Tuesday, November 30, 2010

High Self-Esteem or Good Character

If I have to choose between encouraging people to have high self esteem and helping them to build good character, I will always come down on the side of good character.

If the choice is between self-esteem and self-control, as Dennis Prager suggests, it is better for a child to learn self-control and discipline than for him to learn to feel good about himself regardless of his successes and failures. Link here.

Good character will make you happier than will high self-esteem. Good character will make you a better person, and a better person will have more friends and will succeed more often.

When self-esteem has no real basis, it becomes nothing more than a mental tic. Regardless of whether I succeed or fail I have been taught to tell myself, over and over again, that I am the greatest.

No one is going to like you if your self-esteem is arrogance and if it has nothing to do with the reality that everyone, but you, sees.

When your high self-esteem allows you to feel good about yourself no matter what, you will become a self-involved narcissist who will have no real use for other people.

Through the agency of the educational establishment the therapy culture has told us that people with high self-esteem are confident, happy, well-adjusted, optimistic, and wholesome.

And yet, as Prager reports, recent research has shown that children who have high self-esteem often grow up to be criminals.

It does make some sense. If you have always been told that you can do as you please and take what you want, then why would you not make a career out of crime.

If you have learned that other people have no right to judge you, for good or for ill, then you might believe that your actions have no moral component at all. They are neither good nor bad, but they are yours. You need only judge them by how they make you feel.

Anyone who thinks that the therapy culture is in the business of producing mental health should think again.

But then, Prager adds, in what seems to be a logical deduction, children who have grown up with low self-esteem, who have been judged too harshly by their parents, who have systematically been abused and brutalized and criticized, often grow up to have good character.

I would certainly have my doubts about this conclusion. Wherever would this child learn good character if he has spent his childhood learning how to survive abuse? Where would he learn to trust people, to have confidence in their character, if he has suffered the effects of people who have no character?

We need, at the least, to be careful with our logical deductions. The fact that it appears to be logical does not necessarily make it true.

I would agree that criminals might well have high self-esteem. But only in the sense that their self-worth is detached from their sense of being part of a community.

When you make a living out of exploiting people and cheating them out of whatever they have earned, then you do have high self-esteem in the sense that success has given you confidence.But you do not have high self-esteem in the sense that you respect yourself or other people.

A child who is fed a steady diet of self-esteemist thinking is also likely to become a narcissist, a slacker, or a self-absorbed fool. Perhaps he will come to believe that the world owes him a living, but that is not quite the same thing as being John Dillinger.

One of the major problems with the self-esteem movement is that the term is defined with breathtaking imprecision.

I suspect that self-esteem became ubiquitous because it was confused with other more useful concepts, like self-respect, self-confidence, optimism, and even, good character. I believe that the term has purposefully been attached to other terms, like self-respect and character, in order to insinuate itself into our thinking. 

Thus, there’s self-esteem and there’s self-esteem. A child who is good at math and gets high scores on his math tests will develop a confidence in his ability to do math. He will esteem himself for his real accomplishments.

Whenever he receives a new set of problems, he relishes the opportunity and attacks the task with gusto. When he cannot figure out a problem, he will assume that with a little extra time or effort he will be able to. His confidence will motivate him through easy and difficult assignments.

Whether we call it his self-esteem, his confidence, or his self-respect, it has been earned. They are his, inalienably.

What happens, then, if the school system decides to pervert the concept of self-esteem by deciding that all answers on math tests are of equal validity; they all express the student’s feelings at that particular time? Or, what would happen if a teacher decided to give everyone the same grade?

How long would the excellent math student keep working to do his best? How long would he continue to feel confident in his ability to do math?

Of course, educators who reward children for doing poorly, whether on math tests or on the soccer field, are insulting them. They are assuming that the children do not know that they are receiving an award that they did not earn.

Unearned rewards, like unearned confidence, assume that the child does not know the difference and does not understand that those who excel deserve more than those who do not.

This form of artificially high self-esteem-- the basis for the self-esteem movement-- is actually demeaning. One might even say that it would lower one's self-esteem. Is there any real surprise that it would tend to produce adults that are criminals or narcissists or both?

The consequences of self-esteemist thinking are clear. Prager writes: “Perhaps the most famous example is the survey of American high-school students and those of seven other countries. Americans came in last in mathematical ability but first in self-esteem about their mathematical ability.”

Strangely, a movement that attempted to turn the classroom into a therapist’s office, the better to improve student performance, has also been touted as a way to make children into more responsible citizens.

Of course, it makes no sense. No one is going to become more responsible by not being held accountable, by not allowing themselves to be judged for their faults, flaws, and strengths.

But does it then follow, as Prager thinks it does, that if children with high self-esteem grow up to become criminals, that children with low self-esteem would naturally grow into solid citizens with exemplary character?

Do we really believe that children who are constantly berated, criticized, and demeaned are going to grow up to have good character?

Where would such a child learn the lessons of good character? Where would he learn discipline when he is subjected to parental intemperance? Where would he learn trust when he has been brought up by someone he cannot trust?

If you are successful in building your character you would naturally take pride in your ethical achievements? Some might say that this involves self-esteem. Others would choose a different word.

While you might build your character as a reaction to parental abuse, the chances are better that you will build it by emulating parents who have good character themselves.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Is the Birth Control Pill an Infertility Fetish?

Vanessa Grigoriadis opens her New York Magazine article with a scene at the Pierre Hotel. Under the aegis of pharmaceutical manufacturer, a group of women met there recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary of invention of the birth control Pill. Link here.

Of course, the Pill seemed to free women definitively from the risks of unwanted pregnancy. But it has also, Grigoriadis argues, caused too many women to ignore their fertility, even to ignore their femaleness. So, the advent of the Pill has led to much more difficulty conceiving and even increased infertility.

At first glance, this does not seem quite correct. Every modern woman knows that the chances for conception start dropping precipitously after age 35.

This does not mean that Grigoriadis is wrong. It is possible for women to know the risks of deferring childbearing and to ignore them.

This can happen when people join a cult where they consume or worship an object as though it were a magical gift from a god. Could the Pill have been made by feminism into just such a primitive fetish object.

You will probably not find the idea very persuasive. The Pill was invented by science, so we believe that when we get together to celebrate its inception, we are celebrating scientific research, not participating in a cultic ceremony.

How could a pharmaceutical product have anything to do with the world of irrational superstition and pagan beliefs? How could taking the pill be similar to showing reverence for a primitive fetish object, one that is imbued with supernatural powers?

Taking the birth control Pill is more like taking medicine. For Heaven’s sake… it’s prescribed by physicians!

Perhaps Grigoriadis is saying that when modern women, especially modern feminists, start taking the Pill, they get caught up in an infertility cult where the Pill functions like a fetish.

And some of them get trapped in it to the point that their reason clouds over and they wait too long to find a mate and to have children. 

To be fair, this fetish-based reading is mine, not the author’s. I find that if we read her this way, her argument makes more sense.

Even though the Pill is not the first or the only contraceptive, it is by far the most effective. Just as a fertility fetish was thought to ensure successful conception and gestation, people in the modern world seek the intervention of the Pill to ensure temporary infertility.

For contemporary feminism, the Pill was godsend. If feminism looks and sounds like a cult, it should not be surprising that it involves the use and manipulation of fetish objects like the Pill.

The Pill was invented by science. Yet, when feminists wove it into a narrative that served their purposes, it was transformed into an object that had been sent by a god to legitimize the feminist way of life.

Gregoriadis sees this clearly: “It’s magic, a trick of science that managed in one fell swoop to wipe away centuries of female oppression, overly exhausting baby-making, and just marrying the wrong guy way too early.”

It’s not just about avoiding conception. It’s about living a new lifestyle: “These days, women’s twenties are as free and fabulous as they can be, a time of boundless freedom and experimentation, of easily trying on and discarding identities, careers, partners. The Pill, which is the most popular form of contraception in the U.S., is still the symbol of that freedom.”

There’s more to it than reproductive freedom. By allowing women to discard their identities, the Pill allows them to imagine that they are having sex like a man.

If that is the ideological message, then the Pill, Grigoriadis argues, can cause women to lose touch with what it means to be a woman.

In her words: “It’s easy to believe the assurances of the guests at the Pierre gala that the Pill holds the answers to empowerment and career success, to say nothing of sexual liberation—the ability to have sex in the same way that guys always have, without guilt, fear, or strings attached.”

For now, we will ignore the absurd caricature of the male attitude toward sexual experience.

Grigoriadis will surely take some very serious grief for having written this article. Already, she has come under fire from Amanda Marcotte on the DoubleX blog.

But I think we do well to follow her argument. After all is said and done, she is arguing against the feminist cult, against a cult that has made the Pill into a fetish object. And she is saying that women themselves should decide, freely and rationally, what to do with their reproductive potential and when to do it. There is no special virtue in allowing feminism to make these decisions for individual women. 

Being a woman is not just a social construct; it does have a biological component. Women ignore it at their peril.

Grigoriadis is calling for women to throw off the bonds of superstition and cults, the better to return to the realities and responsibilities of being women.

As she puts it: “The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened).“

At a time when the dogmas of political correctness insist that all kinds of sexual pleasure are created equal, it is good to see a woman writer trying to ground the discussion in reality.

Developing Your Leadership Skills

Yesterday, the New York Times interviewed Bob Brennan, president and C.E.O. of Iron Mountain, an information management company. Its reporter asked him what makes for great corporate leadership. Link here.

The Times often interviews business executives. Many of them offer worthwhile instructions about leadership skills.

Brennan’s advice strikes me as especially cogent. His is probably not new to you; you might have heard it in many places, this blog included.

Yet, there is nothing wrong with repeating them, from a different angle.

First, Brennan explains that it is fine for people to report on the problems that they see, thus, to offer a critical analysis of everything that is going wrong in the company.

But, a good executive listens carefully and then asks a question: What do you think we should do?

In his words: “I ask this question a lot in different situations: What do you recommend we do? You can get a real sense for who’s invested in moving the company forward, and who’s watching the company go by, with that very simple question.”

Not only does this question confer authority and responsibility on a staff member, but once everyone knows that they are going to face this question, their mindset will shift.  They will broaden their focus and think in terms of solving, not just identifying, problems.

This question also allows the executive to separate those who can assume more responsibility from those who never will.

As Brennan puts it: “People lay out problems all the time. If they’ve thought through what should be done from here, then you’ve got somebody who’s in the game, who wants to move, and you can unlock that potential. Bystander apathy or the power of observation, in and of itself, is not very valuable. There are amazingly eloquent diagnosticians throughout the business world. They can break down a problem and say, ‘Here’s your problem.’ But it’s prescriptions that matter. So how do we move from here, and what specifically do you recommend?”

Doesn’t the same principle apply to therapy and coaching? How often do either of these professionals direct a discussion toward solving problems? And how often do they pretend that the important thing is to listen attentively, to nod knowingly, refuse to look for solutions, but to tell you that they feel your pain?

A coach might offer recommendations, which is good as long as they are not orders. Even if he does not know how to solve the problem, he still needs to help his client to understand that problems are there to be solved.

Once the client has learned this, he will often be able to offer several possible solutions to a problem.

Brennan’s next point concerns the ability to distinguish between intent and impact. It is a primary social skill; one that is required in the workplace and that ought to be a staple in your everyday life.

Do we know that when our good intentions produces actions that yield a bad outcome, we need to review our conduct, not to defend our actions on the basis of our good intentions?

We are, after all, responsible for the impact we produce, and we should never try to mitigate our responsibility by saying that the impact was not what we intended.

In Brennan’s words: “ We’re in a competitive environment. But I’m also looking for leaders who can step back and help guide those who are in the competitive moment. A lot of times there’s a breakdown between the intent somebody has and the impact they have. Their intent is to really help you succeed. Their impact is to make you very defensive. They don’t understand how they’re coming across, which might be attacking and interrogating, and pushing as opposed to pulling.”

Finally, Brennan emphasizes a point that I have occasionally raised. A couple of times I discussed a tirade that Congressman Mad Anthony Weiner threw on the floor of the House of Representatives a few months back.

Where Weiner tried to rationalize his intemperance by saying that he felt very strongly about whatever it was that was being debated, in my view such outbursts are a sign of a lack of discipline, thus, of bad character.

Brennan criticizes those who would rationalize bad behavior by saying that they are just passionate. Thus, he would disagree with those CEOs who keep telling people to follow their passion.

As Brennan correctly puts it: “Some people might euphemistically refer to that as passion, and I say malarkey. It’s not passion. I don’t believe that there’s any room in business at all for yelling. And some people hide that behind this veil of passion. It’s bad behavior, and has the wrong impact. You cannot lose it, ever.”

In his last sentence he is saying that a successful executive cannot lose control, ever. He cannot give his passions free reign, ever.

The same rule applies to other human relationships. Constructive relationships exist somewhere between the intemperate passionate outburst and the complete repression of emotion. If you already know that the latter is unacceptable, please add the former to the list.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is Sarah Palin Being Defensive?

Despite herself, Lizzie Wurtzel confessed a grudging admiration for Sarah Palin. She was drawn to Palin because, to her mind, Palin does not take s#*t from anyone. Which is both true and fair. Link here.

Wurtzel is right to admire a woman who can stand up for herself and defend her dignity without engaging in histrionic displays, without pretending to be a man, without complaining about the injustice of it all, and without relying on a male presence to back her up.

One should mention that all human beings are constantly being put in positions where they need to stand up for themselves and defend their dignity from insults and indignities.

It is very difficult to do this, to assert oneself, while remaining dignified.

We also recall that Jaclyn Friedman recommended that women who are being shamed by others should respond by turning the tables, by shaming them. Link here.

Shame is a wondrous weapon, but it must be used judiciously. There’s shaming and there’s shaming. If you are going to do it as flagrantly and openly as Nicola Briggs did on that New York subway train, you have best be sure that someone has your back. Link here.

And it is also important to note that responding to a criminal assault is not the same thing as responding to an insult.

One can only wonder whether Friedman would agree that Sarah Palin effectively shamed the mainstream media when she chose an interesting way to respond to yet another of its attacks on her intelligence?

Several days ago on the Glenn Beck program Sarah Palin misspoke. She confused North and South Korea. She did it during an extended conversation about recent events on the Korean peninsula. Her error was only one of the many references Palin had correctly made to the two Koreas. Within seconds she corrected herself.

Of course, the mainstream media pounced on Palin and declared that the incident proved that she was too stupid to be president.

I will mention in passing that calling people stupid, demeaning their intelligence, is also a shaming tactic. It is not quite the same thing as the kind of shaming we are talking about here, because it does not involve defending your dignity. It is a gratuitous slur, not an assertion of dignity.

So, Palin chose to fight back, on her Facebook page, by posting the following parody. She, or one of her media advisers, wrote out a mock-Thanksgiving proclamation that might have been given by President Barack Obama. The statement contains a dozen or so of Obama's more egregious errors, errors that the media has happily ignored.

Here is Palin’s text: “My fellow Americans in all 57 states, the time has changed for come. With our country founded more than 20 centuries ago, we have much to celebrate – from the FBI’s 100 days to the reforms that bring greater inefficiencies to our health care system. We know that countries like Europe are willing to stand with us in our fight to halt the rise of privacy, and Israel is a strong friend of Israel’s. And let’s face it, everybody knows that it makes no sense that you send a kid to the emergency room for a treatable illness like asthma and they end up taking up a hospital bed. It costs, when, if you, they just gave, you gave them treatment early, and they got some treatment, and ah, a breathalyzer, or an inhalator. I mean, not a breathalyzer, ah, I don’t know what the term is in Austrian for that…” Link here.

The original post has links that will take you to Youtube videos of Obama making these verbal gaffes.

In truth, Palin was not primarily mocking Obama. She was shaming the journalists and media commentators who pretend not to notice when Barack Obama misspeaks, but who fly into full attack mode whenever a Republican makes even a minor error.

Palin is responding to an insult. She is shaming the journalists by pointing out, in a charming way, that they lack journalistic integrity.

Palin is being charming, not whiny or complainy, because in most everyday situations, you cannot defend your dignity by looking undignified yourself. A successful defense draws attention to the person you want to diminish and only to that person.

It all seemed pretty clear to me, almost to the point where it was not even very controversial.

Nevertheless, this morning I was reading conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, currently with the Commentary blog, soon to be with the Washington Post blog. Here‘s how Rubin described Palin‘s mock-presidential proclamation: “More defensiveness from Sarah Palin. Not helpful for a presidential contender. Dead-on for a conservative community organizer.” Link here.

Respectfully, I disagree. To me Palin’s statement is anything but defensive. If you read down her post you will read the rationale for her action: “When we the people are effective in holding America’s free press accountable for responsible and truthful reporting, then we shall all have even more to be thankful for!”

Shouldn’t the press be held accountable for its own bias? Most of us leave the job to media critics, but is it really that bad for a politician to fight back, to defend herself with humor? Is it helpful to call her defensive for doing so? Would it be better if she just shrunk into the corner and took it?

The real issue is not whether this makes Palin a better or worse candidate. It concerns how you should defend your pride self-respect when they are under attack.

I will add that Rubin’s last phrase: “Dead-on for a conservative community organizer” is a bit too snarky even for me. It almost seems like Rubin feels a need to take Palin down a notch herself.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Concept of the Day: Americans and/or Terrorists

We owe today’s concept of the day to James Taranto. It’s the subtitle of his latest "Best of the Web" column on the Wall Street Journal website. Link here.

It is: “The government treats Americans like terrorists--and terrorists like Americans.”

Sometimes people are angry about something without really being able to identify what is upsetting them.

This does not mean that they are irrational and prey to their emotions, but, rather, that their emotions have gotten ahead of their powers of thought.

It isn’t abnormal to be upset but not to know about what. It’s basic to the human condition. Emotions are rapid-fire; rational thought is slow motion.

When reporters ask Americans what is making them angry or afraid, they often have trouble answering. This does not mean that they are irrational or ignorant.

When a man is walking down the street and starts feeling afraid, he might not know what stimulus has triggered the emotion. If you ask him, he might have difficulty identifying it. Yet, you should not assume that he has no good reason to be afraid. The chances are very good that he is not just afraid of his shadow.

The same applies to anger. Anger will attach itself to the easiest cause, but there may well be a more subtle and more important cause that escapes immediate detection.

The existence of such emotions, coupled with a less than articulate explanation, does not mean that the person is irrational or ignorant.

Within this context, “high concept“ has the virtue of articulating, clearly, precisely, and intelligibly what has made you so emotional.

When you hear the concept, you know in a flash that that’s it.

Often, the concept’s constituent elements are not new. They may even be familiar. The concept takes them and makes a connection that you had ignored. It allows you to get a handle on experience, to grasp or to capture something that had been eluding you.

If you look up the etymology of the word “concept” you will see that it refers to the notion of grasping or capturing.

Taranto’s concept brings TSA screening procedures together with the recent trial of accused terrorist Ahmed Ghailani.

He begins by noting, as many have, that the government has instituted new, invasive screening procedures because it refuses to engage in anything resembling “behavioral profiling.”

Discussing the New York Times’s attitude toward profiling, Taranto writes: “The Times's underlying objection to profiling surely is not that it would leave us vulnerable to elderly white female Iowan terrorists but that it's unfair for innocent young Arab Muslim men to receive greater scrutiny than innocent old white Christian ladies. That's ‘discrimination.’ Better to treat everyone as a potential terrorist.”

Better to assault the dignity of an elderly white female Iowan than to hurt the feelings of a young Arab Muslim man. That, after all, is the basis for the policy. Is it any wonder that Americans are seriously upset about it?

Then, Taranto moves on to the recent criminal trial of Ahmed Ghailani.

In his first attempt at a connection, he writes: “The introduction of the new TSA procedures was contemporaneous with the acquittal of Ahmed Ghailani on 284 of 285 counts in the 1998 African embassy bombings. Ghailani, formerly a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was accorded all the rights of an American civilian defendant, as a result of which the judge disallowed his confession and the testimony of a key witness because intelligence officials had used coercive means to obtain information from him.”

Of course, contemporaneity does not connection make. It could be an accident that two new government policies are introduced at roughly the same time.

And yet, these are both policies of the same government. They are two aspects of the administration policy toward terrorism.

The Obama administration has always had a policy of trying terrorists in civilian courts. And it has always attempted to dissociate terrorism from Islam.

Admittedly, the administration has lately been backing away from that policy, as well as from its grandiose pronunciamentos about Gitmo, but still, the trial of Ahmed Ghailani was exactly what the Justice Department had always said it would do.

It is fair to say that when a foreign terrorist who committed his terrorist acts on foreign soil is tried in an American criminal court, he is accorded the rights and privileges of an American citizen.

To most Americans, a soldier in an enemy army, does not, and never has deserved to be treated as if he were an American citizen.

While the Ghailani trial has not elicited as much public outrage as the TSA screeners and pat downs, it still articulates the administration’s attitude toward terrorism, but also, and perhaps inadvertently, its conception of American citizenship.

Citizenship confers rights and responsibilities. It can be gained by birth, but it is sustained by fulfilling responsibilities.

In some cases citizenship can be gained by a long, arduous naturalization process. To people all over the world, American citizenship is a supremely desirable good.

What then does citizenship mean when its rights and privileges are accorded to someone who does not want it, does not respect it, and who hates the country and everything it stands for?

It is not unreasonable to say that the Ghailani trial cheapens American citizenship. It certainly does not advance the cause of justice.

You know, as I know, that sophisticated thinkers, the cognoscenti and the intelligentsia, are infatuated by nuance. They will most likely dismiss high concept thinking as a mere oversimplification. They will swat it away as modern vulgarity-- thinking in sound bites.

But if you have to choose between maddening and barely intelligible complexity and crystalline simplicity, William of Ockham, would have told you that there is more truth in the concise formulation than in the pseudo-sophistication of double talk and mumbo jumbo.

The name William of Ockham gives “high concept” some serious credentials. Our intellectual elites are still going to have difficulty accepting it. In their hearts they believe that if they can understand something easily, if they can grasp it completely, then it must necessarily be untrue.

Many of our greatest thinkers have so little confidence in their own minds that they cannot accept clarity of thought. They reject concepts that give them the opportunity to grasp experience because they want to live in their minds, in places where experience counts for nothing.

And they have no real interest in communicating with other, less  nuanced minds. They hold the common people in such contempt that they never bother to work their thought into a form that makes it clear, precise, and intelligible.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Should She Fight Back?

By now most everyone has seen the Youtube post of the woman on the New York subway who screams: “Then I see his penis out.” Link here.

And we have all thrilled to see the woman fight back against a man who had been trying to press his erect organ against her.

But what is the moral lesson here?

Those of a more Kantian bent, like Jaclyn Friedman, want to universalize the response. To her, all women, faced with harassing behavior, should fight back. If harassment were always to elicit an aggressive response, it would, in her view, stop. Link here.

Why don’t all women fight back as effectively as the woman on the subway? According to Friedman, women feel ashamed, as though they are responsible for what happened to them.

If only they could get over their feelings of shame they would call out the men who harass them.

Speaking of shame, Friedman is especially thrilled that the woman in question is shaming the man who was trying to harass her.

Shaming him in front of those who were sharing the subway ride, but also, once the encounter was taped, to the general public, and hopefully, to law enforcement authorities.

Women need to overcome their own shame while shaming the man who are harassing them. So says, Jaclyn Friedman.

Keep in mind, however, that a man who is willing to expose himself in public has largely overcome his sense of shame. Many of the men who indulge in this kind of harassment are actually proud of themselves for doing it.

While I am certainly in favor of shaming as a punishment, the truth is that the value of the video lies more in its probity as evidence for the prosecution than in its ability to shame the perpetrator.

Shame is a very tricky and very difficult concept. It should, as they say, be handled with extreme care. No one wants to encourage people to become shameless.

If we take our analysis to the next level, we must recognize, as Friedman does, that this woman is empowered and protected by the fact that she and her harasser are surrounded by other people, mostly, by the evidence of the video, by people of the masculine gender.

As Friedman puts it: “It’s not like she's in actual danger -- there are a million people around, some of whom even have cameras out. He's not a threat to her physically in this situation.”

This is not a minor detail. Would Friedman recommend the same response if the woman were in actual danger?

The video may look like a tale of female empowerment. In truth, this woman is empowered by the presence of men, all of whom are presumed to be on her side.

She is relying on the masculine instinct to protect women. Most men look severely askance at what the man is doing. And most of them would help a woman who was in distress for being harassed.

If this is a female empowerment narrative, its basis would be that women cannot count on men to protect them, because all men are harassers, actual and potential.

Sometimes fighting back is right; sometimes it is wrong. To say that it is right in all cases is simply wrong. To say that it is wrong in all cases is also wrong.

Compare the woman on the subway to another woman, named Virginia, who wrote to Margo Howard, advice columnist on the WOWOWOW blog. Here is her story: “I am utterly humiliated! I’m 32, the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, ‘Sarah,’ and a general supermom: intelligent, athletic, attractive and competent. My daughter worships me, and her friends think I’m terrific. I’ve taught Sarah to be independent and assertive, and I always try to set the example.
“A few days ago, Sarah and I came home from shopping and walked in on a couple of young punks burglarizing our home. Assertive me froze! I put my arms around Sarah and told the guys to take what they want and not hurt us. Thankfully, we were not harmed, but we were left on a bathroom floor bound and gagged with duct tape — safe but feeling helpless and humiliated. Neither of us could get loose, and we had to lie there squirming for hours until my husband came home and found us.
“Never during the time we spent bound did Sarah cry, and her fierce efforts to get loose long after I had given up made me feel proud. But her first words when our gags were removed were, ‘Mom, we could have taken them. Why did you let them tape us up?’ Those words punished me more than being confronted by robbers, more than spending hours tied up and gagged. I felt I had let my daughter down. I don’t think I’ll ever recover from the feeling that I gave in without fighting. How do I make this up to her and regain my sense of competence and authority? — Virginia” Link here.

Clearly, Virginia, and her daughter, have both learned that women should always fight back. Perhaps they have read Jaclyn Friedman, perhaps not. At least, they have drunk from the same source.

Whatever Virginia had been taught in Women’s Studies, she forgot it all when she and her daughter were confronted by punk burglars. She instantly shifted into survival mode and chose submission over confrontation. 

Here is Margo Howard‘s response: “I beg to differ. Unless your teenage daughter has a black belt in karate, there’s no way the two of you could have ‘taken them.’ And even if you thought you had a chance, it wouldn’t have been a wise thing — or a sure thing. In such a situation, law enforcement people stress that you acquiesce to avoid the robbers becoming rattled and harming you. The things they took are only things. Your instincts were right, and your daughter’s were immature. (Or she’s been watching too much television.)
“This experience was an extreme version of a teachable moment, and rather than feel humiliated or that you’ve failed, make the lesson to your daughter be that the correct response is not to get into a physical altercation with two men — even “young punks” — intent on criminal activity. You in no way let her down, and I hope you will reinforce the wisdom of behaving as you did.”

Of course, Margo is right. Even if they both had studied martial arts, what would have happened if the punks had studied it also? And what if the punks had had weapons?

Do you want to bet your life on your ability to overpower two men who are, at the least, significantly stronger than you?

One should be careful not to tell women that a few lessons in karate and kung fu will so thoroughly empower them that they will be able to take down men who are bigger and stronger than they are.

Virginia’ instincts were right; her daughter’s were not just immature, and not merely the result of watching too much television. Her daughter had learned from her mother the lesson that feminists have been purveying.

Virginia’s is not exactly a happy ending. She ends up feeling humiliated and, to compound the humiliation, she has to explain to her daughter why the advice that she had been handing out now appears to be so much braggadocio.

Humiliated, yes, but also alive. Dare I say that the story could have had a much more unhappy ending.

Now Virginia feels humiliated for having been found out. She is not equal to her boasts. But how humiliated, how ashamed would she have felt if she had decided to fight back, and if her confrontational attitude had led to the burglars hurting one or both of them?

As a mother Virginia has a moral responsibility to protect her child. When their lives were at risk, her moral sense came to the fore and she chose not to take the risk.

It was surely the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Angelina Jolie Hates Thanksgiving"

Celebrity is as celebrity does. As we all give thanks for the good things in our lives, as we all count our blessings and express gratitude, Angelina Jolie has cast herself as all-purpose killjoy.

If Thanksgiving needed its own Ebenezer Scrooge, it has now found it in Angelina Jolie.

Politically correct to a fault, capable of seeing the worst in everything, Angelina will forbid her family from celebrating Thanksgiving because, to her mind, it celebrates murder and mayhem. Link here.

In fact, she is not even going to spend the holiday in America. How better to show that she hates American crimes against indigenous peoples.

If America has done bad things then America has never done anything good, anything that is worthy of her presence or her love.

Of course, the fault here is ours and our alone. What kind of country pays attention to the cretinous blather of celebrities?

So here’s one more thing to be thankful for: you’re not Angelina Jolie.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


For more than two years now many American liberal feminists have been suffering from a severe case of Palinophobia.

To an outsider it has been looking as though Sarah Palin had descended from the Alaskan tundra to disrupt their comfortable feminist world and to cast doubt on their most sacred beliefs.

Throughout, I have been trying to follow the cultural side of the Palin phenomenon on this blog. Which hasn’t been the easiest thing, given the pervasive Palinophobia in my neighborhood. For the file of my posts, follow this link.

Sarah Palin arrived on the national political scene in the midst of an election campaign. Thus, many of her detractors felt that they had to unleash the misogynist furies against her in order to help elect their Messiah.

Desperation makes people do strange things.

By now, cooler minds have begun to take over the debate, and some liberal feminists have made a separate peace with Palin. I have been at pains to acknowledge their cogent analyses.

This much said, I was somewhat taken aback yesterday by a Lizzie Wurtzel tweet. (FYI, famed author Elizabeth Wurtzel uses Lizzie as her Twitter moniker.)

Lizzie tweeted this: “Someone had to explain Sarah Palin, because everyone was getting it wrong. So I did--” She did it in the Atlantic. Link here.

I appreciate the author’s need to attract attention, but everyone has not been getting it wrong. In fact, much of what she says has been said before, on this blog and in other places. I confess to being disappointed that Wurtzel does not read this blog.

In Lizzie’s words: “… as a liberal feminist, it drives me absolutely bonkers that Palin is the most visible working mother and female politician in America, that she is the best exemplar of a woman with an equal marriage, that she has put up with less crap from fewer men than those of us who have read The Second Sex and marched in pro-abortion rallies and pretty much been on the right side of all the issues that Palin is wrong about.”

As always, we admire Wurtzel’s prose stylings, but there is no significant difference between what she sees in Sarah Palin and what I, to take a random example, described two years ago when I called Palin:  “A Woman in Full.”

I do accept, however, that Wurtzel is the first to call Palin a riot grrrl. In truth, I do not even know what that is.

Wurtzel also places a special emphasis on Palin’s sex appeal, but that is, dare I say, old news.  Not only did I, among others, point out its power, but I also expounded on the notion that conservative women politicians and commentators seem to be hotter than liberal women politicians and commentators. See my post called: “The Hotness Gap.”

But Wurtzel expresses her ideas in her own way, and, in itself, that is worth the price of admission: “The right wing, for whatever weird reason, has been much more receptive to outrageous and attractive female commentators who are varying degrees of insane or inane, but in any case are given a platform on Fox News and at their conservative confabs.  Look at how great life has been for Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham and the assorted lesser lights.  But there are no Democratic blondes, no riot grrrls on the progressive side of politics, no fun and fabulous women in the liberal scene who could pave the way for a Palin.  Yes, there are women who are successful in the Democratic party, but none of them are successful because of their feminine wiles, none of them have played up their sex appeal the way Palin has.”

Wurtzel can claim originality, however, when she declares that this Alaskan scourge of modern feminism is, after all, just a normal woman. Sarah Palin is a powerful cultural influence, Wurtzel says, because she is just being herself.

In Wurtzel’s words: “Into this horror walks Sarah Palin, who is kind of a sexy librarian, kind of a MILF, kind of just crazy, and altogether does what she wants to do. This, actually, is normal behavior.  But we are so used to watching other female politicians compromise in so many ways that there is not enough Vaseline in all of CVS to make the situation comfortable--so Sarah Palin seems completely strange.”

I’m not sure what Wurtzel wants us to do with the jar of Vaseline, so I will leave that to your imagination.

Sarah Palin is what she is. She is not trying to be something she is not. She is not pretending to be one of the guys. She is not toning down her feminine charms. Palin is not trying to twist herself into some unrecognizable shape in order to fit in or in order to conform to someone’s ideology.

Which leaves us all with the lingering question, the one that has animated Lizzie Wurtzel: how could it have happened that liberal feminists did not produce a Sarah Palin? Is there something about feminism that makes it impossible for feminists to be themselves and nothing but themselves, to flaunt their sex appeal, to be women in full?

The first step toward an answer is for women to turn their Palinophobia into Palinophilia… as Elizabeth Wurtzel has done.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gratitude Is Good for You

It feels strange, but we now need scientific studies to prove something that people have always known. Such is our age, and such is the prestige of science.

Scientists are accumulating evidence that shows, with exemplary clarity, that ethical behavior is therapeutic. Be a good person, act as a good person would, and you will feel better, function better, and be happier.

Given the circumstances, there are many ways to do the right thing. As Thanksgiving approaches, the one that is most in the news right now is giving thanks.

If you feel grateful and express it openly, you are going to do better than people who do not.

What if you do not have very much to feel thankful for? Psychologists suggest that you should do some mental exercises, the better to find something good that has happened to you, and to feel grateful for it.

If you ignore the nice things people do for you, the good things that happen to you, you are suffering from chronic ingratitude.

And few attitudes will more surely sabotage your relationships more quickly than will ingratitude.

Some might ask, as did the son of a woman who wrote to Miss Manners, whether young people are exempted from the requirement to send thank-you notes for wedding presents. Link here.

Have the old verities and pieties been rendered obsolete by social media? If so, then we should all worry for America's future.

As you might guess, Miss Manners has no sympathy for such a gross display of ingratitude. But, if gratitude is as important as the great thinkers and psychologists think that it is, then ingratitude will, at the least, keep you in therapy and on Prozac.

Of course, the greatest literary work about ingratitude is Shakespeare’s King Lear (The New Folger Library Shakespeare).    

On a more positive note, one of the most important Chinese virtues, filial piety, requires a constant show of gratitude by children to their parents.

In Confucian cultures children owe their parents respect and obeisance for all of the sacrifices their parents have made to bring them up. Children are so grateful for the good name their parents have bequeathed to them that they are honor bound to maintain it through their own good behavior. They are so grateful for the care their parents have bestowed on them that they feel obliged to care for their aging parents.

Filial piety is an obligation based on gratitude and responsibility, not on guilt. You feel obligated to your parents for what they gave to you, not because you feel guilty for the hostile and criminal intentions you have toward them.

If you look at life through the lens of Freud’s Oedipus complex, you would perform a different analysis. If, as Freud imagined, your mind is infected with criminal impulses toward your parents, your good behavior toward them will be an effort to expiate your sins, not a gesture of gratitude for all they have done for you.

In today’s Wall Street Journal Melinda Beck reports on the results of current psychological studies of gratitude. In her words: “Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They're also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.” Link here.

Given that the concept dates to the dawn of human history it should not come as that much of a surprise. Yet, we do not often think that we should do the right thing because it will make us happier and healthier, and also because it is the natural thing to do.

More often, we see good behavior as something of an imposition, a set of rules designed to control (or repress) our animal natures, thus, our inchoate, antisocial impulses.

Therapy and its culture have traditionally concerned themselves with past traumas, with abusive or inadequate parents, with high school bullies, and with your self-destructive, angry, jealous, hostile impulses.

Until Martin Seligman and others brought positive psychology into the therapeutic mix, psychotherapy had been trying to help people find our why they were getting it wrong. It wanted to explain the bad things that happened in the past, and to plumb the negative motives that either produced them or made them impossible to overcome.

A therapy based on classical ethics, however, tells people to stop obsessing about the past and to start counting their blessings.

Admittedly, it sounds like something you might have heard on Oprah, but, the research shows that when you look at what is good in your life and express gratitude for it you will improve your emotional well-being.

Not only is it more productive and constructive than looking at the worst, but it is also better than looking at what is good about everyone else’s life and resenting them for their good fortune.

Anyone who indulges such negative thinking will be prone to believe that others have achieved their success at his expense. This is hardly a formula designed to improve your friendships or to make you more likeable.

Where cognitive psychology instructs people to perform mental exercises that will make them increasingly aware of their need to feel grateful, I would qualify the point by saying that true gratitude lies more in the expression of thanks than in the emotion.

You are grateful when you express it, not when you feel it. And when you express it sincerely. An expression of gratitude is sincere when you return the favor. Sometimes thank-you is not enough.

Gratitude involves humility; it shows an ability to recognize that your own happiness and success depend on the good deeds of other people.

It’s one thing to be aware of the importance of connection, of interdependence, of belonging to a community. It’s quite something else to assert and affirm your connection to others by performing a gesture of gratitude.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Bodies, Our Health

When the King of Saudi Arabia needs specialized medical treatment he does not fly to Paris, London, or Havana. He comes to America. If you have all the money in the world you can have the best. In the medical arena, the best is in America.

We are justifiably proud of our medical expertise. And yet, our prowess has been woven into a narrative in which lives are saved by the ministrations of brilliant, dedicated medical professionals. It’s today’s version of salvation.

Whether it is Marcus Welby or Ben Casey or Gregory House or Meredith Grey, these fictional American doctors can cure just about anything. No matter how sick you are, how ugly your symptoms are, how mysterious the diagnosis, America’s doctors will cure you… on television, at least.

We all know that fiction and reality are not the same thing, but far too many of us behave as though we are auditioning for a leading role in one of these rescue narratives.

We sit back with diet soda and chips waiting for the cavalry to arrive. We do not think about the fact that a great patient receiving great care is spending most of his time on his back, with needles and catheters stuck in him, being cut open or X-rayed, in an attitude of complete and utter passivity.

If good health requires you to be active, to work hard, to socialize, to eat a balanced diet, and to engage in regular strenuous exercise… then doing what is best for your health will ruin your chances to star in your own medical reality show.

As a people we are hyper-conscious about our health. Especially about different ways it can fail. We possess boundless information about the myriad of possible meanings of our aches and pains. And we are well aware of what we need to do to improve our health.

At the same time, in a seeming paradox, we are arguably the most obese people on the face of the earth. While we still have a reasonably good longevity-- thanks, I assume, to medical heroics-- still, we are not even within waving distance of good health.

The obesity epidemic forces us to spend far more than we need to on medical care. If we had a better relationships with our bodies, if we were more interested in health and less interested in the dubious pleasures of eating junk and not exercising, then our medical system would surely function more efficiently.

If it were not spending so much of its time treating lifestyle-induced illnesses, it would surely have more time to work with patients whose illnesses are not induced by their inactivity.

If people were not so anxious about their potential catastrophic illnesses, perhaps they would not be filling up physician’s offices with spurious complaints.

Beyond that the anxiety and stress induced by medical information must produced higher levels of cortisol, and, as we all know now, this is bad for our health.

And, it is worth mentioning that a body that is a breeding ground for disease loses a great deal of its erotic potential.

Increased awareness of illness is not intrinsically a bad thing. Some preventative testing has certainly saved lives. I am not advocating that we become blissfully unaware of the possibility of illness.

Everybody talks about a health lifestyle. I suspect that it is mere lip service. Sometimes it seems that the more often we hear about diet and exercise, the less the terms mean and the less we feel that they apply to us.

How does our culture try to address the epidemic of morbid obesity? By making people obsessed by thinness. It declares war on our appetite for food, and attempts to replace a bad habit by another bad habit, a compulsion to eat with a compulsion to diet.

In either case the human body is taken to be a cauldron of out-of-control impulses. If you do not rein them in, they will take you over and drive you toward perdition. If that is the message that the culture is sending us, it's no wonder that we have an unhealthy relationship with our bodies.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

How to Succeed in Business and Beyond

As top-ten lists go, Steve Tobak’s stands out, for their clarity and concision. They are utterly and impressively high concept. Link here.

Tobak calls them "rules of engagement" and he is right to do so. They will help you to engage with your job, to engage with your colleagues and bosses and staff. They might even help you to engage in the more personal sense of the term.

These rules all have the same structure: they are guiding us toward replace our bad habits with good ones.

It takes time to develop bad habits; it will take time and work to replace them with good ones. 

Tobak formulated these precepts for business leaders, present and future. They are so good that they will also work in other human relationships.

Here’s Tobak’s list:

1. Instead of covering your ass, put your ass on line.

2. Don’t rip off ideas, riff on them.

3. Tell it straight, don’t sugarcoat or breathe your own fumes.

4. Instead of protecting your turf, open up the playing field.

5. Don’t bitch about the boss; complement his weaknesses.

6. Attack the problem, not the person.

7. Don’t place blame; take responsibility

8. Instead of making waves, make decisions.

9. To break analysis paralysis, take a chill pill

10. Replace strategy du jour with strategic planning.

In the largest sense Tobak is showing us how to build our character. Character building involves ridding yourself of bad habits by practicing good ones.

Bad character is irresponsible, defensive, self-aggrandizing, dishonest, and self-absorbed. It is all heat and little light. Bad character refuses to learn from the past and fails to plan for the future. It is small picture thinking.

A person with bad character is focused on his ego; and there is nothing smaller than ego.

A person of good character makes decisions and takes responsibility for his decisions. He does not shift blame and does not take credit for ideas that are not his.

When he states an idea, he is clear and to the point. He does not indulge in ambiguity or invite exotic interpretations.

Having a large perspective, he thinks about what is good for the company because he identifies his good with the company good.

He never thinks to take advantage of the company for his own benefit.

What would happen if you applied these same rules to your personal life?

Would your relationships improve if you were more responsible, less defensive, less in it for yourself and more in it for the good of the couple? Would life be better if you were less intent on the present, but were planning for both or your futures? Would your relationships be better if you were clearer about what you are going to do, less prone to obfuscation, and less apt to blame everyone else for your own failures? And how much better would your relationships be if you attacked problems, not people. And if you attacked them together, as a couple?

SNL Riffs on the TSA

Just in case you did not stay up late enough last night to watch SNL offer its distinctive viewpoint of the TSA controversy, Gawker TV has a clip. Link here.

Well worth a look.


Why Is Gold Money?

Now that the bull market in gold is approaching its tenth anniversary, people are starting to notice.

That alone should tell us that even with its ups and downs, this bull still has a ways to run.

Behind it all lies a philosophical issue, one which I discussed two years ago: Is Gold Money?

The philosophical divide looks like this: Is gold a default currency that people turn to when they no longer trust that government-created currencies will retain their value?

Which would imply that gold is intrinsically valuable, the only real money.

Or, is gold just some yellow dirt that people have always mistaken for money?

If gold does not have any intrinsic value, then its use as currency must be the product of a mass delusion.

Yet, if all people at all times in all places have held this belief,
then maybe it‘s not just an illusion.

You cannot really run a scientific experiment to decide who is right and who is wrong. Nonetheless, and very cleverly, NPR called up a chemical engineer and asked him to go through the periodic table of the elements-- you know it well; it hangs on the wall of every high school chemistry classroom-- and try to ascertain why gold, and no other element, has been always served as a medium of exchange.

For the story, click on this link.

After eliminating the elements whose chemical properties would make it useless or inefficient as a medium of economic exchange, the professor concluded that gold, and only gold, has all the properties needed to function as currency.

This doesn't really tell us whether or not gold is really money, but it does tell us why gold has always been used and recognized as a store of economic value.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Joan Baez Falls Out of a Treehouse

No, I didn't make this up. It's not even an opinion piece. It's news, from the Associated Press: "1960s songbird Joan Baez is 'resting comfortably' at an undisclosed location after falling 20 feet to the ground from a treehouse — a treehouse she purposely had built without walls because she wanted to sleep among real birds at her Woodside, Calif., home." Link here.

Now, tell me that you've never wanted to sleep among "real birds?" It sure beats what happened in The Godfather, Part 1: "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."

And yes, we all wish her the speediest recovery.

You're All Sick in the Head!

Now we know… Americans are all mentally ill. Well, not exactly all, but 20% are, and that’s a pretty substantial number. More than 45,000,000 if you want to see the integers. The next time you sit down for lunch with your four closest friends try figuring out which one is mentally ill, because the odds are that one of them is.

If you were wondering how the mental health profession sees you, now you know.

The numbers are so bizarre that you wonder whether these are just another set of self-serving statistics designed to gin up business for therapists.

I was going to write something about this, but then I discovered that the anonymous psychblogger also known as Shrinkwrapped had done it already. In his words: “Why don't we reserve the concept of Mental Illness for those who suffer from a serious definable Mental Disturbance that brings the person far out of the (wide) limits of normal human variability?  I know this would decrease the income of some Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Social Workers, and various Counselors, but to be human is to function less than optimally much of the time, worse during periods of high stress.  Pathologizing human variability and behavior is a sign of, dare I say, Mental Illness.”

Link here. Via Dr. Helen.

The American Way of Marriage

At the very least, Americans are confused about marriage. While the institution has been under assault in some quarters for reasons ideological and economical, and therefore declining, in other quarters people who have been excluded from conjugality have been clamoring to be let in.

Speak about jumping on a sinking ship.

One reason for this social chaos is that people do not seem to know what marriage is and what it is not. The public debate about marriage feels like an afternoon at the theater of the absurd, with plenty of name-calling and derision thrown in.

Let’s be clear. Marriage confers rights, but it is not a right. In truth, it is not a privilege either. It is a social obligation. People have a duty to marry because they have a duty to reproduce. They have a duty to their genes and a duty to their community.

It is not an accident that these two duties coincide in the institution of marriage. Marriage would not be a universal staple of human community if it did not make any sense and if it did not connect  nature with culture.

Marriage is a contract; it confers responsibilities. And since the definition of the institution involves children, these obligations must extend far beyond personal fulfillment.

This means that marriage is not an expression of personal affection or even love. Among the billions of marriages that have existed during the course of human history, very, very, very few have been contracted for romantic love. 

For most of human history romantic love, an unstable and maddening experience, has been consigned to extramarital relationships.

Note well, if marriage were merely an expression of love and affection, any changes in said love and affection would spell the end of the marriage. No human institution can be build on something quite so aleatory as the ups and downs of human emotion.

Certainly, an institution that is designed to care for the most vulnerable cannot be subject to the emotional whims of adults. You cannot abrogate your responsibilities to your children because you do not feel like fulfilling them or because your feelings for their other parent have changed.

In truth, you do not have a social duty to marry someone you like. You do have a social duty to raise the children that are the product of your marriage to the best of your ability, to provide for them a stable home environment.

Sad to say that one feels obliged to repeat this, but marriage is and has always been a mating ritual. Thus it is and always has been contracted between two individuals who might possibly mate and it requires that they perform the one action that might lead to procreation.

There is nothing very complicated or difficult about this. All human beings since the dawn of human history have understood that marriages join two members of opposite sexes.

And just about all of them have understood that it makes no sense to marry two people who never have and never will commit the act that might lead them to procreate. Thus, a couple for whom procreation is radically impossible.

They have also understood that if people who cannot mate are said to be married, then the nature of the institution is fundamentally changed.

As for heterosexual couples who marry and do not procreate, the point of the institution is not to make fertility tests a precondition, but to accept couples who, by their marriages, are expressing solidarity with the institution, and thereby affirming their belief in its social utility.

Abraham and Sarah notwithstanding, marriage as an institution was not invented at a time when people lived to a ripe old age, and thus could remarry at a time when they had outlived their reproductive potential. In truth, at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is not too long ago, the average life expectancy in America was in the late 40s.

What is marriage? It is an alliance between families whose primary purpose is to produce and raise new members of a community.

Marriage is a concrete commitment to the future of the community. Thus, some unions are prohibited while others are considered especially desirable. Intrafamilial mating would undermine the alliance between families, and thus is prohibited.

As I recall, Claude Levi-Strauss showed in his book: The Elementary Structures of Kinship that while some marriages between cousins are prohibited, others are prescribed. He was arguing that the social function of marriage is more important than the biological risks of incest.

Anyway, most Americans nowadays do not feel that marriage is necessary or desirable. According to a Pew Research Center poll, reported by Time magazine, they feel that it is becoming obsolete. Link here.

Whether or not this means that they no longer understand what it is, or that they believe that if marriage is no longer strictly identified as a mating ritual, then it has not real purpose or meaning, I do not know. There are socio-economic reasons for the decline of marriage, in America and in Western Europe.

It is fair to ask, I believe, whether the decline in marriage has something to with the fact that Western civilization is currently losing influence and importance in relation to East Asian civilizations.

Whether you follow Lincoln’s thought that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” or the original form, from Matthew 12:25: "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand,"  we are within our rights to wonder whether a culture that sets out to undermine everyone’s most primary social tie can bring people together to solve its problems and to compete effectively in the world.

However, Americans do seem to understand that marriage is not about sex, security, happiness, or fulfillment, but, about raising children. As Time reports: “When it comes to raising kids, though, it's a landslide, with more than three-quarters saying it's best done married.”

Yet, Americans do not exactly practice what they preach. While they believe that married couples do the best job of raising their own children-- self-evidently, because they have the greatest genetic investment--, they do not see the existence of children as a reason to get or, presumably, to stay married: “… very few people say children are the most important reason to get hitched. Indeed, 41% of babies were born to unmarried moms in 2008, an eightfold increase from 50 years ago, and 25% of kids lived in a single-parent home, almost triple the number from 1960.

What does life look like for children who are not living with their natural parents? While most mothers, according to Pew, did not get pregnant by having sex with strangers, and while most of them believed that they would eventually marry their child’s father,  reality points in a different direction.

As Time reports: “Most of those unwed mothers said their chances of marrying the baby's father were 50% or greater, but after five years, only 16% of them had done so and only about 20% of the couples were still cohabiting. This didn't mean that the children didn't live with a man, however, since about a quarter of their moms were now living with or married to a new partner. That doesn't always work out as well as it seems to in Modern Family or Phineas & Ferb. Offspring from earlier relationships put pressure on new ones. For the least wealthy children, Mom's new boyfriend often means their biological father is less likely to visit and less likely to support their mother. Many stepparents are wonderful and committed, but a series of live-in lovers is not at all the same thing. 'About 21% of American children will see at least two live-in partners of their mothers by the time they're 15,' says Cherlin. 'And an additional 8% will see three or more.'"

How good is it for children to live in this kind of anomie, to be disoriented about relationships, not to understand who is related to whom and how?

When adults come and go in a child’s life, when their relationships are undefined, you cannot expect children to feel any sort of security or any real identity. How do you know who you are when you have step-parents, step-brothers, half sisters, and a dizzying set of relationships with your parent’s second or third partners' other relations?

Step parents can certainly be responsible adults. But live-in lovers, as Andrew Cherlin pointed out, are largely more inconstant. Their relationships do not involve the same level of duty and responsibility, and they are not contractually bound to protect and provide. It should not be surprising that they are, statistically, more likely to abuse children.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Conversational Imbalance

Forget what’s going on between the sheets. Get over that endless search for the greatest sex tips and the latest sex gadgets. When it comes to marital (or pre-marital or extra-marital) bliss, conversation is where it’s at.

Lately, I have been touting a new book by Maggie Arana and Julienne Davis: Stop Calling Him Honey and Start Having Sex: How Changing Your Everyday Habits Will Make You Hot for Each Other All Over Again.  The book recommends that if you want to improve your sex life-- and, who doesn’t?-- stop using pet names and start calling your significant (or insignificant) other by his or her given name.

Stop the terms of endearment and the baby talk: go back to Jack and Jill.

By the way, someone should send a copy of the book to the recently betrothed Prince William and Kate Middleton. Apparently, the prince calls his fiancee: Babykins. Not very encouraging. However, Kate calls her fiance: Big Willie. More promising….

But where do you go after you open the conversation by exchanging proper names. Conversation needs some common nouns, some verbs, some adverbs, some adjectives, with a few prepositions thrown in for fun.

It’s not enough to identify and designate your interlocutor; you need to have something to say. Actually, you both need to have something to say. There needs to be some kind of balance between talking and listening.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein, therein lies the problem. As she reported a few days ago, married couples seem too often to fall into a distinctly unsatisfying conversational pattern: she talks and he listens.

As Bernstein describes it: she talks and talks and talks while he sort of listens and eventually falls asleep. Link here.

Translate that formula into other areas of connubial  experience and it doesn’t sound like too much fun.

You will not be surprised to learn that, to my ear, this conversational formula sounds like classical psychoanalysis, the kind that existed when analysts were more often male and patients were more often female. Most of you probably do not remember those old days, but, trust me, they existed.

Way back then the patient used to lie on the couch and talk to her heart‘s content. The analyst used to listen, and to doze off, not paying all that much attention to the content of the patient’s communication.

If he was practicing Freudian technique he was listening for hidden meanings, for repressed truths, for anything but what the patient thought she was saying.

Back in the old days this made him a great listener.

When psychoanalysis was practiced this way, anyone who had undergone the process would have come away with a misimpression. Namely, that communication did not involve any real exchange of ideas or feelings or information, but was a way for one person to express everything freely and openly while the other person would presumably be listening attentively for hidden messages.

Once you learn how to talk endlessly about nothing in particular-- because psychoanalytic free association does not even have to make any sense-- then you are likely to believe that you can use the same dubious skill in your other relationships.

Or, at least, this is what the marriages described by Bernstein seem to look like. A woman talks, as though she is thinking out loud, and her mate bravely tries to follow, only to give up and turn off his listening apparatus.

In the best cases, he will, every once in a while, utter a few wise words, words that have nothing to do with the overt content of her communication, but that sound like they came straight from the Delphic oracle. 

He doesn’t say much, but what he does say is redolent of meaning. All she has to do is to figure out what the meaning is.

For those who do not believe in Freudian causality, Bernstein reports that current brain research has shown that women are hard wired to talk to the walls and men are hard wired not to pay much attention.

Those who follow the dictates of brain scans seem to have come to the conclusion that that’s the way it is, that women will always chatter on endlessly while men drift off into a stupor.

After all that gender bending we have arrived at a point where we have all become living, breathing, sexual stereotypes. And we believe that science has told us that we must act in a way that asserts that we are all-woman or all-man….

Some have suggested that we solve the problem by mating the garrulous with the garrulous, the taciturn with the taciturn. Yet, your imagination tells that two sufferers from logorrhea will soon come to blows over who gets to speak while two mutes will never communicate anything at all.

If you want to solve the problem, the answer is almost too obvious: compromise. If she loves to rattle on to no one in particular, she will need to exercise some degree of discipline, even if that means stopping the verbal flow, pausing, asking a question, and allowing her untalkative mate an opportunity to get in a word or two or three.

And that also means that her strong silent mate, the one who says little but who tries to make each syllable count, must exercise enough discipline to offer a few extra words, a few more sentences that might introduce something resembling balance into the conversation.

Worse yet, if our two living, breathing sexual stereotypes really want to engage in something like communications, the loquacious female must direct her attention to the kinds of things that her incommunicative partner might like to talk about. And that would be facts and information before feelings.

Similarly, the hyper-reticent male should realize that if he is happy reciting statistics from last Sunday’s football games, and if his partner’s eyes glaze over when he shares this vital information, he will have to learn how to express an occasion emotion and to engage in a discussion of something that does not concern the markets, the polls, or the NFL. Something that might concern living people and not all of those numbing numbers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Two States; Two Governing Philosophies

Debating ideas is great fun. But, how do we evaluate the merits of opposing arguments?

Sometimes we respond to one side’s passionate intensity. Sometimes we are swayed by someone’s rhetorical skills or overall cleverness.

Surely, it would be better if we could evaluate an argument by what happens when it is put into action. Results matter. If we are trying to decide between different governing philosophies, wouldn’t it be good to find two states, each of which is following one or the other of the philosophies, and evaluate the results produced.

In America today, there are two different governing philosophies. Each philosophy is identified with a political party. As a nation we are divided into Democrats and Republicans. Give or take a few variants.

If the states are the laboratories where we try out different policies, then we should look to the states that most closely practice the different philosophies.

As Joel Kotkin wrote in Forbes today, those two states are California and Texas. Link here. Via Instapundit.

If I recall correctly, Kotkin is a Democrat. Yet, as he compares Texas with California, he discovers, unambiguously, that California is declining while Texas is ascending.

When he asks why this should be happening, he does not blame it on the climate, but on policy differences, on the way different governing philosophies have played themselves out in each state.

In his words: “Instead of a role model, California  has become a cautionary tale of mismanagement of what by all rights should be the country’s most prosperous big state. Its poverty rate is at least two points above the national average; its unemployment rate nearly three points above the national average.”

Demographically, the comparison is stark: “Over the past decade nearly 1.5 million more people left California than stayed; only New York State lost more. In contrast, Texas gained over 800,000 new migrants. In California, foreign immigration–the one bright spot in its demography–has slowed, while that to Texas has increased markedly over the decade.”

As a California resident, Kotkin is unhappy to see that, in the most recent election, California doubled down on failure: “In contrast to other hard-hit states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada, which all opted for pro-business, fiscally responsible candidates, California voters decisively handed virtually total power to a motley coalition of Democratic-machine politicians, public employee unions, green activists and rent-seeking special interests.”

Unfortunately, it looks as though the rest of us are going to be paying the price for California's failure.

"State-Sponsored Sexual Harassment"

In a mere four words Jennifer Abel summed up what is wrong with the latest TSA airport body searches. She called them: “state-sponsored sexual harassment.“ 

To others it feels like the invasion of the body snatchers, or better, the invasion of the dignity snatchers.

For the record Abel was writing in the Guardian; apparently, she is their token libertarian. Link here.

Abel is outraged at the American’ government’s reaction to the new terrorism threat. In her words: “No bureaucracy better embodies that reactionary principle than the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), whose contempt for American citizens has grown so great that they now require we submit to government agents either photographing our, to them, visibly naked bodies or groping us in molestation-style patdowns if we ever want to fly again.”

It is fair to say that there is a difference between a patdown and sexual harassment. The latter involves a lascivious intent; the former does not. 

But, how do you explain this to the three-year-old girl who was screaming in horror and fighting with every ounce of her strength as her mother was holding her down so that a TSA inspector could pat down her genitals.

No one at the TSA seems to have been bothered by inflicting sexual traumas on small children. Or by asking the children’s parents to collude in the invasion of privacy.

If I never have to see anything like that again, it will not be a moment too soon.

It is a frightening irony that a culture that is permanently on guard against the sexual abuse of children can now countenance acts that a child will experience as sexual molestation.

And, the alternative to the patdown is hardly less appealing. Travelers are first invited to expose their intimacy by a new type of x-ray photography.

And all, apparently, because we are so strongly opposed to profiling that we would prefer to abuse children and nuns and grandmothers.

However well trained the agents are, the possibilities for abuse are so many that someone, somewhere should have found a better way.

Of course, someone has. Israeli officials have already stated that psychological profiling is the most effective way to discover terrorists. Yet, the American bureaucratic mind is so thoroughly infected with political correctness that it does not care how much damage the citizenry will be forced to sustain, the better to avoid profiling.

No one else in the world can find any redeeming social virtue in the new American way to humiliate the population.

So much for your right to privacy. And so much for your dignity and decorum.

Is it possible that the TSA did not think that Americans would assert their dignity against this unwanted and unwarranted intrusion?

Many people are now addressing the question of whether or not these patdowns constitute a criminal action. I will leave the issue for those who are versed in criminal law.

Whether or not TSA agents are committing a crime, they are certainly robbing us, individually, of our dignity. They are also making us look, collectively, like complete fools in the eyes of the world.

At a time in our political history when more and more people are offended and outraged at increased government encroachment into private life, it takes an especially dense bureaucrat to green light these new anti-terrorism methods.

Ultimately, the story highlights the unspeakable stupidity of the bureaucracy. And it shows, with exceptional clarity, why people do not trust the government.

The mental processing here is thoroughly embarrassing.

Why is the TSA so interested in seeing through your clothes and touching your genitalia? Because, a terrorist once hid a bomb in his undershorts.

Do you think that the terrorists are so stupid that they would keep trying the same thing over and over again, and that, to do so, they would enlist three year old girls?

The bureaucracy seems to be wedded to the notion that we should keep our eyes strictly focused on the past, the better to fight the last war.

Now, who decided that we had to ban the shipment of toner cartridges because since Yemeni terrorists recently tried to blow up airplanes by turning toner cartridges into bombs?

Does anyone really believe that they are going to use toner cartridges the next time? How stupid do we think they are?

In the end it looks like the government has not learned the lesson of 9/11.

Why didn’t the government foresee 9/11? One reason was: a gross failure of imagination.

As I recall it, in 2001 when the government heard of a threat to aviation, it assumed that the terrorists were planning to hijack planes for ransom. No one imagined that the terrorists would fly planes into skyscrapers.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"The Big C"

If it’s possible to create a successful sitcom about “nothing,” as in  Seinfeld,  why not make one about cancer. Not just any old cancer, but stage 4 melanoma. Thus, The Big C.

Given that Laura Linney is “the fairest of them all” it makes good sense that her cancer would be melanoma. As happens in great comedies, The Big C is unrelentingly intelligent.

But is the show really a comedy? If you understand that a good comedy does not need to involve a barrel of laughs, it might well be one. A good comedy might contain jokes but it does not want you to come away thinking that life is a joke.

Classical comedy is really about reconciliation. Seeming conflicts are resolved and the parties reconcile. That was the old-fashioned meaning of “happy ending.”

To take an example, Shakespeare’s comedies are love stories; they begin with bickering or disinterested lovers and always end at the altar. For the record, Shakespeare‘s tragedies almost always begin with a marriage.

To me the great challenge of The Big C was to take an unfunny topic and dramatize something like a reconciliation.

For having succeeded the show deserves great, unstinting, and unqualified praise.

The comedy lies in one woman’s struggle to reconcile herself with terminal cancer. She does it without descending into maudlin sentimentality, chronic complaining, or rage against the universe.
Of course, you cannot make a tragedy about melanoma, at least not in the classical sense of the term.

If tragedy, as Aristotle defined it, is the story of a hero who precipitates his fall from the heights of power through a tragic flaw, then the story of a high school teacher from Minnesota getting cancer does not qualify.

No one is going to mistake Cathy Jamison for Phaedra or Medea.

Most television shows would have taken Cathy’s story and made it into a melodramatic and moralistic movie of the week. You can see it now: woman discovers she has cancer; her insurance is canceled; treatment is denied; crusading young doctor makes the case a political cause celebre; Congress passes Obamacare; patient receives state-of-the-art treatment; she dies anyway.

I am more than happy to say that The Big C does not address any of those issues. It does not moralize or politicize the issue. 

Yet, when I saw the first couple of episodes, I was not convinced. The MacGuffin, for those who remember Hitchcock, was that Cathy Jamison had received a diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma and had decided that she did not want treatment and did not want to tell anyone about it.

The show does not moralize about whether or not she should confess it all to the world. It respects her decision, regardless of her reasons and regardless of the consequences.

Instantly, we know that we are not going to watch another drama about heroic young doctors performing medical miracles while indulging in more romantic drama than any normal person can sustain.

Whatever your or my expectations about medical miracles, Cathy Jamison is not interested. She refuses to fit her life and her illness into one of our favorite narratives. For that, I fear, some viewers tuned her out.

A high school teacher, mother, and estranged wife-- a bit like Everywoman--Cathy reacts by trying to discern the meaning of life.

She seems to be drawing her first precept from an insight she learned in a college philosophy course. The kind of insight that feels utterly profound to jejune minds…  namely, that the meaning of life is that we are all going to die. Worse yet, we all might die tomorrow. Thus, we should live every day as though it were our last. As they used to say: carpe diem.

In Cathy’s words: “We’re all dying, all of us… If you think about it that way, hey, I’m living the dream,”

Of course, if it isn’t your last day,  you are going to start feeling like a bit of a fool. The precept seems to tell us to ignore the lessons of the past and never to plan for the future.

It sounds like the kind of thought that would appeal to an adolescent who is away from home for the first time and who is feeling liberated from custom, convention, common sense, and even thrift.

Seize the day sounds a lot better. It certainly sounds better than: Party like there’s no tomorrow.

Is Cathy in denial? Not necessarily. If you change your behavior to take account of a new reality, then, in a strange way, you are adapting to reality.

Maybe, Cathy does not want to foul the time she still has left with those near and dear to her.

She might even be sufficiently benevolent to want to spare them the horrors of her disease.

And yet, when Cathy decides not to tell anyone, the show is also suggesting that when it comes to dying, we are in it alone. Despite what the culture would have us believe, we do not have an overarching moral obligation to share it with the world.

How would you like to have your daily interactions framed by the question: How does it feel to have stage 4 melanoma?

Instead of being Cathy Jamison she would be melanoma patient.

It makes sense that someone who has just received such a diagnosis does not want the pity, the grief, the compassion, the sensitivity, the shows of concern and love. And does not even want to star in the latest medical drama.

I am sure that some people tuned out the show after the first couple of episodes. They probably could not buy the MacGuffin, but they might also have found some of the characters-- Cathy’s brother, Sean, for example-- to be positively repugnant.

I know that I did.

But, let’s give the writers the benefit of the doubt and say that there might be a reason for connecting Cathy with a thoroughly repugnant dumpster-diving brother.

After all, isn’t melanoma a repugnant and unwelcome presence in Cathy’s life?

Sean's life makes no more sense than does the fact that  young, vibrant Cathy Jamison is dying. Sean lives in filth and squalor, he scrupulously avoids hygiene, because he is aiming for advanced eco-purity. Cathy lives a good and normal and hygienic life; but she is dying.

Drama cannot show you the inner workings of anyone’s mind, so it  dramatizes those workings in a charcter’s relationships.

As I was saying, this is a very intelligent show.

So, I did not find the MacGuffin especially persuasive, and I did not like the Sean character at all.

That meant that the show’s task was to resolve those problems and produce an intelligible reconciliation. Happily enough, it succeeded.

As I saw the plot developing I became more and more engaged with the episodes. In the end I found that its resolution was not only persuasive, but also brilliant.

Even if you disagree, I would say that the show had some redemptive qualities.

First, Laura Linney’s acting is so good that it is worth the price of admission. You do not get to see a great performance every day, and Linney provides a truly great performance. If there is justice in the world she will receive some serious rewards for her work on this show. 

Second, the writing and the plotting are remarkably good. Comic writing is very difficult. The comic writer cannot make characters into emoting machines who, as they say, chew the scenery. The comic writer cannot manipulate audience emotions.

Comedy is based on intelligence, not on heavy emotions. When someone gets it right she deserves recognition.

I am not going to tell you how the first season ends, because I do not want to deprive you of the intellectual pleasure of seeing how the writers worked it out and showed Cathy’s reconciliation with her disease.