Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am special. Therefore I kill what irks me.

This is another "best of SHAMblog"...but as (tragically) relevant as ever.
So I did a nationwide satellite-radio hook-up Wednesday night on the subject of the narcissism that fuels, or surely catalyzes, these violent outbursts we've been seeing in recent years. If you think about it, self-love has to play a key role in pushing people to act out in violent ways, especially in cases where they jeopardize the lives of not just their nominal targets but innocent bystanders as well. Yeah, part of it is guns, and part of it is the inflamed rhetoric, and part of it, perhaps, is the social maladroitness of a generation of kids for whom a booty-call sent via text-message qualifies as "intimacy." But ask yourself: Even with the availability of guns, and even with the strident, bellicose oratory one encounters in so many areas of postmodern life ... At the end of the day, what kind of person takes it upon himself to become The Solution, elevating his own need for emotional relief above everyone else's, even to the extent of assassinating a duly elected public official? This is a person who is saying, in effect, "I don't care how the electorate voted. They got it wrong. And I'm going to make it right." What kind of person does that?

Almost by definition, the answer is ... a narcissist. A person with a messianic view of his role in the social scheme.

Studies show that we in America have recently succeeded at producing several of the most narcissistic generations in (measurable) history. Psychology professor Robert Millman of Cornell Medical College put it this way in discussing the over-the-top, in-your-face antics of today's Hollywood elite: "The lack of empathy is eerie. They think they're right and that the desk clerk or whoever just didn't understand how important their needs were." As paraphrased in the article linked immediately above, Millman went on to explain that "narcissism leads to depression, isolation, rage and envy." But such problems clearly don't begin and end in Hollywood. I'm not going to rehash all of my feelings on self-esteem-based education here; anyone who's interested in catching up can browse the blog or simply read Chapter 10 in SHAM, which is devoted in its entirety to self-esteem and, in particular, its counterintuitive downside. (Plus, now we have the law of attraction, cornerstone concept of The Secret and derivative works, indoctrinating adults to believe that the beneficent Universe basically exists to meet your needs.)

Suffice it to say that when you train legions of our young people to think that they're Special! and Wonderful! and The Most Important Person on Earth! ... should we really be that surprised when some of the more unbalanced ones grow up and start to behave like it?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Back by no special demand! The post of New Year's past.

Some of the references in this post are a tad dated...and I must chuckle at my characterization of Jean Chatzky, who's now about as entrenched an authority on consumer finance as there is in today's America...but still, this post encapsulates my thoughts on life and living as well as any, and is unusually well-suited to the New Year/New You mindset that's about to wash over this grand nation of ours. (By the way, I guess I was publishing SHAMblog in a large-type edition in those days. And isn't it just precious that I then referred to readers as SHAMbloggers?) So without further ado let us revisit Dec. 29, 2006:
Wednesday's GMA featured an interview with life coach Cheryl Richardson. Realize for starters that Richardson gets to be a TV life coach not so much because her advice is better than most other folks', but because her face is. She's cute. This, of course, is the same phenomenon that explains why, when it came time for The Today Show to anoint a new in-house expert on consumer finance, countless seasoned reporters and editors had to make way for the cherubic Jean Chatzky. My only question at the time was, could the show's audience put its full trust in financial wisdom from a girl who then looked to be about 12? (Be patient. We'll get to Bambi.)

The Richardson segment was one of those new-start-for-the-new-year things, with GMA hoping to get the jump on its competitors by inducing viewers to mull their 2007 resolutions a few days early. In the spirit of eternal helpfulness to which SHAMbloggers have grown accustomed, I'll summarize Richardson's insights here. In fact, tell you what: We'll let her talk for herself until she says something suspect. Then and only then will I interrupt. 'K? Here goes:

GMA: "Cheryl, how would someone go about laying the groundwork for success in the New Year?"

Richardson: "Well, the first thing is, look at what you did last year that worked, and...."
OK, stop.

How do you know what really "worked" last year? Because it had a "successful outcome"? Isn't it possible that you succeeded in spite of whatever it is you did, not because of it? And certainly it's at least possible that there are other things you could've done that would've been more successful, perhaps even far more successful, than what you actually did. Anyway, how can you be that precise in separating out all the variables in your life, such that you can say with any degree of certainty that this caused that? Finally, how do you know how it's all going to work out in the end? Maybe you did such-and-such a thing and it got you a great promotion, but maybe that promotion is going to get you shipped off to open your company's new office in Dubai, where you'll eventually be kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and turn up on CNN in an
orange jumpsuit....

So, Stevie-boy, you're saying that nothing matters and we're all doomed. No. I'm saying that too many things matter—that there are too many variables, and their interplay is such that they can't be neatly separated out and analyzed as if they were independent elements. Especially not by a casual onlooker like a life coach, and even less so by a life coach you saw for three minutes on GMA. I'm also saying that most things can't be predicted—not very well for the short term, not at all for the long term. Sure, we have to live anyway, which means decisions have to be made. We all have to do what we have to do to puzzle through our lives. Our lives. No life coach can see the future. They're consultants, not clairvoyants. And in function, most of today's coaches are more like cheerleaders. Real coaches, after all, call the shots*; real coaches say no to their players (and even take players out of the game). Garden-variety life coaches, on the other hand, won't tell a client what they know a client doesn't want to hear. In any case, the life coach offers no insurance policy against failure, and may well do you substantial harm by patting you on the back (or persuading you to pat yourself on the back) when he or she shouldn't. Yanno, maybe giving up your middle-management job to open a taco stand isn't the best thing for you at this juncture in life. Don't get me wrong: If that's what you want to do, maybe you should go for it. However, if you're going to bring in a coach, then the coach should give you a no-holds-barred assessment, not just an attaboy or a lot of nebulous verbiage. (As you may have guessed by now, I'm
not too high on life coaches.)

Quick story. When I decided to trade my sales bag for a typewriter back in 1981, I went to the newsstand, found a magazine that I thought "sounded like me," and mailed off my rambling, 6,500-word manuscript about selling mirrors in Harlem. That magazine was
Harper's. If you're in the writing biz or know anything about it, you're probably laughing right now, because the odds of selling your very first piece to Harper's, especially "over the transom" (i.e. without being asked for it), range between insanely long and fuggetaboutit. Harper's is, without question, one of the toughest sales in the business. A good writer can spend his entire career submitting to Harper's and never click once. Nonetheless, editor Lewis Lapham loved the piece, bought it, and it ran in the magazine's January 1982 issue. I became something of an overnight sensation in magazine circles; agents, too, were beating a path to my door. For me, then, sending off my unbidden manuscript was "what worked" that year. (That's what Cheryl Richardson would've told me.) But any writer who looked at what I did and used it as a template for success—"Hey, I know! I'll just whip something up and send it to Harper's!"—would almost surely set himself up to fail, and fail miserably. (And the odds of failure wouldn't be that much lower even if you didn't confine yourself to Harper's. Mailing out unsolicited manuscripts is not the way to go in freelancing. That's something I myself had to learn after my first few charmed years.) Besides, though the Harper's sale ignited what some would consider a successful career in writing, the jury's still out on whether the overall shift—from selling to writing—was a good thing or a bad thing. For me and/or my family. I don't want to encumber you or this blog with all sorts of details about my financial life and family history, but suffice it to say I've begun to envy my blue-collar acquaintances who are looking forward to collecting government pensions in a few years. I suspect that my wife envies their wives.

Which brings us, at long last, to my deer story. Hunter goes into the woods. Sees a nice buck. Takes aim with his
.30-06, fires. First shot misses. Second shot is a clean kill. Goes back to his truck feeling ebullient; it's a good day. He gets back-slaps all around from his hunting pals. Only later does he find out that his first shot—the one that missed—hit a pregnant woman sitting in her driveway in a nearby housing addition, warming up her car. True story; happened about 20 minutes from my house.

Get my drift? That hunter learned a hard lesson—unlike most of us, who seldom get to see the full and final effect of all of the shots we take in life. While we're toasting our successes, admiring the racks (no wisecracks, OK?) on the metaphorical deer we took down, somebody somewhere may be grappling with the consequences of the shots that got away... Of course, the opposite is also true: There's no way of knowing about the unintended good we do, either. (See:
The Five People You Meet in Heaven.) And that's really the only way to leave it: There's no way of knowing. So can we please stop pretending we know? Or hiring people to pretend for us? 

* I'm not saying that we should want this from a life coach. I'm just saying that the average person misperceives the role played by the coach, and that the coach derives a faux credibility and standing from the misuse of the more authoritarian terminology. Who would pay $250 an hour for a "life cheerleader"?

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Millions of pots, calling each other black...

This is basically another reprise of a column from yesteryear, but amid today's climate of nonstop finger pointing, with just about every Tom calling out just about every Dick or Harry over some aspect of behavior that Tom finds despicable (and vice versa), it seemed apt. 

As always, see what you think.
Among all human foibles, if there's a single trait that astonishes and, really, amuses me more than any other, it's the tendency to rationalize and excuse whatever degree of sinfulness we find in our own hearts, while pointing an accusing finger at someone else whose own degree of sinfulness slightly differs from, or extends one iota beyond, our own. Of course, in most cases we don't even recognize our own behavior as sinful (or, if we prefer to avoid the use of a word freighted with religious overtones, wrong). Sins occur only when someone else crosses a line that we ourselves would not cross.

A man who treats all of his employees in a belittling, dehumanizing fashion, draining them of their pride and
their very zest for life, becomes outraged reading the story of the fun-loving, generally nice-guy boss at another company who's accused of groping a female employee.

A woman who has two children and then has an abortion next time around for the sake of convenience ("I didn't want to be raising more kids
at this stage of life") demands justice after a gang member kills one of the first two kids during a drive-by shooting.*
A man who has had affairs in the past (or is having an affair with you at that very moment) is enraged when his paramour/you sneak(s) off to enjoy an evening with another man.
A woman who finesses her income taxes gets furious at her son for being kicked out of school after cheating on an important exam 

A jury gets even on society's behalf by imposing the death penalty on a teenager who got even with a bully who'd taunted him for years. 

A venal corporate executive who sacks his company by implementing dubious executive-compensation policies that allow him and his cronies to skim off the top feels no qualms about prosecuting the "young punk" who broke into his house to steal his big-screen TV.

A Pope who kept silent about Nazi atrocities during World War II tells millions of Catholics how they must take a stand against evil wherever and whenever they encounter it. Related: A so-called "cafeteria Catholic" who breaks his religion's law by practicing birth control bitterly denounces a fellow Catholic who uses the N word in describing blacks.

My point being: Really, who decides what's worse than what else? And isn't it interesting that, left to our own devices, we tend to decide that the things we do
our unique flaws and vicesare "OK" in the grand scheme of things?

It's always the other guy who's "crossing the line."

We often call this hypocrisy, and it's easy to spot when the transgressions are parallel: that is, when
the rest of us catch you attacking someone else for doing the same thing you've been doing in secret. But what about when the transgressions aren't parallel?

+  Is it worse to rape a woman...or shoot a bison grazing peacefully in a field for the pure thrill of it?

+ Is it worse to rob a bank...or chronically intimidate your wife/kids?

+ Is it worse to tell a lie that you think is small (bearing in mind that we seldom see the end-term consequences that a lie may set in motion, which can be catastrophic, even when the lie is a little white one) or to kill one person without whom the world would be better off (though the world may not know it at the time the killing takes place)?
We're also inclined to discount sins of omission: The wealthy woman who wears a $5000 designer gown to a social event where she'll be greeted like royalty has almost surely had a hand in ending human lives by doing so; she just doesn't realize it. She could've worn an inexpensive frock and donated the rest to prevent African children from starving. (So maybe there's gun death...and gown death?) For that matter, she could've passed up the event entirely, dismissing it as a worthless frill. In that context, is what she did—wearing a pretty gown to a nice social event—better or worse than the genuinely poor teenager who mugs an elderly woman for her handbag so that he himself can avoid starving? As the foregoing illustrates, we also tend to label it "sin" only when we can see a straight line of causation: the direct impact. If we can interpose several layers of complexity and confusion between cause and effect, we can tell ourselves no harm, no foul.

In truth, I suspect that all sins
perhaps even all behaviors, whether we're wont to adjudge them good or bad here on earthmay be somehow analogous. Perhaps all behavior is created equal. We each have degrees of (self-defined) sin we can live with. We have "bargains" we makewith God (if we choose to acknowledge Him), with ourselves, with the people who like us just the way we are. It's one unending rerun of the old quiz show, Let's Make a Deal.
* I am not implying in my own voice that abortion = murder. But surely you'll find no shortage of folks who would make that argument and find (im)moral equivalence between the two events.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

For your reading displeasure: some end-year non-PC rants.

Re the notion that if black kids do poorly in school, it's because they attend awful schools: Don't get me wrong, this may sometimes be the case. Maybe more than sometimes. But whence this knee-jerk assumption that lousy test scores and graduation rates indicate ipso facto that students are victims of an uncaring administration that has provided them with the dregs of Teacherdom? Can't it mean that black kids have more difficulty learning than white kids?* In fact, that's the first possibility that should be considered in keeping with Occam's Razor. Ditto the evidence that black grade-schoolers are punished and suspended more than white students. The approved explanation is that teachers are so inherently racist that they can't control themselves even when dealing with the youngest, most innocent black kids. But could it more simply mean that blacks have some behavioral maladjustment that begins manifesting itself at an early age?** It is no more racist to wonder about such things than it is to observe that some races seem taller than others. How do we know what else is encoded along with the genes for color and such? We'll find out one day soon, of course, but it remains to be seen whether that info will be suppressed if it's unfavorable to a protected group.

Re that viral cat-calling video that created such a stir: Gals, if you don't want men to come on to you, then for whom are you trying to look sexy? (Not a rhetorical question. I'm honestly asking.) It's disingenuous to say that you're just trying to look good for yourself: You know deep down that "looking good for yourself" (or "for other women") is in reality a measurement of your ability to attract men. In other words, you know you look good when you glance in the mirror, see yourself as a man would see you and say Ooooh, mamacita. Dressing hot and then acting offended when you get the response that hot women get is a bit like putting on ultra-spiked heels and then complaining when people notice that you're really tall. If you don't care about attracting men, dress comfortably. Wear baggy clothes and sneakers or flats. Now, if you're arguing that we men are supposed to keep our mouths shut even when you look super-hot, fair enough. I can buy that. Just don't deny the reality of what's going on here. Because, as Michael Corleone said to Carlo near the end of The Godfather, "It insults my intelligence."

What the hell is "profiling," anyway? Let's say I eat a certain food I've never tasted before and suffer horrific digestive consequences. Then I try that food a half-dozen times more and I get sick again each time... Guess what, folks...I'm gonna stop eating it. So would you. If a certain species of dog bites me every time I encounter it, I'm going to shy away from that type of dog. Similarly, if blacks account for over 90% of the murder perps in NYC, and I'm a cop, how can I not be influenced by that? That doesn't mean that every black I meet is a murderer, but it does mean that I can hardly be blamed for having a visceral flinching reaction to the next black stranger I meet in a high-crime area. Besides, certainly, to hear blacks tell it, I they profile cops, too, expecting the worst from each such encounter. Should we try to fight such tendencies? Sure. Should we implement policies that discourage such tendencies? We probably should (though I'm not persuaded in the case of terrorism). But it's just human nature to feel this way. Tell me where I'm off-base.

Finally, returning again to rape or "date rape": In a society marked by endless bloviation about female empowerment, independence and self-esteem, I fail to see why we're gravitating to a position where it's a man's legal responsibility to supplant the woman's judgment with his own in deciding whether sex should occur. Let's suppose that a woman has been drinking a fair amount at some
holiday gathering and is therefore more suggestible; less inclined to refuse a man's advances. Let's even suppose that as a result she (a) has sex with someone she'd never consider sleeping with when sober and (b) is aghast the next morning to discover that she indeed did so. Why is that the man's problem? Provided she was still conscious and communicating with the outside world when it happened, I don't see how that can be called rape. For as I've noted before, if that same tipsy woman gets behind the wheel of a car and plows into a mother with baby carriage on her way home from the holiday gathering, she'll be held liable for driving under the influence. So why is she not fully and solely liable for screwing under the influence?

And hell, if she was "too drunk" to give a valid consent, why was he not "too drunk" to be held responsible for pressing on? Why do we argue a one-way, gender-specific code of conduct/liability?

There are many behaviors that are considered marginally ethical in a polite society but do not rise to the level of illegality. The average person selling a used car will not disclose every last quirk; caveat emptor generally applies in such transactions (though, of course, if you withhold major safety defects that have tragic consequences, there will be repercussions). If you're offering a house for rent, you may elect not to mention to prospective tenants that it gets awfully drafty in the winter months, thus the renter's heating bill is apt to go through the roof (literally). A politician may neglect to volunteer that he had an affair, cheated on his taxes, smoked dope, or all of the above. None of these is admirable, but should we label them crimes?

There is—and must continue to be—a distinction between being a cad and being a criminal.

As a libertarian and a man, I am dismayed by today's fulminating obsession with expanding the category of actions that supposedly constitute rape. Not a few campus activists want to include sex obtained under false pretenses...e.g. if a guy forgets to mention that he's married, doesn't have the credit score he implied he had, or really never intended to see the woman again (a la Tinder). I'm sorry, folks, that can't be rape. But the so-called "rape by deception" movement already has achieved some legislative traction, so it's a trend worth watching in 2015.

Happy New Year.
* Sure, the problem could be cultural and in no way genetic. Black kids may get less support at home, and/or black kids may face anti-educational peer pressures that (most) white kids don't face. I'm just saying let's not automatically dump on the teachers or the schools.
** Ditto. Kids who come from unstable domestic situations may bring emotional baggage to school along with their pencils. But regardless...

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Spike Lee was correct: just Do the Right Thing. Please.

Lately we see all this hand-wringing, throughout society and on every news channel, about the way criminal suspects are treated, the way unruly protestors are treated, the way people on Death Row are executed. And similar/related topics.

Those are not insignificant matters. I don't like to turn on my TV and see handcuffed suspects who look as if they've just been interrogated with a closed fist; I don't like to see protestors met on some downtown night-time street by the equivalent of an armored assault battalion that appears to have been photoshopped in from newsreels of Afghanistan. So yes, we must address those issues as part of our journey to the fully civilized society we aspire to be...a society in which we can all take pride, regardless of gender, color, creed, etc....

But can we agree that before any of that, arguably the premier building block of a civilized society is a general recognition and acceptance of The Rule of Law? Watching CNN of late, I feel as if we're ignoring the elephant in the room while we get caught up in the mice emerging now and then from the baseboards.

To start with the Death Row issue, folks, know that I am a lifelong crusader against capital punishment, which I deem barbaric. I cannot believe that in 2014, we're still invoking that hoary, biblical "eye for an eye" crap as a justification for state-sponsored killing. But, yanno, if you don't want to have to worry about the second-rate chemical components of the mysterious cocktail the state is using to bring about your barbaric demise, don't commit a capital crime. Does that seem reasonable? A recognition of the Rule of Law—and the law itself—obviates your need for the teams of specialty attorneys who try to keep people from being strapped to that damned table.

Similarly, if you don't want to risk being manhandled by cops—who are, after all, fallible human beings (in many cases profoundly jaded after receiving way too concentrated a dose of the ugly side of life)—then avoid becoming a person of interest in a criminal investigation. If you must have an encounter with law enforcement, by all means handle it as if you were a paleontologist handling the rarest and most precious intact dinosaur egg ever found at a dig. 

Let's get to the case at hand, the case that has catapulted these questions to the forefront of our collective consciousness. I feel for the parents and loved ones of Michael Brown. I have three grown kids of my own, two of them sons, and I can't imagine what it would be like to lose any of them to such a tragedy. That said, I have to believe that in their heart of hearts, even Mike Brown's parents would agree that their son is miscast as the poster boy for white racism and police malfeasance. He apparently robbed a convenience store just prior to his fateful encounter with Officer Wilson, and then—even the family's attorneys have not denied—tried to wrest the officer's gun from Wilson during some altercation that evolved in the police cruiser. Does that, in and of itself, give Wilson carte blanche to execute the kid? Of course not. And if the grand jury rules that the crisis was already past by the time Wilson fired the fatal shots, I'll be the first one cheering for the officer's arrest and conviction of...something. Maybe not first-degree homicide, but something. Still, if I could go back in time and speak to Michael (Gentle Giant) Brown, I would say to him, "Mike, Mikey, look, don't grab those cigars from the counter in that store, and don't strong-arm the clerk; because then, if you should get hassled by some cop for walking down the street a few moments later, you won't have to worry that the cop is hot on your trail. And if you do get stopped—as African-Americans will, for no good reason, too often—then Jesus Christ don't go for the cop's gun! Because if you come out on the short end of that struggle, what the hell do you think is gonna happen next?"

(Has it occurred to anyone in the Brown family that even if Mike survived his meet-up with Wilson, he'd still in all likelihood be going away for a good while as a result of whatever happened there?)

The Rule of Law. If we all did what we were supposed to do in life, if we didn't steal, stab, shoot, punch, rape and so forth, we'd have little reason to fear the civil-rights infringements that tend to flow as consequences from such untoward behaviors. Why does that so seldom come up? Why is Don Lemon (or one of his hand-picked guests) not making that point nightly? Is it somehow impolitic to talk about law and order? To reinforce its importance in the social contract?

If you throw a bottle at a police tank during some chaotic protest melee, you do not deserve to to be shot in the head. Nevertheless, if you throw a bottle at a police tank during that melee, you risk being shot in the head. So don't throw the bottle.

While I'm on a roll, I would extend that logic to other counterproductive behaviors that are not, strictly speaking, illegal. Forgive me if I sound judgmental—and I know I do—but young woman: Please don't have six kids with four different absentee fathers and then complain about America's insensitivity in the face of poverty. (That admonition "applies double" to demagogues: Just STFU. I don't want to hear it.) Does that mean that I want the woman and her six kids under age 7 to live in squalor and in a constant state of what social scientists call "food insecurity"? No way. I want her and her kids to be housed and fed (even though to some degree such largess incentivizes the ongoing behavior). But, young woman, why would you put yourself—and me, and society, and hateful Tea Party types—in the position of having to make those calls about your life and well-being?

Director Lee said it best in his title so many years ago....