Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tom Friedman Succumbs to Obama's Charm

Success for a politician involves controlling the message. All politicians know that they and their flacks cannot be the sole purveyors of their message.

By definition, they are self-interested, and therefore not entirely to be trusted.

So, politicians always try to exercise some control over the media. Barack Obama has excelled at this game. He has induced major portions of the media to abandon objective reporting standards in favor of stories that make him look good. Give him some credit; it was no small confidence trick.

A good politician also needs to have important pundits on his side. Respected arbiters of taste and opinion can help people to think the right thoughts about passing events.

Admittedly, it is frightening to think that major segments of the New York population open the paper on Sunday mornings to learn from Frank Rich what they are supposed to think about the week's events, but that does not make it untrue.

Of course, Obama did not have to make a special effort to have Frank Rich on his side. It would have been like shooting fish in a barrel. No, he aimed higher, not only in terms of raw intelligence but in terms of respectability.

Obama has wanted to have Tom Friedman presenting his message as thought it were enlightened opinion.

Today, Friedman offered a column from Davos about the growing international distress over the state of the American union. He has been hanging out in Davos and hearing talk about political paralysis and political instability in America. He hears people doubting the effectiveness of the American government. Link here.

He is concerned. And he is right to be. Were such doubts translate into doubts about the dollar or our debt we would be in a sorry state indeed.

How did the American union arrive at this level of disunity? Friedman does not blame his golfing buddy, President Obama. He can hardly be expected to affix any responsibility on a president who has hawked his books, brought him into policy deliberations, and given him an enormous amount of face time.

What is a golf outing with the president but five hours of the world's most valuable face time?

Friedman cannot bring himself to examine Obama's role in producing this manifest decline in America's international reputation. He does not even consider it.

Instead, he echoes the the Obama line and declares that the trouble lies with the special interests, the lobbyists, the Republicans, and institutional inertia.

If Obama were a ventriloquist he could not have controlled the commentary any better.

We have a Democratic president, a Democratic Congress, a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, and nothing gets done. To some people that means: let's go out and find a scapegoat. Who did Obama find: the special interests, like the bankers at Goldman Sachs.

You cannot read Friedman's column today without thinking that Obama's courtship of Tom Friedman has been time and energy well spent.

Courtship and seduction are the right terms here, as long as you understand that they are not being used in the Clintonian sense. Seducing minds is far more difficult than seducing bodies. It is like scamming people, involving them in a confidence game, and then relieving them of something of value-- their independent judgment.

Whatever you would like to call it, it begins with choosing the right mark. Then you need to know the mark's weakness. Then you need to exploit the weakness by making it feel like a strength.

The first and still greatest master of mental seduction was Socrates. To him the best marks were callow youth, those who were young and inexperienced. It is much easier to manipulate an unformed and inexperienced mind.

But Tom Friedman is not a youth; he is sophisticated and highly intelligent. Still, his writing retains a boyish enthusiasm that would be charming if it were age appropriate. As it is, after a while his golly-gee flourishes become cloying.

What is a newspaper columnist's vulnerability? That one is easy. When you are a commentator, sitting in the stands describing the way others are playing the game, your heart's desire may very well be to be down there in the arena.

Columnists are perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the people they write about. If they are not sufficiently aware of their own weaknesses they will desire, above and beyond all else, to be players. What could be better than reporting the news? Why, being the news.

How did Obama discover that Tom Friedman would be the perfect mark? Easy. He probably read, and probably remembers, a column Friedman wrote in 2002, one that you probably also remember. Link here.

We all remember this column because we all experienced a collective cringe of embarrassment watching the naive Tom Friedman being played by the Saudi Crown Prince.

If you do not remember, Friedman was in Saudi Arabia interviewing Crown Prince, now King, Abdullah. Friedman was discussing his own proposal for Arab-Israeli peace when the crown prince interrupted him by exclaiming that Friedman must have been reading his mind.

In fact, he told Friedman Abdullah had in his desk a copy of a speech outlining his proposals for peace in the Middle East. Better yet, they were exactly the same as Friedman's ideas.

Obviously, it was a transparent ploy, an effort to enlist Friedman's support by making him part of the story.

Friedman's joy at being elevated to the role of player in the process, induced him to offer his readers a dramatic portrayal of his seduction by Crown Prince Abdullah.

Keep in mind that one of the basic principles in any seducer's manual is the assertion that he and his mark are thinking the same thoughts, or that they have achieved a level of intimacy, soulmate-dom where they can complete each other's sentences. Anyone who suggests that he can read your mind or who exclaims his amazement at your ability read his is probably involved in a confidence game.

We are obliged to notice that that Friedman's colloquy with Abdullah did not lead to peace in the Middle East. And we should also note that his proposal and Friedman's were not the same. Abdullah's insistence on a right of return for Palestinians made his proposal markedly different from Friedman's.

Besides, if you think that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the leader of one of the most oppressive and anti-semitic regimes on the planet, is going to take an American Jewish columnist into his confidence... then you do not understand the way politicians seduce the minds of unsuspecting journalists.

Sometimes you can overcome confidence tricks if you remember who you are and where your are.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Shame and Apology

As many of you know by now, I rarely miss an opportunity to say something about shame and apology. These posts will attest. Link here. And here.

Today I came across an excellent article by Alina Tugend, entitled: "An Attempt to Revive the Lost Art of Apology." Link here.

While I am aware that journalists are often not responsible for the titles their articles bear, I do wish to take small exception to the title of Tugend's article.

Tugend is correct to note that there is a lot of apology talk going around. Our world is awash in public officials taking responsibility for personal failures, with greater or lesser degrees of sincerity.

And she is correct to highlight the importance of sincerity-- it's one thing to mouth the words, quite another to mean it.

I think that she would agree with me that a culture is defined and determined by how it deals with shame. Her article offers a good analysis of this idea.

I disagree, however, with the notion that apology is an art. Apology is a formal ritual. When you are standing before someone you have wronged, your proper attitude is vulnerable and abject. It is not the moment for creativity.

I would even say that anyone who tries to apologize artfully is going to get it wrong. When people fail to follow the formal wording of an apology-- point that Tugend does make in the body of her article-- they often lapse into insincerity.

For example, she notes that when you say: I'm sorry if I hurt you, the "if" undermines your sincerity.

If you hurt someone's feelings, you are responsible. You owe the person an apology. The apology should express the fact that you accept full responsibility, and that you are not going to try to make an excuse or explain your error away. If your bad behavior were excusable, then you would not need to apologize.

Nor can you apologize defiantly, as though someone were forcing you to do it against your will. When Bill Clinton famously apologized for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, he was defiant and hostile. The apology was politically expedient; it lacked sincerity.

If an apology is sincere, you are vowing never to make the mistake again. If your apology is insincere, you are giving yourself leave to revisit the error.

We have lost the ability to offer a sincere apology because our leaders have been setting a bad example. Far too often they offer apologies because they need to defuse a public relations problem.

Second, apology has fallen into desuetude because the therapy culture has done everything in its power to undermine it. Therapy has always wanted you to see your mistakes as meaningful reflections of something that happened in your past. It has taught people to explain away their mistakes, not to apologize for them.

Once you develop the mental habit of blaming your errors on your parents or an infantile trauma or your loveless marriage... you will no longer be capable of taking full responsibility and apologizing with sincerity.

Apology says that there is no excuse; therapy says that it can always find an excuse.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How Do You Make It Your Own?

Yesterday I was blogging about influence, specifically about how your decisions can be really your own when then were influenced by other people?

Granted the topic has the whiff of stale theory, but it is surely of great importance. Even if I am not going to solve it right now-- to say the least-- I still want to add some further reflections.

Examine the question in a different context, one that we owe to Harold Bloom's book: "The Anxiety of Influence."

According to Bloom, poets, and by extension other artists, learn their craft by studying the work of their predecessors. If you are going to write an epic poem you will learn about it by reading Homer and Virgil and Milton.

If you are new to the game, the chances are very good that you will adopt the stylistic mannerisms of your predecessors. Spend some time reading Henry James and your novelistic endeavors will sound like Henry James.

If a reader picks up your novel or poem and is immediately reminded of some other writer, then you have not found your own voice.

The poem is not yours if it reads like ersatz Wallace Stevens.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with these first efforts at imitation. They belong to the learning process. You cannot escape it by trying to create your own literary genre.

Having your own voice, having your own signature, putting your stamp or your mark on your work... all of these work because they give your reader the sense that you have remained within the genre.

If you try to invent your own genre your readers will simply not understand what you are doing. It's a little like trying to create your own language. A new language would help you to overcome the risk of saying something that would remind your listener of someone else. Unfortunately, no one would be able to understand a word you were saying.

How then do you overcome the tendency to imitate? How do you find your own voice?

Harold Bloom suggested that the process involve a series of psychological ordeals. This may feel like a psychotherapeutic process; it may feel like a mystical journey; it may even feel like a young troubadour undergoing a series of ordeals to prove that his love is true.

I to see it in terms of hard work, of extensive revisions, or reworking the material until it gains its own integrity. Poets whose work feels excessively derivative are either young or lazy.

Be that as it may, Bloom proposed that poets wrote poetry about their struggle to overcome the influence of their predecessors.

Certainly, Romantic poets, an area of Bloom's expertise, were especially concerned with the struggle with their literary forebears. One reason might be that many of them were very young, and this form of anxiety seems endemic to youth.

Nevertheless, saying that poetry is about the poet's struggle to find his voice, to establish his signature, feels solipsistic.

It confuses the act of making something your own with the act of making it all about yourself. If it's all about you, you do not really need a signature.

But if it's all about you, why would you imagine that anyone else cares about it. And if you believe, as Bloom seems to, that the struggle of the epic poet with Homer mirrors the Oedipal struggle that Freudians believe we all engage in, then I would reply that the Oedipal struggle has nothing to do with finding your own voice. It's about copulating with your own mother.

Poems must touch an audience. They must address the concerns of their readers, which are not necessarily the concerns of the poet.

A poet must find his voice, and he may certainly write about the process of finding it. If he does, he will be writing about an object, in much the same way that a self-portraitist draws the image he sees in the mirror or a painter paints his model.

What ultimately matters in art is not what it says about the artist, but what it says about the object, the model that inspires the work.

Isn't art about how the artist recreates his model, making it his own? Not so much in the sense of possessing the model, but in creating a new version that speaks to the concerns of other people.

If your poem has nothing to say no one is really going to care whose it is.

"At Least, I Wasn't the Edwards Girl!"

It happens to all great infatuations. Eventually, the blinders come off and you get to see the object of your undying affection, warts and all. Often it is not a pretty sight.

You discover that you have really fallen in love with a mirage. The more you yearned for it, the more you invested in it, the more painful is the realization that the mask is all there is.

Last night the famous Obamagirl, aka, Amber Lee Ettinger, was interviewed by Sean Hannity. Link here, via Instapundit.

If you click through the link you will see both the interview and the video that made Obamagirl a household name.

Having been told that Obama supporters acted rationally while those who voted against him were consumed by irrational angers, it is useful to study Obamagirl's cogent analysis of her own attraction to the candidate.

She fell for Obama, developed a crush on him, not because of an affinity for his policies, but because she lusted after his person. It was just like the beginning of a relationship, she explained.

So much for deliberative decision-making.

Considering how quickly her original video went viral, it is fair to say that many young people who were drawn to Obama by something other than policy analysis.

As Sean Hannity pointed out, Obamagirl's best line was: "At least, I wasn't the Edwards girl."

I was also intrigued when she expressed regret, even peeve, approaching anger, that no one from the Obama campaign sent her a note of appreciation for her efforts on the candidate's behalf.

When you put out for someone and get nothing in return your passion will not long endure.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Free from Influence?

Can we ever really be free from influence? Is it possible to make a decision that has not been affected by someone's influence? Is human autonomy a myth; are we always dependent on others?

Everyone, it seems, is trying to influence your decisions. Advertisers and marketers and trying to influence what you buy. PACs, labor unions, and corporations are trying to influence whom you vote for. Friends and family are trying to influence your choice of friends, lovers, and mates.

And then there are those whose influence is less benign. Scam artists, grifters, con men, and other false prophets are trying to induce you to give them your money or your life.

With all of these people trying to influence your decisions, what does it mean to exercise a free choice? What does it mean to call a decision your own?

Some defenders of human autonomy want to restrict influence. They want to circumscribe the power of advertising, especially political advertising. To their mind too much political advertising is going to skew our judgment and seduce us into making the wrong decision.

As I have mentioned, this argument does not show very much confidence in the intelligence or judgment of the citizenry.

But what happens when you have two parties, each of which is well-enough funded, communicating its message through advertising, among other things. Wouldn't the two separate siren songs tend to cancel each other out? And why do we immediately preclude the possibility that an ad encapsulate a candidate, for good or ill, in a way that allows us to better appreciate what we are voting for?

Some people abhor influence; they will automatically reject any effort to ply their free will, whether by an advertiser or a parent.

This tactic appeals to adolescents, that is, those who have the least confidence in their independent judgement, but it does not really advance the discussion.

Say you come to a fork in the road. Two giant billboards are looming ahead of you. One promises unparalleled success if you turn right. The other promises all the world's joys if you turn left.

If you choose one have you thereby suffered an influence that has deprived you of your freedom? And if both are trying to influence you the only way to escape all influence is to choose neither, to stop in your tracks, sit down, and vegetate.

You might call this the freest choice because no one has recommended it. But if you stop and do nothing you will be abrogating your responsibility to make a free choice.

Doing nothing means that you have been induced to give up your freedom... all for a mythic notion of autonomy.

Psychotherapy has had its own way of dealing with the issue. Since the time of Freud therapists have been loath to offer advice; they have refused to suggest that their patients do one thing or the other. This makes its own kind of sense. Therapy was invented to treat minds, not people. While people take actions, minds do not.

Therapists have traditionally been anxious lest their influence induce a patient to do something that he does not really, really want to do. Since most therapy assumes that patients do not really know what they want, a good therapy patient can make inactivity a way of life.

Most therapists believe that they can help you to explore your unresolved issues. They also believe, I surmise, that once you have resolved those issues, a light will go off in your mind, a flash of inspiration will tell you what to do.

These decisions appear to pop into the patient's mind automatically, and therapists have happily assumed that if it feels automatic, if it feels like it came out of nowhere, then it is a fully independent and autonomous choice.

Of course, this notion that the thought has just appeared, as if magically, might be a simple illusion. If it comes to you from nowhere, it is probably not your choice.

Consider this. Everyone who has ever offered advice has had the following experience. You offer some advice to someone. He rejects it out of hand, and taxes you with naivete for suggesting such a thing.

But that is not the end of the story. After a decent interval, a few months perhaps, you are back discussing the problem. Your friend or colleague or spouse announces that he has figured out how to deal with it. With much bravado he announces his brilliant idea, an idea that just flashed before his mind's eye like a shooting star.

Lo and behold, it is exactly the idea that you suggested months before.

Of course, you are not going to bring this detail to his attention. If you still want him to act on the idea, with confidence and authority, then it is best to remain silent, even to praise his brilliance.

But is this the way the decision-making process ought to work? Is this the proper formula for escaping influence?

I would say No. While the little voice that appears in an epiphany might be the voice of God it might also be the voice of the Devil. The Devil wears many disguises.

The best way to make a free decision when you are facing two competing billboards is simple: do your homework. Weigh the competing assertions, try to find people who have done the one or the other, talk it over with a variety of people, and examine the possible consequences of each action.

Only work can free you from influence. Ratiocination, not inspiration, is the key. Ratiocination through discussion and debate, I mean.

The key to good decision-making is other people. You should talk to other people, work through the issues with other people, examine the problem with other people.

If it's just you and the two billboards, you are at a clear disadvantage. You are much more prone to suffer the influence of the better looking or the more expensive.

Perhaps you will find it paradoxical, but solitude makes you more vulnerable to influence.

Other people does not mean one other person. Reduce your quota of friends and family to one other person and you will become completely dependent on that person. Say good-bye to independence.

The fewer people you have in your life the more you will be dependent on the few people you have in your life.

It makes sense. If you have very few people in your life you will do what it takes to hold on to them. Better to have someone than no one. If you have a lot of people in your life you will be freer to choose between left and right, because you will know that whatever you decide you will still have a social connection.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"The Politics of Intellectual Contempt"

James Taranto calls it "the politics of intellectual contempt." Link here.

It occurs when public intellectuals stigmatize people who do not think as they do by taxing them with stupidity and irrationality. Thereby, they try to manipulate minds and their votes.

It is a rhetorical ploy. It may lay claim to rationality and intelligence but it is, as Taranto shows, it is really about emotion.

Following Peter Wehner Taranto notes that the same voters who are now being excoriated for voting for Scott Brown were praised a year ago for voting for Barack Obama. Now they are labeled dupes; then they were rational and mature.

Yet, Obama appealed to emotion far more than to reason. His was a candidacy based on hope and change, but especially on emotional uplift. No one who engaged in a rational deliberative process about who was qualified to be president would ever have alighted on the name of Barack Obama.

To this day you cannot do a rational analysis of Obama's speeches and conclude that he is really saying anything.

Besides, as Taranto notes, there is a vast difference between being smart and being right: "Very intelligent people have been known to advance very compelling arguments on behalf of very bad ideas."

To take the greatest twentieth-century philosophers of continental Europe as an easy example, ask yourself how many of them whole-heartedly supported tyrants and mass murderers. How many of these great minds happily supported Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and even the Ayatollah Khomeni?

The answer is: nearly all of them.

Great philosophers aside, whoever made Joe Klein and Peter Jennings arbiters of smart. And yet, Klein pronounced those who voted for Scott Brown to be "dodos" and, in 1994, the late Jennings famously ranted that the people who had voted for a Republican Congress were acting like an angry mob.

There is another problem here.Being a Time Magazine columnist, even being an all-star newsreader, does not make you one of the great minds of Western civilization.

Klein and Jennings prove that you do not have to be brilliant to traffic in intellectual contempt. I suspect that people who are insecure about their intellectual abilities-- like newsreaders who read scripts-- are most prone to cast themselves as gatekeepers who can grant or deny entrance into smart society.

Intellectual contempt is not based on argument; it does not invite deliberation. It shames people whose opinions do not conform to the conventional political wisdom.

Intellectual contempt does not aim at being right; it does not aim at what is best for the country. It is simply about belonging to the right team, the smart team.

No one is allowed to impugn anyone's patriotism any more, but we are encouraged to impugn the intelligence and rationality of everyone who does not think the way the intellectual elites want them to think.

Intellectual contempt fosters intellectual conformity. It is not an accident that nearly all of the self-proclaimed free thinkers on Manhattan Island-- to choose a place at random-- think exactly the same thing.

In certain places it is not enough to be successful or rich; you have to be a serious intellectual. One of the ways to show that you belong to the smart team is to utter the right password.

Want to be considered smart in New York? The next time you go to a cocktail party, utter the following passwords: Sarah Palin is an idiot. You will be embraced; you will feel welcome; you will feel like one of the crowd.

Or else, if you wish, try saying that you would happily vote for Sarah Palin for president. People will look at you askance, as though you deserved to be committed. They will quickly disperse, leaving you alone with your renegade opinion.

As I see it,Joe Klein and Peter Jennings represent the party of intellectual hubris. But, what can we say about George Soros. It is not enough for Soros to be a hyper-rich hedge fund manager, but he wants everyone to think of him as a great political philosopher.

For reasons that defy reason Soros feels compelled to foist his political opinions and philosophical worldview on the populace and to demand that they be respected because he runs a successful hedge fund.

In the end the politics of intellectual contempt yields the rule of philosopher-kings like Barack Obama. We have even been told, by David Axelrod, that Obama is so intellectually superior that the rest of us are just not smart enough to understand how smart he is.

Mixing condescension with contempt Axelrod even declared that Obama understood the health care crisis better than you and I because, when he was a law student, he worked on the legal implications of Einstein's theory of relativity with the eminent law professor, Lawrence Tribe.

According to Axelrod, having a dilettante's knowledge of relativity theory qualifies you as an expert in all fields of human endeavor.

James Taranto says that this must be a joke. Let's hope so.

No one can have so much contempt for the intelligence of the American people that he would imagine that they would believe such a thing.

But then again, in the last presidential election, they did.

"Happiness Coaching"

Let's hope it's a trend. In some corners of the American business world executives have decided to help their employees overcome the pernicious influence of the therapy culture by offering them happiness coaching.

Having imbibed the nostrums that the therapy culture has been prescribing American workers have become mired in bad habits. They have learned to find fault everywhere, to complain about everything, and to criticize mercilessly.

These habits may make you feel part of an intellectual elite, but they do not contribute to your well-being, your happiness, or your job performance.

To break these habits retraining is needed. And some workers are starting to receive it from the happiness coaches that are being hired to run seminars for them. So writes Sue Schellenbarger in today's Wall Street Journal. Link here.

Schellenbarger throws a little inadvertent irony into the mix when she talks about "thinking happy thoughts," but her article is serious and to the point. Even with the advent of positive psychology we have been taught to disparage a good attitude, and to believe that negative thinking is more sophisticated, more serious, and closer to the truth.

And if you think that capitalism is bad, you will be alarmed at the advent of happiness coaching. You want people to be miserable at their jobs because that will make them less productive and will cause their capitalist enterprises to fail more rapidly.

For my part, I am all for happiness coaching. All coaches work to help people to be happier, more positive, more productive, and more confident.

Surely, we will be living in a better world and a better workplace environment if happiness coaching takes over and supplants sensitivity training.

Have you noticed that no one seems to be talking about sensitivity training these days? Or am I being overly optimistic?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Coaching Lessons: How to Turn Failure into Success

Failure brings with it powerful, sometimes overpowering, emotions. As Art Petty described it on his blog yesterday: "the moment of failure feels much like being transported to an alien landscape where suddenly everything is not as it should be." Link here.

When you are being assailed by powerful emotions, you might well believe that they are demanding to be heard, if not heeded. If you believe that emotions must be understood, worked over, worked through, until you gain insight and awareness into why you failed... then you are ready for psychotherapy.

You are not ready to succeed. If psychotherapy works as I just described, it will not lead you to success. It will lead you away from success, away from the future toward the past. It will make failure a meaningful experience, an integral part of who you are.

Coaching takes a different tack. Any coach will tell you that when you have fallen, you must immediately pick yourself, dust yourself off, and get back in the game.

In Petty's words: "The faster you can move everyone from 'what just happened?' to 'what next?' the faster you pass through the cold alien landscape of failure. Linger too long on an extended self-pity party and you might as well set up camp and become a permanent resident. Your goal must be to move through this phase or process in a hurry."

If speed is of the essence, and if you want to use success to diminish the hold of failure, you should avoid exploring your emotions and working them through. You should not go looking for that certain something in the past that is making you feel so badly. And you should certainly not imagine that failure is trying to tell you something about who you really are.

When your emotions overwhelm you, when they demand attention, your job is, as Petty suggests, to rechannel the energy toward future success. Surely, your emotions are telling you that you failed, but they are not, therapy withstanding, telling you that you are a failure.

Now one ever moved forward by obsessing about the past.

Think of your emotions as transients. Your job is to ensure that they do not take up permanent residence. Be wary then of any form of psychotherapy that tries to build them a new house.

We all feel ashamed when we fail. Shame is probably the most powerful of negative human emotions. There is only one cure for the shame of failure: success.

Yet, psychotherapy will try to transform the shame into guilt. Once you have learned to see it as guilt you will need to discover who you should blame. Once you have punished the guilty party, the siren-song of therapy goes, you will be released from the negative emotion of guilt.

Therapy wants you to embrace failure, then to find someone to blame.

First, you will try blaming the world. As Hamlet put it: "How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge."

When you cannot act, whether because you do not know what to do or because your therapist has convinced you that it is more important to get in touch with your feelings, you will likely see reality as a conspiracy to inhibit you.

If your back is up against the wall, if the entirety of the world is arrayed against you, then inaction becomes the proper and rational response. What else can you do?

Eventually, you are going to start blaming yourself. You might discover, with a certain type of therapist, that you, like Oedipus, are the criminal you are looking for.

If you are suffering because a crime has been committed, and if God is just, then you yourself must be the criminal. Then you will feel empowered. You will be able to punish yourself, even martyr yourself, in order to release your negative actions and feel good about yourself.

None of this will show you how to act in the world, or how to snatch success from the jaws of failure, but now, thanks to therapy, you will no longer care.

If, after you have failed, you turn around and look back, you are going to be facing failure. After a time you are going confuse the matter and believe that failure is your future, not your past.

Welcome, demoralization and depression!

The State of the Union, Preview

We are fortunate to have an early version of President Obama's State of the Union message. Written by famed Obama supporter and conservative apostate Christopher Buckley it demonstrates clearly how far we have come politically in the past year. Link here.

Since the real State of the Union Speech is surely going to be eclipsed by Steve Jobs' announcement of the new Apple tablet device, we feel fortunate to have this advance copy now. Better to read it without being more distracted than usual.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Art of the Scam

Of course, we are all fascinated by scams. Since they never happen to us, our interest must be academic and altruistic.

We are thrilled to probe another corner of the human mind and we are happy to think that our knowledge will help others to avoid being scammed. For one reason or other, we believe that awareness cures.

Supposedly, scams exploit the vulnerable and the needy. We think of scam victims as rubes who have just fallen off the proverbial turnip truck.

Of course, the research suggests that scam victims are often successful businesspeople. Link here. Via Simoleon Sense. Then again, in a post-Madoff world, it is impossible to imagine that scam victims are merely weak and naive. Madoff preyed on the invulnerable, the sophisticated, and the wealthy.

Scam artists are great seducers. They see your vulnerability, tell you what you want to hear, exploit you, and make you feel good about it. In this way they closely resemble seducers. Theirs is an art, not a science.

You want to get rich; you deserve to be rich; through his exceptional intuition the scammer will echo your hidden thoughts. Then he will ensure that you have less.

Perhaps you are the soul of charity; you bleed for the underprivileged. The scammer will provide you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives, not just to do good, but to do best.

What makes it a scam? Is it the dishonesty, the false pretense, the lies, and the deceit? In a classic scam like a game of three-card monte, scammers make you feel that you can win. Only you cannot.

But three-card monte is downscale. How about something more upscale, like a casino. The casino does everything in its power to make you feel like a winner. It makes you feel that it will provide for your creature comforts in ways the rest of the world has not.

As we all know, you cannot win in a casino. The house is the only consistent winner in a casino. The gigantic monuments to human extravagance that fill the Las Vegas strip were not built because gamblers have a fair shot at winning.

Yet, gamblers continue to trek to Las Vegas to lose their money and we do not think of it as a scam. Most gamblers are not vulnerable and needy. Most of them are as aware as you and I that they are going to lose their money at the roulette wheel or the baccarat table.

Strangely, their heightened awareness merely serves to make them more vulnerable. They tell themselves that they are paying for the thrill of the game, for the entertainment. If they believe, in some corner of their mind, that they are going to win, they refuse to admit it in public.

I credit casino owners with this subterfuge. They have persuaded gamblers that they are not victims of a scam, but are players, participants in the great game of life. But why don't we consider three-card monte players as players in the game of life?

Even if you lose in the casino Las Vegas will make you feel like a winner. You will come away with a lot of stories. And you will have lived like a king or a queen while doing it.

Being aware of the scam does not immunize you. It makes you more vulnerable. If you are in on the scam, if you have a heightened awareness, doesn't that increase your odds of beating it?

People who think that they are in on the scam place themselves on the side of the scammer. They might stick around to watch the game play itself out because they get a rush of superiority watching a mark get taken.

And yet, how often does it happen that such a person is so enthralled by the action at the three-card monte game that he does not even notice when his pocket is being picked.

Keep in mind, even if you go to Las Vegas with the firm resolve not to gamble, you will surely find many, many ways to spend money.

Las Vegas was not built by gamblers alone.

Casino owners do not lie to you directly, but they certainly allow you to believe that you can win. And you do win... some of the time. Over the longer term, you simply cannot win at roulette. It is statistically impossible.

And you never walk into a casino and see, looming ahead of you, a sign saying: "Play at your own risk. The more you play the more you will lose. We guarantee it."

We consider gamblers to be sentient adults. They have the right to risk their money as they please. But what happens when there's a widow sitting alone in her Florida condo, who has lost most of her friends, who is being ignored by her family... and who receives a phone call one day from a nice young man offering... whatever you wish.

Will she buy whatever he is selling? Probably she will. Will she give him her credit card number? Very likely she will. Does she know that she is being scammed? Perhaps she does, but perhaps she does not care. Even if the products she is induced to purchase are not remotely as represented.

Having lost touch with other human beings, she is willing to spend whatever it takes to maintain her conversation with the nice young man. Can you really blame her?

Given the choice between having no one and paying for companionship, she opts for the latter. Hers is not the only way of doing this. How many other scam victims are allowing themselves to be had because they want to feel like they are still in the game.

But scams are not games. They are theater. If the outcome is predetermined, we cannot call it a real game. Moreover it is not a real social connection. A scam draws you into something that seems to be a game, but is really a scripted drama.

Scams create dramatic or theatrical moments. They offer to cast you in the drama. Sometimes, they will make you the center of attention in a drama that is consuming the interest of the crowd that has gathered around; sometimes they will let you feel like you are the hero.

Being scammed means that you are willing to pay for the thrill involved in your chance at minor-league stardom. Even if stardom means being the butt of a joke.

I am not sure that we should ask: can you afford it? The real question that determines most people's calculations when they meet a scam artist is: can I afford not to take the risk, not to take the chance at coming out the big winner, of fulfilling my destiny, of finding my proper place in the world?

Once you get someone thinking that way, you have involved them in the narrative and are waiting for the opportunity to cast them in their role.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Obama Gets It. Not!

When I first suggested that Obama was not going to draw the right lesson from Scott Brown's election, I was speculating. Link here.

Now, the evidence is beginning to roll in, and there is little cause for encouragement. Obama reacted to the election by insulting the electorate, declaring class war on Wall Street, and rehiring his chief campaign adviser.

Take the last first. In rehiring David Plouffe Obama is showing that he feels that his failure concerns message and not substance.

But Obama never really left campaign mode. He never got to the governing mode. I suspect that he is too inexperienced to know how to govern, so he can only restore past glory by doubling down on campaigning.

Obama is so thoroughly the captive of his own myth that he has lost touch with reality. Responding to the election in an interview with George Stephanolopous, Obama asserted that he had failed to communicate sufficiently with the American people.

Say what? Mark Steyn replied that Obama has been the most exposed president in American history. Link here. For the past year you could not turn on the television and not see Barack Obama. All he did was talk and talk and talk.

It got to the point where people began suffering from Obamafatigue, a condition that was not covered by Obamacare.

More telling is Frank Rich's analysis of Obama's communication style. As a recycled theater critic Rich could not miss the fact that Obama is all nuance and no high concept. My own take on this, from August, 2008 here.

In Rich's words: "Ask yourself this: All these months later, do you yet know what the health care plan means for your family's bottom line, your insurance, your taxes? It's this nebulousness... that has allowed reform to be caricatured by its foes as an impenetrable Rube Goldberg monstrosity...." Link here.

Why is Obama so low concept? Because his rhetoric comes down to us from the pulpit. He does not define issues; he does not propose solutions; he preaches and sermonizes and makes people feel spiritually uplifted. Unfortunately, spiritual uplift is the role of the preacher, not the president.

As Mark Steyn explains, Obama tried to explain away the Massachusetts Senate vote by insisting that the common people were not bright enough to understand him. Speak about shifting blame!

Obama to Stephanopolous: "I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we're making a rational decision here, then people will get."

But the people did get it. Obama thought he was focusing on policy. The people knew he wasn't. Policy is high concept. Obama was being low concept.

Remember during the Cold War, American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union was expressed in a single word: containment.

As Frank Rich suggested, everyone understands high concept; no one understood Obamacare.

Next, Obama told Stephanopolous that the same anger that vaulted him to the presidency had sent Scott Brown to the Senate.

Apparently, the people who were so stupid they fell for Scott Brown are so stupid that they voted for Barack Obama.

Obama seems to believe that his IQ is too high, his mind too subtle... to communicate with the illiterati. He has heard it so often that he must have come to believe that whatever he says is pure genius. His hype has induced him to say whatever comes to mind and wait for others to make it seem meaningful. This is simply lazy.

Now, Obama is going to lower himself to communicate with the illiterati. He is declaring class war on Wall Street and insurance companies and corporate interests.

None of it will create any jobs; it is not really supposed to. Obama's low concept mythologizing is an effort to divert popular anger away from the person in charge. The people of Massachusetts may have held Obama to account, but he does not seem to have received the message.

All told, Obama's bumbling response did not restore confidence in the financial markets. Obama wanted to tell the world that he was still there, but not as a president or leader. The markets heard the news and promptly sold off.

Finally, Obama sought to channel populist anger by thrashing the Supreme Court decision that overturned parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

Allowing corporations to engage in political speech offended Barack Obama. At the least, it offended his ability to control the public debate.

But it also represented a vote of no confidence in the American people. As Steve Simpson wrote: "Those who believe that money buys elections implicitly believe that voters are too stupid to make up their own minds." Link here.

Obama believes that if everyone says he is brilliant then he is brilliant. He believes that if everyone says that he is a master communicator he is a master communicator. He is confident that the elites understand this; he feels contempt for the illiterati that do not.

In Obama's world saying makes it so. His jobs program looks like it is going to consist of talking about jobs. Within the framework of advanced leftist thought, talking about jobs creates jobs... because words create reality.

If the election results are calling on Obama to make a sham showing of strength and resilience, then he has found a way to do that too. He can tough it out, he can stand tall in the midst of adversity, he can show how manly he is, by constantly intoning his new mantra: the word "fight."

"The Day ObamaCare Died"

Maybe I'm just in a sharing mood. Maybe we all feel like bursting out in song right about now. Maybe we all like a good parody. Or maybe we just like any song that reminds us of Don McLean's "Miss America Pie."

Whatever the reason, our friends at American Digest provide us with this Youtube musical celebration of the death of ObamaCare. Link here.

To me it rises to Rob Bartlett quality political satire. If you don't know who Rob Bartlett is, which probably means that you do not listen to Imus, here's some information. Link here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Is Tiger Woods a Sex Addict?

It may not be the most burning issue of the day-- or better, it is surely not the most burning issue of the day-- but we have all learned from a reasonably reliable source-- that is, the National Enquirer-- that Tiger Woods is being treated for sex addiction in Mississippi. Link here.

We have also learned that he's theret because his wife urged him to do it-- or better, because she threatened to take his children to Sweden where he would never be able to see them again.

Not much of this makes a lot of sense. Have you ever seen or heard of a pre-nup that stipulated that one parent could take the children so far away that they other could not have normal visitation? Or else, have you ever heard of a judge who would allow such an arrangement?

Are we so consumed with anger at Tiger Woods that we are willing to believe just about anything about him? And are we so compelled to side with his wife that we are willing to grant her everything? For my previous posts about Tiger, see here.

Back to today's question: Is Tiger Woods a sex addict? And what is this thing called sex addiction anyway? Is it a treatable condition that can be controlled with a 12 step program or is it, in Tiger's case, a public relations move designed to salvage Tiger's reputation and endorsements?

Is rehab going to cure Tiger's addiction or restore his public image?

Nowadays America believes in rehab. Rehab has become the new therapy.

America also believes in 12 step programs. 12 steps have become the new psychoanalysis.

America is so thrilled at the effectiveness of 12 step programs that physicians are working to label each and every moral failing as an addiction.

Rehab has helped solve the greatest problem with 12 step programs. Clinicians have always know that these were effective against alcoholism. But the same clinicians could not embrace these programs because... they were free.

Now, with rehab, they have learned how to monetize 12 step programs. Apparently, Tiger Woods is paying $60,000 for his stay in the Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Clinic.

Would Bill Wilson and Bob Smith be proud?

Anyway, is Tiger Woods a sex addict?

Personally, I would vote No. An addict will show signs of dysfunction in his everyday life. Addiction compromises focus and concentration, making it difficult for the addict to relate with others, and to complete his work successfully.

An addiction is a compulsion that consumes your life and makes it nearly impossible to function. For some people sex might become such an addiction. But does this describe Tiger Woods?

Golf is an especially unforgiving taskmaster. If your focus and concentration are off, if you mind has been pickled by alcohol or addled by narcotics or flooded with images of naked lovelies, you game is going to suffer.

In golf it does not take very much to break down your concentration. When it does, the effects are immediately evident.

A golfer-addict plays like John Daly, not like Tiger Woods.

I would also vote No because Tiger's sexual antics can be explained by other factors. To diagnose Tiger Woods as a sex addict you have to distinguish a sex addict from someone who has a strong sex drive, fueled by competition, victory, money, and a gaggle of readily available women.

Also, when you make sexual indiscretion into an addiction and try to treat it with 12 step programs you will create several problems. When someone is addicted to alcohol, narcotics, or gambling he can begin treatment by renouncing the behaviors. You can live without alcohol, narcotics, and gambling. It is far more difficult to live without sex, which is, a normal adult activity.

Next, when an alcoholic goes to an AA meeting he hears stories of the abjection visited by alcoholism. These visions provide a cautionary reminder of what happens if he abandons the program.

What happens when a sex addict goes to meetings for his addiction?

As everyone knows, if you go to a sex addiction meeting and listen to people recount their sexual experiences, you might get aroused and you might find someone who is similarly aroused.

Sex talk can easily become pornographic. Assembling a group of recovering sex addicts in a room to talk about sex can easily become combustible.

Those who run these programs have tried to deal with this problem by creating a "stop word," known to all participants, whose utterance by anyone signifies that the account is getting too racy and that it needs to be stopped.

Wherever did they get this idea? I would guess that they did not glean it from a medical or psychological textbook. If it resembles anything, it represents a staple of extreme forms of masochistic rituals, where the victim of sadistic abuse will have a word he can utter to stop the process.

But that is not the worst. As the New York Post headlined, Woods' sex addiction treatment will involve something called "Disclosure Day." On that day he will be required to tell his wife about each and every time he betrayed her. In detail...

I have it on very good authority that such a practice would never be permitted in AA. It is not one of the traditional 12 steps. Even if you stretch things and class "Disclosure Day" under the step of making amends to those you have hurt, that step also says that you should not do so when you will be hurting the other person.

Can any sensible person really imagine that Elin Woods wants to hear all about her husband's sexual escapades. Isn't this a clear case of adding insult to injury?

And why would any sensible person imagine that this would be therapeutic for a marriage?

The fact that the program is being administered by a physician who has written a book on sex addiction does not justify putting these two people through such a harrowing ordeal.

If Tiger and Elin want to put their marriage back together, one good step would be to look forward, not backwards. Making Tiger assume a posture of extreme abjection will not contribute to their marriage. Nor will forcing Elin to feel utter and complete disgust about her husband's behavior.

It is bad enough that this practice has received legitimacy and respectability because it is being called medicine and is being practiced by a physician. Larger problems arise when people who have committed sexual indiscretions, regardless of whether they rise to the level of a life-consuming compulsion, start thinking that they now know how to solve their problems.

They can proclaim themselves sex addicts, declare that they have no control over their behavior, and propose that they work their way out of it by telling all of the sordid details to their wives.

Do you really think that that will help?