Thursday, September 30, 2010

Feminism on the Rocks

Feminism has been having its problems lately. What with the rise of the Mama Grizzlies, feminists have been losing power among American women. 

Before launching into an analysis of why feminism is currently on the rocks, I want to begin with a few pieces of reality, a few observations about human behavior that will add to our understanding of the differences between the sexes.

Say that a man goes to a party or a function where every other man is wearing a blue or gray suit. If he is wearing a brown suit, a sports jacket, or a golf shirt, he is going to fee strangely out of place, as though he does not belong.

For a man, following the dress code is vital to his feeling like he belongs to a group.

Surely, there are exceptions, but, as they say, exceptions prove the rule.

If a woman goes to the same party, and, upon entering the room, notices three women wearing a dress that looks exactly like hers, she will be mortified, offended, and feel generally uncomfortable. If any of the women knew in advance which dress she was wearing, the discomfort will turn to anger.

A woman might well have bought a new dress for the occasion. A man will never buy a new suit to attend a party or a social function.

But, where a man seeks to wear the right uniform, a woman will aim for uniqueness and individuality, as though she is saying that she is irreplaceable.

By comparison, men are far more interchangeable. To the point where you would almost think that human cultures are organized to value women and devalue men.

As everyone knows, male dress codes derive from the military, and, by extension, athletic teams. Wearing the uniform means you belong to the group. Certain insignia show your status and stature within the group.

When women join the military, the dress code is bent, but not broken. Women wear uniforms; their uniforms bear insignia; they play according to the same rules as men.

The same applies to women on athletic teams. And it ought to apply to women who enter male-dominant professions. As an article today suggested, women who play sports do better in business than women who do not play sports. Link here.

All military organizations and all companies foster advancement. They contain ways for people to move up the status hierarchy.

And everyone aspires to advance, by promotion and by compensation.

Those who are on a lower level of the hierarchy emulate those who are above them. And those who are on a higher level of the hierarchy prepare those who will succeed them.

Mentoring is part of any executive job description.

Again, these are male-dominant status hierarchies, ones that have recently been more or less successful at integrating women.

To the point that most women who work in corporate environments would much prefer to work for male bosses than for female executives. Those who have had the experience have mostly stated that men were better mentors than women.

And this caused Susan Faludi to question what appears to her to be a general dysfunctionality in female status hierarchies. Why is it that women do not like to work for women? Why is it that women of different generations have so much difficulty cooperating? And why should feminist groups like the National Organization for Women be having so much trouble arranging for an orderly process of succession and promotion?

Faludi's article appeared in the latest Harpers. A goodly part of it-- but not all of it-- is available online. Link here. I have only read what is available to non-subscribers, but I have also read a few commentaries on it. I will not link or examine the commentaries because I found them disappointing. They did not address Faludi's argument, which I find well worth considering.

Faludi focuses on intergenerational warfare within the feminist movement. Whether at NOW or in women's studies programs, she finds a stark conflict between the generations. And she adds that if feminism is going to reproduce itself-- and not remain barren-- it will need to overcome this problem.

In Faludi's words (note the fertility analogy): "With each go-round, women make gains, but the movement never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent-- to reproduce itself as a strong and sturdy force. At the core of America's most fruitful political movement resides a perpetual barrenness."

I will confess that I am not very well informed about or very interested in what is going on over at NOW. And I am hardly a supporter of most of what passes for feminism these days. Given its basis in radical leftist politics, I am not unhappy to see it imploding.

Of course, that is not the point. Faludi does identify an important organizational problem and an important issue in the way that women of one generation get along (or don't) with women of another generation.

If a young man will happily emulate an older man who has more status and authority, the same does not seem to apply to a younger woman's relationship with an older woman.

Perhaps a younger woman considers that her youth confers a competitive advantage over an older woman... in the world of relationships. If so, she would not want to dress to look much older than she is.

Where a man's increased age and status will make him a more desirable mate, a woman's advanced age will make her a less desirable mate.

But when younger women refuse to emulate older women, the older women take it as a sign of disrespect. Almost as though the younger women are showing off their advantage.

And this seems to work even within the ranks of NOW where the dynamic does not concern competing for male attention.

And yet, NOW is a gynocracy; it is largely a male-free zone. And it is dedicated to building a sisterhood of like-minded women, accompanied by a few token men.

Even if young women are not naturally driven to emulate or imitate older women, there ought to be a way to negotiate the impediment. And to do it without recruiting young women into the feminist cause.

Let's return to Sarah Palin's Mama Grizzlies. Are these older women subject to the same disrespect as the older generation of feminists is? 

Don't you have the sense that Sarah Palin and Nikki Haley and Meg Whitman are more capable of inspiring young women than are the scolds who inhabit the upper regions of the feminist hierarchy? If you ask a young woman whose life she would rather have, would she answer that she would want the life of a Mama Grizzly or of a feminist leader?

Does feminism aggravate tendencies that can be negotiated? 

Keep in mind: feminists are not inviting girls to become women; they are inviting girls to become feminists.

And this, in itself, will make it far more difficult for feminism to attract adherents.

Most women want career success, not ideological commitments. They want to have lives, as balanced or unbalanced as they would wish, without having to worry about conforming to the dictates of a cause.

And this is something that the Mama Grizzlies represent, along with their demonstration that you can, as a woman, have it all.

Jon Stewart Bails on Obama

If you asked me to name a symptom of what is wrong with political discourse in America, I would immediately name the fact that so much political debate seems to be run by comedians.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lead the pack for liberals, while Dennis Miller ably represents the Republican point of view. And then there are Bill Maher and David Letterman, two capable comics whose depth of conviction is inversely proportional to their understanding of the issues.

They may not know very much, but they are convinced that they are right about everything.

Evidently, comedians like Jon Stewart and Dennis Miller are in a class of their own, because, they possess a superior intelligence and an extraordinary ability to present issues in high concept.

Anyway, this by way of an introduction to Jon Stewart's critique of Obama and Congressional Democrats, broadcast under the rubric, Indecision 2010. Link here.

It is an amazing piece of comedy, and not just because it is coming from a stalwart Obama supporter.

Its more probative and thought-provoking value lies in the ease with which Stewart can ridicule Obama himself, his administration, and the Democrats who are running away from him as fast as they can.

Ridicule is powerful rhetorical medicine. Witness the attacks on Christine O'Donnell. But it is also a double-edged sword. If you use it too much, you might well find that it can turn against you.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Procrastination is the thief of time. Procrastination means putting off until tomorrow what you should be doing today.

For many people procrastination is a nemesis, a demonic force that haunts their lives.

But that does not tell us very much about what it is to procrastinate, and how to overcome this self-defeating habit.

I have been wanting to write about procrastination for some time now. I won't say I have been waiting for the right occasion, and I certainly will not admit to procrastinating about the topic, but I will confess that I was waiting for a hook, a concept, something that could help us understand the problem.

Yesterday, when I saw Shirley Wang's article about people who delay decision-making, I thought I had found a cogent and coherent account of the current psychological research on the topic. Link here.

Alas, I was disappointed. Psychologists have not really clarified the issue; they have muddied it.

But I am not going to use that as an excuse to avoid the question, even if I cannot really tie it all up in a neat theoretical package. Sometime it is worth the trouble just to try to redefine the question.

Defining procrastination is very difficult. How do you know when you are procrastinating and when you are taking the right time to deliberate over a serious issue?

Wang  suggests that you are procrastinating when you spend hours trying to figure out whether to buy the argyle socks or the striped socks.

I would hesitate to call that procrastination; it sounds like you are in something of a trance, and perhaps in need of medical attention. Procrastination is a moral failing, not a psychiatric condition.

Similarly, if you are so impulsive that you jump to conclusions and make decisions without any consideration for your responsibility or the consequences of  your actions, then surely you have not really conquered procrastination.

Perhaps you  are pretending to be strong and decisive, but you will look like you're protesting too much and trying too hard. One might even say that you are afraid that other people will discover that  you are tempted to procrastinate.

You do not overcome your tendency to be gun-shy by becoming trigger happy. Both qualities show that you are disconnected from  reality.

Effective decision-making exists somewhere between indecision and impulsiveness.

Which leaves the question wide open.

Psychologists address the question by dividing the world into people who see everything in black and white terms and people who are generally ambivalent.

Those who see sharper contrasts, and who fail to consider opposing opinions, tend to make quicker decisions. According to the psychologists, their more ambivalent counterparts, people who see different sides to each issue, are more ambivalent, and thus, more likely to procrastinate.

As it happens, experiments have shown that ambivalent thinkers are generally more comfortable and less stressed than people who see the world in terms of sharp contrasts.

For my part I do not think that the word ambivalent helps very much here. The word itself suggests indecisiveness and even confusion. And it oversimplifies the problem, sometimes creating one where none exists.

Besides, what is the difference between ambivalent and deliberate? Ambivalent means you cannot make up your mind. Deliberate means that you are willing to take the time to make a reasoned and judicious decision.

Delaying a decision is not necessarily a sign of procrastination.

Some decisions are more difficult than others. Some involve more consequences for more people than others. In some cases you hesitate to decide because you are facing two bad options.

And then there is the question of experience. If you are experienced in a field you will find it much easier to make a quicker decision. Having seen similar situations before and having taken charge of them, you will feel more comfortable deciding what to do.

If you are inexperienced, you will need to take more time and give the matter more consideration. But if you are inexperienced and don't know it, you might well decide to imitate someone who has far more experience. That is a formula for impulsiveness.

And then, there's reality. Some people stand at the side of a pool for a long time wondering whether or not they should jump in. They may be wondering whether the water is too hot or too cold, whether they have allowed enough time to digest their lunch, and a multitude of other questions. They may be trying to overcome a phobia about water.

The solution is: to jump in.

And yet, someone else might be standing on the side of the pool and hesitating to jump in because the pool is empty.

Sometimes people hesitate to make the obvious choice because they intuit that there is something wrong, and refuse to proceed until they know what it is.

Finally, some people procrastinate because they are being pressured to make up their minds. If they succumb to pressure they will feel that their decision is not really theirs. That, in itself, might be a good reason to procrastinate. 

Other people have good reasons for delaying a decision. Perhaps they want to gather more evidence or consult more widely.

Other people delay a decision for bad reasons. They do not want to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, or better, they prefer to have the decision made by someone else.

Surely, there is a point at which deliberation becomes procrastination, where indecisiveness becomes a habit with a life of its own.

How do you know whether or not you have reached that point?

First, estimate the cost. How much is it costing you to procrastinate? Deliberation becomes delay when you start losing opportunities, when a situation starts careening out of your control, when everyone seems to be suspended, waiting for you to make up your mind.

At that point, you are under an ethical obligation to take a stand, to make a decision.

Second, you are procrastinating when you and your delay become something of a drama. When the world starts revolving around the will-he or won't-he aspect of your decision.

When you have succeeded in drawing attention to your own weak character and away from the problem at hand, then you are procrastinating.

The solution might be simply to flip a coin, as one psychologist suggested. The psychologist tries to see how he reacts to the coin's decision, and, if that works for you, well and good.

Finally, the real solution is to throw caution to the winds. You can and should know how to correct a bad decision. It is much more difficult to correct not having the courage to make any decision at all.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Warren Buffett on Life and Death

I hadn't heard this story before, but it is well worth sharing. I read it on Richard Russell's Dow Theory Letters (subscription required.)

As Russell tells the story, one day someone asked Buffett: "Warren, let's say you're dead and lying in your open coffin. What would you like someone to say as they gazed down into your open coffin?"

Warren thought a bit and replied: "I'd like them to say: 'Look, I think he moved!'"

Stephen Hawking Versus God

You have to hand it to the marketers. In their zealous efforts to sell you a copy of Stephen Hawking's new book: The Grand Design, they have granted its author god-like powers.

Through the intermediary spirits called editors they have flooded the media with the news that Stephen Hawking has discovered that there is no God.

If you have ever had any doubt about the question, then surely the opinion of a great physicist should solve the problem for you.

If Hawking says that there is no God, then there is no God.

Inadvertently, all of these editors have ascribed god-like characteristics to Hawking. Remember that, in the beginning, God said: Let there be light. And there was light.

Like Stephen Hawking's God's word became reality. But, while God caused something to exist, Hawking caused a lot of people to believe that something did not exist.

If you are not familiar with the argument, Hawking insists that the universe was formed through a spontaneous action. Apparently, he believes that this disproves the existence of a God who would have set it all in motion.

But what if God is the name one would want to give to the spontaneous action that creates a semi-intelligible universe, then Hawking's belief in having disproved the existence of God would not make very much sense.

Carlin Romano has written the best essay on this marketing ploy. Link here. Romano points out the argument from authority that underlies this ploy.

He notes that Hawking is widely recognized as a genius. Nothing to dispute there. And he is a genius who has sold millions of books. That makes him even more of a genius.

In the minds of the gullible and the lazy, that is good enough to make his pronouncements into dogmatic truth. They are not about to spend their precious time thinking through the issues, are they?

Anyway, you can go to a dinner party and proclaim that you are so smart that you agree with Stephen Hawking, and that, based on his authority, you and all thinking people know that God does not exist.

Even if you are wrong-- and who would be able to prove it-- you will have commanded no small amount of respect at the dinner party. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Why are we so ready to accept that genius is worthy of so much respect, even when said genius is making statements about topics he knows very little about?

After all, being the world's leading authority of physics does not mean that you are an authority on theology or philosophy. And being the world's leading authority in mathematics does not mean that you are an authority on Greek poetry. And being the world's leading authority on baseball does not mean that you can hit a golf ball. It is fatuous to suggest otherwise.

When you quote the words of a genius as though they are, for having been uttered by a genius, absolute truth, you are also saying that a genius is something like a superhuman demigod, like an angel or... a genie.

While we only call human beings geniuses, the term used to refer to what we now call: genies. This makes it difficult to use the fact that you are an intermediary between the mundane and the divine to announce that God exists. After all, genius means that you have privileged access to God's mind.

And don't we believe that Stephen Hawking is the ultimate genius because he has, through illness, been largely deprived of the use of his body. A pure mind, unencumbered by a body, has better access to divine intelligence than someone whose mind is constantly being corrupted by bodily interests.

Where did Hawking go wrong? Simply, he was trying to use science, even physics, to prove or disprove the existence of a metaphysical being.

If God is a metaphysical being, then His existence or non-existence is not subject to experimental verification.

If you think that proving and disproving can only take place under the aegis of the scientific method, you have chosen one among many usages of the word: "proof." And then you misapplied it.

Proving a hypothesis is not the same as proving a theorem. Neither is the same as a philosophical proof of the existence of God.

One does not need to wander aimlessly in the philosophical thicket that Aristotle dubbed metaphysics, but a brief explanation is needed.

Ask yourself this: Do you believe that ideas exist? Given that you have never seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled an idea, can  you prove scientifically that ideas exist?

If science deals with observable and measurable phenomena, then how can it offer an opinion about the existence of metaphysical objects like ideas?

Let's admit that ideas exist. Do they still exist when no one is thinking about them? That is the crux of the problem.

Whether you take the idea of gravity or the idea of evolution, and you assume that the phenomena that we explain with these ideas existed before any scientist discovered exactly how they functioned, isn't it fair to say that there must exist somewhere else? And if they are ideas, don't they, by definition, exist in a mind.

You may call it the mind of God or the mind of one of God's angels, but still... if you or an archangel has an idea, something like a mind must be thinking it.

Scientists make certain aspects of the known universe intelligible to human minds. It helps those of us who have human minds to be able to grasp the universe's operating principles, and thus to see that it makes sense.

Now, if the universe makes sense to a human mind, isn't it plausible to say that it was created, or organized, or ordered by some other kind of mind?

This may not prove that God exists, but it should certainly help us to avoid pretending that we know for a fact that God does not exist.

As Carlin Romano explains, Hawking has fallen into the kinds of errors that were first analyzed by the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

When we say that God exists, or even that ideas exist, we are not using the predicate of existence the same way we would if we were talking about the existence of a thumb tack or of the Gulf Stream.

And when we say that we believe in a metaphysical being like God or a metaphysical entity like an idea, we are not talking about the same kind of belief that we have when we say that we believe in the existence of the sun or that we believe that the Saints won the Super Bowl.

Just because you are using the same word does not mean that you are talking about the same thing.

How Green Is Your Grocery Bag?

I know... it isn't fair and it isn't nice to make a mockery of people who exchange their plastic grocery bags for environmentally friendly hemp or burlap versions.

So, I won't.

For all I know the plastic bags that are refusing to decompose in landfills will soon become an environmental monstrosity whose scope exceeds my imagination.

Today, I am happy-- well, not really happy, but alarmed-- to report the latest findings about those hemp and burlap grocery bags. It turns out that most environmentally friendly consumers do not bother to spend the time or use the phosphate-laden detergent to wash them. Link here.

The result: these substitute grocery bags are breeding grounds for another one of Nature's wondrous creations: bacteria. The bacterial load in unwashed biodegradable grocery bags is an incalculable horror; it might even become a danger to your health.

So, if you are inclined to use one of these new bags, make sure that you wash it well. If you can't, go back to paper or plastic.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Score One for Sexual Stereotypes"

The story has been wending its way through the media for a month or so now. Yesterday, it arrived at the New York Times. Link here.

There, something interesting happened.

The story involves sociological research conducted by a graduate student at Cornell, one Christin Munsch. Reported here and here.

Munsch has shown that men whose wives make substantially more money than they do are five times more likely to cheat on them. This suggests that the old idea of the male breadwinner is based on a psychological reality.

Those who have been telling men to get over the idea of wanting to be breadwinners will have to take note of the fact that when men become more willing to allow women to become breadwinners, they exact a price for their sacrifice.

It has implications for arguments about the glass ceiling, about gender identity, and divorce statistics.

How does Pamela Paul finesse the politically incorrect implications? With irony. She concludes her article: "Ladies and gentlemen, scoundrels and shrews: score one for sexual stereotypes. But don't turn down that pay raise."

Irony is a very tricky rhetorical trope; I find that Paul uses it well. To me she seems to be paying lip service to our current compulsion to read all such research through a feminist and politically correct filter.

She is acknowledging that the evidence tends to support what have  been labeled as sexual stereotypes, but that we should not be too quick to conclude that one study settles the question.

Most importantly, she is acknowledging something that ideologically-driven feminists fail to note: that reality exists and that your beliefs, as long as they do not calcify into an ideological commitment, need to be tested against this reality.

Some people have expressed surprise that a man who is dependent on his wife for his lifestyle would risk it all for a fling. Yet, Munsch is aware that male pride, male gender identity, imposes its own demands on male behavior, and that men who feel they they are being humiliated by a woman will find a way to reassert their manhood.

If they can't do it in the boardroom, they will do it in some other woman's boudoir, in the only way that remains available.

We may or may not like this, but it seems to be the case.

Munsch's research does not limit itself to this specific case. She notes that when a man largely outearns his wife, he is more likely to cheat, while a woman who depends on her husband for her lifestyle and her children's upbringing is far less likely to cheat.

To maintain some balance she also notes that women who are largely more successful than their men are also more likely to commit adultery.

Fairness dictates that we mention that the results derive from studies involving younger men and women. We do not know how the statistics change when the couples are older.

Munsch adds that the male tendency to cheat can be tempered by higher education and regular attendance at religious services.

The former seems to suggest that status matters, while the latter suggests that men who are grounded in community, and who make a habit of participating in rituals that affirm it, are more likely to be faithful to their wives.

One must assume that community membership helps to tame your inner sybarite. For high status community-oriented men infidelity does not just risk hurt their marriage, but it puts their membership in community at risk too.

The male tendency to cheat does disappear once men and women are making similar salaries.

As for why men who are better providers and who largely outearn their wives are so likely to cheat, the answer is easy enough. Such men, alpha males, work later, travel more, and have more women seeking their sexual attention.

Thus, the normal attraction that women feel for alpha males, coupled with greater opportunity, makes for more infidelity.

How then can we explain the fact that women who are far more successful than their husbands are more likely to cheat than are women who depend on their husbands?

Perhaps it goes with the territory. A woman who achieves great success in a man's world must feel the same sense of increased power and privilege as a man does.

For succeeding at leading and managing, she also gains access to some of the same perks. Perhaps not the nubile young maidens, but surely a fair number of gigolos and studs who want nothing more than to please her.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lady Gaga Channels Hillary Clinton

Now this is going to really brighten up your day. Lady Gaga-- you know who she is-- has taken to channeling Hillary Clinton. And not just any side of Hillary Clinton, but Hillary's hidden dominatrix.

That's the news from today's London Daily Mail. The ubiquitous Gaga was visiting a nursing home. For the occasion she put on her dom Hillary costume. Two cheers for creative ingenuity.

It's worth clicking this link.

The New Green

A fashion designer once proclaimed that: "gray is the new black." He meant that gray was replacing black as the most popular color for women's dresses.

Of course, black is not really a color; it's the absence of color. But why quibble.

Green is a color, but it has also become the symbol of the environmental movement. If you want to show how much you love the earth, and how passionately you want to save the planet, you should: Go Green.

Green used to mean unripe, immature, and unseasoned. Now it refers to a bizarre mix of intellectual sophistication and agonizing guilt about the damage we are doing to nature.

Across America people are discarding their plastic shopping bags in favor of reusable hemp alternatives because they want to be green. They have reached a state of advanced awareness where they tremble in horror each time they imagine a plastic bag whiling away the eons in a landfill, refusing to decompose, seeping into the water table, polluting the planet and poisoning their grandchildren's grandchildren.

Strangely enough, green has been going out of fashion these days. With the exception of diehards like Tom Friedman, proud owner of a Green franchise, the upcoming election is not going to be referendum on how much you are willing to sacrifice to save the planet, or how much of America's industrial infrastructure you are willing to shut down to save Mother Earth.

When I say that Friedman owns a Green franchise, I am referring first to his most recent book: Hot, Flat, and Crowded 2.0: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America. His call to environmentalist arms has, naturally, led to his being hired to give lectures about how green our valleys used to be and about how they become so again if only we build more electric cars.

Today, tenacious Tom is at it again. Link here. He wants us all to turn green with envy at the investments the Chinese are making in electric cars. They are investing, get this: $15,000,000,000. Which would, come to think of it, be a mere drop in the stimulus bucket.

But, then again, if the Chinese build a better battery, nothing would really prevent us from buying it from them.

Anyway, the new Chinese-American electric cars will be on sale soon enough, priced at a mere $37,000.

Do you really think that there is a market for a $37,000 supercharged golf cart? Are you salivating at the prospect of trading in your BMW for an electric buggy?

Isn't Spain going bankrupt because it squandered so much of its fiscal resources building an environmentally friendly power grid that is not really viable?

And what about the cost of building all of those new filling stations that are going to replace their gas pumps with juice dispensers?

Anyway, Friedman does not let himself be discouraged by practicalities. Nor is he worried about the verdict of the marketplace. If people don't want to buy these new buggies, then Friedman will nudge them, or better, force them to do so.

Keep in mind that Friedman counts among our nation's philosopher kings. He belongs to what Plato calls the guardian class, an intellectual elite that knows better than you what is good for you.

He is going to wean you off of gasoline by imposing a new gas tax.

Every economist worth his Ph.D. is screaming about how we should not raise taxes in the midst of a recession. Yet, Tom Friedman, making yet another effort to save his Green franchise, proposes that we cripple the American consumer with a new gas tax.

While we are bowing down to the ingenuity of the Chinese, let's recall that their investment in a new generation of car batteries pales in comparison to what they are spending on new airports and high speed train lines.

And let's not forget that they are putting new coal-powered electric power plants on line every week of the year. And that they are also building dozens of nuclear power plants.

Theirs is a comprehensive approach to energy. In a way Friedman is right to envy the Chinese their policies, but he fails to notice that one of the main reasons why we cannot do many of these things is that any time anyone proposes to build a new nuclear facility, armies of green attorneys will kill it with lawsuits while legions of green bureaucrats will tie it up in red tape.

Of course, there is much to be said for a cleaner environment. Just as the Chinese, who are leading the world in pollution.

Unfortunately, the Green movement has become a religion, even a cult, to a mythic pristine nature that can only restored if we accept that carbon dioxide is the ultimate pollutant.

From its original charge to clean up the environment, the Green movement has redefined itself as the enemy of human industry and manufacturing.

And, lest we forget, China can build new infrastructure because it has a lot of money, and not a lot of debt. We do not have a lot of money, but we do have lots and lots of debt, that we owe to people like the Chinese.

I do recall that the Obama administration touted its stimulus plan as a way to rebuild America's aging infrastructure. After all, Japan has been trying to solve its own economic crisis by doing so, and, if it hasn't worked for Japan, then that surely must mean that it will work here.

In truth, the stimulus was a payoff to the public employee unions; precious little of it was spent on infrastructure.

In fact, the Obama administration, cheered on by the likes of Tom Friedman, has aggravated our economic calamity by trying to solve a problem caused by excessive debt by taking on trillions more in debt. So says, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Link here.

Now we have so much debt that the Federal Reserve has been hard at work inflating the once proud American greenback. When countries cannot pay off their debt, they have a tendency to inflate the currency-- to pay it all back in cheaper money.

So, while the stock market seems to be on a bullish tear, the dollar has been falling.

We now have a lighter Greenback, which is fast moving toward colorlessness... that is, valuelessness.

As everyone knows, if our Chinese creditors decide that they no longer trust our fading green currency, and that they no longer want to hold debt denominated in dollars, we are going to be in very deep trouble.

Mark Steyn on How We Are "Mollifying Muslims"

Writing from Scandanavia, Mark Steyn has weighed in on some of our most recent debates about reconciling free expression with Islamic sensitivities. From the Gainesville pastor to the disappearance of Molly Norris, he addresses issues that have been discussed and debated on this blog.

You may know that the Canadian Human Rights commission tried, unsuccessfully, to shut Steyn up. He was accused of defaming Muslims. He has taken sustenance from the battle, and as always, is well worth a read: Link here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

That Relationship Talk

There is barely a man alive who does not dread the moment when he hears these words: "We need to talk about our relationship."

He feels as though he is being thrown onto a stage, handed a microphone, and told to start reciting his lines. Only, he does not know what his lines are. He does not even know the name of the play. But he knows that he is supposed to perform, and that if he gets it wrong he is going to start having some serious problems.

Susannah Breslin raises the issue at The Frisky, and concludes that talking it over is not necessarily the best approach to relationship harmony. Link here. Breslin prescribes less talk and more action. No man is going to object to that.

Dr. Helen Smith then picked up the question on her blog. She explained that she finds relationship talk discomfiting. And rightly so. If you put your partner in an uncomfortable situation, you would normally feel a connection with those feelings. And who would want that? Link here.

I would guess that the "relationship talk" is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. It seems to derive from the therapy culture and seems to aim at putting your relationship in therapy.

In Breslin's words: "For as long as many of us can remember, we've been told that if we've got a problem, particularly a relationship problem, the answer is to talk it out. Go to a therapist and talk to a shrink about your issues. Boyfriend or husband acting distant? Well, you better talk to him about that."

Doesn't this culturally induced prescription sound intrusive and disrespectful? If your husband or boyfriend is acting distant, why not respect his feelings. Maybe he is not ready to talk to you about it.

And what makes you think that he is acting funny because of some relationship issue? If you insist that he come clean about his feelings for you, you are making something that might not have been a relationship issue into one.

If he is upset about something that happened in the office or on the ball field, might it not be better to let him feel that you are with him, rather than that you want to confront him and make him confess... God only knows what?

For my part I suspect that such thinking is a vestige of what psychoanalysis used to call transference analysis.

Putting a man on stage and insisting that he talk about his feelings is a genuinely bad idea. As Breslin explains: "... many relationships in tough times become a tug of war in which the woman tries to get the man to talk about his feelings, and the man, who may be disinclined for a variety of reasons in that directions, withdraws from her desire to talk, talk, talk about it."

Speaking for the other gender, I will tell you that most men, when you ask them to talk about their feelings, do not know what you are talking about.

Let's say a woman wants to connect with her mate. Breslin is saying that when she asks him to talk about his feelings he is going to withdraw from her. The more she insists, the more he will withdraw. Thus, the effort to connection has produced a more radical disconnect.

It makes sense in another way. To talk about your relationship you have to step out of it, put it under a microscope, and look at it as though it were a foreign object.

How can you open a channel of communication? First, by respecting his right not to tell you everything that he is feeling. Second, by following Breslin's advice and arranging for the two of  you to do something together.

She counsels women to play frisbee or to have sex or to cook a meal. She adds, wisely: "You might find that turning your relationship into a safe haven from relationship discussions will lessen your need to have relationship discussions at all."

A "safe haven" is a place where a man might express an emotion or two without expecting that he is going to be interrogated about it or called upon to justify himself.

If your man does not confide in you, you should first ask yourself whether you have created such a safe haven. You should next ask yourself whether you keep his confidence. And you should third ask whether you maintain a balance between what you share with him and what he shares with you.

If you are bubbling over with feelings, he is going to want to reciprocate, only he will start feeling that there is no way he can reciprocate in full measure. As you keep expressing your feelings and your mate does not reciprocate, you are indebting him to you.

And if the debt becomes too large he will feel that he cannot possibly ever pay it back. Then he will declare bankruptcy, and shut down completely. We know that that is not what you want.

"There Is No Honor in Honor Killing"

I and many others have written extensively on the horrors of honor killings in today's Muslim cultures. And we have tended to agree that only public shaming will have sufficient moral force to persuade people to stop them.

For some of my remarks, see here and here.

In today's Wall Street Journal Kwame Anthony Appiah reports on the efforts being made in Pakistan to end this brutalization of women. Link here.

And he also directs us to a Muslim group that is trying to use shaming to put an end to honor killings. The group's title: "There is no honor in honor killing." Direct link here.

I have tried to explain the point before, so I am happy to report now that members of the Muslim community are hard at work to stop these ignoble actions.

I would also note Appiah's larger point, one that I have made on the blog and in my book on Saving Face, namely, that shaming can be a positive moral force.

When the Chinese discovered that foot binding made them look like fools, they ceased the practice. And when dueling descended from the upper to the lower classes, the gentlemen who thought that it was a sure way to assert honor, starting having second and third thoughts.

As Appiah says, you can legislate all you want, you can ban whatever you want. But to change the culture, people must receive a strong dose of shame for their actions.

Considering that the therapy culture has been trying to tell people that shame is bad, and that you and the society at large should dispense with it, Appiah's work is a welcome contribution.

Why Don't Women Like Golf?

One of the most dispiriting facts about American intellectual life is the failure of some serious thinkers to accept that there are genetically determined differences between the sexes.

Many people who pretend to be Darwinian refuse to believe that the two genders are anything more than a social construct. The pseudo-sophisticates among us imagine that gender is nothing more than performance. As in, theatrical performance.

Gender roles are like rules in a play; the socially prescribed behaviors and the costuming constitute your gender identity. There is no genetic basis for the fact that women carry purses and men carry wallets.

We owe this idea to a Berkeley professor named Judith Butler. Aside from her ability to market bad ideas and to garner an academic reputation by producing high-toned gibberish, Butler has received an award for being the worst writer in America. Link here.

If you read through the link and arrive at the sentence that won Butler the award, you will see everything that is wrong with higher education in America.

Given the sorry state of American intellectual life, I am constantly on the lookout for evidence that demonstrates persuasively the reality of gender difference.

I have noticed, based on some very hard evidence, the golf is largely a man's game. Some women do play golf, but the game is largely a male domain.

Before you jump out of your chair, I will tell you that I am fully aware of how important the Dinah Shore Classic is to certain groups of women. I am informed, reliably, that the women who congregate for that great golf tournament are not really there for the golf.

I do not have a research laboratory at my disposal, so, when I was trying to figure out why women are not burning up the links in anywhere near the numbers that men are, I asked a woman friend why this should be so.

Her one-word answer: Breasts.

Initially, that solved it. As you know, I like one-word answers. Nothing is more high concept than a one-word explanation.

But as I discovered today, there's more to the story. Matt Ridley reports in the Wall Street Journal that the old and tired cliche of the husband who runs off to play golf while his wife meets her girlfriends to go shopping for shoes has a great deal of truth to it. Link here.

Ridley's explanation is blindingly obvious: Men hunt while women forage and gather.

When you go out hunting you are out in the open, you are moving around a lot, you are stopping to take a shot, and you are trying to hit the target with as few shots as possible.

Isn't that the definition of a great hunter?

So far so good. But what connects foraging for roots and berries with buying shoes.

Ridley could have made this a lot easier if he had pictured women shopping for food at the local farmer's market. In emphasizing shoe shopping he has set us a greater challenge.

Actually, I tried to contact Carrie Bradshaw, but her email and telephone number are unlisted, so I am reduced to speculating.

One thing we know about women's shoes, is that they are not designed for hunting or for sport. High heels, pumps, stilettos, and open toed sandals are not about hunting or competitive striving.

Some of them are about sexual display; others are about looking ladylike; others are perfect for an afternoon shopping with girlfriends.

Women's shoes are like much, but not all, of women's fashion. They are about appearance and they are about being someone for whom others hunt.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Psychological Resilience

When psychologists have wanted to learn whether human development is more influenced by nature or nurture, they have studied the cases of identical twins separated at birth.

Identical twins who are put up for adoption and are brought up in different family environments show us how much or how little their development responds to cultural factors.

In a world where many people still believe that human nature is a social construct, these studies show that nature has a far more important role in development than we would tend to believe. Many qualities really are hard-wired into the human organism.

A second group of comparative studies addresses how people recover from either a difficult upbringing or a trauma. Here, cultural factors take on greater importance.

Take two individuals from the same neighborhood, perhaps even the same home, and ask yourself how one of them can grow up to be a drug-addicted felon while the other becomes a pillar of the community. You would trust the latter with your life;  you wouldn't trust the former with a stick of gum.

Or else, take two people who suffer the same trauma, whether it is a hurricane or a terrorist attack or a rape, and ask yourself why one seems to be able to recover without too many problems while the other is afflicted with social paralysis and other post-traumatic disorders.

Nothing distinguishes the two people in terms of background and maturity. Yet, one demonstrates considerable resilience or adaptability while the other seems to have none.

Therapists have also been puzzled by the fact that some victims can mine their personal resources and recover from trauma without undergoing any therapy while others undergo extensive therapy and still cannot get themselves back on an even keel.

Dr. Lloyd Sederer addressed these issues in an article, and they are worth our attention. Link here.

As Dr. Sederer defines the term: "Resilience is a term that originates from physics and refers to the capacity of a substance to return to its original state after being subject to intense levels of pressure, heat or other external force. What a great term for human nature to adopt. It conveys a capacity to return to what was after experiencing trauma, tragedy, life threatening danger, persistent adversity or all of these profound and too often inescapable fates that humans encounter. Sometimes resilience is called adaptation, but resilience has a dynamic feeling to it, a sense that we can all tap into properties that enable us to rebound to where we were before misfortune, natural or manmade, strikes."

What then makes people resilient? What gives some people the capacity to process trauma and move on while others become overwhelmed by it?

Most of the answers are unsurprising. Supportive families and communities head the list.

If trauma tends to make people feel isolated and alone, if it causes psychological damage for making a person feel different, as though he had become someone else, then support from family and community, constant reinforcement of the fact that he has not changed will matter.

This differs from therapies that encourages people to join a group of fellow victims. Groups of victims tend to offer people a new identity at a time when the important thing is to recover their old identity.

Therapies like psychoanalysis that encourage introspection and independence are of little help. The same is true of therapies that encourage emotional expression, or, what is called debriefing.

According to Dr. Sederer the most helpful therapies involve problem-solving. These therapies, like coaching, do not involve empathy or feeling someone's pain. They offer hope because they show the trauma victim that he can do something to facilitate his recovery.

If trauma tends to make people feel that they are powerless to change what happened or how they feel about it, problem solving therapies and coaching can offer concrete suggestions that will empower them.

How can people develop resilience? First, by having the experience of learning through trial and error. Someone who has been coddled and protected, who has been always told he is doing well, will feel disarmed when something bad happens.

He will not possess the resources to adapt to changed circumstances or to put his life back in order after it has suffered a severe disruption.

Someone who is allowed to make his own mistakes and to figure out for himself how to rectify them will be more resilient than someone who always calls on someone else to clean up his messes.

Resilience studies affirm the place of character, of community, of culture.

I would only offer one clarification. Resilience does not involve making it as though nothing has happened. Something did happen; you were required to deal with its reality; you got yourself out of it. But that does not mean that you are returning to the state before the trauma. You have gained something from having had to work your way out of it.

Resilience works best when the trauma is not taken to be everything, when it is not made into a moment that defines your life, gives it new meaning, and is allowed to take you over.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Where to Get More Sex

It's not entirely true to say that everyone wants more sex. Some people are happy with the sex lives they have. Others would do with a bit less. Still others prefer quality to quantity.

Of course, it's a lot easier to measure quantity, so Men's Health limited its survey to the quantity of sex acts. And they broke down the survey geographically. Link here.

See also, this and this. Via Instapundit.

They must have reasoned that the states are competing against each other to see who has the most sex. It's March Madness for adults.

The results suggest that where you live has some influence on how much sex you get.

If more sex is not enough for you, and if you want to know where in America you can get the most sex, the answer is: Indianapolis, IN.


You would think that the libertine and liberal coastal enclaves, the places where people have attained levels of sexual freedom never before experienced in human history, would be a lock to win the competition.

The truth, according to the statisticians, is that you will have more sex in flyover country, in Middle America.

After Indianapolis, the next most sex-filled cities are: Columbus, OH, Fort Wayne, IN, Cincinnati, OH, and Salt Lake City, UT.

But, you have never been to Cincinnati and have never even heard of Fort Wayne. At least, now you know why you are not getting your fair share.

The news does not get any better as we go down the top ten list. Filling it out are San Antonio, Denver, Austin, Boise City, and Chicago.

That leaves you with a little hope. After all, Austin is reputedly a rather liberal and free-wheeling place, and Chicago, even if it not on the coast, at least distinguishes itself as being a metropolis. I couldn't help but wonder if its citizens are getting lots of sex because their city rose to prominence by being: "the hog butcher for the world."

That might explain something, but I'm not sure what.

You are probably less interested in knowing where you can go to get the least sex, but, to each his own, so it's only fair that I inform you that you will get the least sex in Lexington, KY.

Strangely, Lexington is in the same region as the cities where you can get the most sex. Go figure.

The ten worst cities for sex include two from Alabama and two from New Jersey. You think that the Jersey shore is the sexiest place in America, but their lubriciousness does not seem to extend to Newark and Jersey City.

I have no idea of what is going on in Alabama, and, for once, I will refrain from speculating. After all, I have friends in Alabama...

But, what happened to New York? It is hard to believe that New Yorkers are also-rans in this sexual derby.

After all, as duly reported on this blog, the great cosmopolitan metropolis has given us a magazine named for the city that has been running "Sex Diaries" that give us the impression that New Yorkers are wildly oversexed. Link here.

Aren't New Yorkers bigger and badder than everyone else? Aren't they all getting it on all the time? Apparently not.

Fear not. There is some good news here. Let's call it a consolation prize. New York is Number 1 in the country in purchases of sex toys.

If you want less sex but better business at your Babeland franchise, open shop in New York.

It is not just some statistical anomaly that New York is leading the nation in dildos and vibrators and the like. Also on the list of top ten cities for sex toys are: Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

You would think that this was all a function of the amount of sea salt in the ocean air, but the rest of the list includes cities like:  Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and Austin.

To ensure that we do not jump to any conclusions about the relationship between the number of sex toys purchased and the number of sexual experiences completed, two cities are in the top ten on both lists: Chicago and Austin.

It looks like we will have to have a runoff for the title: Best of all possible worlds.

Anyway, the results should not be that much of a surprise and they should not be that much of a mystery.

Everyone knows that the best way to have the most sex is to be involved in a committed relationship. Or, better yet, to get married.

Yes, we have all read the horror stories about sexless marriages, but the truth, according to the statistics, would seem to point in a different direction.

A single person who aspires to have as many sexual acts as a married person would have to expend an enormous amount of effort and work. Even the most accomplished pick-up artist will not be able to compete with your average Middle American couple when it comes to sex.

I hope that that doesn't ruin your day.

Muslims Speak Out for Molly Norris

It's worth noting, for those of us who have been following the story of Molly Norris's disappearance, that a publication called The American Muslim is calling on imams and other Muslim leaders to sign a document affirming the value of free speech and rejecting the fatwa that was issued against Molly Norris.

The authors of the document have reached out to Molly Norris and have communicated with her.

The story is on The Daily Caller.

Those who wrote and signed the letter wanted to express unambiguously their support for Molly Norris and their repudiation of the terrorist tactics of al Qaeda leaders like Anwar al-Awlaki.

Surely, this is a positive development, worthy of being noted.

Yesterday, a commenter on this blog raised the question of whether or not Molly Norris had had a choice in this matter. I thought it was a question worth considering. Perhaps she was allowed to choose between having FBI agents of US marshals follow her everywhere and going into witness protection.

Today, we are reminded by The Daily Caller that the FBI had insisted that Molly Norris go "ghost," meaning, erase her identity. It had not really given her a choice.

Thus, the question remains, why could they not have found another way to protect Molly Norris? Admittedly, the threat was serious. So were the threats against Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But why did they have to silence Molly Norris?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Secrets to Motivating People

The most difficult psychological problem is not gaining insights and self-awareness, but learning how to motivate others.

To the extent that Freud influenced therapy, the problem of motivating others has been ignored. In Freud's solipsistic universe, the first order of business was showing each individual that he was being motivated by dark inner forces. He classified the effort to motivate others under the category of suggestion... an unwarranted intrusion into another person's autonomy.

Yet, if you get beyond a tendency to chastise yourself for your bad motives, and start working with problems that are intrinsic to coaching, managing, and leading, you will want to know how to motivate others.

Keep in mind Dwight Eisenhower's definition of leadership: "Leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want done because he wants to do it."

Most people would agree with this idea. Precious few know how to do it.

Those who believe that they know how to lead often believe that you lead and manage people when you tell them what to do. If something goes wrong  you need merely tell them that they have made a mistake.

And yet, criticizing someone's faults rarely motivates him to do better.

It doesn't work because criticism is demoralizing. A person demoralized, whether it is your wife, your child, or your assistant, will start feeling incompetent. And someone who is feeling incompetent will not feel sufficiently competent to be able to affect the positive changes that are needed.

The rule applies whether we are talking about your performance as an auditor or as a housekeeper or as a lover.

When we want to find good examples of people motivating others, we go to the world of business. There we can most easily measure the results.

If you want to know how well you are motivating your staff, look at their performance. If they are performing poorly, if their work is slipshod, if their attitude and commitment are poor, then clearly you are doing something wrong.

According to studies cited by Heidi Grant Halvorson, it's all about the way you give your staff feedback. And that involves the way you articulate things, the way you address them, and the kinds of words you choose.

As Halvorson and many others have said, if you want to be a better manager of people you should focus on the results you want to produce, not the persona you believe you should adopt. Link here.

When things go wrong, when an employee has screwed up, Halvorson recommends that a good manager be straightforward and truthful, and not be too worried about hurting the person's feelings.

She says that employees need to know what they are getting wrong, because otherwise they cannot improve.

I have, however, encountered more than a few people who believe that they are obliged to inform their employees and family members of everything they are getting wrong, because this will help them to improve.

The results are rarely positive. Since criticism tends to demoralize, people who hand out too much of it tend to be demoralized themselves as their best efforts yield poor results. Too often they double down on the criticism: not only are you a bad employee but you aren't even smart enough to take my suggestions for becoming a better one.

So I am going to disagree with Halvorson 's recommendation here.

Clearly, you cannot tell someone that he has done a great job when he hasn't. That kind of lie will make it all the more difficult to manage him. But, you should not be spending your time pointing out his flaws and faults either.

Your goal, if you would like to improve your management technique, is to have your employee figure out for himself that he has made a mistake, and what that mistake was.

You need, in other words, to cultivate an environment where people are encouraged to admit to error and where they know that they will not be penalized for taking responsibility.

A good manager wants an employee to acknowledge his errors. Someone who knows that he messed up and is willing to admit to it is also going to be more motivated to correct it.

If your employee insists that he has done nothing wrong, and if things have gotten to the point where you have to tell him the unvarnished truth, then you both have a problem.

If your only recourse is to tell the truth to someone who does not believe he has done anything wrong then you are going to provoke a defensive reaction. People who are defensive are often overwhelmed by a need to defend themselves.

Next, a good manager will help his employee to figure out how to get things right. He will not-- I emphasize-- take a cue from therapy and ask why the person keeps getting things wrong, or whether he has unresolved issues.

Halvorson recommends being specific, not general, about what needs improving. She believes that it is best to begin with bad habits that can most easily be improved. You can recommend that the person should put in more time on his work, that he should try to develop his interpersonal skills, that he should keep in closer communication with his colleagues, that he should return messages promptly, and so on.

It is best to keep it informational, not personal. It is better to recommend new habits than to criticize the person for being inadequate.

Next, Halvorson makes an intriguing suggestion, one that runs counter to the conventional wisdom. She says that a good manager should not praise an employee for having made a good effort, for having given it his best, for having tried very hard... and failed.

She notes, wisely, that when you tell someone that he has done his best but has failed, he is going to think you are saying that failure is his best.

It is better to leave open the possibility for improvement by suggesting that with more effort or better work skills he can improve his performance.

She adds that when things go well, you should not praise your employee for having great natural talent, for having great aptitude for the business, or for being a wonderful person.

She prefers that you praise him for the actions that he took, for the way he organized the project, for the way he implemented the policy. As she puts it: "Praise the actions; not the person."

If you tell someone that he is a natural, he is likely to think that he does not have to work as hard, and that he does not have to be as motivated as someone who has less talent.

As Halvorson adds, if you tell a person he's a natural and he then starts having difficulty with something, he will feel that he does not have the natural talent to succeed at the new task and will be more likely to give up.

This approach to managing people aims at specific habits that can be changed. It tries to inspire confidence while not allowing the person to believe that he can do no wrong.

It does not imagine that there are root causes, primal issues, that need to be resolved before the person can improve his functioning.

That is the most intriguing part. Hasn't the therapy business been based in large part on the notion that you must resolve your underlying issues before you can function better in the world? Doesn't it criticize the person, not the actions. Doesn't it assume that the fault lies with the person, not his bad behavior.

In fact, therapists most often consider bad behavior or poor habits to be symptoms of a larger unresolved mental conflict.

Therapy seems to be the inverse of good management technique.  If so, its technique would tend to demotivate people, to demoralize them, to persuade them not to take the small steps that might improve their behavior and mood.

Once you are sufficiently demotivated and demoralized, then you are more likely to remain in therapy forever. In Freud's words treatment will become interminable.

Where in the World Is Molly Norris?

Last week I asked a question that I thought everyone should be asking, but that no one was: Why can't they protect Molly Norris? Link here. 

If the British government could provide police protection for Salman Rushdie and if the Dutch government could provide protective custody for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, why couldn't the FBI protect Molly Norris?

Why did the FBI decide to erase the identity of a Seattle Weekly cartoonist when other governments had been able to protect people who had much higher profiles?

If Ayaan Hirsi Ali can live freely in the United States, why can't Molly Norris?

I am happy to report that this idea has now moved from the blogosphere to the the media. In an editorial two days ago the Washington Examiner asked the same question and called out the FBI, and, by extension, the Holder Justice Department, for cowering in the face of terrorism. Link here.

The Examiner pointed out that the FBI had fought Ku Klus Klan terrorist threats and had defended Southern newspaper editors vigorously. Why could it not have protected Molly Norris?

And the Examiner also calls out journalists for failing to stand up for Molly Norris. The American Society of News Editors refused its request to offer a statement about her, and, as I have also noted, the pathetically pusillanimous Nicholas Kristof thought that it was a great time for America, or American journalists, to apologize to Islam. My remarks here.

Now let's see how long it takes for the question to be asked of the FBI, the Justice Department, or Robert Gibbs. Molly Norris is not a high profile public figure. Why could the FBI not find a way to protect her short of silencing her?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Feminist Wager

When contemporary feminism arrived on the scene some four decades ago it did not brand itself a recruiting tool for radical political causes.

Quite the contrary. It promised that if women became feminists, and if they worked to undermine the gender inequalities that pervaded American culture, they would be rewarded with rich, more satisfying, and happier relationships.

It convinced them that their relationships were oppressing them, and that they were of little real value. It's easier to walk away from something that is worthless.

Relationships based on inequality were intrinsically oppressive, and any woman who was enjoying her oppression was a tool of the patriarchy... sorely in need of liberation.

Yet, traditional relationships were all that most women knew. Women who refused to honor the traditional and unspoken relationship contract might find themselves alone. How could feminists persuade women to live according to its precepts?

Whether they understood it this way or not, feminists chose to offer women a wager. Women were told, and many were convinced, that if they gave up something of little value they might possibly discover bliss in a new egalitarian relationship.

Feminists seemed to suggest that even if this heavenly relationship was not attainable, women were wrong not to take the chance. How could you hang on to something that was making you miserable when that meant foreclosing the possibility of finding something that would make you ecstatic?

Perhaps you have guessed where I am going with this. To my mind, this resembles what is now commonly called Pascal's wager. Link here.

Named after its author, seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, it was originally addressed to people who refused to believe in God because they could not know rationally whether or not God existed.

If God did not exist they could do what they pleased, because the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell were removed. But if God did exist, and if God could grant them eternal life, they would do better to behave like good Christians... even if that meant not succumbing to each and every transitory temptation.

In his effort to convince people to be better Christians, Pascal posited that they could see their choice as a wager. They would wager a finite amount of mundane pleasures, pleasures that would not be that difficult to abandon because they were really not a very good thing, against the hope and promise of eternal life.

Wagering a finite loss against the possibility of an infinite gain would seem like a good bet. Even if there is no God and there is no Heaven, all you have lost is a few minor pleasures that are, in truth, not really very enjoyable anyway.

The feminist wager is a variation on this theme. Women were persuaded to abandon old fashioned relationship behavior, which was not really worth very much and which was not making them happy, in order to open themselves to the possibility that they could find relationships that would be perfectly egalitarian and fully satisfying.

Of course, feminists could not promise that such heavenly bliss existed; only that it might exist. A woman who maintained her identity as a traditional housewife could never gain access to that bliss. A woman who was liberated might.

The feminist wager was based on hope and a prayer. It was also sustained by fictional representations of good relationships, happy endings, and couples living in egalitarian harmony.

The new Jack and the new Jill both had careers; they shared child rearing tasks; they both had orgasms; they worked side by side making dinner, doing laundry, and cleaning the dishes.

To say that it has not worked out as feminists promised begs the question. They were not promising bliss; they were promising the possibility of bliss.

But how would women go about preparing for this possibility. Of course, they would have to step outside of traditional gender roles. If they had careers they would not be dependent on men. They would not be a burden; they would not represent a financial obligation. This would make it possible for men to love them for who they really were.

In reality, this dream of equality, or of sameness, does not lead to better relationships. It precludes them. When a woman tells a man that all she wants from him is love, he will feel like less of a man. And if she makes him feel like less of a man, he is going to find someone who is going to make him feel more like a man.

When a woman declares her independence and autonomy, a man will hear her saying that her only true loyalty is to herself. He will fear that her independence will lead her to abandon him. 

Feminists have been especially interested in women's sexual behavior. They have taken grievous offense at the fact that women are more modest and reserved about the expression of their sexuality, that they are less aware of what gives them pleasure, and that they are generally sexually deprived. Especially when compared with men.

If it is impossible to maintain modesty and at the same time have a satisfying sex life-- such was the feminist contention-- then women could improve their chances at having blissful relationships by having sex as men did.

They should have multiple partners, and undertake to explore their sexuality fully. In this way they could be great lovers for their future husbands.

A marriage of sexual equals would bring both partners bliss between the sheets, and thus would be more durable than the old style marriages that were being sacrificed on the altar of infidelity.

Is this true? Apparently not. According to the available research a woman who has more sexual partners before her marriage will be more likely to experience marital disruption than will a woman who has had fewer sexual partners. Link here.

Of course, there are many possible reasons for this phenomenon. Many feminists will attribute it to unenlightened attitudes and vestigial patriarchal tendencies. On the other hand, these statistics do explain why so many young women are so concerned about what is called their: "number."

Feminism tried to open the possibility for a relationship utopia. True believing feminists will never give up the dream because they do not care whether it comes about this century or next.

Most women, however, are more concerned with their everyday lives.

Many have discovered that the relationships and marriages that they abandoned were better than the difficulties of being a single parent with a career.

Too many women bought the promise of utopia only to find themselves living in a feminist dystopia.

Why I Am Not Reading "Freedom"

Jonathan Franzen is the novelist du jour. From the cover of Time magazine to Oprah's Book Club he has been lauded and feted, elevated to the summit of literary intellectualism.

Of course, no one reads Time magazine any more, and Oprah's ratings have been sliding downward for the past couple of years-- probably beginning with her public support for Barack Obama. 

Because or despite all that, Franzen's opus is going to be read and reread, discussed and dissected, in book clubs across America and at cocktail parties in Manhattan.

If you fail to read the book and cannot issue forth with a serious riff about what it says about today's America, you are going to be labeled a Philistine. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn't finish Franzen's earlier work, The Corrections: A Novel. I found it tedious, didn't care about the characters, what happened to them, or why they were doing what they were doing.

Some novelists can get away with inferior characters and plotting because they write so well that their prose stylings carry you along. Such was not the case with Franzen.

In my previous post, I expressed dismay at the fact that a New Yorker writer, named George Packer, was quoting a clunky Franzen sentence as though it were a piece of incontestable, even oracular, wisdom.

When I was writing about the offending sentence, I was thinking that it must have been something that Franzen had tossed off under pain of deadline. No one who writes that badly can be lionized by the literary establishment.

Alas, it appears that Freedom is filled with similar offenses against reason and sensibility. Reviewing the book for The Atlantic, B.C. Myers quotes Franzen's description of Richard's love for Walter: "These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow." Link here.

Does that make you want to know more about Richard or Walter? Does it whet your appetite for more of Franzen's prose stylings?

For those who want to know what the novel is about, or, I should  say, is not about, and for those of you who want to know what I'm missing, Myers sums it up nicely:  "A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as 'relatively dumber' than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, 'whose most salient quality ... was his niceness,' and Walter's womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surpise, the novel is a 576 page monument to insignificance."

For those who have been thinking that the book is about today's America, David Brooks offers a correction. As he sees it, Franzen's novel is not really about today's America; it is about American literary culture, its false pride and its dogmatic prejudices. Link here.

It's as though the artist had taken his eyes off of his model and had decided to construct a fiction whose purpose is to persuade people of the truth of his political opinions. This is art in the service of political indoctrination... aka propaganda.

As Brooks puts it, Franzen has written a caricature of America whose purpose is to disabuse us of the notion that our lives are interesting, worthwhile, or significant.

The novel does not present human dilemmas, interesting and compelling characters, or even a great story. No one ever accomplishes anything of value; no one ever makes an important contribution. There are no heroes and no villains.

The book is about America the diminished, America the way that socialists have always portrayed it. It shows us the way literary intellectuals see America, and the way they want everyone else to see it.

Such people, Brooks explains, have, from the time of Thoreau, seen Americans living lives of "quiet desperation." Brooks correctly labels this a modern orthodoxy, a dogma, that, if you embrace it, will admit you to the confines of high toned literary salons and get you on to Oprah.

In his words: "By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma. There's no religion. There's very little about the world of work and enterprise. There's an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling."

So, you have America deprived of its heroes and villains, of its great politicians and entrepreneurs, of its larger than life characters and its cosmic dramas. You have America reduced to pure and utter banality.

Is there any redeeming social value here? Perhaps, there is value in seeing the world as literary intellectuals see it. If you are a literary intellectual,  or aspire to be one, you will read Franzen and be filled with feelings of superiority to these characters; you will enhance your self-esteem by comparing  your fascinating life with the characters' lives of quiet desperation.

But of course, the book is not just written for Franzen's buddies and pals. It is written for a larger audience, for
people who aspire to be literary intellectuals, who want to think like them and even be like them.

One hesitates to draw conclusions without having read the book, but it may be that Franzen is really offering a parody of the conceit of literary intellectuals. And of the certainty with which they promulgate their world view as though it were a higher truth. 

If so, the joke may well be on them, and on anyone who finds that Freedom offers the truth about modern America.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"I'm Exhausted of Defending You"

At today's town hall meeting, an exhausted Obama supporter calls out the president. It's an astonishing moment, which surely qualifies as: speaking truth to power.

Link here. Via Instapundit.

Mental Toughness

Everyone wants success and the happiness that comes with it. Is it best acquired by increasing your sensitivity or by building up your mental toughness? Link here.

Therapy values caring and compassion. It values enhanced sensitivity. It traffics in pathos. It wants you to feel everyone's pain, empathically.

But do these values serve you well when you are competing in a chess match, a football game, a military campaign, or a product launch? Will your competitive spirits be enhanced by participating in yet another day of sensitivity training?

Sensitivity and caring have their places. In the nursery, in the home, in intimate relationships, and in religious and spiritual experience. They prevail in the arts, in drama, and in fictional world.

Move these values into a competitive environment and you are going to start having problems. If your therapy has taught you to be more sensitive, your career is going to suffer.

Sensitivity is counterproductive in business. It is going to hold you back. And it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman. So says a new article in the Harvard Business Review. Link here.

It makes good sense. If you are so sensitive, the very soul of empathy, that you do not feel comfortable inflicting ignominious defeat on a competitor, you will lack mental toughness, the will to succeed, and the perseverance to soldier on in the face of adversity.

According to Andrew O'Connell, women have more difficulty maintaining mental toughness than men. They seem to be drawn, by nature or by nurture, to be caring and empathic.

And yet, for many years now men have been beaten down by a culture that wants them to develop their sensitivity, empathy, and caring. To the point where many of them do not even understand what mental toughness is.

It is strange indeed. Say what you will about women being sensitive and caring, but surely Margaret Thatcher was a role model for mental toughness. In a world where men have been persuaded to wear their feelings on their sleeves, we are now seeing more and more women take up ... the slack.

Especially in politics, women are displaying a mental toughness that men no longer feel they can show.

Is Sarah Palin mentally tough? Isn't that one of the qualities that is most impressive about her? And isn't the nation transfixed to see a woman who is both mentally tough and feminine at the same time?

Didn't Peggy Noonan explain that the Tea Party, to say nothing of the Mamma Grizzlies, is taking over for Republican men who have become too squishy, too eager to give in, too willing to surrender their principles, too quick to compromise. For my comments on Noonan's column, link here.

Thatcher and Palin have shown that mental toughness does not require a constant display of brutal aggressiveness. The boss who adopts an aggressive persona is playing a role; his one-note aggressiveness is a sign that he lacks mental toughness.

Mental toughness requires flexibility. The mentally tough change tactics when situations change or when the initial plan is not yielding the desired results.

People who are mentally tough want to win and will do whatever it takes, within the rules, to effect that outcome. They do not adopt a macho persona and maintain it no matter the outcome. You might show that you are tough by driving your car off the cliff, but mental toughness is not about crashing and burning.

In the article I linked in my first paragraph, Christine Riordan offers some excellent guidelines for mental toughness. She bases her analysis on her experiences as dean of a business school and as the mother of a son she is helping train for soccer.

Sports, business, the military... the concept of mental toughness comes to us from the world of competitive striving. Its values have largely been occluded by therapy and its culture.

You may think that the therapy culture is emphasizing female friendly values. And yet, at a time when women are more fully participating in the world of business, therapy would seem to be hawking a value system that would, if anything, make them dysfunctional in that world.

A great competitor directs his energy, his focus, his concentration, and his intelligence entirely to the task at hand. He will do what it takes to win within the rules. He will not be defeated by adversity, but will quickly move to change a plan that is not working. He will stick with his project, keep the goal in mind, and persevere until he achieves it.

The mentally weak will be too quick to accept defeat. They will take it all personally, become emotional, fail to adapt, feel everyone's pain, or else will simply refuse to change tactics when reality keeps telling them that they are wrong.

Sticking with a losing plan might feel like toughness; it is really a way of consigning oneself to ignominious defeat. There is no mental toughness in futility.

Mental weakness may also manifest itself in cheating to get ahead, cutting corners, taking what you can without earning it, and seeing what you can get away with.

When a mental tough individual sees an opportunity to win by bending the rules, he demurs. When great golfers inadvertently break the rules they are the first to turn themselves in.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter does not write about "mental toughness," but her article on five powers that will help you achieve success falls within the bounds of the concept. Link here.

You can develop your mental toughness, Kanter advises, by evincing the five ups: showing up, speaking up, teaming up, looking up, and not giving up.

By the term "looking up" she means having strong ethical principles, principles like fair play and sportsmanship.

When she adds "not giving up" she means persevering in the face of adversity.

If we get over the cult to sensitivity, perhaps we can also accept that mental toughness has a place in the home, in nurturing, and even in romance.
Christine Riordan talks about how she, as a mother, helps to instill mental toughness in her soccer-playing son. Admittedly, a mother nurturing a baby relies more on sensitivity and instinct than on more competitive energies. Still and all, after a time the sensitivity will become cloying and a good parent will work harder at building mental toughness and good character than in teaching the virtues of deep feelings.

We all believe that dating and mating are really about how much you two love each other. And yet, if we ignore the gamesmanship that is involved in these activities, we will end up the poorer for as much.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Kristof Grovel

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is an accomplished and talented reporter. From his coverage of the Tienanmen Square protests to his work on child sex slavery, he has had a long and distinguished career as a reporter.

Being a great reporter does not make you a moral philosopher. It does not mean that you know your way around intellectual argument. Clearly, Kristof does not.

If Kristof belongs to our intellectual elite, we need to reexamine our standards for assessing intellectual achievement.

Today, Kristof disqualifies himself from being taken seriously as a thinker. He does it by writing an embarrassing column in which he attempts to apologize for America's intolerant attitude toward Islam. Link here.

I say "attempts" because, unless I missed something, Kristof does not speak for America.  Kristof speaks for Kristof and should, in a proper ethical universe, take responsibility only for those actions where he bears responsibility, either directly or indirectly.

But, perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps Kristof, who commands space on the Times op-ed page, has come to see himself as a member of a class of intellectuals-- call them philosopher-kings or guardians as Plato does-- who are really running the country. As a member of this guardian class Kristof seems to feel that he has some responsibility for the actions and beliefs even of those who do not follow his enlightened teaching.

In reality, of course, the president of the United States does speak for America. Well before Kristof elevated himself to a place from which he could speak for America, Barack Obama was traveling around the world apologizing for America.

Does Kristof consider that Obama's grovel was insufficient or inadequate? Is he proposing that we all learn a new dance: the Kristof grovel?

If the absence of apology has caused all of what Kristof calls the "misunderstanding" between Americans and Muslims, and if these misunderstandings were the cause of Islamic terrorism,  you would think that the Obama grovel would have ushered in a new age of Islamic tranquility.

The evidence suggests that this has not happened.

One hesitates to examine the substance of Kristof's arguments, because they are, as I suggested, embarrassing.

He is correct to say that many, many wonderful people in the world today are Muslims. Since no one believes the contrary, this is far from being a dispositive argument.

As has been noted so many times that one hesitates to state it again, while all of the world's Muslims are not terrorists, nearly all of the world's terrorism is being committed in the name of Islam.

Often with the collusion and connivance of Muslim clerics. Consider the case of Omar Abdul-Rahman, the Muslim cleric who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center.

To use the Kristof standard, we can rightly ask whether any Muslim cleric has ever apologized for Islamic terrorism. Has any Muslim cleric ever apologized for 9/11?

Today, everyone's favorite Islamic rabble rouser is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. This Great Conciliator declared, in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocity, that terrorist actions were contrary to Islam. Doubtless that is the case. Link here.

And yet, when Imam Rauf added that Osama bin Laden was "made in the USA," he was not only sneering at the families of those who had died in the attack, but he was not being contrite, was not taking responsibility, and was not apologizing.

Why would Nick Kristof be willing to take responsibility for the feelings of some of his countrymen while imams cannot take responsibility for actions committed in the name of their religion, and with the collusion and connivance of religious leaders?

I will try to make this issue clear. Try a different example. What would happen if Pope Benedict had not chosen to apologize for the child molestation committed by Catholic priests and for efforts by senior clergy to cover up the abuse? What if he had said that such actions were directly contrary to Catholic teaching?

But while child molestation is strictly condemned by Catholic teaching, most people would have seen quickly that he was dodging responsibility.

Declaring that actions by members of your community are contrary to your community's values does not absolve you of responsibility. It does not mean that you need not offer an apology.

But, you are thinking, Osama bin Laden and his murderous band, to say nothing of the Taliban, do not belong to the priesthood of Islam. Yet, Sheikh Rahman did belong, and more than a few imams have preached jihad from their pulpits. If they have not preached it, they have joined Imam Rauf in rationalizing it and shifting the blame to America.

If these imams care about the way people see their religion and their communities around the world, they should apologize for terrorist actions, not rationalize them. If they fail to apologize-- preferring to leave that to Kristof-- then they do not care, and are willing to enjoy the power that devolves on those whom other people fear.

We all understand that Islam does not have a centralized hierarchy in the same way that Catholicism does. Yet, it does have clerics who command more authority; who have greater responsibility. Nothing is preventing them from apologizing for terror that is committed in the name of Islam.

Strangely enough, Kristof is more than happy to speak up and defend the virtue of the Muslims he knows. Again, no one ever thought the contrary. He offers little more than lip service to his negative feelings about terrorism.

Yet, he saves the better part of his venom for American "extremists [who are] engineering a spasm of religious hatred."

That would be Rev. Terry Jones and his fifty parishioners in Florida. Presumably, Kristof  is also targeting the intolerant masses who do not feel as much moral cowardice as he does.

Kristof is perfectly capable of attacking Rev. Jones, even to the point of comparing him, in an extreme example of moral equivalence, with Osama bin Laden, but he can barely criticize those Muslims who have dedicated their lives to engineering spasms of religious hatred.

He actively diminishes their responsibility. As he puts it: "Radicals tend to empower radicals, creating a gulf of mutual misunderstanding and anger. Many Americans believe that Osama bin Laden is representative of Muslims, and many Afghans believe that Rev. Terry Jones (who talked of burning Korans) is representative of Christians."

In the world of moral equivalence it does not get any more warped than that. Who in his right mind considers the actions of bin Laden equivalent to an empty threat by a no account Christian pastor? Do you really believe that bin Laden is really a harmless kook like Rev. Jones?

In his own way, Kristof must be preparing for the next Stephen Colbert rally. He may think that he is making a gesture of reconciliation. In truth, he is keeping fear alive.