Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Has Feminism Made Women Happier?

Two University of Pennsylvania economists have completed a study showing that over the past four decades the happiness gap between whites and African Americans has been significantly reduced.

That's good news indeed and Julia Baird is right to offer it as proof that the civil rights movement has made an appreciable difference in the lives of African Americans. Link here.

But, as she notes, the picture is not quite as clear as it first appears. While African American women have enjoyed the greatest increase in their personal happiness, African American men did not have any increase at all.

Why is it that the civil rights movement, in practice, seems to have been biased against men? Why is it that the movement did not save African American males?

Baird asks the right question, and perhaps, for now, it is good enough merely to isolate the issue. To answer it we would want to look at how the mix of the civil rights movement and feminism might have disadvantaged black men.

And Baird notes that increased happiness among African American women is not the only reason that the gap has diminished. The other reason is that white women are considerably more unhappy today than they were forty years ago.

In her words: "In fact, the key to this trend is women-- white women of all ages and incomes are substantially less happy, while, intriguingly, black women at the same time have become much happier. Yet in the 1970s white women were the happiest of any group. What happened? Why didn't feminism bring them the happiness civil rights brought blacks?"
You might be excused if you do a double-take reading this, from the keyboard of a serious feminist like Julia Baird.

How can it be that in the time before contemporary feminism white women were the happiest group in America? Weren't they supposed to have been suffering discrimination and oppression, being deprived of their rights in exactly the same way that blacks had been?

The evidence suggests otherwise. Could it be that women in pre-feminist days did not have it all that badly after all?

At the very least, the statistics, gathered by two women economists, raise the issue.

Baird's second point is equally salient. How is it that feminism did not bring white women the same happiness that the civil rights movement brought to black women?

Baird takes a few stabs at rationalizing this, but clearly feminism has managed to make white women significantly unhappier. It may be that drawing an analogy between the way white America treated blacks and the way male Americans were treating women is specious.

Perhaps the oppression and discrimination experienced by American blacks was real in a way that the oppression and discrimination that feminists insisted was the lot of women was not.

Feminists might have felt empathy for the suffering of their African American fellow citizens, but that does not mean that they were suffering from involuntarily servitude and pervasive social discrimination.

Ideologically, feminism was a far more radical movement than civil rights. Civil rights leaders wanted African Americans to be respected as fellow citizens, to have a place at the table at all levels of American society, to participate fully in the political process, and to have the fullest opportunity to compete in the marketplace.

Civil rights was not about destroying the system, but improving it by allowing greater participation. After all, it was President Eisenhower who called in the troops to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School in 1957.

America needed to overcome institutional racism, the better to offer African Americans full access to the American dream.

Of course, some African American leaders wanted civil rights to be a liberation movement-- Rev. Jeremiah Wright comes to mind-- but that was neither its impetus nor its theoretical basis.

The contemporary civil rights movement came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. It did not share the radical leftist tinge that inspired the post-Vietnam feminist movement.

As Joan Didion wrote in 1972, feminism was based on an ideology that saw women as the vanguard of a Marxist revolution against patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism.

Didion suggested forty years ago that women were being induced by feminism to deny the reality of their experience in order to become a revolutionary vanguard. The new statistics about the decline in white women's happiness seems to be saying that she was far more right than wrong. Too often, feminism was using women to advance a radical political agenda.

Julia Baird would doubtless disagree, but it appears that feminism was not really constructed to benefit women. Perhaps the fact that white women are significantly less happy than they were in pre-feminist days should not be such a surprise.

Wall Street Bails on Obama

This is probably going to sound like a familiar story. Recall my post of a few months ago. Link here.

Once upon a time Wall Street's Masters of the Universe adored Barack Obama. They funded his campaign and lent him their credibility by announcing their public support. Some of them even went down to Washington to celebrate his inauguration.

They imagined that it was history in the making. That it surely was. Unfortunately, the history they expected was not the history they got.

Now, the bloom is off the rose, and Wall Street is lining up to attack Obama and is sending its campaign contributions into Republican coffers.

None of this is news. Even the fact that hedge fund honchos Daniel Loeb and Steven Cohen are working for the Republicans should not be all that newsworthy.

To me, the important question is: How did Wall Street's titans get duped by Obama in the first place? What were they thinking, what were they drinking, what addled their minds to the point where they believed that Barack Obama was qualified to be president?

Today, the inimitable Andrew Ross Sorkin reports that savvy observers think that it was all about of EGO. Link here.

In Sorkin's words: "Mr. Obama was viewed as a member of the elite, an Ivy League graduate..., president of the Harvard Law Review-- he was supposed to be just like them. President Obama was the 'intelligent' choice, the same way they felt about themselves. They say that they knew he would seek higher taxes and tighter regulation; that was OK. What they say they did not realize was that they were going to be painted as villains."

Take a few moments to unpack the minds of these Wall Street titans. Are they bankers or philosopher-kings? Whatever made them think that "intelligent," coupled with Ivy League credentials was a qualification to be President of the United States?

One would understand perfectly if Lloyd Blankfein, also a Harvard Law graduate, would want to hire a bright young Harvard Law grad as a junior associate at Goldman Sachs. But would he ever imagine hiring that person, based on those credentials, as his successor as Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs?

What were they thinking?  Were they thinking at all? Sorkin's explanation does not inspire confidence in Wall Street. If anything it suggests that these bankers deserved to see their reputations pulled down a few notches.

Justice works in strange ways.

Sorkin seems to suggest that these great bankers were not really thinking like bankers and corporate executives. They mistook themselves for philosopher-kings. And they didn't even know it.

In the land of philosopher-kings intelligence matters more than experience. Those who rule are those who see Ideas most clearly. And every good Platonist knows that too much hands-on experience can dull your vision of the great Ideas.

This is bad enough. But whatever made these Wall Street bankers believe that they were competent to judge Obama's command of ideas?

Had they exercised a minimum of judgment they would  have started by asking themselves whether he was qualified to be a corporate CEO.

Let's see: community organizer; state legislator; adjunct law school lecturer; sometime senator... does it add up to CEO? 

They could and should have known better than to trust credentials when the credentialing process has long since become corrupted by identity politics.

Of course, they could have heeded the warnings that were all over the media, especially those that implored them to look at the company Obama had kept.

When hiring for their own firms these bankers will surely downgrade a candidate who has poor table manners. They would want to know with whom the candidate associates? Who are his friends? Who does he hang around with?

When it came to Obama, they were so thoroughly smitten by the Idea of Obama that they put their heads in the sands. A quick glance at his pastor, his friends and his associates would have told them, unambiguously, that he was a man of the radical left.

Not only was he not one of them, but he was married to an ideology that defined them as the enemy.

Why did they ignore the evidence? Why did they turn a blind eye to the facts? Simply, because they wanted to count among the New York intellectual elite. They wanted to present themselves, not as great bankers, but as great thinkers.

In the end they were neither, and America is the poorer for it.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Can't He Keep His Word?

Why do so many people find it so easy to go back on their word? Why do they so often fail to honor their commitments? Why has canceling appointments become something like a  national sport?

The counterintuitive answer: people are being polite.

Allow me to explain. When someone invites you to dinner or a movie and you do not really want to go, what can you do?

Good manners precludes your saying that you do not want to go. And there are only so many times that you can lie about having other plans. Especially when the other person asks you what those plans are.

What do modern people do? Simple, they say yes and then they cancel or they do not show up.

Strangely enough, they seem to believe that this sequence of events is more polite than declining the invitation.

This way you can say that they are trying to do the right thing, only they have gotten it wrong. This is more congenial and more constructive than believing that they harbor hostile and aggressive tendencies toward you and are trying to hurt you.

The latter would make the cancellation into fighting words. And we would not want that, would we?

As I say, the person who commits and cancels does have a point. Saying No or refusing an invitation is decidedly rude. Most people will take it personally. It suggests that you are rejecting the person, and everyone knows that when the other person feels rejected he or she is likely to respond aggressively.

Incidentally, this is the reason why, back in the old days when dating and courtship were commonly practiced, women never explicitly refused a date. If they did not want to go out with Mr. X they would say that they had other plans, were busy, or were coming down with the flu. She would not say that she did not want to go out with him.

Following the rules of etiquette and decorum means avoiding confrontations, fights, and other forms of aggressive behavior. By these rules, turning down an invitation directly is bad manners.

And if it is impolite to say No, then perhaps, people seem to think, the only way to be polite is to say Yes.

Somehow or other people have learned that these are the only two choices: say Yes and cancel, or just say No.

If people believe that they have only two options here, then the culture is clearly at fault for allowing people to believe life is a dramatic conflict between extremes. In truth, life is a negotiation where we are all charged with finding the mean between the extremes.

If we want to solve today's problem we need to provide people with a middle ground, a way to say No without saying No and without saying Yes and canceling.

Here, we can take a lesson from Japanese culture. People who have done business in Japan know that the Japanese never say No. They consider it impolite.

When you invite a Japanese man somewhere and he does not want to go, or when you make a business proposal that he does not want to accept, he will not say No. He will say that he is not sure and will need to think it over. Or that circumstances make it impossible to accept.

In Japan, when you say that  you need time to think something over, or when you say that you will give the matter your fullest consideration, you are really saying No. Only, you are saying it politely, in a way that is least likely to cause offense.

So far, so good. By now, however, you are probably formulating the counter-argument, one that was enacted in the following incident, recounted to me many years ago.

An important painting had just come one the market and the art dealer who was representing the seller offered the painting to a  Japanese collector. The collector did not want the painting, so he replied that he would have to think it over.

Unfamiliar with the social code, the dealer made an egregious error. She replied: What's the matter with you, can't you make up your mind!

In all likelihood that ended all business relations between these two people.

This anecdote tells us that if you adopt a polite way to say No without saying No, you had best be dealing with someone who understands the code.

You do not want to be doing business with someone who has become so thoroughly saturated with therapy culture values that she takes your response as an opportunity to impugn your character.

Of course, it is difficult to control the way other people behave, so you should start by setting a good example. If someone tells you that he is not sure whether or not he can accept an invitation, the correct, and polite, response is to say that that is no problem. Then do not expect that they are going to call to decline the invitation, and do not berate them for failing to do so.

If you do not hear from them, assume that they have declined.

Let us say that you are the recipient of an unwanted and unwelcome invitation. You do not want to say No and do not want to say Yes and cancel.

So, you will reply that you will need to check your schedule, or see what your wife has planned for that day..

But then, your friend who does not know how to read social codes tries to pin you down. He refuses to take maybe for an answer.

If he needs to know right now, you will have to decline more explicitly because you have no real choice.

If he needs to know by Saturday, you might say that if he does not hear from you he should assume that you will not be able to make it.

The more insistent he is the more likely it will become that you will have to decline explicitly. He is trying to pressure you into choosing between accepting the invitation and being downright rude.

If you should find yourself in that position, you are obliged either to walk away from the conversation or to offer an explicit No.

Either way, you will have learned that your erstwhile friend has very thin skin indeed. And that he is trying to cover his insecurity and fear of rejection with aggressiveness.

It's probably a good time to re-evaluate your friendship.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Liberals Are Looking for Their Own Sarah Palin

The blogosphere is abuzz today about an op.ed. by Anna Holmes and Rebecca Traister. Entitled "A Sarah Palin of Our Own," the article bemoans the political ascent of Sarah Palin and decides that, since all else has failed, liberals should try to counter Sister Sarah by finding one of their own. Link here.

Think about it. All that energy wasted. All that righteous anger, that vitriol and venom, for naught. After her shaky start on the national political stage, Sarah Palin has emerged semi-triumphant, not so much as a candidate or as a political figure, but as someone who is leading the national debate.

The irony is too delicious to ignore. For all of the attacks on Sarah Palin's supposed lack of intelligence, she has stepped forward, without any real political power, to exercise a form of political leadership.

The worst part, as Holmes and Traister see it, is that Palin is trying to co-opt the label of feminist, thus depriving it of its leftward tilt and making it less meaningful.

I think it fair to mention that other, stronger feminist thinkers have begun to take Sarah Palin seriously... without the snark and snarl that Holmes and Traister exhibit. I am thinking especially of the women of the DoubleX blog. Link here.

As they noticed, it takes a special kind of intelligence to create a brand like Mamma Grizzlies and to translate it into political influence.

Sometimes it take more intelligence to go high concept than it does to engage in the pseudo-theoretical ravings that get you tenure at many of today's universities.

Anyone who is interested can check out the Sarah Palin tag at the left of this page to check out my posts about Palin and the reaction she has elicited. See especially my post on The Hotness Gap.

While Holmes and Traister cannot disguise their contempt for Palin, one cannot help but think that if left thinking women had been spending as much time building themselves up as they have been spending trying to tear Sister Sarah down, that they would not be having this problem.

When Sarah Palin burst on the national political scene liberals attacked her with uncommon rhetorical violence. From their perspective it was not a bad strategy. Demonization and character assassination do work, for a time, at least.

Sarah Palin became a running joke. Among the literati and the illiterati mocking Sarah Palin became a password that gained you entrance into the inner sancta of the New York pseudo-intelligentsia.

Of course, liberals were in full campaign mode at the time. They were going to do whatever it took to get Barack Obama into the White House. He was going to be America's salvation; he was going to bring back a time when deep thinking intellectuals would be running the country. The McCain-Palin ticket had to be beaten, by any means necessary.

Of course, demonization works best when no one knows anything about the person being demonized. The more people got to know Sarah Palin, especially after the campaign, the more they saw someone who did not seem to deserve the abuse that was routinely being heaped on her.

Moreover, if you are assassinating someone for being incompetent, inept, inexperienced, and ignorant, then you had best, once your team takes charge, demonstrate a high level of competence, eptitude, intelligence and experience.

As we all know now, the Obama administration seems only to have distinguished itself for its overall incompetence and its bumbling ineffectiveness. All of those bright minds do not seem to have a clue about how to manage the government. Their great ideas have done nothing to help the economy; in fact, they seem to have made things worse.

And there was more. After a time American women started seeing Sarah Palin as one of them. Her life was more like their lives than was those of most movement feminists.

It was inevitable that they would see the attacks on Sarah Palin as an especially ugly form of misogyny.

During the campaign Palin did not handle this very well. After the campaign she fought back; she showed that she could give as good as she was getting.

Palin did not adopt the typical feminist grievance mode; she did not complain about why these women were treating her with such vulgar derision.

She stepped above the fray and asserted her dignity. She did not turn the other cheek; she did not walk away from the fight and try to make a deal; she fought fire with fire. In the end she commanded respect.

And she did it better than many feminists had.

And then, reality seemed to conspire to make Sarah Palin's critics look like empty-headed ideologues.

You can argue that Sarah Palin did not have enough experience to be a heartbeat from the presidency, but that charge feels emptier when we have a president who brought even less relevant experience to the job. And whose inexperience is on public display daily.

You can claim that Sarah Palin is unqualified, but how resonant will that charge appear after you have elevated two barely qualified women to the Supreme Court?

You can claim, as Holmes and Traister do, that Palin lacks policy muscle, but does Obama give anyone the impression of having a fully developed policy muscle? And haven't they noticed that our current Secretary of State has no real foreign policy muscle (or experience)?

In a previous post I suggested that the reason feminism has not created its own Sarah Palin is that its adepts have been spending too much time complaining about what was wrong with America. If America is so bad, so misogynistic, and so patriarchal,  how could a true believing feminist dedicate herself to becoming what Sarah Palin became, what I called: a woman in full.

How can feminists make Hillary Clinton their champion when she rode her husband's coattails to power? And how can they present as a role model for young women someone who gained influence by absorbing humiliation and defending her cheating husband.

Of course, next to a woman whose husband is the world's most notorious womanizer, a woman who represents the feminist ideal, Sarah Palin did not have very much of a problem capitalizing on her good looks and sex appeal.

Clearly, Palin's sex appeal has been important. Just as clearly, feminist political leaders tend not to emphasize their own. I would guess that among feminists a too clear presentation of sex appeal is a liability, not an asset.

I offer one final reason why Sarah Palin has garnered the kind of influence and attention that feminists have craved: she is real. She is not a persona invented to demonstrate a political or ideological point.

This means that she has a kind of integrity that is absent from the ideologues on the left. Palin makes decisions using her best judgment, about what is best for her, best for her family, best for her state, best for her country.

She may be wrong, but she offers her best assessment of the issue. She does not worship an ideal or a cause. As long as feminists do, they will never be able to find their own Sarah Palin.

After all, Holmes and Traister do not offer an alternative to Palin. Like good feminists they complain about why there is none.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hephzibah's Choice

I have never met Hephzibah Anderson. She has never asked my opinion on anything.

This makes my views on her new book, Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year without Sex, that much more objective. Or so I like to think. Link to my review here.

Today, Anderson has written an article for the London Daily Mail informing us of the latest chapters in her search for romance, relationship, love, marriage, and family. Link here.

I am certainly not going to begrudge her an effort to market her book. And yet, I would offer one piece of very well intended advice. The same advice can be taken by anyone who finds herself in a similar situation.

If you want to find all of the wonderful things that Anderson is looking for, it would be a really good idea to stop writing about the quest. There are many more men who would want to share her life than would want to be characters in her next book.

Just a suggestion.

What Does It Mean to be Sharia Compliant?

Most of us, myself included, are not very familiar with the intricacies and the details of Sharia law. I would even say that the media has deliberately obfuscated the nature of Sharia law, to make to appear to be just another set of religious rules.

After all, the intellectual elite wants a mosque to be built at Ground Zero. Thus, when it reports on Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's statements about how America is Sharia compliant, it refuses to explain to the public exactly what that means.

I am happy to link this brief outline of Sharia law, put together by Nonie Darwish. Link here.   She reports; you decide.

Should a Woman Flirt at Work?

Forbes Woman asks the question: should a woman flirt her way to career success? Link here. Even though everyone knows the answer, it is neither a frivolous nor a trivial question. It is not even easy to frame it correctly.

Most women find it natural to flirt. I believe that it is part of their DNA. You can observe flirtatious behavior in two year old girls. While some of it is learned, the impulse is probably innate.

This means that if you say that women should not flirt their way to the top, you are saying that the workplace requires that they repress a part of themselves that feels normal and natural.

But, then again, the tendency to flirt is not a constant. Young women are more likely to flirt than are older women. Young women who are unmarried and unattached and who work long hours are more likely to flirt on the job.

Women who are married or otherwise attached are less likely to flirt. Since they are not looking for a relationship, they often have no problem separating their public from their private lives. Of course,  women who are not interested in forming relationships with men have no problem not flirting on the job.

It may seem strange, but telling women to postpone marriage and romantic attachment in favor of building their careers might well produce an ironic consequence: such women might be more likely to flirt at work. And women who flirt at work are placing themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Flirting is erotic behavior. Flirting redefines the space that two people are inhabiting. Flirting does not necessarily offer an invitation to an erotic assignation, but it redefines the stakes in an interaction. Thus, flirting is unprofessional.

As such, it produces drama, lust, jealousy, and envy. The woman who gets ahead because she flirts shamelessly with her boss will not be respected in her new position. Others will not see her as having earned her job, so her accomplishments will be tainted and she will have difficulty functioning in any position she gains.

Flirting breaches office decorum. Modesty and propriety are essential to workplace efficiency. When men feel that they are being invited to look down a woman's blouse, they will have that much less focus available for their job.

For men such rules are easier to observe. First, because few men are natural born flirts. Second, because male appearance involves wearing uniforms. And uniforms do not have a specifically erotic implication.

Of course, some women have chosen to avoid flirting by going to the opposite extreme. Wanting to get as far away as possible from the vamp, they start acting like lumberjacks. Not wanting to be perceived as womanly, they begin acting like imitation men. Often enough, as poor imitations.

To their detriment. You cannot be respected on the job, or anywhere else in life for that matter, if you try to present yourself as someone you are not. A woman effecting the behavior of a lumberjack or a drill sergeant or a linebacker will provoke more ridicule than respect. She is not going to fool anyone, and many will be put off by the fact that she thinks that she can.

And yet, many women have been told that to get ahead in a man's world they must act like men. This advice has damaged more than a few careers.

If a woman is faced with two untenable options-- acting like a vamp or acting like a tough guy-- she is going to freeze, to take neither, to feel inhibited, and to have difficulty functioning on the job.

How then does a woman find a happy medium between lumberjack and vamp? Forbes Woman addresses the question and comes up with the concept of Platonic flirting.

I admire the effort, but I'm less than enthusiastic about the formulation. Either you are flirting or you are not flirting. You cannot remove the erotic charge by calling it Platonic.

In fact, if the word Platonic really means something, it still involves seduction. At least not as Socrates practiced it. When Socrates was practicing the Socratic method he was not engaged in seducing bodies-- true enough-- but he was certainly involved in seducing minds.

Even today, most of what are called Platonic relationships involve couples where one wants more intimacy than the other. 

More than a few people have gotten quite far in this world by seducing minds. Think of Barack Obama, for instance. Yet, once a seducer's victims discover that they have been had, their passion will turn negative and they will want to avenge themselves for having been made fools of.

Yet, finding a happy medium is not really that difficult. As I mentioned above, married professional women do it all the time, with little strain.

First, we need to understand what is involved in exercising leadership. A leader is clear and direct, but that does not preclude being charming. A leader defines everyone's job responsibility and directs the implementation of policy. That does not preclude an occasional smile or a softer tone of voice.

What matters is that the job gets done. Leadership is not about adopting this or that persona. It is about creating the conditions where everyone can do their best work and accomplish their tasks.

Sometimes people work better when they do not feel that they are being pressured or forced to do things.

Women have more difficulty leading groups of men because men instinctively do not emulate the example that women set. This should come as no surprise.

And yet, a Margaret Thatcher was certainly an effective leader, through the power of her ideas, the clarity of her vision, her uncompromising and unapologetic nature, and her devotion to her work.

As Thatcher demonstrated, it is possible to be unyielding as a woman, just as it is possible to be a weak-kneed man. Who does not remember Thatcher's admonition to Pres. G. H. W. Bush during the first Gulf War: Don't go wobbly, George....

In most professional and executive positions, the temperament of a lumberjack or drill sergeant would be inappropriate anyway. What matters is strength of character, not manly brawn.

When a woman decides to flirt at the office, she is demonstrating poor character. When she decides, as one man once told me, to go "all girly," she is showing a kind of weakness that will undermine her future career advancement. Conspicuous and indecorous displays are out of place, whether they involve manliness or femininity.

There is no reason why a woman cannot exercise leadership while still being the woman that she is. If she believes that she needs to be gruff and forceful; if she believes that she needs to bark orders and force people to do things; then she is simply a poor executive. She has not understood what leadership entails and involves.

In the end, of course, it is not about making one's behavior correspond to an idea. The best way for a woman, or anyone else, to develop the kinds of character traits that allow her to exercise leadership effectively is quite simply to find a good role model.

The best role models will be women who have not suppressed their womanhood on the way to career success.

Perhaps, Margaret Thatcher; perhaps, Meg Whitman; perhaps, Sarah Palin. None of them got ahead by flirting, even by Platonic flirting.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Bloomberg for President?

When very smart people make very dumb mistakes you tend to think that there is method in the madness. At least, I do.

That is why I, among others, have been puzzled by Michael Bloomberg's full-throated defense of the Ground Zero mosque.

Bloomberg has not aimed at subtlety. He has not tried to conciliate the conflict, as Gov. Paterson has done. He has not put himself on the sidelines, ready to come in to calm everyone's jangled nerves.

Quite the contrary. Bloomberg has come down hard on the side of those who want to build the mosque, and has denounced the majority of Americans and New Yorkers who oppose it.

He even refuses to support an investigation of the imam and his financial backers. And, in his next breath he says that anyone who takes the other side of the question should be ashamed of himself.

Arguing that he is simply defending the constitution, Bloomberg has succeeded in placing himself at the center of the national debate about the mosque.

As I have said, the exercises smacks of hubris. It feels like we are watching someone who is so wealthy and so powerful that he is convinced that his instincts are leading him in the right direction even when he is headed off a cliff.

What could he have been thinking?

I was puzzled by this until I read a comment by David Rosenberg. As chief economist and market strategist at the Canadian firm, Gluskin Sheff, Rosenberg sends out a daily e-letter offering his analysis of the economy and the markets.

An influential perma-bear, Rosenberg has been attracting considerable media attention of late. He counts among the most prominent figures declaring that we are in a depression, not a recession.

Yesterday, Rosenberg made the following remark: "When I'm asked what would get me excited about the political landscape, to the point of turning me bullish, it would be something like Mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing his candidacy.... Now that would get me psyched and when I mention that to others as dinner parties and cocktail receptions you should see their eyes light up. I have no inside information on this and have never met Mr. Bloomberg personally, but I heard him speak at a Toronto event a decade ago and that sermon about the financial and economic outlook at that time was a revelation of sorts."

If the possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy is circulating in the corridors of financial power, you can be sure that it has made its way to the mind of Michael Bloomberg.

So, let's indulge a little speculation. What if Bloomberg is using the mosque controversy to raise his public profile, to fill something of a summer news vacuum, to make himself a more national figure.

Maybe he is trying to show that he can provide leadership on a topic of great national importance. Maybe he wants you to be thinking that if he were in charge he would do better than the hapless current occupant of the White House.

Here's another speculation. What if Pres. Obama understood that Bloomberg was preparing the terrain for a 2012 challenge. Perhaps he felt that Bloomberg was hogging too much air time, to say nothing of occupying the moral high ground and peeling off one of his constituencies.

Was this the reason Obama decided to weigh in on the controversy,  to let some of the air out of Bloomberg's trial balloon?

As I was thinking about these matters, I came across a story about Bloomberg's taping of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Here is what Bloomberg said about the controversy: "This is plain and simple people trying to stir things up to get publicity and trying to polarize people so they can get some votes. And I don't think most of those people who are yelling and screaming care one way or the other." Link here.

Of course, Bloomberg conceded that the 9/11 families should not be counted among those who are yelling and screaming.

Now, ask yourself this: who's getting the most publicity out of the controversy? Who has adopted the most shrill and divisive tone in the debate? That would have to be Michael Bloomberg. Could it be that he is trolling for votes for a future candidacy?

In Bloomberg's eyes, politicians are opportunistic. He adds: "This whole issue, I think, will go away right after the next election."

Surely, that would be convenient for Michael Bloomberg. If the issue has been resolved, and Bloomberg's profile enlarged, that would leave him at the ready to start offering an economic platform to rescue the nation from its depression.

He would have gained the support of the more radical leftists for supporting the mosque. He could present himself as an intrepid defender of the constitution. Then he would offer an economic plan that would establish him as an economic centrist.

Of course, if construction workers refuse to build the mosque, or if it continues to be a contentious and divisive issue, something like a festering wound in lower Manhattan, Bloomberg's presidential prospects will become dimmer.

If people are tired of partisanship and are looking for a president who has executive and managerial experience, and who knows his way around the economy, then perhaps there will be a ground swell for Bloomberg.

I had been thinking that Bloomberg's career was about to go down with the mosque. But, maybe there is method in his madness. Maybe most public exposure, like most publicity, is good. Time will tell.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Liberals for Oppression

Why practice terrorism? What is to be gained by terror, considering the damage that it does to the reputation of those who belong to your community?

For some, terrorism is a rhetorical device. People practice it because they want to make you too afraid to criticize them, to challenge their beliefs, or to oppose their authority.

For others, terrorism works to proselytize. If you want someone to convert to your religion, you can always try to make him afraid of the physical consequences of not converting. If someone threatens to leave the fold you can threaten them with death. And if someone disobeys your religion's laws you can threaten him with extreme physical punishment.

Let's limit ourselves to terrorism as a rhetorical device. Let's say you are leading an Islamic Revolution and you want to improve the way Western intellectuals write about you? You might try to present a more moderate face to the world. If that does not seem feasible, you can put out a contract on a novelist. Like Salmon Rushdie.

If you cannot assassinate Rushdie himself, you can always murder some of the people who translated his books. You can threaten the people who published them.

To get your message of terror across you do not have to murder that many people. Just people who are well placed.

And let's say that have just launched one of the world's most successful terrorist operations and have succeeded in destroying the World Trade Center. You are worried about the negative press, as well you should.

Keep in mind, you are trying to rally people to your righteous cause, not to denounce you as a barbarian.

How would you go about trying to influence the press to be more sympathetic to your cause? Perhaps you could kidnap and decapitate a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, say, Daniel Pearl. After that, Western journalists will think twice about criticizing your faith.

It has often been noted that liberals, especially those enamored of multiculturalism, refrain from criticizing Islam because, after all, they believe that they must respect the customs of other peoples as being equal to their own. There are no better or worse cultures; their are only mine and yours and theirs.

As Susan Jacoby put it in a recent column: "Panderers to the multicultural gods, in foundations and academia, often assert that religiously sanctioned violence against women and other human rights violations are matters of  'tribe and culture, not religion.' But what is more central than religion to most of the world's cultures?" Link here.

Is it a belief in the multicultural gods or something more crude, more visceral, like fear that causes intrepid defenders of universal human rights to go soft when it comes to Islam?

Jacoby emphasizes the case of former Dutch legislator Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As you no doubt know, Hirsi Ali collaborated with Theo van Gogh on a film that presented Islam in a less than flattering light. A Dutch Muslim then murdered van Gogh and threatened Hirsi Ali. She could not travel without bodyguards and eventually came to America where she took a job at the American Enterprise Institute.

Surely, the murder of Theo van Gogh and the death threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali were intended to send a message to anyone who had ever thought to present the prophet Mohammad in an unflattering light.

They were also intended to send a message to anyone who would dare hire her. Susan Jacoby herself recommended Hirsi Ali to two liberal think tanks, the Brookings Institute and the Center for American Progress. She was stonewalled by press aids.

As she suggests, it was not a profile in courage. And it speaks ill of those who mouth liberal and multicultural pieties but who shrink into the corner when they are called on to take a stand for someone who has suffered misogynist oppression.

Anyway, Hirsi Ali made herself more than a few enemies in Western circles because she too would not accept the central tenet of multiculturalism.

Hirsi suffered genital mutilation and then escaped from her home and her religion when her father announced that he was going to marry to her to someone she did not want to marry.

Having experienced Muslim oppression in her home, she has done whatever she can to help bring it to light, thus, to help put an end to it. As you may know, she has not made herself many friends by  strongly condemning multicultural rationalizations of Islamic misogyny.

In her words: "Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting. All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. A culture that celebrates femininity and considers women to be the masters of their own lives is better than a culture that mutilates girls' genitals and confines them behind walls and veils or flogs and stones them for falling in love...." From Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.

I will agree with those who insist that these practices are not part of all Islamic cultures. But why are they part of any Islamic cultures? If they are so thoroughly antithetical to the spirit of Islam, why do they exist at all?

And I would mention that they are not practiced today by any Western culture; they are certainly not practiced by secular American culture.

Admittedly, violence against women does exist in the West. That is not entirely to the point. Such violence has received the strongest societal sanction; it is labeled criminal behavior; those who practice it are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

In her column Susan Jacoby singles out Nicholas Kristof for special opprobrium. Supposedly a defender of women's rights Kristof stood very small indeed in his review of Hirsi Ali's most recent book. Link here.

Kirstof's must count as an exercise in moral cowardice. He may be a card-carrying multiculturalist, but he is also very, very afraid.

Instead of seeing Hirsi Ali's story as an instance of culturally imposed oppression of a woman, Kristof chose to see a dysfunctional family that would have been cured if someone had made an open declaration of love.

Given that Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostates like Hirsi Ali, Kristof seems completely out of line when he adopts a snarky tone and blames her for the way Muslims have reacted to her rejection of Islam.

In Kristof's words: "She has managed to outrage more people-- in some cases to the point that they want to assassinate her-- in more languages in more countries on more continents than almost any writer in the world today."

He adds: "Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir."

Whose fault is it if Muslims cannot tolerate criticism, to say nothing of rejection of their faith? According to Kristof, the fault lies with her. She has a character flaw.

In Kristof's words: "That's partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the kind of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex."

I  would venture that this is one of the few times we have ever heard a liberal refuse to call for understanding the basis for criminal activity. 

But Kristof extends his indicment. She is fomenting bigotry. "Since Hirsi Ali denounces Islam with a ferocity that I find strident, potentially feeding religious bigotry, I expected to dislike the book."

Not that Kristof fails to recognize the horrors that are being committed in the name of Islam: "The repression of women, the persecution complexes, the lack of democracy, the volatility, the anti-Semitism, the difficulties modernizing, the disproportionate role of terrorism-- those are all real. But if those were the only faces of Islam, it wouldn't be one of the fastest growing religions in the world today."

Paying lip service to monstrosities while declaring that they must not be very consequential because Islam is a fast-growing religion is nonsense. The horrors that Muslims commit in the name of their religion are not mitigated by the fact that Arabs have been very hospitable to New York times columnists.

On the one hand Kristof admits that Muslims have a tendency to use terror as a means of persuasion. But then he seems to assume-- though he does not have the nerve to say so-- that Islam is spreading because people the world over are freely choosing to follow its precepts and to live by its laws.

If this is true, then terrorism as a recruitment drive has had a goodly measure of success.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Your Integrity; Your Identity

The cornerstone of good character is your good word. If you cannot give and keep your word, then your character is flawed and your identity confused.

If you want to build your character, you should get in the habit of keeping your word ... in matters great and small.

If you accept this challenge, your goal will be to become the kind of person about whom people say, without questioning it: If Jack says he will be here, he will be here. Or the kind of person about whom people say, without having to think about it: If Jenny says the job will be done, it will be done.

Today Russell Bishop offered some thoughts about the topic. As he and you all know, it is not a new topic. It has been around as long as the human species has been thinking of how to better itself. Link here.

In Bishop's terms, when you keep your word, your word means something. And since we are all looking to have our lives mean something, let's add that if you cannot keep your word you will be draining your life of meaning.

Bishop is trying to persuade people to make a habit of keeping their word. I have tried it myself. It is a daunting task.

We know that our everyday life is bedeviled by people who cancel appointments, fail to show up, do not do what they say they will do, and on and on and on. They make and break appointments with impunity and do not think twice about it.

In my experience the person who is stood up is usually much unhappier than the person who is standing him up. If the emotions were reversed, then people would be better motivated to keep their word.

It makes sense that it feels worse to be slapped in the face than to slap someone in the face, but actions have consequences, and if you are the slapper, the chances are good that the bad karma you have created will come back to bite you.

How did we lose the habit of keeping our word? As often happens, I am happy to place a large measure of the blame with the therapy culture.

We have been told to follow our bliss, to do what feels good, to worship at the altar of our moods and moodiness. If we don't feel like going out in the rain the fact that three people have planned to have dinner with us does not count.

The therapy culture has taught us to be self-involved boors. It has broken down our normal impulse toward considerate socialization. Fortunately, we can all undermine its pernicious influence by simply making a habit of keeping our word.

In the best of worlds, your bad habits exact a price. If you fail to honor your commitments, we can all hope that people will be less and less willing to invite you places or to value your friendship.

When you go back on your word you are telling people that you do not value their friendship. With any luck they will, after a decent interval, return the favor.

Not by standing you up-- that would be too vulgar-- but by not making plans that include you.

Now, if you are a normal person, you will be thinking thoughts like: under what circumstances can I go back on my word? Sad to say, most of us have been taught to compensate for our errors by making elaborate and heart-felt excuses.

I had every intention of getting there, the excuse maker says, but  my boss detained me to discuss the Giants game.

With a good excuse maker, that is, a person with defective character, these stories are wondrous to behold. When therapy teaches people to construct meaningful narratives, it is really teaching them how to cheat their way out of paying for their bad character.

If you keep your word you do not need to concoct stories to explain away why you didn't.

Russell Bishop is quite right when he says that you need to keep your word in matters great and small. And he is even more right when he says that you should keep your word even if you have only made the promise or vow to yourself.

This means that if you are trying to judge someone's character, you should pay attention to whether or not he keeps his words in matters that are of little consequence. If he does, he believes in the principle of good character and he cares deeply about his reputation. If not, he is only reliable and trustworthy on occasion.

And when it comes to trustworthy, "on occasion" is roughly equivalent to: not at all.

If you take up the challenge of being good to your word, the first think you will notice is that you will be far more judicious about making promises. If you know that committing yourself to an appointment means that you will have to find a way to get there on time, then you are not likely to mistake promises for declarations of intention.

"I will be there" is not the same as "I hope to be there" or "I want to be there."

You can be as casual or as frivolous as you like when expressing your heart's desire. But you need to be dead serious when you are making a commitment.

As for making commitments to ourselves, promising ourselves that we will quit smoking, attend more AA meetings, or take the shirts to the cleaners, we also need to keep those rigorously.

Not because someone will know about our perfidy, but because we will know. In knowing that we have gone back on our word, we will immediately suffer an identity crisis.

If you swear that you are never again going to go out with that scoundrel, then, when you cave in to pressure and go out with him... you will suffer an immediate problem. You will not know which is the real you: the you who swore never again to go out with him or the you who went out with him.

And if you do not know which is the real you, then you do not have an identity.

And if you do not know, then there is what I would call the default setting.  If your word does not correspond to your action, then your action is the real you. Anyone who tries to persuade you otherwise is not your friend.

Keep in mind, identity involves something being identical to something else. Having an identity means that your commitments are identical to your actions, that you make a habit of walking the talk.

Many years ago the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote a book called: Identity, youth, and crisis. At the time it was a best seller. It originated the concept of adolescent identity crisis.

Clearly, if adolescents are inapt to keep their word then it is reasonable to think that they suffer the anguish of not knowing who they are.

Erikson, however, concocted his own version of identity. He proposed that a person who has an identity is conscious and self-aware that everything he has experienced belongs to the same person, him. Throughout his life he has always been the same person, whether he was at home or at school, having fun or being abused, winning the game or dancing up a storm.

At the time that Erikson proposed it, everyone liked the concept, because it seems to make sense. And yet, it has no moral dimension and makes no distinction between good and bad character.

Are we really all that sure that we know what it means to be the same person throughout? I am not willing to say that when you have been involuntarily subjected to abuse, the experience says as much about you as your good deeds and positive achievements. If we posit that the abuse was really visited on someone else, then you should try to put it behind you, not to integrate it into your life narrative as a meaningful reflection of your character.

And I wonder how Erikson would respond to Peter Kramer's concept that a person who is cured of depression by taking Prozac actually becomes another person?Listening to Prozac: The Landmark Book About Antidepressants and the Remaking of the Self, Revised Edition

In any event, if you want to build your character, to do some good for yourself and improve your relationships, you can dispense with the agonizing introspection and work on making your word mean something, by always keeping it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On the Road to Excellence

In his latest column executive coach Tony Schwartz offers some great advice. Link here.

That is: if you want to improve at whatever you are doing, if you want to advance on the road to excellence, the key is: hard work.

The harder you work at it, the better you get. Whatever skill set you are trying to improve, practice will get you to be better at it. That means increased repetitions, sticking with it no matter how unpleasant the experience, and persevering.

To this excellent advance I would offer a caveat. Schwartz seems to believe that innate talent is of no real consequence. On that point, I would disagree.

If you believe that talent will out, no matter how hard you work, then clearly you are placing excessive importance on the existence of talent.

But still, a man with superior musical talent who never practices will not become a great concert violinist. Similarly, a woman with extraordinary athletic coordination and aptitude will not become a champion volley ball player unless she works harder than everyone else at developing her talent.

As I once said, it is easier and more fulfilling to become great at what you are good at than to become good at what you are mediocre at. 

Sex as Collaborative Performance

The last time I paid any attention to the musings of Jaclyn Friedman she was explaining how she had learned to overcome the pain of a failed relationship by acting like a slut. I offered several posts on the topic, provoked by comments and by other blogs. Link here.

Friedman proclaimed that, for her, sluthood was a positive experience, one that felt therapeutic, even empowering. When I and others suggested that this would naturally encourage young women to try to overcome relationship heartbreak by slutting it up, she and her minions complained that she had not really advocated for it or told women to go out and get in touch with their inner sluts.

Which means that Friedman is not to be taken as a serious thinker.

If she believes that publicly proclaiming her pride in her own sluttiness, and publicly declaring its benefits is not going to encourage young women to try it for themselves, then she is either hopelessly naive or flat out ignorant.

She is banking on legalistic hair-splitting because she does not want to feel responsible for the consequences that might befall the young women who choose to emulate her example.

To me that makes sense. After all, if you read Friedman's latest foray into the topic, in an interview with one Amanda Marcotte and in a follow-up response to Susan Walsh, she is positively fulsome in her expression of how she feels about what she did, while not saying a word about how it might look to other people. Links here and here.

Since she proclaims that she still wants to have a meaningful and durable relationship, she should have said a few words about how other people might see her now. If she is implying that other people must see her only as she wants them to see her, she is simply acting like a petty tyrant.

As is true of all human conversation, you do not have the right to say that your words mean only what you think they mean or that the implications of your arguments are only what you want them to be.

If Jaclyn Friedman does not like the inferences that people can logically draw from her forays into the world of thought, then she needs simply to revise her theories.

In her more recent posts, Friedman has offered a new definition of sex, as a "collaborative performance."

In her words: "So, there is an entirely other way to look at sex that I think more and more people are turning on to and understanding, which is that it really is just a collaborative performance between two or more people. And it doesn't matter what your gender is. It doesn't matter how many people there are. It doesn't matter that it's anonymous. What matters is: are you both having a good time? Are you both getting something positive out of it? And is there good, healthy communication? Is everybody being safe? All those basic things. But outside of it: is everyone having a great time? Then there's nothing wrong with it. As long as everyone's on the same page; nobody's lying, everybody's playing safe about disease and pregnancy, that we can consider it more, like, you know, a collaborative jam session. Are we in the mood to make some music? Let's do it!"

Note very well that this is sex in the moment. It does not measure or evaluate consequences, except to the extent that it assumes that open communication will eliminate the possibility for any untoward consequences. Only someone with her head firmly ensconced in the clouds would ever believe such a thing.

Friedman does not seem to recognize the following possibility. What if you have freely chosen to have no-strings-attached sex with your collaborator, only to learn at the last minute that your collaborator cannot make it.

In some cases people have been know to compensate by having what Woody Allen called, "sex with someone you love," i.e. solo sex.

If Friedman believes that all sex concerns two or more people, is she saying that solo sex is not sex?

More saliently, how likely is it that you can have free and open communication between two or more people who are anonymous? How well can you really get to know all of the participants in your next orgy? Are gang bangs OK if everyone has consented freely and has produced proof of good health? And what if two people decide freely that they can best pursue sexual pleasure by beating and abusing each other, by mutual consent? Is that an acceptable way to find pleasure?

If you do not know the person, how can you trust his or her word? Do you interrogate? Do you require him or her to produce test results or papers?

But if he or she produces test results, these must contain proper names, and you  must know the person's proper name, lest your future collaborator be tricking you by showing someone else's results.

Friedman's response is that people in committed relationships also lie. Which simply begs the question, rather inelegantly. Someone you know well, as a human being with a name, is less likely to lie to  you than is someone you know only as a pleasure-seeking organism. If said pleasure-seeking organism is merely out for a good time, without there being any real risk of every seeing you again, why would he or she not tell you exactly what you want to hear?

There are myriad problems with Friedman's definition of collaborative performance.

One she addresses, in her reply to Susan Walsh, linked above. Namely, that performances are usually public. To which Friedman replies that she thinks of these sexual jam sessions as private performances.

But don't performances always imply spectators, real or imagined? At a time when more and more people are oversharing their intimate experiences on the internet, why imply that this is basic to sexual experience?

Considering the ease with which Friedman told the world of her own sluthood, it would not be too much of a stretch to consider that she does not quite understand that the value and the pleasure of sex lies for many people in the fact that it is a private and intimate experience, thus that the two participants are not performers.

Second, if there are two anonymous pleasure-seeking organisms involved, then it is fair to say that they are not really functioning as fully human beings. If their experience transcends their gender and name then they are fictional creations. Nothing more or less.

Third, if all sexual experiences are created equal, then how can anyone place greater value on sex within a relationship than sex with a handsome stranger. If people do place more value on sex with someone they love, are they deluded? If commitment makes sex feel better for certain individuals, are they abnormal?

And what are the potential consequences of making pleasure, having a good or great time, the gold standard? Many women have involved themselves in relationships that had no real future because the sex felt so good. How many relationships between pleasure-seeking organisms have come to grief once the demands of living as a couple intruded?

Fourth, the kinds of anonymous random sexual encounters that Friedman seems to be using as the model for sexual relations are most commonly practiced by gay men.

Why so? Perhaps because there are no women involved, thus, nothing resembling a pregnancy risk. Without a built-in link between pregnancy risk and emotion, gay men have better access to the kind of sex that Friedman wants to make into the norm.

Ought gay men be stigmatized because their sexual experience differs significantly from that of straight men or gay women? I think not.

Perhaps one kind of sex is right for some people but is not right for others. 

Saying that all forms of human sexual behavior should be defined in relation to the model of gay sex is to distort human sexuality in order to ensure that no one feels that they are any different.

As it looks, Friedman is telling women that they can have the kind of sex that gay men have mastered without having the feelings or the emotions that belong to them properly as women.

I will mention in passing that when gay women involve themselves in intimate relations they place far greater value on emotion, conversation, and knowing the other person. It seems intrinsic to the way women experience intimacy.

And, naturally, women have been clearest in expressing their objects to the sex positive feminism that Friedman has been offering to unsuspecting college girls. Susan Walsh has collected some feminist objections to people like Friedman in this post: Link here.

But if young women are being induced to have sex as though they were gay men, aren't they denying something about their being as women? If so, is Friedman mounting a feminist assault on women, because if women act like women, if they trust their own judgment, and follow their own impulses, then perhaps they will be less likely to be grist for the feminist recruitment mill.

People have said, correctly, that I am not a feminist. Well and good. But if sex positive feminism involves enticing women to have sex as though they were gay men, that feels just a wee bit like telling women that they should stop acting like women, lest they make gay men feel different.

To me that idea has a faint whiff of misogyny... unintended, I'm sure.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Are Muslims the New Jews?

By now we all know that having a right is not the same as doing right. And we should also know that confrontational actions trump conciliatory words. As the old cliche says: actions speak louder than words.

Whatever his initial intention, once Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf saw the way New Yorkers and Americans were reacting to his plan to build an Islamic culture center and mosque at Ground Zero he should have offered to move it elsewhere. Out of respect... in the spirit of conciliation... to better relations between Muslims and America.

That he did not tells us most of what we need to know about the project.

Just in case you missed the point, the Imam's wife, Daisy Khan announced on ABC yesterday that Republican opponents of the mosque had gone beyond Islamophobia. They were indulging in "metastasized anti-Semitism." Link here.

Khan even compared her efforts to build a mosque at Ground Zero with the early efforts of Jews to build a synagogue in Peter Stuyvesant's Manhattan. As it happens, she got her facts completely wrong, as John Steele Gordon explains here.

More importantly, Khan was exploiting the basic reason that some New York Jews, from Michael Bloomberg to Frank Rich, have been supporting the mosque. These New Yorkers have bought the notion that Muslims are a persecuted minority group, just like the Jews and other groups that have suffered discrimination in America.

Standing up for the Islamic culture center and mosque is standing against anti-Semitism.

There is nothing very new here. Sophisticated leftists have long believed that the Palestinian cause is a fight against anti-Semitism. In their narrative, the Palestinians are really Jews, and the Israelis are really modern Nazis.

To fight against Israel, to work to destroy the Jewish state, is in the minds of many left thinking people, to fight against Nazis.

You might think this is something of a joke, worthy of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Alas, it is not.

Now that terrorist groups like Hamas are among the world's leading purveyors of anti-Semitism, to the point where they refuse to renounce terrorism and refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist, they have duped left thinking people into seeing them as innocent victims of Zionist oppression.

As you know, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has never been able to find the moral fortitude to denounce Hamas.

And while his wife is trying to make the two of them into victims of malignant anti-Semitism, we can wait for the moment when Imam Rauf will repudiate the anti-Semitic remarks in the Quran (link here). We will also wait for him to denounce the anti-Semitism coming from both secular and religious leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia?

As of now, no such denunciations have been forthcoming.On the contrary, the imam is looking to those countries for funding to build his mosque.

Considering that Muslims are the leading proponents of anti-Semitism in the world today, it takes a special kind of chutzpah for Daisy Khan to pretend to be a victim of anti-Semitism.

Yet, many of those who support the Islamic cultural center believe that they are fighting anti-Semitism. In their minds, fighting anti-Semitism means fighting against the Republican party and Fox News.

Thus, they side with the the Imam, against the majority of New Yorkers and Americans, because they have bought into a narrative that blames all anti-Semitism on the right wing. Keep in mind that this same right wing has counted among the most stalwart defenders of Israel.

But, left thinking people tell us, the brouhaha over the Ground Zero mosque is helping terrorists recruit new adepts. Recycled New York Times drama critic Frank Rich wrote yesterday that the war in Afghanistan is being undermined by Fox News, because its attacks on the mosque are a perfect recruiting tool for the Taliban. Link here.

If half of New York did not take Frank Rich seriously, I would simply dismiss his idea with the contempt that it so fully deserves.

Do you believe that the existence of a Mosque at the site of the 9/11 attacks would not be used as a propaganda tool to recruit terrorists? And since when did the terrorists need any special events to help in their recruitment efforts?
As a U. S. official said today, terrorists are opportunistic. They take what they can get and use it to their best advantage. Link here.

Besides, if America decides to make nice to Islam, does anyone really believe that the Taliban will put down its arms and embrace democracy in Afghanistan? Will it not persuade them that they are on the winning side, and thus make it easier for them to enlist new recruits?

The larger issue in the Ground Zero mosque debate concerns the international reputation of Islam. While it is surely true that the only people who are guilty of the September 11 attack are the perpetrators, it is also true that reputation is not entirely about guilt or innocence.

When a member of your family commits a crime, he and only he is guilty of the crime. He and only he deserves punishment.

And yet, for being affiliated with him, for bearing the same name, you will also bear a stigma. Everyone will know that you had nothing to do with the crime, but your name will still evoke the image of the crime, and this will function as something of a stigma.

The same applies to members of a community. It is surely true that only a small number of Catholic priests were molesting children. And yet, all Catholics feel some degree of embarrassment over the incidents, and especially over the Church's failure to act decisively against the priests who were abusing their position and authority.

Today Islam does not have a good reputation in the world, and that the fault lies for the most part with Muslims themselves. Not so much because they are all committing terrorist atrocities, or stoning adulteresses, or murdering their children to protect their honor, or fomenting anti-Semitism... but because moderate Muslims have been singularly ineffective in disconnecting these atrocities from their religion.

Some might say that we should blame the news media for reporting these abominations, but the truth is, if there was no reporting the same things would continue to happen.The best hope for putting an end to them is, in fact, public exposure.

When Frank Rich blames Fox News for the continued horrors committed by the Taliban he is implying that a news blackout or even an opinion blackout would serve our military or cultural purposes.

If Imam Rauf wants to improve the reputation of Muslims he should not have his wife slander opponents of his project as anti-Semites. Once she does it, she reminds us all of how pervasive anti-Semitism is in Islam today. And if really wants to make a gesture of conciliation, a gesture that would enhance the reputation, then he need but agree to move his cultural center and mosque.

Digging in his heels makes him look more intransigent in his failure to denounce the worst aspects of today's Islam. Keep in mind that this same imam, in an interview following 9/11 declared that Osama bin Laden was "made in America."

Speaking for Islam he should have said that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were produced in Muslim communities, and that they believe themselves to be following the dictates of the Quran. And he might have expressed his embarrassment that his religion had been identified with such horrors.

[Note: You might also be interested in Neo-neocon's analysis of anti-Semitism in Arab lands, in her blog today. Link here.]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Your Narcissism Quotient: the I's Have It

If success breeds confidence, does too much success breed overconfidence?

And how can you tell the difference between someone who is overconfident and someone whose high level of confidence corresponds to concrete achievement?

We know that many young people suffer from a surfeit of confidence based on nothing more than the level of their parents' and teachers' affection. Thus, the sense that their confidence is built of arrogance and impudence.

If that is true, then people who become CEOs should be more grounded, more in touch with reality, and less prone to irrational overconfidence.

As behavioral economist Richard Thaler writes, that is often not the case, especially when you factor in luck. In Thaler's words: "in fact, the competition may tend to select overconfident people. One route to the corner office is to combine overconfidence with luck, which can be hard to distinguish from skill. C.E.O.'s who make it to the top this way will often stumble when their luck runs out." Link here.

Success is not always your best friend. If it is not accompanied with a healthy portion of humility, the chances are good that it will induce people to commit avoidable errors.

Among those errors are a tendency to be overly optimistic about the future. Chief Financial Officers have a bad record at predicting the future of the economy or the markets, because they are too confident in their ability to predict the future.

CEO's who suffer from overconfidence tend to make bad acquisitions. A narcissistic CEO is more likely to overpay for a company he wants to acquire, is more likely to act on impulse, and is more likely to overestimate his ability to manage the new company and to integrate its operations with the old company. Link here.

People who do not believe that they have earned their success will be more invested in the their great executive persona. As you know, a persona is a mask. Put one one and you become a character in a story. If you have profited from the persona, by persuading enough people to take it as who you really are, you will be that much more loath to give it up.

And the more you cultivate a persona, the less you will be making decisions based on fact and objective reality. Showing off the appearance of prowess will be more important than the results of the performance.

As we know, narcissists can do no wrong in their own eyes. Thus, they become masters of deflecting blame.

The same applies across different areas of human achievement. Some people achieve great success in one area of life and conclude that they will be just as good in other areas of life. The CEO who thinks he is the world's leading authority on public policy or childrearing comes immediately to mind.

But how we can identify those among us who suffer from narcissistic overconfidence?

Researchers have come up with a very simple and easy test. They observe a person in a conversation and count up the number of times he uses first person singular pronouns-- I, me, my, mine-- and then they compare that figure to the number of times he uses first person plural pronouns-- we, us, our, ours.

The more I's, the more he's narcissistic. The more narcissistic, the more likely he is to be overconfident.

Obviously, you can try this at home; you can even try it in your more intimate relationships. The more I's a boyfriend or girlfriend uses, the poorer his or her judgment about the future of your relationship. Someone who is overconfident will ignore the fact that the relationship is not working. He will be convinced that he can make it work. He will overinvest emotionally, will fall in love impulsively, and will want to close the deal as soon as possible.

Here is another way you can use this information. If you are interviewing for a job, try to control your use of first person singular pronouns. When you talk about your old job, use first person plural pronouns. It will tell your interviewer that you worked well as part of a team and that you are not going to allow your narcissism to cloud your judgment.

The more you indulge your mythic narcissistic persona the less you will you be willing to admit mistakes. The overconfident executive, like the overconfident lover or the overconfident student, will resist admitting error. He may blame others when things do not work out well or he may insist that more time is needed for his vision to be fulfilled.

Finally, a question: let's say that you are dealing with someone who is overly confident, to the point of being narcissistic. Would it be a good thing to encourage that person to use  fewer I's in his conversation, and try substituting more We's?

And if the person is underconfident, would it be good to encourage him to use more I's, and fewer We's.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Trial and Error Driven Life

Our lives need goals. They also need direction and purpose. We may not know why we're here but that does not make it all meaningless.

Our lives also need achievements and improvements. No one feels very happy stagnating.

Given that this is one of those occasions when we can get to there from here, I want to look at some advice offered by business coaches in the Harvard Business Review.

Peter Bregman advises us to live our lives as though we were conducting an experiment. Link here. Nothing more fully defines the trial and error driven life than the concept of experiment.

I would add, as Bregman makes clear, that conducting your life as an experiment feels a lot like playing in a game. For my purposes, it is the antidote to living  your life as a drama or a narrative. The latter we can call a therapy driven life.

Fulfilling the terms of a narrative is quite different from fulfilling yourself. In my view if you opt for the first you will be giving up the second.

After Bregman's article I would draw your attention to Robert Sutton's article, "Forgive and Remember." Link here.

Sutton is offering advice to managers. He wants them to encourage their staffs to feel free to suggest all manner of good and bad ideas. And he wants managers to create a psychological safety net for their staff.

Staff members should be encouraged to admit error. They should also look askance at those who shift the blame and always present themselves as being in the right.

Obviously enough, if you cannot see where you have made an error, you cannot use the information to formulate a new trial, a new approach, or a new idea.

Let's look at how this all works out in everyday life. Using himself as an example, Bregman explains how he set up an experiment that involved returning an item to a store. He had purchased the item; he had tried it out; he had discovered that it did not serve his purposes; he was going to return it.

Yet, he knew that the store had a stockage fee, a 20% charge for returning the used item. The logic of the policy was unassailable. If the item had been used, they could no longer sell it as new. Thus, if they offered a full refund they would be losing some of their profit.

For the sake of this post we will graciously ignore the moral issue of whether or not Bregman should have even asked the store to waive the stockage fee.

Bregman began by asking himself how he should behave in order to maximize his chances of getting the fee waived.

Allow me to list some of his list of possible behaviors, with some of my own. He could try to argue; he could fight; he could try to browbeat the manager; he could threaten never to return to the store; he could make a scene; he could assert his power.

With some reflection Bregman decided that none of these would be effective. A trial and error life does involve making use of the lessons of past experience... almost by definition.

Bregman decided to try a different approach: to throw himself on the mercy of the manager. He decided to appeal to the manager's generosity.

He was not going to demand anything; he was not going to insist; he was not going to snarl or growl. He would explain humbly that it would be very nice if the manager could be so kind as to waive the stockage fee.

It feels like humility; it almost feels weak. Of course, it worked. If it had not, I suspect that we would not be reading his article.

Will it work in all circumstances? Probably not. Bregman does not imagine that this approach will always work, even with all managers.

He is not married to this persona; neither should you be married to any one persona. He is not enslaved to an emotion that requires expression; neither should you believe that you must, at all costs, express your emotion.

He is playing a game, not acting in a drama. His investment in the tactic is far less than it be if he had chosen to act like an angry young man and then had decided that that was who he really was. In that case, if you reject the persona and you reject him.

Given that Bregman is using trial and error, he does not delude himself into thinking that the meek humble person who kindly makes a request of the story manager is who he really is. If his tactic had failed, he would have returned to the drawing board, to devise another tactic for the next store manager.

As I say, he is not married to the tactic; it is like a move in a game. Either it works or it does not.

Does the same rule apply in different areas of life? Of course, it does.

If you have a goal in mind-- you want more sex-- and you adopt an approach that seems to turn off your spouse, doesn't that mean that you should change your approach? Better to change your approach than to try to overpower your spouse. Better to change your approach than to make yourself crazy by sticking with a failing approach. If it doesn't work, try something else.

If your attitude in the office or your conduct or your customary way of dressing is causing people to take you less seriously, you could complain about how they are all jealous or about how you have been misunderstood.

Or you could, in your trial and error driven life, work to change your attitude. If the Mr. Nice Guy routine is not working out for you, then try adding a bit of an edge or try being a little more forceful.

If the macho man routine is holding you back professionally, then perhaps you should recalibrate your image, change your style, and leave the biker gear at home.

Just make sure you don't go to the opposite extreme and transform yourself into Casper Milquetoast.

Too radical a transformation in front of people who know you well will not be credible and will not be taken seriously. Bregman was adopting a persona in front of someone who did not know him at all.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Courage and the Ground Zero Mosque

Are its defenders courageous to stand up for the Constitution? Are its detractors courageous to stand up for principle? Is the governor courageous for attempting to negotiate a compromise? And what about the construction workers who are declaring that they will not work to build the mosque? Are they the truest profile in courage?

In the midst of the increasingly contentious debate over the Ground Zero mosque, the question of courage has just emerged from the mist. It might help us to find some clarity.

Charles Krauthammer raised the issue in his column today. Link here.

In it he asked whether President Obama was being courageous when he addressed a Muslim congregation last week and declared himself foursquarely in favor of the Ground Zero mosque?

Obama' supporters cheered his statement as a great act of political courage. After all, Obama had stood up to Sarah Palin and Fox News.

And yet, as Krauthammer points out, it does not take or show any courage to tell a group exactly what it wants to hear. It belies an attitude of submissiveness and weakness, a willingness to sacrifice true courage to an impulse to please.

In Krauthammer's words: "It takes no courage whatsoever to bask in the applause of a Muslim audience as you promise to stand stoutly for their right to build a mosque, giving the unmistakable impression that you endorse the idea. What takes courage is to then respectfully ask that audience to reflect on the wisdom of the project and to consider whether the imam's alleged goal of interfaith understanding might not be better achieved by accepting the New York governor's offer to help find another site."

Truth be told, Gov. Patterson's offer to step into the controversy to help resolve it in a way that would be satisfactory to the concerns of both parties must count as one of the more courageous gestures in the brouhaha.

Krauthammer's point is important, and deserves exegesis. It is not courageous to tell an audience what they want to hear. It is weak-willed, servile, and fawning. But it is also not courageous to tell an audience exactly what they do not want to hear. It is foolhardy, reckless, and impudent.

Courage involves stating your own position and respecting the position of those who disagree with you. It might involve trying to persuade them, or it might involve trying to have them respect your point of view.

A courageous speech must open you to disagreement and dissent. If you cannot handle dissent you are not functioning with a democratic mindset.

It ought to go without saying, but courage does not involve telling people what they want to hear, and they trying to take it back the next day. That was Obama's second volley in the mosque controversy. As we all know, as soon as he saw that people were reacting badly to his speech at the Ramadan dinner, Obama tried to step back from it, telling the world that he only meant to defend the right of the imam to build the mosque. He was not actively saying that they should do it.

As Krauthammer notes, opinion is not divided over whether or not the imam hs the right to build a mosque. The divisive issue is whether or not they should do so? Not whether it is legal, but whether it is moral, whether it respects the feelings of the families of the victims? Is it moral in the context of the stated wish to build bridges of understanding.

Obama did himself no credit by retracting his first remarks. Talking out of both sides of your mouth suggests that you have no character whatever. You want to be both right and wrong at the same time, thus you show that you are afraid to defend your position against critics or even to engage those critics.

This does not represent confidence, but a distinct lack of same. If I and some others are right that Obama has heard too many people too often tell him how brilliant he is, then that would explain why he has never learned to engage detractors and critics. He will attempt to ridicule them, to dismiss them, to attack them.

When you keep hearing that you are smart no matter what you do, eventually you believe it. This does not give you confidence; it gives you arrogance.

If your confidence is based on unearned accolades, then it is not real confidence. Thus when you go looking for the confidence to take a stand on a difficult moral issue, it is not there.You show yourself as fearful and cowardly, too ready to bow down and submit to Islamic demands.

But then, what about Mayor Bloomberg? He has not spoken out of both sides of his mouth. He has been clear and forthright in his support of the mosque, even to the point of insisting that its funding should not be investigated.

Is he a profile in courage? Here, I think not, though for different reasons. The Mayor is expressing a different kind of arrogance, the kind that does not attempt to persuade, but that wants to impose its will on other people. Bloomberg has absolutely no truck with those who want the mosque to be built elsewhere. He insists zealously on the fundamental rectitude of his position and denounces the character of anyone who would dare disagree with him.

This is not a sign of good character, but a sign of arrogance. Admittedly not the same kind as Obama demonstrates, but arrogance nonetheless.

Not only is Bloomberg out of step with his constituents, but he shows no respect for their opinion. Naturally, no one really respects his.

Bloomberg has too much confidence; he feels that he can do no wrong. Obama has too little; he gives people the impression that he does not even know where he stands on the issue.

Dare we say that Nancy Pelosi's attempt to intimidate those who do not want the mosque built within two blocks of Ground Zero does not count as a profile in courage either. Threatening to investigate the families of the 9/11 victims does not make you courageous. It makes you a petty tyrant.

As I said, the politician who has shown the most character and the most courage has been Gov. Paterson.

But what about the construction workers who are signing petitions to say that they will not work on building the mosque. Link here.

Several people have declared that, in the end, the mosque will not be built. They believe that the imam has proposed it as a provocation and that, after he succeeds in producing enough ill feeling, alienating his flock from the city and the nation, he will concede the point and move the mosque elsewhere.

Others have said that it will not be built because New York's construction workers will simply refuse to work on it. They would not exactly be going John Galt, as Dr. Helen Smith has defined it, but they would be forgoing work and wages in favor of a principle. They would be making a true sacrifice, assuming a risk to themselves and their families, because they refuse to submit to Islam.

It is almost as though Mayor Bloomberg made a grand gesture of leading the march toward tolerance, only to discover that no one was following him. As of now, it looks like the mayor's foot soldiers are not going to follow his orders.

Addicted to Debt

Yesterday, I offered a few reflections about the value of thrift and the vice of debt. Scroll down.

There I was talking about household debt, which is so grossly disproportionate to household income and assets that we will need five to seven years to clear our family balance sheets.

Today, I am going to link an interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb from NPR. Link here.

You may recognize Taleb as the author of a wonderful book called: The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility". It's great fun, a brilliant guide to some of the more sophisticated thinking about the art and science of predicting the future.

Taleb believes that the world is addicted to debt, and that we need to stop indulging our out-of-control appetite for it. The more you feed that beast the more ravenous and uncompromising it becomes. Thus he advises severe austerity measures.

Others, most prominently Paul Krugman and the Obama administration, feel that the cure for too much debt is more debt-- that is, economic stimulus.

The question I raised yesterday, and that I would like to keep open, is simply this: when a nation is addicted to debt, when it functions on debt, how does that affect the behavior of citizens, their values and their virtues?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Americans Discover Thrift and Start to Change Their Culture

America is currently undergoing a cultural sea change. Old habits die hard, but die they do, and one of those that is expiring before our eyes involves profligate spending, borrowing to spend more, and consuming as if there were no tomorrow.

Now, tomorrow has arrived, and that the bills have come due. And this requires, from the top to the bottom of America, from the postman to the national government, a different attitude toward money, different social values, and different behaviors.

We are not evolving; we are not growing; we are not fulfilling our potential; we are not expanding our quota of insight. Not at all. We are being forced, by the weight of reality, to change our ways. 

To weigh the mess we have spent ourselves into, take a look at David Rosenberg's e-letter a couple of days ago. Link here.

By his numbers, the ratio of household debt to income peaked at 136% in early 2008. That means that the average household owed around a third more than it earned. Today that ratio has declined to 126%, suggesting that we have made some progress reducing household debt.

Unfortunately, if we were to return to the halcyon days before the credit bubble, household debt would have to return to 70% of household income. Before that could happen, we would have to pay down $6 trillion worth of debt.

Or else, take the ratio of debt to household assets. Currently it sits at 20%. The high was 22.7% in early 2009. The norm is around 12.5%. To return to a sustainable norm we would have to pay down $7 trillion of household debt.

Clearly, it has to be done. Clearly, we do not have much choice in the matter. But just as clearly, as Rosenberg explains, the more we use our money to pay down debt, the less we use it to purchase things. The less we purchase the more stores will have to lower prices to attract buyers. Lower prices either mean lower costs or lower profits. Lower costs usually mean fewer employees. If they mean less profit, they will also mean a lower stock price, and likely lower housing prices. These in their turn will entail lower household assets.

In a deflationary spiral DEBT is the ultimate four-letter word.

Rosenberg explains it better than I do, but the situation will likely produce a deflationary spiral, and this is very bad news. By his estimation, we can still work our way out of the hole we have dug ourselves. It's going to take between five and seven years, and it is going to be painful.

We will do it quicker, perhaps suffering more short term acute pain, if we are more thrifty. Surely it would help if governments, federal, state, and city were to make a virtue of thrift. For now, it appears that the message has reached local and state governments, but not the supposedly brilliant mind that inhabits the White House.

I offer some of the numbers because numbers are a reality. And their reality is currently in the process of forcing people to learn to value thrift.

Thrift is a classical virtue. It is a sign of good character. The credit bubble, with its attitude of spend more, whether you had it or not, undermined the virtue of thrift.

Nowadays people are more interested in paying down debt and increasing their savings. They are less interested in spending more and consuming conspicuously. Thus, thrift is back with us.

But thrift is not just about money. It is about how you express your emotions, how you choose to conduct your life, and even about how you spend your sexual energies and impulses.

Take these values of thrift, self-control, and self-restraint. Weren't they considered to be the enemy of those who wanted to live in a culture that valued self-expression, self-actualization, and fulfilling all of your potential?

People who are seeking instant, or even delayed, gratification are not very interested in thrift. They are happier, or better, they feel more like they are part of the countercultural revolution, when they make a vulgar display of consumption.

And what will happen when the habit of thrift becomes so ingrained that people begin to practice sexual self-restraint. What will happen if they discover that they have been profligate with their sexual capital, and need to take some time to rebuild their erotic balance sheet?

I don't want to leave you on such a bleak note. So I would close with the thought that if you can have it all, and without working for it, then you have compromised your freedom.

Freedom involves choice, but that means that it also involves sacrifice and compromise. You cannot take all roads at once. And once you have chosen one, others will forever be closed off to you.

You cannot be free if you are trying to have it all. You cannot be free if you believe that you can fulfill all of your potential.