time job, while more than a quarter wanted to be a full-time mother.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Is Mitt Romney Really Electable?

Very few Republicans really like Mitt Romney. Yet, he’s the favorite of the Republican Establishment.

The Establishment feels no passion for Mitt, but it is consumed by negative passion for his opponents.

Republican columnists, pundits, and politicians have whipped themselves into a frenzy by what they see as the dire necessity to destroy any candidate who would challenge Mitt.

It’s not because they like Romney. Most of them don’t. But still, they become consumed with mindless passion when they contemplate any other Republican candidate.

It’s a grim spectacle, indeed.

For some time now I have been saying that this is not a good thing. It is making Republicans look bad. It is making Barack Obama look good.

Many commentators have suggested that the shrill tone of the debates, the wall-to-wall nastiness will serve a higher purpose. They believe that it will make their candidate stronger.

They are wrong. The tone of the debates and the brutality of the attacks on everyone but Romney are making the Republicans look like they are emotionally incontinent.

If you want to govern the nation you have to look like you can govern your own party. As of now, Republicans don't look like they can. 

One might even ask whether something about the putative front runner, Mitt Romney, provokes internecine party warfare?

Today, blogger John Hawkins debunks the myth of Mitt Romney’s electability.

To my knowledge no one else has addressed the question as seriously. After reading Hawkins  one wonders whether Republican party elders have simply been duped into accepting, uncritically, the PR-generated notion that Mitt Romney is the most electable candidate.

Hawkins offers an excellent refutation of the notion of Mitt Romney’s electability. His column is well worth a read.

"The End of Postmodernism"

Stanley Fish brings us glad tidings from the Modern Language Association. To be clear, Fish is not attending the meeting; he is reporting on the program.

This morning he tells us that literature teachers are heeding the lesson of the marketplace and revising their attitude.

Gone are the days of political correctness and multicultural drivel. Back are serious studies of serious literature, mixed with a little digital awareness.

“Also absent or sparsely represented are the topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general. Just as members of the lay public have gotten used to postmodernism as an omnibus term for everything new and discombobulating, a panel blithely entitled ‘The Novel After Postmodernism’ (what, so soon?) promises ‘to approach the general question of the end of postmodernism’.”

“I remember, with no little nostalgia, the days when postmodernism in all its versions was the rage and every other session at the MLA convention announced that in theory’s wake everything would have to change: old questions were revealed to be based on a mistaken belief in the stability of texts and the self-identity of authors; rock-solid procedures and methodologies were shown to rest on the shifting sands of history; canonical authors were dislodged from their pedestals and exposed as racists, misogynists and apologists for empire; the canon itself was condemned as an artifact of patriarchal politics; and the practitioners of traditional criticism (yesterday’s stars, today’s relics) were denounced for being complicit with every evil known to humankind.”

Does this mean that literary humanists are going to abandon their plans to indoctrinate students in the dogmas of radical politics?

That would be one step too far.

But they are beginning to recognize the stark reality. Fewer and fewer students want to major in literature. Fewer and fewer students want to take their courses. Budgets will shrink. Graduate students will not be able to get teaching jobs.

The free market is giving them new choice: reform or perish. Teach great literature,  help students to hear what the great poets and novelists and playwrights are telling them, keep you own jejune political opinions to yourself… or else, Humanities departments will become an academic relic.

How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are something of a joke. No sooner are they made then they are broken. It’s worth a laugh, but not much else.

Today Elizabeth Bernstein offers the best advice on New Year’s resolutions that I have ever heard. To give yourself the best chance of keeping your resolutions,  have someone else make them for you.

A spouse, a parent, a loved one, a close friend… anyone who knows you and cares about you … will make better resolutions than you will.

And, when someone else makes them, you are more likely to keep them.

If you think you know yourself better than anyone else knows you, you are probably wrong. If you think that you care more about your well-being than anyone else does, you are almost surely wrong.

Others, especially those who care about you, see you more clearly, more fairly, and more objectively. Still, they are too polite to point out your faults, foibles, and flaws.

They also know that criticism is self-defeating. When someone points out all of your bad qualities you often make it a point of pride not to yield to their criticism.

A New Year’s resolution is not a criticism. It is a vow. It ought to be a sacred vow, like the moral imperative to keep your word.

If you tell someone to resolve to eat better you are implying that he eats the wrong foods. Still, it is better to be encouraged to eat healthier than to be told that you eat like a pig.

The nuance makes a difference.

Best of all, asking someone else to make your resolutions directly contradicts the received wisdom of the therapy culture.

Bernstein shows how: “Sure, resolutions are supposed to be personal. People can't change unless they're ready to change. And having someone you love tell you how you could become a better person could be terrifying.”

The therapy culture has told us all that we can’t change unless we really want to change and unless we’re ready to change.

It has told us that change has to come from within, that it cannot be imposed from without.

Of course, these concepts are really a sleight-of-hand. If you accept them you are being set up to blame yourself for your eventual failure to get better in therapy.

We can debate this all we like, but the simple exercise of asking someone else to make your resolutions for you will go a long way toward disabusing you of these aberrant notions. Better yet, you can try it at home.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Euphemistically Yours

Sophisticated people excel in the art of euphemism.

To excel at euphemism you have to know the code.

Those who do not know the code or who consider themselves too intelligent to engage in such frivolity prefer direct, truthful expressions.

By and large, those who excel at euphemism have more and better friends. Those who are frank to the point of rude and vulgar have fewer.

People who think that honesty is the best policy abhor euphemism. They consider it a way to lie with impunity.

When a government talks about “collateral damage” it really means that a stray missile landed in the middle of a wedding ceremony and massacred dozens of innocent civilians.

This practice is not limited to governments. Companies sometimes say that an executive retired to spend more time with his family. The truth is that he was fired for being incompetent.

This does not tell us what euphemism is really about. It does tell us that euphemism is subject to abuse.

Its wrong to use euphemism to deceive. But most euphemisms do not intend to lie. Their true purpose is to preserve decorum, propriety, modesty, and respect.

Those who reject euphemisms end up being vulgar and boorish, poor company in any culture. They offend and disgust others while diminishing themselves.

When you are dining out with friends and euphemistically excuse yourself to go to the rest room, you are not trying to deceive anyone. You are performing a social duty. Were you to describe in detail what you plan to do in the rest room you might cause your dinner companions to lose their appetites.

You do not describe your “business” because you do not perform it in public.

Failing to respect the sensibilities of others is indecorous. Your friends neither need nor want to have a graphic description of your personal hygiene.

I find it difficult to imagine that everyone does not know this.

Using overly explicit language forces people to picture you in an undignified posture.  When they start imagining how you look while doing your business, they are going to lose respect for you. 

Certain activities occur in private. Describing them too explicitly is like performing them in public.

The same applies to frank and open discussions of sexual activities. Admittedly, it’s fashionable in certain segments of polite society to talk about all manner of sexual acts openly and cheerfully.  

And yet, the average individual, and especially the average female, tends to prefer euphemistic terms like “making love” and “intimacy.”

One understands that most women do not find it especially appealing, enticing or erotic to evoke porn-worthy images of what happens between the sheets.

One assumes that women have a good reason for their preference. At the least, they seem to find graphic depictions of sexual acts to be a turn off. For a woman sexuality has a spiritual, even a sacred quality. Reducing it to porn makes it into something that most women consider to be beneath their dignity. Very few people voluntarily perform actions that are beneath their dignity.

Men who desire carnal intimacy with a member of the female gender soon discovers that it is better to respect her sensitivities.

Self-respect begins with a barrier between public and private.

There’s a reason why sex organs are called “private parts.” They have no place on the public square. Your public presentation is your face, not your external genitalia.

In today’s world, this is controversial. Some people defend the practice of talking openly and honestly about organs and orifices. They do not merely assert that it is more honest. They believe that it contributes to your mental health.

We will grant Sigmund Freud full discredit for this aberrant notion. Freud believed that the meaning of life lay in the interplay between organs and orifices. He wanted everyone to be honest enough to call these things by their names and to speak openly and honestly about them.

Freud thought that he was striking a blow for openness and honesty, but he was also striking a blow against courtesy, decorum, respect, and sensitivity for other peoples’ feelings.

Freud assaulted human sensibility and self-respect in the name of mental hygiene. He promised people that if they became more open and honest they would overcome repression and become happier and healthier.

Many people found Freud’s idea to be plausible. Intellectuals who wanted the world to think that they had no psychosexual defects peppered their articles with crude vulgarities.

Of course, it doesn’t really work as Freud expected. When you make explicit reference to organs and orifices you compromise your self-respect and offend everyone around you. In time this will have a negative effect on your social life.

If you don’t believe me, you can try it at home.

The more you act like a pariah, the more people will treat you like one. The more they treat you like one the more you will feel demoralized and depressed. It will not improve your emotional well-being. It will also kill your libido.

Euphemisms are face saving. When Freud counseled people to expose private information, he was telling them that it was good to lose face.

The less face you have the more dysfunctional you will become. 

Euphemisms also lubricate social commerce. We use them to avoid conflict and to maintain a civil rapport. They are essential to the lost art of getting along with other people.

Take a standard American example. In the old days, when young people went out on dates, it sometimes happened that when Jack asked Jill out on a date, Jill would reply that she was too busy, was overwhelmed by work, had made other plans, and so on.

In truth, Jill found Jack to be unattractive, unappealing, or even repulsive. She knew better than to say so. The enemies of euphemism would say that Jill should have told Jack that she would never want to go out with him because she would be horrified to be seen with him in public.

Jill knew better. She did not malign or reject Jack because she did not want to pick a fight. She did not want to get involved in a dramatic confrontation with Jack or any of Jack’s friends.

Had she been open and honest she would have offended Jack. He might then have felt that he needed to restore his honor by retaliating.

Jill did not want to have anything much to do with Jack, so she did her best not to offend him. Had she offended him she would have provoked a dramatic confrontation with him.

She most certainly did not want that.

Let’s say that you are Jack. What should you do if a comely young lady offers a euphemistic rendering of why she does not want to go out with you? Should you challenge her, call her out, or fold your hand?

If you want to be a gentleman and continue to enjoy everyone’s respect, you should fold your hand.

But, what if Jill had told you that she had to stay home and work, but you heard that she was out with her friends?

Again, the gentlemanly thing is to say nothing.

Why would you punish her for being nice to you?

The same rule applies in business situations. Japanese businessmen are well-known for never saying No to an offer. They tend to say that they need to think it over, meaning that they do not want to accept it and do not want to offend you by telling you that you have offered them a bad deal.

The same applies in China. The Economist explains: “Chinese people don’t like being too direct in turning down invitations or (as many journalists find) requests for interviews. So they will frequently reply that something is bu fangbian (not convenient). This does not mean reapply in a few weeks’ time. It means they don’t want to do it, ever.”

In these examples, people who use euphemisms are not really lying. They are not saying that they want to do the interview. They are not saying that they wish they could accept the invitation. They are telling you know that it will not happen. But they do it without putting you in the position where you might lose face.

In China, as in Japan, it’s all about saving face. The same applies to the Anglosphere. The Economist points out that America and Great Britain have perfected the art of euphemism.

More than many others, their cultures are geared to saving face. Good social relations begin with concern for the other person’s face. If you want to be respected you should begin by showing respect for other people.

The Economist seems to be of two minds on euphemism. It writes:  “Euphemism is so ingrained in British speech that foreigners, even those who speak fluent English, may miss the signals contained in such bland remarks as ‘incidentally’ (which means, ‘I am now telling you the purpose of this discussion’); and ‘with the greatest respect’ (‘You are mistaken and silly’). This sort of code allows the speaker to express anger, contempt or outright disagreement without making the emotional investment needed to do so directly. Some find that cowardly.”

Is it really cowardly?

Avoiding conflict when it is not necessary is not cowardly. If you look back over the past decades you will not find that the British, as a people, are cowardly. They have been uncommonly courageous.

And why is it such a bad thing to express disagreement without making a public spectacle of your emotional state. Whatever does the author mean when he talks about an "emotional investment?" For my part, I think that it's better to express anger without any histrionics and without getting all lathered up.

When you throw your emotions into the public arena you are drawing more attention to yourself and less to the object of your anger and contempt.

Making a spectacle of yourself shows that you have no face. When you have no face you have no credibility. When you have no credibility your feelings can only reflect on you. Intemperate emotion always boomerangs.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Birth Dearth

Today, Christians around the world are celebrating a birth. In truth, a lot of people who are not Christians are also celebrating.

It’s a good time to be reminded, by Mark Steyn, that Europe’s financial crisis has a lot to do with the dearth of births. The elderly and the not-so-elderly receive generous pensions and benefits. Unfortunately, there are so few able-bodied young workers that they cannot afford to pick up the tab.

As an economic model it does not and cannot work.

Steyn explains: “Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency …. Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren – i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social democratic state where workers in ‘hazardous’ professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren't enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.”

Other parts of Europe and the Westernized world have the same problem: “The developed world … is barren. Collectively barren, I hasten to add. Individually, it's made up of millions of fertile women, who voluntarily opt for no children at all or one designer kid at 39. In Italy, the home of the Church, the birthrate's somewhere around 1.2, 1.3 children per couple – or about half ‘replacement rate.’ Japan, Germany and Russia are already in net population decline. Fifty percent of Japanese women born in the Seventies are childless. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Spanish women childless at the age of 30 almost doubled, from just over 30 percent to just shy of 60 percent. In Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, 20 percent of 40-year old women are childless.”

In the distant past people chose to have a goodly number of children because they expected that their children would care for them in their old age. More children meant more future wealth.

Nowadays, few parents rely on their children for material support.

If they pride themselves on their self-reliance they do not want their children to take care of them. If they live in a wealthy country they might even believe that the government will take care of them.

If you do not need a large number of children to care for you in old age, why have a large number of children. 

In the past families tended to overbreed. Life’s hardships inevitably deprived them of some of their children. Disease, famine and warfare decimated families.

Today’s children are less exposed to disease, famine or warfare. They are more likely to survive childhood and adolescence.

Thus, there is no need to have a few spare children.

In cultures where people have no confidence in their ability to care for themselves into old age and where government is too incompetent or corrupt to help, everyone seems to want to have many children. Besides, economically backward cultures tend to have poorer medical care, poorer nutrition, and more violence. They have higher infant and adolescent mortality rates.

By this reasoning, it makes good sense that poor and underdeveloped countries have higher birth rates. And it also makes sense that developed countries would not want or need to emulate their example.

In his article Steyn seems to want to lay the burden on women. He suggests that they, like many non-female postmoderns, are self-involved and selfish. They feel no duty to society as a whole, and prefer to spend their time doing the things that make them feel happy and fulfilled.

Many women, and their husbands, believe that a large number of children will consume their lives and their vacation money.

I find it too facile to blame women. True enough, many are choosing not to have children, but no decision of this magnitude is made in complete isolation.

It is fairer to say that women are increasingly unwilling to bring children into insecure family environments.

Some women are willing to be single mothers, but others have a strong preference for the traditional mother/father family structure.

Having many children means taking responsibility for many children. Parents who take their responsibilities seriously will ask themselves whether they can provide the best upbringing for a gaggle of young ‘uns.

Even when the state is picking up a large part of the tab, more children still means more expenses. The state might provide child care and schooling, but parents have to provide food, shelter, and clothing.

Of course, it’s not just about biology and economics. Culturally speaking, marriage is a declining institution. Two score years ago a marriage license was proclaimed to be just another piece of paper. And then divorce was destigmatized. The result was an epidemic of divorce and the advent of single motherhood.

The war against marriage continues to this day, but right now the most venerable human institution has been drained of its meaning. It has become just another relationship, no more special than any other. If the traditional meaning of marriage-- procreation-- is undermined, then why participate.

Many of today’s young people are the children of divorce. Regardless of what the propagandists say, they know that divorce is a very painful trauma. Given the option they are loath to risk subjecting their children to it.

If the marriage contract is no longer binding, women are naturally more hesitant to sign up for permanent insecurity. If they worry about ending up as single mothers, they will surely want to limit the number of children they have.

If marriage is no longer a vow taken seriously, if it is no longer about producing and raising children, then why would people marry. If they do not know that they will be raising children in a stable marriage, many of them would just as soon forgo the experience.

In the old days, procreation was the meaning of sex. Now it is, ironically, considered to be something of a curse. Sex education has no real place for conception. The emphasis is on contraception and disease-avoidance. Children are also taught that all sex acts are created equal... as a means to achieve pleasure.

Children are taught about two kinds of contraception. They hear more than they need to know about birth control and are encouraged to engage in the kinds of sex acts that are foolproof contraception.

The war on marriage was accompanied by a war on female fertility. Women were told that their sexuality was functionally equivalent to male sexuality. Thus, an unintended pregnancy was a minor inconvenience, easily taken care of. Fertility was devalued. Since it was no longer a sacred trust women, and men, felt only a secondary duty to reproduce.

The impetus for this distortion came from women themselves, but it is fair to say that men have been more than happy to exploit the situation to their own advantage. If women refuse to see their sex in terms of fertility why would men argue the point. If they do they are going to be denounced as sexist.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Tiger Cub Goes to College

You may recall—how could you not?—the cries of anguish that sprung from American parents when they first heard about the Tiger Mom. You may also recall—one tries not to—the many American parents who were quick to condemn the Tiger Mom.

How dare she? … they cried out. How dare she disregard the opinion of the best experts, men and women of science, and bring up her children according to traditional Confucian precepts?

Why were these American parents so totally convinced that they were right and that the Tiger Mom was wrong?

They believed that they had science on their side, and everyone knows that science is infallible.

At the time of the brouhaha I suspected that American parents were horrified at themselves for having accepted unthinkingly what child development experts had told them.

Until Prof. Amy Chua roused them from their stupor they had not noticed that all of the best scientific advice was producing self-absorbed children who had high self-esteem and few achievements. 

It’s a strange kind of science that does not allow itself to be judged by the results it produces.

The Tiger Mom did not trust the settled science. She placed her trust and her children’s well-being in the hands of traditional Chinese parenting techniques.

In so doing she had to defy contemporary American culture. In turn, American parents gave her a piece of their collective mind. They called her abusive, told her that her children were going to become robots, and expressed their deepest scientific conviction that her daughters would end up mentally ill.

The truth looks somewhat different. Parents who sacrifice their own judgment and their own traditions to the supposedly-scientific opinions of experts bring up children who lack initiative, confidence and independence.

I hope you’re not surprised. Parents who bow down to experts lack initiative, confidence and independence themselves. Why would they not communicate these same character traits to their children?

For those who missed the debate, the Tiger Mom is back … in the pages of today’s Wall Street Journal.

In her article she brings us up to date on how she is parenting her elder daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, aka the Tiger Cub, who is currently a freshman at Harvard.

Anyone who would like to form an independent judgment about the results of Tiger Mom’s parenting would do well to read the Tiger Cub’s charming and well-written posts on her blog: New Tiger in Town.

Now that the Tiger Cub is out on her own the Tiger Mom has chosen to let her be. Her policy is non-interference.

It should not be surprising. Last year, when the Tiger Cub was applying to colleges, her parents were barely involved in the process. They allowed the Tiger Cub full autonomy and independence.

Surely, it was a vote of confidence.

Prof. Chua is showing that as children grow into adulthood they require votes of confidence. How else can they develop any confidence in their own abilities? If you treating young adults like children they will act like children.

Admittedly, the more childlike they are the more they will depend on you. The more they depend on you the more you will feel needed.

In her article today the Tiger Mom is at pains to distinguish her approach from that of her American counterparts, helicopter Moms.

Helicopter parents hover over their children. They are overly protective. They see a world filled with dangers and act as though they do not believe that their children can make it on their own.

A Tiger Mom is a strict disciplinarian. She drills her children in homework exercises and piano practice. She is most rigid and demanding when her children are between 5 and 12.

Chua wanted her children to develop good habits when they were children. She wanted these good habits to become second nature. She was confident that once her daughters learned organization, discipline and focus they would be better able to navigate the difficulties of adolescence and adulthood.

Children of helicopter parents are not taught the virtues of discipline and focus. They are taught that they cannot succeed on their own. And they are never allowed to fail.As Chua points out, if you don’t know how to fail you don’t know how to succeed.

Helicopter parents produce young people who have no initiative or independence, who are either timid or impulsive, and who do not know how to fail.

Chua argues cogently that Tiger parenting is based on the assumption that children possess strengths that need to be developed. Helicopter parents sees children possessing vulnerabilities that need to be compensated.

But, aren’t Tiger Moms bringing up their children to be robots and automatons? Chua rejects this notion as nonsensical.

It is worth pointing out that this idea has been floating through the culture for decades now. During the 1950s serious intellectuals were decrying the lack of individualism in America. They believed that a culture of conformity and uniformity was producing an epidemic of mental illness.

It wasn’t true, but the debacle called the Vietnam War gave it credence. Thereafter American parents told themselves that children should be freed from discipline and organization, should never be judged in terms of success or failure, and should never hear anyone speak ill of them.

Experts in developmental psychology concurred. They produced study after study demonstrating that children needed to grow up creative. They explained that children should never suffer the indignity of hurt feelings and should always have their self-esteem boosted, regardless of whether it was merited.

The experts seemed to believe that children can survive on a diet of unconditional love.

Children who were happy and healthy, with high self-esteem, would have fun doing their schoolwork and would happily apply themselves to it.

American parents have been told that their children need to have high self-esteem because low self-esteem equals depression. Children who feel depressed work less effectively and are unable to focus and concentrate on a task at hand. American parenting assumes that a child will work harder if he feels that he cannot fail and if it thinks of schoolwork as creative fun.

For her part Chua obliged her children to work hard even when they thought that could not succeed. She made them do their drills over and over again until they got it right. She excoriated them for getting it wrong. She instilled the value of discipline and focus and perseverance… which meant that her children were taught to do what had to be done whether they felt like it or not.

Where American parents want to protect their children from bad feelings, Chua disagrees: “But, hey, if they've done something wrong, they should feel bad. Kids with a sense of responsibility, not entitlement, who know when to experience gratitude and humility, will be better at navigating the social shoals of college.”

In the end Chua was not following science; she was following ethical precepts.

She has tried to teach her daughters the virtues of responsibility, gratitude and humility.

Children who are brought up to feel entitled lack these virtues. They tend to be arrogant, irresponsible ingrates. They feel that they do not need to earn their way. The feel that it is all coming to them, because their parents and teachers praised them no matter what they did, good or bad.

When Amy Chua decided not to hover over her daughter’s college life, she was demonstrating pride and confidence in her child.

She was assuming that the Tiger Cub would be motivated because she did not want to betray her parents’ confidence in her.

American children are the most loved in the world. But how many of their parents feel pride in their real achievements?

Keep in mind, you cannot feel pride in someone’s accomplishment if you do not judge him ill when he fails.

The old saying has it that love is not enough. Children do not develop pride if their parents are not appropriately proud of them. And they do not develop confidence unless their parents express confidence in their judgment and decisions.