Monday, August 31, 2015

Work or Leisure?

Of late psychologists have been surprised to discover that many of their best experiments cannot be replicated. Since scientific knowledge is based on the fact that the experiment that you perform in your lab will, if conducted correctly, produce the same result in my lab, the fact that experiments cannot be replicated suggests that they are something other than science.

For want of a better term, let’s call it ideology. For my part I do not have sufficient data to prove the case one way or another, but I do suspect that in our ideologically driven universities, researchers often skew experiments toward results that affirm bias. I suspect that they do not even know that they are doing it.

Even psychologists whose work seems unimpeachable often seem compelled to put it in the service of leftist ideology. This does not mean that the science is wrong; it means that we need to be more cautious about how we interpret results.

Consider the research performed by Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz about decision-making and choice. Schwartz has shown that when you have too many options, you are likely to make a bad choice. When you face a multitude of options you assume that you do not have to make a choice between two imperfect choices. You will imagine that if you wait long enough something perfect will come along.

Schwartz summarizes his argument:

When people have too much choice, they are paralyzed rather than liberated. They make poor decisions. And even when they overcome paralysis and manage to make good decisions, they are dissatisfied with them. The “paradox” of choice is that even though some choice is essential for human well being, too much choice can be its enemy. And the debilitating effects of too much choice are magnified when people follow another dictate from our cultural ideology and seek out only the “best.” People who look for the best are more paralyzed and less satisfied with decisions than people who look for “good enough”.

One thinks of the dating scene in a large cosmopolitan metropolis. The more singles there are, the more difficult it is to choose one. Young people get the impression that they can always do better and if they choose one person they will be settling.

One might add that Republican primary voters are facing a field where they have too many choices, and thus are more likely to choose poorly… at least until the field is winnowed down.

This does not mean that choice is bad or that it should not be freely exercised. If you have to choose between too many alternatives and too few, you would do better to have too many.

Be that as it may, Schwartz has recently offered some interesting reflections about work in the New York Times. While I think that we ought seriously to question the Gallop survey upon which Schwartz is basing his analysis, namely the one that suggests that 90% of workers the world over hate their jobs, it is still worthwhile to examine his response to an opinion of Adam Smith.

One possibility is that it’s just human nature to dislike work. This was the view of Adam Smith, the father of industrial capitalism, who felt that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. “It is the interest of every man,” he wrote in 1776 in “The Wealth of Nations,” “to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Work may be struggle. In fact, it seems always to be struggle. Of course, it is fair that work be compensated, but still that does not mean that people are just in it for the money.

Smith’s view, which is well worth examining, suggests that human beings are naturally lazy, addicted to sloth and would not work if they did not have to. Were one to follow Smith one would have to say that the truth of our existence is vacation, and that we would all jump at the chance to have more leisure time. John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that labor-saving devices would make it possible for people to work fewer hours and to enjoy their leisure more.

The fact is, work-saving devices have created new kinds of jobs. They have not caused people to work less.

These theories, as good as they sound, overlook the fact that when we work we participate in a social organization, employ our skills and energy toward a productive end, and involve ourselves in a myriad of relationships with other people, colleagues, employees, staff, bosses….

As opposed to sitting around the house or the golf course doing nothing but whiling away the time, working, for a social being, is an active way to affirm one’s moral being. Beyond the money, it has much to recommend it.

Schwartz continues to suggest that when management theorists began with the idea that people hate to work they designed methods that forced people to work by rote and deprived them of any discretion over how they did their jobs.

Schwartz explains:

About a century later, it helped shape the scientific management movement, which created systems of manufacture that minimized the need for skill and close attention — things that lazy, pay-driven workers could not be expected to have.

Today, in factories, offices and other workplaces, the details may be different but the overall situation is the same: Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to. The call center employee is monitored to ensure that he ends each call quickly. The office worker’s keystrokes are overseen to guarantee productivity.

Of course, it is always possible to cherry-pick facts to support an argument. The situation that Schwartz describes does exist, but it is not efficient and it certainly does not exist everywhere. Ideology suggests that capitalism makes workers into cogs in a machine. In fact, capitalism also self-corrects. If it merely exploited workers it would long since ceased to exist.

Given the profit motive and the incentive to have happier workers, most businesses have figured out that structuring work on the Smith assumption does not produce the best products and services. They adapt. They do not need professors, even great professors, to tell them how to run their businesses.

The situation that Schwartz describes must exist in some places, but I find it to be the exception to the rule. I have many clients who discuss the way their jobs are structured. Most of them work for employers who allow them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

And I, as you, have had occasion to call technical support centers for help with complex problems related to, for example, computers. I know that the calls are monitored, but I have never had the sense, in using Dell support, that the technician was trying to end the call quickly.

Schwartz continues:

To start with, I don’t think most people recognize themselves in Adam Smith’s description of wage-driven idlers. Of course, we care about our wages, and we wouldn’t work without them. But we care about more than money. We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and grow. We want to work with colleagues we respect and with supervisors who respect us. Most of all, we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.

We want these things so much that we may even be willing to take home a thinner pay envelope to get them. Lawyers leave white-shoe firms to work with the underclass and underserved. Doctors abandon cushy practices to work in clinics that serve poorer areas. Wall Street analysts move to Washington to work as economic advisers in government.

For some reason, when liberals think about meaningful work they think of charity, of serving the underprivileged, of being a community organizer. They do not imagine that building a factory in which underprivileged people can find remunerated work is better for their self-respect than being on a perpetual dole and being beholden to do-gooders who are so wealthy that they think they no longer have to work for pay.

Producing goods and providing services is meaningful work. It is certainly more meaningful to give a man a job than to offer him charity.

One hastens to add that many employers have discovered that their workers work best when they are given some measure of discretion over how they do their jobs. It’s basic to management theory, as I understand it, to know that good managers allow their employees to do their jobs; they do not tell their employees how to do their jobs.

True enough, there is more to it than wages. But, work becomes meaningful because it allows you to contribute to society, to have your days organized and structured, to provide for yourself and your family and to be part of a group or a team or a company.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Trump or Kasich?

The presumptive Democratic nominee for president has been stumbling lately. Even if Hillary Clinton gets the nomination it looks increasingly like she will be a weak, even a losing candidate.

Meantime, the Republican Party is not bothering with niceties like electability. It does not care whether a candidate might be able to do the job. It is expressing its anger, venting its spleen, rising up in a full-throated rebellion against the powers that be. Those who are not supporting Donald Trump have been flocking to Dr. Ben Carson, a fine man if ever there was one, but one who will never be nominated, never be elected and will never be able to do the job.

Some have been saying that we need to understand how angry the Republican voters are. But anger does not force you to dispense with your rational faculties. After all, the Democrats should be boiling with rage at what Barack Obama’s reign has done to their party. To some extent they are expressing it through Bernie Sanders. And yet, Sanders is not trying to destroy the party establishment. And more savvy Democrats are hard at work doing what has to be done to find a new winning candidate.

You might have thought that the radical left held a monopoly on revolutionary rebelliousness. You would have thought wrong.

This morning the two best New York Times columnists weigh in on the current state of the Republican slugfest. On the right Ross Douthat; on the left Frank Bruni. Both are relatively young but you will agree with me that they are a vast improvement over Tom Friedman.

Douthat looks at the current state of the Republican Party and asks whether it will know how to deal with the Trump challenge. He answers: probably not. For his part Bruni asks which of the Republican candidates is most electable, most competent and most capable of doing the job. He comes up with Ohio governor John Kasich. For my part, and for what it’s worth, I agree with both of them.

Douthat begins by saying that Trump is running as a traitor to his class:

Trump’s appeal is oddly like that of Franklin Roosevelt, in the sense that he’s a rich, well-connected figure — a rich New Yorker, at that — who’s campaigning as a traitor to his class.

Surely, the Republican electorate is reading this as a good sign, a positive sign, a sign that Trump can be trusted.

Douthat adds that Trump is really running a third-party campaign, not a right wing or conservative insurgency. He does not believe that this is good news. He suggests that the two party system, for all its flaws, tends to work better than multi-party systems:

So long as there are only two competitive parties, the political diversity of the country will be channeled through their sluice gates, and the (mostly upper-class, highly-educated, self-consciously globalist) people who run the parties will exercise disproportionate control over which ideas find representation.

He continues:

Elites can have wisdom that populists lack, certain ideas deserve suppression, and multiparty systems are more likely to hand power to extremists or buffoons. (It’s a good thing for the country that neither Henry Wallace’s effectively pro-Soviet leftism nor George Wallace’s segregationist populism outlived their respective third-party bids.)

In a functioning two-party system, the political parties integrate the ideas of outsider or radical elements. Unless they are adopted by a political party these ideas will never become workable.

But, Douthat adds, the system has not been functioning very well of late:

And when the two-party system is functioning at its best, party leaders can integrate compelling third-party ideas, or even reorient a party entirely to react to a public discontented with its options.

But it has been more than four decades since the last such reorientation, and two decades since the last time a third-party candidate saw his ideas even co-opted by the major parties. Across the latter twenty years, the country has endured a series of disasters that had bipartisan fingerprints all over them. Yet the various movements that have arisen in reaction to those failures — the antiwar left, the Tea Party right, Occupy Wall Street – have yet to even unseat an incumbent president, let alone change the basic lines along which the two parties debate.

Enter Donald Trump. To Douthat, Trump is anything but a conservative force. His policies are all over the lot.

In Douthat’s words:

He can wax right wing on immigration one moment and promise to tax hedge fund managers the next. He’ll attack political correctness and then pledge to protect entitlements. He can sound like Pat Buchanan on trade and Bernie Sanders on health care. He regularly attacks the entire Iraq misadventure, in its Bush-era and Obama-era manifestations alike, in a way that neither mainstream Republicans nor Hillary Clinton can plausibly manage.

By now he is looking as though he can win. Douthat suggests that he will not, but that the real question is how the Republican Party will or will not adapt to him. He is not optimistic:

He won’t [win], of course, but it matters a great deal how he loses. In a healthy two-party system, the G.O.P. would treat Trump’s strange success as evidence that the party’s basic orientation may need to change substantially, so that it looks less like a tool of moneyed interests and more like a vehicle for middle American discontent.

In an unhealthy system, the kind I suspect we inhabit, the Republicans will find a way to crush Trump without adapting to his message. In which case the pressure the Donald has tapped will continue to build — and when it bursts, the G.O.P. as we know it may go with it.

Let’s say that the GOP ought to adopt important aspects of the Trump message. Douthat may well be correct to say that it will not be able to do so, and will be destroyed in the process. Allow me to offer a brief footnote: the more Trump trashes the GOP establishment and its elites, the more he treats them like idiots and fools and incompetent bunglers… the less likely it will be that they will be able to integrate Trumpism. It would require them to bow down to a new master. Don’t hold your breath. The problem the GOP is facing is this: it's not about Trump's message; it's about Trump the man. Integrating the first is far easier than integrating the second.

I would add that Trump has been trampling Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. This matters because those who Trump has been treating with contempt have supporters and those supporters might just decide, if he is the nominee, to withhold their votes.

And besides, if Trump is elected, how do you expect that he will be able to govern a mass of people who he has insulted, diminished and defamed. When he calls them into his office and says: Hey, stupid, do you think they will be filled with a spirit of cooperation? Do you think that they will all roll over and do as he tells them? I suspect that it will look more like herding cats.

While Trump’s heresies are considered to be of little consequence, many conservatives are unhappy with John Kasich because he seems to be insufficiently conservative. Allow me a comment here. Anyone who has actually governed has had to make deals. Someone who has never exercised executive authority in the political world has the luxury of seeming to have attained an uncompromising level of ideological purity. If he has never conducted policy he can dismiss his prior opinions as just that, opinions.

Bruni makes the case of Kasich. Primarily, that he will do better in an election against Hillary or another Democrat than any of the other Republicans. Secondarily, that he is the best qualified to do the job. By implication, Bruni is suggesting that neither Jeb Bush not Scott Walker is likely to emerge victorious from the primary process. Today, that seems clear.

Bruni will probably not vote for Kasich. He undoubtedly finds Kasich more congenial than say a Ted Cruz, but his points bear examination:

He may never make it out of the primaries. The odds are against him. And he has flaws, serious ones, which I’ll get to.

But that doesn’t change the fact — obscured for now by the bedlam of the Republican contest — that the party has someone who’s comporting himself with unexpected nimbleness, who would match up very well against Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic nominee and who could give Republicans hope, if they just gave him a chance.

And also,

He’s now in his second term as the governor of Ohio, and that’s not just any state. Along with Florida, it’s one of the two fiercest battlegrounds in a presidential election, a necessary part of the electoral calculus for Republicans.

He won re-election there last year with 64 percent of the vote. That largely reflected the weakness of his Democratic opponent, but Kasich’s current approval rating in Ohio of 61 percent affirms his ability to please a constituency beyond Republican partisans. His popularity with the voters who know him best came through in a recent poll showing him well ahead of Donald Trump among Ohio Republicans. Meanwhile, Florida Republicans put Jeb Bush, their onetime governor, behind Trump.

As for New Hampshire, where voters have had the best chance to see Kasich in action recently, he looks like someone who can win:

In a poll released early last week, he rose to second place among Republicans in the state, behind Trump. That same survey of New Hampshire voters showed something else interesting: In hypothetical general-election matchups, Clinton beat Trump by two points and Bush by seven. But Kasich beat her by two.

As for his conservative principles, he has a mixed record:

By cutting taxes and controlling spending in Ohio, he proved his conservative bona fides, at least on fiscal issues, something being stressed in a clever new commercial — note the female and black faces, along with the use of the moon landing to capture a yearning for American greatness — that’s being shown in New Hampshire.

But there’s plenty else that pegs him as independent-minded and might make him acceptable, even appealing, to swing voters, whom he seems as well positioned to capture as any of the other Republican candidates are.

He has expressed openness to some kind of path to citizenship for immigrants who came here illegally. He has shown little appetite for the culture wars that other Republicans gleefully fight (although, it must be noted, he formally opposes gay marriage and abortion rights).

Most strikingly, he broke with Republican orthodoxy and with most other Republican governors and accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, a decision he defended in a way that illuminated his skills as a tactician and a communicator. He said that what he’d done made practical and cost-effective sense for Ohio, and that his course was consistent with true Christian principles, which call for helping the downtrodden.

Bruni suggests that a ticket of Kasich and Rubio can be formidable. I suspect that it will do better than Trump and whomever against Hillary and whomever, but also will have the best chance of winning against a Biden and Warren ticket.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Heidegger: The Question of Being a Nazi

It is difficult to underestimate the influence of German philosopher Martin Heidegger on American universities. His ideas may be unintelligible to all but the most seasoned acolyte, but his influence is ubiquitous. Martin Woessner explains it in a the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Once you start looking for them, Heideggerians are everywhere. But identifying what they had in common with each other wasn’t easy. It was hard to tell who even counted as a Heideggerian, anyway, especially in the United States — a nation for which Heidegger himself had little positive to say throughout his life (among other things, we had too much technology and too little history, he thought). 

And also:

Existentialists claimed him as one of their own, despite his protests, but deconstructionists did the same, and by then he was no longer around to protest. Pragmatists sometimes made their peace with him, and occasionally poets and novelists played around with his wordplay-filled writings. I found that those last ones generally had the most fun, partly because they didn’t take it all so terribly seriously. Critical Theory, Hermeneutics, and Phenomenology — theoretical paradigms predicated on seriousness — each genuflected in Heidegger’s direction at one point or another, sometimes skeptically, sometimes not. There was hardly a corner of the American academy that hadn’t been infiltrated by some kind of at least latent Heideggerianism —except, of course, actual philosophy departments, where Heidegger often remained simply too foreign and too suspicious. One had better luck finding him in anthropology, literature, or theology.

For nearly thirty years now, the academics who gloried in Heideggerian thought have had to face the fact that their great hero, their great guru had been a Nazi. Living in Germany during the Third Reich the great philosopher joined the Nazi party and militated on its behalf. Once the war was over and it was impossible to deny what Hitler had wrought, Heidegger remained obdurate in refusing to accept responsibility for his Nazism. He never recanted.

No one should be surprised that an America academy where professors are teaching their students to think like Nazis—without, of course, knowing what they are doing—should end up producing young Brown Shirts who enforce political correctness by shouting down the opposition and by shaming anyone who disagrees with them. Their professors mark down any student who dares propose a politically incorrect idea.

As you know, Heidegger himself was a great fan of Ernst Rohm’s Brown Shirted Storm Troopers and was deeply offended when Hitler liquidated them in the Night of the Long Knives. He loved the street theatre put on by the Brown Shirts and disapproved the work of Himmler’s SS because it was too organized and too industrialized. Heidegger objected to the Holocaust for being insufficiently dramatic, for not being a sufficiently entertaining spectacle.

While Heidegger himself believed that the only true philosophical question was the question of being—God knows what that is— his followers have been tormented by the question of his having been a Nazi.

Of course, we knew it all along. By now, for seven decades. After World War II, Heidegger was banned from teaching philosophy. Occupying, forces wanted to protect gullible students from his Siren Song. After a few years, French philosophers convinced the authorities that his philosophy was so important and that he himself such a great genius that he had to be allowed to teach.

This instituted a split, something like a Cartesian mind/body problem. Heidegger’s thought was so important that we needed to overlook his actions, especially his political actions. Even if his philosophy was teaching students to perform pogroms, it was immaterial. The man was a genius. So what if he had made a few mistakes in his life.

It is no small irony that, at a time of political correctness, when student Brown Shirts will shout you down for using the wrong pronoun, their professors will be spending their time trying to exculpate Heidegger from being a real Nazi.

After the ban on Heidegger’s teaching was lifted, the question of his Nazism was put to sleep for nearly four decades. Then a Venezuelan scholar named Victor Farias published a 1987 book called: Heidegger and Nazism.

It was a damning indictment. So damning, in fact, that many proud practitioners of deconstruction instantly recognized that they had been teaching their students how to think like Nazis. They decamped for the less corrupt waters of neo-colonial studies.

Many others dug in their heels and became staunch defenders of the faith. They were willing to recognize that Heidegger himself had certain Nazi leanings and that he had attempted to put them into action when he was appointed Rector of the University of Freiberg, but they insisted that his philosophy was pure, that it had nothing to do with the Third Reich.

Now for the past couple of years we have seen the beginning of the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, a multivolume set of the musings of the great genius. We see that they contain a number of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi ramblings. To which Woessner sagely points out: if Heidegger did not believe these things and if he did not think that they illuminated his philosophy, why did he leave them to be published?

In Woessner’s words:

By the time of his death in 1976, Heidegger surely knew that the notebooks in which he scribbled his philosophical and political reflections were riddled with dubious, even incriminating remarks. So why, then, did he decide not just to include them in the edition of his collected works that would ensure his fame, but also, and more importantly, to dictate that they appear as the culminating volumes of the decades-long project? What could he have been thinking?

Heidegger may have thought that Hitler betrayed what he (Heidegger) once called the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism, but surely he held fast to the ideal and wanted his work to contribute to its advent.

Since Heidegger had launched a massive pogrom against elements that had contaminated Western philosophy and Western civilization, and since he believed that it had all begun with Socrates, it is hardly surprising that his call for a cultural pogrom against certain elements in the culture should have been directed against attitudes associated with Judaism, among other religions and philosophies.

One notes that a man like Alfred Rosenberg, a member of the Nazi high command, someone who was tried and convicted and executed for war crimes at Nuremberg, blamed Socrates for introducing the contaminant that had ruined  Western thought… because, he explained, Socrates had been influenced by Judaic thinking.

Among the aspects that hold the most seductive appeal for graduate students is the Heideggerian notion that you should not hold the genius accountable for the positions he took, the ideas he entertained and the political actions he engaged. (I have discussed this in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.)

As I argued in my book, Heidegger railed against technology and the Industrial Revolution, products of the corrupt Anglo-Saxon culture. He hated capitalism for the same reason and strongly opposed Zionist Communism. He largely preferred drama to ethics. 

How are we to understand it all? In a new book Peter Trawny, the man who edited some of the Black Notebooks, argued that Heidegger’s errors belonged to a grand historical drama in which failure is a condition for success, and where you never have to say you are sorry:

Woessner writes:

How tolerant you are of this kind of thinking will determine how persuasive you find Trawny’s defense of Heidegger’s errancy, which entails accepting at least three interrelated things: first, that Heidegger’s errancy was a necessary component of his thinking; second, that his thinking was destined by the history of being going back to Ancient Greece; and third, that this tragic narrative exists not just beyond good and evil, but also beyond guilt and responsibility, in an “abyss of freedom.” In other words, true thinking means never having to say you’re sorry (see critics’ responses to Gregory Fried’s “The King Is Dead”).

At times, Trawny’s meditation on Heidegger’s errancy reads almost like a kind of secularized theodicy. He dwells as much on the inescapability of evil as he does on the inevitability of failure. “For Heidegger,” Trawny writes, “evil belongs to thinking. Insofar as it elucidates being, it elucidates evil. For even evil belongs to the world-narrative.” But does this mean that, insofar as I recognize the role I play in the “onto-tragic” narrative of western history, I do not have to take responsibility for my actions? Is it all being’s fault?

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Ends of Psychoanalysis

Call it an occupational hazard, but psychoanalysts are mired in the question of the lives we haven’t lived. Eminent analyst Adam Phillips has addressed it in his book: Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.

If psychoanalysis is nothing more than “overpriced storytelling” as I have said in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, then it must help you to craft fictions of the lives you haven’t lived, the lovers you lost, the chances you missed, the riches you did not accumulate.

It’s not about what was, but about what might have been. Of course, it must also concern what might not have been. By that I mean that it’s one thing to say that you missed out on joining the army because you preferred to have your student deferments. It’s quite another to say that you missed out on being born at the time of King Arthur's court.

Keep in mind, Phillips is the best writer and probably the best thinker in the dying field of psychoanalysis. Obviously, he does not have very much competition, but still, he writes clearly and well. He has made a career of offering philosophical meditations that rationalize psychoanalysis— that excuse it while making it seem rational.

While others labor under the illusion that modern neuroscience will rescue a moribund practice, Phillips offers the best defense that today’s psychoanalysis can offer. In the end the defense is flawed. More than anything, it shows us why psychoanalysis has failed. Still and all, it is far more cogent than what passes for theoretical work in today’s psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis directs its focus toward the past, toward your past history and your forgotten fantasies. And yet, as Freud himself stated clearly at the onset of his brainchild, it cares far less about what happened than about what you wanted to have happen. It’s not about the past that you can study as history but about the past you never lived, about what did not happen. 

Unfortunately, Phillips unintentionally makes clear, once you get caught in the quicksand of the past—whether it is the one you lived or the one you did not live--  you can no longer plan for the future. If you get trapped in the unlived past you have no reference to any objective reality and thus will inexorably get stuck into a fantasy world.

If psychoanalysis teaches you to introspect, to regret the lost past or to desire the past that never was, Phillips is attempting to rationalize the process—to make it seem rational and to excuse it, at the same time.

In the end, he claims that it’s about knowing who you are:

Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.

Of course, Phillips wants us to be more philosophical about the process, as he is. He wants us to vacillate between our lived lives and our unlived lives... taking time off from our nostalgia to offer a few gestures in reality. But, if we are really that obsessed and that nostalgic for our unlived past lives, we might very well wallow in a semi-permanent depression (or mourning), mixed with “an endless tantrum.”

But, what does it mean to engage in an endless tantrum? Since tantrums have a beginning and an end—even if the end is exhaustion--the phrase has no meaning. And, how is it possible to be in mourning at the same time that we are having an endless tantrum? Is there anything quite so unattractive as a temperamental child wallowing in self-pity for his unlived lives while striking out in rage because he cannot live them all.

Some therapists want you to get in touch with your inner child? Phillips, a far more sophisticated thinker, is saying that you can stay in touch with your infantile self by throwing an endless tantrum. How well do you believe that that will help you to live your life as an adult?

If this is really the way you spend your time, then clearly you are not going to do very well in a future that you seem incapable of confronting. If you mind is as preoccupied as Phillips wants it to be with your unlived life, you will have very little capacity to plan for the future, to use your imagination to consider alternate outcomes to your actions.

Nonetheless, Phillips does offer a philosophical meditation about what amounts to a dissatisfaction with psychoanalysis. Of course, he does not call it that, but the conclusion is inescapable.

It is easy enough to criticize cognitive therapies for being unwilling to probe the root causes of your problems and to criticize coaching for directing its attention toward the future, but if the alternative is to leave you chronically depressed while throwing endless tantrums, psychoanalysis does not have very much to recommend it.

For his part Phillips offers a path to redemption by waxing poetic about the process:

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we learn, at best, to ironize our wishes — that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true — and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.

When you have suffered through the experience of psychoanalysis, when you have failed to escape its clutches, when you exit analysis being a true believing Freudian, you will have to find  some use for the skill you have acquired about regretting lost opportunities.

To add a little much-needed perspective—because Phillips is a semi-hypnotic writer—I would emphasize that each time you make a choice—to go to this or that college; to live here or there; to marry or to break up with him or her—you are discarding possible lives.

It’s a normal part of everyday mental processing. Leave it to psychoanalysis to disembarrass you of normal mental process in favor of a useless activity that risks leaving you manic and depressed.

If you are a normal individual you might recall the ones that got away but you will not belabor the point, because belaboring it will prevent you from engaging in your current life and will become an obstacle to seeing the future, from making plans and taking actions. Many psychoanalysts do not quite understand it, but you cannot look forward and backward at the same time.

The more you worry about what you are missing, the less you will be able to enjoy what you have.

Since psychoanalysis, as I have been wont to explain, is first and foremost about desire, it must emphasize about what you do not have. It could be something that you have lost but it could also be something you never had.

By definition you cannot desire what you have, so focusing on what you do not have and cannot ever have is a way to manufacture desire, artificially. It’s a gamble on the possibility that a mental process, even an act of will, can sustain your desire, permanently.

On the other hand, such a desire is really an artifice, borne of desperation and rage. I mentioned this in my book because I find it to be fascinating: psychoanalysis cannot distinguish between desperation and desire. The fact that you are desperate to have her (or him) does not mean that you desire her (or him.)  Even though, in both cases you do not have her (or him.)

Human experience, at the most elementary level tells you that if you are engaged in an amorous pursuit of her (or him) and if you appear to be desperate to have her (or him), you will cause her (or him) to reject your advances.

Phillips continues:

We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.

As I said, “overpriced storytelling.” Good psychoanalyst that he is, Phillips cares about producing a narrative explanation for his life, one that will sustain a form of desperation that he can take for desire. Yet, the most important part of this text is the phrase: “for some reason.”

This should not be a mystery. When we choose to turn right we are necessarily precluding the future that would unfold had we turned left or driven straight or turned around. What Phillips fails to notice, and I consider it a major symptom of psychoanalysis, is the fact that we make many of our life choices freely and that, whatever influences and temptations we suffered, we are responsible for them. What is missing in Freudian theory is the notion of free will.

Without recognizing that people have free will, psychoanalysts like Phillips can forge ahead and concoct a narrative that seems to explain their lives. But this assumes that there is only one possible narrative. We ought to know that there are many, not one, and that they are all unsatisfactory. They assume that our lives follow predetermined scripts, thus, that our decisions and choices-- our ability to take responsibility or to evade it-- do not determine the course of our lives.

Phillips seems to be especially drawn to the idea that we are all nothing special.

In his words:

This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special? Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life — the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life — the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it. For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.

One sees herein the Freudian mania about diminishing and demeaning human beings, depriving them of their self-respect, their dignity and their propriety. And, as a good Freudian Phillips has no real take on life in society, life in a group, life with more than one other person.

For a Freudian, perhaps, there is nothing more to life than seeking pleasures, but one understands that if that is your choice you will be missing out on a great deal of what matters, to yourself and to others. You are not going to be able to fulfill your duties and obligations to others if you are focused on seeking pleasure. 

Were you to wonder about the relationship between your lived life and the lives you might have lived, Phillips offers this analysis:

There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partner’s unlived lives; their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.

One admires the cleverness. For those who are barely present in their lives or their relationships, who are trapped in nostalgia, Phillips provides them with an easy excuse.

And yet, there is also the life that might be, depending on the plans we have, and how we implement them. The Freudian obsession with the past effectively deprives people of the tools necessary for building a brighter future.

Just in case you were wondering why psychoanalysis can’t work as a clinical practice.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Who Is Howard Roark?

American politics has entered the twilight zone. As the Donald becomes a serious candidate for president, conservative commentators are aghast and appalled. If you want to read some really nasty anti-Trump rhetoric you need but glance at the National Review.

Being as I live in New York, I have more than a few friends and acquaintances of the liberal persuasion. To a man (and a woman) they are thrilled by Donald Trump. They have no reason to attack him or to try to destroy him. They are happy to watch the spectacle of Trump destroying the Republican Party.

You might say that liberals and conservatives are both wrong, because Donald Trump transcends normal politics. But, if they are both right and if you think that the best hope for the American Republic is a conservative president, you might very well live to regret your enthusiasm.

Many people think that American politics is such a mess that we need a bulldozer to raze it all and start anew. To which Charles Cooke, in National Review wrote this:

Does the Republican party have problems? Certainly. Are there any circumstances in which Donald Trump could be considered the best antidote to them? Not on your life. To suggest that Trump is the best remedy for what ails the GOP is as if to suggest that an axe to the chest is the best remedy for what ails a man with bronchitis.

I am sure you hate it, but Cooke does have a point. If you take it as a given that the system is broken, how can someone who never worked in the system know how to make it work? If the state of Iowa or Wisconsin or Texas has budgetary problems should it ask a real estate developer from New York to fix them? Even one whose political speeches are mostly paeans to his own greatness.

As for those Republicans who imagine that Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina could do the job of POTUS, I have no idea what they are thinking, or even if they are thinking.

I do not agree with Cooke that Trump is a new Narcissus. The original Narcissus fell in love with his image while gazing at it in a limpid pool. Donald Trump more closely resembles Howard Roark, hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Howard Roark was tough and uncompromising. He designed phallic buildings. I do not know whether he had a blond mane, but, as a leonine character, he even had a roar in his name.

Others have suggested that Trump is a quintessential bully and therefore that he is helping Republicans by showing that they do not know how to respond to a bully, the point is well taken.

After watching Mitt Romney wimp out in the last election, Republicans are understandably thrilled by the prospect of having a candidate who, whatever his many flaws, will never back down… even when he is in the wrong.

On the other hand, Trump’s habit of bullying journalists—especially female journalists-- is not, in the long run, going to endear him with too many voters. Beating up on Megyn Kelly does not make him look strong; it makes him look weak and whiny.

Many Republican voters like Trump’s raw will-to-power. They love the authenticity. And yet, when his critics examine what exactly he has been saying, the results are none too encouraging. Trump tends to speak out of both sides of mouth, to contradict himself and to look like he does not know what he is talking about.

Yesterday, while he was suggesting that the Republican Congress refuse to raise the debt ceiling Trump went off on a riff about the trade deficit with China. Now, the national debt and the budget deficit are not the same thing. And neither of them are the same as the trade deficit. Trump sounded like he was free associating, as though he had not thought the issue through.

And then there is Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians. This one is far harder to understand. In principle, people who draw their moral values from religion want a president who presents himself as a beacon of moral probity, someone whose example, when emulated, will naturally produce a more virtuous populace.

Jesus did not teach the will-to-power. The philosopher who did, Nietzsche, was not a devout Christian.

After all, the president is a role model. He is the ultimate role model. His behavior sets the moral tone of the nation. Religious people were appalled by the example set by one Bill Clinton; they ought also to have been appalled by John F. Kennedy.

Yesterday, Frank Bruni—yes, I understand that you don’t care what he thinks, but he is, as a New York Times columnist, very influential—asked this question of Trump’s Christian supporters. After all, they could support a pastor like Mike Huckabee or a pastor’s son like Ted Cruz. So, why are so many evangelical Christians drawn to the morally imperfect Donald Trump?

Bruni offers this observation:

If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?

Seems to work for Donald Trump.

But that’s not all. Bruni continues:

What’s different and fascinating about the Trump worship is that he doesn’t even try that hard for a righteous facade — for Potemkin piety. Sure, he speaks of enthusiastic churchgoing, and he’s careful to curse Planned Parenthood and to insist that matrimony be reserved for heterosexuals as demonstrably inept at it as he is.

But beyond that? He just about runs the table on the seven deadly sins. He personifies greed, embodies pride, radiates lust. Wrath is covered by his anti-immigrant, anti-“losers” rants, and if we interpret gluttony to include big buildings and not just Big Macs, he’s a glutton through and through. That leaves envy and sloth. I’m betting that he harbors plenty of the former, though I’ll concede that he exhibits none of the latter.

When voting for president, one votes for a human being, not a personality type. One does not vote for the man who most closely corresponds to the right Randian (or even Randy) fictional character.

Several months ago, prior to the Trump ascendence, I suggested on this blog that it was not so good for the Republicans to have so many vanity candidates. Other wiser commentators disagreed, saying that it was good to be able to show off so many great, qualified candidates.

My point, if I may repeat myself, was that a party with many vanity candidates starts looking like a vanity party, a party that exists to stoke the ego of whoever comes along. And a vanity party does not look like it is taking the office of the presidency seriously.

Moreover, a multiplicity of candidates fragments the unTrump vote and makes it impossible for a single candidate to lead the counter forces.

Little did I know that the vanity party would find its supreme leader in the ultimate vanity candidate, a candidate who excels in vanity and who offers little more than vanity.

Virtue Is Alive and Well in America

Take a deep breath… get ready for the good news: Virtue is alive and well in America.

Remember the Ashley Madison hack? The site’s users were exposed just last week. But then, we discovered a gross disparity between the number of men and women on the site. Apparently, women are far, far less apt to cheat than are men.

It's one point against the feminists who believe that women like sex just as much as men and that women should be having sex just like men.

Now, Gizmodo has crunched the numbers and has discovered that Ashley Madison was more a fantasy factory than a hookup site. It was promising something that it could not provide: affairs. It turns out that the number of women on the site was far, far less than the numbers advertised. The vast majority of profiles of female affair seekers were fake.

Gizmodo summarizes its research:

When hacker group Impact Team released the Ashley Madison data, they asserted that “thousands” of the women’s profiles were fake. Later, this number got blown up in news stories that asserted “90-95%” of them were fake, though nobody put forth any evidence for such an enormous number. So I downloaded the data and analyzed it to find out how many actual women were using Ashley Madison, and who they were.

What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots.

Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared. Were they cobbled together by bots and bored admins, or just user debris? Whatever the answer, the more I examined those 5.5 million female profiles, the more obvious it became that none of them had ever talked to men on the site, or even used the site at all after creating a profile. Actually, scratch that. As I’ll explain below, there’s a good chance that about 12,000 of the profiles out of millions belonged to actual, real women who were active users of Ashley Madison.

When you look at the evidence, it’s hard to deny that the overwhelming majority of men using Ashley Madison weren’t having affairs. They were paying for a fantasy.

By now you will be slightly suspicious. If, by any chance, your name had shown up on the list of Ashley Madison aficionados, what better defense could you have than this one: you weren’t really having an affair because the women weren't real; you were indulging a fantasy? Nothing could have happened because so few of the profiles of women seeking affairs had been posted by actual women?


Exception made for one special user named … Duggar.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Is Gender Bias Really Real?

Thanks to Forbes and to Kathy Caprino, we now know that gender bias is real. Just as feminists have been saying, we are all sexists. Which means that we need to do penance in order to atone for our sins.

But, what does this really mean? At best, it means that people perceive men and women differently. But, if everyone thought that men and women were exactly the same, wouldn’t that count as a delusional belief. After all, the science is settled, men and women really are different… in significant and not-so-significant ways.

Even feminists insist that an off-color remark made by a man to a woman is not at all the same as an off-color remark made by a man to another man.

The studies in question attempt to prove that gender bias is real by showing that when men and women both assert themselves in a work situation, they are perceived differently. Surely, it is true that men and women are often perceived differently. But, why do we need to call it bias. Perhaps people are responding to differences in tone of voice, appearance, posture and attitude. It is commonly known, even to feminists, that female voice has a higher pitch than the male voice, thus that the male voice, for reasons that we ought not to attribute to the vast right-wing conspiracy, commands more authority and respect.

If you are studying leadership and management ability, you cannot do studies in which no one knows the speaker’s gender.

Of course, you can run experiments where you reduce the importance of perceived gender. In a famous experiment, judges were asked to appraise male and female musicians when they did not know whether the musicians were men or women. The result: they had a higher opinion of women performers when they did not know that the performers were women.

In that case, it seems that gender bias did exist. If a musician's place in an orchestra is merely a function of how well he or she plays, this would be relevant.

One might even note that judgment is based on experience and that judges may have heard, over time, more better male musicians than females. Perhaps there are other reasons. Perhaps women are not as reliable when it comes to showing up for rehearsals and performances. Then again, perhaps orchestra leaders are bigots. Whatever the case, the results cannot apply to situations where women and competing against men for leadership positions.

Kathy Caprino explains:

A new study by New York Times bestselling authors,Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield revealed that gender bias in the workplace is real, finding that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% and their perceived worth falls by $15,088 when they are judged as being “forceful” or “assertive.” Compare this with the drops in competency and worth that men experience when being judged as forceful: their competency drops by 22% and their worth falls by $6,547. This significant difference reveals a true gender bias that prohibits women from succeeding fully in leadership and management roles where assertiveness is, of course, a crucial behavior.

Perhaps I am not reading this correctly, but the study seems to show that being forceful and assertive is generally considered to be a negative, in both men and women. Along with the research comparing introverts and extroverts, as reported here yesterday, this tells us again that people who are more extroverted are considered to be less competent leaders.

Of course, the study seems to have been designed to support Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for women to Lean In. But, it says that when women do so, they are punished more harshly than men who do the same thing.

For all I know, the experiment might be telling us that leaning in is a bad idea and that it is worse for women than for men. To which Caprino and Co. would respond that a good leader must be forceful and assertive. But, as Elizabeth Bernstein noted in her column about introverts, the best leaders are anything but forceful and assertive. Leadership is not an exercise in imposing your will on others.

We must also consider the fact that all of this self-assertion is really macho posturing. Real strength of character, to say nothing of real manliness, is not shown by blustering braggadocio. One must add that, like it or not, men are more naturally suited to macho posturing than are women.

In other words, a man who is acting macho is exaggerating a quality that he probably possesses.. A woman who is acting macho is pretending to be something she is not. A macho man might just turn out to be manly. A woman pretending to be a macho man is not going to turn out to be manly.

When a woman is induced to pretend to be a man, she takes the risk that she will not be perceived as knowing who she is. Moreover, she might even be mistaken for a feminist, thus for someone whose loyalty to her ideology is stronger than her loyalty to her company.

Obviously, the world has known many great women leaders and managers. In some situations they succeed by surrounding themselves with males… thus mitigating the notion that their leadership is coming from a more feminine place.

Margaret Thatcher was firm and decisive, even forceful. And yet, she surrounded herself with men, and went out of her way to show her strength and courage. By being the only woman in the room, Thatcher was able to assert her authority while allowing everyone to think that it had a manly quality.

On the other hand when Hillary Clinton tries to be decisive and forceful it comes across as posturing. But, Hillary has taken a tack that many other women leaders avoid: she surrounds herself with women.  And, we must add, she has notably lacked professional achievements and accomplishments. If we were to judge her on her ability to run a presidential campaign, even with the assistance of Bill Clinton, she seems clearly not to be up to the job.

Still, rather than declaim against gender bias, culture warriors who are really interested in women’s professional advancement would do better to advise women to show that they like being women and to help them to find ways to manage the perception of their relative weakness.

In truth, women are constitutionally weaker than men. In many jobs it does not really matter, but if one is conscious of the fact—who isn’t?—one cannot just turn off the consciousness because it is politically incorrect. Some women leaders have found ways to deal with the situation. They have not done so by denying that they are women. And they have not done so by laying a feminist guilt trip on the world.