Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hillary the Inauthentic

In 2008 Barack Obama said that Hillary Clinton was “likable enough.” Apparently, yet again, Obama was wrong. It seems that Hillary is not even close to being likable enough.

It’s beginning to disturb the liberal media, people who would be expected to support her candidacy. They seem to think that she is looking more and more like a loser.

Winners do not sit down to do a jokey video with uber-exhibitionist Lena Dunham.

Frank Bruni reports on the cringe-inducing encounter:

She had a law career, an ambitious agenda as first lady, an industrious stint in the Senate, those years and miles as secretary of state.

And it has come to this: In a bid to seem less stuffy and turn the page on a beleaguered (yet again) presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton is chatting with Lena Dunham about the singer Lenny Kravitz’s penis.

In his opening sentence, Bruni strains to recount Hillary’s achievements. But, that is the real problem. She is really running on her husband’s name and achievements. And she is running as a feminist, despite her long history of enabling her husband to abuse women sexually. How much credibility could she to inveigh against rape culture and unwanted sexual touching.

Bruni says that the Dunham/Clinton love-in is a pajama party sans pajamas. I find the innuendo amusing, but will leave that one to your imagination:

But it’s in large part a Dunham-Clinton love-in, a pajama party minus the pajamas, ostensibly in keeping with the Clinton campaign’s recent pledge to roll out a warmer, funnier version of the candidate. I’ve lost count of which version we’re on.

In the promotional video, Clinton kids that because Dunham’s newsletter and the website associated with it are called Lenny, she half expected that the person coming to question her might be Kravitz.

Dunham then mentions some viral footage of a Kravitz wardrobe malfunction: “His stuff fell out of his pants.”

Clinton feigns fascination. “I’ll look for that,” she says.

We are happy to see Bill Clinton’s wife bond with Dunham over their interest in gazing longingly on a man’s penis. One understands that this fascination does not characterize heterosexual women.

Bruni is exasperated by the incompetence of the Clinton campaign. Keep in mind that he is likely to want to support the Democratic candidate in the pages of the New York Times:

But her campaign so far is an unimpressive dress rehearsal for the general election. It’s devoid of soul and sweep, a series of labored gestures and precisely staked positions. Constituency by constituency, leftward adjustment by leftward adjustment, she and her aides slog and muscle their way forward.

And they contradict the adage that a politician campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. Clinton campaigns in something more like a PowerPoint presentation. Prose would be an upgrade. Poetry is light years away.

Nearly everyone who has met Hillary Clinton says that she is charming and personable in private. In public, she’s a dud.

My only explanation is the easiest one: she is not running on her substantial achievements; she is not running on her policy proposals; she is not running on her accomplishments. She is running as an empty pantsuit, or, on her husband’s record.

Her supporters and advisers recommend that she become more real and more authentic, warmer and more effusive. The problem is, as a candidate she is unreal. She cannot present herself as she really is because she did not earn any of the positions she held.

Recall what Bruni lists as her achievements. A high-profile law career while her husband was governor. An ambitious agenda as first lady—that is, an incompetent effort to reform health care. Industriousness in the Senate… which suggests that she worked hard but did not accomplish much. And, a lot of frequent flier miles when secretary of state.

Like Obama, she must know in the depths of her soul that she is an impostor. Unlike Obama she cannot give a decent speech and is not a very good liar.

In many if not most ways, Hillary is an impostor. And she is not good enough to hide it.

She Couldn't Stop Thinking About SEX

Naturally, our interest in this case is purely clinical. What could be more clinical than a woman who, for ten years, from the age of 15 to 25 could not stop herself from thinking about SEX?

Rose Bretecher (a pseudonym) was suffering from what the Daily Mail called “uncontrollable thoughts of a highly sexual nature.” She told her own story in the Guardian two years ago.

Clinically speaking, she was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, aka OCD. For those who want to explore the clinical implications in depth, Bretecher has now written a book called: Pure.

The Daily Mail offers a clinical description of her condition:

A woman has described how a rare strain of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) meant she was plagued with continuous sexual thoughts for more than a decade. Most OCD sufferers wash their hands continually or find their minds assailed by less lurid thoughts.

Rose Bretécher, 29, from London, says the condition hampered much of her young adult life after her first vision of a naked boy aged 15 until she finally underwent therapy to overcome the hallucinations and anxieties that left her unable to live normally in 2013.

When she was 15 Bretecher had a vision of a naked boy. It was downhill from there.

The Daily Mail reports:

The freelance writer says that she experienced her first 'vision' of a naked boy aged 15 after a happy, Catholic upbringing. 

She describes how the image plagued her and she could not get it to disappear.

In a blog for the charity OCD Action, she wrote: 'I was just suddenly plunged into full blown obsessive fears, 24 hours a day, every day. 

'Fears that I may have committed a paedophilic act in my past without realising. Fears that the graphic mental images I was experiencing were proof of my depravity.'

It was an incident that would spark a decade of visual disturbances that would leave her seeing her friends topless, strangers copulating or even new colleagues completely naked. 

Sitting down to watch a Ray Mears survival programme, for example, she saw a rock face replaced by the sight of vaginas sculpted across the wall.  

The memoir reveals that the more Bretécher tried to rid herself of the images, the more likely it was they would appear. 

She told ES Magazine: 'The obsession is the thought and the compulsion is the attempt to explain away or get rid of the thought. The more you do, the worse the obsessions become.'

Like the time she ran into Jake Gyllenhaal:

I met Jake Gyllenhaal on a music video shoot and watched his face melt into a chubby vagina in my vision. I sat in the Melbourne mansion belonging to the founders of Lonely Planet, imagining them fucking across the patio. I nearly overdosed.

Apparently, Gyllenhaal’s chubby vagina face sent her into a suicidal spiral that caused her to pursue treatment options seriously.

Before then, she had been spending years trying to self-treat the condition.

From a clinical perspective, one would have to say that she was not repressing her thoughts about sexuality. It was almost as though she had had a Freudian interpretation application implanted in her brain. Whatever she saw, she interpreted it in sexual terms. Better than that, she tried to rid herself of the thoughts by psychoanalyzing them. She imagined that perhaps she had repressed an experience where she had sexually abused a child.

Bretecher describes the process in the Guardian:

In a bid to answer it and purge the anxiety, I began to dissect my memory for clues about my identity. I analysed every pretend kiss and cuddle I'd had at sleepovers; when my friends and I had re-enacted Neighbours weddings, pressing our faces together and giggling at the "kiss the bride" bit. Or when we'd renamed Barbie and Ken as Fanny and Dick and made them "make babies" in a shoebox. All these filthy sparkles of a child's imagination were twisted into something threatening, because they seemed to support my obsessive fears about my capacity for depravity.

Obviously, it made everything worse. When she tried medication, it did not do much more good.

Neither did religion:

Church was the worst. There was the penitential rite, the confession and absolution. Mea culpa. My fault. There I was, every week, a child, saying the words and trembling: "I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words". I was at fault because God had said so. Barbie and Ken had been my fault, kiss-the-bride had been my fault. My thoughts, even, my unstoppable thoughts – they, too, were my fault.

Note the easy coalescence of religion and psychoanalysis. Both taught her to blame herself, as though the thoughts were all her fault, an expression of a repressed trauma.

She even tried psychoanalysis. She writes in the Guardian:

Eventually I went to the doctor with my self-diagnosis. First I got referred for person-centred therapy, in which a counsellor tried to get me to come to terms with my latent homosexuality. Then I went for psychodynamic therapy, where I was diagnosed with pure O before being prompted to explore and analyse the route of my thoughts, à la Freud – effectively encouraging me to engage in compulsive soul searching. This was the wrong approach: analysis only made my obsessive thoughts more deeply entrenched.

What is called cognitive restructuring therapy was not very helpful either:

Then, after a six-month wait, I received cognitive restructuring therapy, which used rationalisation to prove that my thoughts couldn't be true, based on x, y, z evidence. While highly effective in the treatment of depression and some other anxiety disorders, cognitive restructuring of obsessive compulsive thoughts is woefully detrimental, for the cyclical rumination it encourages. You cannot out-logic OCD.

What does interest us, clinically speaking, is this: which of the different kinds of therapy really worked? You might have guessed, it was a variant on cognitive/behavioral treatment, one that was more suited to anxiety disorders than to depression. Rather than try to escape and avoid the images, she learned how to face them:

I chose an OCD specialist at a world-leading centre for the treatment of anxiety disorders in New York. Every Monday for a year I had a 45-minute session of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy on Skype, in which I was exposed to sexual images of gradually increasing explicitness. I had to let my thoughts wash over me unresisted, while my anxiety shouted and screamed and had me ripping my cuticles in strips from my thumbs.

I was a studious patient, diligently watching porn three times a day for months and months. I watched so much porn I could identify the production company by the luxuriance of pubic muffs or lack thereof. Eventually, thanks to an awe-inspiring phenomenon called neuroplasticity – which means we can bring about physical changes in our brains' neural pathways and synapses by changing our behaviour – I began to get used to the anxiety and to relax my need for an answer.

In the past four months since I finished therapy, there have been moments when the pure O has lifted, imperceptibly, like rising light, and I've had no thoughts in my mind; felt nothing but the quiet joy of concentration or the shimmer of my boyfriend's touch. If it wasn't for the comparative cacophony of pure O, I wonder, would these moments feel so impossibly beautiful in their sheer, simple unthinkingness?

One appreciates the fact that the author wrote her story under a pseudonym. One likes to imaging that the pictures accompanying the articles are stock photos. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Don't Follow Your Passion

Sometimes a culture will promote a constellation of ideas. Between philosophers and the therapy culture we have all been assailed by a constellation of ideas that recommend an inside/out approach to life.

They tell you to look deep within your Self or your soul and to get in touch with your feelings, find your passion, or else, to access your impulses, instincts and concupiscent longings. At times, you will find the answer in your gut or your loins or your heart. In all cases, you will find it inside.

The precepts assume that when you are facing a difficult decision, you need but introspect, get in touch with some inner emotion or sensation and then follow it wherever it leads—often off the cliff.

Behind this madness lies an ethic. It tells you to express your feelings, openly, honestly and shamelessly. In today’s parlance it encourages you to vent, to give full expression to your anger… and to ignore the consequences.

The constellation is so influential that it has even invaded the business world. There, people are routinely told to find their passion and to follow it, blindly. If it’s your real passion, everything will work itself out.

I have often had occasion to critique this mindless piece of culturally-driven advice. Recently, Mackenzie Dawson outlined the case against finding your passion. In her New York Post article she notes, sagely, that this mania about passion gives pride of mental place to grand, large, uncontrollable emotions.

Some cultures-- not limited to the therapy culture-- suggest that the more powerful the emotion, the truer it is. One can only wonder why more people have not critiqued this debilitating idea.

Dawson outlines the problem well:

Grand emotions tend to get a lot of play in the professional world: “Find your passion,” new graduates are told, as they sally forth into the job market, ready to try their hand at something that will hopefully pay them money. “Figure out where your bliss lies,” mid-career professionals are advised when they’re looking to transition out of their current industry. “If you do what you looove, it won’t feel like work,” say others.

Keep in mind, this is not the world of interpersonal relationships. It is not the world of therapy sessions. It is the world of business and the professions, the marketplace.

What’s wrong with the idea? Dawson explains that it induces people to blind themselves to the reality of the marketplace, to ignore their ability to contribute to an enterprise.

Dawson recounts a conversation with a recruiter named Nathanial Koloc:

“A lot of people don’t know what their passion is — it’s a monolithic way to describe a career. Also, careers don’t work like that directly,” says Nathaniel Koloc, the co-founder of the progressive recruiting firm ReWork. “Your career grows as you learn to give more value. Also, it’s misleading to imply that simply because you like to do something, other people will value it enough to pay you. At the end of the day, you’re talking about the marketplace.”

Instead of the dreaded P-word, Koloc recommends approaching your career choices from a different perspective, and asking yourself two main questions: “Where will I learn more?” and “Where will I provide more value?”

“If you constantly run those two questions, you’ll end up in a good place,” says Koloc. “Now, we can refer to ‘value’ in terms of earning, but it could also mean, where are you helping people the most? It’s not a useless question to ask.”

Dawson adds a Peter Drucker notion, namely, that it is good to know wherein your talent lies. And she also mentions the possibility that you might be really rich and thus might be able to indulge yourself by undertaking a profession that you have no talent for and that does not pay:

Other questions that might seem less intimidating than the all-encompassing “now-or-never” of passion include asking what kind of skills you possess and whether you’re independently wealthy.

In the meantime, Melissa Dahl offers a trenchant critique of the inside-outism that is explicit in the constellation of ideas about finding your passion. She wants to show that this constellation has gotten it backwards.

As Dahl reports, the research shows that if you work hard at something, the passion will come to you. I suspect that by passion, the authors mean something like enjoyment. This resembles the Confucian precept that you should do the right thing even if you do not know why, because eventually you will understand why you are doing it and your action will take on sincerity.

As I said, it’s the opposite of what passes for wisdom in the therapy culture.

In Dahl’s words:

Another reason to question the standard “follow your passion” advice: The cliché suggests that the correct order of things is to first identify something you feel strongly about and then get down to work. But some new research suggests we may be getting this backward and that excitement about a project may in fact follow the work. 

But, the satisfaction of a job well done must also involve doing a job that one has talent for. It also comes about when one receives positive and honest feedback. But, intriguingly, Dahl also adds that, in order to feel true satisfaction, you need to feel that you own the work, which means that you had a free choice in undertaking it. If you are forced to work on a project you are unlikely to feel any real satisfaction.

Dahl writes:

For one, positive feedback helps. For another, excitement is more likely to happen when you feel ownership over whatever it is you’re working on. In one scenario, they let students choose a business idea to develop, mostly by filling out questionnaires about their opinions on the concept. But in another, the students weren’t given a choice. In the latter scenario, Fradera writes, “their passion never went up, even with positive feedback on making progress – and when there was no progress, it actually dropped.”


But in another, the students weren’t given a choice. In the latter scenario, Fradera writes, “their passion never went up, even with positive feedback on making progress – and when there was no progress, it actually dropped.”

This is bad news for anyone hoping this research implied that diligently working on a boring assignment will result in sudden and inexplicable enthusiasm for the work. On the other hand, it's another decent reason to let your own curiosity and interests help guide you toward your passion. 

Obama Passes the Torch to Putin

When it comes to the Middle East and the fight against ISIS Vladimir Putin has a plan. He has a strategy for dealing with the problem, and, by the way, for making the Middle East a zone of Russian influence.

Barack Obama does not have a plan. He has never had a plan, beyond disengagement… running home like a coward with his tail between his legs.

According to Benny Avni and Bret Stephens, Obama is offering lots of words. Eloquent words, soaring rhetoric, big ideas… with nothing to back them up.

Perhaps it’s his ideology. Perhaps it’s gross incompetence. Perhaps it’s both. Our president is giving new meaning to concept of the empty suit.

Stephens explains Obama’s grasp of foreign policy. It’s not a pretty picture.

To being with, there’s Obama assessment of the world:

Recall that it wasn’t long ago that Mr. Obama took a sunnier view of world affairs. The tide of war was receding. Al Qaeda was on a path to defeat. ISIS was “a jayvee team” in “Lakers uniforms.” Iraq was an Obama administration success story. Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. The Arab Spring was a rejoinder to, rather than an opportunity for, Islamist violence. The intervention in Libya was vindication for the “lead from behind” approach to intervention. The reset with Russia was a success, a position he maintained as late as September 2013. In Latin America, the “trend lines are good.”

“Overall,” as he told Tom Friedman in August 2014—shortly after ISIS had seized control of Mosul and as Vladimir Putin was muscling his way into eastern Ukraine—“I think there’s still cause for optimism.”

Out of touch with reality, unwilling to accept the facts when they hit him in the face, this same president believes that he can predict to a certainty the state of the climate a century from how. As for today’s reality, he has no idea of what is going on in the Middle East. You would think that he was getting skewed intelligence. Otherwise, you would have to think that he simply does not know enough or is not smart enough to understand it.

What does Obama think he is doing? He thinks that he is occupying the moral high ground, being aloof and above-it-all.

It seemed to have worked in the Cold War, which was won without our having fired a shot—except, of course, in Korea and Vietnam, etc.

Stephens explains that the Cold War ended as it did because leaders had a sense of shame. I am always happy to see one of my favorite concepts used correctly, so I emphasize it.

The president also has an overarching moral theory about American power, expressed in his 2009 contention in Prague that “moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”

At the time, Mr. Obama was speaking about the end of the Cold War—which, he claimed, came about as a result of “peaceful protest”—and of his desire to see a world without nuclear weapons. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the possession of such weapons by the U.S. also had a hand in winning the Cold War. Nor did he seem to contemplate the idea that moral leadership can never safely be a substitute for weapons unless those leaders are willing to throw themselves at the mercy of their enemies’ capacity for shame.

In late-era South Africa and the Soviet Union, where men like F.W. de Klerk and Mikhail Gorbachev had a sense of shame, the Obama theory had a chance to work. In Iran in 2009, or in Syria today, it doesn’t.

And then there is Obama’s Hegelianism, another concept that I have had occasion to discuss, on the blog and in my latest book.

Stephens explains it here:

Finally, Mr. Obama believes history is going his way. “What? Me worry?” says the immortal Alfred E. Neuman, and that seems to be the president’s attitude toward Mr. Putin’s interventions in Syria (“doomed to fail”) and Ukraine (“not so smart”), to say nothing of his sang-froid when it comes to the rest of his foreign-policy debacles.

In this cheapened Hegelian world view, the U.S. can relax because History is on our side, and the arc of history bends toward justice. Why waste your energies to fulfill a destiny that is already inevitable? And why get in the way of your adversary’s certain doom?

 It’s easy to accept this view of life if you owe your accelerated good fortune to a superficial charm and understanding of the way the world works. It’s also easier to lecture than to learn, to preach than to act. History will remember Barack Obama as the president who conducted foreign policy less as a principled exercise in the application of American power than as an extended attempt to justify the evasion of it.

Of course, we saw it all at the United Nations yesterday. Barack Obama abrogating American leadership and Vladimir Putin picking up the torch.

In Avni’s words:

The baton was officially transferred Monday to the world’s new sole superpower — and Vladimir Putin willingly picked it up.

President Obama (remember him?) embraced the ideals espoused by the United Nations’ founders 70 years ago: Diplomacy and “international order” will win over time, while might and force will lose.

Putin, too, appealed to UN laws (as he sees them), but he also used his speech to announce the formation of a “broad international coalition” to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

How Is Trump Polling?

When he isn’t complaining about something else, Donald Trump is complaining that the news media do not report accurately on his great poll numbers.

OK, fair is fair. Let’s look at some of the latest poll numbers.

On the question of favorability, DT does not come off too well:

According to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent of Americans have a positive impression of Biden, while 28 percent have a negative impression (+12).

That's compared to fellow Democrats Bernie Sanders (+10) and Hillary Clinton (-8), and to top-tier GOP candidates Ben Carson (+8), Carly Fiorina (+7) and Donald Trump (-33).

When it comes to electability, how does DT compare with the other Republicans being matched up against Hillary Clinton?

If the 2016 election was held today, voters overall say they'd back Clinton over Trump by 10 points (49 percent to 39 percent), but the former secretary of state would be statistically tied with Fiorina (45 percent for Fiorina, compared to 44 percent for Clinton), Carson (46 percent for Carson, compared to 45 percent for Clinton), and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (44 percent for Bush, compared to 45 percent for Clinton).

Against Biden and Sanders, the news for the Donald is not any better:

But Biden would fare better, besting Bush by eight points (48 percent to 40 percent), Fiorina by six points (47 percent to 41 percent), Carson by eight points (49 percent to 41 percent), and Trump by 19 points (56 percent to 35 percent).

In a hypothetical matchup with Donald Trump, Sanders would also handily defeat the real estate mogul, getting 52 percent of the general election vote compared to Trump's 36 percent.

Of course, none of it really matters. What does matter is expressing one’s outrage and making a political point. Besides, all of the Antitrumps are the same anyway, aren’t they?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sadistic Empaths

For many years now I have been making the case against empathy on this blog. See also and especially my book, The Last Psychoanalyst. In particular, I have been saying that therapists who proclaim empathy to be the ultimate emotional virtue have misled us.

These therapists have reasoned that since psychopaths conspicuously lack empathy, they would cease to be psychopaths if only they could be taught to feel the pain they were inflicting on their victims. Thus did empathy become the panacea for the evils that humans do. It’s a nice idea, unless the same psychopaths like to feel a bit of pain now and then.

Therapists also imagine that empathy works like an emotional glue that produces profound human connections. They see it connecting people at the most profound level. Better to be connected by sharing feelings, they say, than by participating in the same ritual or discussing the same objective reality, like the weather.

For my part, I have noted that if you are involved in competition, empathy for the pain you will want to inflict on your opponent will not make you a more fierce competitor. In fact, it will dull your competitive edge.

Happily, I am not alone in thinking that empathy is not all that it is knocked up to be. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has done very interesting work on the topic.

Recently, in The Atlantic Bloom argued that people who have a superior capacity for empathy are often willing to inflict the greatest pain on those they believe deserve it. Given the right circumstances, empaths happily allow themselves to be carried away with an impulse to take revenge.

It is a fascinating observation. And yet, for all I know, the reason could be that people who believe in feelings are most likely to lack a rational or socio-ethical check on their feelings. They are most likely to allow themselves to be led around by their feelings. Yet, Bloom is certainly correct to argue that empathy does not, in and of itself, function as an unalloyed moral virtue.

Speaking of moral sentiments, Bloom presents Adam Smith’s version of this idea, surely one of the earliest observations:

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, Adam Smith observes that when we see someone harmed by another, we feed off his desire for vengeance: “We are rejoiced to see him attack his adversary in his turn, and eager and ready to assist him.” Even if he dies, our imagination does the trick: “We enter, as it were, into his body, and in our imaginations, in some measure, animate anew the deformed and mangled carcass of the slain, [and] bring home in this manner his case to our bosoms.”

People with a superior capacity for empathy tend to indulge in sadistic behaviors. At times, they do so in the name of justice, but in other times, the motives are more complex.

Students were asked to choose how much hot sauce to give to two people, both of whom are in financial difficulty. One of the subjects was non-plussed by her financial problems while the other was anxious about hers. When given the choice, the students who rated highest in empathy gave more hot sauce to the woman who was more worried about her condition:

Bloom explains:

… the subjects chose to give more hot sauce to this other person when the student was described as distressed. Their empathy drove aggression, even when it made no moral sense.

One takes Bloom’s point, but perhaps the students believed that the whinier of the two women was more in need of a wake-up call. No one likes a whiner. The woman was not going to work her way out of a financial situation by wallowing in self-pity or worry.

If an empath is more sensitive to the whiner’s pain, he might resent her for inviting him to share it. Thus, he might want to give her more hot sauce in order to tell her to suck it up and act like an adult. I have not read the study, but I wonder whether the students would have acted differently if the impecunious subjects were male.

Of course, the impecunious women had not done anything wrong. So, I am not yet convinced that this experiment exists on the same continuum as the ones that ask empaths how they would respect to news of a terrorist atrocity or to stories about domestic abuse.

According to Bloom, those who are most empathetic are most likely to fprescribe the harshest punishment.

In Bloom’s words:

We start by giving people a simple test that measures their degree of empathy. Then we tell them some awful stories, about journalists kidnapped in the Middle East, about child abuse in the United States. And then we ask them how best to respond to those responsible for the suffering. In the Middle East case, we give a continuum of political options, from doing nothing to public criticism, all the way to a military ground invasion. For the domestic version, we ask about increased penalties for the abuser, from increasing their bail to making them eligible for the death penalty. Just as with the genetic study, we found that the more empathic people are, the more they want a harsher punishment.

It might be the case that those who have empathy are more likely to go with their gut and less inclined to engage in the ratiocination that would be required before choosing among different approaches.

If they identify themselves through their feelings, and take pride in their empathy, shining the light of reason on the situation would compromise their identity as empathetic individuals.

Keep in mind, it’s not just the outrage that counts here; it’s the way the empaths want to express the outrage. For all I know they have been taught by therapy to express their feelings, openly, honestly and shamelessly.

Bloom writes:

The benefits of war—including avenging those who have suffered—are made vivid, but the costs of war remain abstract and statistical. We see this same bias reflected in our criminal-justice system. The outrage that comes from empathy drives some of our most powerful punitive desires. It’s not an accident that so many statutes are named for dead girls—as in Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and Caylee’s Law—and no surprise that there is now enthusiasm for “Kate’s Law.” The high incarceration rate in the United States, and our continued enthusiasm for the death penalty, is in part the product of fear and anger, but is also driven by the consumption of detailed stories of victims’ suffering.

Here, a few questions arise. True enough, our nation has gotten the idea that wars—especially without full mobilization-- are painless, that they only cost us money. But then, what other than a violent military action would have been the appropriate response to the attack on the World Trade Center. Serious countries do not allow their major cities to be half-destroyed with impunity.

Perhaps there were other, more intelligent, equally violent ways of responding. Yet, I find I difficult to believe that we invaded Afghanistan because of our enhanced capacity for empathy. Were we not motivated by a moral duty to protect the homeland and to punish those who violated it?

As for whether the costs of war are “abstract and statistical,” it depends. In some European countries, the costs of World War I were neither abstract nor statistical. In France, for example, the real cost—in human life-- of WW I caused the nation to be unprepared for a German attack. The alternative was surrender and collaboration with Nazi Germany.

I am not so sure that the nation is all that enthusiastic about the death penalty. Nineteen states do not allow it. But, to Bloom’s point, many of those who oppose the death penalty argue that lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole is more painful than the death penalty. This supports the idea that empaths have a strong sadistic side.

On the other hand, when evaluating the popularity of incarceration, one would need to ask oneself whether it produces a lower crime rate. If more incarceration means less crime, then perhaps it is a rational choice.

Be that as it may, when victims are involved, empaths are more likely to be sadistic, thus they are more likely to live by the law of the talion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Unhealthy, Hungry Kids Food-Wasting Act

The Obama administration has always wanted to nudge people, that is, to get them to do the right thing by giving them a slight push in the right direction. Nudging sounds a lot better than forcing.

The idea came from behavioral economics, and it has felt, to many, like a new way to manipulate citizens, to get them to do what the government wants them to do, whether they like it or not.

The obvious question about nudging has always been: what makes you think that government bureaucrats and even legislators know what is best for you? Nudging seems to be a new way to give your freedom to the government.

Nothing very new there. Just the method, not the goal.

You recall Michelle Obama’s signature achievement, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. One may question whether MO was the best placed to promote healthy dieting, but by now we know that the program, whereby the government dictates what children eat for lunch, has failed abysmally.

One needs to mention, yet again, that nutritional science is, to put it mildly, in constant flux. Many of the beliefs about what we should or should not eat have turned out to be nonsense. And yet people still follow them as though they were holy writ. We have managed to produce the most obese nation on earth, a nation that is obsessed with dieting.

To keep the nutrition side in perspective, I recommend a summary of the food myths that prevail in America today, by Dr. Joy Bliss.

In any event, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act has produced so many unhealthy, hungry kids that even the New York Times has noticed.

According to Kate Murphy’s news analysis the program has caused children to hate lunch and to throw out their food. Think of all the hungry children around the world, our parents used to tell us. Now our government has found a way to induce children to waste food. If it had been trying to nudge them in that direction, it would have been interesting psychologically, but, as it is, the government is doing little more than wasting food, bankrupting school districts and teaching children to hate food.

The children who refuse to eat MO’s healthy food are always hungry, so they sneak off to gorge themselves on whatever they want. Those who eat it feel nutritionally deprived and unsatisfied. Thus, they sneak off to gorge themselves on whatever they want.

Murphy writes:

Food and nutrition directors at school districts nationwide say that their trash cans are overflowing while their cash register receipts are diminishing as children either toss out the healthier meals or opt to brown-bag it. While no one argues that the solution is to scrap the law and go back to feeding children junk, there’s been a movement to relax a few of the guidelines as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the legislation, particularly mandates for 100 percent whole grains and extremely low sodium levels, so school meals will be a bit more palatable and reflective of culinary traditions.

Of course, the program should be scrapped. If no one is saying so, then that is the problem. School districts should be given the freedom to provide lunches that children will actually eat.

Can’t these solons recognize failure when they see it? And, isn’t the lesson here that, to these great bureaucratic minds, children’s tastes do not matter. Their preferences do not count. What lesson is that teaching our children?

Murphy continues:

And yet, cafeteria operators complain, the new regulations forbid them to serve a classic baguette, semolina pasta or jasmine rice, much less the butter and flavorful sauces that often go with them. Never mind that these are staples of diets in other cultures with far lower rates of childhood and adult obesity than in the United States.

Keep in mind, behavioral economics is supposed to be science. Keep in mind that all of the nutritional information that forms the basis of the program has been shown, by the experience of other countries, to be nonsense. Here we have yet another case where ideals are blinding people to reality.

Murphy explains:

Consider that in France, where the childhood obesity rate is the lowest in the Western world, a typical four-course school lunch (cucumber salad with vinaigrette, salmon lasagna with spinach, fondue with baguette for dipping and fruit compote for dessert) would probably not pass muster under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, because of the refined grains, fat, salt and calories. Nor would the weekly piece of dark chocolate cake.

By comparison, a typical federally approved school lunch in the United States is a “reformulated” Philly cheesesteak sandwich (low-fat, low-salt processed cheese and lean mystery meat on a whole grain bun) with steamed green beans, a potato wedge, canned peaches and an apple. Students often have less than 20 minutes to eat this before returning to class, while French children may have as long as two hours to eat and socialize.

Americans are obsessed with dieting. The French believe in eating a variety of foods and taking the time to have a conversation during a meal. They also have the lowest obesity rates in the Western world. Why is this not relevant?

Why does the track record of the Unhealthy, Hungry Kids Food-Wasting Program not count?

In Murphy’s words:

Not surprisingly, American kids, whether pressed for time or just grossed out, leave much of their meals untouched; particularly neglected are the fruits and vegetables, which they are now forced to put on their trays before they can exit the cafeteria line.

The School Nutrition Association said that 70 percent of school meal programs had taken a significant financial hit since the new mandates went into effect. Cafeteria operators from Los Angeles to New York report discouraging amounts of food waste and declining participation. “We lost 15 percent of our revenue when we started putting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into place,” said Chris Burkhardt, director of child nutrition and wellness at the Lakota Local School District in southwestern Ohio. “I talk to P.T.O. and P.T.A. groups and ask how many serve only whole grains and low sodium foods at home and maybe one hand goes up,” adding that he’s not convinced that person was telling the truth.

Besides, Murphy continues, these efforts to control children’s diets  are giving them exactly the wrong attitude about food. It is encouraging unhealthy diets and binge eating, along with guilt. It is ruining their relationship with food:

In addition, by forbidding certain foods and coercively promoting others, some worry that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may perpetuate Americans’ uneasy, binge-prone relationship with food.

Karen Le Billon, visiting professor of environmental studies at Stanford and author of “French Kids Eat Everything,” said in France there was “no guilt or blame around food,” but rather “it’s more about moderation than deprivation.” Most French children and adults, she said, have no clue about the caloric content of foods, and the general attitude about fat, such as naturally found in nut butters, avocados or a creamy piece of cheese, is “it’s tasty so why not eat it?” — particularly when it promotes feelings of satiety so you won’t snack between meals.

“It’s not rocket science and it’s not only the French,” said Ms. Le Billon, who divides her time between Palo Alto, Calif., Vancouver, Canada and Brittany. “These are things that parents in other less obese countries, like Japan and Italy, know and teach their kids but we have somehow forgotten. We are a culture of constant eating and it’s not working in terms of keeping us at a healthy weight.”

It’s so obvious that anyone who is not a behavioral economist can understand it. Moderation in all things. Nothing complicated about that. A piece of cheese or a slice of chocolate cake makes you feel satisfied. Thus, you snack less. An MO lunch makes you feel hungry so you are more likely to binge eat and to feel guilty about it.

Funnily enough, Americans were supposed to be pragmatic. They were supposed to allow reality to determine the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of policy. Thanks to the Obama administration and behavioral economics, such seems no longer to be the case.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Who Is Responsible for Child Abuse?

Who’s really responsible for child abuse?

As it happens, it’s not nursery school teachers or even a child’s biological father. First on the list of potential abusers is the mother’s live-in boyfriend. Second on the list, with caveats, is the mother herself.

The conclusion is inescapable. Or at least it should be. Samantha Allen  presents the argument, while disputing it in The Daily Beast:

Conservative and family-focused groups like the Heritage Foundation can wield it to argue that marriage is “still the safest place for women and children” and advocate for a return to traditional values. Others might counter that the economic and educational advantages of marriage—and not marriage itself—are what help children flourish.

Of course, it’s not about flourishing. It’s about preventing abuse. It’s about preventing sexual molestation. And, as we saw in a recent Boston case, it can lead to murdering children.

True enough, marriage provides many advantages to children. But, apparently, and this is the most important point, a child’s biological father is radically disinclined to abuse his children while a mother’s boyfriend, who is not a biological father, seems to be inclined to do so.

So much for fatherhood as a social construct.

However, ask yourself this. If television presents a drama about child abuse, how likely is it that the father is the culprit? I would say that it is extremely likely. A certain cultural narrative has worked to diminish and malign fatherhood, the better to convince women to jettison their husbands in favor of liberation.

The truth of the matter is: the people most likely to commit these crimes are mothers’ boyfriends.

Allen reports on the recent case of Bella Bond:

“Our daughter is dead. The guy that’s been living in my house murdered our daughter.”

These are the words that Bella Bond’s father Joseph Amoroso said he heard from her mother, Rachelle Bond, when he went to see his child for the first time. The “guy” that had been living in Rachelle Bond’s house was her ex-boyfriend Michael McCarthy, whom prosecutors allege murdered Bella in June, and then kept Bond “captive,” injected her with heroin, and, with her help, disposed of the body in the Boston Harbor after storing it in a refrigerator for weeks.

Many researchers have studied the question. They have noted that it’s not about gender. That is, there is nothing about testosterone that predisposes a man to abuse his children. A child’s male relatives are far less likely to abuse him or her than are the child’s male non-relatives.

Naturally, the researchers have offered a number of explanations of the phenomenon. They begin with the notion that the boyfriend does not command the child’s respect and thus, to discipline him, needs to use force. They also suggest that, at times, the boyfriend will feel threatened by the mother-child connection.

Allen reports on the research:

2001 study in Child Maltreatment found that “the presence of a non-biological father figure in the home should be considered a significant predictor of a future child maltreatment report.” In a sample of 644 mother-child pairs, the authors found no significant difference in maltreatment between mother-father households and single mother households, but did find that children with a cohabiting “father surrogate” were “twice as likely to be reported for maltreatment after his entry into the home.”

She also adds:

In 2002, a study in Pediatrics looked specifically at cases of fatal child maltreatment over a two-year time period in Missouri and found that risk of fatal maltreatment was not increased for children living with a single parent, but that it was raised eight times if they were living with unrelated adults, “primarily in households including biologically unrelated adult males and boyfriends of the child’s mother.”

One does not like to have to point this out, but these single mothers, divorced or otherwise, have very poor judgment when it comes to choosing boyfriends. They have even worse judgment when it comes to inviting these men into their homes. Since they are morally obligated to protect their children, they ought to be held somewhat accountable for the consequences of their actions.

Allen also notes that single mothers are responsible for more child abuse than are single fathers. One reason might be that more women than men are primary caregivers:

Again, these cases are not necessarily determined exclusively by the boyfriend’s gender. After all, according to 2013 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (PDF), mothers acting alone were responsible for 40 percent of child abuse, compared to 20 percent for fathers. Mothers were also responsible for over twice the percentage of child fatalities as fathers. Bear in mind that women are more likely to be a child’s primary caretaker.

Mothers are more likely to abuse their children, but mothers spend far more time with their children. Point well made.

Naturally, Allen does not want to stigmatize single mothers. None of us want to stigmatize single mothers, many of whom are great mothers and raise wonderful children.

And yet, the statistics do not lie. Single motherhood (especially coupled with a live-in boyfriend) creates greater risks for children than does a home with two married parents.

Keep in mind, if you destigmatize something you are going to get more of it. And while it is feministically preferable for a woman not to need a man for anything—remember Gloria Steinem declaring that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle—perhaps having a stable home with a mother and father present creates the best circumstances for bringing up a child. Surely, it offers the best chance of diminishing the incidence of child abuse. And we all want to do that, don’t we?

Thus, we should not be encouraging single motherhood or divorce.

What Women Don't Want

Yesterday wasn’t a good day for feminism. Specifically it wasn’t a good day for those feminists who believe that institutional sexism is the root cause for the disproportionately large number of men in positions of corporate power.

Feminism is selling a narrative. The narrative says that men and women will not be equal until there are an equal number of men and women in all professions and at all levels of professional achievement. It also says that men and women will not be equal until they change an equal number of diapers and spend an equal amount of time with sick children.

Put this way, it sounds like idiocy. That’s because it is.

And yet, since the feminist narrative says it, and since great thinkers like Lena Dunham believe it, many women have signed on. Given today’s culture, they do not really have a choice.

Feminists leave only important element out of the equation: women. That is, women’s wishes, women’s aspirations, women’s preferences. The dark and hidden truth about feminism is that it does not really care about what women want or about how they want to lead their lives. Feminism cares about propagating feminist ideology.

The new study comes from the highly reputable Harvard Business School. It was conducted by faculty members of the school. It says that one principle reason why women are underrepresented in leadership positions because they do not want to hold these jobs. Astonishing that we should need a study to ask what women want.

Bloomberg reports on the study:

Women are underrepresented in leadership positions for plenty of reasons: They’re stereotyped as being less competent than men, they aren’t as aggressive, and there’s a perception that they can’t lead and raise a family at the same time. Now, research from Harvard Business School adds yet another reason to the list: Women aren’t in leadership positions because they just don’t want the jobs as much as men do.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS), incorporates nine studies conducted on various high-achieving groups. Combined, the research indicates that women value power less than men, and the studies try to explain the phenomenon.

Bloomberg adds that women have other priorities. They do not define themselves by their power and their place on a status hierarchy. They think this way even after four decades of relentless feminist indoctrination.

Bloomberg continues:

Another one of the studies helps explain that finding, by suggesting women have more negative associations with power than men do. “Women expect more stress, burden, conflicts, and difficult trade-offs to accompany high-level positions,” said Alison Wood Brooks, a co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard.

The women surveyed not only listed more goals, but a smaller proportion of those goals were related to achieving power.

In other words, women feel more inclined to have it all than men, who listed fewer personal goals, and that means making compromises somewhere.

The bottom line: women understand the sacrifices that they would have to make in order to have it all. They choose not to make them. Women have multiple goals. Men are more single minded. In Isaiah Berlin's analysis, women are like foxes and men are like hedgehogs.

Strangely enough, we find ourselves needing to defend women’s rights to choose, even and especially when their choices do not fulfill the terms of the feminist narrative.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Decline of Men and Boys

Everyone knows by now that men and boys are in decline. Count it as a dubious achievement. Those who have been conducting a war on men might not have wished it, but it is the outcome of their efforts. Since they broke it, they own it.

Such is the case in the West, especially in America.  Some will naturally blame it on technology. At first, that appears to be the conclusion famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo draws in his new book, co-authored by Nikita Coulombe: Man (Dis)connected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male.

And yet, video games and online porn are instruments not causes. Between them, Zimbardo notes, they have debilitated young males. Lured and seduced by games and porn boys do not develop the skills required, for example, to have an actual relationship with an actual woman. If stimulation is all that is required, images on a computer screen are always ready, always excited and far easier to deal with. Images will not accuse you of rape, abuse or sexism.

The Daily Telegraph discusses the research:

Zimbardo refers to research by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam which demonstrated that men usually have what they term “single-cue arousability”. Give a man the image of a pair of attractive breasts or a curvy backside and they are half-way to happiness, where women need multiple cues: they are aroused by men who are “attractive and nice to children and self-confident [his italics]”.

And then, what about pheromones? In other words, what happens when men whose arousal mechanism is geared only to images and sounds are exposed to female pheromones?

We are not talking about young adult males here. The Daily Telegraph reports that the 35th most visited website for children aged 6 to 13 in the United Kingdom was… PornHub.

But, the games and the porn are signs of a deeper problem, one that comes from the culture. Boys who do not have access to a culture of manliness in the real world find one in the virtual worlds of video games and porn.

As you read down the Daily Telegraph article on Zimbardo’s research you find the true cause:

… to understand our increased use of technology, Zimbardo argues, we have to take into account other trends that are radically altering male identity, such as absent fathers, unemployment, lack of exercise and lack of positive male role models.

A few decades ago, boys had not only dads but also uncles, grandfathers, older cousins, male family friends and next-door neighbours who provided an extended, tribal family system that was often an informal source of social support. These days he’s more likely to turn to the mass media, where he learns to associate success and popularity with vacuous presenters, aggressive car-drivers, angry chefs and millionaire footballers with low IQ

Even the men the culture proposes as role models for manly behavior seem more to be cartoonish figures, caricatures… not the real thing.

No one should have any doubts about the cause. It was produced by contemporary feminism. Feminists are winning the war on men; their sons and husbands are paying the price. One understands that this was not the feminist goal, but that does not really matter. The goal was an illusion, a fantasy designed to sell a bad idea. Here, as is always the case with policy, the truth lies in the outcome.

Feminists have declared war on martial cultures, and especially the military. They have constantly denigrated the values associated with fatherhood or manliness, to the point where they have promoted the notion that all men are incipient rapists and child molesters. They have undermined the role of the male breadwinner, have turned the school system into a place that is unfriendly to boys, and have replaced the work ethic with amoral decadence.

Together, these fronts in the culture war have decimated the male psyche, turning it into a caricature of itself:

Zimbardo also points to profound and sweeping changes in Western society. There has, he believes, been an erosion of the Protestant work ethic, and with it the old ideals of responsibility and self-respect. The concept of the male breadwinner has gone – sometimes heralded as a triumph of feminism – but it has not, from men’s point of view, been replaced by anything equally motivating and centring.

The Telegraph concludes:

It’s when you combine absent fathers, staying at home into early adulthood, video gaming, overreliance on internet porn, obesity (with its associated decline in testosterone and increase in oestrogen) and lack of physical activity, educational failure, joblessness and lack of opportunities for interaction – plus a women’s movement that continues to empower that gender and thrust positive female role models into economic and political arenas – that you have the makings of a screwed-up masculinity with all the wider social consequences that implies. 

Computers give children enhanced hand-coordination. They allow boys to control sexual stimulants and female willingness with the click of a mouse. On the other hand, if a boy is shy and reserved computers do not offer him lessons in how to develop social skills. The allow him to believe that he does not need to have them:

A shy boy or man might prefer to be online than out and about. At school or in the street, he is weak, weedy, or just ordinary. In his computer he can kill machine-gun-wielding soldiers and have sex with tall, perfect-looking women. 

The more he finds gratification online the less the boy will be likely to interact with other people and develop his social skills:

Shyness leads to staying in more, and that in turn leads to the stunted development of social skills, which leads to more debilitating shyness.

There’s more to it than shyness.

The Telegraph continues:

The consequences of the new dependence on technology are myriad. As well as shyness and social isolation, Zimbardo illustrates the risk of memory slippages as we rely on the net for information and calendars and other prompts; a loss of capacity for sustained attention; a decreased ability to enjoy long-form reading; and even behavioural changes such as the loss of facial expressions (why use them if no one sees them?).

Apparently, Zimbardo does not address the question of whether or not children and others are addicted to their technological gadgets. Surely, it seems correct to say that more time online means less time with human beings. This produces changes in behavior. Among them the loss of facial expressions must count among the most intriguing. And other forms of mental capacity seem also to diminish.

If you do not use the different mental capacities that are required for face-to-face conversation with other human being, you lose them.

Perhaps Zimbardo mentions this in his book—I have not yet read it—but we should also emphasize that when boys do not have positive role models of traditional masculine behavior they also tend to idolize negative role models by joining gangs and engaging in criminal enterprise.