Sunday, September 30, 2012

Psycho Nation

The studies were begun nearly two decades ago, but they are still relevant and pertinent.

Performed by Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda they demonstrate two salient points. First, children who have been traumatized are far more likely to have medical or behavioral problems. Second, the incidence of these problems is, the authors explain,  “unexpectedly common.”

David Brooks summarized the results in a recent column:

In the 1990s, Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda conducted a study on adverse childhood experiences. They asked 17,000 mostly white, mostly upscale patients enrolled in a Kaiser H.M.O. to describe whether they had experienced any of 10 categories of childhood trauma. They asked them if they had been abused, if their parents had divorced, if family members had been incarcerated or declared mentally ill. Then they gave them what came to be known as ACE scores, depending on how many of the 10 experiences they had endured.

The link between childhood trauma and adult outcomes was striking. People with an ACE score of 4 were seven times more likely to be alcoholics as adults than people with an ACE score of 0. They were six times more likely to have had sex before age 15, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, four times as likely to suffer emphysema. People with an ACE score above 6 were 30 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

Later research suggested that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score of 0 had learning or behavioral problems in school. Among students with an ACE score of 4 or higher, 51 percent had those problems.

It’s nice enough to say that we need to counter the effects of poverty and to provide a better education, but, at root, Brooks suggests, Americans are psychologically damaged. Unless we deal with that problem, public policy solutions are unlikely to be beneficial.

Brooks explains:

In the past several decades, policy makers have focused on the material and bureaucratic things that correlate to school failure, like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small. But, more recently, attention has shifted to the psychological reactions that impede learning — the ones that flow from insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety.

He adds:

… across vast stretches of America, economic, social and family breakdowns are producing enormous amounts of stress and unregulated behavior, which dulls motivation, undermines self-control and distorts lives.

Ferlitti himself explained that pathological behaviors are attempts to self-medicate:

"We saw that things like intractable smoking, things like promiscuity, use of street drugs, heavy alcohol consumption, etc., these were fairly common in the backgrounds of many of the patients...These were merely techniques they were using, these were merely coping mechanisms that had gone into place."

But, how did we get to the point where “social and family breakdowns” are traumatizing children and undermining their character?

Brooks does not say it, but we, as a nation, have, for the past few decades been engaged in a grand social experiment. We have decided that personal self-fulfillment is more important than social stability or family stability. We act as though our mental health depends on our ability to let it all hang out, to be free from all social strictures, to be open and honest and out of control.

Add to that the stress that comes from constant movement and economic insecurity and you have a culture that is unfriendly, even hostile, to children.

These children might not have been physically abused, but they live with parents who place their needs before their responsibilities. These parents have been told by pseudo-scientists that they should be more permissive and indulgent. Thus, they try to make a virtue of their own detachment and neglect by failing to discipline their children. The experts cheer them on, telling parents that this helps children to develop their creativity.

So, kudos to Ferlitti and Anda for quantifying the problem, and kudos to David Brooks for drawing out attention to it. For my part I would add that the state of the national psyche is the natural outcome of our own Great American Cultural Revolution.

As one might expect, the eminently sensible Brooks proposes something resembling a national confab to bring together teachers, psychologists and social workers to find a solution.

The idea is mental balm for uneasy minds, but still, it does not address the most important issue here, the issue of responsibility.

For many years now the American educational system has given itself over to the task of providing therapy for children, mostly in the form of mindlessly puffing up children’s self-esteem.

How’s that been working out?

I would be happy to see all of American’s parents turn into Tiger Moms and all schoolteachers turn into disciplinarians who reward excellence and call out failure and sloth, but that would require such an extreme culture shift that one doubts that it will happen in the foreseeable future.

Too many people are too invested in self-esteemism for it to disappear any time soon.

One understands why Brooks would call for more mental health services, but, seriously, do you believe that America is lacking in mental health services. Children are regularly exposed to counselors, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists.

It would be more accurate to say that Americans, both children and adults are drowning in mental health services. Americans have been therapied and drugged to the limits of their endurance.

If the Felitti and Anda studies are correct, we must conclude that all the varied modes of therapeutic intervention are simply not very effective.

All the counseling and pills seem to have very little real impact on the outcomes of childhood stress and abuse.

And it is not as though therapists have not been aware of the negative consequences of childhood trauma. Freud founded psychotherapy over a century ago as a theory about infantile trauma.

And yes, I am aware of the fact that the American Psychological Association has recently reported that all forms of therapy are effective.

But then, ask yourself this: what did you think that a professional association of psychologists and therapists would say?

Would you trust the American Bar Association to offer an objective appraisal of the cost of excessive litigation?

If, as the studies show, nothing that we, as a society, are offering to children who have suffered childhood stress and abuse has a helped change the course of their lives, then clearly, the therapy industry is failing to do the job.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mitt Romney Falls Into the Empathy Trap

With Intrade giving Barack Obama a 78.6% chance of re-election everyone is starting to write pre-mortems for the Romney campaign.

This morning a Romney campaign official conceded that the candidate is a lousy campaigner, and even a lousy politician and a lousy leader, but, boy, is he a great manager.

The campaign is trying to craft a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but it does not feel like a winning concept.

During the primary season, conservative Republican potentates and pundits flocked to Romney because they were impressed by his ruthlessness. They also believed that he was a sure winner.

Yet, as I noted at the time, Romney did more than ignore Ronald Reagan’s commandment not to speak ill of his fellow Republicans. He did nothing but speak ill of his fellow Republicans.

Trashing your colleagues does not make you a leader. If you have walked all over them to reach the summit what makes you think that they will be there for you when you need them?

If we are looking for a symptom of the Romney campaign implosion, I nominate John Sununu. How smart do you have to be to know not to send out someone as discredited and disliked as John Sununu as a campaign spokesman? Does Romney really believe that all those Sununu appearances on Fox News are going to gin up the conservative base?

Obviously, the election ain’t over until the fat lady votes, but, for now, a ruthless and surefooted competitor has become weak and timid in the general election campaign.

If anything, Romney’s failure to bring the fight to Barack Obama suggests to many Republicans that he is not really one of them, that in his heart he is a squishy Massachusetts moderate who feels more at home with liberals than with conservatives.

Will that turn out conservative voters on November 6?

I suspect that someone in Romney’s barely competent brain trust has come up with the dimwitted idea that the candidate needs to show more empathy, that he has to show that he cares, that he has to become more likable.

We all know that Bill Clinton made empathy into legal political tender in American politics. The man who felt everyone’s pain--  when he was not feeling up the interns—has taught the electorate that they should vote for a candidate who can relate to them, who has been through what they have been through, who understands them and who feels their pain.

Of course, the idea comes to us from the therapy culture, so we should cast some doubt on it.

Look at this way. Let’s say you don’t feel well. Let’s say that you feel really, really sick and you go to the doctor. Do you want to hear that your physician feels your pain? Do you want to know that he feels badly about what is happening to you?

Will you be satisfied if your physician offers you a prescription for essence of empathy?

You want your physician to know what the problem is and to tell you how he is going to help  you solve it. You don’t want him to feel your pain; you want him to get rid of your pain.

It isn’t even a subtle distinction.

You want your physician to show that he knows what’s wrong, and to offer, with some optimism, a course of treatment that will solve the problem.

If your doctor is wrapped up in feeling your pain you are going to conclude that he does not know what is wrong with you and that the best he can offer is sympathy for your condition. Your empathetic physician will leave you feeling worse, because his empathy will feel like hopelessness.

Psychologically speaking, if you feel defeated and if your physician feels your pain at feeling defeated he will be less likely to be able to mobilize all of his knowledge to find a solution to your problem?

If you are feeling pessimistic, you want a physician who is optimistic about the help he can offer. If he cannot do that, find another physician.

Perhaps it is too late, but Romney should do what Newt Gingrich and many more savvy political operatives have been saying he should do. He should formulate a concept that describes the problem and that offers a solution that people can grasp.

After all, Franklin Roosevelt was not offering any specifics about the New Deal during the 1932 election campaign. In fact, he was was trashing Herbert Hoover as a big spending, big government socialist who had stifled free trade. In the New Deal FDR was offering a basic concept, the New Deal, that was positive, optimistic and forward looking.

Mitt Romney has a 59 point plan for how he would turn the economy around. If your physician listens to your complaints and offers you a pamphlet filled with ideas about how you might feel better, you are going to think that he does not know what he is doing.

You might not feel that he is shooting blanks, but you are likely to believe that he has a scattershot approach—he is filling the air with buckshot and hoping that some of it hits home.

Romney can say that Obama has done a bad job. Doubtless, it's true. But he has thus far failed to offer any indication that he will do a better job... not as a manager, but as a political leader.

There's nothing wrong with being a good manager. Compared to what we have now, it would be a vast improvement. Still, the office of the presidency involves political leadership as much as management.

He might begin by exercising some control over the narrative. There is little doubt that many members of the mainstream media have become stooges for the Obama campaign. That much is given; it should have been expected; the Romney campaign should have had an idea of how they would counter it.

Being defeated by the media does not make you look like a strong leader.

If you cannot cut through the media smokescreen with clear and articulate policy prescriptions, then you are not likely to be a very effective leader.

Weeks after the fact the Romney campaign has still not answered the best rationale for Obama’s candidacy: namely, Bill Clinton’s statement that no one could have done better than Obama.

Obviously, Clinton was saying that even he could not have done any better.

Someone high in the Romney campaign should have countered that Clinton himself knew how to work with a Republican congress. Obama does not. Clinton's defense of Obama is effectively empty verbiage.

Besides, if you are in pain and your physician’s nostrums have aggravated your condition, will you feel better to hear that no one could have done a better job?

Your pain is telling you to try something else. Who are you going to believe, your pain or Bill Clinton?

Clinton’s statement is neither true nor false. You cannot prove it and you cannot disprove it. We will never know what condition the nation’s economy would be in if someone else had been inaugurated president in January, 2009. We do not know what condition it would have been in if the government had stepped aside and let the markets work things out.

But, what would you have said if a Bill Clinton precursor had stood up in front of the Republican convention in 1932 and declared that no one could have done better than Herbert Hoover had done in the wake of the crash of 1929?

Would you find that persuasive? Would you rush out to vote for Herbert Hoover on the grounds that nothing more can be done to heal your pain?

The only response to Clinton's defense of Obama is that we have one good way to find out: we can try out a different president and a new approach. 

You do not, however, want to say that we should fire Obama. At a time when more and more people are losing their jobs and remaining unemployed for an unconscionably long period of time, you do not get up and say that you thrill to the prospect of firing someone, anyone. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

What Happens When Couples Share the Household Chores?

Q: When is a research study not a research study?

A: When it’s results are a little too convenient.

Recently, we read reports saying that men were happier when they did more housework.

The results were so convenient for persons of a certain ideological persuasion that one did not take them very seriously.

Happily, so.

Now a new study from Norway says that couples who share housework equally are 50% more likely to divorce.

Marriages where the wife fulfills the role of homemaker seem to be more durable than are those “modern” marriages where chores are distributed equally according to the principles of social justice.

People who live their lives according to an ideological imperative are far more likely to pay for it with their marriages.

The London Telegraph reports:

The reasons, [the researcher] Mr Hansen said, lay only partially with the chores themselves.

“Maybe it’s sometimes seen as a good thing to have very clear roles with lots of clarity ... where one person is not stepping on the other’s toes,” he suggested.

“There could be less quarrels, since you can easily get into squabbles if both have the same roles and one has the feeling that the other is not pulling his or her own weight.”

But the deeper reasons for the higher divorce rate, he suggested, came from the values of “modern” couples rather than the chores they shared.

Unfortunately, it makes good sense.

Sharing responsibility requires a dizzying set of organizational principles.

Women all say that they want an equal division of household labor. Yet, they also feel, perhaps unconsciously, that a man’s active participation in homemaking is a reproach, a vote of no confidence in their ability to keep a home.

(I posted about this in relation to an article by Sandra Tsing Loh earlier this week.)

Hansen is also correct to say that the couples who divide up chores equally are likely to be less committed to the institution of marriage. 

So-called modern couples do not believe in depending on each other for anything. But two autonomous individuals who have achieved perfect independence naturally feel less like a couple.

If the only thing holding a couple together is affection, they are headed for trouble.

Despite the ideological haze that has surrounded these terms, independence and autonomy are unnatural states. Interdependence is the more natural human condition.

If you are perfectly independent that implies that you, or those near and dear to you, cannot be relied upon and cannot be trusted. If you have to do everything by yourself you are saying that you refuse to rely on anyone else. And you are also saying that no one should ever rely on you.

Perfectly modern marriages do not do well because feminist ideology undermines moral character. If your spouse lacks basic moral character you are probably not going to stay married for very long.

David Rosenberg's Market Forecast

Famed stock market strategist David Rosenberg, currently at the Canadian firm, Gluskin Sheff, has gazed into his crystal ball and sees a very bleak future.

Some highlights from his report.

First, a comment on the political situation:

Further on the political front, it shouldn’t be lost on those who are proponents of capitalism that President Obama now enjoys a 49% approval rating — it is up six points in the past year (and election handicappers should note that this is the exact same thing that George W. Bush had at this same juncture of the 2004 campaign — which he won handily against another gaffe-prone opponent).

Funnily enough, Bush's gaffe-prone opponent was also from Massachusetts.

Second, a comment on the recent rally in the Dow Jones Industrials:

And its not as if the equity market has been rallying off news at it pertains to the fundamentals like the economic data and corporate earnings. Indeed, more than two-thirds of the rally points the stock market has enjoyed since the summer-time lows occurred around central bank policy announcements. So the market is really a one-trick pony here, breathing in the fumes of central bank liquidity.

To buttress his point Rosenberg notes importantly that, however well the Dow has been doing, the Transportation average has been declining.

He considers this to be a very clear warning sign.

Third, a comment on the global economic outlook:

The global economic fundamentals are awful. China’s industrial sector is in decline_ France’s PM I data is at a 41-month low, and while Germany did manage to pull off an upside surprise, the whole euro area now has its manufacturing sector behaving as though it is 2009 all over again_ Italy just sharply cut its economic growth forecast (and the stock market there was clocked for a 4% loss last week), shortly after the Japanese government downgraded its own assessment of the economy. Declines occurred in U.S. household employment, real wages, Industrial production and core retail sales. In other words, this is not QE1, when the recession was coming to an end. This is not QE2 or Operation Twist when the economy stopped looking as though it was going to do a “double dip-. No. this latest round of central bank manipulation is happening at a time when there is no sign of an imminent turnaround in the economy, and the weakness has gone viral. The real problems for investor risk appetite comes if we see signs that inflation is heading higher which will limit what the Fed can do, or if we see the economy falter which would then expose Bernanke as the non- wizard that Toto exposed behind the curtain and the Fed as pushing on a string.

For the most part Rosenberg’s analysis is only available to clients of his firm and subscribers. It’s not very often that it’s available to the public, so, I am happy to pass it along.

Three by Margaret Thatcher

Doubtless, everyone knows these quotations. They do not date from yesterday.

But since they were new to me, perhaps they will be new to someone else.

They are all by Margaret Thatcher; they address diverse topics; they are clear, concise, cogent, and very high concept. They will brighten your day with wisdom.

They do not require commentary:

1. Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.

2. Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s when you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it.

3. If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dividing Up the Friends In a Divorce

In a divorce the children should come first. Divorce is hardest on the most vulnerable. Responsible and caring divorced couples do their best for their children.

For most people, after the children comes love. People tend to believe that the second most important issue for divorced people is the next relationship. We ask ourselves whether they will ever find love again, as though that is the solution to one of life’s greatest traumas.

We think this because psychologists see human existence in terms of love and family. Read any psycho textbook, you will find nearly all human relationships defined as a function of blood relatives and true love.

At times, they throw in a little peer pressure, but primarily they see us within the context of the family, current or future.

It feels natural to do so. It feels so natural that we do not even question it.

And yet, the psycho world is making a serious mistake.

If we look at the great ethical thinkers, we notice that they do not emphasize family. They certainly to nor grant a special therapeutic power to romantic love.

The Bible instructs you to love you neighbor as yourself. It advises you to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

It tells you to honor your father and your mother, but it does not say that you should love your sister or brother as yourself. And it does not tell you to do unto your lover as you would have your lover do unto you.

In the world of philosophy, the greatest ethicist was Aristotle. In his most important treatise on ethics to: friendship.

Not family, not lovers… but friends.

Why do the greatest ethical thinkers show us how to have good relations with our neighbors, our friends, and even nondescript  “others?”

For a very good reason. Your relations with your friends and neighbors depend primarily on good behavior. If you behave badly toward a friend or neighbor you will often lose that person’s friendship.

If you behave badly toward a parent or sibling, they will still be your parent or sibling. Family relations do not require best behavior.

As for true love, it is sufficiently blind that it is often insensitive to bad behavior. You can get away with more bad behavior toward your true love than you can toward your neighbor.

Ethically speaking, friends bring out your best. When you are feeling the worst, your morale depends on having friends who see you at your best and bring out your best.

Yesterday in the Huffington Post, Christina Pesoli drew special attention to the important role friends play for people going through divorce.

It’s bad enough to get divorced, but if the divorce costs you too many friends you will have that much more difficulty recovering from it, no matter how healthy you are.

As Pesoli points out, some of it you can control; some of it you cannot.

You will normally keep the friends you brought with you into the marriage, but others will often go with the money and the power. .

Nevertheless, Pesoli wants divorcees to know that they can also drive people away.

She writes:

While you don't have much say over which friends you get to keep after your divorce, you do have the power to drive friends away. Just try launching a campaign to convince them how terrible your ex is and see how fast your cell phone stops ringing.

If you show yourself to be mean-spirited and embittered, you will drive friends away. Most people don’t want to hear all the horror stories. They most especially, as Aristotle noticed, do not want to see you at your worst. If you shower them with negative emotion they will avoid your company.

There is no therapeutic value to belaboring a divorce. The sooner you put it behind you, the better you will be.

Pesoli explains that a divorcee can share the pain with one or two stalwart friends, friends whose loyalty is unshakeable, but that he or she should stop there.

When others ask, Pesoli recommends that you respond in two sentences:

"It's been hard, but I'm getting through it. Thanks for asking." Then change the subject. The less of your personal business you have floating around out there, the better off you'll be in the long run.

Let’s emphasize the point. The more you talk, the more you share, the more you will be putting your private life in circulation. You will make yourself a subject of endless gossip, to say nothing of pity.

If you don’t want the world to know your personal business, don’t put it out there.

This advice applies to many other situations. I’m sure I do not have to tell you what they are.

Of course, there are other kinds of friends, most of whom you do well to avoid.

Some friends, Pesoli says, leech off of your anguish to make themselves look better by comparison. They are more than happy to listen to your stories and often give advice that will make things worse. She calls them parasites.

In her words:

…they are not hanging around out of genuine concern; they're using your hardship as an elixir for themselves. Your problems make them feel better about their own lives. And your dependence on their friendship makes them feel more important.

They have, she adds: “… a vested interest in keeping the drama going.

Other friends are not really friends, but acquaintances, who suddenly, when seeing that you are in trouble, want to become best buddies.

These people, Pesoli says, are not really your friends. They are in it for the “entertainment value.” They see your life as tabloid material. It isn’t merely that you cannot trust them to be discreet, Pesoli adds. You can count on them to betray your secrets.

Keep your distance from acquaintances who get closer when you are in trouble.

Real friendships develop over time through an accumulation of gestures of trust and confidence. If a friendship does not meet that criterion, be wary of it.

And then there are the friends who disappear, the friends who seem to have written you off once you divorce.

Pesoli explains:

The temptation is to conclude that they are siding with your ex or they have somehow abandoned you in your darkest hour. But this kind of thinking simply reflects how much stress you are under right now.

The truth is you don't really know why they're MIA. Maybe it has something to do with your divorce, but maybe it doesn't. After all, as big as your problems feel right now, personal problems are not your exclusive domain. So, reach out to your AWOL friends if you want to, but if they blow you off, try to move on without reading into it. Friendships come and go over the course of one's lifetime. Maybe this one will circle back around, maybe it won't. And either way, that's okay.

Good advice for anyone at any time under any circumstances.

Television: Stuart on HuffPost Top Stories

Last night I and Morris O'Kelly appeared on the HuffPost Top Stories television show. The discussion was lively, fun, entertaining, and, most of all, informative. 

I am happy to share it with you. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Crisis Mismanagement, Obama Style

Great or small, crises require active management.

Whether it is a crisis in a marriage, a crisis in the office, or a crisis in the world, failed management will cause unnecessary damage.

When the Arab Spring began I suggested that the course of events would depend largely how well Barack Obama managed the crisis.

I was not optimistic that a man with no experience in crisis management or foreign policy or negotiation could help bring about a positive result, or even, avert a negative outcome.

Unfortunately, I was right.

Two days ago the New York Times published an extraordinary account of how Obama mismanaged the Arab Spring. Reported by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth, the story offers an object lesson in how not to manage a crisis.

As I mentioned in my post about Michael Gordon’s Times story of Obama’s mismanagement of the Iraq exit, when a newspaper that is normally very supportive of Obama publishes an important story that makes the president look bad, it gains extra credibility.

The Times deserves credit here for great journalism.

As the story opens, Obama is telling Hosni Mubarak to resign his office. Mubarak tells Obama that he is so young that he does not know the reality of the situation in Egypt. Obama does not care. He does not care about history, about Mubarak’s status as an ally or about the advice of his foreign policy team.

Obama is so arrogant that he believes he can ignore everybody because he knows best.

Cooper and Worth tell the story:

President Hosni Mubarak did not even wait forPresident Obama’s words to be translated before he shot back.

“You don’t understand this part of the world,” the Egyptian leader broke in. “You’re young.”

Mr. Obama, during a tense telephone call the evening of Feb. 1, 2011, had just told Mr. Mubarak that his speech, broadcast to hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, had not gone far enough. Mr. Mubarak had to step down, the president said.

Minutes later, a grim Mr. Obama appeared before hastily summoned cameras in the Grand Foyer of the White House. The end of Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Mr. Obama said, “must begin now.” With those words, Mr. Obama upended three decades of American relations with its most stalwart ally in the Arab world, putting the weight of the United States squarely on the side of the Arab street.

It was a risky move by the American president, flying in the face of advice from elders on his staff at the State Department and at the Pentagon, who had spent decades nursing the autocratic — but staunchly pro-American — Egyptian government.

Colin Powell’s old line comes immediately to mind: you broke it; you own it.

Acting on his own and no one else’s beliefs, Obama took ownership of the Arab Spring, and the coming Arab Winter.

Cooper and Worth obviously had access to many senior administration officials, so we must conclude that these officials are trying to shield themselves from the fallout of the Obama-produced calamity.

Now that he has stepped in it, Obama feels that he must defend the Muslim Brotherhood because he was instrumental in bringing it to power.

He must downplay the calamities that are being visited on the region as “bumps in the road” because his mismanagement of the situation incited them.

He must refuse to declare the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens a terrorist attack because he believed that the only real problem with the region was the American support for autocrats.

Having withdrawn that support, Obama imagines that terrorism will automatically vanish.

As Cooper and Worth describe it, the current calamitous situation in the Middle East is the president's responsibility.

In their words:

Nineteen months later, Mr. Obama was at the State Department consoling some of the very officials he had overruled. Anti-American protests broke out in Egypt and Libya. In Libya, they led to the deaths of four Americans, including the United States ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. A new Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood was dragging its feet about condemning attacks on the American Embassy in Cairo.

Television sets in the United States were filled with images of Arabs, angry over an American-made video that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad, burning American flags and even effigies of Mr. Obama.

Speaking privately to grieving State Department workers, the president tried to make sense of the unfolding events. He talked about how he had been a child abroad, taught to appreciate American diplomats who risked their lives for their country.

That work, and the outreach to the Arab world, he said, must continue, even in the face of mob violence that called into question what the United States can accomplish in a turbulent region.

Cooper and Worth point to two other character flaws that make Obama the wrong man to manage this crisis.

First, as Bob Woodward’s recent book pointed out, Obama does not like diplomacy and does not know how to negotiate.

Second, he has not bothered to develop personal relationships with any of the players. Perhaps he thinks that because he is Obama he does not need to make friends with world leaders.

Most likely, he does not know how to develop good personal relationships… based on amity, comity, trust and confidence.

Cooper and Worth describe the problem:

The tensions between Mr. Obama and the Gulf states, both American and Arab diplomats say, derive from an Obama character trait: he has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders. “He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him,” said one United States diplomat. “But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions.”

Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.

Obama sees himself as an intellectual, even as a great thinker. He maintains relationships with a few sycophants, people who will massage his ego, but he tries to relate to ideas, not to people.

In Obama’s fictional world the Arab street will rise up and joyfully embrace America because he freed them from despotism.

Crisis management requires very sophisticated people skills. It requires a network of friends, of people with whom you are on good terms, whose trust and respect you have gained.

No one will want to business with you otherwise.

The Obama approach has aggravated tensions in the Middle East. It has empowered radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. It has alienated important allies. It has endangered Israel. It has lowered the esteem that people have for America.

Cooper and Worth summarize:

Still, there remains concern in the administration that at any moment, events could spiral out of control, leaving the president and his advisers questioning their belief that their early support for the Arab Spring would deflect longstanding public anger toward the United States.

For instance, Mr. Feltman, the former assistant secretary of state, said, “the event I find politically most disturbing is the attack on Embassy Tunis.” Angry protesters breached the grounds of the American diplomatic compound there last week — in a country previously known for its moderation and secularism — despite Mr. Obama’s early support for the democracy movement there.  “That really shakes me out of complacency about what I thought I knew.”

Mission Unaccomplished

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Role Reversal Marriage

We Americans are a pragmatic lot. We distrust authority, even tradition, and like to try things out for ourselves. We like to see what works and what doesn’t.

Pragmatism is a good thing, but it can be taken too far. After all, tradition is just the record of past pragmatic decisions.

Children might distrust authority, but no one wants to see a child defy tradition and learn for himself what happens when he jumps into an empty swimming pool.

Recently, many Americans have come to doubt the natural basis for gender differences. Many of them have mindlessly accepted the notion that gender differences are socially constructed.

For better or for worse, they have been trying it out at home.  They have reversed gender roles and created a brave new world where more women are breadwinners and more men stay home, take care of the children, play golf and cheat on their wives.

Sandra Tsing Loh examines the situation through the lens of Dr. Phil’s question: How’s that working out for you.

In Loh’s view, there’s trouble in this new Paradise:

In nearly 40 percent of American marriages, the wife earns more than the husband. Data indicate that this power inversion can trigger not just problems with gender identity but a troubling amount of male infidelity (peculiar new trend: women who are financially dependent on their husbands tend to be faithful, while, para­doxically, financially dependent men tend to stray). One 2010 study showed that when a woman’s contribution to household income tops 60 percent, the couple is more likely to divorce.

Minor details those.

And then there’s the case of Annette, married breadwinner with a highly cooperative stay-at-home husband.

Loh offers a somewhat promising introduction to Annette and her husband, Ron:

Annette is a working warrioress, a high-level administrator who makes mid–six figures at a major foundation. She is married to Ron, a writer who decided to stay home for a few years upon the birth of their twins. In many ways, this division of responsibilities seemed an ideal fit. Annette is left-brained; Ron is right-brained. Annette anxiously crunches numbers on her Blackberry; Ron contentedly chauffeurs the kids while playing world music. He walks their choleric dog and initiates home projects like (this is hard to describe, but it’s very groovy) creating a family playroom/art studio out of found and recycled materials.

So far, so good. Loh then shows of how this arrangement becomes completely undone over a light bulb. 

Readers of this blog will notice how well Annette and Ron make use of all the tools that therapy has provided them to negotiate this difficult and complex situation:

“So here’s the thing,” Annette says, wiping her mouth with a cuffed sleeve. “Two weeks ago, I pull into a dark garage at 7 o’clock—the lightbulb is out. Banging my shin as I get out of the car, I go to the drawer where the lightbulbs are supposed to be. It’s filled with paintbrushes and modeling clay. I find Ron in the kitchen, as usual, cooking a red sauce from scratch when Prego is just as good. I ask him to take care of it. Second night, I pull in, no lightbulb, banged shin—he says he’ll replace it. Third night—same thing, same thing, same thing. And the FOURTH NIGHT???” Annette’s face stretches into such a terrifying Medusa rictus that we recoil. “I wrench open the kitchen door and start screaming: ‘Oh my GOD, Ron! Either do it or don’t do it, but if you honestly and in fact have no plans at all to change the lightbulb, JU-U-UST TE-E-ELL ME!’ And Ron is actually indignant! It’s like I am the one who is being OUTRAGEOUS and require HIM to give ME a teachable moment. He’s saying: ‘Look at yourself—why are you so fixated on a lightbulb? That’s pretty shallow. We’re happy, we’re healthy—but all you see is the lightbulb. Are you aware of how negative you’ve become? It’s the first thing you radiate when you step in through the door.’ And it’s like I can’t breathe—I literally can’t breathe—and I’m saying: ‘It’s not about a lightbulb, it’s that you PROMISED, over and over again, and I TRUSTED you—which means your word means NOTHING!’ At which point he says—and he is literally waving the spatula now, like a king with his scepter—‘If you are so obsessed with the damn lightbulb—and I’m sorry if I don’t invest my whole EMOTIONAL LIFE in it like you do, and maybe you should look at that—WITH GOD AS MY WITNESS, I PROMISE FROM THIS DAY FORWARD YOU WILL NEVER SEE A BURNED-OUT LIGHTBULB IN THIS HOUSE AGAIN!!!’

Punch line: The next night, she pulls into the garage, looks up … at which point, they begin emergency couple’s therapy....

If therapy has not worked, then, in today’s world, the cure is more therapy.

Why does this role reversal marriage not work? Loh replies:

Further, not only do we 2012 women fail at being 1950s wives, we fail even more spectacularly at being 1950s husbands.

And also:

By contrast, dwelling in a grayscale midlife pur­gatory of grinding Pilates and ever-shifting diets (Atkins? Zone? South Beach?), if we breadwinning women were handed a Manhattan at the end of the day, we’d be likely to burst into tears and wail, “What’s THIS? What’s IN this? Why are you UNDERMINING me?!” 

The real problem, if I may summarize it, is that men, through no fault of their own, are bad homemakers. They do some of what needs to be done. They get the children off to school and they might even prepare meals. But they are not and will never become good homemakers.

So, a woman who is out working to support the family will never feel that, after a hard day’s work, she is coming home.

Loh quotes Cheryl Mendelson’s book, Home Comforts:

This sense of being at home is important to everyone’s well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease … Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come home and close the door behind you … Home is the one place in the world … where you belong … Coming home is your major restorative in life. These are formidably good things, which you cannot get merely by finding true love or getting married or having children or landing the best job in the world—or even by moving into the house of your dreams.

How does the modern woman deal with this problem? According to Loh she votes her man off the island. She gets a divorce.

At least, then, she does not have to suffer the pain of coming home to a situation that screams out that she is neglecting to make a home. 

Adult Separation Anxiety

In the psychiatric lexicon, a child experiences separation anxiety when he first goes off to school. He cries because he misses his mother. He cries because he finds himself in  unfamiliar circumstances, with strange new people in a strange new place.

Most children get over their separation anxiety with little difficulty.

So, one is surprised to read about a 51 year old man who nearly had a nervous breakdown when his wife went off on a two week cruise with her best friend.

Elizabeth Bernstein describes his emotional meltdown:

Last week, when his wife left home for a two-week cruise with her best friend, Robert Sollars stocked up on hamburger meat and peanut butter, then settled into a weekend of football on cable TV. And he cried.

Mr. Sollars, 51 years old, who owns a workplace-security consulting firm in Mesa, Ariz., hates being away from his wife—even when she is just going to work, as an intensive-care nurse on the night shift at a local hospital. When she is away for a longer stretch, Mr. Sollars feels nauseated and finds it hard to concentrate.

As his wife packed for vacation, he hovered anxiously. She eventually snapped, and they argued for hours, he says. That night, after she'd gone to the airport, Mr. Sollars couldn't sleep. Among his thoughts: She will have a car accident. She will get sick or hurt. She will find someone else. "I firmly believe that my worry is based in fantasy land," Mr. Sollars says. "But I am still deathly afraid of losing the woman I love."

One is tempted to tell him to stop acting like a child. One is tempted to tell him to suck it up. One has trouble understanding why he would share his emotional vulnerability with the world entire.

If he wants to make a complete fool of himself over his wife’s two week absence, at least he should have enough self-respect to keep it to himself.

What happened to his manly pride?

Psychologists explain it by referring to the man’s experience of separation anxiety in his childhood.

I am not convinced. Most people learn to put away the toys of childhood when they become adults. This man is 51….

Bernstein offers another explanation. Thanks to modern communications we are all so hyperconnected that we have forgotten how to deal with disconnection.

Perhaps there is some truth to the point, though I find it difficult to blame the iPhone for everything that is wrong in the culture.

What really needs explaining is this man’s willingness to expose his weakness and vulnerability to the world. He did not even ask to hide behind the veil of anonymity.

If he chose to display it all in public that must mean that he was, in some way, proud of his reaction. He has apparently embraced  the therapy culture, and has learned that it’s good mental hygiene to get in touch with your feelings and to display them, shamelessly, in public.

We should be asking whether his pride in his emotional incontinence is one of the reasons why he does not even try to maintain a stiff upper lip.

Like it or not, Sollars is in touch with his feelings and is giving them full expression. Isn’t that what the therapy culture prescribes?

So far, so good.

But then, Bernstein observes the following about Mr. Sollars:

His separation anxiety worsened a few years ago. He has diabetes and lost his eyesight; his wife had knee surgery and a procedure to correct a throat stricture. Now, Mr. Sollars is troubled by thoughts of becoming a burden to her. To distract himself while she is away, he plans to work on a book he is writing about preventing workplace violence.

I am puzzled by the fact that a man who has lost his eyesight was planning, in Bernstein’s first paragraph, on spending the weekend watching football on cable TV. I accept that he might be dictating, instead of literally writing his book, but still, his health issues surely have something to do with his not wanting to be left home alone.

Then again, if he is blind or if his vision is impaired, then he should hire a live-in caretaker. The man owns a consulting firm; he can probably afford it.

Somehow he has learned to avoid practical solutions in favor of childish emotional outbursts.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Inheriting the Presidency

Barack Obama speaks of the presidency as though it were his birthright.

What else are we to make of his constant harping on all the problems he “inherited.”

Obama keeps whining about how he “inherited” a bad economy. When need be, he whines about how he “inherited” a bad situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His rationale for re-election is that he has done the best he could under the circumstances he “inherited.”

The point has been made before, often enough, that no one inherits the American presidency. America is not a hereditary monarchy.

Obama is president because he wanted the job, lusted after the job, competed for the job and even fought for the job.

Of course, he did try to persuade voters that the job was his by right. In many cases he succeeded. He might succeed again. Still, he did not inherit the office of the presidency or the challenges that come with it.

Yet, Obama continues to complain about the situation he inherited because he is a master at shifting the blame. When something goes wrong it is never his fault.

Digging a little deeper we could add that if Obama has the feeling that he inherited the presidency, then perhaps he is signaling that the job he thought he would have is not the job he does have.

Considering how little Obama knew about the functioning of the federal government it makes sense that he was running for a phantasm of a job, not the real thing.

Once he found himself in the Oval Office he did not know who he was, where he was, or what he had to do to fulfill the terms of a job that was differed radically from what he had imagined.

By saying that the job is not what he wanted and not what he asked for, he is admitting, unconsciously, that the job is largely beyond his abilities.

Were he to do the honorable thing Obama would not run for a second term. But that would not be the Obama way.

Our president wants to be re-elected because he wants the American people to declare him a great success, his record notwithstanding. As a product of a self-esteemist culture, Obama seems to believe that if enough people can be conned into thinking that he is doing a great job, then he is doing a great job.

Or, at least, he is doing the best that could have been done under the circumstances.

All the while, Obama is basing his re-election campaign on the unspoken premise that his opponent sees the presidency as his birthright.

You can't get more shameless.