Monday, September 30, 2013

Islamic Terrorism on the Rise

I among others have found it peculiar that as fine a publication as The Economist could be an Obama supporter.

Yet, the magazine is not run by a band of ideological zealots so it still reveres fact. Having resisted the lure to become an entertainment vehicle, it still provides solid information. As Time and Newsweek pass into the dustbin of history, The Economist is thriving.

Case in point, a new story explains that the Islamic terrorism that Barack Obama said was on the path to defeat is on the march. I among others have pointed to the fact, so it’s good to have a reputable publication telling us how it is:

A FEW months ago Barack Obama declared that al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat”. Its surviving members, he said, were more concerned for their own safety than with plotting attacks on the West. Terrorist attacks of the future, he claimed, would resemble those of the 1990s—local rather than transnational and focused on “soft targets”. His overall message was that it was time to start winding down George Bush’s war against global terrorism.

Mr Obama might argue that the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi by al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, the Shabab, was just the kind of thing he was talking about: lethal, shocking, but a long way from the United States. Yet the inconvenient truth is that, in the past 18 months, despite the relentless pummelling it has received and the defeats it has suffered, al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies have staged an extraordinary comeback. The terrorist network now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history (see article). Mr Obama must reconsider.

Drone attacks had seriously damaged al Qaeda’s central leadership. The Somali branch called al Shabab was on the ropes. Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula was in trouble.

No more.

The Economist reports:

The Shabab is recruiting more foreign fighters than ever (some of whom appear to have been involved in the attack on the Westgate). AQAP was responsible for the panic that led to the closure of 19 American embassies across the region and a global travel alert in early August. Meanwhile al-Qaeda’s core, anticipating the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan after 2014, is already moving back into the country’s wild east.

Funnily enough, for those who were heralding a new democratic Middle East two years ago, the Arab Spring has been a godsend for Islamic terrorists:

 The coup against a supposedly moderate Islamist elected government in Egypt has helped restore al-Qaeda’s ideological power. Weapons have flooded out of Libya and across the region, and the civil war in Syria has revived one of the network’s most violent and unruly offshoots, al-Qaeda in Iraq, now grandly renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

One might reasonably question whether the Egyptian military’s effort to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood represents a victory for Islamists. If you believe that Islamic terrorism is that important a threat, you should support any and all efforts to suppress it. If you say that efforts to suppress it by force inflame it, you are offering a counsel of despair.

That being said, the fall of Qadhafi in Libya and the ongoing Syrian civil war have certainly stoked the flames of Islamic terror.

Why has this happened? The Economist answers that the fault lies with what it calls “Western complacency,” by which it means, the foreign policy of the Obama administration:

How much should Western complacency be blamed for this stunning revival? Quite a bit. Mr Obama was too eager to cut and run from Iraq. He is at risk of repeating the mistake in Afghanistan. America has been over-reliant on drone strikes to “decapitate” al-Qaeda groups: the previous defence secretary, Leon Panetta, even foolishly talked of defeating the network by killing just 10-20 leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The general perception of America’s waning appetite for engagement in the Middle East, underlined by Mr Obama’s reluctance to support the moderate Syrian opposition in any useful way has been damaging as well.

Apparently, American weakness is a very effective recruiting tool for terrorists. It tells prospective jihadis that they might be on the winning side in the war against an increasingly ineffectual America.

Is America also losing the battle of ideas? The Economist bemoans the fact that we have failed to win over moderate Muslims. Doubtless, it is right. But perhaps the reason is that moderate Muslims have been terrorized. Surely, they are not immune from Islamic terrorism. They count among its most important targets.

It makes sense that rich Gulf petrostates have been more than willing to buy off the terrorists.

They have no choice. It’s better than waiting for America to come and save them.

The Decline of Therapy

Does psychotherapy have an image problem?

Fewer and fewer people are signing up for therapy these days, so therapists like Brandon Gaudiano are trying to understand why. After all, the new therapies, especially the cognitive-behavioral kinds, have been shown empirically to produce good outcomes. When it comes to depression and anxiety they are at least as effective as medication. Why has the message not gotten out?

It sounds like a plausible premise until Gaudiano tells us that not many therapists are using these new and effective techniques:

But psychotherapy’s problems come as much from within as from without. Many therapists are contributing to the problem by failing to recognize and use evidence-based psychotherapies (and by sometimes proffering patently outlandish ideas). There has been a disappointing reluctance among psychotherapists to make the hard choices about which therapies are effective and which — like some old-fashioned Freudian therapies — should be abandoned.

Why limit ourselves to Freudian therapies? How many therapists are involved in touchy-feely work, teaching empathy and asking how it feels to feel as you feel?

Face it, if the word feeling suddenly vanished from the language more than half the nation’s therapists would be struck dumb.

I am confident that there are more feeling-based therapists than there are cognitive-behavioral therapists.

Therapy has been around for quite some time now. Psychoanalysis did lead the way but it has now been eclipsed by other forms of therapy. Unfortunately, most of the new therapies are more fluff than substance. They seem to derive less from scientific research than from a caring instinct.

Also, many therapists spend a lot of time handing out bad advice. I am, of course, not against counselors who give advice. Unfortunately, most therapy programs do not teach anyone in doing it well so most therapists, especially the young and inexperienced do it poorly.

Nary a day passes when you do not have the chance to see a therapist handing out insights on television. Some are real therapists; some are the fictional equivalent.

Would anyone’s experience of watching these people persuade him to undergo therapy? How many of these TV stars are doling out anything more than shopworn platitudes and psychobabble? How often has anyone watched one of these therapists and come away thinking that the therapist might really understand or help me with my problems?

By saying that it’s just an image problem Gaudiano ignores the fact that many people have had a direct experience of therapy. If they have abandoned therapy they might be making a rational judgment based on their own personal experience.

When Gaudiano says that the problem is image he is disrespecting the population that has simply had enough therapy.

If therapy is declining as a profession perhaps it just the market’s way of saying that therapists have not been doing a very good job. You are not going to spend money to see someone who essentially is trying to mother you. If that’s what you want you can get it for free from someone who is probably better at it.

To avoid misunderstanding, the tendency to mother patients is not limited to female therapists. Male therapists also indulge this unfortunate habit. As might be expected it isn’t something that you want to witness first hand.

It’s true that cognitive-behavioral therapies, among others, provide a clear benefit for many patients. But, then again, so do aerobic exercise and yoga. More and more people have come to recognize their value.They cost less than therapy and you do not have to listen to someone say:

“How did that make you feel?”

By now, I suspect that many prospective therapy patients would pay good money not to have to hear that again.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

To Teach Or Not To Teach

America may no longer excel at educating children, but it is surely leading the world in self-recrimination. The kids aren't learning anything, but we feel appropriately bad about it.

Joanne Lipman explains that as our children continue to lag their peers around the world, we are gnashing our teeth and wringing our hands:

We're in the midst of a national wave of self-recrimination over the U.S. education system. Every day there is hand-wringing over our students falling behind the rest of the world. Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. trail students in 12 other nations in science and 17 in math, bested by their counterparts not just in Asia but in Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands, too. An entire industry of books and consultants has grown up that capitalizes on our collective fear that American education is inadequate and asks what American educators are doing wrong.

Evidently, current educational policies have failed. Lipman decribes them:

… the kinder, gentler philosophy … has dominated American education over the past few decades. The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as "drill and kill"—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.

We want children to develop their creativity. We want them to flourish. We want them to be happy and healthy. We do not want them to struggle. We do not want them to compete. We do not much care if they ever learn anything.

It was not just the self-esteem movement that led us to this impasse. Of equal import was the fact that traditional methods of education were branded as abusive.

Our culture has been overcome with a phobia about child abuse. We saw it when Americans attacked the Tiger Mom for forcing her child to sit at the piano until she could play a passage right.

Try to discipline a child, try to teach perseverance and you will be lumped in with the bullies and the child molesters. At a minimum you will be denounced as a stone cold reactionary.

The abuse charge has blinded people to the evidence. After all, there is a mountain of evidence that shows not merely that empty praise hurts children but that failing to discipline children damages their ability to learn:

Now I'm not calling for abuse; I'd be the first to complain if a teacher called my kids names. But the latest evidence backs up my modest proposal. Studies have now shown, among other things, the benefits of moderate childhood stress; how praise kills kids' self-esteem; and why grit is a better predictor of success than SAT scores.

Lipman is calling for a return to the old ways, where strict discipline and unyielding demands defined the experience of education. Not a minute too soon. We all know that today’s young adults lack a sense of discipline. They do not know how to persevere, so they tend to give up. They do not think of how they can best accomplish a task. They are looking to see what they can get away with.

We need to recognize that these character flaws were taught to these children in school.

Teachers had all the right feelings, but Johnny and Janey were not learning anything. In truth, teachers were so thrilled to have the right feelings that did not really notice that their children were failing to learn anything.

ipman offers a simple answer to the question of why American children underperforming on standard math tests:

American students struggle with complex math problems because, as research makes abundantly clear, they lack fluency in basic addition and subtraction—and few of them were made to memorize their times tables.

When teachers fail to force children to memorize their multiplication tables, they are undermining these children’s ability to do future work in math.

Lipman recommends that teachers follow the example of her old music teacher. She offers a touching and moving tribute:

I had a teacher once who called his students "idiots" when they screwed up. He was our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, "Who eez deaf in first violins!?" He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.

Today, he'd be fired. But when he died a few years ago, he was celebrated: Forty years' worth of former students and colleagues flew back to my New Jersey hometown from every corner of the country, old instruments in tow, to play a concert in his memory. I was among them, toting my long-neglected viola. When the curtain rose on our concert that day, we had formed a symphony orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.

I was stunned by the outpouring for the gruff old teacher we knew as Mr. K. But I was equally struck by the success of his former students. Some were musicians, but most had distinguished themselves in other fields, like law, academia and medicine. Research tells us that there is a positive correlation between music education and academic achievement. But that alone didn't explain the belated surge of gratitude for a teacher who basically tortured us through adolescence.

I fear that Lipman is right. In today’s world, a teacher like that would probably be fired. Parents expect their children to be coddled. They expect their children to receive excellent grades, merited or not.

Were a teacher to call out children for poor performance their parents would sue. They would demand that he never be allowed to teach again. After all, the worst crime today is not the failure to teach. It’s hurting a child’s delicate feelings.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Empty Praise Movement

For almost as long as the self-esteem movement has been infiltrating America’s schools and homes, research has shown that it is counterproductive.

Children who are showered with empty praise and unearned rewards lose motivation, lose the ability to persist in the face of failure and ultimately do worse than those who are taught a work ethic.

Children who are told that they are brilliant do less well than do children who are praised for their effort.

The moral of the story is that the Tiger Mom was on to something. Our self-esteemist culture despised the Tiger Mom but she was following precepts that have been shown, by American researchers, to be far more effective than those prescribed by the empty praise movement.

The truth has been out there for years. I recently learned of an article that Po Bronson wrote about it in New York Magazine in 2007. My thanks to Dennis for the tip.

Bronson explained that the godfather of this movement was someone named Nathaniel Branden:

Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.

Dr. Roy Baumeister had been a believer in the value of empty praise. When he studied the phenomenon he concluded that he had been wrong:

Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

The empty praise movement taught parents and teachers to lie to children, systematically and shamelessly. Bronson reported ons what happened:

For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

Unfortunately, if a child’s parents tell him that he is smart, he will start underperforming. The most important research was performed by Prof. Carol Dweck. Bronson described it:

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

And also:

Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they werent really smart at all. Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

So, empty praise makes you dumber. A work ethic makes you smarter.

In Bronson’s words:

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

Children who are told that they are naturally talented and gifted conclude that they do not need to make an effort. They believe that their innate abilities will allow them to breeze through any task. If anything goes wrong they do not have a work ethic to allow them to soldier on:

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

I will underscore here the potentially salutary effect of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Whatever you think of the rule, at the very lest it tells people that, besides your talent, you cannot succeed if you do not put in an enormous amount of effort over an extended period of time.

Short of becoming a Tiger Mom, one good way to motivate students, the researchers found, is to tell them that the brain is a muscle. The harder you work it the stronger it becomes.

Bronson wrote:

The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.

It should not be surprising that the more you lie to children the less they will believe anything that you say. If you offer too much empty praise children will eventually feel that all praise is empty.

In Bronson’s words:

Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Incredible Shrinking President

I knew it had to serve a useful purpose, but I didn’t know what the purpose was.

Now, I have a better idea. Aside from the fact that the annual United Nations meetings bollix up the traffic in my neighborhood, they provide intrepid reporters a chance to interview a multitude of world leaders without having to travel.

Peggy Noonan has risen to the challenge. What she heard on her perambulations through Turtle Bay has not been very encouraging.

Foreign diplomats and political leaders have a decidedly downcast view of
America. They miss the old America, the America that led the world. They despair over the loss, both in the example America set and the leadership it showed on the world stage.

She heard this from “the prime minister of a Western democracy:”

"In the past we have seen some America overreach," said the prime minister of a Western democracy, in a conversation. "Now I think we are seeing America underreach." He was referring not only to foreign policy but to economic policies, to the limits America has imposed on itself. He missed its old economic dynamism, its crazy, pioneering spirit toward wealth creation—the old belief that every American could invent something, get it to market, make a bundle, rise. The prime minister spoke of a great anxiety and his particular hope. The anxiety: "The biggest risk is not political but social. Wealthy societies with people who think wealth is a given, a birthright—they do not understand that we are in the fight of our lives with countries and nations set on displacing us. Wealth is earned. It is far from being a given. It cannot be taken for granted. The recession reminded us how quickly circumstances can change." His hope? That the things that made America a giant—"so much entrepreneurialism and vision"—will, in time, fully re-emerge and jolt the country from the doldrums.

You knew that the Obama administration had been systematically tamping down American economic dynamism. Now you know that you were not the only one who noticed. It’s worthwhile to measure the consequences these policies are producing around the world. They facilitate the work of those nations who seek to displace America.

World leaders know, as you know, that wealth must be produced. It must be earned. An administration that does not whatever is necessary to produce wealth is immiserating itself.

Surely, the administration has caused other nations to respect us less. Our president does not stride over the globe like a great leader; he presents himself and he is increasingly seen as a minor figure, a small man. Other nations witness Obama’s ineptitude and see a man and a nation diminished.

Noonan explained:

The second takeaway of the week has to do with a continued decline in admiration for the American president. Barack Obama's reputation among his fellow international players has deflated, his stature almost collapsed. In diplomatic circles, attitudes toward his leadership have been declining for some time, but this week you could hear the disappointment, and something more dangerous: the sense that he is no longer, perhaps, all that relevant. Part of this is due, obviously, to his handling of the Syria crisis. If you draw a line and it is crossed and then you dodge, deflect, disappear and call it diplomacy, the world will notice, and not think better of you. Some of it is connected to the historical moment America is in.

A scorching assessment of the president as foreign-policy actor came from a former senior U.S. diplomat, a low-key and sophisticated man who spent the week at many U.N.-related functions. "World leaders are very negative about Obama," he said. They are "disappointed, feeling he's not really in charge. . . . The Western Europeans don't pay that much attention to him anymore."

And then there was the snub heard ‘round the world.

Back in the bad old days Iran belonged to the axis of evil. The tyrannical Islamist regime had become a pariah on the world stage.

Thanks to President Obama, such is no longer the case. Obama decided that he wanted to do business with Iran. He reached out a hand of friendship to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, suggesting that they meet during the U.N. meetings this week. The Iranian leader replied that he did not have the time.

Noonan analyzed:

But [Obama’s] spokesmen had suggested the possibility of a brief meeting or handshake between Messrs. Obama and Rouhani. When that didn't happen there was a sense the American president had been snubbed. For all the world to see.

Which, if you are an American, is embarrassing.

While Mr. Rouhani could not meet with the American president, he did make time for journalists, diplomats and businessmen brought together by the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations. Early Thursday evening in a hotel ballroom, Mr. Rouhani spoke about U.S.-Iranian relations.

Obama has not only succeeded in diminishing himself, diminishing the nation and reducing the respect we command on the world stage. He has managed to enhance the prestige of the president of Iran.

As that nation gets closer to building a nuclear weapon what makes you think that anything or anyone will now be able to stop it.

Heck of a job, Barack.

What's Wrong with this Headline?

What’s wrong with this headline?

In this week’s New York Magazine the headline above Frank Rich’s essay reads: It’s Hard to Hate Rand Paul.

The subheading reads:

The junior senator from Kentucky would be an appalling right-wing president, and yet he is a valuable politician: a man of conviction, and a visitation from a post-Obama political future.

Let’s stipulate that writers do not always write their own headlines. Be that as it may, New York Magazine seems to believe that intelligent, sophisticated, deep-thinking New Yorkers need to know who to hate. They do not form their political views on policy analysis, not on deliberation, not on reflection… but on raw hate.

And I thought it was bad to hate. Don’t we have laws against hate crimes? What happened to civility?

Apparently, New Yorkers do not need to engage in civil dialogue with Republicans. It suffices to hate them.

Frank Rich knows his audience. Apparently, he believes that they are most comfortable with their political beliefs when they can hate their opponents.

Beyond that, the Rich profile of Rand Paul is interesting and fairly even-handed.
On Rand Paul’s response to the White House’s bumbling of Syria policy, Rich writes:

…after a chaotic week of White House feints and fumbles accompanied by vamping and vacillation among leaders in both parties, the odd duck from Kentucky emerged as an anchor of principle, the signal amid the noise.

Naturally, Rich raises alarms about the horrors that would befall “the majority of Americans” by a Paul presidency.

A Paul presidency would be a misfortune for the majority of Americans who would be devastated by his regime of minimalist government. But as we begin to imagine a post-Obama national politics where the Democratic presidential front-runners may be of Social Security age and the Republicans lack a presumptive leader or a coherent path forward, he can hardly be dismissed. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Paul doesn’t hide his ambitions to fill it.

One assumes that Rich is saying that a “majority” of Americans depends so thoroughly on maximalist government that it would be devastated by cutbacks on government programs.

Isn’t there something strange about the idea that a “majority” of Americans depends on government? 

For the record, and in the interest of being fair and balanced, a large number of Americans are also suffering from the anemic Obama recovery.

The Economist, hardly an Obama-hating rag explained it this week:

IN THE early 1980s the distressing persistence of high unemployment in Europe was labelled “Eurosclerosis”. Some now wonder whether “Amerisclerosis” is the right word to describe America’s labour market. It is true that unemployment has slowly dropped from a peak of 10% in late 2009, to 7.3% at present. But this decline overstates the health of the jobs market.

The labour-force participation rate, the share of the working-age population either working or looking for work, has plunged from 66% in 2007 to 63.2% in August, a 35-year low. If those people who have simply dropped out of the labour force were classified as unemployed, the headline jobless rate would be much higher.

This drop in the participation rate is striking by international standards, too. Among 34 (mainly rich-country) OECD countries, only in Ireland and Iceland did participation rates fall farther between 2007 and 2012. In Italy and Britain, where unemployment rates have risen by a roughly similar amount as in America, labour-force participation rose ….

If a Republican administration produced a less than pathetic economic recovery perhaps a “majority” of Americans would not have to rely on government assistance.

Still, Frank Rich is intrigued by Rand Paul. All things considered, it’s a step forward:

This leaves Paul—for the moment at least—a man with a future. If in the end he and his ideas are too out-there to be a majority taste anytime soon, he is nonetheless performing an invaluable service. Whatever else may come from it, his speedy rise illuminates just how big an opening there might be for other independent and iconoclastic politicians willing to challenge the sclerosis of both parties in the post-Obama age.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Everybody Gets a Trophy"

Countless researchers have definitively debunked the self-esteemist ideology that has been sweeping through America’s schools and homes.

And yet, like a preternatural blob self-esteemism continues apace. It almost seems unkillable.

Unfortunately, this is easily explained. Those who believe in self-esteem, who believe that children should be praised and encouraged regardless of their achievements, do not believe in reality checks. They do not believe that self-esteem should be accorded on the basis of facts that can be verified objectively.

It makes sense that they apply this rule to themselves. By inflating their own self-esteem to the point where they never fail, they can remain impervious to the consequences of their policies.

After all, their hearts are pure. They are surely a lot purer than yours or mine. You see, self-esteemists see themselves promoting mental health. They believe that if they give everyone trophies, regardless of their merit, they are producing better mental health.

After all, success feels good; failure feels bad. We do not want anyone to feel bad because that is a sign of mental illness. Anyone who enjoys high self-esteem will naturally flourish.

Of course, this rests on a logical fallacy. If you notice that people who succeed have a high level of confidence then you might believe that if you can artificially produce a high level of confidence in people who have not succeeded they will be more likely to succeed.

But if they are old enough to know the difference between success and failure and will end up believing that you are patronizing them. Besides, those whose success has produced high self-esteem will cease to strive. Why work to succeed when failure is rewarded as richly as success.

Modern psychology seems to have originated in a study of psychopathology. It has worked to develop ways to cure injured or deranged or traumatized psyches. It has assumed that once you remove the internal impediments to full psychic flourishing the mind will naturally know what to do, when to do it, how to do it, with whom to do it.

Perhaps it’s not quite the same as Plato’s idea of innate ideas, but the theory is suggesting that the mind knows how to do this or that innately and will accomplish all tasks successfully, if only it is healed of its lack of confidence.

One understands that Freud himself aimed much lower. He believed that the best he could do was to turn misery into everyday unhappiness. Yet, his followers and most psycho professionals have happily kept open the promise of mental health and glorious flourishing.

If they hadn’t they would have put themselves out of business.

Seeing the psyche in terms of disease and health produced two flaws. I will leave it to you to decide whether or not they are fatal.

By seeing human behavior as an expression of a healthy or sick psyche the theory ignores the fact that behavior is more often a function of experience.

To accomplish a task you need to develop a skill. Remove the psychic impediments that are preventing you from playing golf or riding a bicycle and you will not be one step closer to playing golf or riding a bicycle.

In truth, what you see as a psychic impediment may simply be a function of inexperience or inadequate instruction. One overcomes one’s fear of bicycles by getting on a bicycle and riding it. Surely, the experience will involve a few falls and a few scraped elbows, but, the problem cannot be solved by convincing yourself that you are the world’s most talented cyclist when you have never ridden a bike.

If you can be that good without getting on a bike, why bother to get on a bike. You would have nowhere to go but down.

Second, the mental health based view of human psychology fails to deal with questions of motivation and leadership. Knowing how to get other people to do what is needed is one of the thorniest psychological problems. Those who practice therapy deal with the problem all the time. In some cases they avoid it by saying that their job is not to give advice, but this only makes their bias more flagrant. They do not see human beings functioning society. They see them as monadic units, radical individuals.

If you are a leader how do you motivate your staff to do their best work? Do you submit them all to sensitivity training sessions where they learn that they are the best? Do you point out their failings and flaws, the better to help them to overcome them? Is it better to give pep talks or to allow people to find their own way? If it is, are there better or worse ways of doing it?

In its own warped way the self-esteem movements has shed some light on these questions. At the least, it shows how not to motivate children. It has shown, clearly and definitively, that if you give everyone a trophy no will bother to try, no one will bother to excel, no one will bother to work to improve.

People are motivated when they compete. When they compete some people do better than others. Some achieve more than others. Some acquire more goods than others.

To the self-esteemists, it’s all unjust. They are opposed to competition, whether it involves spelling bees or dodge ball. Obviously, they have no use for the free enterprise system.

If all men and women are created equal it is unfair and unjust for competition to give some more than others. Those who have more must have cheated, or, more benignly, must have exerted unfair privileges.

Increasingly, we are reconstructing our nation on the concept that success should be penalized and that failure should be rewarded.

Ashley Merryman has offered some sensible observations on these points (via Maggie's Farm):

By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?
In college, those who’ve grown up receiving endless awards do the requisite work, but don’t see the need to do it well. In the office, they still believe that attendance is all it takes to get a promotion.

The moral of the story: self-esteemism is child abuse.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Overgrown Children or Young Adults?

Normally, in our society, children become adults when they reach the age of 18.

By that time they will have acquired the right to vote, the right to drive, the right to join the Navy, the right to get a full time job, the right to do porn, the right to marry and the right to procreate. In many states they will also have gained the right to consume alcoholic beverages. If they are female, they are definitively no longer jail bait.

Now, thanks to the wonders of neuroscience, we have learned that 25 is the new 18. In Great Britain, that is. That great nation has just proclaimed that anyone under the age of 25 will now be considered to be a child. An overgrown child, perhaps, but a child nonetheless. Said overgrown child will now be consulting with a child psychologist rather than an adult psychologist.

The BBC reports on the astonishing finding:

"Neuroscience has made these massive advances where we now don't think that things just stop at a certain age, that actually there's evidence of brain development well into early twenties and that actually the time at which things stop is much later than we first thought," says [Laverne] Antrobus.

There are three stages of adolescence - early adolescence from 12-14 years, middle adolescence from 15-17 years and late adolescence from 18 years and over.

Neuroscience has shown that a young person's cognitive development continues into this later stage and that their emotional maturity, self-image and judgement will be affected until the prefrontal cortex of the brain has fully developed.

Think of the implications.

Does this mean that we should not allow anyone to vote before age 25? Does it mean that no one should be allowed to drink alcoholic beverages until neuroscience declares that their prefrontal cortex has developed fully? And what about marriage and procreation? Should anyone under the age of 25 be allowed to marry or procreate? If their moral reasoning has not yet fully developed does that mean that they should no longer be held responsible for their actions?

Obviously, these are thorny questions. They are made somewhat thornier by the fact that in the Jewish religion, boys and girls are Bar and Bat Mitzvahed at age 13. That coming-of-age ceremony declares them to be men and women. Should Jews modify their tradition in order to bring it into closer accord with the latest developments from neuroscience?

In part, the problem is sematic. Should we treat adolescents as overgrown children or young adults? Should society try to mire them in an extended childhood or encourage them to take on adult responsibilities?

I will not venture to comment on neuroscience, but if I may ask, does the brain develop differently for a post-adolescent if he is treated as a large child or a young adult? Does his capacity for moral reasoning develop more quickly if he is granted more responsibilities sooner?

I daresay that no one in the past thought that 18-year-olds were fully functioning adults. These beings have often compensated for their youth by learning how to take advice from those older and wiser. They were considered to be apprentices and received guidance and encouragement. In this way, they learned how to function as adults more quickly and more surely than they would if they were unemployed and living with their parents.

This method only works if children are taught to respect authority. They need to learn how to take advice from those older and wiser. When you teach children never to trust anyone over 30 you are consigning them to an extended adolescence.

Interviewed for the BBC article, sociologist Frank Furedi explained that society’s expectations have changed radically. We expect very little from adolescents and are, effectively, not disappointed.

The BBC quotes Furedi:

"Often it's claimed it's for economic reasons, but actually it's not really for that," says Furedi. "There is a loss of the aspiration for independence and striking out on your own. When I went to university it would have been a social death to have been seen with your parents, whereas now it's the norm.

"So you have this kind of cultural shift which basically means that adolescence extends into your late twenties and that can hamper you in all kinds of ways, and I think what psychology does is it inadvertently reinforces that kind of passivity and powerlessness and immaturity and normalises that."

The Secret to a Happy Clintonian Marriage

In the fawning, even drooling profile of Hillary Clinton that just appeared in New York Magazine the presumptive presidential candidate announces that she and husband Bill do a lot of hanging out together. They do normal everyday things, just like any other couple.

Naturally, we all believe it.

All of us except Mickey Kaus.

Kaus quotes the description of what happened when Bill and Hillary were both in Bogota:

Though they spoke frequently by phone, Bill and Hillary were rarely in the same country. By chance, their paths crossed in Bogotá, where they had dinner together—then, owing to their massive entourages, returned to their respective hotels “Love conquers all except logistics,” says an aide.

Kaus comments:

I buy that explanation, don’t you? Logistics over love! Good to see New York’s journalists strip away the veneer of BS and get to the truth of the matter. …

You do need to ask yourself why the Clintons continue to pretend to be just another normal married couple. Are they so cynical that they take the American people to be perfect dupes?

If so, they may be right.

At the least, we now know how they have managed to stay married through all of the turmoil.

The secret to the Clinton’s marriage is: separate hotels.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is This the Perfect Relationship?

Gawker’s Kaity Weaver calls it the most “unhinged” article in the New York Times “Vows” section. I cannot help but agree.

For those who don’t read it—count me among them—“Vows” is the Times version of wedding announcements. It does not merely announce a wedding, but it celebrates the couple’s love. It also tries to set cultural standards for good relationships.

If you’ve just eaten, this is something you want to read later.

Weaver explains:

Over the weekend, the New York Times "Vows" section published a 1,765-word celebration of one couple’s love that was so aggressively serene—so gratingly ethereal—it just may be the most irksome in the history of the medium.

Between its recipe for a natural abortifacient cocktail, its emphasis on the bride’s overwhelming beauty (“she probably doesn’t have many” bad hair days, the Times observes), and its dash of tragic manslaughter, it's certainly staggeringly bizarre.

Perhaps Weaver does not know what an abortifacient is, but the concoction recommended by the woman’s midwife was supposed to speed up her contractions during delivery.

Weaver is right; the Times article is staggering, but telling. It tells us something about how the paper wants people to see the perfect relationship. It gives you the chance to feel badly if your relationship or marriage does not contain the spiritual serenity as Erika Halweil and Corey De Rosa have found.

You see, Halweil and De Rosa are yoga teachers. They live the correct yogic life, full of serenity, oblivious to the world around them. For a paper than tends to disparage all signs of religiosity, the Times drools over their spirituality.

For many people the therapy culture has been replaced by the religion of yoga.

Turn now to the Times. Doesn’t this sound like something of a human ideal:

People describe Erika Halweil, a longtime yoga teacher in the Hamptons, as someone who has a lot of backbone in every way. She has great posture. She rarely gets upset over things like parking tickets or bad-hair days. (Naturally pretty, she probably doesn’t have many.) She is sometimes stern but never shy.

The Times offers an equally flattering description of De Rosa:

“You always need to go a little further than you think you can in order to make progress,” said Mr. De Rosa, who in a single conversation might discuss Hindu deities, the connection between the knees and the ego, an energy healer he admires, Indian spices, juice cleanses and his ideas about love (timing is everything).

Surely, their lives have not been a bed of roses. Since Times readers definitely want to know how they deal with trauma, the paper reports on a horrific experience.

It explains how Halweil dealt with the trauma of accidentally running down and killing a 5 year old girl with her car:

On Aug. 17, 2008, Ms. Halweil was driving on Montauk Highway when a 5-year-old girl rode a red toy wagon down a steep driveway and shot out onto the road in front of Ms. Halweil’s car. When she recounts the accident (the child died and Ms. Halweil was not charged) you can really see her calm, philosophical and open demeanor. In an almost plaintive voice, she said: “It was clear sky, clear road. I saw a flash of red coming toward my car.” She swerved but still hit the wagon. “I got out of the car and this really beautiful little girl with pale skin and blue eyes was laying in the road. Her eyes were glazed over. I knew the spirit had left her body.”

Today, she says the accident taught her about fate, her own and the girl’s, but at the time she was devastated. She started taking daily classes at Tapovana and finding comfort in Ashtanga’s rigorous, some say purifying, series of poses that are practiced in silence. Sometimes, she stayed after class to discuss meditation techniques or the yogic perspective on suffering with Mr. De Rosa. He said he found her “amazingly beautiful and radiating,”

Halweil sounds as though she is drugged. She sees pale skin and blue eyes, but she sees no blood. She can talk about vehicular manslaughter with a “calm, philosophical and open demeanor.” Oh really, what happened to mental anguish?

Halweil talks about the little girl as though she were talking about a doll. She has no sense of the horror of the situation. She does not see a human body that has just been hit by a car. She has no feeling for the pain the accident caused the child’s parents.

She says that she was devastated, but there is no sign of it. She tried to purify her soul by taking yoga classes and talked about suffering with De Rosa, who also had no real feeling for the loss of a child either. Listening to Halweil express her anguish, assuming that there was some, De Rosa found her “amazingly beautiful and radiant.”

In their world nothing makes you radiant like running down a child. Do you think that the average individual would so easily have sloughed off normal feelings of having participated in an act that caused a child’s death.

Describing Halweil, De Rosa explains:

“She’s so light and fun,” Mr. De Rosa said. “No matter what’s happening, it’s fun. And if it’s not, it turns fun really quickly.”  

Considering that the couple connected over the death of a child, there is something jarring about this description.

As for De Rosa himself, the Times makes him into a faith healer:

Mr. De Rosa, who is so knowledgeable about food he can tell you what to eat to feel more grounded, to get over a broken heart or to sleep better.  

Of course, the two are perfect soul mates:

Once a skeptic about the notion of soul mates, Mr. De Rosa said, “It was like, ‘O.K., this idea of true unconditional love really does exist.’ ” So, he was asked, What is it? “It’s a combination of really loving being around each other; perfect sexual chemistry has a lot to do with it; and openness,” he said. “We’ve been so open about even the deepest secrets. That’s one of the keys to really strengthening a relationship because you’re breaking barriers and clearing blockages.”

Everybody who knows anything about human relationships knows that it’s a bad idea to share everything. Adolescents believe in it, and they have every right to believe in it. Adults should know better. Oversharing causes far more pain than pleasure.

The happy couple was recently married. He wore white; she wore a dress that she called “pigeon-blood red.”

Good to see that she has a sense of humor about blood.

The Free Market in Friendship

It rankles to think of friendship as a marketplace transaction. It rankles even more to see the giving and receiving of favors between friends in terms of banking.

As Elizabeth Bernstein sees it, when people do favors for their friends they are making deposits in their bank accounts. If it should happen that the giving friend needs a favor from the receiving friend he is making a withdrawal from his account. If the favor is not extravagant or unreasonable the friend is morally obligated to do as requested.

Bernstein recounts the story of Christina Steinorth, a woman who spent two decades being an exceptionally giving friend. She ran errands, babysat and gave countless hours of free professional advice to her friend. We will call the friend Nancy.

Being a giving person Steinorth did not expect very much in return. She would have been right to believe that those who give in the expectation of receiving favors in return have lesser character than those who give because they enjoy giving.

But then, one day, she and her husband were trying to adopt a child and she needed some letters of recommendation.

She asked Nancy. Naturally, Nancy was thrilled to have the chance to reciprocate the many favors Steinorth had done for her over the years. But then, Nancy did not write the letter. Steinorth asked again. Nancy said that she would do it. She didn’t. When Nancy finally did write the letter, the application was no longer valid.

The two women are no longer friends.

You will be thinking that Steinorth is an unusually poor judge of character. If it took her twenty years and a crisis to discover that Nancy was all take and no give, she does not understand friendship.

Grant that Steinorth was an exceptionally giving person. Grant that she must have been thinking that: “it is more blessed to give then to receive.” Still, when you give and give and give without expectation of any return on investment, you are within your rights to ask a favor of your friend. Besides, nothing would have prevented Nancy from offering to do a favor or two for Steinorth over those years.

Steinorth was so generous that she blinded herself to her friend’s character flaws. Obviously, she should not have been offering free professional advice on an ongoing basis. She should have noticed that her gestures of friendship were not being reciprocated and should have scaled back.

Extremes do not make the rule. They change the game.

If you give too much and pretend that you do not expect anything in return you are not exactly making a deposit in a bank; you are producing a situation where the other person is so totally in your debt that there is no favor they could possible refuse you.

How many men shower women with expensive gifts in order to put them in a position where they cannot refuse?

How many women refuse such gifts on the grounds that they do not want to be so indebted to the gift-giver?

It should not take twenty years to figure out that a friend is not really a friend. Bernstein explains some of the ways you can find out sooner, rather than later, and save yourself what turns out to have been an abusive relationship in which you were the enabler.

Bernstein writes:

When making a new friend, pay attention early on to the other person's communal orientation. Does he ask about you and actually pay attention to your answer? Is she willing to do something you suggest doing, or work around your schedule? Not everyone is capable of giving at the same level. But if you are aware of who you are dealing with, you will be less likely to have expectations that won't be met.

If you are sufficiently attentive, you can usually tell the difference between someone who always talks about himself and someone who engages in an exchange of information. You can also tell the difference between someone who hangs on your every word but says nothing of himself and someone who talks about himself after you talk about yourself.

You should also be aware of who offers and who does not. If you get to the point where you have to ask, you are putting your friend in an awkward position, because you are implying that he is not generous enough to think of offering something himself. A true friend offers before you need to ask.

One does not know how Steinorth asked Nancy for a letter of recommendation, but if such a situation arises it is always better to mention in passing that you need some letters of recommendations. A true friend will offer to write one immediately and will discharge the task within a very short period of time.

Someone you have to ask and to ask again is not a friend.

Friendship is a free market transaction. You need to learn how to conduct it as a mutual exchange, seeking harmony. You should always try to avoid descending into a drama over who owes what to whom.