Wednesday, June 30, 2010

From Prophet to Predator: The Al Gore Story

The more we learn about it, the uglier it gets. Now that we have more complete information about what Al Gore was doing to massage therapist Molly Hagerty in that Portland, Oregon hotel room, the great prophet of environmental doom is looking more and more like a sexual predator.

For a report on the incident, see Byron York's column here. For the Portland Police report, follow this link. For the latest from the National Enquirer, see here.

We recall that Gloria Steinem once gave new meaning to misogyny by defending Bill Clinton's sexual assaults on the grounds that he took No for an answer. Conveniently, Steinem overlooked the testimony of Juanita Broaddrick, because when you have to choose between the cause and a woman's word... then clearly you cannot trust the woman. One can only wonder what she would say about Al Gore, a man who clearly did not take No for an answer. My guess: she will have nothing so say.

Admittedly, I am not qualified to judge the truth or falsity of all of the so-called "settled science" about global warning. Surely, a movement that wants to shut down most industry in order to save Nature became far more credible when it made Al Gore its most prominent spokesman.

To me global warmism has always seemed a little too close to being a cult. It offers apocalyptic pronouncements that would better be found on placards; its proponents sound more like prophets than scientists; it has worked too hard to discredit and silence global warming skeptics.

Such is not the stuff that science is made on.

But you do not need to know anything about science to evaluate the most obvious point. Tomorrow's weather and the next century's climate are not the stuff of scientific fact. Tomorrow's weather is at best a hypothesis; the world climate a century from now is not scientific fact... it is prophecy.

Surely, it might happen that the earth gets warmer. But it also might happen that the earth gets cooler. What might happen is not the same as what must happen.

Anyway, once he lost the presidential election Al Gore apparently did not know what to do with himself, so he rebranded himself into a prophet of environmental gloom and doom. He made a fortune doing this, won an Oscar, and was awarded a Nobel Prize. Truth be told, Al Gore morphed from respectable and responsible public official into a media celebrity.

In the process, of course, his 40 year marriage to Tipper fell by the wayside. As I've suggested, you cannot be married to a cause and to a person at the same time... unless the person is as fervent a believer in the cause as you are.

Let's grant that the old Al Gore was not a sexual predator; he did not assault massage therapists for refusing to service his chakras. If that is true, then it would seem that sexual predation is an occupational hazard that accompanies iconic celebrity. It seems to tag along when you become a "mighty prophet, seer blessed."

Do cult leaders feel entitled to do what they please, no matter whom they hurt? Do women find such men irresistible, to the point where they consider it an honor to be used for such a man's pleasure? Or do women feel that they are showing a greater commitment to global warming if they sacrifice their intimacy to please the prophet who is going to save the world?

One thing is reasonably certain. As Andrea Tantaros said yesterday, Al Gore's Oregon misadventures were certainly not the first and only time that something like that had happened. Perhaps on other occasions the women were more willing participants. Perhaps some of them had thought that coming forth would subject them to the kinds of abuse that were heaped on all of the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual indiscretions and worse. Or perhaps they had simply decided to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

Why did massage therapist Molly Hagerty not see to it that Al Gore was prosecuted? Well, as one of her fellow liberals told her: "... just suck it up; otherwise the world's going to be destroyed by global warming."

Someone remind me here about why liberals always tax conservatives with stupidity?

Whatever you believe about global warming, it seems that we are dealing here with overheated brains. How does an intelligent and sentient being come to imagine that the only person standing between us and environmental Armageddon is Al Gore?

It is truly amazing that people can feel the need to shut down their rational faculties in order to feel like they belong to the latest cause.

Clearly, the science of global warming is neither affirmed or refuted by what happened in that Portland hotel room. Just as clearly, thinking people would do better to give the matter some serious reflection. If the people who are promoting it are not acting like men and women of science, that should tell you something about their ability to deceive and defraud.

Any time anyone tells you to sacrifice your dignity for a cause, you should immediately recognize that something is seriously wrong.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jezebel Takes Down Camille Paglia

It's always good to hear a woman's point of view. Especially on matters like female sexuality. Even more so when a woman offers a rather negative opinion of the latest Camille Paglia op-ed on the Jezebel site. Link here.

You may recall that I posted some comments on Paglia a few days ago. Link here. I found her op-ed to be incoherent, only interesting as a part of the culture wars.

After posting, I noticed that several exemplary bloggers seemed to believe that Paglia had lit on some point of consuming interest. They seemed to believe that she is promoting a lifestyle filled with exquisite sensual pleasure.

Clearly, I thought the opposite. Talking about lust is not the same as feeling lust. I suspect that if you have to keep talking about it and trying to convince young people to adopt it as a credo, you are not promoting lust but are diminishing it. As the bard once said: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

But then again, I am of the male gender, so what do I know. That's why I was interested to read Anna North's column on Jezebel, entitled: "Legendary Nutjob Gives Horrible Sex Advice."

North is slightly more caustic than I was, but we can easily forgive her. Paglia is trying to peddle her wisdom to young women, and it feels like a good thing for a young woman to reject it out of hand. So, hats off to Anna North for a job well done.

How Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work?

Brandon Koerner's excellent article in Wired is entitled: "The Secret of AA: After 75 Years We Don't Know How It Works." Link here. But as he wisely notes, for many people the important thing is not knowing how it works, but knowing that it works. And that it works better than anything else currently on the market.

David Brooks picked up on Koerner's article and offered some good commentary in his column today. Link here. I will also mention that I have discussed this topic in a previous post. Link here.

As a treatment method, 12 step programs are an anomaly. They are effective in treating what we consider to be a medical problem, but they were invented by people who had no training in medicine or psychology. They do not insist on laboratory-like conformity to a specific procedure, but allow different groups to introduce their own modifications. They do not cost anything, and they are completely unregulated by government.

Members of AA groups have sponsors, but you do not need to have any credential to become a sponsor. Those who lead AA meetings do not have to be licensed professionals.

Many trained and licensed therapists are queasy about this exercise in human freedom. Understandingly, they do not like to compete with an alternative that costs nothing, and that, by all indications, works better than what they are offering. They have often warned of the cult-like atmosphere surrounding AA and have decried the absence of licensed professionals.

As Koerner writes: "Addiction-medicine specialists often raise the concern that AA meetings aren't led by professionals. But there is evidence that this may actually help foster a sense of intimacy between members, since the fundamental AA relationship is between fellow alcoholics rather than between alcoholics and the therapist. Those close social bonds allow members to slowly learn how to connect to others without the lubricating effects of alcohol."

With the exception of those alcoholics who are ordered by courts to attend 12 step programs, most who attend meetings are there voluntarily. People are anonymous; they are free to come and go; they can follow the 12 steps or ignore them.

For these, and many other reasons, it is very difficult to determine how well and how consistently the programs work. And yet, as Koerner suggests, most therapists who work with addicts are persuaded that they do work and that they provide a vital service.

Strangely enough, 12 step programs feel like the untherapy. Had Bill Wilson and Bob Smith set out to offer a perfect rebuke to psychotherapy, they could not have done a better job. As Brooks adds, they also repudiate the value system that forms the basis of our therapy culture.

Where modern psychotherapist believed they were inventing a grand theoretical construct, Wilson and Smith had a single criterion for AA: whether or not it worked. As long as it did, people did not much feel the need to ask how it worked.

As Koerner notes, other forms of contemporary therapy, especially those that are based in cognitive psychology or that are solution focused, have also produced positive results with alcoholics and other addicts. And yet, he adds, AA still works better.

No one is still pretending that old style psychotherapy, the kind that involves searching into the root causes of your problems, uncovering your miserable childhood and your repressed traumas, provides an effective treatment for addictive disorders.

Yet, this old form of psychotherapy still survives as a potent cultural phenomenon. Even there, David Brooks notes, AA rejects therapy culture values: "... in a culture that thinks of itself as individualistic, A.A. relies on fellowship. The general idea is that people aren't really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another-- learning, sharing, suffering and mentoring one another. Individual repair is a social effort."

Psychotherapies that try to make you an independent, autonomous, self-sufficient individual fail to acknowledge you as a social being. If they derive from Freud, they do not even allow you to form a connection with the therapist. AA, however, is all about fellowship, about connecting with other people.

In Koerner's words: "To begin with, there is evidence that a big part of AA's effectiveness may have nothing to do with the actual steps. It may derive from something more fundamental: the power of the group. Psychologists have long known that one of the best way to change human behavior is to gather people with similar problems into groups, rather than treat them individually.

AA deviates from old style therapy for not being a mind-over-matter, ego-over-instincts method. If anything it begins by telling the alcoholic that his ego will never be strong enough to control his addiction. Thus, only a higher power, a force greater than his individual will, must be invoked and involved in the treatment.

As Brooks says: "In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness."

Rather than seeking to empower the mind or the ego, AA works to involve people in a program, a set of steps, a set of new behaviors, that will hopefully show the way toward a new way to socialize.

Nowadays scientists and physicians are hard at working trying to figure out how AA works. And they have made considerable progress toward understanding the way the different steps influence brain chemistry. Yet, their research has not produced a better or more effective treatment.

In Koerner's words: "What we do know,however, is that despite all we've learned over the past few decades about psychology, neurology, and human behavior, contemporary medicine has yet to devise anything that works markedly better."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Jim Cramer Gets It

Last Thursday the great Jim Cramer wrote an article about American malaise. Link here. The faultor cause of this malaise, he opined, lay in the poor leadership of our president, Barack Obama. As he entitled his article: "Obama is bad for stocks."

I would have written a comment on the Yahoo site where I found the article, but that seems not to be possible. My question is simple: how did it happen that Jim Cramer and the majority of his financial wizard friends did not see this before last week? And don't you think that Cramer owes his dwindling fan base something of an explanation for the fact that, when it came to the 2008 election, his judgment went off the rails.

For my own contemporaneous take on Cramer's support for Obama, here's a post from October, 2008. Link here.

Obama's Leadership Deficit

As I wrote last week, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's unfortunate flirtation with Rolling Stone Magazine produced a moment where we all refocused our attention on the Afghan War. Then we all became aware of the fact that we are failing in Afghanistan. I called it a moment of McChrystallization. Link here.

Much of the debate has been clear, concise, and to the point. The only exceptions are the encomiums that are being heaped on Pres. Obama for having shown something resembling executive leadership. Many of Obama's media enablers were thrilled to see the commander in chief step up, accept the unfortunate general's resignation and appoint Gen. David Petraeus to head up the Afghan war.

Surely, Petraeus is a great general; surely, he was instrumental in salvaging a desperate situation in Iraq. But that does not mean that he is going to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat again. The problem in Afghanistan was our political leadership, not our military command.

Perhaps by appointing George W. Bush's favorite general Obama is signaling a shift in war strategy, a new determination to prevail. And yet, with Petraeus in charge, if we do fail, a canny political operator like Obama could simply say that he had done as much as he could, but that even David Petraeus could not lead us to victory.

But, as Fouad Ajami explains this morning, the real problem with the war lies in the fact that Obama: "... is prosecuting a war he can neither abandon nor fight to a convincing victory." Link here.

Obama's heart is not in the war effort; he does not want it to distract the nation from his domestic agenda or cost him too many popularity points.

As everyone knows by now, the primary problem in Afghanistan is Obama's deadline for withdrawal. Admittedly, every time Obama insists on a timeline, administration officials rush to the microphones and the Congressional hearings to explain that he did not really mean it.

Even with the same commanding general, the contrast between Bush and Obama could not be more stark. George Bush was in Iraq to win, and was willing to stay in Iraq as long as it took. No one doubted his conviction or his doggedness. Obama, however, keeps his eyes focused on the exit.

In the larger foreign policy context, George Bush declared war on terror, on terrorists, and on the regimes that harbor them. Obama has tried to make nice with our enemies.

In some ways Obama cannot do a real policy reset in Afghanistan because his only real conviction, irrational as it may seem, is to be unlike George Bush. That is one reason why we should not be too quick to see the return of David Petraeus as a fundamental change in policy.

After all, David Petraeus was not called out of retirement to take over in Afghanistan. He was called out of his post commanding Centcom in Tampa. From there he was responsible for overseeing the military efforts in Afghanistan. A less than charitable soul could say that his new command is something of a demotion.

During the last presidential campaign, Obama's supporters were arguing that when he looked like he could not make up his mind or take a stand, he was in fact demonstrating his superior mental acuity. Some even compared him to John Kerry. He was not confused or indecisive; he had a nuanced approach to policy. Yet, nuanced counts for nothing in foreign policy. When put into practice it spells incoherence.

However great General David Petraeus is, he is still following what Ajami called Obama's "uncertain trumpet." Ajami reveals Obama's incoherent policy in this passage: "He had vowed to fight in Afghanistan while belittling the challenge that radical Islamism posed to American security. He had told his devotees that the anti-Americanism of the Islamic world was certain to blow over in the aftermath of his election. He had attributed much of the anti-Americanism to the Iraq war and to the ideological zeal of his predecessors. His foreign policy was to explicitly rest on a rupture with the foreign policy of the past. Like Jimmy Carter's in the 1970s, this was to be a foreign policy of contrition for America's presumed sins."

I do not have to tell you that contrition will not sustain a fierce determination to win a war. Having your team go out to provide constant clarification of the policy does not impress those who are directly involved in the war. As Ajami put it: "Mullah Omar in Quetta may not be schooled in the arcane details of American politics, but he had all the knowledge he needed: The Americans were not in this fight for long. He would wait them out and make a run at the regime in Kabul."

If Obama has been told that his timetable for withdrawal is undermining the war effort, he does not seem to have gotten the point. As Politico reported today, he has fallen back on his usual petulance: "Obama chastised what he dubbed a current 'obsession' over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. 'My focus right now is how do we make sure what we're doing there is successful,' he said. 'By next year we will begin a transition'."

Friday the Los Angeles Times reported on how the Obama administration obsession with withdrawal is playing out in Baghdad. "The Iraqis describe U. S. Embassy officials in Baghdad as obsessed with bringing an end to the large-scale U. S. troop presence in Iraq. They believe the embassy's single-mindedness has often left the United States veering from crisis to crisis here. Some U.S. military officers and Western analysts have also criticized what they see as a failure to think beyond the planned drawdown to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of August. The lack of focus may leave an opening for Iraq's neighbor and the United States' rival-- Iran." Link here.

Generals do not win wars on their own. Obama made a good decision when he appointed David Petraeus. It remains to be seen whether he is sending Petraeus over to win a war or to run cover for his retreat.

Many people are optimistic that David Petraeus can impose his will on the political leadership in Washington. But, if so, why did he not do it while he was running Centcom from Tampa?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

GM's Tour of the Psych Bloggers

Today GM Roper has posted his June survey of some of the leading psych bloggers. Link here.

For my part I am proud to find that my blog has been placed in such distinguished company. As does GM, I heartily recommend the others.

Camille Paglia on America's Sexual Malaise

Few prose stylists can match Camille Paglia for raw energy and spirited excitement. And yet, the more Paglia gives free reign to her Dionysian instincts, the more her arguments flounder in the heat of her rhetorical fireworks. Link here.

Since Dionysius was the god of wine and theater, it is not surprising that that his cult followers often sound as though they are drunk.

Everyone knows that America is in trouble. The economy is not generating jobs; political leaders have been ignoring public opinion; our president has been ingratiating himself with our enemies while snubbing our allies; and the Afghan war has been going poorly. America has seen better days.

Some of us feel that America will have to work its way out of the ditch it has fallen into. We want people to recover their work ethic, treat their friends and neighbors with civility, act with decorum and propriety, and show more respect for others.

Those of us who favor working our way out of our problems have been critical of the new American decadence that has helped put is there. Over the past few decades America has suffered a cultural revolution that has made us into sybarites, lotus-eaters, and pleasure seekers. When unemployed young people complain most loudly about their unwillingness to work more than the required minimum, you know that something important is afoot.

Camille Paglia sees things differently. For her decadence is not the problem; it's the solution. She does not want us to work our way out of our problems; she wants us to lust our way out of them.

You may think that America is more sexually liberated than it has ever been. For Camille Paglia, it's not good enough. Our distinctly American sensuality simply does not live up to the fine example that was set by the European continent, by Nietzsche and perhaps even the Marquis de Sade.

In Paglia's world, I imagine, we are all going to become like Zorba the Greek, drunk with wine, dancing on the beach, without a care in the world. Until, I must add, the money runs out.

As it happens, today's version of Zorba is likely to be mounting an insurrection against a government that can no longer pay for retirement at age 50. Camille Paglia's spiritual cohorts want to retire with full pensions so that they can enjoy life without having to work for it.

Paglia never considers the possibility that people can enjoy working, that they can feel satisfaction from a job well done, and that there is considerable happiness in being a responsible parent and a respectful neighbor.

In her confused New York Times op-ed Paglia diagnoses the nation's sexual malaise from the fact that the FDA just rejected an application for a new medicine that would enhance female sexual desire.. a Viagra for women.

Paglia considers this rejection to be something of a tragedy, but she goes further and tries to analyze why so many women have diminished libidos. I would mention that Paglia never offers any evidence for the fact that many women feel less lusty than they used to.

Without bothering to demonstrate the point, Paglia goes on to blame it on Queen Victoria. Apparently, our Great American Cultural Revolution has not fully succeeded in overcoming the oppressive weight of Victorian culture. To Paglia we remain a group of respectable middle class burghers who have refused to measure out our lives in orgasms.

The affront... the indignity... the horror of it all.

Based on her op-ed Paglia does not seem willing to grant that biology might have something to do with diminished libido in some cases. Nor does she consider that depression is one of the more common causes of a loss of sexual appetite. Finally, she does not consider that in a culture where sexual stimuli are readily available for anyone who wants it, then people are going to become desensitized to such stimuli. The more you are densensitized to sex the more you are going to have to go to extremes to find sexual pleasure.

Worse than even that, Paglia does not consider the possibility, however remote it may be, that some women may be perfectly contented with the diminished lust that comes with age. You do not have to have been around too much to know that the advent of Viagra was not greeted with open arms by the wives of its first users.

Paglia knows full well that sex is everywhere now. For her, that is not good enough, because, after all, she believes that Madonna was a Dionysian goddess while the current version of Madonna, Lady Gaga, is, to Paglia, "a high concept fabrication without an ounce of genuine eroticism." Take that, Gaga.

I believe that it is honorable for members of one generation to refrain from criticizing another generation's taste in music. Trashing Lady Gaga does not make you sound clever and witty; it makes you sound old.

Paglia's larger point is interesting enough to merit some attention. She defines clearly the nature of the culture wars that have been raging for the past few centuries. She sees that there is a great cultural disparity between Anglo-American culture and continental European cultures, primarily French and German. I suspect that she would happily include the rest of continental Europe in the cultural stew... from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the countries that are currently called the Club Med or siesta countries.

Paglia is happy to regale us with the standard litany of the cultural values that, to her mind, continue to repress our sexual vitality. You have surely seen this list before: bourgeois propriety, Victorian prudery, middle class conformity, British respectability, desexualized white actresses, and that tense, toned Pilates look. All of these horrors have been visited on us by our Anglo-American culture. They have dampened our ardor and made us into chronic consumers of Viagra.

It's easy enough to criticize. Offering an alternative is something else. And Paglia does not seem to recognize that the ongoing assault on Anglo-American culture has produced a number of political, social, and cultural alternatives.

If you want to say that the art and philosophy produced on the European continent during the 19th century was superior to that produced in England and America, be my guest. But keep in mind that there is more to life than art and philosophy.

You can rail all you want about the horrors of Victorian England, but it did, truth be told, produce a Winston Churchill. The great philosophers and artists of Germany produced a failed painter who wanted to make all of
Europe a canvas wherein he could express his aesthetic vision.

[For an excellent study of the way an aesthetic was transformed into a political movement, I recommend Modris Eksteins' great book: Rites of Spring.]

It's not so difficult to understand. If you eliminate the dread middle class, what you get is perpetual conflict between upper and lower classes. You have violent conflict between French aristocrats and peasants leading to the French Revolution. And you have violent conflict between workers and capitalists producing any one of a number of revolutionary movements.

Let us not forget the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. That particular form of Maoist delirium wanted to rid China of all vestiges of middle class propriety, respectability, and Confucianism. It was not, dare we say, a grand aesthetic gesture, except in the sense of channeling the energy of itinerant youth into the effort to remake China as a work of art.

All of these clashes do set one's blood aboil, but they also produced some of the most violent destruction that human history has ever known.

I would never suggest that Camille Paglia supports these horrors. Her taste runs more to Elvis than Mussolini. And yet, she ought to acknowledge that many people have tried to make over the world and human nature, to make it fulfill the requirements of an artistic vision.

For the most part such efforts have produced far more horrors than did Queen Victoria and Lady Gaga.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

But Is It Sex?

Last Monday I was meditating about a puzzling phenomenon.

Prof. Nancy Bauer, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Tufts University posted a column on the New York Times site wherein she explained how feminism had been promoting hookups. To Bauer's mind feminism had liberated young women to go out to parties, to match men's alcohol consumption shot for shot, and then to drop to their knees to service these men's more lubricious needs. Link here.

To her philosopher's mind, this amounted to liberation and empowerment. If young women did not find this to be a gratifying experience, then clearly they had been duped by the patriarchy.

When some of us express serious doubts about what is being taught to college students today, Prof. Bauer stands forth to demonstrate that we are creating caricatures. I could not have dreamt this one up if I had tried.

I would add, since I mentioned it yesterday, that when a serious philosopher like Martha Nussbaum complains that college students are not taking enough humanities courses, she would have done better to look at what is being taught in said courses.

How many students, having had a brief glimpse into the tormented mind of Nancy Bauer, will go running to courses in business and finance? A goodly number, I hope.

Today I just discovered some research that sheds further light on the hookup culture. I read this piece of analysis in a report entitled, "Sex Redefined: The Reclassification of Oral/Genital Contact." Link here. It was prepared for the Guttmacher Institute, which is certainly not a part of any right wing conspiracy.

The report observes that these young women who are falling to their knees to serve the almighty phallus are not, in their own minds, really having sex. They are following the latest dance craze: they are doing the Lewinsky.

Yes, you heard it right. This scientific survey discovered that over the past decade or so there has been a major shift in young people's attitudes toward oral/genital contact. In the 1990s about 40% considered it to be sex. Now, 20% would agree that it is sex.

When the researchers started asking why the definition had shifted so markedly, they decided that today's college generation had suffered the influence of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

When they, as children, learned of the scandal it was their first exposure to sex education. Watching the evening news taught them a lot more than their parents wanted them to know about semen-stained dresses. But it also allowed them to watch Bill Clinton point his finger at the nation and declare, in an inspired piece of legalistic caviling: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman... Miss Lewinsky."

If Bill Clinton said that oral sex was not sex, then oral sex was not sex.

The hookup generation grew up in the age of Clinton. It learned that Bill Clinton was to be admired, even defended, no matter what he did to women. Led by none other than Hillary Clinton the feminist matriarchy rallied around Bill Clinton, and thereby, granted more than the usual amount of credence to his behavior and his pronouncements. Let us not underestimate the importance of Hillary Clinton in excusing her husband's behavior, and thus, rendering it legitimate in the eyes of certain segments of the population.

Of course, the article's conclusion seems fanciful. How can you possibly measure the influence of something like the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal? But keep in mind, people naturally emulate their leaders, especially those who are lionized in the culture. Serious leaders know that their behavior is going to set the standard for the nation; thus they are quite careful to control how they are perceived in public.

Even if you choose not to believe that such influence exists, it is worth thinking about the issue. We all know that leaders lead by setting an example. Have we ever really thought through the different ways that this can play itself out in our lives and the lives of our children.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Good Advice for Job Seekers

It may be a sign of the times, but every once in a while I run across an article offering a list of what you should or should not do during a job interview. If you are currently looking for a job, you would do well to pay close attention to these articles, most often compiled by journalists from interviews with hiring managers.

Today's is by Sarah Needleman, from the Wall Street Journal. Link here. It looks at eight ways to mess up a job interview. Admittedly, I prefer more positive lists, but this one is excellent for its emphasis on character.

If you show bad character, behave disrespectfully, act indecorously, assert yourself unreasonably, you will surely not be getting the job. Good character involves good habits, good people skills, and a willingness to stifle your high self-esteem and winning personality in favor of being the kind 0f candidate who can work with others, take orders, devote himself to a project, and get along with other people.

It's not really too much to ask, is it?

What Makes Al Gore Run?

Speaking of bad timing, or, at least, bad karma.... On the day that Al Gore acquired the epithet, "crazed sex poodle," he co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed about motivations and incentives. Link to op-ed here.

You want the world to see you as a serious thinker, or as the purveyor of serious thought, and the world is trying to digest the fact that you were far more Clintonian than you ever let on. And with a nasty, sadistic streak, to boot. Link here.

Al Gore's co-author and business partner is named David Blood. Naturally, this has thrilled bloggers far and wide... perhaps even more than the incoherent phrase, "crazed sex poodle." By now I have seen more than a few witticisms about Blood and Gore.

One such post is cleverly entitled, "Perverse Incentives." In it Emily Yoffe writes that Blood and Gore are trying to argue that people work best when they are not just in it for the money. She explains that Gore seems to have had some extra experience with "nonfinancial incentives." Link here.

The substance of Blood and Gore's article addresses a serious new theory in behavioral economics. It takes off from a recent book by Nobel laureate George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton and follows them in proposing what they consider a new theory of human motivation. Link here. The Akerlof and Kranton book is called: Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well Being. A New York Times article on the topic is here.

Akerlof and Kranton challenge the theory that people are motivated by monetary incentives. According to that theory we all work harder when we are paid better. This produces the Wall Street bonus culture. In the articles I've read none of the authors offer a similar critique of the outsized earnings of movie stars, rock stars, and athletes.

Akerlof and Kranton, along with Blood and Gore, want to debunk thus theory, which bases itself on what they call Homo Incentivus.

The new theory declares that financial incentives are not the be-all and end-all of human motivation. It says that we are more importantly motivated by a sense of belonging to a community, contributing to a company, feeling like part of a team, and thus, identifying with a group, its values, and its traditions. This theory worships at the altar of Homo Emoticus.

In Akerlof and Kranton's words: "In organizations that function well, employees identify with their work and their organizations. If employees feel more like insiders-- a key purpose of military rituals-- there is little need for incentive pay or pay-for-performance schemes. The military changes the identity of its recruits, inculcating them in values such as duty and service. In the civilian world, too, the most important determinant of whether an organization functions well is not the monetary incentive system, as standard economic models would imply, but whether its workers identify with the organization and with their job within it. If they do not, they will seek to game the incentive system, rather than to meet the organization's goals."

I have not read their book, so I cannot claim to be offering a critique. It feels to me, however, that the authors have caricatured theories about monetary incentives. If monetary incentives are less important than identifying with an organization, how does it happen that private companies are largely more efficient and effective than government bureaucracies?

Nor am I clear about why people who work for monetary incentives cannot also take satisfaction in a job well done. If your satisfaction at a job well done does not receive a commensurate monetary recognition, then how long are you going to keep doing the job as well as you can. And how long will you continue to feel loyalty to the company.

I mean to say that monetary compensation can be an important way that an organization expresses its appreciation for your work. I doubt seriously that the dichotomy between homo incentivus and homo emoticus is quite as stark as these authors suggest.

And why would we not expand the concept of incentive to include the accumulation of psychological capital... status, prestige,pride, and respect. While soldiers do not work on the Wall Street bonus system, they most often do not live in a social world made up of Wall Street bankers, corporate lawyers, and real estate developers. The currency that confers status in their worlds does not primarily involve money.

Lest we forget, soldiers do receive salary increases with each promotion. If they make a career out of the military they can retire at a relatively young age and receive a pension that is calculated as a function of their highest pay grade. Since many receive their pensions for decades, this does represent a significant monetary incentive.

We must add that military medals are one of the oldest forms of pay-for-performance, not so much for the value of the metal therein, but for the status and prestige associated therewith. Winning medals also contributes to your chances at promotion.

Of course, Akerlof and Kranton are correct to state that military organizations offer training and rituals that inculcate their values in recruits. These values include patriotism, teamwork, uniformity, and competition.

One has to wonder whether thinkers like Blood and Gore really want the culture to include more patriotism, more honest and open competition, more emphasis on uniforms. Does Al Gore remind you of a military commander or of a prophet?

If you want to replicate the military model, you would do best avoid the apocalytpic environmentalism that Al Gore has made his current cause. One cannot fail to notice that Al Gore has made hundreds of millions of dollars from his environmental crusade. Ought we to say that he is less committed to the cause because he has gotten rich off of it?

However much Blood and Gore pay lip service to capitalism, they do not seem to recognize that spirited free market competition does not contradict the values of patriotism and teamwork. Famed Prof. Martha Nussbaum does not seem to recognize it either.

When we read Prof. Martha Nussbaum bemoan the fact that the profit motive has led university students to want to spend more time studying business and less time with the humanities, we certainly take notice.

Does anyone really believe that the humanities, as taught today on college campuses, even by teachers as brilliant as Martha Nussbaum, inculcate values that would be congenial in a military culture? In fact, I would claim that academic humanities courses have worked long and hard to destroy the values of patriotism and fair competition.

Doesn't Martha Nussbaum famously support the notion of a cosmopolitan identity? Doesn't she align herself with those who want us all to overcome our parochial American identity in order to become citizens of the world?

If you undermine the value of patriotism by teaching people that they should identify with national community, then you would, according to these theories, be forcing people to feel that they are merely in it for themselves, thus that they have to game the system.

Keep in mind that when you belong to the military, there are clearly right and wrong ways to do things; your membership in the military, to say nothing of your place in the chain of command, depends on how you conduct yourself, how you lead, how you follow, how well you do in comparison to your peers, and so on.

Being a member of the military requires ethical behavior. Being a citizen of the world does not. Being a member of the human species does not. Academic philosophers often do not even believe in right and wrong. They believe that it's all a matter of taste.

You cannot develop group loyalty, group identity, and group solidarity if you think that it's all a matter of taste.

If we are looking into why business has become so amoral, then perhaps we should look into the value system that Blood and Gore, to say nothing of Nussbaum, have been fostering.

[Addendum: This article from Forbes tells a series of horror stories about interns: link here. The first anecdote, told by filmmaker Murray Nossel offers his observation: "... he has found that they perform better if they're paid. A meager sum can make a difference." I would not claim that this piece of anecdotal evidence disproves a theory offered by a Nobel prize winning economist, but it certainly merits our attention.]

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Coaching Lessons: Go Out And Have Lunch

Sometimes an executive will offer rather simple advice. This is what happened when Tony Schwartz was working with a very senior executive at a Fortune 500 company. Once he discovered that this man worked a full workday without taking more than a few minutes to have lunch at his desk, Schwartz recommended that he set aside a half-hour or so every day to walk out of the office and to take a lunch break. Link here.

Schwartz also recommended that this man return to his thrice weekly workouts.

Again, this is rather easy advice. It was easier said than done, but the executive did manage to start working out again, and to go out to lunch twice in a week.

The larger issue is simple. Who owns your time? Does your job own you or do you own your job? Are you the prisoner of your desk or can you freely walk away from it? As Schwartz put it: "Taking back your lunch is the first step in taking back your life."

I have written about Tony Schwartz in the past. He and Jim Loehr wrote a great article called, "The Corporate Athlete," which explains how executives can improve, even optimize their performance at work. Link here.

His advice is simple and direct, but it also has the virtue of being actionable and effective.

Why does it matter that you break up your day, walk away from your desk, and have a moment of respite at lunch?

Schwartz explains that it helps to clear the mind, to refresh the spirit, and to allow a more energized look at problems and issues. Sometimes when we look at a problem over and over again, without a break, we miss the obvious. Solutions yield to hard work, but hard work does not necessarily mean nothing but work.

As I have occasionally suggested, it often happens that you need to step back from what you are doing and look at it through someone else's eyes. This happens with writers and it happens with executives. When a writer is so thoroughly involved with his work that he cannot find anything wrong with it, he is clearly not working at his best.
And, if an executive does not know how he looks to others, then he cannot manage or lead effectively.

One good way to get some perspective on a problem or on your work is simply to step away from it, to engage in a meaningful social ritual, clear your mind, and then return to it with fresh eyes.

Happy Endings

The hookup culture was not a natural product of human evolution. Young women did not just decide one day to ignore their emotional needs and engage in repeated, unsatisfying, casual sexual encounters. Only alien influences can explain such a strange cultural phenomenon.

As I and many others have noted, feminism is one reason that more and more young women set out on this self-defeating journey. My most recent comments are here.

Now we can identify another of the Pied Pipers of the hookup culture: women's magazines. I am reliably told that Glamour is a highly respectable and much read magazine. In a recent issue Jessica Pressler has this to say about hooking up: "It's taken womankind 200,000 years to finally be able to have no-strings, no-guilt sex. But what happens when you start wanting more? We've cracked the code to figure out how you can have your fun-- and your happy ending." Link here.

Of course, Pressler is referring to a happily-ever-after ending... true love leading to a committed relationship. For what it's worth men and women have rather different notions of what makes for a happy ending. If you don't believe me, just ask Al Gore.

As for the substantive point, have women finally learned how to have no-strings, no-guilt sex? If you read this recent Susan Walsh post, you would have to conclude that Pressler is either being too kind or too optimistic. Link here.

While it is true that modern girls have gone a bit wild, in no sense can we say that they have not paid very dearly for their experimentation. If hooking up traumatizes and causes depression, how can anyone possibly say that women have cracked the code. They might have been induced to sacrifice their intimacy to make an empty political gesture, but beyond that, they have not profited from hooking up.

In all fairness Pressler does note that young women who have undergone the trials and troubles of the college hookup culture often end up not knowing how to date, how to develop a relationship, or how to move that relationship toward commitment.

This is not quite the same thing as cracking a code. It tells us that the hookup culture exacts a heavy behavioral price.

Pressler does not see things quite this way. She believes that women can have their hookups and have love, too. All they need to do is to be more forthright and direct, more assertive and overtly verbal about what they want and expect from a relationship.

If a woman wants a relationship, she must say so, the sooner the better. Even if she has hooked up, she can still assert that she expects more from the encounter than just casual sex.

For my part I have never seen the great advantage to explicit statements defining the nature of this or that relationship. Love and romance require a goodly measure of mystery. Prospective lovers who declare their intentions too soon or too openly risk driving their partners away.

On the other hand, it may be that in a culture where hooking up is the norm, one is obliged to state clearly, from the outset, that a certain form of sexual contact is not to be considered a hookup.

On the other hand, if the sexual contact occurs within the context of an ongoing relationship, there is far less chance that it be misconstrued.

Pressler is wrong, however, to suggest that you can have it both ways. If a woman's goal is to find love and a relationship, then she would do best to abstain from hookups. And if she wants to move from hooking up to love, then the first step should be stop hooking up.

I believe that the more important consideration is, how does a young woman who has engaged in a number of hookups recover her sexuality? How, after giving her intimacy away, does she take it back?

She might not want to go as far as Hephzibah Anderson who gave up sex for a year. Link here. Anderson's book, Chastened, has just been published. I have not yet read the book but I have it on order. Any author who has a name as splendid as Hephzibah Anderson deserves our support.

Whether or not women choose to give up sex for a time, they will need to recognize that, when it comes to intimacy, you cannot have it all. Young women might have more options than their mothers and grandmothers, but they should recognize that different paths exact different costs, and that they do not all lead to the same kind of happy ending.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"The Left's Sexual Terrorism"

An anonymous commenter to a previous post recommended that I take a look at Robin of Berkeley's article: "The Left's Sexual Terrorism." I just did, and I found it remarkable.

In it Robin recounts the way leftist radicals during the Vietnam era treated women. It is shocking and frightening. For those of you who have either forgotten what it was like or were not around to see it yourselves, I am posting a link here.

Historically, the post-1960s feminist wave arose as a response to the treatment radical women had been receiving from radical males. Call it a rebellion against the patriarchy, but it was more a rebellion against the SDS and the Weathermen.


Admit it, we haven't been focused on the military action in Afghanistan lately. We've all been preoccupied with the financial crisis, the job market, the oil gusher, health care reform, and the president's golf game.

Meantime, the news from Afghanistan has been dribbling in. An IED here; a rocket attack there. A Taliban beheading here; an allied counteroffensive there. We're pulling out next year; maybe we're not. Obama disses Karzai; Karzai is thinking about joining the Taliban; Obama receives Karzai in the White House like a valued ally.

We know that the war is not going well. Among the dribs and drabs of news is the sense that something is going wrong. The Marja assault did not turn out as well as expected; corruption rules the Afghan government; the attack on Kandahar has been postponed.

It's easy to ignore Afghanistan, and that is what just about everyone is doing. Until yesterday, when Rolling Stone published its profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff.

As I was suggesting in my post yesterday, the article produced what I would now call a McChrystallization, a moment when what was vague became clear; when what was diffuse became solid. Whatever the intentions, the article focused the public attention on Afghanistan. It took over the news cycle and elicited a vigorous debate.

Say what you will about Gen. McChrystal's poor sense of public relations; be as critical as you like about his and his staff's gross disrespect for their civilian superiors. It is better to debate what is going wrong while there is a chance to set it right. Otherwise, the nation would risk spending decades debating: who lost Afghanistan?

Case in point. This morning Tom Friedman offered his reflections on the McChrystal flap, pointing out that the greatest failure is not the general's indiscretion but the leadership vacuum at the top of the civilian chain of command. Link here.

Declaring that Pres. Obama "can't answer the simplest questions" about Afghanistan, Friedman concluded that: "it is a sign that you're somewhere you don't want to be and your only real choices are lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small."

Now, if you were the commanding general of an army that was tasked with losing, how would you feel about it? And what would you do about it?

The administration is not in the war to win it; it does not know how to win it; it does not have the political will or basic understanding to push ahead toward victory.

The president lacks commitment; he lacks understanding of the situation; he cannot define it; and cannot set a policy that leads toward a satisfactory conclusion. How would you like to be the commanding general following those orders?

It is fair to mention that Obama and the Democrats are in this position because they spent years touting the fact that Afghanistan was the right war, that Iraq had distracted us from said right war, and so on. I hope that everyone recognized that they were merely saying this to make their opposition to the Iraq War and their wish to surrender look like something other than knee-jerk cowardice.

Friedman, however, now believes that while it is not at all clear why we are at war in Afghanistan, we had good reason and a good purpose in being in Iraq. Since I do not recall Friedman's being a full-throated supporter of the Iraq war, I am happy to offer his current assessment, one that, dare one say, harkens back to points that have often been made by Fouad Ajami.

Today, Friedman writes: "At least in Iraq, if we eventually produce a decent democratizing government, we will, at enormous cost, have changed the politics in a great Arab capital in the heart of the Arab Muslim world. That can have wide resonance."

When it comes to the political leadership behind the Afghan war, Friedman had a moment of McChrystallization; his view is clear and direct: "President Obama has to be able to answer the most simple questions at a gut level: Do our interests merit such an escalation and do I have the allies to achieve victory? President Obama never had good answers for these questions, but he went ahead anyway. The ugly truth is that no one in the Obama White House wanted this Afghan surge. The only reason they proceeded was because no one knew how to get out of it-- or had the courage to pull the plug. That is not sufficient reason to take the country deeper into war in the most inhospitable region in the world."

Why did Obama forge ahead when he simply did not know what he was doing? Friedman suggests that: "he was afraid he would have been called a wimp by Republicans in he hadn't."

Some might say that Friedman is taunting Obama and pushing him toward surrender. I prefer to think, despite it all, that he would be just as happy with leadership that would explain what we are doing in Afghanistan and why we should win.

In either case Friedman does not paint a picture of effective leadership. Remind me of why he thought that this man should be president?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stanley McChrystal Goes Off

What made Stanley McChrystal open himself and his staff to a reporter from Rolling Stone? Clearly, he wanted the story to get out. I think it is fair to say that no one rises to that level of command authority without being more than usually aware of the consequences of their actions. Link to the Rolling Stone article here.

But what motivated him to take such a step? Most of the time when we ask about human motivation we talk about hypotheticals. Here, we have an actual situation, where it looks like a commanding general has committed career suicide.

Motivational researchers ask whether people are driven by emotion or whether they are rational actors. You may be aware of the important debate on this topic within the field of behavioral economics. Link here.

Did McChrystal and his staff become emotionally overwrought about the difficulties of the war? Did they just snap? Did the heat of Afghanistan, the time away from home, and the frustrations of fighting an elusive and nearly invisible enemy, finally get to them?

Or did the general have another idea? Was there method to the madness? Was McChrystal using the press to issue an indictment of the way the political side of the conflict has been managed? Was he trying to alert the American people to a bad situation before it was too late? Was he trying to cause the president to reconsider his political strategy?

If this is true, then McChrystal was offering to sacrifice himself in the interest of salvaging the war effort? Or perhaps he was watching the war go bad and wanted to shift the blame to the White House.

You would hope that a serious person would be able to calculate the possible fallout from such a gesture. You would hope that he did not just fly off the handle. But if he did calculate his action, this does not mean that he can control all of the fallout. It simply says that he has weighed the options of speaking out and saying nothing and has concluded that the greater risk lay in saying nothing.

Regardless of the effect on McChrystal's career-- he must have known that the article could easily cost him his career-- the effect of the article will be measured in Afghanistan, not in Washington. If it marks a turning point in war strategy, then it will have served a useful purpose, no matter what McChrystal's motivation. If it does not, then the career soldier might have sacrificed his career in vain.

Of course, McChrystal did not write the title or subtitle of the Rolling Stone piece, but, surely, it conveys what he was trying to use the article to convey: "The Runaway General: Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: the wimps in the White House."

On the whole, then, I agree with Daniel Foster's take in National Review: "McChrystal is a big boy, and after a tenure that saw the leak of his bleak strategic review and the fallout from his London speech calling for an Afghan troop surge, I have a lot of trouble buying that McChrystal would make another goof of this magnitude. Which makes me wonder whether we are witnessing McChrystal falling on his sword to get the world out of the Obama administration's folly in Afghanistan." Link here.

Regardless of his intentions, McChrystal is certainly telling us something, something that he feels that we ought to know. First, he is saying that the uniformed military has no respect for President Obama. Military officers do not think that the president is up to the job; they seem to feel that he has let them down. The second meaning is that Obama's Afghanistan policy is in serious trouble. So writes Glenn Thrush in Politico. Link here.

This still leaves us facing what must count as an extreme gesture. How did it come to this?

I imagine that McChrystal tried back channel communications. Keep in mind that he has not had regular, direct conversations with the commander in chief. I also imagine that McChrystal follows press coverage of the war and has noted that the press is still too enamored of Obama to show the American people that we are being defeated in Afghanistan, or better, that we are defeating ourselves.

With other avenues of influence blocked, Gen. McChrystal has tried, perhaps for one last time, to tell the American people what is going on. Future actions will judge whether he was right or wrong.

Does Marriage Make You Happy?

Blogger Eric Barker asks whether marriage makes people happy. Link here. He reports on recent research that shows that a good marriage will make you happier while a bad marriage will make you miserable.

Guardian journalist Louise Carpenter entitles her long and comprehensive article on marriage: "The Myth of Wedded Bliss." Link here.

Both authors, and many more, are questioning whether or not people should get married. Barker, for one, seems to believe that we are suffering under a massive propaganda barrage that is trying to persuade us to get married.

Since the propaganda tends to create unrealistic expectations-- we are all going to find wedded bliss-- it serves merely to undermine the institution further.

Then again, whatever made anyone think that marriage was invented to make people happy? Does anyone really believe that this venerable human institution was established to fulfill anyone's personal need for happiness?

And when we start demanding that marriage make people happy, aren't we creating expectations that no social institution can ever fulfill? Does this incessant questioning of marriage contribute to the loosening of the marital ties and create more social disorganization in its wake?

Given that there is no such thing as a human community where there is no marriage, what sense does it make to question the viability of the institution?

Isn't it a little like asking whether or not we should all use language? What if someone proposed that language, as a social institution, must always betray the purity of our personal feelings, and therefore, that we would better express ourselves if we could somehow not use it?

The reasoning behind that statement is not so easily impeached. Language does compromise the expression of private emotion. And yet, whatever gave anyone the idea that the value of human speech lies in whether or not it allows us to express our private emotions? Call it the world of grunts and moans.

But language does not exist to express your personal feelings. Why would anyone denounce it, or any other social institution, for failing to live up to functions they were not designed to fulfill. You would not denounce your soup spoon because it doesn't do a good job of cutting your steak.

Marriage will surely outlive all of us. Our task is to offer some thoughts about how to make the best of marriage, to make marriage successful and happy. And we should be fully cognizant of the fact that marriage has been brutally attacked, even undermined, by many serious thinkers for quite some time now.

First, we need to review, simply, what marriage is and isn't. Marriage is a mating institution; it attempts to provide the optimal conditions for child rearing; it involves rules and roles, duties and obligations. At its best, it provides security and stability; a predictably harmonious existence in society.

So, while we would all agree that it is best that a married couple be in love, marriage was not invented, and it has not lasted this long, because it was supposed to give social expression to personal feelings of love.

No one has ever suggested that marriage is the best way to sustain the most maddening forms of romantic love.

If you want to keep romantic love alive and on fire, then you should opt for drama over stability; surprise over routine; irresponsibility over responsibility; disrespect over respect; and clashes over harmony.

Marriage is not an art form; you do not just make it up as you go along; you do not make it your own unique individual creation.

Many people define happiness as a dream come true, as living your dreams, or as making your true love into a way of life. If that is how you see happiness, and if that is what you expect from marriage, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Try looking at it from a different angle. What if we follow Aristotle and say that happiness involves excelling at a task. The better you get at building houses the happier you are as a builder. The better you get at writing reports the happier you will become.

This form of happiness does not seem to have a deep spiritual side, but, remember we are talking about a social institution like marriage, not about your access to the sacred.

If we were dealing with issues of mental health, we would note here that you cannot really excel at mental health. But, if the issue is building character, we certainly believe that you can work to improve your character, and even to excel at it.

I would posit that people of excellent character are more likely to have successful and happy marriages than are those who do not. People of excellent character will be more inclined to cooperate with others, to do what it takes to get along, and to negotiate difficulties. People of excellent character will not believe that true love relieves the obligation to extend courtesy and respect to their spouses.

And they will not believe that passionate love will forgive all sins, all discourtesies, all disrespect, and all inconsiderate behavior.

Good or excellent character all contributes to a marriage's durability because people of character are more likely to take their vows seriously. They are more likely to keep their word, and thus, to take the decision to marry more seriously.

If you have no real sense of being good to your word, you can give it to whomever as you feel like it. If you believe that your word is your bond you will be more cautious, more deliberate, more serious about giving it.