Saturday, March 31, 2012

Advanced Communication Skills

It’s rare that we find an abundance of good advice in one place, expressed clearly, with visual aids.

But that is what Sarah Green has done in a slide show illustrating the central ideas on Holly Weeks’ book: Failure to Communicate. Brown’s slideshow appeared on the Harvard Business Review site.

Link here.

The book is not new, so I am somewhat late to the party. Yet, it’s never too late to learn how to deal with difficult conversational situations.

When a conversation risks degenerating into conflict and drama, it takes a considerable amount of skill and effort to turn it in a more productive direction. Since therapy rarely teaches any of this, we happily rely on a business consultant.

Weeks explains her approach:

This book offers a system of strategies and tactics to help us navigate the treacherous minefields we may suddenly find ourselves in when we approach and try to get through - rather than avoid - prickly conversations. Strategies are the thinking part of these conversations. Balanced strategies replace the blanking out, gut reactions, and other horrors that slip in when conversations turn tough and ordinary thinking fails. Tactics are the handling part - what we do in the moment when our counterparts, or our own emotions, are giving us trouble.

Sarah Green offers a good summary of Weeks’ ideas:

When we're caught off-guard, we're more likely to fall back into old, ineffective habits like the combat mentality. If you're not the one initiating the tough conversation, or if a problem erupts out of nowhere, stick to these basics: keep your content clear, keep your tone neutral, and keep your phrasing temperate. When disagreements flare, you'll be more likely to navigate to a productive outcome – and emerge with your reputation intact.


One appreciates commerce. One knows that when a producer is trying to market a film, he will do everything in his power to engage the public interest, to make it a must-see movie.

More power to him!

If the movie is a documentary, its marketers will tell the world that the problem it addresses is pervasive. They will recommend that we think of nothing else.

A good marketing campaign for a documentary will try to leave you thinking that you must see the movie because your life and the lives of your children depend on it.

Of course, movies are not statistical surveys. Even when they pretend to present irrefutable facts, documentaries rely on what social scientists call anecdotal evidence. The case of one individual is far more compelling than a mountain of data.

Documentaries are not scientific papers. They cannot really assess the scope of a problem. At best, they alert us to a potential problem.

The marketers of a movie like Lee Hirsch’s Bully want to convince us that bullying is pervasive, that no one is doing anything about it, that we all need to have our consciousness raised by seeing the movie, and that we must join the massive nationwide anti-bullying campaign.

You aren’t just going to a movie; you are saving the world.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Lee Hirsh’s movie is being marketed by Harvey Weinstein, a man who not only makes great films, but who is also a master at marketing them.

In truth, we are all against bullying. I suspect that we have all been subjected to some form of bullying in our lifetimes.

In the Wall Street Journal this morning Nick Gillespie recommends that we not to allow ourselves to be whipped up into an emotional lather over bullying. It does exist, Gillespie says, but it is far rarer than a movie’s marketers and our politicians portray them to be.

Besides, before your frenzy completely obliterates your rational faculties, you should ask what is being prescribed as treatment and whether it will improve or aggravate the condition.

A good marketer will make a problem more pervasive by expanding its scope and definition.

Gillespie asks:

But is bullying—which the website of the Department of Health and Human Services defines as "teasing," "name-calling," "taunting," "leaving someone out on purpose," "telling other children not to be friends with someone," "spreading rumors about someone," "hitting/kicking/pinching," "spitting" and "making mean or rude hand gestures"—really a growing problem in America?

When does a campaign against bullying become a campaign against freedom of expression?

If you expand the category of bullying to include any meanness or rudeness, then to label all of it as hate speech, you are laying the groundwork for an attack on free speech.

Gillespie is also correct to note that those who are lathered up over bullying also tend to use the problem as an excuse to empower educational bureaucrats.

If enough people buy the anti-bullying message, American elementary and high schools will be invaded by an army of sensitivity trainers putting every child in group therapy. They will also bring with them a myriad of new rules requiring a mountain of new paperwork.

Yet again, the task of educating children will be buried under an overwhelming concern for their self-esteem.

It is frankly wrong to try to make childhood into a mindless exercise in kindness.

Gillespie argues correctly that we are in danger of systematically softening children up, making them all into a bunch of cry babies who cannot stand up for themselves and do not know how to fight back.

The point has been made before, but the best way for a child to stop being bullied is to learn how to defend himself. A child should learn how to defend himself against taunts and insults, but he should also know how to fight back.  

By now everyone knows about Casey Heynes, the Sydney, Australia boy who was bullied by one Richard Gale. Until the day when Casey decided to fight back.

The good news was that Richard Gale, was suspended from school for twenty days for bullying. The bad news is that Casey Heynes was also suspended, for acting with violence.

I do not know whether the punishment would have been the same in America, but the  Australian school was telling children that they should not fight back against bullies. 

If you want to encourage bullies, that is a good way to go about it.

If you do not learn how to defend yourself in high school, you are going to have a very rude awakening when you reach adulthood and discover that your competitors try to diminish you by trash-talking you or your product.

If a child never learns how to deal with taunts and insults what will he do when he steps on the playing field and hears his opponents say rude and insulting things about his mother? Will he fight back or will he dissolve into a puddle?

Taunts are not the same thing as an assault or as a continuing pattern of assault. Like it or not, insults are part of the game. Learn how to deal with them.

Extreme cases do exist. They are horrifying. But it is always a bad idea to use extremes to make the rule. Surely, there are other ways to deal with assault than to force everyone in the school to spend a few mornings in a warm bath of empathy.

Reviewing Hirsch’s movie on the Yahoo site, Thelma Adams asks the right questions. When all of the bullying was taking place, why didn’t the school administrators crack down? Why didn't they punish the most egregious examples of bullying?

In her words:

We all agree — except those tormenting these victims and justifying their daily actions — that bullying is bad. The major failing of this movie … is that it doesn't delve into why kids bully, why school administration officials let themselves off the hook saying "kids will be kids" or that they will take care of the problem, and try to solve it with well-reasoned discourse and limp handshakes. Why do the responsible parties consistently fail to assume responsibility or be held accountable? Is this really that new, and that universal, that new programs -- even legislation -- are required to address it?

At the end, we see parents and surviving students banding together, and literally wearing wristbands, releasing balloons in honor of those who have taken their lives, and calling for people to just get along, one act of kindness and support at a time. Am I alone in thinking that's kind of feeble? …

There are tough questions that need to be addressed: Why do schools no longer have control over children's safety on school buses? The driver has to drive, but someone has to maintain order and ensure that kids sit in their seats and don't prey on one another. Someone has to step up and take responsibility, when predatory behavior against other children is happening in plain sight, and not leave it to children to police themselves.

We all agree that corporal punishment has no place in schools. But what has replaced it? Why do the schools in the movie seem to have no control over the students who steal one boy's clothes in the gym while he is in the shower (boys will be boys), call one another names, and hit other kids in the head while no one is looking? The teachers and counselors are failing to protect the kids on their watch, and we may just have to go back to a certain level of strict behavior enforcement. Or at least address that issue, or other solutions to the endemic problems of bullying on and off campus, a problem that has become even more baroque once you add sexting, texting, and cyberbullying.

As Adams sees it, the film testifies to the failure of teachers and school administrators to take responsibility for the persistence of extreme bullying.

Documentary evidence of extreme bullying exists. Every American child above a certain age carries a cell phone that takes very good motion pictures. If a child is being bullied the chances are very good that someone somewhere has a video record of it.

Here’s an idea. If a child harasses, abuses and molests another child, how about suspending him from school? Why not expel him from school? If his behavior is bad enough report him to the police? If he is in high school, why not put it on his high school record? And why not call the child’s parents on the carpet?

Tell a bully that his behavior will be exposed to every college he applies to and see how quickly he finds religion.

Ironically, the bureaucrats and administrators who want more control over schoolchildren are incapable of exercising the authority they currently possess.

They suffer from the unfortunate American habit of thinking that all abusive behavior reveals a psychological problem and that all psychological problems need to be cured with intense psychotherapy.

After all, that is the bottom line. School administrators refuse to exercise authority or accept responsibility because they believe that a bully just needs more therapy. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Shame of Naomi Wolf

Every time a true-believing feminist says the word “woman” she qualifies it with the adjective “strong.”

At first, it was like a tic: she’s a strong woman, she’s a strong woman, she’s a strong woman….

Then, it became something of a fetish. Some men found strong women to be irresistibly attractive, as though strong women were living breathing aphrodisiacs.

Not a lot of men, but enough to make strong women feel that they possessed more than their fair share of sex appeal.

But, feminists had a darker purpose. They believed that if they kept repeating—strong woman, strong woman, strong woman—over and over again, then everyone would stop associating womanhood with weakness. Women would no longer be the weaker sex; the patriarchy would quiver. Nothing like a magical incantation to transform reality.

This new consciousness would undermine the traditional male role of protecting of women. Strong, independent women do not need protection. (I mean that they do not need that kind of protection.)

Since men were no longer allowed to protect strong women, the task would be left to the government and the court system.

Nowadays, in popular culture a strong woman is one who has survived rejection and who embraces her independence and autonomy. She is so thoroughly empowered that she does not see herself has having been rejected by a man. Her ex-- has given her a glorious opportunity to discover her strength.

So much so that you begin to wonder whether strong women are attractive only up to a point… the point at which the appeal of the fetish wears off.

The songs and stories tell us that rejection produces strength, but one is permitted, on this blog at least, to muse that it might be the other way around: these women overpower their men, to the point that men walk away from them.

The theme has spawned a musical genre all its own. Obviously, Kelly Clarkson is the queen of rejected women. Her recent hit song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” has become an instant classic in the genre. In case you missed it:

Now, another major chanteuse, Katy Perry, has joined the club. Since Perry is a bigger star than even Kelly Clarkson her comings and goings attract more attention.

As almost everyone knows, Perry recently divorced her husband, Russell Brand. The marriage was short-lived and fiery, but it ended on a more-or-less civil tone.

Anyway, Perry celebrated her divorce by writing a song called “Part of Me.” In the song and the music video I have posted below, Perry tries to rebuild her strength and independence by joining the United States Marine Corps.

One accepts the metaphor. Does anything signify strength and toughness better than the Marines?

You would have thought that the metaphor would have been unobjectionable. And you would have thought that feminists, and one in particular who made her name railing against “the beauty myth” would celebrate Perry’s declaration of strength and independence.

More so since Perry, in her video, disembarrasses herself of all the trappings of femininity that were once so offensive to Naomi Wolf.

You would have been wrong.

However much feminine beauty offends Wolf’s feminist consciousness, it is nothing when compared with the contempt she feels for the United States Marines.

When she was apprised of the Katy Perry video, Wolf took to her Facebook fan page and posted the following:

Have you all seen the Katy Perry Marines video? It is a total piece of propaganda for the Marines...I really want to find out if she was paid by them for making is truly shameful. I would suggest a boycott of this singer whom I really liked -- if you are as offended at this glorification of violence as I am . 

One does not know where to start.

Let’s be kind and begin by pointing out that the author of a book about the beauty myth had previously been a great fan of Katy Perry. That assumes that she liked Perry’s video about “California Gurls” which I am happy to post here, for your edification.

It’s about sunshine and lollipops and living in a world that is supersaturated with classical feminine stereotypes.

To that Wolf has no objection.

If you watch Perry’s video you will see that it depicts the slog of Marine basic training. If you believe that the Marines are, intrinsically, the enemy because they glorify violence, you might be offended, but otherwise there is no reason to call it propaganda.

Nor is there any reason to impugn Katy Perry’s ethics by saying that she must have been bought off by the Marines.

The problem is: if joining the Marines means succumbing to propaganda and if the Marines are your enemy, we are well within our rights to ask whose side Naomi Wolf is on?

It’s not that I want to impugn her patriotism, but, if you will forgive a grammatical infelicity,  she has impugned her own patriotism.

Wolf’s opinion is shameful, a disgrace. She owes Katy Perry and her readers a full apology. One that goes well beyond her current protestations about having been misunderstood.

What does Wolf find so offensive about the Marines? She says that she is especially “offended by the glorification of violence….”

First, the video is about basic training. It does not glorify violence.

Second, would Wolf prefer that the Marines had used less violent methods on Iwo Jima, on D Day, or at Guadalcanal?

Third, is she going to find it equally offensive when the Obama administration wraps itself around the Navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden?

At a time when the Obama administration has been working to overcome the anti-war image that has dogged the Democratic Party since the Vietnam War, why does Naomi Wolf take offense at Marines who engage in violent actions to protect and defend us all?

Is she offended by the World War II movies that glorify the Marines? Shouldn’t we glorify those who fight and die for the country? Shouldn’t we glorify those who win wars? Is there  glory in victory over Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan?

Clearly, Wolf belongs on the radical left, not the liberal or progressive wing of the Democratic party.

Fourth, let’s be very clear. Wolf is calling for a boycott of a singer. She is saying that Katy Perry should be shunned by those who inhabit Wolf's radical political circles.

This means that she is, effectively, calling for culture warfare against Katy Perry. Why is she doing so? Because Katy Perry used her divorce as an opportunity to assert strength and independence.

Since Katy Perry considers the Marines an apt representative of the concept of strength, Naomi Wolf is sorely offended. This can only mean that she considers the Marines to be her Enemy, and that she believes that Katy Perry is consorting with the Enemy. Any association with an Enemy group requires a boycott and ostracism.

Now, of course, Wolf has discovered a new reason to be offended. She cannot understand how anyone could have taken her words as an insult to the brave men and women in the Marines.

Unfortunately, her high dudgeon is mere posturing.  Her words are clear enough, and we are all well within our rights to ask which side she’s on.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Should Physicians Always Tell the Truth?

Everyone is in favor of telling the truth. No one is going to suggest that physicians should lie to their patients.

In a recent column Dr. Danielle Ofri recalls her agony about whether or not she should tell a woman that she, the patient, was going to die.

She adds some reflections about her agony about having made a treatment error that might have been fatal. Should she have told the truth about her mistake and apologized?

It may have seemed convenient to lump these two forms of truth-telling together, but they do not really have very much in common.

Predicting a future outcome is not the same as acknowledging a past error.

Offering a scientific opinion about a prognosis is not the same as taking personal responsibility for a mistake.

Throwing them all in the basket of truth-telling is misleading and potentially confusing.

Of course, Ofri’s larger and more important question concerns doctor/patient communication.

Considering how badly many physicians communicate with their patients, it would be a good topic indeed.

Unfortunately, her article asserts, trivially and narcissistically, that doctors have feelings.

Most cases of bad doctor/patient communication have nothing to do with the physician’s feelings. They have to do with the physician's communication skills and his respect for his patient's feelings.

How often have we heard of physicians casually dropping worst-case diagnoses, with no regard for the fact that words like leukemia and lymphoma are likely to panic the patient and injure his health?

It might be true they are among the possibilities, but no physician should feel compelled to list options that might cause unnecessary psychological harm.

Such is not Ofri’s topic. It might have been, but it isn’t.

She is more concerned with the moment when a physician is obliged to communicate a very negative prognosis. That is, when she feels compelled to announce that her patient is going to die.

At such moments, the doctor’s feelings are not the problem. A physician whose primary concern is with his own emotional state is missing the point, rather seriously.

What about my feelings?... is not the question that she should be asking.

What matters are the patient’s feelings. The physician should try to appraise how the patient will receive the bad news. And she should also be trying to measure the best, most tactful and compassionate way to communicate a poor prognosis.

If the physician states it coldly and heartlessly, or is pessimistic and dismissive, the patient will feel demoralized.

Regardless of how much state of mind contributes to treatment outcomes, no physician should counsel despair. At the least, he should be concerned with the patient’s quality of life during his last days.

If a physician implies that there is some hope, even if he thinks that there is none, is he being untruthful. If he wishes to help the patient to feel slightly better and to have a better quality of life in his remaining days, is he being dishonest or untruthful?

When it comes to bad news, most physicians, I would venture, tend to hedge their bets. They offer probabilities and percentages. They are not in the business of pronouncing death sentences, and often prefer to leave open the possibility for a miraculous recovery.

No physician wants to deprive his patient of the slimmest chance by blurting out, in the most tactless and insensitive way: You are going to die.

There are many ways to communicate unpleasant truths and every physician should be aware that he or she has many more options beyond: You are going to die.

Would you not assume that a patient can understand what it means when his physician says that the prognosis is not good? Does the patient need to hear words that amount to a death sentence?

You will say that it’s all a traffic in euphemism, but euphemism has a purpose. It soothes emotion, harmonizes relationships, and helps people maintain hope and optimism.

If a physician’s words sound like a death sentence, he is not really functioning as a physician. He is acting like a trial judge or an executioner.

Most physicians do not want to take on a role that contradicts their own moral responsibility. They are right not to do so.

For reasons that escape me Ofri’s article collapses the question of communicating a bad diagnosis with the question of whether or not a physician should admit to having made a mistake.

Telling someone that he will never recover is not the same thing as telling him that your error made him sicker than need be.

Ofri admits that the risk of malpractice litigation has a decisive and negative effect on what physicians communicate to their patients, and perhaps even on how they communicate.

For some physicians, fear of lawsuits inhibits open and honest communication, especially when the physician has made a mistake.

And yet, when it comes to physicians admitting error, the University of Michigan has done a study showing that when physicians apologize for their errors they are, in fact, much less likely to be sued for malpractice.

"An American Debt Disaster"

Caroline Baum of Bloomberg counts among the best columnists on questions relating to debt.

In her most recent column, she ran the numbers about the national debt. The news isn’t good.

Considering that some economists are telling us that the national debt, and thus increased deficit spending, is no big deal… because austerity is so much worse… Baum suggests that our excessive spending is leading to austerity, like it or not.

I make no claim to expertise on these subjects, so let’s read Baum’s analysis:

Consider the following numbers: 2.2, 62.8, 454, 5.9. Drawing a blank? Not to worry. They don’t mean much on their own.

Now consider them in context:

1) 2.2 percent is the average interest rate on the U.S. Treasury’s marketable and non-marketable debt (February data).

2) 62.8 months is the average maturity of the Treasury’s marketable debt (fourth quarter 2011).

3) $454 billion is the interest expense on publicly held debt in fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30.

4) $5.9 trillion is the amount of debt coming due in the next five years.

For the moment, Nos. 1 and 2 are helping No. 3 and creating a big problem for No. 4. Unless Treasury does something about No. 2, Nos. 1 and 3 will become liabilities while No. 4 has the potential to provoke a crisis.

In plain English, the Treasury’s reliance on short-term financing serves a dual purpose, neither of which is beneficial in the long run. First, it helps conceal the depth of the nation’s structural imbalances: the difference between what it spends and what it collects in taxes. Second, it puts the U.S. in the precarious position of having to roll over 71 percent of its privately held marketable debt in the next five years -- probably at higher interest rates.

The column is well worth a read.

Mental Hygiene

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a column by Tom Friedman.

You can guess the reasons: life’s too short; there are only so many hours in a day; no one else does, so why should I?

Friedman’s been phoning it in for quite some time now, so, taking him seriously would be to encourage bad habits.

And finally, I don’t read Friedman for reasons of… mental hygiene.

In my view people do not pay enough attention to their mental hygiene. They obsess about whether what they are putting in their bodies is wholesome and natural but they do not notice that they are filling their minds with unadulterated nonsense disguised as profound thinking.

Once a Friedman column enters the mind it will begin its insidious work of undermining clear thinking and pellucid writing.

The more one reads him the more one risks believing that Friedman knows how to think and write. After all, he is a star columnist in the New York Times. The more one thinks that Friedman is a competent and capable columnist the more one risks emulating him.

Ergo, not reading his columns supports mental hygiene.

Then again, there is no need to read Tom Friedman. Hamilton Nolan, at Gawker, has done it for us. From time to time Nolan explicates a Friedman column to reassure us that we did the right thing… for our mental hygiene.

Here’s Nolan’s explication of Friedman’s latest:

Mustachioed soothsaying simpletonThomas Friedman long ago mastered a formula for justifying business trips all over the world by writing columns about them—columns that, while not genuinely insightful or even pleasant to read, contain a sufficient number of plausible-sounding platitudes to enable your average Xerox Corporation regional manager to sound informed during his morning meeting with underlings and sycophants.

The formula is pretty much like this: schedule a few interviews, fly on out there, and piece together a column with a bunch of quotes from people capped by a zingy opener featuring some jaw-droppingly obvious bit of conventional wisdom or common knowledge presented as revelation, combined with either something a cab driver said, or something that Tom Friedman saw in an airport. It should be superfluous in every way. Thomas Friedman is similar to Alicia Silverstone, in that he vomits up lightly chewed pap for his readers, who are babies. He can't just keep on doing this forever, can he?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Character and Obedience

Therapy gives you insight; coaching helps you to build character.

Therapy pretends to cure the mind with new ideas.

Coaching, whether in sports or in business or in life, works to to improve your character.

It’s not so obvious that we understand what character is. Philosopher Iskra Fileva explains her position on the New York Times Opinionator blog:

Ordinarily, we envision character as a set of stable and unified dispositions: we expect the timid employee to be shy on a regular basis, not just on some days, and we picture him as a mellow father, not as a tyrant at home. Since we suppose that characters are unified in these ways, we are almost invariably surprised when it turns out that the different aspects of someone’s personality stand in tension with one another. 

Unfortunately, she is not quite right. Aristotle defined character as habitual behavior. Perhaps Fileva is using disposition as a synonym for behavior, but to my mind the two do not coincide.

You can be disposed to do something without doing it. You might be ill-disposed to decency, but if you make the effort to act decently all the time, then you are improving your character... disposition be damned.

Also, shyness is a personality trait, not a character trait. Your character involves the way you behave toward others. It defines you as an honorable member of a community. Your good character tells people that they can count on you, that your behavior will consistently follow principle.

You can be shy and trustworthy. You can also be gregarious and trustworthy.

If timidity is the opposite of courageous, then timidity would be a character flaw.

If character involves consistent behavior someone who behaves inconsistently has weak character.

Philosophers and psychologists have made much of the question, so I will offer what I consider to be the classical ethical principle: someone who behaves decorously on one day and indecorously on another day is indecorous.

To be a character trait decorum must be habitual.  A person who lacks it lacks character.

If a man is kind and generous toward his children but beats his wife, he has bad character.

Behaving well toward some people and behaving poorly toward others means that your good behavior is not habitual. Thus, it is not you.

It would take hiss forays into the realm of responsible behavior to be an effort to mask his bad character.

On the other hand, no one is perfect. There is no such thing as a human being who does not make mistakes. Good character is not perfect character.

Let’s say that you slip up; you fail to return a text message; you go back on your word; you eat your soup with a fork.

By definition, a singular piece of bad behavior does not undermine your claim to good character.

When you err, you should apologize and vow never to do it again. A person of good character apologizes. A person who does not apologize lacks good character. Anyone who apologizes and keeps making the same mistake also lacks character.

His failure to apologize tells you that his error is characteristic.

We judge a person’s character, first, through our own interactions with the person. Fileva reports that if, in our dealings with a man, he is always responsible and reliable, we are inclined to generalize from the specifics and to believe that he is responsible and reliable.

Since a personal perspective is limited, it does not really prove anything beyond the fact that he is kind to me. Fileva notes that it does not prove that he is kind.

But, how can we discover whether a person possesses good or bad character?  After all, we cannot monitor all of his behavior.

The question is salient and relevant. When a business is looking to hire someone for a job, it needs to know whether the person has good or bad character. In many businesses this is a crucial consideration.

A candidate might make a great impression in an interview. How can the interviewer know whether he is seeing someone who has put on his best face or someone who is behaving as he always does?

Businesses know that they can never know someone’s character to an absolute certainty, but they have devised ways to discern about whether they are seeing a mask or a face.

They might ask a receptionist and an assistant for their impression of the candidate. If the unfailing polite candidate is rude to the receptionist it will count against him.

Or they might invite the candidate to lunch or dinner.

If he is congenial when dealing with the senior management but barks at the busboy, then he lacks good character. If he is glib and articulate but chews with his mouth open then he has an important character flaw.

By now this is fairly well known. If you are being interviewed for a job your character will be tested, often in situations that you cannot foresee.

The best preparation is to show good character in all situations and circumstances. Use good manners when you are eating alone. Be courteous to the dry cleaner. Develop good character traits when no one is watching.

If you do, those traits will become habitual and you will evince them naturally. The more natural they become the less likely you are to lose them under stress.

I was most intrigued by Fileva’s discussion of obedience. You probably know that obedience has gotten a bad name. It has even been banned from marriage vows.

Philosophers have reasoned that people have done dreadful things in the name of obeying or following orders. Therefore, obedience is morally dubious.

True, Nazi officials tried to defend their actions on the grounds that they were obeying orders, but it is also true that the soldiers who defeated the Third Reich were obeying orders.

They were not expressing their unique individuality creatively.

Fileva offers this analysis:

… the tendency to obey, while in one sense an aspect of character, is in another sense a sign of the lack of character. For think about what we mean when we say that someone “has no character”: we mean just that he can be led in any direction and pressured to do all sorts of things. It would be a poor defense of the existence of his character if we said that really, his deeper tendency to obey united the seemingly incongruent bits of his behavior. To lack character is to lack principles, to fail to be, as it were, internally motivated.

I agree, someone who can be easily influenced lacks character. Someone who is unprincipled also lacks character.

A person who is easily influenced and pressured surely lacks principles. You might say that he is obeying his whims or the people who he wants to impress, but no one should ever believe that this is what constitutes obedience.

People who have character follow principles, not people. They certainly do not follow their whims or their bliss.

And, that requires obedience. Following a rule means obeying its dictates, despite all of the temptations to obey the whims of another person.

Obviously, there are good principles and bad principles. Character would be meaningless if you were not responsible for choosing which rules you obey.

When you keep your word you are obeying a principle, the one that tells you to be trustworthy in all things.

Fileva writes:

Unity in character is an achievement. And we have a better chance of attaining it if we take it to be a goal, rather than an existing state of affairs.  If we want pronouncements like “Up the Republic!” and “Sweetheart!” to really mean something, we’d better take these pronouncements as commitments to live up to, not as expressions of who we already are. When I declare I will be faithful to you, there is, strictly speaking, something wishful about my declaration. I do not know from where I shall get the strength to do as I promise. It is certainly not the case that I possess a “faithfulness” property that can guarantee my success. But this is not a pessimistic conclusion. For there is nothing that guarantees failure either; my past failures, in particular, do not. And would you really prefer that my success be guaranteed? I would conjecture that the answer is “no.” The power of my declaration lies, for you, precisely in that I make a promise that I can keep only if I make an effort. Nothing about my character can ensure success. There is inevitable precariousness in human interaction that stems from the very way in which we are built. But perhaps this is just what, in our dealings with one another, gives both our success and our failure to live up to our commitments real meaning.

There is a slight confusion here. Making a commitment to a cause is similar to giving your word to another person, but the two are not exactly the same. Good character has much more to do with the latter than the former. 

Fileva says correctly that giving your word does not express who you are but should count as a commitment or promise.

She is incorrect to assert that a commitment is a wish.

If you tell your child that you are going to pick him up from school this afternoon you are not expressing a wish. You are committing to an action, and you are saying that, if you are not in a coma, you will be there. There should be no separation between what you say you will do and what you do.

If you tell your lover or your spouse that you will be faithful, you had best be expressing more than a wish. No one is going to redefine his or her life as a function of wishful thinking.

Fileva says that she does not know where she will get the strength to do as she promises, but I would recommend that she find it in a sense of duty. Or better, of obedience to the principle of duty. That means that once she makes a commitment she is duty-bound to obey it, regardless of her wishes and desires.

Olympia Snowe Rates Obama

It wasn’t very long ago that Maine Senator Olympia Snowe was every Democrat’s favorite Republican.

When Snowe decided to retire from the Senate Democrats immediately cast her as a martyr for their cause. Democratic spinners were all over the media explaining that she was leaving the Senate because she was fed up with Republican intransigence and Tea Party extremism.

Since the Senate Democratic leadership is more interested in controlling the narrative than in getting anything done, Snowe’s retirement was quickly made to fit their storyline.

As they presented it, moderate Republican Snowe was so frustrated by her caucus colleagues that she preferred retirement.

But, reality always surpasses narration. Now that Snowe has clarified her reasoning, she is about to become every Democrat’s least favorite Republican. In other words, she is about to be erased from the narrative.

In an interview with Jonathan Karl on ABC Senator Snowe gave our president, Barack Obama, a near-failing grade for outreach. Obama said that Obama had surpassed all of his recent predecessors for his  unwillingness to reach out to Olympia Snowe.

By now everyone knows that Obama has functioned as the great divider in the White House. Having failed to master negotiation he avoids situations where he might have to reveal his  inadequacy.

In the past two years Obama has failed to have even one meeting with Olympia Snowe. He has failed to converse with the one Republican who is most likely to side with him and to work to bridge the partisan divide in the Senate.

In her 34 years in Congress the Maine Senator has never seen a president behave so badly.

Here’s how Jonathan Karl reports his interview:

If there were ever a Republican for President Obama to work with, it was Maine Senator Olympia Snowe. She was one of just three Republicans in the entire Congress to vote for his economic stimulus plan in 2009 and even tried to work with him on health care, but in an interview with ABC's Senior Political Correspondent Jonathan Karl, Snowe makes a remarkable revelation:  She hasn't had a face-to-face meeting with President Obama in nearly two years.

Snowe said that if she had to grade the President on his willingness to work with Republicans, he would "be close to failing on that point."  In fact, Snowe, who was first elected to Congress in 1978, claims that her meetings with President Obama have been less frequent than with any other President.

Quite properly, Congressional Republicans are frustrated. Snowe explains that Washington has now become more about politics and less about policy.

In my terms, it’s become more about spinning the narrative and less about getting things done.

The Snowe revelation is significant because it shows a consistent pattern of presidential behavior.

If Obama had slighted Snowe on one occasion, it might have been a mistake or an accident. Consistency makes for habitual behavior and habitual behavior defines character.

When a house is divided against itself, the person responsible for the division is the person at the top. He sets the tone; he creates the mood. Either he negotiates, conciliates, and compromises or he seeks to create dramatic conflict.

If, on the other hand, a leader wants more drama and less work, then he does as Obama has done. If he believes in divide-and-conquer and sees politics as an exercise in imposing a narrative on the country, he will not think twice about freezing out the most conciliatory member of the opposition party.

So much for treating the other political party as the loyal opposition.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Another Woman's Womb

For women who are unable to carry a child gestational carriers are a blessing. As you know, when a couple uses a gestational carrier the embryo is theirs; the womb belongs to someone else.

A gestational carrier is not like an egg donor or what used to be called a surrogate. She does not contribute any DNA to the child.

It is not a new practice. It has been used successfully for many years now.

It is new, to me at least, when a woman who is capable of carrying a child chooses not to do so because pregnancy would interfere with her career.

Yesterday, a woman wrote to Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, to ask how she should behave at a baby shower for a woman whose child was being carried by what, in this case, is being called a surrogate carrier.

She writes:

My sister-in-law is dedicated to her career and she is using a surrogate to have a baby. They are doing this because they want a biological child but my sister-in-law does not want to take time off work to have a normal childbirth. Last week I was invited to a baby shower via Evite where you can see the other guests. The surrogate will be attending this shower with my sister-in-law and assorted guests. I guess I am old fashioned, because this all seems very awkward to me. I completely respect and understand using a surrogate if there are fertility problems, but that is not the case here. I'm also not sure what to say or how to act to either the surrogate or my sister-in-law at the shower. I plan to attend this shower because my sister-in-law has always been supportive of me and my children, but I am not sure what to say or how to act in this unorthodox situation.

Yoffe responds sensibly that the woman should act graciously, as she would at any other baby shower.

Then she adds:

I will say that if not wanting to take time away from the office is truly the sole reason your sister-in-law hired someone to bear her child, I have doubts about her interest in actual motherhood. However that's not the issue here. The issue is behaving politely at a shower. Surely you don't need advice on doing that.

Yoffe is especially right to raise the more important issue here: not just that this woman is unlikely to allow motherhood to interfere with her ambition, but that other women will surely find her decision to be vaguely disquieting.

Yoffe also raises the possibility that the woman might have another reason for using a gestational carrier.  For all we know she might be phobic about childbirth or might be afraid of what pregnancy will do to her girlish figure.

Since we all accept the use of gestational carriers when there is no other way to bear a child, we are apparently also supposed to nod our acceptance when a woman states openly that she wishes to have a child like a man does. Beyond contributing some genetic material, this woman is saying that she will deny herself the joy and the pain of gestation in order to do it as the guys do it. She has voluntarily unsexed herself.

In some ways this is simply the logical outcome of the feminist war against women.

When a woman who cannot carry to term chooses a gestational carrier she is showing a very strong motivation to be a mother. Yet, when a woman chooses a gestational carrier because she believes that pregnancy will interfere with her career, she is demonstrating the opposite attitude toward motherhood: it is an inconvenience she would rather avoid.

For her motherhood merely concerns transmitting genes; nothing more or less.

Also, her actions tell us that she belongs in the 1%. It takes a lot of disposable income to hire a gestational carrier. Hiring nannies and sitters to bring up your child, as she seems destined to do, is also a very expensive undertaking.

A woman who cannot have a child any other way would be understandably willing to incur the expense. She and her husband would see it as a worthwhile sacrifice.

Yet, when a woman who can have a child naturally calculates that the experience will put her at a competitive disadvantage on the job, then she has reduced childbearing to a pure calculation.

We do not yet know if it is a trend. We do not know whether we are seeing the emergence of a new class of unsexed careerist women who can rent other women’s wombs in order to spare themselves the inconvenience of pregnancy. For them, exactly what does it mean to be a woman?

The News From Libya

We haven’t heard much out of Libya lately. In itself, that is significant.

The mainstream media is hard at work supporting the Obama re-election campaign. Thus it has focused public attention on issues that can redound to the electoral benefit of its favorite candidate.

The media has happily provoked a grand national conversation about the cost of Sandra Fluke’s contraceptives because it helps to induce women to vote for Obama.

Similarly, with the sad case of Trayvon Martin. No one really knows what happened when Martin encountered George Zimmerman but presenting the issue as a racist act stokes minority voters and liberal guilt, so, better to run with it than to investigate the facts.

It’s a way to avoid looking at minority youth unemployment.

If things were going well in Libya you would be hearing about it. Reporters would be camped out in Tripoli and Benghazi trumpeting the arrival of a new democratic Libya. They would be running story after story about the greatness of the Obama foreign policy.

After all, Obama’s Libya incursion was supposed to be Iraq done right.

Those who had expended every ounce of their moral outrage railing against the way the Bush administration conducted the Iraq War and its aftermath have, unsurprisingly, grown silent when it comes to the aftermath of the Obama-Clinton foray into Libya.

I have often noted that foreign policy conducted by amateurs like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was more likely to involve grand dramatic gestures and less likely to involve the long-term implementation of real policies.

So, we assembled something of an international coalition, intervened militarily in Libya, helped to overthrow and execute the bad dictator Qaddhafi, and then we left, washed out hands of the whole thing.

Once the administration had its film clip it did not much care about what happened in Libya. In that the media has been complicit in the cover-up.

When the operation was going down I took the time to read through the analysis on offer from seasoned foreign policy hands. Link to my posts here.

Most of them knew that Libya was not going to become a liberal democracy. They all predicted that the new Libya would be ruled by armed militias, among which would be many militias loyal to al Qaeda.

Now it has come to pass, and naturally, no one is reporting on it.

No one except for Omri Ceren, writing yesterday on the Commentary Contentions site.

One Libyan militia has taken to mounting raids against hotels over unpaid bills. Another militia recently captured and held two British PressTV journalists because militia members mistakenly believed Welsh materials in the journalists’ possession were written in Hebrew, and that the Iranian-employed Brits were Israeli agents.

Meanwhile, official Libyan police have finally gotten around to rounding up the vandals responsible for the disgraceful desecration of Christian and Jewish tombstones in a WWII-era cemetery. The problem is they’re too scared to do anything about it:

“Police in Libya captured three members of an armed mob that desecrated British war graves in Benghazi – but released them after a few hours because they were ‘too dangerous.’ The extremists, who admitted smashing the gravestones with sledgehammers, belong to an Islamist militia with links to al-Qaeda. During questioning, police were so nervous they made the men wear blindfolds so they would not be able to identify their interrogators.”

In the aftermath of the Iraq War, Ceren remarks, the media was filled with stories about all the bad things that were happening in Iraq.

Anything that would delegitimize the war and the Bush administration was reported… over and over and over again.

The media assault on the Iraq War began slowly, but eventually you were reading about it day after day after day.

In the name of journalistic integrity the mainstream media felt that it had a duty to undermine the efforts of the Bush administration.

Everyone knew, or should have known, that it was all political expediency. The media’s real enemy was the Republican Party. Making the Bush administration look bad would give more power to Democrats. Truth be told, it worked.

Now, we have a new administration, one that the media wanted, and that means that the media can see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil about the ungodly horrors that the Obama administration has helped visit on Libya.

Obama has succeeded in giving Egypt to radical Islamists. He has given al Qaeda a new stronghold in Libya. As long as there is an election to be won, American journalism will have nothing to say about.