Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Why the Fascination with Confucius?"

After my recent post about “the rectification of names” a commenter who calls himself “Therapy Culture” asked an important question: “Why the fascination with Confucius?”

As China rises in importance, to the point where many savvy thinkers believe that the new century belongs to China, and as more and more people are doing business with the Chinese, we naturally want to know how the Chinese think. We want to understand their culture and their values. What makes them do what they do?

Beyond that, civilizations compete with other civilizations. For the past few centuries Western civilization, especially the Anglo-American version, has dominated the world. It has won the wars, grown the strongest economies, and set the cultural standards for the rest of the world.

When your culture, that is, your way of functioning in society and your way of solving problems, becomes dominant, you are more likely to fall into the trap of complacency.

You might start to think that, because you are an American, or because you belong to the strongest culture, whatever you do is the best. If yours is the best civilization, others will naturally want to emulate your example, regardless of whether it works, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

It feels like you can just do as you please and everyone will try to do the same. Culturally speaking, you cannot make a bigger mistake.

When you lose sight of what got you where you are, when you start thinking that you are naturally superior, you will contract a severe case of civilization hubris.

One day, another strong culture is going to come along and is going to refuse to follow your recent follies. If it succeeds by refusing to follow your example, you will discover that your new cultural values are in error.

Then you will need to reconcile yourself to a reduced status and will need to look elsewhere to recover your lost greatness.

You might look at what made you great. You might look at what is making another civilization greater than yours.

I would posit that China is rising in the world because it is not following the example set by contemporary America, but is following the ethic that once made China great.

As it happens, this same ethic once made America great. Call it the Protestant work ethic. Say that it derives from Aristotle.

For people in China, it derives from the few remaining thought fragments attributed to a great Sage who lived around 2600 years ago: Confucius.

It took an especially strong culture to break with the Anglo-American standard. And a strong culture requires a strong thinker, someone whose thought can show the way toward social success. And whose thought is universally recognized for its genius.

It is not just any culture that is going to compete for civilization dominance. A civilization without great thinkers is not going to have the principles to guide its cultural development.

So, our own American culture has been floundering in the morass of political correctness, therapy-speak, and what is called progressive philosophy. This has created certain habits of thought, certain characteristic ways we behave in society and conduct our lives. Our culture also shows us how to analyze challenges and how to try to solve them.

The symptoms of America’s civilization hubris are all around us. We have lost the sense of belonging to the same community. We are constantly at each others’ throats. We are happy to think about how we just can’t get along, but we no longer seem to know how.

And we are steeped in a culture that values decadent pursuits more than work. We want to feel good no matter what we do or do not achieve. We are convinced that we have an inalienable right to feel good. We idolize celebrity and act as though we can do as we please, when we please, as we please.

We need some lessons in how to produce social harmony. And there is no major philosopher whose name is more closely associated with such harmony than Confucius.

Despite what too many of us think the solution does not reside in a new insight, a great idea, or a glimpse at an ultimate truth.

It’s about the ethical principles that guide our behavior. Let’s be clear: ethics is not difficult to understand. You can write down the basic principles of Aristotle’s ethics on a single page.

Ethics becomes difficult when we start asking how we put it all into practice. It’s one thing to say that we should act with honor and dignity; quite another to know what does or does not constitute honorable and dignified behavior. It is one thing to say that we should find common ground. It is quite another to know how to find it when two sides are trying to destroy each other.

Yesterday, I posted about a novel response to the problem of childhood obesity. Most Americans are perfectly happy to recognize that there is a problem. Our culture has produced habits of thought that lead us to address the problem is several ways: through more government programs, by banning certain food products, and by more and better diets.

That is the Western way, a way that involves thinking that we are beings who are in an eternal struggle against our appetites. Since our willpower is too weak to control our appetites, we need an external power, like government, to do it for us.

If you address the issue through Confucius, the answer pops out at you. Eating is not an eternal struggle between your appetite and a refrigerator filled with Twinkies. Eating is a social ritual where people congregate and where they observe proper ritual behavior.

Thus, the solution to the problem is… family dinners.

For most people, that is not good news. To follow that principle, you will need to have the discipline and organizational skills to set out a family dinner just about every day.

If you don’t have a strong work ethic, you will never succeed at family dinners.

Could I have credited the idea to the influence of a strong Western thinker? Probably, I could have. Aristotle comes immediately to mind.

Yet, the first time I thought about the importance of family dinner, and wrote about it in my book on Saving Face, I had been thinking about Confucian thought.

Credit where credit is due.

Besides, the name of Confucius is treated with respect and near-reverence, even for those who are not Chinese. Why not allow the idea to command an extra level of respect for using the name of the Sage?

If we give an idea a serious provenance, it will become more serious, more worthy of our attention, and more respectable.

Thinking through Confucius allows us to challenge the assumptions of our own culture and to develop different solutions.

The same applies to that other great Confucian problem-solver, the Tiger Mom.

I do not need to remind anyone of the firestorm that erupted over the Tiger Mom’s claim that she forbid her daughters to go on play dates, and to engage in any one of a number of decadent Western practices.

Worse than that, she always expected them to do their best, and she was not going to hand out self-esteem points for making the best effort. She valued achievement over effort. Imagine that.

Aspire toward excellence, accept nothing less than the best… these are Confucian principles. But they are also, as I mentioned at the time, basic to Aristotle.

Prof. Amy Chua seems to have drawn them from her Confucian mother. The same principles are being practiced in schools across the Far East. The children who are being educated according to these techniques do far better in standardized tests than do ours.

While American children flounder in the world of fuzzy math and high self-esteem, children whose upbringing is based on Confucian principles, are getting ready to assume world leadership.

The nations that conduct their public lives according to these same principles seem to be imbued with a sense of optimism about the future. In America we worry about our decline.

Everyone knows that there is a crisis in American education. Yet, we tend, because of our culture and our habits of thought, to believe that we can solve it by throwing more money at the school systems, hiring more bureaucrats, having smaller classrooms, and wiring all the classrooms with Wi-Fi.

Until the Tiger Mom came along, we were all too willing to settle for mediocrity, as long as the poor dears felt good about themselves.

Could it be that our complacent attitude is responsible for the scholastic shortcomings of American children.

By we I mean both teachers and parents, to say nothing of the culture at large. We are afraid to push children; afraid to exercise authority; afraid to tell them that homework and piano practice come before play dates.

We are afraid to do all of these things because we are afraid we are going to harm their delicate psyches. And, besides, we all tend to believe that the meaning of life is: “fun.”

Trust me, Amy Chua did not invent strict parental discipline. Parents whose children attend private schools tend to have similar attitudes. If they cannot bring themselves to discipline their children, they leave the task to the schools and the tutors.

But why was America so upset, so indignant, so sorely offended by the Tiger Mom?

Actually, America continues to be horrified at the Tiger Mom. Take a gander at P. J. O’Rourke‘s satiric broadside here.

If you still find yourself wondering about the Tiger Mom, you might want to take a look at the open forum she recently did at the New York Public Library with her husband and daughter Sophia. Link here.

Americans were indignant, to the point of being defensive, because Tiger Mom was doing what they knew that they should be doing. The only thing is, because of her cultural heritage, she was able to buck the culture. Most American parents have not been able to do as much.

Witness the debate over Jennifer Moses’ article about how preteen girls are dressing like sluts and why their mothers are powerless to stop it. Link here.

Of course, we have our ways of dealing with the crisis in American public education. We want to show that we care; we want to tell children that they are great. And we expect that the schools will solve the problems.

Amazingly, precious few American parents see the problem as lying within the home, at the level of parental expectation. And very few would have the gumption to take the situation into their own hands.

The Tiger Mom asserted authority over her children; she did not respect their whims and wishes; she trained them in a strict work ethic. An American parent would have been denounced for being abusive.

Once the Tiger Mom’s daughters learned her strict Confucian ethic, she gave them the freedom to make their own decisions.

If you watch the remarks her daughter Sophia made at the Public Library you will be struck, not only at how poised and confident she is, but in how much autonomy her parents give her.

American parents are in a state of near-terminal anxiety over their children’s college applications and acceptances, to the point where they hire tutors and counselors, write or edit the essays, bit their nails to the quick waiting for the thick acceptance packets.

Compare this to the Tiger Mom, who did write the essays, fill out the applications, or shower the entire process with extreme anxiety. In truth, as Sophia said, Tiger Mom did not even know where her daughter was applying.

This must be the ultimate indignity. Tiger Mom brought up children who seem to have good independent judgment. Somehow or other, Sophia did not become a cog in anyone’s machine. Not even in her mother’s machine.

When a Housing Market Crashes

Lately, the talking heads on the business channels are abuzz about whether the American housing market is heading for a double dip.

That’s code for… is the housing market going to continue to decline. If it declines, could it possibly crash. Considering that most Americans have most of their assets in their homes, what does that mean for the average American citizen?

For my part I find that these debates contain too much jargon, too many statistics, and too little vision about what a housing market crash actually looks like. To understand the problem, we need to picture it.

What happens when it comes your neighborhood? Does it just mean that there are going to be lots more cheap houses for you to buy up? Does it mean that foreign investors are going to swoop down, pick up bargain condos, and rent them out? That’s what seems to be happening in southern Florida. There the situation seems to be under control.

Perhaps the picture of what is happening in Florida is luring us into complacency. The Economist has just offered an excellent article about what happens to a city that was built on cheap credit when the credit dries up and the housing market crashes. And what happens when the housing crash begins to take on a life of its own. Link here.

And it is not writing about Detroit or some third world country. The Economist is focusing on America’s playground: Las Vegas, Nevada.

I am not going to summarize the article; it is too intricate to lend itself to a quick synopsis. I recommend that you read the whole thing. It is a sobering assessment.

But it refers to a housing bust that has only impacted a limited segment of the American population. What happens if it comes to a neighborhood near you?

For putting some flesh on the bones of the dry charts and graphs and statistics, the Economist deserves considerable praise.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Family Dinner

Beyond the fact that she is a celebrity environmental priestess who worships at the church of Al Gore, I know very little about Laurie.

She produced a filmic screed called “An Inconvenient Truth,” and has written or contributed to several works on global warmism.

All things considered, I did not consider her writings to be worth the trouble.

And yet, today, David, along with Dr. Grace Freedman wrote an illuminating article on how best to control our nation’s childhood obesity problem. Link here.

Her solution: family dinners.

As it happens, I, among others, have long since advocated the importance of the ritual dinners. The fact that Laurie David has endorsed the idea wholeheartedly tells me that good ideas make their way into even the most environ-mentally unfriendly locales.

This does not mean that the idea was wrong. It means that there is hope for the planet.

Strangely enough, as you read the article, you start thinking that David is some kind of a family values conservative.

Because she begins by saying that while Michelle Obama is correct to target childhood obesity, she is wrong to place so much faith in government programs. The solution, Laurie David says, lies in the family. Or, most especially, in family dinners.

While we are at it, let’s emphasize that David is standing up for the kind of Confucian values that we last saw evidenced by the Tiger Mom.

Hopefully, her ideas will be granted more respect than were those of the Tiger Mom.

As a reminder ... Confucius believed that human communities are held together by the fact that people participate in common rituals and ceremonies.

People pay lip service to this idea all the time. It is not a self-evident truth, especially in America where everyone thinks that the country is being held together because we all believe in the same ideals.

Confucius might have said that saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag is a more significant social glue than is our shared belief in freedom or equality or rights.

In truth, most people have different conceptions of our founding ideals. And when you make national unity depend on shared ideals, you are on the road to mind control.

The school of thought that emphasizes the importance of ritual is actually more consonant with free expression than is the one that wants us to be worshipping the same ideals.

Rituals create cohesive communities regardless of what anyone thinks. And they do so without anyone having any flashes of insight or raised consciousness.

The Confucian principle is the enemy of the therapy culture.

To return to Laurie David, she recognizes the gravity of childhood obesity, and she offers the following solution: “There is one simple idea, though, that gets barely any attention. It's something that parents can act on right away, without any special training or government support and its available to them every day! That solution is family dinner. How and where we eat may seem too simple in the face of the enormous problem of childhood obesity. Yet, the ritual of eating meals together as a family, be it one parent at the table or both, has been shown to greatly improve healthy eating habits.”

For those who believe that we need a slew of new programs to address this problem, David responds: “Programs are geared mainly towards schools, and occasionally to adults, but rarely do we treat the basic social unit of the family with any consideration. What an oversight! Family dinner is a positive activity that is immediately understandable to parents, and immediately actionable. It is something that the vast majority of parents can do without much more than some basic ingredients and a kitchen table.”

How can one explain why family dinners are so beneficial? According to David: “Regular, routine meals add structure to a child's day (and to a parent's) and from this structure stems a myriad of health and social benefits, including better relationships with peers and adults, better grades at schools, and less likelihood of using drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. We all know this. But children (and adults) who have regular mealtimes, with the television turned off and conversation turned on, are also far less likely to be overweight, are less likely to have eating disorders, and are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables than are those who eat alone or on the run.”

Better yet: “Many studies have shown that families who make dinner at home do indeed eat healthier. One theory is that once parents take the step to mindfully shop, prepare, and serve dinner, they also start making better health choices for themselves and their families. The act of sitting at the table and putting the focus on the mealtime may, all of a sudden, make the "fast-food" meal less palatable and a lot less interesting as an everyday option.”

One other point struck me about David’s article. Not only did she skillfully jettison the idea that we need more government programs, but she did not trot out the idea that we all need to put children on diets.

For that I, for one, am grateful.

The therapy culture has long purveyed the notion that we are involved in a great struggle between mind and appetite.

For quite some time now Americans have been told that they must sate their sexual appetites freely and openly. In principle, the beneficiaries of this new social policy was supposed to have been women. Yet, many of today's Americans-- certainly, most American women-- are involved in some kind of draconian effort to suppress their alimentary appetite, the better to make them sexually attractive.

Frankly, I think that the world would be a better place if we get over the idea that the only alternatives are to allow our alimentary appetites free reign or to suppress them in order to melt off those last few fat cells.

In my view, David is correct to see that active participation in the social ritual of the family dinner will lead to better eating habits, better health, and probably better figures. Without government programs and without a new diet.

How's That Social Justice Working Out For You?

For the past several decades liberals have insisted that they had the solutions to the problems of American poverty and racial prejudice. In many ways contemporary liberalism has seemed to be tailor-made to solve these problems.

Liberals' good will and efforts have been directed primarily toward inner city blacks. They have created a veritable industry, filled with politicians, bureaucrats, social workers, and do-gooders to blanket inner cities with program after program.

As it happens, and I do not think it’s a mistake, these policies and programs have aimed at social justice, not at prosperity or economic development. They have assumed that social justice was an essential stepping stone on the way to full employment.

Now, pragmatism requires that we ask ourselves whether or not these programs are working. Have they led to an economic renaissance in the American inner cities or not?

If we are thinking in terms of social justice, the results are not encouraging. Those who worship this idea want want to see an equitable distribution of wealth throughout a growing middle class. They see the tax system as a way to redistribute income from the rich to the poor.

In the epicenter of modern liberal policies, the division between the hyper-rich and the rest had been growing apace. When 40,000 people (out of 8,000,000) pay half the city taxes, then clearly, for those who are aiming at social justice, things are moving in the wrong direction.

The social justice model seems to have produced more and more social injustice. But, how could it happen that the bluest city in one of the bluest state has aggravated the problems that it has pretended to address?

The other day Walter Russell Mead wrote a brilliant blog post addressing these issues. Link here.

How can you tell whether liberal policies have served those they are intended to help? Mead examines the most recent Census data and concludes that these policies have instigated a mass migration of blacks out of inner cities, toward  job opportunities and better lives in the South and in the less liberal suburbs.

Surely, that represents an important judgment, offered by the people who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of these policies.

In Mead’s words: “The Census reported that waves of blue state blacks fled the stagnant job opportunities, high taxes and rotten social conditions of the mostly blue northern states to seek better lives for themselves in the south.”  

He continues: “One would think that the Blacks who choose to stay in the cold, unwelcoming North would cluster in the cities where more liberal and humane governance models mandate such generous policies as ‘living wage‘ laws and where all the beautiful features of the blue social model can be experienced at full strength.

“But one would be wrong.  Blacks across the North are fleeing the urban paradises of liberal legislation and high public union membership for the benighted suburbs.”

Shockingly, these inner city enclaves have not been run by Tea Party activists, unhinged libertarians, evangelical Christians, or even conservative Republicans.

In New York, there are, for all intents and purposes, nearly no Republicans. A New York Republican looks like Michael Bloomberg: a former Democrat become RINO become staunch, principled independent.

One suspects that people who are less pragmatic than Walter Russell Mead will blame it all on racism, but, the truth is, as Mead emphasizes, the policies that direct and guide these communities are bluer than blue.

Being pragmatic, we should see America’s inner cities as laboratories for liberal social and economic policies. It is fair and just to see their current state as evidence that those policies have failed.

And it is certainly reasonable to judge their failure by the number of blacks who are fleeing these liberal enclaves. Shouldn't we respect the independent judgment of people who are voting with their feet.

Mead places the blame where it rightly belongs: “The failure of blue social policy to create an environment which works for Blacks is the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th century liberal enterprise in the United States.  Helping Blacks achieve the kind of equality and opportunity long denied them was more than one of many justifications for blue social policy: it was the defining moral task that has challenged and shaped American liberalism for the last fifty years.

“The Census tells us that in the eyes of those who know best, these well intentioned efforts failed.  Instead of heaven, we have hell across America’s inner cities.  Blue economic policy has cut the creation of new private sector jobs to a trickle in our great cities, while the high costs of public union urban services (and policies that favor government employees over the citizenry at large) impose crippling taxes and contribute to the ruinously high costs that blight opportunity.  All the social welfare bureaucracies, diversity counselors and minority set-asides can’t make up for the colossal failure of blue social policy to create sustainable lower middle class prosperity in our cities.”

These blue policies have created an industry of lawyers, bureaucrats, social workers, and counselors. If the black urban class is largely unemployed, these professional do-gooders are happily ensconced in their jobs.

In raising taxes to the level where it can sate this bureaucratic beast, liberal politicians have created a tax and regulatory environment that has made it increasingly difficult to start and sustain new businesses.

If you are Walmart and you want to start new businesses in New York, well then, the unions will do everything in their power to block you.  

If you ask yourself  who would benefit from the presence  of Walmart stores in a place like New York City, the answer is: those who have less disposable income. Walmart would help improve the living standard of the city’s poorest citizens. One senses that this should be a good thing, a step forward for those who have little.

Unfortunately, when choosing between the good of the citizenry and the vital interests of the labor unions, New York City has sided with the unions.

Admittedly, Walmart would cut into the business of your local bodega, but it would also be providing a considerable number of stable jobs in a city where minority unemployment is unacceptably high.

City government has been pandering to a special interest and has ignored the general good.

Mead explains why these do-good liberal policies have produced such a negative outcome:  “Worse than all this, small business is crushed by high taxes, intrusive and often irrational regulation, which means that new jobs aren’t created and new businesses don’t start.  That reduces demand for workers in the neighborhoods that need jobs most; it also curtails the ability of inner city residents to develop the entrepreneurial skills and experience that could fuel the rebirth of the Black middle class.”

Mead makes several important points here. I would emphasize that when there are no jobs, the unemployed do not gain the job skills that would help them in the future. Add to this the fact that minimum wage laws contribute directly to high youth unemployment, and you understand why blacks are increasingly leaving these blue state.

The only people who get jobs from these policies are the bureaucrats, lawyers, and social welfare workers. Be assured that they will defend their own jobs, no matter what.

If they are forced to face the evidence of the Census, they will answer that it only shows that we need more social welfare programs, more minority set-asides, more taxes and more regulation. They will declare, with a straight face, that it all proves that the market does not work.

After all, liberals are not pragmatists. If their hearts are in the right place, if they feel the right feelings, they will refuse to believe that their policies have failed. They are not going to step up and admit that their candy-colored visions of a bring and just future are illusions: narcotics for idealists.

Of course, the grievance industry will also say that this migration out of the blue cities is the result of stone cold racism.

Yet, the people who concocted these policies and who are running them from within city and state governments dyed-in-the-wool liberals. Most of them do not have a racist bone in their bodies.

Unfortunately, they are so thoroughly blinded by their idealism that they do not have a pragmatic bone in their bodies either. In their minds, their programs never fail; their ideas are never wrong. The people of the world, even in an enlightened cosmopolitan metropolis like New York, are not good enough for their ideas.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making Charlie Sheen Look Rational

Everyone has been trying to figure out the difference between Barack Obama's actions in Libya and George Bush's in Iraq. Fortunately for us all, the crowd over at Xtranormal has just put up a video that explains it all. I guarantee, it will make your day: Link here.

The Rectification of Names

By now everyone knows that the Obama administration tends to traffic in euphemism. As Roger Kimball recently pointed out, it has been violating one of the central precepts of Confucian ethics: the rectification of names. Link here.

What does that mean? It means that the administration fails to call things by their proper names. When things do not have their proper names, we do not know how to relate to them. And we do not know what we should or should do about them.

Confucius believed that such failures make it impossible to conduct business successfully. Thus, they undermine propriety and social harmony.

Of course, that is quite a philosophical leap. So let’s try to explain this arcane Chinese concept. I’ll try to make it worth your trouble.

Kimball pointed out that, a “kinetic military action,” is not the same thing as a war. An “overseas contingency operation,”  is not the same as a war on terror.

But, isn’t this just an exercise in semantics? Why does it matter?

Take an example. Let’s say that you call your friend and ask if he would like to throw a football around. How does this differ from calling him and inviting him to play a game of football?

If you are just throwing a ball around, you are not playing football. You might be preparing for an eventual game, but otherwise you are engaging in some enjoyable leisure activity.

If there's no game, there is no competition; there are no opposing teams; there are no players, rules, referees, scores,  or winners.

Playing a game of football is an intense competitive activity. Throwing a ball around is not.

If you think that your football game is just like throwing a ball around you will have misunderstood the nature of the game.

It is one thing to tell your football team that they are going to throw the ball around; quite another to tell them that they are going to play for the state championship.

If you give out the wrong information, some team members will be confused, will not know understand what they are preparing for, and might not even show up.

If you want every member of your team to be ready to play in the big game, it makes good sense to tell them that they are going to be playing in a big game.

Let’s examine the current military operations in Libya. Clearly there is an armed conflict between forces who are and are not loyal to Kaddhafi.

If we are getting ourselves involved in a war, we are taking sides. That is part of warfare. It is not necessarily part of kinetic military actions. The latter might just be a training exercise.

In addition, we do not really know what to call those who are fighting against Kaddhafi. Who are they really? If we are fighting for them, shouldn't we know who they are. Perhaps they are rebels, but that would mean that we understand not only what they are rebelling against but what they are rebelling for.

At times, our president has declared that we are on the side of “the people.” Unfortunately, "the people" is a meaningless abstraction.

All of the fighters on both sides of the conflict are people. Why are we on the side of one group of people and not another? If our motive is humanitarian, why is it not relevant that al Qaeda terrorists are also human beings?

In a war we try to kill our enemies and ensure the victory of our friends. We are not in it for an abstraction or some ill-defined motive.

While we are all in favor of less bloodshed, who knows whether, in the long run, our intervention will cause more or less bloodshed?

When the conflict is defined as a struggle between the tyrant and the people, it becomes a historical drama. But this is merely a myth. If we are not fighting a war or conducting foreign policy, then we are trying out for a role in a drama… or better, placing ourselves on the right side of an historical narrative.

As long as no one knows who these rebels are, what their goals are, and what they are fighting for, we are effectively engaging in political theatre.

While we might have prevented a massacre in Benghazi, we do not know who we saved, what they want, and what they will do once they have gained power.

Without knowing what to name our action or what to name our allies we are flying blind and sowing potential confusion.

Calling the action by its name forces us to face up to a whole series of difficult questions, first among which is: What are we doing in Libya? Or, Why are we bombing Libya?

If our goal is humanitarian, why are we not defending the human beings who are being gunned down in Yemen and Syria?

If our policy is incoherent, why would any other nation want to conduct foreign policy with us?

If it is incoherent, then others will assume that it is self-serving, not principled. If our government  conducts policy in order to ensure the re-election of Barack Obama, why would anyone want to do diplomatic business with us?

Confucius saw the rectification of names as necessary to conduct policy. But he also saw it at work in many other social contexts.

Let’s try some other examples. There is a difference between being your father and being your friend. There is also a difference between being your father and being your mother.

If you introduce your father as your friend, or your mother as your girl friend you will simply be confusing people, and ultimately, yourself. If you don't know the difference, you will not know how to behave toward your parents or your friends.

Admittedly, political correctness would insist that rectifying names, calling people by their names and using their proper titles is prejudicial. That is one way that political correctness undermines social harmony.

Confucius believed that familial relationships involve specific duties and obligations. They also impose certain taboos.

It matters that people know the nature of their relationships to others because otherwise they would not understand their duties toward those other people.

In the Confucian world, children owe their parents filial piety. This involves strong gestures of respect and deference. Calling someone your father or mother is the basis for a series of prescribed behaviors.

And those are only the beginning. Calling someone your boss or your assistant, your teammate or your competitor, your girlfriend or your wife, your husband or your ex-husband… all of these define sets of duties and obligations. They define the parameters of good behavior. Thus they ensure the good order of society.

If you would like to erase all of these terms on the grounds that we are all human beings, all members of the human species, then you will have eliminated the rules and regulations that order society. Confucius would not have approved. Neither would Miss Manners.

Let’s examine the words of the Sage himself. Confucius said: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be conducted successfully. When affairs cannot be conducted successfully, propriety will not flourish. When propriety does not flourish, punishments will not be properly meted out. When punishments are not properly meted out, the people will not know how to conduct themselves.”

What is Confucius trying to tell us about governance? First, that your language must be connected to the truth of things.

Meaning what, exactly?

Clearly, Confucius does just mean that we need to learn to call things by their proper names. He is also saying that we should be good to our word.

If you are good to your word, that means that when you say you will do something, it is as good as done.

If you are not good to your word, if your word does not count as a commitment to do this or that, then fewer and fewer people will want to do business with you.

When Confucius says that he wants propriety to flourish, I take him to mean that he wants the business of business and the business of government to be conducted on handshakes.

When people trust each other and know that they can count on everyone to be good to his or her word, then the human affairs will be conducted harmoniously.

If you go back on your word, you will be offending your partner. If you do not have enough integrity to keep your word, then you will probably try to escape responsibility by shifting the blame or by falling back on legalistic excuses.

You will be defending yourself on the grounds that the contract was unclear, that you did not understand it, and that it was impossible to fulfill anyway.

Making excuses when you fail to keep your word is the opposite of propriety.

If we do not keep our word and do not call things by their names, then we will not know how to conduct ourselves in society. We will not know whether to show up on time or to ignore the appointment. We will not know when or whether to expect the delivery. We will not know what we are doing or what we should be doing or whether we are doing it right.

The Chinese Way to Promote Civility

When we want to promote civility, we often resort of pompous exhortations to good behavior.

Respect your fellow citizens, maintain a civil tone, be courteous and polite… all of these are well and good. I support them wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, telling people to improve their table manners or to put the trash in the waste basket is not enough to improve civility.

It takes something more. And the something more is often absent from all of the calls for civility.

That something more is a penalty for incivility. Cultures that value civility have strict sanctions for incivility. Behave badly and you are shamed, shunned, or publicly embarrassed.

Shaming promotes civility; guilt does not.

In a shame culture, a culture that values civility, you are not going to be indicted or prosecuted for spitting or jaywalking, but you are going to be held up to public ridicule. When your name or face appears in the local newspaper, your reputation as a good citizen, a model of civility, will suffer serious damage.

Nowadays, this is what has been happening in the city of Wuhan, China. There, the local newspaper, the Wuhan Daily News has been publishing the names and the faces of those whose behavior is egregiously uncivil. Link here.

Right now, the list is limited to those who run red lights, park haphazardly, jaywalk, or litter.

Why this new concern for civility?

The local authorities were so impressed by the outbreak of civil behavior in Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami, that they felt ashamed of the bad behavior of their own citizens. So they decided that they would do something to tamp down incivility.

Of course, some consider that the government is misusing its power, by keeping too close a watch on public behavior.

But, public behavior is, by definition, public. The government is not putting hidden cameras into everyone’s dining room to find out who chews with his mouth open.

Surely, the issue is subject to debate. We Americans have laws against littering and jaywalking. I doubt that they are ever enforced.

Thus, they serve a  non-purpose. Since they do not stop littering and jaywalking, they teach people that there is no real price to be paid for breaches of decorum.

In smaller communities people are more likely to behave civilly in public. When everyone knows everyone else, people who litter and jaywalk cannot remain anonymous. When your good name and your public reputation are on the line, you are more likely to behave better.

The officials in Wuhan are applying the rules of a small community to a larger city.

They understood that people are more likely to behave civilly if there is a sanction for incivility. Telling people to do the right thing does not suffice.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Five Denials

There’s denial and then there’s denial. There’s also denial, denial, and denial.

I count five kinds of denial. There may be more, but, after five, why quibble?

We hear the term every day. We use it every day. It is a member in good standing of the English language, but it also belongs to psycho-jargon.

In most modern conversations, the term is an accusation. When you tell someone that he is “in denial,“ you are not just saying that he is wrong or that you disagree with him.

You are saying that he is refusing to accept an obvious truth. And you are saying that his character or his judgment are defective.

Using the term as psycho-jargon means that you refuse to address another point of view. Either he accepts your perspective or he is suffering from a mental disease or defect.

I am puzzled by the fact that when we use the term as psycho-jargon we always preface it with a preposition. We say that people are “in denial” as though it were a place.

Off the top of my head I cannot tell you where you are when you are in denial. It’s not quite the same thing as being in the soup, or being in error, or being in a funk, or being in Dubuque.

The denial you get yourself into began with therapy. Psychoanalysts called it a defense. They trotted it out when their recalcitrant patients refused to accept the validity of their interpretations.

Denial did not just mean that the therapist was right. It taken as proof that the patient unconsciously accepted that the therapist was right. If you agreed with the analyst, he was right. If you disagreed, you were said to be in denial-- with your denial proving that the analyst was right.

Why? Because if the interpretation was wrong you would not have had to deny it. There’s a piece of thought that has never seen the light of reason.

In Freud’s time, if you didn’t think you had an Oedipus complex you were in denial. If you didn’t accept that your heart’s desire was to copulate with your mother you were in denial. If you didn’t believe that you bore hostile intentions toward your father you were in denial.

The strange part of Freudian therapy, the part that makes it an exercise in disguised brainwashing, is that it never considered the possibility that these interpretations were wrong.

Yet, all of them are demeaning, degrading, and insulting. Why should you be expected to embrace them with a fervor that transcends doubt?

And, why was your mental health and emotional well-being dependent on your ability to convince yourself of the validity of dogmatic truths?

The second denial does not involve motivation; it refers to something that therapists claimed really happened. If your therapist said that you had been molested and if you had no recollection of the event, then, you were in denial.

Therapists use this version of denial when they want to persuade children that they were molested. Once they do that, they can railroad innocent people into prison.

Accusing people of being in denial is an innocent enterprise.

Like the first denial, this one is a form of mind control. From its inception psychotherapy has had no use for human freedom.

There is still more to denial. People use the term more constructively when they say that an alcoholic who refuses to accept that he is addicted is in denial.

Often, but not always, we are dealing with a diagnosis, not a matter of opinion.

Instead of assuming that a child’s failure to remember an incident of molestation is proof that it happened, here the alcoholic's denial is not taken to be proof that he is drinking too much. His liver and brain functions contain that evidence.

If you ignore the evidence, you will be denying something that is real. Here, as with any medical diagnosis that one chooses to ignore, denial leads to consequences.

The same applies to someone who has heart disease or high blood pressure and who chooses to deny the reality of his illness.

Of course, it is also possible for someone to acknowledge that he has an illness and choose not to submit to treatment.

I would tend toward saying that a person can accept that he is ill and still refuse treatment without being in denial. His decision about treatment is not proof of his mental state.

He may feel, as sometimes happens, that the treatment is worse than the disease. Or he may be a Christian Scientist.

A choice about treatment does not necessarily reveal a state of mind. In more normal conversation, denial does not necessarily mean that the person is refusing to face an inconvenient or painful truth.

Here's another form of denial, a more normal usage.If you deny responsibility for an action, that does not, ipso facto, mean that you are responsible. People are falsely accused all the time. It is devilishly difficult to determine culpability or responsibility on the basis of the strength of a denial.

As opposed to the therapy world, in the criminal justice system the failure to deny accusations vigorously is taken to be proof of guilt or responsibility.

The fact that someone denies responsibility does not, by my lights, mean that he is responsible. He might deny responsibility because he bears none.

Finally, some people deny objective reality. Many of them belong to the Flat Earth Society.

Than again, one person's objective reality can be another person's opinion. Are those who disagree with the supposedly settle science of global warming in denial? Or, are they accused of being in denial in order to shut down debate? If we wait long enough, the earth's climate will offer something of an answer to that question.

Some realities cannot be determined by physics. Take the issue of whether or not certain countries in the world are currently bankrupt.

Last week anarchists were plying their trade in central London. Fearless commentator Mark Steyn found himself among them, and bothered to engage one of the more anodyne protesters in a conversation. Link here.

The elderly woman had come out to protest because she was sorely offended at the possibility that, under the new government budget, her grandson would have to pay more to go to university.

After listening to her plaint, Steyn replied: “You can protest all you like….But this country’s broke, so all you’re doing is postponing its reacquaintanceship with reality, and ensuring that your grandson and his contemporaries are going to be stuck with the tab because you guys spent their future.”

Steyn is assuming that the country is broke. Of course, other people disagree. Some believe that, while there might not always be an England, there will always be enough pounds to pay for education, health care, and the like.

You might say that the protester is right or that Steyn is right. Is either one in denial? Steyn said, and I agree with him, that people who refuse to recognize the current state of government balance sheets are in denial.

But, we are dealing with reality, not with opinion or state of mind. And when it comes to reality, then the facts of the marketplace will ultimately decide who was really in denial.

Feminism Disempowers Mothers

Last week Jennifer Moses wrote a poignant op-ed about the anguish she was feeling as she watched her dress like a thirteen year old tramp. I had my say in this post.

This week Kathryn Jean Lopez weighs in on the same topic, and her article is worth a read. Link here.

Lopez interviewed pediatrician Dr. Meg Meeker. According to Dr. Meeker, mothers who experimented with sex should understand that things are quite different for their daughters.

According to Dr. Meeker, sexually transmitted infections are far more prevalent today than they were when she and Jennifer Moses were growing up.

In Dr. Meeker’s words: “In 1979, when I graduated from college, there were two sexually transmitted infections snaking their way through the sexually ‘open’ teens and adults who chose to explore their sexuality through freer sexual expression. Herpes 2 broke upon the scene in a fierce way, increasing 500 percent from 1980 to 1990. By the time 2000 rolled around, there were over 30 STIs in the then–15 million Americans each year who contracted a new STD. Now, in 2011, the CDC reports that 20 million Americans each year contract a new STI, and almost 50 percent are young people (teens and college students). This is completely unacceptable.”

This aspect of the story will probably be denounced as hysterical and alarmist, but it is also a reality for young girls today.

Those media outlets that do not denounce the story will probably just ignore it. After all, it undermines the party line that insists that adolescents should be more sexually active.

Keep in mind, our enlightened class believes, as an article of dogma, that sexual restraint is sexual repression and that sexual repression will make you neurotic. It also holds that free and open sexual expression makes you mentally healthy, regardless of age or gender.

As I was reading Lopez I had three additional thoughts.

First, the women who grew up being told that they should never allow themselves to be treated as sexual objects are allowing its teenage daughters to dress up as though they are aspiring sexual objects.

Second, for all the talk about how feminism was going to empower women, feminist mothers are incapable of exercising authority over their own children. They have been disempowered by their ideology.

Third, Lopez asks where the fathers are. Why are they so conspicuously absent from the discussions that Jennifer Moses has with other mothers?

As we all know, feminism has relegated fathers to insignificance. In its effort to undermine paternal authority-- and thus to gain more power over the minds of women-- feminism has persuaded two generations of women that men must be ignored.

The illogic is flagrant. The feminist view says that men want to turn women into sexual objects. It‘s an article of feminist faith. Thus, male influence needs to be eliminated if women are to escape being sexual objects.

And yet, the most elementary survey of paternal opinion would have immediately given the lie to this dogma.

How many fathers do you know who would ever, if they were given a say, allow their daughters to slut it up at age thirteen?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Art of Seduction

I suppose I should apologize off the top, because I am about to turn a juicy topic into a pedantic exercise.

Not entirely, but somewhat.

According to the latest research on desire, as it is summarized by Jezebel: “Women only want men who don’t want them.” Link here. It isn't really true, but, at least, it's a catchy title.

When they are asked to choose between men who definitely like them and men who might like them, women are more apt, Jezebel reports, to choose those who might like them.

So says the latest psychological experiment.

To be perfectly clear, the women in the experiment were not answering questions about real men. They were responding to Facebook profiles of men who, they were told by researchers, had seen their profiles and expressed different levels of interest.

To say that this is about men who do like them or might like them begs the pretty obvious qualifier: these men do not know them; they do not know these men.

Therefore, we must qualify the results. A woman who is told by a third party that an anonymous man who does not know her from Eve is strongly attracted to her should have only one reaction: suspicion.

But a woman who is told by a third party that an anonymous man who does not know her from Eve might be attracted to her should be intrigued and interested. At least, she will feel flattered.

Women are quite good at distinguishing when a man likes them for themselves and when he likes them for some ancillary reason-- her quivering loins, for example.

If a man who does not know her from Eve develops a strong attraction to her, that will mean one of two things: either he is being drawn to an anatomical feature that he is fetishizing, or he is frankly delusional.

To a normal woman, such a man would not elicit desire. She would naturally refrain from being thoroughly smitten by him.

Look at it in a different context. If a woman walking down the street is being trailed by the glaring leer of a stranger, she might be slightly flattered, but she is not going to find this to be the most appealing invitation.

She does not know the man; the man does not know her; the man does not care to get to know her. Her normal reaction is to distrust his sentiments.

No matter how good looking he is, the stranger is being aroused by her quivering loins, and by nothing else.

If this same woman, wearing the same outfit, is chatting at a cocktail party with a man she has just met, and if she finds the man appealing, she will want to know whether he is interested in her or her quivering loins.

She is curious to know whether or not he is attracted. This could simply be her way of deciding how much time she is going to spend with him. If she gets a signal that he is really disinterested, she will likely not waste too much more of her time with him.

She will be more interested in him than she will be in a stranger leering at her on the street.

Let’s ask the question differently. If women are normally so attracted to men who don’t want them, how would you explain the success of a Don Juan?

A Don Juan does not owe his success to his disinterest and uncertainty. Surely, a Don Juan is not overbearing; he modulates the display of his charms. But, he seduces a woman by making her feel that she is the only woman in the world and that she has wholly captured his attention and interest. If you want to be a real Don Juan, it helps to be unemployed.

For all we know, a Don Juan might just be trying to add another notch to his bedpost. Most often, once he has succeeded in getting what he wants, his ardor diminishes, or even, vanishes. More than a handful of women seem to be willing to take the chance that he is in it for more than the notch.

A true Don Juan is not a pick-up artist. The latter is more interested in picking up a girl in a bar for a quick hookup. A Don Juan will mount a campaign that lasts for weeks, even months, to get what he wants.

Some men want women because they are attracted to a fetishized part of their body. Some men want women they cannot have. Some men only want women until they can have them.

There are, needless to say, many variations on this theme. It is unfair to say that women naturally want men who do not want them.

And then, ask yourself this: does the research distinguish between a man who wants a woman and a man who is desperate to have her.

In my view, most women seem to know the difference instinctively.

It is more difficult to explain it theoretically.

A desperate man will make his relationship with a woman into a life-or-death proposition. He is insecure, needy, and dependant.

He might sound like he wants the woman, but he is afraid to be without her. He will implicitly try to threaten her by letting her think that if she leaves him or rejects him, he will no longer find life worth living.

In another variation on the theme, some men are uncertain about whether or not they want to make a commitment to a woman. After a time, this uncertainty will become more cloying than attractive.

If a man proposes marriage and is not certain that this is what he wants to do, this too will be read by most women as unattractive.

The issue is so complicated that I think it best that we not reduce it to a clever sound bite. As much as I like clever sound bites.

Finally, there is another side to the uncertainty principle, one that I am so fond of that I wrote about it in my book about Saving Face.

If you want to seduce someone, it is a good to make them think about you a lot. One way to do this is to be mildly rude.

If you are too rude, they will be completely turned off. If you are too polite they will never have to think twice about you.

In truth, this technique has been the basis of a great deal of psychotherapy, especially the psychoanalytic variety. You may not think that the mysterious analyst, the living blank slate who sits behind his patients and can barely stay awake, is engaged in an elaborate seduction, but, in truth, that is really all that he is doing.

When a therapist rudely refuses to interact with his patients, his patients will start obsessing about him, trying to read his least gesture. The more the patient concocts explanations for the therapist’s silence or cryptic utterances, the more the analyst will be able to persuade the patient that he is really in loves.

The classical instance occurred when Freud attempted to persuade his patient, Dora, that she really loved him. She found the suggestion insulting and quit treatment.

Ever since, analysts have been honing their seduction technique.

Jezebal considers that this practice is gender neutral, so the chances are that it is not. Under normal circumstances women are better at it than are men. Women are, after all, notably mysterious, and what is the purpose of being mysterious if not to get someone to think about you all the time. Then you are well place to persuade him that if he thinks about you that much then he must really care about you.

On the most elementary level, women are often fashionably late for appointments. Recently, Elizabeth Taylor was fashionably late to her own funeral.

As long as a woman does not abuse the privilege, her tardiness will provoke her partner’s fantasies about what might have happened to her, where she is, and why she is late.

The more she can elicit such imaginings, the more she will be able to play the seductress.

I am not sure what it means that men are becoming more mysterious and are trying to outplay women at their own game, but I do not think it's a good thing.

If a woman is going to show up slightly late, the exercise will be compromised if the man also shows up late.

Finally, a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve, who is open and honest about her feelings, who communicates them freely, without guile, will find herself to be less attractive than the woman who has mastered the art of keeping her feelings to herself.

The Moderate Arab View of Obama

My thanks to the anonymous commenter who offered a link to this article by Barry Rubin:

Here's a sample of Rubin's analysis: "In this article in al-Sharq al-Awsat (translated by MEMRI), a Saudi-controlled but also relatively liberal newspaper, Tariq al-Homayed, the chief editor, expresses the combination of shock and horror at the Obama Administration. The conflict was hot over Egypt and even hotter over Bahrain, where the Saudis want the current regime to survive and U.S. officials have criticized Saudi intervention.

"Indeed, he complains, the statements coming from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sound 'more like what we'd expect to hear from the Iranian foreign minister.' The 'contradictory statements coming out of Washington have become more than merely perplexing; they are also suspicious.'

"Why suspicious? Because it isn't clear whether the U.S. government is more concerned about stopping revolutionary Islamism or undermining those who oppose it, more interested in containing Iran or letting Tehran's influence spread, supporting moderate Arab countries or overthrowing their regimes."

Saturday, March 26, 2011


For those of us who are chronicling Barack Obama’s adventures in presidential misleadership, this morning was a veritable Obamathon.

Let us count the ways.

First came the announcement that our fearless leader would appear on national television Monday to explain why he is bombing Libya.

Score one for Peggy Noonan. It took less than 24 hours for the crack White House communications team to be shamed by Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter into doing what she told them to do.

If you were wondering where Obama is getting his marching orders, now you know: the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

That’s for those of you who want to keep hope alive.

As for me, I next turned to the same Wall Street Journal to read an article by Robert Kaplan. Link here.

At first, the article sounded promising. Kaplan opened with this sobering analysis: “Despite the military drama unfolding in Libya, the Middle East is only beginning to unravel. American policy-makers have been spoiled by events in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which boast relatively sturdy institutions, civil society associations and middle classes, as well as being age-old clusters of civilization where states of one form or another have existed since antiquity. Darker terrain awaits us elsewhere in the region, where states will substantially weaken once the carapace of tyranny crumbles. The crucial tests lie ahead, beyond the distraction of Libya.”

At least, Kaplan has not gotten caught up in the revolution narrative. He sees an onset of some very dark and difficult times. One cannot help but agree.

In his view the forces that are on the move in the Middle East are unstoppable, and are not likely to be very democratic. Good point, though he is hardly the first to make it.

He might have mentioned that these forces are becoming more and more unstoppable now that they believe that they have Barack Obama on their side.

But, Kaplan is correct when he joins those who have been urging closer attention to the underlying influence of Iran and to the growing threat to the Saudi monarchy.

After offering some useful analysis, Kaplan seems compelled to rationalize Obama’s misleadership. He declares that Obama’s indecisive and feckless leadership, his failure to explain himself… is a  sign of “cunning.”

Kaplan even compares Obama’s leadership style to that of George H. W. Bush during the fall of the Soviet Empire. Actually, Bush had garnered some serious experience in foreign policy before he assumed the presidency. He handled the crisis in Eastern Europe masterfully.

Compared to G. H. W. Bush, Barack Obama is a bumbler.

Kaplan’s analogy is misleading, but his choice of language is telling. Using the word “cunning” to describe the leader of an operation called, “Odyssey Dawn” seems to refer to the most cunning of Greek warriors: Odysseus.

I will mention in passing that the phrase, Odyssey Dawn, makes no sense in English. Since this is an international operation, perhaps the great minds of the administration decided that it was best to speak in Babel.

As you probably recall, the cunning Odysseus invented the ultimate military ruse, the Trojan Horse. Once he persuaded the Trojans to accept the gift of this enormous horse as a peace offering, and to allow it into their walled fortress, the war was basically over.

Led by the cunning Odysseus the Horse was filled with Greek warriors who attacked the Trojans in their sleep and brought the ten year war to a swift and decisive conclusion.

Between us, this cunning action was not the work of a confused and incoherent leader. It had very little to do with the political theater of sending in a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles.

For the record, ancient Troy was located in the land now called Turkey. The Trojan War had nothing to do with North Africa.

If we want to know how anyone came up with the silly expression, Odyssey Dawn, I would recommend that he might have been thinking of one of the most famous metaphors from the Odyssey: “rosy fingered dawn.”

As metaphors for the sunrise, that’s about as good as it gets. But, it takes more than an incoherent phrase to make Obama into a modern Odysseus.

After I finished reading Kaplan, I needed some rhetorical tonic, so I turned to Mark Steyn. There I was greeted by a line that shows us yet again why Obama really does need a teleprompter. Link here.

While giving a press conference in el Salvador a few days ago, Obama muttered these words: “It is our military that is being volunteered by others to carry out missions that are important not only to us, but are important internationally.”

I hope I am not alone in seeing that this is syntactical and semantic gibberish.

Let’s keep in mind that the great liberal minds in the American media threw objectivity to the winds in their zealous support for a man they considered to be brilliant beyond human reason. Many of them had thought that the American people were unworthy of so crafty a wordsmith.

If they were half as smart as they think they are, they would have noticed, even before the election, that Obama’s command of the English language leaves much to be desired.

As I mentioned at the time-- regrettably I was among the very few who noticed it-- the title of Obama’s opus, The Audacity of Hope, is a grammatical error. As we know, Obama took inspiration from a sermon by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, entitled: “The Audacity to Hope.”

All the time that Obama was sitting at the feet of Rev. Wright, not understanding a word of what was being said, he managed to pick up a title for his book. When he decided to make this title his own, the best he could do was to mangle the syntax.

For the record, I am perfectly willing to accept that Obama wrote the title of his book. I do not believe that it was remotely possible that he wrote the book himself.

Excuse the digression.

The important point is that the sentence that Steyn quotes, in and of itself, moves Obama to the had of the class in misleadership.

Whatever does it mean to say that other people-- which other people?-- can volunteer your armies to fight in a kinetic military action.

It is possible to say that an executive volunteered his secretary to do charity work. But this only makes sense if you assume that he is really volunteering his own services, given that he is paying for her time.

It makes no sense to say that I can volunteer your secretary to serve on a charity. I do not pay your secretary and have nothing to say about what he or she does with his or her time.

It is correct in English to say that your army can volunteer to do something. It is also correct to say that you, as a commander, can volunteer your army to do something. But it is idiotic to say that a third party-- the nebulous “other people”-- can volunteer your army to do anything at all.

Other people might ask your army to volunteer for action, but, if you are the commander, you cannot show leadership by saying that someone else took control of your army and told it what to do.

I hope that Obama is not saying that he wants to place the American military under the command of the Arab League.

Grammatical errors, sloppy thinking… we are not seeing a great mind at work. We are seeing someone who does not know what he is doing, who does not know who he is, and who is running from responsibility as fast as he can.

Our final misleadership lesson comes to us from the London Telegraph.

As I and many others have mentioned, no one really knows who these Libyan rebel fighters are. Who is fighting against Khaddafi in Benghazi.

According to the Telegraph, the leader of the rebel forces has been recruiting al Qaeda terrorists, of all people. Link here.

As Mark Steyn reports, these fighters learned their trade fighting for the insurgency in Iraq. As it happens, Benghazi was a primary recruiting ground for al Qaeda in Iraq.

Steyn offers the following description of presidential leadership: “Now suddenly he’s [Obama’s] got to go — in favor of ‘freedom-loving‘ ‘democrats‘ from Benghazi. That would be in eastern Libya — which, according to West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center, has sent per capita the highest number of foreign jihadists to Iraq.”

As George Friedman said, when you intervene in foreign conflicts, you need to know which side you are on. And when you are acting as a leader you need to know who is following.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Barack Obama's Leadership Deficit

You have to hand it to Barack Obama. He is treating us to lesson after lesson about how not to exercise leadership. If you are really interested in how not to do it, then Obama’s your man.

By now, most people seem to have gotten the message. No one really believes in the charade any more.

When Obama exercises the full measure of his commander-in-chief authority by authorizing missile attacks against a notably unsavory tyrant, the American people give him the equivalent of a Bronx cheer.

According to a new poll: “Only 17 percent of Americans see President Barack Obama as a strong and decisive military leader, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the United States and its allies began bombing Libya.

“Nearly half of those polled view Obama as a cautious and consultative commander-in-chief and more than a third see him as indecisive in military matters.” Link here.

If the Obama PR mavens believed that ordering a missile attack would make him look more presidential and more in command, they are doubtless scurrying back to the drawing board.

Peggy Noonan gets to the heart of Obama’s leadership deficit in a column today: “Now he seems incompetent and out of his depth in foreign and military affairs. He is more observed than followed, or perhaps I should say you follow him with your eyes and not your heart. So it's funny he'd feel free to launch and lead a war, which is what this confused and uncertain military action may become.” Link here.

Note the wonderful phrase: “… more observed than followed….”  It does not signify leadership. It describes someone who is playing at being a leader, who is pretending, who is acting the role. As I wrote in my post “Why Are We Bombing Libya?” it looks like political theatre.

Noonan is a speechwriter by trade, so she thinks of leadership in terms of the kind of speech that a president should give. She knows, as you do, that there is more to leadership than giving speeches, but when you undertake momentous kinetic military action you need to explain yourself to those you want to follow your lead.

Even more so when you work for them.

In Noonan’s words: “Which gets me to Mr. Obama's speech, the one he hasn't given. I cannot for the life of me see how an American president can launch a serious military action without a full and formal national address in which he explains to the American people why he is doing what he is doing, why it is right, and why it is very much in the national interest. He referred to his aims in parts of speeches and appearances when he was in South America, but now he's home. More is needed, more is warranted, and more is deserved. He has to sit at that big desk and explain his thinking, put forward the facts as he sees them, and try to garner public support. He has to make a case for his own actions. It's what presidents do! And this is particularly important now, because there are reasons to fear the current involvement will either escalate and produce a lengthy conflict or collapse and produce humiliation.

“Without a formal and extended statement, the air of weirdness, uncertainty and confusion that surrounds this endeavor will only deepen.”

No statement to the American people. No consultations with Congress. Just who does Barack Obama think he is?

At the least, he is not acting as though he is the President of the United States.

You cannot lead if no one is following you, and no one follows a leader without having some idea of where the leader is going and how he is going to get there.

Some Americans voted for Barack Obama because they believed that he had superior rhetorical skills and an especially capacious intellect. Everyone is entitled to a mistake.

But, at a time when rhetorical skills might come in handy, the president seems to be unwilling to use them to explain what he is doing.

Those who were seduced into defending candidate Obama because they were convinced that the nation needed a leader with superior intelligence should now be lining up to apologize to the nation.

There are a number of possible explanations for why Obama has not given the speech.

1. He doesn’t know why he is doing what he is doing.

2. He knows what he is doing but would rather not have to explain it because it would make him look bad.

3. He doesn’t care what the American people think. Or better, he does not think that they know how to think.

4. He doesn’t care what the Congress thinks. All that they can do is interfere with him.

5. He doesn’t have to explain himself, so, why should he. Barack Obama has spent his life getting away with things; why should he not keep on doing as he has always done.

6. He has a coterie of flunkies, enablers, and satraps who are perfectly willing to explain it all for him.

We have a half-dozen possible explanations. Most likely, the ultimate truth contains something from each of them.

Clearly, Obama is making it up as he goes along. He is not sure whether his policy is regime change or humanitarian relief. He is not sure who is really in charge.

While the humanitarian angle tugs at our heartstrings, the same principle does not seem to apply in other similar situations around the world.

Telling the nation why we are bombing Libya would entail, for someone with intellectual integrity, explaining why we are not bombing Syria or Iran or the Sudan.

Of course, if it’s all a lot of political theatre, where Kadhafi is sacrificed to make Obama look like a decisive commander, this is clearly not something that a president wants to communicate to the nation.

Of course, we can all imagine that the spin meisters in the White House could come up with some semi-cogent arguments for the intervention. But if Obama goes on national television to deliver them in a speech, how can we guarantee that he will not smirk and give the game away.

If Obama does not really care what the American people think about all of it or what the American Congress might say, he can probably rationalize his way around it by telling himself that his cause is so righteous and so just that everyone will naturally support it, without questions and without objections.

On the other hand, if your cause is so righteous and just, you should not really have any trouble explaining yourself.

If similar thoughts are passing through Obama’s mind, that would make him pathetically na├»ve and excessively imperious.

Then again, Obama does not seem to see himself as the American president. He sees himself as King of the World, as a trans-national figure who need but gain the approval of the United Nations.

Obama went to the UN and not the United States Congress or the American people because he must have felt that the U.N. was his true constituency.

If he did not feel it, then he certainly acted as though he did.

As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than sentiments.

A leader who does not explain himself to his followers is disrespectful. He is treating his followers as automata who will simply follow his lead because he is the leader.

But then, some people do not explain themselves because they can get away it. Why take the risk of setting your policy in stone when most people are perfectly willing to let you make it up as you go along?

When you fail to explain yourself because you can get away with not explaining yourself, that does not make you a leader. It makes you a spoiled brat.

So, we are being led by a leader who disrespects the American people, who does not seem to know what he is doing, and who feels that he is King of he World.

One has to assume that Obama has not overcome his notable lack of executive experience.

A true executive knows that the effective implementation of policy depends on a motivated work force. A motivated work force feels like it is part of the process of setting policy and strategy. Then, it will see itself as an active participant in a mission it accepts

A weak and incompetent executive believes that leadership is about giving orders. He believes that when leader says: Jump, everyone will jump.

This jejune attitude is what you would know about leadership if your frame of reference was the world of fiction, whether from television or movies or books.

Leadership is a difficult topic for intellectuals, historians, and novelists because their work does not involve it.

When the cognoscenti and the literati write the final version of history, too often they can do no better than to communicate their deficient understanding of history. Then, a bright young novice like Barack Obama will come along and mistake the fiction for the real thing.

Update on the Revolution in Egypt

The news shouldn’t come as a surprise, but perhaps it will sober up those who were cheerleading the revolution in Egypt.

If you saw the revolution in Egypt as a new media-driven cry for freedom and democracy, the news out of Egypt today is not good.

According to the New York Times, the Egyptian army has formed an unholy ruling alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. Link here.

As Michael Slackman reports: “In post-revolutionary Egypt, where hope and confusion collide in the daily struggle to build a new nation, religion has emerged as a powerful political force, following an uprising that was based on secular ideals. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group once banned by the state, is at the forefront, transformed into a tacit partner with the military government that many fear will thwart fundamental changes.”

Not only are they about to thwart reform, they are also taking over the government.

If you were asking yourself what happened to the young people who seemed to be leading the rebellion, it seems that they have been pushed to the side.

In Slackman’s words: “It is also clear that the young, educated secular activists who initially propelled the nonideological revolution are no longer the driving political force — at least not at the moment.”

This sounds like a good reason to shift our attention to the revolution in Libya.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"The Secret to a Long Marriage"

I have a column up at the Your Tango site. My topic: The Secret to a Long Marriage. Link here.

Sarah Palin on Middle East Policy

Doubtless because she lives in the wilderness, Sarah Palin missed the memo explaining that the primary obstacle to Middle East peace is … Israeli settlements.

Worse yet, Palin seems not to have taken her moral equivalence pills yesterday.

That is the only possible explanation for her remarks to Greta Van Susteren last night: “Why is it in that the past, too often, the U.S. government has told Israel that they’re the ones, the Jewish community, that they need to back up, they need to back off or there will never be peace.. ..Why aren’t we putting our foot down with the other side and telling the Palestinians, If you’re serious about peace, quit the shellacking and the shelling. Quit the bombing of innocent Israelis.” Link here.

Is she right? Has American foreign policy always put the onus on Israel, telling Israel to make more concessions and offer more compromises, while absolving the Palestinians of all responsibility for its recalcitrance and its love of terrorism?

Have successive American administrations been so worried about being perceived as an honest broker that they have failed to place the burden for failed peace talks on the Palestinian side?

Or have these administrations been so concerned about offending Arab sensibilities (and OPEC) that they have felt obliged not to appear too closely allied with Israel?

And have they gotten so used to thinking of the conflict in terms of moral equivalence that they have come to believe it?

Have our best and brightest foreign policy mavens read the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through a narrative in which Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people? Do they all believe that the Palestinians, once liberated from the yoke of Israeli oppression, will live in peaceful harmony with Israel?

If so, then perhaps it takes an innocent, someone who has not been imbibing the conventional wisdom, to state the obvious: that the primary obstacle to peace is that the Palestinian side does not really want it… unless it is a  stepping stone on the road to eliminating Israel.

How can America fight a worldwide war on Islamic terrorism while failing to take sides with the state that is the primary target of such terror?

How many Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist at all? And how many believe that the land called Israel must eternally belong to Allah, because it was once conquered by Muslims. After all, Osama bin Laden believes that Andalusia must be returned to Islam because it was once conquered by Muslim armies.

In passing, let’s not ignore the fact that yesterday Egypt Air redrew its map of the Middle East in order to eliminate Israel. Score one for the Revolution that was bringing liberal democracy to Egypt. Link here.

So, the girl from the North country, the innocent Sarah Palin seems to have contradicted decades worth of American foreign policy wisdom. She affirmed her wholehearted support for the one free market liberal democracy in the Middle East and placed the blame for the conflict with the Palestinians.

Given the Obama administration’s policy of chastising Israel for its settlements, and making them the primary obstacle to peace, Palin was clearly rebuking the administration.

As policy debates go, this one is clear and well-defined.

That, of course, is only part of the story. The rest resides in the comments that appeared on the Politico site.

One can only characterize them as a mix of vituperation and vitriol. The ones that are reasonably nice denounce Palin for being a cynical political opportunist… who is pandering to evangelical Christians.

No one, it’s fair to say, thinks that a full-throated defense of Israel is going to garner her any support within the Jewish community.

Other commenters excoriate the former governor of Alaska for being an ignorant fool.

This means that it’s still open season on Sarah Palin. When criticizing Palin, rules of decorum and civility do not apply.

You need not consider the substance of her arguments. It suffices to say that she is so ignorant that her arguments cannot have any substance.

I continue to be amazed at the blatant misogyny of these attacks. 

To those who fear her and despise her, Sarah Palin is very much like a witch. The minute they see her they run screaming for their stash of garlic. Then they wave it around to ward off her profane presence.

God forbid they would engage in serious debate with a woman. Better to follow the example of Bill Maher and dismiss her with some sexist invective.

For my part I was most impressed by the statement that NOW issued after Maher insulted Palin. While NOW felt pressured to denounce Maher’s language, it made clear that it was not going to get into the business of defending Sarah Palin.

After all, the National Organization for Women, averred that Sarah Palin was not one of them.

Isn’t it about time that we got over the notion that NOW was anything more than a vehicle for leftist ideology? If a woman does not share that ideology, then NOW will never give her any more than lip service.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Trendspotting in the Art World

I’m not sure what we should make of it, but it bears mention: the center of gravity of the world art market seems to have set down in China.

Roger Denson is correct to point it out. Link here.

Why would it be historically significant? Perhaps because it offers a snapshot of one moment in the competition between civilizations. (Note, I did not say clash of civilizations.)

Civilizations compete. So do nations and empires. They compete to see who can provide the best life for their citizens and subjects.

A good life does not merely mean a life filled with riches. A good life involves providing psychological capital, pride and confidence to each and all. True happiness comes from the pride we take in our achievements, but that is not merely individual achievements. The nation’s or the civilization’s achievements contribute mightily to forming and maintaining a positive identity.

Civilizations also compete to establish dominance and influence in world politics and world markets. They compete at war and they compete in business. The latter was famously called by William James: the moral equivalent of war.

Military victory grants the winners a boost of pride and confidence, to say nothing of the other advantages that accrue.

Influence is easy to understand. Every American citizen gets one vote in the presidential election. Every citizen of Bolivia, to take a random example, gets one vote in the election for the president of Bolivia.

One might argue, with no prejudice to the people of Bolivia, that an American citizen’s vote counts for more, in terms of influencing the course of history and the direction of events in the world, than does the vote of a citizen of Bolivia.

Not all votes are created equal.

Of course, the art market does not create massive wealth and does not contribute to military or economic victory. Yet, if we limit ourselves to the market for fine art, it is certainly a very small market-- miniscule when compared to the bond market or the Forex-- but its higher echelons are inhabited by some very savvy players.

People who bid and collect fine art tend to be very, very smart. They tend to be very sophisticated investors. No one spends $20,000,000 on a colored piece of canvas if he does not see it as an investment.

A great work of art is more than a pretty picture.

The people who determine the direction of the art market are not aesthetes. They are patrons of he arts, modern day Medici, who pay very high prices for objects that they believe, correctly, contain intrinsic value.

Great art is a store of value, of value that transcends the guarantees offered by central banks.

For some time now people have noticed that great art is not produced haphazardly and at random. Great artists come in groups. At a moment in time a group of great artists seemed to emerge together in Italy during the High Gothic period or in France during the Impressionist period.

Hegel examined the phenomenon and concluded that the movement of the art world’s center of gravity corresponded to the movement of the World Spirit.

From pharaonic Egypt to the Golden Age of Athens to the Roman Empire to the High Gothic period in medieval Europe, to the Renaissance, up to and including the abstract expressionist and pop and conceptual art in New York City after World War II... the World Spirit has been on the move.

There are other ways to see this. A nation wins a war, forms an Empire, collects wealth and power... and people look up to it. They want to emulate its example. They adopt its cultural habits, among which is its aesthetic.

Empires seem especially apt to produce great art. Perhaps only an Empire can afford to support great artists, or perhaps it takes an Emperor to believe that his claim to authority rests in some part on his ability to make his world the center of art historical gravity. Or perhaps an artist needs to be at the center of economic and political action to be inspired to his true greatness.

High art is not the province of the masses. We no longer have princes and princesses, but we have hedge fund tycoons, people who have built financial empires and who want to influence the culture's value system by placing value on art.

But, what value system is at work when you see a tiger shark in a vat of formaldehyde, or a colorful collection of encased vacuum cleaners, or a picture that looks exactly like the design of a soup can?

And what is the value system when art denounces the collector as a mindless cog in the capitalist machine.

If as James Goodwin and Roger Denson suggest, great art gives people a feeling of pride in their culture and their nation, what are we to make of these modern works that make a mockery of our civilization?

These artists do not expand the great tradition of Western art, because they do not respect it. They do not respect collectors, because the collectors are buying the stuff as though it had some kind of transcendent aesthetic value.

After all, anyone who stares in awe at a household object because it has been exhibited in a museum is more concerned with looking like a member of the in-crowd than  in gaining any aesthetic satisfaction from the viewing.

I am sure that this will make me sound like the last of the Philistines, but there is a significant aesthetic difference between a picture of a soup can and a Vermeer.

And yet, I do understand that these great modern art works are not supposed to be about the object anyway. They want to elicit a cultural critique, a subversive gesture that would undermine, not build on, national pride.

And that is the strange part. If Goodwin and Denson are correct to say that the current Renaissance of Chinese art, coupled with the ascendance of the Chinese art market, have been produced by people who are taking increasing pride in their country, their culture, and their civilization, what does it say about America when we see that artists who are lauded beyond reason are telling us that we should not take pride in American culture or civilization?

What does it say when the wealthiest and most successful among us are feeding this valueless system.

One finds it difficult to imagine how our nation is going to compete effectively against China or any other civilization if we repudiate our past and only find things to criticize in our present.

Here is Denson’s analysis of the potential fallout that might be about to hit the American art world: “In China's case, at least if we consider the top earning Chinese artists named here, the artists signify that the Western predilection for the new and trangressive art that has dominated the art market and art history for the last two centuries might face their eclipse by a culture still favoring artistic traditions. Could the shift in markets translate to more traditional contemporary Chinese artists--and possibly even more traditional Western artists, growing in esteem? That is, receiving more representation in museums, feature articles in trade publications, and internationally distributed monographs-in-translation--at the expense of the artists who represent what's left of an increasingly threadbare avant-garde? The challenge that Western curators face is how to assimilate artists who appear traditional in relationship to the Western post-postmodern-garde without falling back on eurocentric values that once marginalized non-Western art as ’ethnic,’ ‘regional‘ and ‘traditonal.’"

I have my own doubts about whether the past two centuries of Western art have been as transgressive as Denson believes. Still, it is worth noting that American and British art has become less and less representational, and that it no longer has anything that resembles an aesthetic.

Perhaps,  Manet was avant-garde at his time, but he certainly had an aesthetic, as did the other great artists of his period.

It may have been a different aesthetic, but it was intended to give the viewer an aesthetic experience.

Denson is right to see that the newer Chinese artists are going to become increasingly influential and that this is going to cause us to see art in a very different way.

Keep in mind, somewhere around the year 1900 someone did a survey of educated Parisian opinion. He asked which contemporary artists would be most admired a century hence. It wasn't Manet or Monet or Cezanne or Renoir.

The winner was: William-Adolphe Bouguereau.