Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Love with Their Own Genius

Agree or disagree you will always learn something from Thomas Sowell.

Yesterday Sowell tackled a topic that deserves more attention. He called out those who believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience. Link here.

As Sowell knows, the prejudice in favor of great minds goes back to Plato. Plato believed that great thinkers could see Ideas more clearly, and thus, that they should rule rule as enlightened philosopher-kings.

As you may know, philosophers from Aristotle to David Hume took the other side of the argument.

Fortunately, this is not just another sterile philosophical debate. Many people voted for Barack Obama in the last election because they felt that he was the most intelligent candidate. Most of them ignored his inexperience, because they imagined that a really smart person could see things more clearly than someone who was dense.

To this Sowell offered a useful corrective: "There is usually only a minimal amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster you need people with high IQs."

Brilliant people suffer because their egos have been stroked so often. They "... not only tend to overestimate their own intelligence, more importantly they tend to overestimate how important individual brilliance is when dealing with real world problems."

I would take it a step further and say that people who are in love with their own genius are more apt to ignore reality. They consider reality a vulgar thing that has no right to judge their ideas.

If the evidence suggests that they are wrong, they assume that the evidence is mistaken. They are so arrogant about their intelligence that they cannot admit making errors.

Such a mix, Sowell argues, is a formula for disaster. Great calamities derive from great minds who persevere when the evidence tells them to stop.

It is also a mistake, Sowell continues, to believe that knowledge is merely acquired from books. "Many crucial things in life are learned from experience, rather than from clever thoughts or clever words. Indeed, a gift for clever phrasing so admired by the media can be a fatal talent, especially for someone chosen to lead a government."

Of course, Sowell is warning us against placing too much faith and hope in a leader like Barack Obama whose claim to power is his superior brain power.

While Sowell's views would never be congenial to a far left radical like Gore Vidal, today's London Times offers some remarks by Vidal that bear an uncanny similarity to Sowell's.

When asked how Obama has been doing, Vidal responds: "dreadfully." He adds that Obama: "... was the most intelligent person we've had in that position for a long time. But he's inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters." Link here.

Yes, Obama is inexperienced. More importantly, he does not believe in the value of experience, either as a teacher or a judge. Thus, Obama has appointed far too many people who suffer the same experience deficit.

Take Hillary Clinton. Precious few people have noticed that Hillary Clinton is not an experienced foreign-policy hand.

Neo-neocon has an extensive and excellent analysis of the Clinton appointment. Her conclusion: Obama's appointment of Hillary Clinton "shows his utter disdain for the need for expertise in the field."

And she added: "Obama's lack of interest in conventional expertise is reflected in his boundless confidence in his own knowledge of foreign affairs, despite his own extreme inexperience." Link here.

As though to prove the point, Hillary Clinton nominated Christopher Hill to be ambassador to Iraq. Hill has no knowledge and no experience with Iraq, so it should not be surprising that he has developed a poor relationship with the military commander, Ray Odierno.

Evidence is provided by veteran journalist Thomas Ricks. After describing how well Odierno has adapted to the shifting situation in Iraq, Ricks says: "I've never understood the selection of Hill for Iraq. I met him in the Balkans and thought him a pleasant and smart guy who speaks Serbo-Croatian and Polish, but from what I can tell, he doesn't know much about the Middle East." Link here.

Ricks' sources are telling him this: "What I am hearing is that Odierno is profoundly frustrated with Hill, who despite knowing almost nothing about Iraq, has decided after a short time that it is time to stand back and stop influencing the behavior of Iraqi officials on a daily basis."

If the situation in Iraq goes south there will be plenty of blame to spread around. Hopefully, the lion's share will be reserved for an inexperienced foreign policy team.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Obama's Frozen Smile

Last Wednesday President Obama hosted a reception at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Among his duties he had to pose for portraits with visiting dignitaries. The photo array is posted on the State Department website.

After looking through the photos, an enterprising young man named Eric Spiegelman compressed them into a 23 second slideshow. When you look at this collection of slides you are struck by the fact that Obama has exactly the same facial expression in every picture.

For sporting the same frozen smile in every frame he seems, as Neo-neocon says, spooky-scary. She is correctly alarmed at the fact that Obama has transformed his face into a mask.

For a link to the slide show and some excellent commentary, see her post. Link here.

For his part Spiegelman says that we do not have a real president, but a wax figure or a robot. When I looked at slides I was thinking that perhaps the president had tired of all the photo-ops and had asked Mme Tussauds to send over a stand-in.

By definition, people who wear masks have something to hide. As Neo-neocon notes, Obama has presented himself as a congenial, moderate, centrist Democrat. Behind this mask he has pursued a more radically leftist agenda.

Law professor Richard Epstein has known Obama for some time. He always marveled at the man's preternatural ability to hide his thoughts and feelings. As Epstein put it: "He keeps all of his thoughts to himself.... He basically knows how to keep that shield over his face."

In the most literal way, it's all about face. People who wear masks do not, by defintion, have face. They are hiding their true identity and attempting to convince the world to accept a mirage.

People know who you are because they recognize your face. Face is your social identity; it is who you are. But it is more than that: your face is an organ of expression. Through its lines and movements you express your thoughts and feelings.

Face is both who you are and what you stand for. This is especially true for leaders.

By definition, someone who hides behind a mask must be hiding what he really believes. Thus, he cannot be trusted. You never know whether he is telling the truth about what he wants to do or is spinning an elaborate web of deceit.

Having face also means that you belong to a group. No one who has face pretends that he does not. You might be humble about displaying a badge of honor, but you do not pretend that you have no honor.

Your face is your reputation, your moral integrity as a member of a group. Face is something that you work for and earn.

A man who has no face might have lost it through disreputable actions or he might not have accomplished enough to have gained it.

Or else, he may simply be hiding his true intentions in order to trick people into accepting something that they would never accept willingly.

Now, more and more people no longer believe in Obama's promises. Lately, this has included Obama's media enablers.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek begins a recent essay with a reference to Obama's sculpted, stone-faced smile: "If ubiquity were the measure of a presidency, Obama would already be grinning
at us from Mount Rushmore.... The president's problem is not that he is too visible; it's the lack of content in what he says when he shows up on the tube. Obama can seem a mite too impressed with his own aura, as if his presence on stage is the Answer." Link here.

Let's underscore Fineman's phrase: "presence on stage." Surely, he is correct to see Obama acting a role, playing a part, performing in a play, wearing a mask... but not being a consequential political leader.

Also, Richard Cohen writes in the Washington Post: "Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the president of the United States.... The candidate has yet to become the commander-in-chief." Link here.

Among those who have not been lured by the mask is Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France. After listening to Obama's U.N. reveries about a nuclear-free world, Sarkozy responded: " We live in a real world, not a virtual world.... President Obama himself has said that he dreams of a world without nuclear weapons. Before our very eyes two countries are doing exactly the opposite at this moment.... I support America's 'extended hand.' But what have these proposals for dialogue produced...? Nothing but more enriched uranium and more centrifuges. And last but not least, it has resulted in a statement by Iranian leaders calling for wiping off the map a Member of the United Nations.... What are we to do?... At a certain moment hard facts will force us to make decisions."

When you are hiding behind a mask you are avoiding the hard facts, you are disconnecting from reality, and delaying decisions.

The price of living on stage is that you see yourself spouting someone else's lines, waiting for the play to take its predetermined course, frightened that someone might discover that it is all a sham.

You do not see yourself as a consequential player whose actions can change the game. Thus, you are more likely sit back waiting for your cues, offering the occasional soliloquy, and doing nothing.

To his credit Sarkozy has been among the first to see this. His tone is firm and strong, because he understands how dangerous the world can become when an American president abrogates his leadership role.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Saving Face... in China and America

It didn't take too much to draw me to Shaun Rein's article about the importance of face saving in China. Link here.

Rein reviews the way business and politics work together in China. Then, at the close he offers a money quote, well deserving of reflection:

"In the U.S. businessmen fight and yell at one another in front of subordinates. Once everything is ironed out, they become friends again and all is forgiven. In China, making someone lose face by yelling at them in front of others or otherwise making them look bad can have severe repercussions. Many Chinese don't bounce back from such an embarrassing situation and never truly forgive. Businessmen have to make sure that they always let counterparties maintain face. Be firm but never disdainful in negotiating."

Surely this is good advice for dealing with Chinese businessmen and bureaucrats. Considering how important China is becoming on the world stage we do need to gain a better understanding of Chinese culture.

Americans, in particular, should address this challenge with special effort. You do not, after all, want to insult your banker.

While I like the way Rein frames the issues, I find that he is drawing too stark a contrast between the two cultures. After all, he is writing about two different cultures, not two different species.

I would question whether Americans are so perfectly adept of overcoming public humiliation. Maybe they are better at pretending. Maybe they are better at deluding themselves into thinking that they are not angry and resentful. Maybe they find other ways to express their anger.

As I observe human experience, I find that when one person has upbraided another in public, there is precious little chance that they will instantly go back to being friends again.

They may choose to hide their grudge, but it is likely that at some time in the future, in relation to nothing in particular, the one will strike at the other in anger.

To me it is important that people not come away from Rein's article thinking that it is fine to insult Americans in public. Or that you can do it with perfect impunity.

I would strongly recommend that you not try this in your more intimate relationships. Publicly insulting your romantic partner is one of the best ways I know to sabotage and undermine a relationship.

The offended partner might not react right away. He might pretend that all is forgiven and forgotten. But then, when you are not expecting it, he will launch into a fury at something trivial you have done. You will not know what hit you and will not know where it is coming from.

In fact, it is coming from that incident three years ago when you embarrassed him at a company barbecue.

The Chinese approach has a distinct advantage. It tells us to be extremely circumspect about what we say about others in public. And it tells us to show the greatest respect for the feelings of other people.

In our therapy-laden culture, with its emphasis on free and open expression, we have been induced into believing that we can simply insult people with impunity without suffering any real consequences.

We have produced a culture where people do not watch what they say, where they believe that they should be able to get away with being offensive, and where they expect their friends and intimates to learn to live with the abuse.

As for the larger question, ask yourself this: which is the more functional culture, the one where people are considerate to a fault, or the one where people delude themselves into thinking that they can insult their friends and colleagues with impunity.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Woman Manager Humiliated

This post is from Lucy Kellaway's column in the Financial Times. Link here.

One day a woman manager of a financial firm comes to work several hours early. She is accosted by two men, robbed, tied up, gagged, and left lying face down on the floor. Two hours later members of her staff arrive and untie her. Considering that she has worked long and hard to earn the respect of her staff, this humiliating incident has demolished her pride and confidence. She wrote to Lucy Kellaway to ask how she can regain her feelings of competence.

Happily enough, Kellaway does not buy into the advice that many of her commenters offered: the manager should run off to a therapist to sort out her feelings. As one of the commenters remarked: the problem does not really lie with her own feelings of competence; it lies in how other people see her.

The manager's feelings are not at issue. The way others feel about her is.

All the therapy in the world is not going to change someone else's mind, nor is it going to immunize you from the hints of sympathy and consideration that this woman is confronting on a daily basis.

Her feelings of incompetence persist because people now see her differently. As for her feelings of emptiness, they are a normal reaction to humiliation.

Kellaway offers better advice. She tells the manager to act as though nothing had happened. This is easier said than done, but it is still correct. It involves forcing oneself to pretend that something did not happen, at least until things return to normal.

But how can the manager go about overcoming the situation? How can she signal to her staff that things must return to normal?

Very few commenters address this issue. The only one who really did recommended using humor, because only humor will allow her to acknowledge that it happened while signifying to her staff that it is inconsequential.

And she must do so as a woman... not as a man and not as a person. As her letter suggests, this woman has worked hard to gain the respect of a largely male staff. She will tackle the problem most effectively if she does so as a woman and if she acknowledges that she is addressing a gathering of men.

You see where I am going. I believe that she should have convened a short meeting where she could speak directly to her staff. The sooner, the better.

I would suggest that she stand up to speak, tall and proud. And I would suggest that she begin by saying something like: I assume that most you know by now that an incident took place this morning that proved definitively that my middle name is not... Houdini.

I would like to express my gratitude to A, B, C, and D for helping me out of my predicament. It did not require very much effort, but it meant a lot to me.

I hope that none of you are shocked to discover that I cannot hold my own against two men who are 6' 5" and weigh over 250 pounds. If it was just one of them, I would have kicked some serious butt... but two... was one too many.

As I was lying there waiting for the cavalry to arrive I was thinking that this will teach me not to come to work very early. But I consoled myself with the realization that if I had arrived at the office at the normal time, then you guys would have been here, and you would never have let it happen.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"A Female Happiness Strategy"

I have no idea why this strategy should be for women only, but the DoubleX blog offers one woman's formula for improving her happiness.
Link here.

"Genuine Literary Discernment"

What happens in English departments does not always stay in English departments.

Often enough one of their arcane theories escapes captivity and starts roaming through the larger culture. The effect is rarely salutary.

Imagine an impressionable young man taking a course where he learns that facts are fictions and that reality is a social construct. He has an epiphany and comes to believe that the media has not been presenting objective fact but has been selling a series of distortions that enhance the prestige, power, and affluence of the ruling class.

One day this young man graduates from college and goes off to run the family newspaper. Here is an opportunity to put his insight into practice. Where others followed strictly objective reportorial standards, he wants his newspaper to promote policies he favors and to destroy politicians he disfavors. Not merely on the editorial page, but throughout the news sections.

If he has a monopoly he can get away with this for a time. Yet, when information and opinion are available in absurd quantities on the internet, he might well find that slanting the news costs him readers, advertisers, and revenue.

Or consider the comments that Meridith made about yesterday's post on "Free Trade in Ideas." Since many literature students set out to work in the media or publishing, she wonders whether these students would gain an advantage by knowing how to distinguish great from mediocre fiction.

As former executive editor-in-chief of Random House, Daniel Menaker put it: "Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors." Link to Menaker's take on the state of publishing here.

We could also look at this from a different angle. Perhaps, students who learn critical theory seek out jobs where literary discernment is an undesirable skill.

Meridith suggests correctly that the publishing business has been moving in the direction of the movie business. Increasingly Hollywood has been producing tedious formulaic films headlined by major stars. Then they market the films to within an inch of their lives, the better to separate as many people from as much of their money as quickly as possible.

Obviously, some publishers still take risks with more literary fiction. And publishers in the past did use the outsized profits from best sellers to support their more literary books.

Ironically, the biggest market for those books was literature students whose professors wanted them to be reading the best in literature.

But it is not merely a question of profits and loss. We cannot explain it away by saying that capitalism corrupts art. Publishers in the bad old days made money; they were not running charities.

They were simply using a different business model. They did not worry about instant mega-sellers because they believed that they could make money by selling great literary works off of their backlist.

Where a great work of literature or a great work of art has enduring value, the kinds of celebrity vehicles that flood the marketplace today are made to be used up and discarded.

It is probably not an accident that literature students today learn that great art does not have intrinsic value. For them there is no fundamental difference between a great novel and a box of Cheerios.

We are all the poorer for it.

The Baby and the Bathwater

Yesterday's post elicited two interesting comments. Meridith's comment, with which I agree fully, points the discussion in a direction I have been wanting to take it. I will leave it to the side for now, because it requires further reflection.

For now I will respond only to the somewhat sardonic comment by someone who has dubbed himself Anonymous.

Anonymous feels that I have fallen into a contradiction. Why would I not, he reflects, be more than happy to see students migrating away from English departments toward more practical disciplines like business and finance?

The short answer is: I would, and I am. But this does not mean that I think that no one should ever study literature or that literature has nothing to teach us.

The point I was making, after William Chace, is that English departments have largely abandoned the study of literature in favor of dubious theoretical pursuits.

My first thought, however, was that Anonymous seems to have gotten the impression that I was throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Actually, I was following Chace's recommendation that we try to save the baby. After all, critical theory and deconstruction have been hard at work trying to drown the baby in the bathwater.

Why so? Primarily because they want to collapse the distance between literature and life. If they can break down the wall between fiction and reality, they can induce people to live their lives as though they were stories. Their point-- and I would almost call it a delusion-- is that all of life is a story.

If you can study anything as though it were a literary text, you are telling people that they are living out fictions. Only they do not know it, and they are not good enough actors.

The space of fiction derives from the sacred. It has more to do with ritual, even sacrifice, than it does with the marketplace. It is a space of performance, not exchange or trade.

Theorists like Judith Butler have no use for the free market or free trade, but they value performance and consider that all of life is a performance. I would read this as meaning that Butler considers life to be a theatrical performance, where the author's words bring things to life.

But this rough magic, to quote Shakespeare's Prospero, merely refers to fictional spaces. It creates, as Prospero adds, an "insubstantial pageant" that is destined to fade away.

The notion that we should live our lives as drama does not come down to us from Shakespeare. It is an ideological add-on; no more, and no less.

Admittedly, the melancholy Jaques in "As You Like It" declared that "all the world is a stage." But, in yet another paradox, that does not mean that all the world is a stage.

In my view the statement faithfully represents the perspective of someone like Jaques, who is chronically depressed, and who has lost touch with reality.

In many ways Jaques is a residue. He represents what is left of Orlando's hopeless romanticism, his belief in fictional love, his yearning to live his life as a great romantic drama.

After all, the play is about Rosalind's effort to cure Orlando of his romantic love. Rosalind does not want to live out a great love story; she wants to be married.

Thus her famous near-cynical words about love: "Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them; but not for love."

In short, to be pleased to see the collapse of English departments under the weight of their theoretical pretensions is not the same as to say that there is nothing of value in literature,or that literature has nothing to teach us.

That was the point of Chace's article, and it was a point I endorse. At the minimum English should teach students how to use language effectively. Without this skill-- which is basically a social skill-- you will not be able to present your ideas clearly and effectively and will have difficulty negotiating a deal.

I am confident that most coaches recognize that relationships of every stripe can rise and fall depending on how you phrase your speech. Here English departments can make a highly useful and practical contribution to the education of young people.

These skills do not make you a better actor in a life full of psychodrama, but they help you to be a better player in the game of life.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Free Trade in Ideas

In one of my past lives I taught English literature. Those times are long gone, but I have not lost my love for literature and still follow my former profession's progress, or better, regress.

According to Prof. William Chace, English literature has fallen on hard times. It has entered a "slough of despond" and has no idea of how to get out of it. Link here.

Chace outlines some of the causes in his article, but I am struck by the role played by radical theorists. Professorial followers of critical theory and deconstruction have sacrificed literature on the bonfire of their theoretical pretensions.

Radical professors did not believe that literature might teach us something. They did not believe that some works were better than others. Instead, they denounced the canon as a social construct, and proclaimed that Shakespeare's greatness lay merely in the fact that a lot of people were saying that he was great.

But if this is true, why not study the literary qualities of comic books?

There was no such thing as intrinsic literary value. There were different vested interests that had promoted certain writers and downplayed certain others because they wanted to remain in power.

Placing themselves at the vanguard of the culture wars, English professors then decided that literature was valuable only as a vehicle to propagate their theories.

Literature had nothing to teach them, so they set out to teach literature a lesson.

The countercultural theorists devised a new mission for literature. They would not bother to offer access to its wisdom; they would use it to indoctrinate.

They had learned from their advanced theories that their job was to exercise power over young, impressionable minds. They would help ensure that these young people could never become cogs in the capitalist imperialist hegemony.

Given the reality of tenure, the most enlightened administrators could do nothing about it.

Combining tenure with the power to grade, the professoriat felt that it had escaped the discipline of the marketplace. They could do what they wanted when they wanted as they wanted and no one could stop them.

Except perhaps the free market. Regardless of what anyone thinks, markets are real. No matter how much people try to manipulate them, markets pass judgment on your plans and schemes.

Professors won their academic battle, but, as Chace reports, they are losing the war. Students have been abandoning humanities courses in droves, drawn inexorably to business, finance, and other subjects that offer more useful skills. I dare say they they are also drawn to courses where they feel that their work will be evaluated fairly, objectively, and impartially.

It is not merely the market for English Ph.D.s that is drying up, but anyone who suffers the indoctrination that Humanities programs are trying to ram down student throats will quickly find himself to be socially dysfunctional.

Use the language of critical theory or deconstruction in a job interview and you will be headed straight for the unemployment line. Apply these disciplines to personal relationships and you will will have fewer of them.

The anarchy that critical theory has sowed in your mind will take over your life.

As Chace describes it, theoretical heterodoxy has produced a situation that can only be described as intellectual anarchy. No one knows what literary studies are. There is no high concept that can be used to define, organize, and advance the field.

In Chace's words: " turns out now that everything is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture.... Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and declasse."

And also: "... no one has come forth in years to assert that the study of English ... is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that."

How can the problem be solved? Chace offers some excellent suggestions. Obviously, he wants to return to a time when students learned how to appreciate the aesthetic and philosophical qualities of great literature.

But he also wants English departments to offer more practical skills. He wants them to emphasize composition, to teach students how to control their language. His goal is to show students how to express a thought with clarity and concision.

Beyond that Chace wants students to study rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Rhetoric teaches the importance of knowing how to formulate a thought in the way that is most likely to make it interesting, entertaining, or persuasive to other people.

Students should learn that there are many different ways to express one thought, and that each way is likely to produce a different response. This is, after all, a fundamental social skill.

For outsiders these proposals may seem modest to the point of commonplace. And yet, precious few English professors owe their careers to their mastery of English prose style. Most gained their tenure by propagating the right ideas in unintelligible prose. Fewer still have ever studied rhetoric.

Given the habits instilled by critical theory and deconstruction far too many professors have become masters of double talk. If you wade deeply enough into the arcana of critical theory and deconstruction you will see that its adepts make an effort to render everything ambiguous and confused. These theorists traffic in so many terminological shibboleths that their thought is unintelligible to anyone outside of their small coterie.

People who cannot write a coherent English paragraph are hardly qualified to teach composition.

To take the most obvious example, Berkeley professor Judith Butler, a paragon and an icon to the critical theory crowd, is routinely cited
as one of the worst writers in the English language.

As for the gentle art of rhetorical persuasion, why would academics give up their power to indoctrinate in favor of allowing their students the freedom to agree or disagree.

Why learn how to persuade when you can force people to parrot your viewpoint?

With any luck William Chace's article will be prophetic. Perhaps the simple fact that the free market of ideas is rendering English literature obsolete will spur the profession to re-examine its pretensions and return to its former greatness.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Consequential Strangers"

We know they are part of our lives, but we do not often recognize how important they are. Now we have a name for them, coupled with a cogent analysis of their role and function.

Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman have called them: "Consequential Strangers" in their new book. As the subtitle announces, they are: "people who don't seem to matter... but really do." Link here.

For an outline of the book's salient points, see Blau's interview in Time magazine. Link here.

Blau sees human relationships occupying a continuum between strangers to intimates. Friends, family, and lovers are all intimates, to differing degrees. Consequential strangers are more than strangers and less than friends.

We might think that this continuum is structured like a pyramid. We know far more consequential strangers than we have soul mates. I would see these strangers as the necessary base without which we have little chance to develop satisfying intimate relationships.

Blau uses an apt metaphor to describe their function. She calls consequential strangers: "... the familiar signposts of our day." And she adds that while: "... our intimates anchor us at home,... consequential strangers make us feel grounded in the world."

This is vitally important, especially in the great cosmopolitan metropolis where too many people often feel ungrounded. Many people come to the great city from elsewhere, sacrificing the familiarity of family and community to pursue career goals. For them consequential strangers can be the first step out of anomie.

Blau emphasizes that consequential strangers are often more important than our intimates. Surely, they are easier to deal with and are less problematical. Since relationships with them are more formal, there is less drama too. Beyond that, Blau asserts that consequential strangers provide better information and keep us open to the outside world.

In her words: "We've been conditioned to think that our intimates are the most important people in our lives. But both in our personal lives and in our business endeavors, the freshest information, the exposure to the most novel experiences, comes to us from the people at the periphery."

This may be slightly overstated, but it is also to the point. We are often of one mind with our intimates; they rarely introduce a radically different perspective into a conversation. And since we are often as familiar with their world as we are with our own, they offer little that is strange, different, or challenging.

But why do we devalue consequential strangers? Blau suggests that we have been conditioned to believe that our intimate relationships are of surpassing importance.

But isn't this a basic precept has been handed down to us by the therapy culture.

Isn't therapy itself something like a pseudo-intimate relationship that is supposed to allow us to form more perfect love relationships.

You pour your heart out to a therapist who barely reciprocates. From that you are supposed to learn that pouring your heart out is a good thing, only you need to find someone who will reciprocate. In therapy this passes for a cure.

As Johns Hopkins psychologist Jerome Frank once said, therapists mostly deal with people who are demoralized. I would use the sociological term and say that they are suffering from anomie.

Whatever you call it, the siren song of therapy has led people to believe that it can be cured by intimacy and love. This is an illusion, and probably a dangerous one at that.

Blau and Fingerman are closer to the truth when they suggest that the way out of anomie begins with consequential strangers. I would call it the ground level of your relationship pyramid.

Who are consequential strangers? They range from your dry cleaner to your doorman to the people you often run into at the gym. Familiar faces, people you connect with through an informal greeting ritual, they make us feel that we belong, that we are part of something.

How does the concept apply to treatment programs? Blau answers by referring to AA meetings. Where individual therapy offers something resembling intimacy, AA meetings allow individuals to develop relationships with consequential strangers. Sometimes friendships form through AA, but most often people derive a benefit from a room full of familiar faces, people who make you feel like you belong.

I would add that it is not an accident that when you are interviewing for an executive position, you will be judged by how well or poorly you relate to the waiter and busboy.

If you are going to manage a large department, containing a largish number of individuals, you must be adept at interacting with consequential strangers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Does Feminism Immiserate Women and Enrich Men?

I agree with Maureen Dowd that it's a paradox, but it is also ironic that after nearly four decades of feminism women are unhappier while men are happier. Link here.

Dowd's column references the work of pollster and statistician Marcus Buckingham. In a recent book and column Buckingham reports that women today are generally unhappier than they were in 1972, and that men are happier. Link here.

While Buckingham studied women around the world, I prefer to follow Dowd and limit myself to a more manageable cohort, women in the United States.

Surely, these results come as a surprise. Betty Friedan and the first generation of contemporary feminists stated clearly that women who were yoked to traditional female roles in the 50s and 60s were miserable for not having the opportunity to actualize their full potential through meaningful work.

(For those who watch "Mad Men," the portrayal of the unhappy Betty Draper reflects Friedan's view.)

And yet, now that women, thanks to Friedan and many others, have far more life choices, we are faced with the fact that they are less happy for as much.

Dowd found the most elegant explanation, saying that women are happy to have so many choices, even if those choices (and the trade-offs involved) do not make them happier.

If we look at feminist theory, especially its initial critique of marriage, gender roles, and patriarchal oppression, it seems possible that feminism did contribute to this unhappiness.

Contemporary feminism began as a critique of gender roles in marriage. Feminist theorists declared that marriage was bad for women, that it made them an oppressed class, and that it was preventing them from finding fulfillment in careers.

Other feminists declared marriage to be a form of chattel slavery. Or else, they saw the suburban kitchen to be roughly equivalent to a concentration camp.

Some feminists declared "wife" to be a four-letter word while others repugned the word "woman" because it suggested that she belonged to him.

Thus, the neutral term, personhood, replaced womanhood and masculine possessive generic pronouns were banished from texts.

Some feminists protested that women had been treated as sexual objects, while others decided that equal meant same, and that women should live their sexuality exactly as men did.

Since men seemed to indulge in a disproportionate number of random, anonymous sexual encounters, the culture led women to believe that they would be sexually liberated if they did the same.

It also told them that men should not be paying for their dinner because then they would be disreputable.

Very few men protested this new regime. The hook-up culture, as practiced by liberated women, was a good thing for men. They could delight in free love, unencumbered by responsibility, obligation, risk, or emotion.

Contemporary feminism scored its first great culture success by reading marriage into an oppression narrative. Putting aside the fact that it is generally a bad idea to live your life as though it were a story, the narrative still found a receptive and eager audience.

Surely, there was some unhappiness afoot in the land, and the feminist narrative made it make sense.

Thus, radical politics entered the realm of personal relationships between the sexes. Women were granted many new ways to live their political convictions. Or better, to live in a way that demonstrated their commitment to the cause of feminism.

This produced a major shift in the way women defined themselves and the way they lived their lives.

Young women began to delay marriage in the interest of developing a career. Married women whose consciousness was raised discovered that their autonomy was being repressed by their husbands, and they started seeing divorce as the lesser of two evils.

The first wave of feminism saw a spike in the divorce rate. It also initiated an important influx of young women into the workplace. Independence suited these women well and they were more apt to defer marriage.

Young women who had deferred marriage had certainly not deferred sexual needs. Thus, premarital sex became the norm, rather than the exception. But while many young women were happy with their "Sex in the City" lifestyle, others bemoaned the fact that when their mothers were the same age they were married and were having more sex.

Evidently, if divorce was better than an oppressive marriage, then the stigma on divorce had to be removed. Without that stigma women would be freer to leave their marriages and find love.

No one seemed to think that the same applied to men, and that men had greater means and opportunity to profit from a divorce than women did.

Be that as it may, when women pursued careers and delayed marriage, they came to their marriages as materially self-sufficient, autonomous, and independent. They neither wanted nor needed support from their husbands.

As the story went, women would be liberated to love and be loved for the persons they really were. Love would be freer and more satisfying.

Many women seemed to find this message liberating. Men often found it confusing. They were told that they should no longer protect and provide for women. These roles were an insult to a woman's autonomy. In more enlightened precincts men were upbraided for offering to pay for dinner.

So, women were on their own. But, then again, so were men. By now you know who got the better of the bargain.

Yet, the oppression narrative was none too kind to men. Feminists declared men to be perfidious, untrustworthy, and worse. Women were told that they needed to have careers because they could not and should not count on men to support them.

Feminism thus created a new set of expectations for male behavior. No longer were men supposed to be strong, silent types rescuing damsels in distress. No longer were they supposed to be paterfamilias or breadwinners. Men were, to say the least, confused.

They solved the confusion by living up to these new expectations. It may not be self-evident but most people will go to considerable lengths to fulfill other people's expectations, no matter what they are.

The process is simple enough. It has often been demonstrated. When a teacher expects that her students are bright they will be more likely to do better in their studies. And vice versa.

If the culture declares that men are irresponsible, unreliable, and immature... then they will eventually learn to act that way.

Thus is surely very sad. Feminism liberated men in ways that it had neither intended nor predicted. Apparently men have enjoyed this new breath of freedom more than women have.

Moreover, feminism made more demands on women than it did on men. Women were supposed to be able to do everything for themselves, almost as though they were supposed to be autonomous, self-sufficient, independent human units. They should not rely on men for anything.

And yet, an autonomous, independent human unit, a being who did not rely on others for anything, will soon find herself suffering from anomie.

The ideal of autonomy is unnatural to social beings. Couple that with the breakdown of the social rituals of dating and mating, and you have people who do not know who they are, what they are supposed to do, or what any of it means.

We could spend a great deal of time trying to decide what should and should not count as proper feminism. Whatever we decide, it is clear that feminism is a cause. Since it requires adherence to a certain set of beliefs, it is also an ideology.

Beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, a woman who declares herself to be a feminist is taking on a new identity.

This new identity, supplementing the identities of daughter, sister, wife, mother, professional, citizen, and so on... entails certain ethical obligations.

It is one thing to ask how a wife or mother should conduct herself to be a good wife or a good mother. But it is quite another thing to ask what she should do if she wants to be a good feminist.

A woman may decide that she needs to spend more time with her children if she wants to be a good mother. Does that make her a bad feminist? Or she may decide that when she is out with her husband at a business function, she has to conduct herself a certain way to be a good wife. Does that make her a bad feminist?

Through feminism many women have conflicting sets of moral responsibilities... and that is not a formula for happiness.

Finally, there is no male equivalent to feminist. Traditional male gender roles were certainly shaken up by feminism, but men have not been called upon to pledge allegiance to an ideology. Nor have they been called upon to judge their own or their friends' behavior as a function of whether it demonstrated true belief to a cause.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Positivity in a Job Interview

There was nothing very exceptional in the article entitled: "7 Ways to Wreck Your Job Interview." Link here.

The advice is unimpeachable. And it is not very new. It has even appeared on this blog.

Here is the list:
1. Arriving late.
2. Being rude.
3. Acting like you are the only person there.
4. Being unprepared.
5. Being arrogant.
6. Not asking questions.
7. Not following up.

I assume that journalistic requirements dictated the negative tone of the advice. The image of wrecking a job interview is more compelling, and more dramatic, than the picture of getting it right.

But why offer such a negative picture? Why make a list of how to get it wrong? Perhaps the authors are trying to get you to see the bad habits that wrecked your last job interviews, the better to correct them.

For all I know, this may work. Yet, I wonder if the football coach will try to improve his team's play by listing the 7 ways they can ruin their season.

What I mean is that each of these 7 points could easily have been written in the positive.

Then they would read like this:
1. Be on time... better yet, be early.
2. Be polite... to everyone you encounter during the interview process.
3. Respect others by always acting as a professional.
4. Be prepared... study up on the company, anticipate possible interview questions, and rehearse with a friend or colleague.
5. Be confident and humble ... allow the record of your achievements to speak for you.
6. Ask good questions... questions that show you wanting to be part of what is best about the company.
7. Follow up.

I finished the article asking this: which set of rules will better motivate you in your next job interview? Will you do better by worrying about the 7 ways you can wreck the interview or by striving to manifest the positive behaviors that will show you at your best?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Unbearable Anguish of Apology

Heard enough apologies?

What happens when you take a perfectly respectable public ritual-- like apology-- and hand it over to a bunch of celebrities? They use it and overuse it, to the point where it is drained of its meaning.

Such were the observations of Eric Felten and Rabbi Irwin Kula. For Felten's article, link here. For Rabbi Kula's link here.

The term apology comes to us from the ancient Greek courtroom. There, after a defendant had been accused of a crime, he would have the opportunity to offer a defense against the prosecutor's charges. That defense was called an "apologia." Later, the term morphed into Christian apologetics, which was a branch of theology devoted to defending the faith.

Nowadays, in what must certainly count as a great intellectual reversal, apology is normally used as an admission that one's behavior has been indefensible.

This form of apology is widely used in what are called shame cultures. These cultures use the sanction of public shaming as a means to promote good behavior. Shaming was basic to the culture of early America.

As Felten explains, rather glibly: "Early colonial America was big on dealing with misbehavior through shame-- the old scarlet letter routine. And abasing oneself through the humiliation of making a public apology was a prime punishment."

Felten suggests that the practice fell out of favor because people grew cynical about the ability of apology to change behavior. He does not believe that Serena Williams will change her behavior because she apologized for her outburst at the U. S. Open.

This is a step too far. Felten is observing that once apology falls into the hands of celebrities it loses its power and its meaning.

Nevertheless, when it comes to changing behavior the practice of apology is central to twelve step programs. These programs use shaming as a means to change behavior. And they are far more effective than psychotherapies that rely on guilt-trips.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Kula offers a good observation of celebrity apologies: "As we watch these apologies, whether offered as tearful ramblings, pro forma admissions, or awkward justifications we inevitably feel that these apologies are cheap and facile."

He continues: "These celebrity apologies are eroding an already deteriorating public culture as they are turning one of the most important human virtues-- the ability to seek and grant forgiveness-- into public relations stunts."

Perhaps this slew of empty apologies brings a saving grace: we now have a better chance to understand what is involved in the ritual of apology.

Rabbi Kula refers to the 12th century sage, Maimonides, to outline the four steps that must be part of a sincere apology.

First, recognition of what we did wrong.
Second, regret for having done it, accompanied by a resolve never to do it again.
Third, repair the damage and make amends.
Fourth, reconciliation following forgiveness.

The first sign of a sincere apology is its emotional accompaniment: unbearable anguish. If you do not feel such anguish, you do not really understand your mistake. A person who is relaxed about an apology does not get it.

More importantly, an apology contains an implicit or explicit vow never to do it again. If you apologize for beating your wife, and then beat her again, your apology becomes insincere. For having gone back on your word you deserve never again to be trusted.

Serial apologizers are frauds. That is why we tend to feel discomfort when we see too many public apologies.

Repairing the damage and making amends are more difficult. When a public figure makes a grievous error, he repairs the damage, makes amends, and vows not to do it again, by resigning his position.

When you take responsibility, you voluntarily pay a very high price. If you do not pay more than an emotional price your apology becomes insincere.

For those who do not have high offices to resign from, apology should be accompanied by a temporary withdrawal from society. If you understand the meaning of apology you know that it should be accompanied by a time of self-isolation.

The simple act of apology, in and of itself, does not wipe the slate clean. It is the first step on the path to recovery.

Take an example.In 1993 Attorney General Janet Reno ordered an assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The result was a holocaust that killed dozens of men, women, and children.

Clearly, Reno was not culpable in the strict legal sense of the word. She had not started the fire. Yet, she had given the order that led to the catastrophe, so she bore responsibility.

While testifying before a Congressional committee Reno later declared that she accepted full responsibility for what had happened. Anyone who remembers that statement would agree that she seemed to be suffering unbearable anguish.

But then, she did not resign. She simply went back to work. However heartfelt her apology appeared, it was insincere. It may mean that she has a character flaw, but it may also mean that she was really covering for someone else.

While I certainly agree with Felten and Rabbi Kula that celebrity apologies cheapen the exercise beyond recognition, I would also assert that the misuse of the ritual by high public officials has an even more deleterious effect.

Most people, I continue to hope, do not take their moral cues from celebrities.

And, of course, sometimes celebrities get it right. No one is going to excuse Kanye West's interruption of Taylor Swift's award acceptance speech last week, but later in the show Beyonce did her best to make amends for his rudeness by inviting Swift back on the stage to finish her speech.

Beyonce's gesture was elegant and ethical. She did not have to do it. Strictly speaking, it was not her responsibility to make amends for someone else's mistake.

And yet, because West's outrage was ostensibly committed in her name-- to her horror, we must say-- she must have felt a need to distance herself from it definitively.

Beyonce reminded us that some celebrities do have good character and do know how to do the right thing.

Clearly, reconciliation and forgiveness can only happen with time. When you apologize you are asserting that your offending action was not true to your character.

But it takes time to forget truly bad behavior. Only a series of virtuous actions can restore your good name.

Thus, reconciliation and forgiveness take time.

Of course, most celebrities do not make a living based on their good names. If they are actors their work involves pretending to be someone they are not. If they want to be noticed in the tabloids they will have to act out in public.

When someone who is far from being reputable makes a showy declaration of his good character we are right, in most cases, to look askance and to refuse to accept the apology.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Angry Americans

One by one they stood up to speak their minds. At town hall meetings across the country, angry Americans, their voices muted by the mainstream media, spent the summer telling their representatives who is the real boss.

While many of them voted for this president and this Congress, they did not think they were voting for what they are seeing. Feeling defrauded they were standing up in opposition.

For their pains they have been treated with contempt. Congressional leaders have called them un-American evil-mongers. Administration satraps have questioned their sanity, defamed their character, and disparaged their motives. Dim-witted celebrities have ridiculed their intelligence.

And, in what was surely one of his strangest rhetorical flourishes, President Obama declared that these everyday Americans had caused the problem. He advised them to stop talking and get out of the way.

Why would they not be angry? The ruling class has been assaulting their honor, their integrity, and their dignity. When someone attacks your pride, anger is the normal reaction. Not because it will restore your pride, but because it tells your adversary to back off and apologize.

It is not a Republican cabal. Many of those who have come out to town halls and tea parties voted for Barack Obama. Most of them have wanted him to succeed.

Last November, at a time of grave financial crisis, they invested the nation's pride in Barack Obama. They had believed that he could restore our diminished self-confidence and morale.

They saw a President Obama leading the nation by standing tall and proud. A new symbol of our greatness, he would remind the world of our past glories and show the way to better tomorrows.

If that was their hope, they are still waiting.

People are not just angry because their personal pride has been attacked. It is a bad idea to write off policy differences as a function of personal pique.

In fact, people are angry because President Obama has dissipated the nation's pride in an exercise that resembles a moral Ponzi scheme.

Income redistribution was bad enough. Less concretely, but more importantly, the president has been redistributing American pride. Those who are most sensitive to this scheme are the senior citizens who have spoken out so clearly at town halls.

Senior citizens worked hard all their lives, fought for the country, and had seen their friends and family die for it. They did it willingly because their lives had taken on meaning for being part of a great enterprise. They worked to build a great and proud nation.

Far from respecting their outstanding achievements, Barack Obama began his presidency by apologizing for America. He bowed down to the King of Saudi Arabia, trafficked in moral equivalences, alienated our allies, placated our enemies, and invited the world to identify us by our worst, not our best.

Obama seemed to imagine that American greatness lay exclusively in his person. Everything that had gone before could be discarded, the better to illuminate his glory.

Obama declared that our victories were tarnished. We had done bad things; we were not standing atop the moral high ground; we had committed grievous crimes. Our successes were failures; they were gained by corrupt practices.

In the end, we were not the international alpha male. We were no better than anyone else. Our pride was arrogance; our confidence a sham.

Obama's America was not strong and proud. It was weak and guilt-ridden. It was atoning for the sins of the past, wanting desperately to be liked by its critics, not caring whether it was respected or trusted by its allies.

How could its citizens not be angry? They were watching an American president working to diminish a great nation, a nation whose pride and honor they had built and maintained.

In one sense Obama was an original. World leaders never, ever travel around the world repudiating their countries' successes. How can you lead a nation when you have showcased its failures and diminished its accomplishments?

You cannot lead people after you have stripped them of the pride they take in belonging to your group. Viscerally people understand that the pride Obama has been handing out like so many alms is their pride, pride they worked for and fought for.

Whether or not there was a method to this moral reset, there was a theory behind it. The theory said that our successes and our victories had made other people feel bad.

Winning creates losers, and losing feels bad. Then, losers resent winners. If there are no winners, there are no losers, and if there are no losers everyone will like everyone else.

So, Obama set out to change the culture. He would jettison a culture that valued competitive striving through hard work and replace it with a culture of caring. If you are wondering how Obama can imagine that health care reform will solve the nation's financial dilemma, the answer is that he wants to transform the culture, directing it away from competition and victory, toward care and empathy.

Americans elected Barack Obama in the midst of a major financial crisis. They thought they were voting for a leader who would inspire them to work their way out of the crisis, to restore American greatness.

If so, they misread him. Once in power Obama started attacking the financial community. In his mind markets were merely a way for the rich to exploit the poor. He was acting as though the financial crisis was... justice.

It was not an aberration, a setback on the road to greatness. It was the truth of the market-based economy. The whole system had been systemically corrupt. The nation's values, its competitive spirit, its faith in free markets and free trade, were defective.

Obama thought that he had received a mandate to perform radical surgery on the American way of life. If so, he seems to have misread his mandate. At the least, we can hope.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Civility and Its Enemies

Free is not short for free-for-all. You cannot have a free and open debate without decorum and civility.

While we tolerate boorish behavior, it would be foolish to say that it contributes to the debate. Everyone has a constitutional right to throw tantrums, but democratic deliberation is not advanced when someone simply lets fly.

Ever since David Brooks attacked the current wave of incivility a few days ago, some of its lovers have stepped forth to defend it. To my surprise. See my previous post here.

Someone named Kerry Howley finds nothing very wrong with Kanye West's violation of Taylor Swift's moment or with Joe Wilson's outburst. Link here.

Howley is more worried that Brooks and others of his ilk are trying to lead us back to the bad old days when people showed "deference to authority." (Would you say that Kanye West was rebelling against authority?)

According to Howley, those who are rude and crude are simply expressing their individuality. She stopped short of calling it "a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," but she clearly does not understand the difference between freedom and anarchy.

To Howley's mind we should just suck it up. If we do not, she declares, in a poorly disguised appeal to our inner machismo, we are demonstrating: "a pathetic inability to tolerate the meekest of incivilities."

But, was Kanye West merely engaging a meek incivility? Was his invasion of Taylor Swift's space, his hijacking of her moment the same as arriving late for a meeting, forgetting to send a thank-you note, or using the wrong fork?

Compare West to Rick Lazio. While debating Hillary Clinton during their Senate campaign in 2000 Lazio walked across the stage and invaded Clinton's space to hand her a sheaf of papers. His was not the meekest of incivilities; it was a threatening gesture. Everyone with any sense understood that Lazio had thereby sunk his campaign.

Beyond that, is calling someone a liar just another meek incivility? Is attacking someone's integrity and reputation merely an impolite gesture, roughly equivalent to being late for a meeting?

As Kathleen Parker reminds us, such an attack on a person's character used to be, literally, fighting words. In the early days of the Republic, such insults were often resolved through duels. Link here.

Thankfully, we have gotten beyond dueling, but we should not have gotten beyond the duty to defend our reputations.

By labeling this a meek incivility Howley is failing to recognize the importance of reputation. For someone who identifies himself as a member of a community, loss of reputation is a grievous harm.

Those who identify themselves as autonomous human units, pure individuals, do not very much care very much what other people think. Rather than glorify such an attitude, we should understand it as a symptom.

Being a perfectly autonomous individual, being perfectly disconnected from others, not caring at all about your place in a group... these will make you feel like an outcast and a pariah. Such feelings are bad for your health.

To keep things in perspective, we must note that many of those who have taken the greatest umbrage over Rep. Wilson's slur spent the better part of the last few years calling George Bush a liar. Some of those accusations were made on the floor of the House of Representatives.

In fact, the phrase "Bush lies" became a mantra for the Democratic party, to the point where everyone assumes that it expresses a basic truth.

Wasn't all the name-calling and defamation rather uncivil. It was politically effective, but it was not dissent and it did not involve anything resembling civil discourse.

So, while I consider it quite proper that Joe Wilson apologize for his outburst, I would add that those who have worked themselves into a lather because he has not apologized with sufficient sincerity should understand that a forced apology can never really be sincere.

Besides, the Democrats who think that Wilson should apologize might well look within their own ranks and consider apologizing for their own violent and vitriolic attacks on George Bush.

If they did, they would be setting a good example of civil behavior, and we would all be better for it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bringing Up Parents

I don't quite know what to make of yesterday's New York Times article: "When a Parent's 'I Love You' Means 'Do as I Say." Link here.

For quite some time now psychologists have been debating whether parents should love their children conditionally or unconditionally. Should they love their children when they do the right thing? Should they withhold love and affection when the children get it wrong? And should they love a child more when he gets a good score on a spelling test and less when he gets a bad score?

I am not going to summarize the answers because the terms of the problem are unclear and need redefinition.

First, most children have two parents of two different genders. Mothers and fathers are not the same thing. It is not obvious, to me at least, that they need to have exactly the same policy toward love and discipline.

In many, if not most, families the mother expresses love and care-- often, unconditionally-- while the father defines the rules and enforces discipline.

Yet, the article does not draw this most elementary distinction. I suspect that the gender neutral world of advanced psychologically-correct thinking does not acknowledge it. Yet, most children, from an extremely early age, can tell the difference between mother and father. They know that mother will always love them and that they will not always live up to their father's standards.

The article also confuses things because it fails to distinguish between loving your children and feeling proud of them. A parent might very well love a child no matter what, but it does not make a great deal of sense for the same parent to feel parental pride when the child when not accomplished anything worthy of said pride.

If your child drops the ball, you will still love him. You will not, however, feel proud of him for having committed an error.

If you mistake love for pride and try to feel proud of your child no matter what he does you will, in my view, foster feelings of grandiose narcissism.

When your child makes a mistake, you will, as a loving parent, will console him, tell him that everyone drops the ball sometimes, and offer a few extra hours playing catch in the backyard.

To me that feels like parental love. No one would really want to shun a child for making an error. But no one should want to feel pride in a child when the child has not earned it.

I would add that good parenting does not involve telling the child that you are proud of him for trying, no matter the outcome.

It is better to try than not to try, but parental pride should be reserved for success.

Without considering the difference between love and pride, and without considering that mothers and fathers do not have the same role, the discussion becomes confused and misleading.

The Humble Leader

In comments inspired by David Brooks' most recent column, John Baldoni offers an analysis of how humility can work in a leader's favor. Link here.

For my own take on the Brooks column, see yesterday's post.

Baldoni wants current and prospective leaders to know that arrogance and bluster are often the contrary to effective leadership. Your greatness as a leader is seen in the way your team functions, not in your ability to prance around barking orders.

All things considered, it is better to be a humble leader than a humbled leader. If you are not the first you are far more likely to be the second.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Decline and Fall of America

While I've been identifying the green shoots that might signal a return to civic virtue, other members of our heteroclite culture have been hard at work promoting incivility, in the form of grotesque egomaniacal public outbursts.

In an excellent column this morning David Brooks looks back nostalgically at the American reaction to victory in World War II. Link here.

There he finds a victorious nation refusing to gloat. Having won the war, America was awash in modesty and humility. From political leaders to celebrities everyone struck the same moral tone: the war was over; it was time to get back to work.

To Brooks it sounded like victory.

At some point in the decades that followed, we lost the modesty and humility that characterized the "greatest generation." Intellectuals and artists in the 50s began the critique, but the decisive moment of cultural transformation came during the 60s with the advent of the counterculture.

The culture of modesty and humility was attacked and ultimately defeated because it was deemed to be mentally unhealthy.

As Brooks put it: "Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call 'expressive individualism.'"

Brooks does not quite say it, but his terminology suggests that he understands well that the new ethos was produced, propagated, and proselytized in the name of mental health. I have been calling it the therapy culture. Surely, it represented the triumph of a therapeutically-correct way of life.

Generously, Brooks says that this is: "just the culture in which we live." I fear it is not quite that easy. Especially as a conclusion to a column that clearly associates the lost (and hopefully, now resurgent) culture of the World War II generation with success.

The new culture may not be the death of civilization, but it does mean something. In Brooks' words: "It's funny how the nation's mood was at its must humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary."

Actually, it is not really all that funny. The cultural ethos that glorifies self-promotion and self-expression is not a culture of achievement.

It is a culture of self-congratulation designed to cover up failure. It's a culture that says: let's declare victory and go home. As though the utterance of a few magical words could create reality.

It may not be the death of civilization-- largely because civilization does not stop at the nation's borders-- but if we are going to solve our problems and re-emerge as a great and prosperous nation, we must also work at cultivating the green shoots of civic virtue.

In this context, and not wanting to be anything less than optimistic, we might see the recent breaches of public decorum as the death knell of the therapy culture.

It may be a good omen that no one is rushing to defend Kanye West or Joe Wilson on the grounds that they were right to express their feelings.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Love in a Time of Feminism

Prof. Martha Nussbaum is seeing a culture shift. Compared with students in the 60s and 70s today's college students are more risk-averse, more cautious, and more practical about their future plans. Link here.

In her words: "... they certainly do seem to be more cautious and calculating-- about career choice, political engagement, and aspiration generally. They make prudent life plans, and are unembarrassed by all their prudence. It would not surprise me if attitudes toward romantic love have become more cautious and calculating, and perhaps also similarly ironic and detached."

The culture shift is not difficult to understand. In the 60s and 70s the country was solvent. Now the country is bordering on insolvency.

Students have become more prudent because they are dealing with new realities. Those of us who grew up in a different America should feel proud of these young people. We should not, as Nussbaum suggests, instruct them to feel embarrassed for having learned the virtue of prudence.

Nussbaum wrote these lines in a review of Cristina Nehring's book: "A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance in the Twenty-First Century." My own comments on the book can be found here.

While Nussbaum does not hold Nehring's book in very high regard, she does agree with her that romantic love is an extraordinary, soul-shaping experience, and that it entails considerable risks for those who enter its hallowed corridors.

Nussbaum and Nehring place great value on the experience of falling madly in love. They differ on the nature of the experience. For Nussbaum true love is a more philosophical, more Platonic emotional intimacy, something that is best left to artists and intellectuals. For Nehring true love is more melodramatic, a wild excursion to the dark side, promising, thrills, chills, and spills.

Beyond the fact that they are talking about two different kinds of love, Nussbaum and Nehring are divided on the role feminism has played in women's search for love.

Nehring says that feminism has made women so practical-minded that they have lost touch with their appetite for romance. A woman who assumes career responsibilities will be less free to give all for love. Modern women, then, do not go for the grand passion, but settle for less-than-ideal amorous arrangements.

If feminism is responsible for this state of affairs, then that is to its credit.

Besides, in our everyday lives we rarely see the grand literary passions that Nehring worships. That kind of love is the stuff of fiction and dreams. At best, it is the domain of adolescent girls. But it is certainly not something to build an adult life on.

Nussbaum especially objects to Nehring's blaming the lack of romance on feminism. For her, feminism has mostly offered legal protections to women. Without these legal protections, a love based on mutual respect would be impossible, she believes.

To me this feels like an intramural dispute in a church I do not belong to. But it raises a number of basic issues about relationships and the larger culture.

As I reflect on these issues, I keep thinking of a term that Nussbaum never mentions in her long review: marriage.

Romantic love and marriage are not necessarily the same thing. Platonic love and marriage are also not necessarily the same thing.

Once the question rises beyond emotional and sexual affinity into the realm of making a life together, the free-wheeling, often careless, adolescent passion yields to a more sober, temperate, adult love.

If adult women are not indulging the extremes of romantic love, then perhaps the reason is that they have grown up.

Whatever kind of love we are talking about, the most important question is whether a woman's choice of a mate should be based entirely on love or whether it should make love one among other considerations.

Marriage is a social institution. Romantic love is not. Nor is philosophical love. Making an individual part of your life is not the same as seeking out passionate intensity.

In fact, the more inappropriate your lover would be as a spouse, the more intense your passion.

This question is central to Nussbaum's review. My take is as follows: it often happens that choosing inappropriate lover causes you to alienate friends and family. Then, seeing yourself as having made a grand sacrifice for love, you will harbor the expectation that your lover will compensate your loss by offering constant and undivided attention. Since no single human being can be the the entirety of your social network, the passion will necessarily end badly.

For me, however the most provocative concept in the debate is... risk. Nehring and Nussbaum seem to agree that young women today are more risk-averse, thus, less apt to let themselves be carried away on wings of ecstatic rapture.

But, there are risks and there are risks. There are emotional risks in falling in love, but there are also risks involved in the opposite of true love: casual sexual encounters.

Admittedly, modern medical science has mitigated these risks, but it has not eliminated them.

Yet, I cannot agree with Nussbaum when she says, following Nehring, that women: "did not have much of an opportunity to take risks for love until feminism came along."

The practice of adultery in pre-feminist cultures contradicts this assertion. Think of the medieval practice of courtly love. And think of what was at risk for a married woman when she took a teenaged lover.

Certainly, these passions were more intense as the risk was greater. But they were also more intense because were purportedly unconsummated.

Finally, Nussbaum asserts that true love, based on mutual respect, cannot exist without the agency of the law. Until women gained the legal protections that feminism fought for in recent years they were not, in her view, free to engage in love relationships.

Beyond the fact that this assertion demeans countless generations of women, it does not feel true on its face. The notion of marrying for love dates to seventeenth century England, and does not seem to have been a consequence of feminist legal reforms.

For my part I would guess the first marriages based on love date to the time of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther and his monkish followers broke with the Catholic Church over the issue of a celibate clergy they created a new form of marriage, one that was not arranged, that did not involve titles and possessions, but that was based on love.

Defrocked monks, priests, and nuns marrying each other... at the risk of consigning their souls to eternal perdition... that was probably the way the Western world introduced love into marriage... and also granted women a fuller measure of social respect.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On the Road to Happiness

When last I posted on this blog I was reporting on studies connecting weight gain with dining rituals. What you eat does matter, but whom you eat with also matters. The studies were important for emphasizing this latter, often overlooked, aspect of the problem.

I have been blogging about similar studies for quite some time now, mostly because I want to chronicle an important culture shift. The therapy culture is losing influence and is being replaced by a more balanced view of human behavior.

In many cases scientific research is challenging the dogmas of the therapy culture, revealing that they are not based on science, but on ideology.

The new scientific studies have simply acknowledged the indubitable fact that human being always live in society, and thus, that their health and well-being must have something to do with the company they keep.

Where the therapy culture saw us as individual mental units controlling and channeling impulses, the new culture sees us as social beings who function at their best when interacting with others.

It may be too early to label it a full-fledged movement, but the new culture took several leaps forward in today's New York Times Magazine. Clive Thompson's article is: "Is Happiness Catching?" Link here.

As Thompson reports, recent research has shown that: "staying healthy is not just a matter of genes and diet." Being friends with healthy people contributes importantly to our own health.

Good health habits, he writes: "...pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses."

The metaphor is strange, and was probably chosen to get our attention. Hopefully, no one will get the impression that we all need vaccines against good health habits.

Thompson is reporting that if all our friends stop smoking and start eating better we are likely to do the same. Why would we do so? We want to conform to the group's norms.

And yet, the therapy culture has always cast aspersions on conformism. It has preached that conformity is a bad thing because it prevents us from expressing our inviolate individuality.

Now, recent research has shown that it is better to get along with others than to express your true emotions creatively.

Speaking of two test subjects Thompson said: "By keeping in close, regular contact with other healthy friends for decades, Eileen and Joseph had quite possibly kept themselves alive and thriving."

It's not just about healthy habits. Anyone who keeps in touch with friends for decades usually has very good social skills. They may not be involved in operatic relationships, but they are masters of producing and sustaining harmony.

This implies good character, a willingness to put your concern for the feelings of others ahead of your own will to express your own.

Surprisingly, the studies suggest that it is more important to have many superficial relationships than to have a very few close and intense ones.

Thompson said: " of the more curious findings in their research [is]: If you want to be happy, what's most important is to have lots of friends." He adds: "the happiest people were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren't necessarily deep ones." And he concludes: "happiness doesn't come from having deep heart-to-heart talks."

Take a moment to measure the import of this thought. I venture that no therapist has ever suggested that the path to happiness lay in having a myriad of superficial acquaintances. Therapy has always gone for the gusto, for the deep and intense relationship, for the one true love relationship where you could pour out your heart and soul and not be judged ill for it.

This meant that therapy was using the relationship between therapist and patient as the model for the way humans ought to connect. Explicitly or implicitly, it was telling us that the bad communication habits that we would inevitably learn from therapy should form the basis for future relationships.

In other words, therapy was pretending to offer a useful social skill.

Therapists did not bother to tell us that if we talked to our friends the way we talked to our therapist then we would have far fewer friends.

The net result is: after all those years of therapy and the therapy culture, we still have difficulty knowing how to get along with each other. So, Freud had it wrong, and Rodney King had it right.

It's not about becoming a secular saint by sacrificing happiness for psychodrama, but about learning how to just get along, with large numbers of people on a superficial level.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Curb Your Appetite

The title of the Time magazine article is almost great: "The Social Side of Obesity: You Are Who You Eat With." Link here.

I qualify it as "almost" great because I would have preferred that they emphasize health, not obesity.

Putting that aside, author Shahreen Abedin does very well to place eating disorders within a social context.

Where classical therapy has defined the problem in terms of the relationship between mind and appetite, more recent research has started with the fact that we are hard-wired to eat with others. This research shows that whom we eat with greatly influences how we eat, what we eat, and how much we eat.

So, therapy got it wrong. Worse yet, by failing to place eating withing a social context it doomed individuals to an unending struggle with appetite.

When therapy teaches people to see themselves as unique, autonomous, independent individuals, each of whom it trying to control the appetites that risk taking over their lives, it is consigning them to inevitable failure.

If it's just you and your appetite, alone in front of the refrigerator, the chances are very, very good that you are going to lose. People who binge, binge alone. Admittedly, some groups get together to engage in binge-eating-- or more commonly, binge-drinking-- but the average binge eater binges alone.

Thus, one way to help a person overcome the tendency to binge-eat is to encourage him to eat with others, in a group. Meals are rituals and rituals satisfy the need to feel like part of a group. Thus, no one will have to satisfy that need by overeating.

If the individual is left to struggle with his appetite by himself, he might well find some unsavory ways to do so. For example, we know well that depression suppresses appetite. Thus, some people will have a vested interest in maintaining a low level of depression because it helps with their weight control.

But when a depressed person feels the depression lifting and old appetites returning he might feel anxious that he will start overeating. Thus he might work out a way to restore the depression.

But we should also note-- to complicate things-- that you do not have to have a strong appetite to eat a lot. Some people use food to medicate depressive or anxious states. They feel desperate and mistake desperation for appetite.

And some people select certain foods because of their biochemical properties. Eating too much dulls their anguish at being alone.

The cure is not to learn how to control appetite, but to choose to eat with others.

According to the Time magazine report, the best and healthiest way to control appetite does not involve counting calories, measuring portion size, or strengthening your ego's control over your impulses. All you have to do is to arrange to share a meal.

But not just with any others.

Here the research has made some important distinctions. You will eat more with a friend or family member than with a stranger. The need to make a good impression on another person, thus to forge a new connection, induces better behavior. As you know, you are going to be connected to your parents, children, and siblings no matter how much you eat.

Also, when you are at a normal weight and you are eating with someone who is overweight you will likely eat more than you usually would. Apparently, your appetite will yield to your concern that the other person not feel badly about overeating.

If, however, you are overweight and are eating with a skinny person, you will be likely to eat less. This suggests that appetite also yields to an urge to conform.

If we introduce gender into the equation, some interesting things happen. When a woman is eating with a man, say, on a date, she will eat less than she would if she were eating with a girlfriend. Research has also shown that the more men there are at a table, the less a woman will eat.

The same does not seem to apply to men. Researchers believe that a man's caloric intake is unaffected by the presence of a woman.

This feels counterintuitive, but that does not necessarily make it true. If a man is trying to impress a date, he would, in my view, be less likely to pig out. He would also be more likely to eat more when he is surrounded with his friends in that classical male bonding ritual of watching a football game.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Coaching an Executive's Spouse

Everybody considers the role of the executive's spouse (especially, wife) to be antiquated, outdated, offensive, and unworthy of serious concern. Especially when said wife does not have a career of her own.

At a time when women are most often judged according to whether they have their own careers, the stay-at-home wife barely appears on the culture's radar screen. Women who choose that path are not considered to be role models for young women.

The role of executive spouse goes well beyond full-time mother and homemaker. And it goes well beyond paying lip service to being supportive.

Being an executive spouse is a job in itself. Such an individual works to help her husband advance his career. She socializes, entertains, and networks. She can often be his most important adviser. And she can be an important corporate asset or liability.

The two most prominent recent executive spouses are Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

When senior executives are being interviewed for important positions, hiring committees often invite their wives along for dinner or even a meeting.

They want to see what kind of executive decision the man has made in choosing a wife. And they want to see whether his wife is cooperative, understanding and tolerant of the demands of his job.

Chief executives do not have as much time as they would like for home and family. Those whose wives who can function well under those circumstances will be more focused on their jobs.

If a wife's concerns are a constant distraction, the executive will be less likely to perform well on his job.

I began thinking more seriously about these issues when I read Jamie Stengle's illuminating article for the Associated Press. Link here.

Stengle interviewed Colette Young, wife of a corporate CEO, who had founded a business coaching the wives of executives.

The issues range from etiquette to office politics to how to deal with an overworked executive husband. In her view the executive wife is a also a CEO. She manages her home and family, while also contributing to her husband's work.

Happily the Associated Press has also provided us with an excellent interactive quiz that all wives can use to evaluate their own reactions to everyday stressful situations. Link here.

The quiz is important beyond the fact that it allows wives to judge where they fit-- and where they want to fit-- on the good, better, best continuum. Its greater value is in offering an important cognitive exercise. For each stressful situation the quiz offers five different possible reactions.

If you are facing a stressful situation, I would highly recommend that you take a deep breath and sit down and try to imagine five different ways you might respond to the situation. Give each one some thought.

Master this exercise and you will respond more effectively to stress. It will allow you to make an intelligent choice, and reasoned decisions are always better than popping off with the first thing that passes through your mind.