Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Just Smile

It’s cheap. It’s easy. It works.

If you want to reduce your stress all you have do is smile. If you don’t feel the feeling, do it anyway. Force yourself. It’s therapeutic.

We are going to credit the insight to neuroscientific research, but, in truth, it’s an old song, called: Smile.

Here are some of the lyrics:

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it's breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through for you 

For our further edification, here’s Judy Garland singing it:

The old song knew that you did not have to feel happy to smile. Smiling when you are miserable and stressed out will make you feel better. Even if the smile is fake and artificial.

Science has again proved the point. Forcing yourself to smile will improve your mood. It is not the be-all and end-all to good feelings and stress reduction, but there is no be-all and end-all to good feelings and stress reduction.

Yet, it is a positive step that everyone can do, or, should I say, almost everyone can do it.

Consider this: the best and the most therapeutic smile does not stop at your mouth. It radiates outward and involves the muscles around your eyes.

But, what happens if you have numbed your face with Botox or have had your face stretched and lifted.

These cosmetic procedures impost strict limits on your ability to contort your face into a smile. If you are bubbling with joy, Botox will bring you down. If you try to perform the therapeutic exercise, Botox will inhibit you.

So, the Botox and the lift reduce your ability to feel happiness. Therefore they will stress you out and make you more miserable.

Who knew?

The Rise and Fall of Jonah Lehrer

Like the Icarus of Greek legend wonder boy Jonah Lehrer has just crashed.

Icarus, you know, tried to fly out of Crete on wings made of wax and feathers. His father had warned him not to fly too close to the sun, but he, impetuous youth, ignored his father’s advice. The sun melted his wings and he drowned in the Aegean Sea.

Formerly, Lehrer had reported for Wired and written columns for The Wall Street Journal. He authored a best-selling book called Imagine and was recently made a staff writer at The New Yorker.

And then he was caught making up quotations in his best-selling book. In Imagine Lehrer had quoted Bob Dylan saying something that Bob Dylan never said. When journalist Michael Moynihan asked him about it, Lehrer lied.

When he was found out Lehrer resigned his position at The New Yorker. His publisher has stopped shipping his book and has pulled the ebook version.

Thus, one of America’s most promising young journalists destroyed his career, effectively, for nothing.

I have not read his book, but I would wager that he could have said whatever he had to say without making up Dylan quotations.

Whatever you think of Bob Dylan the truth is, Dylan is not a leading authority on aesthetics.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time that Lehrer was caught trying to get away with things.

When he became a New Yorker staff writer a few months ago Lehrer starting writing blog posts for the magazine’s web site.

Within a couple of weeks astute readers discovered that he was recycling old material, quoting himself at length, in an exercise that one was tempted to call self-plagiarism.

Perhaps he had run out of things to say. He is a young man,  someone whose knowledge must be somewhat limited. Still, rerunning your old material on The New Yorker site was unseemly, if not unethical.

Besides, it was The New Yorker, a place where they take such things extremely seriously.

One does not want to say that Lehrer stole from himself—what can it mean to steal from yourself?—but clearly he was cutting corners and was trying to get paid twice for a single piece of work.

Aside from the fact that it was slothful, it was deceptive and dishonest.

Since Lehrer wrote about matters psychological I have occasionally commented on his pieces.  Links here and here and here and here and here.

As a rule I found him to be capable but overrated. He had a flair for popularizing ideas, but his was hardly an authoritative voice in the world of psychology.

But, then again, he was very young, relatively speaking and one tended to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But how could a promising young man, with a very, very bright future before him have done something so utterly and totally stupid?

Why would he commit an unforced and unnecessary error that will very likely ruin his career.

One can speculate that there was too large a gap between what he knew and what people thought he knew. His real talent was, in my view, largely inferior to the talent that others imagined he had.

Cognitive dissonance, perhaps, between who he was and who his readers took him to be.

For now Lehrer will no longer be writing for major publications. He simply cannot be trusted.

Most likely, he will sit down to write a confessional memoir, explaining how and why he erred, asking for forgiveness.


Reviewing Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine for The New Republic Isaac Chotiner found that it was far worse than I imagined. Since Chotiner wrote his review two months ago, it is worth examining. More so since Chotiner raised issues of intellectual dishonesty and sloppiness.

About Lehrer’s chapter on Bob Dylan, a fabricated quotation is the least of his problems.

Chotiner writes:

The reason for dwelling at length on Lehrer’s consideration of Dylan is that almost everything in the chapter—from the minor details to the larger argument—is inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic. 

As for the larger issue of the quality of Lehrer’s book, Chotiner offers a decidedly negative judgment:

IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.
The irony of Lehrer’s work, and of the genre as a whole, is that while he takes an almost worshipful attitude toward specific scientific studies, he is sloppy in his more factual claims. (In one low moment, he quotes an online poll from Nature magazine to support one of his arguments.) I am not an expert on brain science, but for Lehrer to quote a study about the ability of test subjects to answer questions when those questions were placed on a computer screen with a blue background, and then to make the life-changing claim that “the color blue can help you double your creative output,” is laughable. No scientist would accept such an inference.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Romney in Israel: A Question of Cultures

Many people were shocked. Mitt Romney went to Israel and declared that Israel owed its success to its superior culture.

Imagine that, a presidential candidate who does not toe the multicultural line.

In Romney’s words:

As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

The Washington Post reported:

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the “hand of providence.”

In truth, Romney gave the Palestinians more credit than they deserved.

The Washington Post corrected his facts:

The economic disparity between the Israelis and the Palestinians is actually much greater than Romney stated. Israel had a per capita gross domestic product of about $31,000 in 2011, while the West Bank and Gaza had a per capita GDP of just over $1,500, according to the World Bank.

With his statement Romney was challenging the Palestinians to reform their culture and set about the work of building their nation and economy.

Blaming Israel adds nothing to the per capita GDP.

The dogma of multiculturalism suggests that all cultures are created equal. If some do better than others they must have stolen and cheated their neighbors. If all cultures are equal your success must have been purchased at someone else’s expense.

In the Palestinian territories it’s an article of faith. Since the Obama administration seems to use it as a guiding principle, the Palestinians have had no real reason to renounce their illusion that they can gain pride by destroying Israel.

By asking everything of the Israelis and nothing of the Palestinians, the Obama administration has granted credibility to Islamic extremists throughout the Middle East.

It helps no one when the American president pretends that a failed culture has no one to blame but the Israelis.

Palestinians believe that the “occupation” is the only thing that stands in the way of their having an economy that is as successful as that of Jordan, where the per capita GDP is $5900.

As soon as Romney spoke a Palestinian spokesman denounced him as a racist, which is rather rich coming from a group that tirelessly foments anti-Semitism.

Of course, it is easy to distinguish Israeli and Palestinian cultures. In Israel people take pride in achievement; they take pride in what they have built. In the Palestinian territories, people take pride in destroying what others have built.

You do not need any advanced degrees to see that the first culture will foster success while the latter will promote misery and failure.

Palestinians cannot get over Israel’s success. Unwilling to hurt their delicate feelings, sensitive souls like Barack Obama pretend that Palestinian culture is just as good as Israel’s. Palestinians understand that their terrorism is justified and that history is on their side.

To be clear,, sabotaging someone else’s accomplishment does not produce pride; it produces false pride. And false pride, like fools gold, is not legal tender.

The more false pride you gain the less you can buy with it. You will have wasted your effort accumulating something that has no recognized value.

You will then be facing the choice of transforming your values or doubling down on false pride.

It’s like believing that if your teenaged daughter kisses a boy or dresses Western she has inflicted such grievous damage on your family honor that you must immediately murder her.

Obviously, anyone who is that thin skinned has an honor deficiency to begin with.

Murdering your daughter does not restore your honor; it gives you a dose of false honor. Outside of your community, in the world’s eyes, you do not look honorable. You look like a homicidal maniac with neither pride nor honor.

The Coming Doctor Shortage

Only The New York Times thinks it’s news.

Anyone who bothered to inform himself about Obamacare knew that it was not about affordable care. It was about forcing people to be insured.

But, having insurance does not mean that you will be receiving medical care. If physicians refuse to take your insurance, as often happens with Medicaid, your insurance card will gain you access to the Emergency Room you were previously using for your health care needs.

When the government controls insurance, as in Medicaid and Medicare, reimbursement rates decline. The more they decline the fewer physicians accept them.

You thought it was about “affordable care.” It was really about worsening the already existing doctor shortage.

The New York Times reports:

In the Inland Empire, an economically depressed region in Southern California, President Obama’s health care law is expected to extend insurance coverage to more than 300,000 people by 2014. But coverage will not necessarily translate into care: Local health experts doubt there will be enough doctors to meet the area’s needs. There are not enough now.

As the Times points out with this chart, Obamacare will make a bad problem worse.


What does it mean to have a doctor shortage? The Times explains:

Experts describe a doctor shortage as an “invisible problem.” Patients still get care, but the process is often slow and difficult. In Riverside, it has left residents driving long distances to doctors, languishing on waiting lists, overusing emergency rooms and even forgoing care.

When it comes to Medicaid, don’t take my word for it. Read what the Times says:

Moreover, across the country, fewer than half of primary care clinicians were accepting new Medicaid patients as of 2008, making it hard for the poor to find care even when they are eligible for Medicaid. The expansion of Medicaid accounts for more than one-third of the overall growth in coverage in President Obama’s health care law.

Providers say they are bracing for the surge of the newly insured into an already strained system.

Ask yourself this: if the debate about Obamacare had focused on the doctor shortage instead of affordable care, would public opinion have been even more opposed than it was? Would the people who have been duped into thinking that they would gain affordable care have been so happy if they had known that there would not be enough physicians to care for them?

It isn’t an accident that the Times did not report on the doctor shortage in a timelier manner. It was simply following the Democratic playbook and using deceptive messaging.

For now it has worked. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The London Olympics: The Sun Sets on the British Empire

They used to say that the sun never set on the British Empire. That was then.

Now, Friday evening we watched the sun set on the British Empire.

In 2008 China hosted the Olympic Games. The opening ceremony was an extravaganza, a magnificently choreographed spectacle that was designed to send a clearc message: China had arrived; it was ready to assume its role as a world leader.

No one expected the opening ceremony in London to match what the Chinese had done. It could not have; the British did not have the money.

Still, the London ceremony, put together by the director of a film called Slumdog Millionaire, sent an entirely different message.

It portrayed Great Britain as hip and cool, all drama, parties and rock ‘n roll.

The country that gave us Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin now proclaimed what was left of its pride by placing Paul McCartney and James Bond in their company.

Making the Queen play a role in a slapstick comedy routine may have amused the worldwide audience, but still, it bespoke a lack of seriousness that did neither the nation nor the monarchy much good.

It would have been worthy of Princess Diana, but not QE II.

Director Danny Boyle began his show with Old England, verdant and pastoral. Then we saw Old England replaced by the billowing smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution.

Boyle was right to announce that the Industrial Revolution was the most important and influential event in the past four centuries.

Of course, the Industrial Revolution was not a single event and does not lend itself to dramatic representation, so we do not often see how important it was. Credit goes to Boyle for making it his central idea.

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution Britain became a hegemon, the most wealthy and powerful nation on earth. When Britain faltered world leadership fell to its most famous colony, America. 

Today, British power is a distant memory. Pride in British achievement seems mostly to live on in a new Nursy state, embodied by the National Health Service.

Filling the infield at the Olympic stadium with hospital beds, patients, physicians and nurses made an astonishing statement.

Aside from the leftist political silliness, the extended and poorly choreographed tribute to the NHS suggested that England was sick and infirm, needing and receiving medical care.

Britain was telling the world that it is on injured reserve. It is not ready to compete in the world of commerce; it would prefer to stay in hospital, licking its wounds.

The British may be intensely proud of their health care system but the message they sent the world in the Olympic opening ceremony made them look weak and ineffectual, needing care.

Danny Boyle was also trying to send a message to America. He was trying to express his support for Obamacare. Why shouldn’t American enterprise also be crippled by government controls and regulations? If Britain made a mistake in embracing socialism, why not help America along the same road to economic ill-health?

In the opening ceremony, Great Britain eventually got up off of its hospital bed. For what purpose, you might ask. Surely not to get back in the game or to compete in the arena. Boyle’s England does not function according to a work ethic.

According to Danny Boyle, a young and healthy Great Britain would go out and party. After all, isn’t that the meaning of life?

No more work ethic. No more exercising world leadership. Modern technology has given Britain the chance to get back in touch with its lost pastoral roots. It has allowed the nation to undo the effects of the Industrial Revolution in a reactionary exercise in partying. Young Britain was no longer frolicking in the fields; it was frolicking in the clubs.

In the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics Britain was passing the torch of world leadership.

Was it speaking for America, too?

The Industrial Revolution made Anglo-American culture dominant in the world. Now that Great Britain is retiring will America continue to represent the Anglosphere or will the torch pass to China.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Wanted: Great Fiction Writing

Where did all the great writing go? We have enough competent writing; we have enough good and very good writing. What’s missing is great writing.

According to Roger Rosenblatt we have, for a century or so, been suffering a deficiency of great writing. Has any novelist in the past century matched Jane Austen or Henry James?

One might say that Proust and Thomas Mann are great writers, but I think that Rosenblatt is limiting himself to the English language.

Take Ulysses, by James Joyce. We have all been told that it’s a great book, a virtuoso writing performance. If anyone asks you to name the greatest English language novel of the twentieth century you would probably cite it.

Then again, have you read it? I would venture that you haven’t. I have. For reasons that defy reason, I have read it more than once.

Despite what everyone thinks and what we have all been trained to believe, it is not a great book.

It isn’t interesting; it isn’t engaging; it doesn’t really address any great questions. If you have not been forced to read it for an English course you will never pick it.

The fact that authorities tried to censor it does not make it a great book.

Rosenblatt compares it to the original, Homer’s Odyssey, and states that it does not compare. 

To the point where you start asking yourself why Joyce would have invited comparison with a book that was so far superior to anything he could write himself.

Rosenblatt explains his idea:

When I start thinking this way, I wonder if I’m just growing old, and tired of modernity. Yet even when modernity was young, I was dazzled more often by clarity than by calculated difficulty, and pleased simply by someone doing a far, far better thing. It is always thus. Whatever brief delights it provides, mere strangeness in poetry and prose eventually leaves us cold, especially when we suspect the writer is stretching for effect to avoid the actual life before his eyes. 

Ulysses is a virtuoso performance. Yet, Rosenblatt is correct; it feels more like a contrivance than an illuminating work of fiction. You might say that it tells a story, but it would be more accurate that it refers to an epic that tells a story. 

Joyce does not much care about his readers. He does not much care about reaching them or moving them. He has indulged his own taste for “calculated difficulty” but that, in itself, does not make him a great writer.

It makes him barely readable. But even that did not suffice James Joyce. With Finnegans Wake he wrote a book that is completely unreadable.

Rosenblatt is contending that in Ulysses Joyce has little to nothing to say that is very interesting. It is all so self-absorbed, self-indulgent, show-offy that it does not engage the reader, does not make us care about the characters, and does not achieve greatness.

I think it fair to say that Joyce was trying to be great. Perhaps, he was trying too hard.

It’s like an athlete who is so full of himself that he takes his eye off the ball. Or who thinks that it’s all about him.

An artist whose sole message is: look at me, look at how smart I am, look at what I can do… will bore you to tears.

More recently, a novelist named Jonathan Franzen has been proclaimed one of our great novelists. For my part I find his books boring, tedious, and uninteresting. I recognize that Franzen writes good sentences, but compared to another writer whose greatness Ronsenblatt properly extols, Charles Dickens, Franzen is a pompous mediocrity, a triumph of marketing, a testimony to the gullibility of the reading public.

Great writers don’t show off. They move their readers. They present characters we care about facing dilemmas that are familiar.

Great writers do not indulge their impulse toward self-expression. As Rosenblatt puts it, they tell us something worth knowing.

Modernist writers, of the kind that Rosenblatt is criticizing, are merely trying to provide an aesthetic experience, a perfectly beautiful object whose sole value is aesthetic.

Pretty, well-crafted sentences… lacking substance, failing to engage the characters in a moral dilemma, offering nothing of interest beyond the writer’s awesome talent.

If that’s all there is, it’s eventually going to cloy.

Art for the sake of art has become, in Rosenblatt’s words, weirdness for the sake of weirdness. As I see it, these writers are lazy and slothful.

Great writers work very, very hard. They do not take shortcuts. They do not try to compensate for their inability to tell a story by throwing in weird events or twists.

If the plot does not work a great writer will redo it until it works. A mediocre writer will let an incoherent plot lay there like a beached whale. Once his books get picked up by literature courses dutiful students will be incited to do his work for him, to reveal the meaning hidden behind the writer's sloppiness.  

James Holmes Had Seen a Psychiatrist

Yesterday, we discovered that, prior to opening fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado James Holmes had consulted with a psychiatrist. Link here.

He had been a patient of Dr. Lynne Fenton, director of mental health services at the University of Colorado, and a specialist in schizophrenia.

Whatever the value of this information for Holmes’ defense attorneys, it tells us that Holmes was aware of what was happening to him and had sought help for his condition.

I suggested previously that his interest in cognitive neuroscience, especially his work on the biological causes of mental illness, suggested that he suspected, at the very least, that he was suffering from an organic brain disease.

Perhaps, his fellow students and teachers in the neuroscience program could not have known of his illness, but, shouldn’t we expect more from a credentialed professional?

As of now we have more questions than answers.

We assume that Holmes consulted with Dr. Fenton voluntarily, but we do not know how often. We do not know whether she had arrived at a diagnosis. We do not know whether she prescribed medication for him and whether or not he had taken it.

We are obliged to assume that if she had recognized the danger he posed she would have taken action, at least by reporting him to the proper authorities.

A specialist in schizophrenia should, in my view, easily be able to recognize someone who is undergoing a schizophrenic breakdown. If Holmes was seeking help voluntarily, he would have been less likely to be trying to hide what was happening to him. Since he had a research interest in organic brain disease he would have been likely to speak openly to someone he might have identified as a colleague.

Dr. Fenton might not have known that the breakdown would manifest itself in a massacre, but she should know that such a breakdown would very likely prove dangerous to the patient or others.

Now, we know that Holmes sent Dr. Fenton a "warning package" of materials describing what he was planning to do. He sent it a week before he opened fire.

Tragically, the package got lost in a mail room. If Holmes was trying to reach out to someone who might stop him… at a time when he knew he could not stop himself… he failed.

We do not know whether the package contained a record of what Holmes had told Dr. Fenton or what he had not told Dr. Fenton. If he had told Dr. Fenton of his plans and she had not taken them seriously, he might have wanted to send the package to convince her to do something. 

We must assume that Holmes did not consult with Fenton in the week leading up to the massacre.

Ironically, the University had in place a group of professionals whose job was to identify at risk mentally ill students.

The Washington Post reports that this group has had some success, but that it missed James Holmes.

It reports:

After the 2007 mass shooting that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado set up a special team to spot students who were suicidal or might pose a threat to others. There is no indication that the team — made up of mental-health professionals, campus police and others — had identified Holmes as a student in need of monitoring.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tom Menino's Boston Values

The Chick-fil-A kerfuffle was provoked when Boston Mayor Tom Menino said that he would block the chain from opening a restaurant in Boston.

Like Rahm Emanuel after him, Menino insisted that Chick-fil-A did not respect Boston values because its president thought that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Now, the Boston Herald reports that the same Mayor Menino has given city land to a mosque even though one of its “spiritual guides”has repeatedly called for homosexuals to be executed.

Given his stance on Chick-fil-A, would Mayor Tom Menino grant permits to a group that has counted among its leaders a man who has repeatedly called homosexuality a “crime that must be punished” by death?

Actually, he has done that  ...and more! Menino effectively gave away city land valued at $1.8 million to the organization, and he gave a speech at its ribbon-cutting ceremony.

It’s the Islamic Society of Boston’s mosque, and when it comes to anti-gay sentiment, one of its early supporters makes Chick-fil-A look like the Provincetown Men’s Chorus.

It’s not a new story:

During the (understandable) controversy over the city selling land for a house of worship at a below-market rate a decade ago, reporters discovered that the Islamic Society of Boston counted imam Yusef al-Qaradawi as one of its spiritual guides.

 Yusef al-Qadawari has this to say about homosexuals:

[A homosexual should be given] the same punishment as any sexual pervert  ... Some say we should throw them from a high place, like God did with the people of Sodom. Some say we should burn them.

I take it for granted that the gay rights movement has been out front denouncing this depraved imam. Right?

Why Do Women Cheat?

People cheat all the time. They cheat on their lovers; they cheat on their spouses; sometimes, they even cheat on themselves.

To coin a phrase, today infidelity is as American as apple pie.

Most of the time it’s the man who cheats, but, increasingly women are joining the club.

No one was surprised to find out that Ashton was cheating on Demi, but a lot of people were shocked to learn that Kristen Stewart was cheating on Robert Pattinson.

Few people were surprised to read that Pattinson has since moved out of the home that they shared.

Yesterday, I remarked on Jessica Coen’s view that cheating is not such a bad thing, that’s it’s normal for a young girl, and that Kristen Stewart should not have apologized... except maybe to Pattinson.

I found Coen’s column dispiriting, for the message it was sending to young women, and, by extension, to young men.

This morning I discovered an excellent article by LeslieLoftis, explaining how it could have happened that Stewart cheated on Pattinson.

Strangely, Coen and Loftis see the same value system at work.  Coen is trafficking the values that the culture imposes on young women; Loftis is critiquing them, by showing what happens when women follow them.

Specifically, young American women are being told that, whatever they do, they should not marry young.

I have often criticized this piece of life-altering bad advice. Loftis renders us a service by showing how this idea infiltrates the minds and lives of young women.

Several decades ago young women were told that they should postpone marriage in favor of career advancement. In the case of Kristen Stewart that is clearly not the case.

Loftis describes the way this message is communicated to girls and young women:

These days, we tell teens that their 20s are for living their life, doing their own thing, experimenting, experiencing. So if a girl meets Mr. Wonderful in her early 20s, when things turn to serious talks about marriage and children, she freaks out. Her friends, her sisters, sometimes her mother — they have told her it is too soon. If she goes so far as to get engaged, we women stage interventions. Granted, sometimes marriage is too soon. Other times the couple isn’t a good match. But we don’t typically weigh the relationships with a little discounting of the judgment of a younger woman. We take her youth as the decisive factor.

In so doing, we create the very immaturity we use as evidence of their immaturity.

In truth, this is what worldly wise 32 year old Jessica Coen was telling young women when she said that Stewart’s behavior was wrong but understandable.

What else could it mean when Coen condescended to Stewart by calling her a “stupid girl.”

Loftis explains that Stewart suffered the I’m-too-young-to-settle-down "freak out:"

By most accounts, Stewart, 22, has had only two boyfriends. She’s been with Pattinson for about three years. They live together. Rumor has it they’ve been talking about marriage and children. I can guarantee that she has women she trusts telling her that she needs to do more before she settles down. That she has already done more in her career and traveled more around the world than most women ever do doesn’t matter. “You are only 22.  You’re too young to settle down,” is what the little devil on her shoulder whispers during conversations about commitment or when she feels a connection with an older and supposedly wiser man. Thus, the freak-out.

By the time a woman is out of her 20s, she has seen the freak-out often. It takes many forms: a sudden breakup, a party binge, a fling — or three. Mixing the party binge with flings is particularly explosive — a drunk woman putting out signals that she wants a good time.  The lucky women are those who end up merely embarrassed. Stewart went the fling route.

Peer pressure against early marriage is producing such freak outs. It is seductive and powerful. 

Loftis knows, as we all do, that sometimes a twenty-year old women finds Mr. Wrong, but that sometimes she finds Mr. Right.

Clearly, she should use her own judgment, with an assist from those who love her the most. But she should not throw away  someone she loves and could marry because her girlfriends and the ambient culture have told her that she is too young and sexually inexperienced.

Loftis writes:

But don’t throw away something good simply because your 20s are supposed to be about you. That is the start of a very lonely trail. Go read the testaments of 35-year-old women. Almost invariably, they have one that got away. The “I’m not ready freak out” is why.

She is right to say that the culture tells young people that their twenties should be about “me.” It tells young people that after college they should go out and try to find themselves.

That can only mean that young people are being told to turn their twenties into a therapeutic journey toward self-actualization.

But, will all of those years of self-involvement and repeated relationship errors will make you a better and more desirable spouse? Or will they make you narcissistically self-absorbed to the point where you can barely make a good decision about mating and marriage?

Rahm Emanuel's Chicago Values

When Rahm Emanuel returned to Chicago after his stint as White House Chief of Staff, he was welcomed as a conquering hero.

There was a new sheriff in town.

The city’s gangbangers were thrilled. They threw a party and turned Emanuel’s city into a shooting gallery. Gun violence in Chicago soared.

Perhaps they saw him as a community organizer. Perhaps they saw him as a man who would feel their pain. They certainly saw weakness that was ripe for exploiting.

Mayor Rahm could only respond with the usual liberal pieties. In a city that had some of the most stringent gun control laws in the nation he announced that gun control laws would control the violence.

Like his former boss Emanuel is in over his head. Clueless about how to stop the violence he accepted Louis Farrakhan’s offer to help police the streets.

Rahm’s Chicago values allow him to embrace one of the nation’s most virulent anti-Semites. And they allow him to provide official sanction for an operation that will proselytize the thought of Louis Farrakhan and will recruit young people into the Nation of Islam.

At the same time Mayor Emanuel was showing how tough he is by standing up to the threat posed by a restaurant chain called Chick–fil-A.

The restaurant chain wants to open a new restaurant in Chicago. Rahm is against the plan and promises to use his considerable powers to block it.

Don’t you ever think that Rahm Emanuel is not tough on crime!

His reason: Chick-fil-A’s president, Dan Cathy opposes same-sex marriage. As a good Christian, Cathy believes that marriage is always between a man and a woman.

The mayor of Boston had recently made similar threats. He was quickly informed that his actions would be a stark violation of  First Amendment freedom of speech.

Even the ACLU is defending Chick-fil-A.

Perhaps Emanuel wanted to show everyone where Chicago’s gangbangers got the idea that bullying was acceptable behavior….

As for the substance of his argument: until a decade or so ago every human being who has ever lived on the planet has understood that the institution of marriage involves a man and a woman.

Now, prominent liberal politicians have decided that anyone who holds to this opinion is a contemptible bigot and must be shunned.

No one is less liberal minded than today’s liberals.

Keep in mind, Rahm Emanuel is not some fringe leftist kook. He was chief of staff in the Obama White House.

Now what we really need to ask is this: Does Louis Farrakhan support gay marriage? And if he doesn’t, why is he being allowed to recruit on the streets of Chicago?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Should Kristen Stewart Have Apologized?

It’s a sad day when young people take their moral cues from the behavior of celebrities, but, alas, it’s happening in America today.

Yesterday, a website published pictures of celebrity Kristen Stewart cheating on her live-in boyfriend, celebrity Robert Pattinson. Stewart and Pattinson star in a series of enormously popular vampire movies about Twilight.

In the pictures, Stewart was wrapped in an amorous embrace with film director and married father of two, Rupert Sanders. He had recently directed her in a movie about Snow White.

Since Stewart is extremely famous and recognizable she could not have just gone and gotten a room. Of course, making out in public did not exactly solve the discretion issue.

Us Weekly reported that Kristen left the Hollywood home she shares with Rob on July 17 and spent the afternoon driving around LA with Sanders — who’s wed to British model Liberty Ross — “in search of secluded places to make out.” They were pictured kissing in a car and later canoodling and hugging at a park in what was described as a “marathon make-out session.”

Apparently, Pattinson had already known about the escapade and was deeply humiliated by it all… to say the least.

After the pictures appeared, Stewart issued a contrite apology via a representative:

I'm deeply sorry for the hurt and embarrassment I've caused to those close to me and everyone this has affected. This momentary indiscretion has jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry.

To which Jessica Coen has responded by saying that Stewart erred in apologizing. She does not, Coen said, owe anyone a press release.

In some part, Coen is right. When you allow someone else to apologize in your place, you have not, by definition, apologized.

If Stewart had gone before a camera and read the statement, I would have thought better of her. She would have been closer to a real apology. 

As you probably know, Jessica Coen is an extremely talented young writer and editor. She edits Jezebel, an excellent site.

Now, Coen wants people to believe that Stewart should not have apologized at all, except to her live-in boyfriend, Pattinson.

Coen senses, correctly, that celebrity apologies are especially vacuous. If you make a living, as Stewart does, pretending to be someone you are not, any statement of apology, no matter how anguished, is going to smack of insincerity.

When you allow a representative to deliver the statement, you might just as well, Coen reasons, not have done it at all.

Worse yet, in the moral universe of celebrity the apology is normally not accompanied by a price paid. When someone apologizes sincerely he usually accepts a penalty; he resigns his position or withdraws from public life for a decent interval.

In Stewart’s case, the apology, Coen explains, is intended to protect the franchise. Apparently, the Twilight franchise is very lucrative, indeed, and publicists are working hard to protect it.

If that is the primary concern, then apology can only be insincere. 

And yet, how many young people are going to draw moral lessons from this debacle? How many of them will learn that if your apology is not sincere you would do better not to offer it at all? How many of them will learn that, while Stewart did something that was, in Coen’s word, "wrong," we should take into account the extenuating circumstances and not, she implies, be so judgmental.

This incident raises a number of important moral issues.

First, if an apology is not sincere should it be offered anyway? If you do not mean it, should you say it? Or better, should you do the right thing when your heart is not in it?

Take a less charged example: should you send a thank-you note when you do not feel grateful? Ought you to write out the note when you do not feel the feeling you are expressing?

Coen seems to be saying that you should not; Confucius said you should.

Confucius would have advised you to perform correct social rituals, even if your heart is not in it. By his thinking, the more you do the right thing the more you will understand what it the ritual means and the more your gestures will become sincere.

Or, if I may quote myself, I once put it this way:

If you want to build character, it’s better to pretend that you have it than to prove that you don’t.

The words that were released under Kristen Stewart’s name do express a high level of anguish. That they do not rise to the level of a sincere apology means simply that Stewart has something to work towards.

The second point is: if an apology is larded over with explanations justifying the failure or mistake, then it is, by definition, insincere.

The same, I suggest, applies to Coen’s tactic of denouncing Stewart for having done something wrong while at the same time offering a laundry list of extenuating circumstances.

In these paragraphs Coen piles on the rationalizations for Stewart’s behavior:

This is the matter of a girl cheating on her boyfriend, and that kind of feels like a high school fuck up. Fodder for the gossip mill, sure, but not at the level of publicly begging for forgiveness. Even the overwrought apology (your boyfriend is "the most important thing in my life" — really?) sounds like a kid with a case of the swoons.

Kristen Stewart is 22, a very young adult. Find me one person who didn't screw up, in ways large or small, a relationship at that age. And Robert Pattinson is just her boyfriend, as in they aren't married.… Moreover, Stewart exists in a very permissive Hollywood bubble where celebrities can generally behave however they please, and she didn't violate the sanctity of some social/legal contract. Nor was she involved in any criminal acts (as far as we know, anyhow, but there could've been some hot Bonnie and Clyde role playing); adultery isn't illegal in California. And who the hell knows the state of her relationship?

It is easy to imagine that young women reading this advice will conclude that cheating on your boyfriend is not all that wrong.

But, cheating is one thing. Humiliating your boyfriend or significant other in public is quite another. 

Coen grants that Stewart owes Pattinson an apology, but we should consider the fact that once you have humiliated your live-in boyfriend in public, a private apology will no longer suffice. 

Moreover, Stewart damaged her public reputation. She ought to work to restore her good name. If she apologizes she is saying that the indiscretion was a mistake, that it was not characteristic of her, and that it will not happen again.

But she also damaged her boyfriend’s reputation, making him look, in the eyes of the world, like the unmarried equivalent of a cuckold.

After offering all the excuses she can think of for Stewart’s behavior, Coen says that Stewart’s behavior is not excusable.

In Coen’s words:

None of this makes Stewart's behavior even remotely excusable because it's not, not even if the relationship is on the rocks or he's the world's most popular vampire. Say it with me: Cheating is wrong! Kristen Stewart Did a Bad Thing. She acted like a crappy person. But she did it to her boyfriend, and she's young, and chances are she's learned her lesson. Assuming Pattinson and Stewart's relationship was in an otherwise happy place full of hearts doodled on notebooks, she certainly does owe him an apology. She doesn't, however, owe him — or any of us — a press release. Stupid girl did something stupid. The end.

Since when are 22 year olds considered to be girls. Last I heard they were women, adults with a sense of moral responsibility.

A stupid girl she does not bear the same moral responsibility as an adult cohabiting with another adult.

Since Stewart is an adult and a public figure, she owed Pattinson an apology. But she also owed her public an apology, however insincere.

She would have done better to have offered the apology in public, in her own words and in her own voice.

She has, I daresay, room for improvement. But that does not meant that she should not have apologized or that we should excuse her behavior on the grounds that she is “very young.”

After all, what is the message going out to young people here. Why would a young man ever want to have a girlfriend if he knew in advance that she could cheat on him with relative impunity because they were not married? And why would he not read Jessica Coen and say to himself that if those are the rules of the game, then he has the right to cheat himself?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Marital Advice from Divorcees

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Seek out marital advice from people whose marriages had failed.

It sounds like asking Julia Allison for some pointers about dating.  

There's something wrong with a culture that seeks how-to advice from people who don't know how to.

Most researchers look at successful marriages. It makes a lot of sense. Psychologist Terry Orbuch has chosen the opposite tack. She believes that divorcees have spent more time obsessing over failure, and thus, that they will be especially good at giving advice.


Elizabeth Bernstein summarizes Orbuch’s concept:

People who lose the most important relationship of their life tend to spend some time thinking about what went wrong. If they are at all self-reflective, this means they will acknowledge their own mistakes, not just their ex's blunders. And if they want to be lucky in love next time, they'll try to learn from these mistakes.

Of course, people who are introspective, self-absorbed and self-critical are, by definition, more likely to end up divorced.

People who know what went wrong and who swear never to make the same mistake again often end up making different mistakes.

Perfecting the art of introspective self-criticism gets them caught up in a feedback loop, between mistakes and self-critical self-awareness.

Nothing about the process helps you to develop the good habits that are the basis for a successful marriage.

As might be imagined, Orbuch’s divorcees say what a psychologist would want them to say. They advise talking things over, expressing your feelings, being open, honest and supportive.

While wallowing in therapy culture pieties, the study does not say how the divorced couples defined their roles. Did they see themselves as husband and wife in the more traditional sense or did they see themselves as equal persons?

We know nothing about who was playing which roles, and have no information about any couple’s financial condition.

Orbuch’s advice is wrong and wrongheaded because it suggests that a marriage can be made to work.

True enough, marriage requires work and adjustment. But you cannot force it to work when other factors are militating against it.

If you want to know what makes a marriage work, begin with the most important fact: whom you choose to marry. If you choose the wrong person, you are not going to make it work by rearranging your mental furniture and showering your spouse with empathy.

Over at the Hooking Up Smart blog, Susan Walsh has offered a good list of questions you should ask yourself when you are choosing a mate.

If I had to limit myself to three qualities that are most important in a successful marriage, I would begin with character.

If your beloved has bad character, if he or she is unreliable and cannot be trusted, if he or she evinces disloyalty… you are going to have more drama than harmony, and ultimately a less successful marriage.

How do you judge character? Try asking your friends and family.

If none of the people who love you the most likes your intended, then it is likely that your love has blinded you to the person’s character flaws.

Marriage is a social institution. When you marry someone you make that person a part of your family and a part of your circle of friends.

If you choose someone whose bad character alienates these people marriage will cost you your social moorings.

Good communication will not compensate for the ensuing problems.

Serious sociological studies have shown that the second most important predictor of a happy marriage is: coming from the same or a similar culture.

You do not need to think the same thoughts, have the same feelings or have the same interests. You are not going to be happy if you marry an echo chamber.

It does mean that you should have a great deal in common, culturally. If you come from radically different cultural backgrounds you will find that the social cues that mean one thing in one culture mean something else in someone else’s culture.

It may be the case that you will feel a stronger emotional connection to someone who comes from a different world, but that just means that your emotions are compensating for your inability to understand the signals you are sending each other.

The further apart you are culturally, the more you will have to explain yourself all the time.

People who come from radically different worlds often exhaust themselves trying to bridge their culture gap with words and feelings.

With marriage and with any romantic relationship the less you have to explain yourself the better off you will be.

Finally, marriages fail because no one knows what marriage is any more. People have come to believe that marriage expresses true love and involves an emotional affinity, as in soul mating.

If you want a happy and long lasting marriage you will to rely less of feeling and more on consistent routines. The more harmonious your household, the better your marriage. 

Talking about why you can’t get along does not help you to get along. It exacerbates the tensions by accentuating the points of conflict.