Saturday, December 31, 2016

Forever Miss Iceland

Today, I regale you with a second Ask Polly column. You might want to read the earlier post before you read this one. In this one, in a reply to a woman who calls herself “Iceland Iceland Iceland” Polly sees the problem. She does not know what to do about it. Or better, she offers what any therapist would offer, consolation, a pep talk and some male bashing. For the sake of this column I will call the letter writer, Miss Iceland—and not because she is competing in the Miss Universe pageant.

Anyway, Miss Iceland found herself a boyfriend who seems to have been something of a reclamation project. The condition seems endemic to young men in our world, so perhaps she could not find anyone who was better. And she helps him to grow up, to act like more of an adult and to get his life in order.

It’s a noble enterprise, except that any woman who has been around for a while could have told her that making yourself into a man’s schoolmarm will eventually cause him to leave you. He might like how much his life has gotten better, but he will resent being pushed around by a woman. And he will resent the fact that it took a woman to make him into more of a man. And he will feel the woman's condescension.

This much for background. As it happened, Miss Ireland was bossy. She leaned in. She pushed her man around. And, at some point, he simply broke. And he left her, even though, being slightly pathetic, he still loves her and misses her.

In any event, let’s see how well leaning in worked for Miss Ireland:

I was hard on him about all this stuff and in retrospect should have been nicer, but I felt like it was an emergency. In the meantime, I did a lot of the heavy lifting financially and domestically and felt a little taken advantage of and used. But within a year or so, he had found his footing, learned to clean and cook, started paying his bills on time, and even built up a little buffer in his savings account. We moved into a modest apartment and got a puppy. Finally, we were on equal footing, we had built a little family, and I was thrilled. He seemed happy with the changes in himself, too, and commented frequently that this was the best thing that ever happened to him.

One appreciates that she felt a need to take charge. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. One appreciates that she is decidedly unhappy that she is being punished for it, but such is gender.

Anyway, one day the now-happy couple was invited to take a trip to Iceland. He did not want to go. She “strong-armed” him into it. Apparently, that tactic described the nature of their relationship, so she didn’t think very much of it. Apparently, he did. For him it was a tipping point, a point where he saw that he was being bossed around and bullied into doing things—for his own good, naturally. He had had enough.

Miss Iceland describes what happened:

We got invited on a spontaneous trip to Iceland with friends over New Year’s, and I sort of strong-armed him into booking it. That wasn’t unusual for us; he always needed some convincing that he should spend money on luxuries and hadn’t really traveled much. In the past he always had a great time on trips I pushed for, and told me later it was totally worth it.

Then, something changed:

But then it became a BIG deal to him. He started bringing it up constantly, how we were spending too much money and burning too much vacation time and it was affecting our Christmas plans and we never should have booked it, like he’d said from the beginning. At first I was defensive, but then I apologized sincerely, and offered as many options as I could think of, short of not going at all (remember, flights were nonrefundable). I offered to cover some of the costs out of my savings account, I offered for him not to go if he really didn’t want to, I promised that this would be the last trip we took for a while. None of this was good enough. He brought it up at EVERY opportunity, for three months straight. 

Of course, Iceland is not the issue. It was about her being in charge. It was about him feeling diminished and demeaned by her bossiness. After they broke up, he made his feelings clear:

But he IS sticking to his guns with the metaphor shit, like “This is an example of how you bulldoze me into doing things even when I say I can’t” or “This is an example of you always getting your way” or “This is an example of how all our plans are things YOU came up with and not things I want to do.” But I don’t always get my way. I definitely push him into trying new things, but it isn’t out of selfishness.

Apparently, Miss Iceland never learned about gender roles in college, so she is now getting a good lesson in how not to deal with men. How not to deal even with modern men who have had most of their manliness wrung out of them. Considering that no one has apparently ever taught him how to function like a man, her erstwhile beau can only adopt a shrill, slightly histrionic tone.

As I said, Polly does understand that the male/female dynamics are the problem. But naturally, she thinks that the problem is his, not hers and she advises that he should go into therapy. You might have noted that Polly seems like something of a shill for therapy. One does not understand why, since it seems merely to have filled her mind with psychobabble.

Anyway, Polly wants Miss Iceland’s sometime lover to stand up for himself and to express his desires. Thus, that it’s all his fault for allowing himself to be pushed around by her. One has a glimmering of sympathy for the fact, though the solution might be to find a woman who is less of a bulldozer and who is in closer touch with her feminine mystique.

Polly writes:

So, who has shot down your chances? Your ex has. He resents you because he doesn’t know how to express his true needs and desires the way you do. He doesn’t ask for what he wants. He watches things go badly, shakes his head from the sidelines, and blames you for it. He’s not an adult yet.

This guy needs a therapist. If Iceland is a metaphor, it’s a metaphor for something much deeper than just you and him. This isn’t about planning a trip; this is about the way he was treated as a kid. Maybe he was coddled but disrespected. Maybe people pretended to listen to his needs but did whatever they wanted instead. Whatever it is, he still feels angry and powerless and he’s projecting that onto you.

I have empathy for that. 

Polly doesn’t recognize that it’s not quite that simple. If he is dealing with a bossy woman who insists on leaning in and who always wants to get his way, he is not going to be able to assert himself without provoking constant conflict. It’s nice to think that both parties can be equally assertive, but such is apparently not the case. The relationship in question shows us that it’s not the case. If he were to start asserting himself and trying to get his way, Miss Iceland would not thrill to the new experience. She would push back and get right back in his face. Having learned to unman men she is not going to change because he has gotten some therapy. 

In truth, if her man goes to most therapists he is going to hear that he is being petulant and childish and ought to be thankful that Miss Iceland has taken charge of his pathetic excuse for a life. I mention that in order to save you from having to waste your time with certain kinds of therapists.

In any case, Polly has no real sympathy for manly men. She wants them to become more vulnerable. But, she knows from the case of someone named Bjork that, as mentioned yesterday, being a strong, powerful, independent autonomous woman is really a formula for being alone.

Polly writes:

Instead of learning how to become open-chested, instead of embracing vulnerability as the cure to their inflexible, defensive, anxious, blaming postures (Björk’s album title: Vulnicura), some people retreat, get defensive and anxious, and blame others for everything that’s wrong in their lives.

And if you want to understand why people avoid certain kinds of therapists, consider this from Polly. She thinks that the man is afraid of intimacy. How ridiculous can you get? This is girl talk. A man who feels unmanned needs, according to Polly and to most therapists, more girl talk:

It’s going to take a lot of work and belief in vulnerability and growth for him to express his desires directly and stop making other people responsible for what happens to him. He needs to understand: This is about intimacy. Intimacy scares the fuck out of him, and makes him angry. My guess is that he didn’t feel safe in his most intimate, affectionate relationships as a kid, so you make him feel tremendously unsafe and angry. 

Polly does understand that men do not find strong and bossy women attractive. Unfortunately, she blames it on men:

It’s pretty common, actually, for a strong, decisive woman like Björk to wake up one day and discover that her partner secretly resents her power. Even a famous artist like Matthew Barney can resent a strong woman. But seriously, what are you going to do? I guess you could’ve let your ex get a place of his own instead of saving him when he moved to your city. Some guys don’t want to look back on a story like that, even if they say it forced them to grow up. They can’t stand it when you bring it up, either. They need an Iceland to counteract it.

Men don’t always like a woman who upstages them, who is more capable and maybe braver than they are. You can’t understand why they’re so tepid, and then it comes out: They want someone to be a pretty background while they’re the main attraction. Other guys just don’t want to be asked to bring everything they have to the table. They don’t want to share, because sharing and intimacy feel like being manipulated to them. They’re stuck, but they don’t want your help, either.

It would be nice to think that people can have it exactly as they want to have it. In truth, life is about trade-offs. If a woman wants to be strong and decisive, as mentioned yesterday, and as most women seem to understand, she is not going to find very many men who will take up the challenge. She can stick to her guns or get back in touch with her feminine mystique.

Of course, Polly tells Miss Iceland that even if she chooses to become more feminine, it will never work. In truth, it does work, and it is a bad idea to suggest that Miss Iceland should not change her own errant ways:

If you choose a man who resents your power and feels small whenever you feel big, you’re very likely to give up your own power and independence and happiness just to soothe him. You won’t just have a bad relationship, in other words, you’ll also feel insecure in your career, angry with your friends, and unhappy in general. And even when you compromise yourself to prop a man up, he might still feel like you’re robbing him of his independence.

It’s not a question of soothing anyone. It’s not about propping anyone up. Note that Polly chooses the most derogatory terms to describe what used to have something to do with the way women act towards their men. It’s about taking a step back and allowing him to exercise his own authority. Some would call it deference and denounce it. Whatever you want to call it, most women understand that being bossy and leaning in toward a man does not produce very many happy endings.

A Failed Seduction

I will not waste your or my time belaboring a recent column from New York Magazine’s highly challenged advice columnist, Ask Polly.

A woman who calls herself Trouble in Paradise went on vacation with three other women. TIP is in her late 30s. The other women are ten years older. So far, so good.

TIP was rooming with a woman she calls T. The two of them did not get along, at all. I will spare you the details, but I will draw your attention to the following two paragraphs:

T is about a decade older than I am, very into New Age spirituality, and clearly struggling with a messed-up childhood. At first I thought that T and I might be able to relate, given some common elements in our past and the fact that we’re both openly bisexual. But I knew her to be the kind of person who will pick on someone for liking something. Unpleasant and immature, sure, but not a deal-breaker.

We got to the first hotel, and T started spending a lot of time naked. Any time the door was shut, she’s naked. I wasn’t bothered, but T was clearly bothered that I was not participating in “naked-time.” I have a normal amount of discomfort with my body, as a woman who grew up in a western culture. I don’t spend time naked on my own, and I don’t seek out opportunities to hang out with other people while naked.

It goes on from there.

If you are not Polly and are not hopelessly blind to the obvious, you might ask yourself why T was prancing around naked in front of TIP. Since both women are openly bisexual, you might expect that T had something of a crush on TIP. You might expect that her full frontal nudity was an effort to seduce the hapless TIP. If so, the message did not register with TIP. The paragraphs quoted make that abundantly clear.

Might it be that T was utterly offended that the vision of her nakedness did not elicit even the least glimmering of lust from TIP? Did T feel rejected? Might that have set her off? It has happened before.

Anyway, TIP is perplexed that her relationship with T was so fraught with conflict. She asks herself what she might have done differently:

I wonder, should I have participated in naked-time in order to bond with T? I wonder what on earth could I have done differently to make T feel other than whatever she felt, so that things didn’t get as bad as they did? Or have I really been living too long on my own (seven years) and I’ve utterly missed some social nicety that might have made T feel something other than what she felt, that could have saved the trip for everyone? Please help.

As I said, TIP is clueless.  But she does seem to recognize that the naked-time was the problem.  She doesn't understand why it was a problem, and that makes her clueless. She is not as clueless as Polly, and does recognize that perhaps she contributed to the debacle.

Not wanting to disappoint those of us who have always found Polly to be especially obtuse, Polly ignores the erotic aspect of female nakedness… entirely. Neither she nor TIP understand that this is a slightly lame version of seduction. Why the blinders, girls?

Polly wants TIP to get in touch with her feelings, especially her repressed anger at T.

Unhappily, Polly thinks that knows what TIP is feeling better than TIP does. It’s called mind-reading. Here is a sample:

Really? She didn’t offend you or make you angry? Yes, she did. You can’t stand her. It’s not just that she acts like a selfish, self-centered baby. You pretty much dislike everything about her. You hate her naked-time thing and her overly critical thing and her flirty thing. It’s not your style. She annoys the fuck out of you. That’s fine! OWN IT, at least in a letter to a stranger. You don’t like her!

Naturally, Polly descends into psychobabble:

You have to learn to feel your feelings. You’re a sensitive person, actually, who can’t access the best parts of herself anymore. People who can’t feel their feelings use people like T to be big and messy and explosive for them.

And, of course:

You need to see a therapist. Because right now you’re telling yourself a really intense story about what this bizarre threesome reflects about your worthiness as a human being. Being witty and well traveled isn’t everything. What about having a friend you can trust, who would never dream of shoving you in a room with her temperamental, boundary less sidekick?

Anyway, Polly has a superior capacity for empathy. She feels TIP’s pain. She assumes that TIP is angry for being dissed, but she fails to recognize that T might also have felt that she was being dissed and rejected. Apparently, empathy has its limits.

The exchange shows us the danger of having nothing else to offer than empathy. You miss the larger picture. And you fail to address the complexities of the situation.  For example, when TIP refused to share a king sized bed with T, what message did that send and how did T receive it?

We are dealing with a somewhat lame effort at seduction. And we are watching a woman, T, feel utterly rejected by another woman who supposedly finds women attractive. As it happens, TIP understands that she has missed something about the situation. Regrettably, she has chosen to write to Ask Polly, who does not even see that.

Friday, December 30, 2016

How Free to Choose

Just in case you are running out of reasons to torture yourself, here’s a new one. Well, maybe it’s not quite so new. Maybe it’s an old story. Still, if you need to torment yourself, here it is.

It’s an anti-freedom story. It shows someone I have never heard of, by name of Ray Fisman, bemoaning the fact that men and women choose mates for reasons that do not correlate with a certain ideology.

It was a great day for human civilization when the custom of arranged marriage was replaced—in some parts of the world—with courtship. In the new regime men and women, but especially women, were allowed to choose their spouses freely.

But, what happens when people do not approve of your choice? One assumes that adult men and adult women will make intelligent choices, that they will not be led around by the stirrings in their loins. After all, your mate will become part of your family—and vice versa—so the decision requires you to exercise good judgment.

In today’s world, we have gone beyond such considerations. We want reality, especially human nature, to answer the call of ideology. As opposed to answering the call of nature or of family and community.

And ideology still insists that people can have it all. It insists especially that women must be able to have it all. Why should this be so? It is so because the ideologues promised young women that if they postponed marriage and family in favor of career they would easily find the perfect man when they were ready. And the ideologues also told young women that once they were utterly independent they would be more desirable because they would be less needy and clingy.

Obviously, it was a lie. New research has shown that ambitious and successful women are penalized once they enter the marriage market. (I am sure that you like that charming turn of phrase. It is not mine.)

Women will not admit it in public, but they know this. They tamp down their ambitions in order to improve their chances of finding a suitable and even a desirable mate.

Since life is about trade-offs and since, as we all know, you cannot have it all, this makes some sense. Regardless of whether it appeals to you, the truth is that these women have every right to choose their own life plans freely. You remember the mantra: free to choose. Why should it not apply to women who choose less career success in favor of a better shot at marriage?

We know that a high-level executive position requires that a woman spend more time away from home and less time with her children. It’s a trade off. We accept it as such and respect whatever decisions women make.

And, dare I say that men are free to choose also. If they do not find excessively ambitious and successful women attractive or if they do not find them to be good marriage material—horrifying phrase, don’t you think?—that is their prerogative.

It gets worse.

When women take positions of leadership and power in business or politics their chances of divorce increase significantly. In Sweden... yes, in female friendly Sweden.

Fisman reports on the latest study:

To identify a causal effect of taking a high-powered political job, the paper compares the divorce rates of national politicians who barely win a seat in parliament versus those who just miss getting elected. Candidates who barely won are essentially the same as the ones who barely lost—they differ just by who was lucky enough to get a few votes more or less. It’s as good as random. (The researchers follow a similar approach for comparing the marital consequences of becoming a Swedish mayor by using close municipal elections.)

Folke and Rickne find that the winners’ and losers’ divorce rates are identical before the election takes place. But immediately afterward the winners’ rate doubles relative to that of the losers. (They find a similar impact on divorce from becoming a CEO, but unlike political competition, it’s hard to discern when winning a top corporate job was as good as random.) The authors argue that the women’s sudden success puts extra strain on marriages in which men are accustomed to playing a more dominant role in the workforce. Consistent with this interpretation, they find, for example, that the effect is largest in cases in which the promotion results in the woman becoming the household’s dominant earner.

Even in Sweden, Fisman notes, ideology has not repealed human nature. In a nation that has the most generous family leave policies, in a nation where schoolboys are taught that they need to pee sitting down, lest they be sexist, men and women are still men and women.

Fisman says that this is all about the glass ceiling. Except that it is not. The sad, cold truth is that human nature cannot be wished away. As it happens, most women do not ignore human nature. They adjust their expectations accordingly.

He writes:

Even in comparably progressive Sweden, legal protections and government programs aren’t enough to help women break through the glass ceiling. Societal norms still play a large role. And as these new studies emphasize, in those terms, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Social norms did not descend to earth from outer space. They correlate with human nature. Ideologues are at war against human nature and they disrespect the free choices that women (and men) make. Fisman is wrong to think that it’s just a matter of reality catching up with ideology. It’s a matter of ideologues who refuse to believe the evidence of their senses.

Ideologues like to complain that they do not live in a 50/50 world. They believe that true equality can only exist when half of the chief executives are female and when half of the housewives are male. Obviously, it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen because neither women nor men want it to happen.

That does not mean that men and women should not have the opportunity to make free choices. But it also means that we ought not to criticize them for making choices that do not correspond to an unrealistic ideology.

Can We Save Capitalism?

The anonymous author of the Schumpeter column in TheEconomist is closing out his tenure. Fittingly, he ends by asking whether capitalism can survive? At a time when all sensible human minds understand that no viable alternative exists, capitalism faces the danger of being hollowed out from within.

Inspiration for the column comes from Joseph Schumpter. Today’s columnist explains:

This column was inspired by the young Schumpeter’s vision of the businessperson as hero—the Übermensch who dreams up a new world and brings it into being through force of intellect and will. On its debut in September 2009, we argued that Schumpeter was a perfect icon for a business column because, unlike other economists, he focused on business leaders rather than abstract forces and factors. But as Schumpeter grew older, his vision darkened. He became increasingly preoccupied not with heroism but with bureaucratisation, and not with change but with decay.

Of course, capitalism has triumphed. It has succeeded in lifting most of the world’s poorer countries out of poverty. One need only but mention that China, whose extreme poverty rate in 1970 was over 80% now has an extreme poverty rate under 10%.

The columnist writes:

The socialist alternative that loomed large back in 1942 has imploded. The emerging world has capitalism to thank for its escape from millennia of poverty. 

The original Schumpeter was concerned that capitalism would be undermined from within. Today’s columnist says that Schumpeter feared elites, a guardian class of philosopher kings who did not trust markets but who trusted their own brilliance and believed fervently in the ideal-du-jour. Today, it’s the ideal of equality—apparently, capitalism does not provide people with an equal quantity of misery.

He says:

His [Schumpeter’s] biggest worry was that capitalism was producing its own gravediggers in the form of an anti-capitalist intelligentsia. Today that very elite, snug in Los Angeles canyons and university departments, has expanded. Hollywood studios denounce the wolves of Wall Street and the environmental vandals at large in the oil industry. The liberal sort of academic (meaning the type that favours big government) far outnumbers the conservative kind, by five to one, according to one recent study.

It takes a well-tuned prophetic sense to have seen the rise of an intelligentsia that cares more about its own importance than about the prosperity of the citizenry. And that cares more about its gauzy ideals than about whether the people are well nourished.

Obviously, the Marxist fairy tales spun out by what is called the Frankfort School have captured the minds of many academics in their web. While railing against consumerism these great minds ignore the fact that true socialism does not need to worry about consumerism because it produces nothing worth consuming.

Among the forces militating against capitalism was the state bureaucracy and its will to its own power. The original Schumpeter saw it in Roosevelt’s New Deal. He would not be reassured by today’s bloated government bureaucracies:

Another of Schumpeter’s concerns was that the state activism of Roosevelt’s New Deal was undermining the market. But in 1938 the American government was spending only a fifth of GDP. Today it is spending 38%—and that constitutes neoliberalism of the most laissez-faire kind compared with Italy (51% of GDP) or France (57%). Big regulation has advanced more rapidly than big government. Business is getting visibly flabbier, too. European industry has been old and unfit for years and now stodge is spreading to America. The largest firms are expanding and smaller ones are withering on the vine. The share of American companies that are 11 years old or over rose from a third in 1987 to almost half in 2012.

Two points should be underscored. “Big regulation”-- which happens to be the hallmark of the Obama administration--  has tamped down the growth of business and the economy. One may question whether or not it has redistributed wealth. It has certainly not created wealth. Thanks to excessive regulation small business cannot really get a toehold. Compliance costs too much.

The columnist continues:

Many big firms thrive because of government and regulation. The cost per employee of red tape—endless form-filling and dealing with health-and-safety rules—is multiples higher for companies that have a few dozen staff than for those with hundreds or thousands. Schumpeter called for owner-entrepreneurs to lend dynamism to economies. Today capitalism exists without capitalists—companies are “owned” by millions of shareholders who act through institutions that employ professional managers whose chief aim is to search for safe returns, not risky opportunities.

This has stifled productivity across the developed world:

The rate of productivity growth across the rich world has been disappointing since the early 1970s, with only a brief respite in 1996-2004 in the case of America. There, and in other rich countries, populations are ageing fast. Meanwhile, the fruits of what growth there is get captured by an ever narrower section of society. And those who succeed on the basis of merit are marrying other winners and hoarding the best educational opportunities.

Today’s populist revolt against the elites demonstrates something of  a recognition of the problem. While the columnist understands well that the “people” might not be an infallible source of wisdom, he knows that the “smug and self-serving” elites have provoked the reaction:

It may be nonsense that “the people” are infallible repositories of common sense, but there is no doubt that liberal elites have been smug and self-serving. And populism feeds on its own failures. The more that business copes with uncertainty by delaying investment or moving money abroad, the more politicians will bully or bribe them into doing “the right thing”. As economic stagnation breeds populism, so excessive regard for the popular will reinforces stagnation.

He concludes—more as a warning than as a solution-- that if the popular will recommends interfering in the markets it might well aggravate the problem. And yet, if by populism one means undoing regulations and diminishing the power of the bureaucracy it might end up being a good thing.

The Schumpeter columnist will henceforth be writing the Bagehot column for the Economist. We wish him well and thank him for his good work.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Stop Complaining!

Another day, another excellent article about therapy. This one comes to us from Inc magazine, thus, from the business press. Much of the best work in social and what they call industrial psychology comes from the world of business. See the Harvard Business Review.

It should not surprise us. People who do business have different standards. They care about what works, not necessarily what makes everyone feel good. Thus, they care about whether advice and information bring a practical benefit.

As you know, and as I have explained on countless occasions, therapists see their work differently. If it doesn’t work they will tell you that you just need more of it. Psychoanalysts have built an industry on that specious notion.

Today, Jessica Stillman offers up some good advice about complaining and venting. You know that the therapy culture promotes complaining. Therapists have spent a considerable amount of time telling people to express their negative feelings, to get it all out, not to keep it bottled up. They have insisted that if you do not vent and complain you are going to get sick.

To which Stillman responds that the best current science says that complaining is not just useless. It is bad for your mental health.

This might explain why therapists keep recommending it. Even if it is bad for your mental health, it is good for business. One hates to put it in such cynical terms, but, do you have a better explanation?

Some people will disagree. If you are among them and you want to learn the art of complaining, you should work at seeing the dark side of all things. You should learn to find fault wherever you look and to ignore anything that is right.

If you like, you can take a course in critical theory. It will instill in you the bad habit of finding fault with everything. Then you will always have something to complain about.

If you turn to the masters of critical theory--the Frankfort School-- you will learn about everything that is wrong with America, with capitalism and with Western Civilization.

Ideally, you will never run out of things to complain about. After developing the bad mental habit of complaining about everything and venting your spleen, you will always find a way to put it to good use.

The point is relevant to today’s political climate. Large numbers of people—in my neighborhood, at least-- are so thoroughly unhinged about the recent elections that they can do nothing but complain, vent and moan. I leave for wiser heads to determine whether they are right or wrong. I will only mention that the complaining is not providing any mental health benefit. Venting does not inspire people to vote for your cause.

Stillman has consulted with the experts. They explain that people vent because they believe that they need to get all of that negative energy out of their systems. They think that it's catharsis. The latest science begs to disagree:

Why do people complain? Not to torture others with their negativity, surely. When most of us indulge in a bit of a moan, the idea is to "vent." By getting our emotions out, we reason, we'll feel better.

But science suggests there are a few serious flaws in that reasoning. One, not only does expressing negativity tend not to make us feel better, it's also catching, making listeners feel worse. "People don't break wind in elevators more than they have to. Venting anger is...similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it's dead wrong," psychologist Jeffrey Lohr, who has studied venting, memorably explained.

And also:

Not only do repeated negative thoughts make it easier to think yet more negative thoughts, they also make it more likely that negative thoughts will occur to you just randomly walking down the street. (Another way to put this is that being consistently negative starts to push your personality towards the negative).

Negativity breeds negativity. Sharing your negativity with other people makes you a less desirable friend and partner. Then you will really have something to complain about. Yet, when you discover that all that complaining is not doing you any good, it will have become a bad mental habit. You will then have a devilishly difficult time disembarrassing yourself of it.

Stillman continues:

"Through repetition of thought, you've brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought...the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest." Gloom soon outraces positivity.

The same rule applies to hanging out with negative people. If you complain to your friends all the time, or if you hang out with people who accent the negative, you will discover that negativity is contagious.

In Stillman’s words:

Not only does hanging out with your own negative thoughts rewire your brain for negativity, hanging out with negative people does much the same. Why?

"When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain 'tries out' that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you're observing. This is basically empathy. It is how we get the mob mentality.... It is our shared bliss at music festivals," Parton writes. "But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love love love to constantly bitch."

Considering that therapists have been telling us that complaining is good for our mental and physical health, it is interesting to learn that the opposite is true. Complaining all the time, being critical of everything and everyone compromises your physical well-being.

Stillman writes:

All of which sounds like a good argument for staying away from negativity to protect your mental health, but Parton insists that quitting the complaining habit is essential for your physical health, too. "When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you're weakening your immune system; you're raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and a plethora of other negative ailments," he says.

The Wit and Wisdom of Thomas Sowell

As you know, Thomas Sowell has retired from column writing. He is 86 years old, so one understands if he feels that he needed a break.

Sowell was not only one of our great minds. He was resolutely determined never to allow ideology to blind him to the facts. And he was especially talented at communicating his thoughts in clear, cogent and coherent prose.

We will all miss his columns.

To mark the occasion Kerry Picket at The Daily Caller has collected a number of Sowell’s most witty and pithy and wise statements. I have selected a few of them for this post, as an appetizer:

The most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. Therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.

The next time some academics tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Republicans there are in their sociology department.

When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.

People who pride themselves on their ‘complexity’ and deride others for being ‘simplistic’ should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.

Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.

Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.

The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.

Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and highly educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important. Some confuse that feeling with idealism.

Whenever someone refers to me as someone ‘who happens to be black,’ I wonder if they realize that both my parents are black. If I had turned out to be Scandinavian or Chinese, people would have wondered what was going on.

Life does not ask what we want. It presents us with options.

New Year's Irresolutions

As the New Year approaches everyone seems to be making resolutions. But, what if you are feeling especially irresolute? What if you do not want to follow any of the advice I offered yesterday, about breaking bad habits?

Well, my friend Bird Dog, of the Maggie’s Farm blog, has just the list for you. I will call them New Years’ Irresolutions. The good thing is, they are especially easy to keep. And when you keep them you will at least have a sense of accomplishment, or, should I say, of dubious achievement.

Here goes:

1. I will not exercise at all and will avoid all forms of difficult or tedious exertion beyond walking around and looking at stuff
2. I will gain weight
3. I will resume smoking
4. I will watch more TV and movies, and read fewer books
5. I will do more take-out and minimize home cooking
6. I will quit vegetables entirely
7. I will not clean out or sort out a single closet
8. I will have a messy desk and disorganized paperwork
9. I will do more things at the last minute, or tomorrow
10. I will buy one more firearm I don't need
11. I will make the HQ a Sanctuary Space for dustballs
12. I will throw more recycles into the regular garbage
13. I will continue to try to avoid the dentist and doctor
14. I will waste more of my precious lifetime looking at ephemeral, meaningless BS on the internet
15. I will ignore "Check Engine" lights and seatbelt alarms
16. I will work harder on loving myself whether I deserve it or not
17. I will give more credit to myself, and less to God.

Have at it! And don’t say I don’t care!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

How to Break a Bad Habit

Why are bad habits so hard to break?

With the New Year approaching Quartz has offered an important column on the topic. The hook is the question of New Year’s resolutions. For my part I am far more interested in the notion that most human behaviors are performed on auto-pilot.

Psychologists are working to show that most of our behaviors are not directed by a command and control center in the mind.

Why does this matter?

Effectively, it is one of the central issues in therapy, one that has divided the world of therapy into those who believe in changing minds and those who believe that we can change behavior without changing the mind that is supposedly directing it.

Without trying to make this any more complicated than need be, when Freud invented psychoanalysis he assumed that hysterical symptoms were the mind’s way of expressing thoughts that it could not allow into consciousness. With hysteria the unconscious mind took over the female body and made it express those thoughts.

As I mentioned in my last book, it’s a variant on the notion of being bewitched, by another mind, that is, the mind of a devil. As you know, fallen angels are like the other kind of angels. Both are disembodied minds.

Anyway, Freud bequeathed us the notion  that if we wanted to overcome psychic symptoms we needed to discover what the unconscious mind wanted to say, to bring it into consciousness and then to say it with words. He continued to say that all human psychic distress, whether depression and anxiety or even bad obsessional habits, could be overcome by making the unconscious conscious and then by expressing it in language.

It was a perfectly coherent theory, but it never worked in practice. The mind that we take to be a command and control center does not really exist. It is a philosopher’s fiction, something that we conjure up in order to make sense out of experiences that we do not understand. There might be other reasons, but for today we will leave it at that.

But, what if our bad habits are not redolent of meaning, but are meaningless tics? What if our dreams, Oxford biologist Peter Medawar suggested are not messages from beyond but are just a lot of noise?

The theory of habit—symptoms without meaning-- was first promoted by Aristotle, considerably before Freud saw the light of day. More recently, David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein offered substantive objections to the theory of the mind in control. Most especially, Wittgenstein objected to the notion that a mental decision precedes and directs actions.

These latter have provided the theoretical foundation for today’s cognitive and behavioral treatments.

I will spare you too many details in a blog post, and will skip to Olivia Goldhill’s excellent presentation of the question of habit:

Chances are, you’re still doing whatever bad habit you tried to quit for last new year’s resolution. The months and years go by and, perhaps your job or relationships change, but your routines and behavior likely stay overwhelmingly the same. That’s because the vast majority of our actions aren’t conscious. And to change any lingering bad habits, you have to focus on understanding your subconscious behavior.

“Humans can do just about all of our behavior without consciousness,” says Val Curtis, a behavior change expert at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “You could switch off our pre-frontal cortex and we’d still be able to behave in the same way. We’re able to do almost everything we do every day on autopilot.”

For the record, I will point out that some thinkers take serious offense at the notion that we act on autopilot. For my part I find Curtis’s theory to be correct.

As it happens, it is easy to understand. Goldhill continues:

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. After all, says Curtis, “it would just be too difficult for our brains to make minute decisions about every single thing we do at every moment. It would take too much computing power.”

Again, this is intuitively obvious. If you, upon waking up every morning, had to make a new and original choice among four different kinds of juice, six different brands of cereal and three different types of coffee you would be wasting mental energy on inconsequential topics. You do better to save your mind for more significant problems.

For that reason, good personal relationships, especially marriages, run on routines, on couples’ routines. If you and your spouse try to negotiate every action you take during the day you will be wasting energy and adding an unnecessary layer of complexity (and potential conflict) to every interaction.

Goldhill adds an intriguing thought. When we function on autopilot we are simply responding to external cues and stimuli. These external cues provoke us to perform actions automatically.

She writes:

Instead, we learn to instinctively respond to the objects around us, which allows us to move through the world without having to make a conscious decision about every action we take. Much like driving on autopilot, without giving conscious attention to shifting gears or turning left, much of our daily routine—getting dressed, traveling to work, making coffee—is carried out automatically in response to environmental stimuli.

And she quotes a USC psychologist on the way habits are formed:

Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at University of Southern California, notes that while we’re aware of our conscious thought processes, it’s far more difficult to understand automatic behavior patterns. “Habits form when you repeat a response in a given context and it is rewarded (e.g., enter kitchen first thing in the morning, make coffee),” she explains in an email. The result is that we learn to link our context with a specific response—e.g. we know that when we’re in the kitchen early in the morning, we should be making coffee.

“In a way, habits are a short-cut,” says Wood. “You don’t have to think about what to do, the response you have done in the past just pops into mind. And this can work well for coffee making—you don’t have to wonder whether you want coffee today, you just make it.”

According to Wood, half of our behavior is automatic. There is nothing wrong with having Wheaties or a muffin for breakfast every day or with taking the same train to work every morning. Problems arise when the habits are harmful: when we drink too much alcohol or eat the wrong foods or become too sedentary.

How does one go about breaking bad habits? We already have an indication from 12 Step programs. As you know, these programs have been inspired by religion. But some of the steps could as well have been derived from psychology.

Among them, if you are an alcoholic you should avoid bars and should stop hanging around with your old drinking buddies. In order to overcome alcoholism you should reduce your exposure to the stimuli that you associate with the bottle.

Goldhill offers the more theoretically rigorous version:

To change these kinds of behaviors, it’s important to pay attention to the environment we tend to do them in. “Successful behavior change actually involves changing the contexts in which we live,” says Wood. So smokers should avoid the places where they smoke, those hoping to lose weight should re-arrange their food cupboards so as not to instinctively reach for unhealthy food, and anyone aiming to be more productive needs to calm their environment—both by physically tidying, and removing internet distractions.

“You have to recognize that the environment around you will disturb you,” says Curtis.”You have to create both a real environment around you that’s not disturbing and a virtual environment that’s not distracting.”

This means, as the 12 steps also suggest, that you cannot rely on willpower and self-control. It also means that you are not going to get anywhere by trying to discover the root cause and the deeper meaning of your bad habits. At the least, these theories explain why certain approaches never work.

Goldhill concludes:

Focusing only on conscious behavior won’t go very far in changing your lifestyle. “Willpower and self-control are not a good match for habit,” says Wood. “Habits will persist long after your willpower is depleted and you no longer can exert self-control.”

But if you’ve tried changing your settings and still can’t change that habit, there’s always one last-ditch option for those who are truly desperate. Wood points out that people tend to be better at changing their behavior after they’ve moved or had another big life change. “The old cues are removed and people have a window of opportunity to do something new,” she says. So if you’re really, really set on ditching that bad habit this year, then relocate, change your job, and get rid of all habitual behavior in your life. It’s drastic, but it just might work.

It does feel drastic, but, then again, many habits are profoundly self-destructive. One applauds Goldhill for an excellent column. She has given us a good rendering of the best thinking in the therapy world. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Idolizing Obama

Think about it: in less than a month we won’t have Barack Obama to kick around anymore. Or, is that wishful thinking?

Yet, we will have the foreign policy mess he created. Perhaps we will call on Hercules to clean up the Augean stables, but there is little chance that we will be cleaning it up quickly and easily.

For some obvious reasons, Barack Obama inspired idolatry. His supporters did not just agree with him. They did not just praise what he did and criticize his failures. They worshipped him. To the point where they were perfectly willing to denounce any criticism as racism.

Or else, you might say that most people wanted so badly for Obama to succeed that they decided—according to the rules of today’s trendiest philosophers—that success merely meant that people would declare him a success. Since precious few people are declaring Obama to be an abysmal failure, the word running through the system is that he was a great success.

If this is what success looks like, perhaps a few failures would be good for the soul. At least, they would help restore rational judgment to the nation’s political mindset.

Enforced idolatry is an insidious form of censorship. You are not allowed to express a dissenting word lest you be shunned from polite and even impolite society.

One understands that some of Trump’s supporters are idolatrous. Many are not. And yet, so many of Obama’s important supporters in the media—think David Remnick—have no critical distance from Obama’s policy that I believe the word idolatry to be perfectly fitting.

Yesterday, a chastened Alan Dershowitz declared Obama to be appalling. On Fox and Friends, he said:

Many [liberal Democrats] like me who support his domestic policy think he was an appalling... president when it came to foreign policy.

Dershowitz is horrified because during a meeting with Obama in 2008, Obama told him to his face that he would always have Israel’s back. Dershowitz continued that he did not realize that Obama would knife Israel in the back. I appreciate that when a sitting United States Senator swears to your face that he will do something, you are inclined to believe him. Count Deshowitz among those who were duped by a dishonest and deceitful president. But who is honest enough to admit it.

Col. Ralph Peters summed up the Obama Middle East policy thusly:

Praise Islam, Ignore Christians, Blame Jews

For those of you who like 6-word novels, the Peters phrase qualifies. Considering how difficult it is to write a 6-word novel, we praise the colonel. Anyhow, he uses far fewer than 140 characters.

Taking the full measure of the Obama foreign policy, Bret Stephens describes it in terms of serial betrayals.  It almost sounds like: Who did Obama not betray? Of course, that one is too easy: he didn’t betray the mullahs in Iran.

Aside from that Obama betrayed:

Iranians, whose 2009 Green Revolution in heroic protest of a stolen election Mr. Obama conspicuously failed to endorse for fear of offending the ruling theocracy.

Iraqis, who were assured of a diplomatic surge to consolidate the gains of the military surge, but who ceased to be of any interest to Mr. Obama the moment U.S. troops were withdrawn, and only concerned him again when ISIS neared the gates of Baghdad.

Syrians, whose initially peaceful uprising against anti-American dictator Bashar Assad Mr. Obama refused to embrace, and whose initially moderate-led uprising Mr. Obama failed to support, and whose sarin- and chlorine-gassed children Mr. Obama refused to rescue, his own red lines notwithstanding.

Ukrainians, who gave up their nuclear weapons in 1994 with formal U.S. assurances that their “existing borders” would be guaranteed, only to see Mr. Obama refuse to supply them with defensive weapons when Vladimir Putin invaded their territory 20 years later.

Pro-American Arab leaders, who expected better than to be given ultimatums from Washington to step down, and who didn’t anticipate the administration’s tilt toward the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political opposition, and toward Tehran as a responsible negotiating partner.

Does the word faithless pop into your mind? Does the word cowardice follow quickly after it?

Stephens continues to explain that Obama also betrayed his promises to the American people:

Mr. Obama promised a responsible end to the war in Iraq. We are again fighting in Iraq. He promised victory in Afghanistan. The Taliban are winning. He promised a reset with Russia. We are enemies again. He promised the containment of Iran. We are witnessing its ascendancy in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. He promised a world free of nuclear weapons. We are stumbling into another age of nuclear proliferation. He promised al Qaeda on a path to defeat. Jihad has never been so rampant and deadly.

And he used deceit, underwritten by a mainstream media that happily ignored it all. They believed that if the great Obama was doing it, it must be right. Obviously, the media suffered an enormous loss of credibility during the Obama years. When it roused itself to attack Trump, no one believed anything it was saying.

Stephens continues:

The administration was deceptive about the motives for the 2012 Benghazi attack. It was deceptive about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s service record, and the considerations that led it to exchange five Taliban leaders for his freedom. It was deceptive about when it began nuclear negotiations with Iran. It was deceptive about the terms of the deal. It continues to be deceptive about the fundamental aim of the agreement, which has less to do with curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions than with aligning Washington’s interests with Tehran’s.

Instead, we have the spectacle of the U.S. government hiding behind the skirts of the foreign minister of New Zealand—along with eminent co-sponsors, Venezuela, Malaysia and Senegal—in order to embarrass and endanger a democratic ally in a forum where that ally is already isolated and bullied. In the catalog of low points in American diplomacy, this one ranks high.

Of course, the media did not much care about the IRS scandal, the Benghazi attack, the VA problems, and so on. As someone said last night on television, if the Benghazi attack had happened under the Bush administration you would have heard nothing but how Bush had killed the ambassador… and you would have heard it every day for a year.

Since we are ostensibly taking the measure of Obama’s foreign policy, we will add a few remarks by the estimable Caroline Glick, an Israeli columnist who is none too pleased by Obama’s betrayal of Israel. But, she makes a more salient point.

In the end, Obama’s foreign policy was designed to diminish the role and the influence of America in the world.

Glick writes:

When Obama chose to lead the anti-Israel lynch mob at the Security Council last week, he did more than deliver the PLO terrorist organization its greatest victory to date against Israel. He delivered a strategic victory to the anti-American forces that seek to destroy the coherence of American superpower status. That is, he carried out a strategic strike on American power.

By leading the gang rape of Israel on Friday, Obama undermined the rationale for American power. Why should the US assert a sovereign right to stand against the radical forces that control the UN?

As part of his policy of disempowering America, Obama has raised the status and the stature of the United Nations:

It is not surprising that Obama is carrying out the final act of his presidency at the UN. Obama has made no attempt to hide his desire to eliminate America’s independence of action. By elevating the post of UN ambassador to a cabinet level position at the outset of his presidency, Obama signaled his conviction that this corrupt institution is the equal of the US government.

This early signal was transformed into an open policy when Obama used the Security Council as a means to bypass the US Senate in implementing his nuclear deal with Iran.

Now, by ignoring the near consensus position of both parties that the US should block anti-Israel resolutions from being adopted at the Security Council and plotting further action against Israel at the Security Council in his final weeks in office, Obama has made clear his position and his aim.

She adds this analysis:

For eight years, through his embrace and empowerment of US enemies, betrayal and weakening of US allies, emaciation of the US armed forces and repeated apologies for America’s past assertions of global leadership Obama has waged a determined war against US superpower status. The last vestige of the strategic and moral rationale for US power was the protection America afforded Israel at the Security Council.

The solution, Glick says, is to follow the recommendations of Republican senators and defund the UN and make the UN irrelevant:

Now with that gone, it has become a strategic imperative for the US to render the UN irrelevant. This can only be undertaken by permanently defunding this corrupt institution and using the US’s Security Council veto to end the UN’s role as the arbiter of international peace and security, by among other things, ending the deployment of UN forces to battle zones.