To pick up where we left off last time: Finishing 23rd on a list of 178 might not seem that bad. It's just that when you consider what this nation has going for it objectively—the wealth, the opportunity, the sheer diversity of possible lifestyles, wherein just about anybody except serial killers* should be able to find a comfortable niche—you come away wondering how we missed being first or second.
Not to get all sappy and patriotic about it, but it's remarkable what the U.S. has achieved despite being, in global terms, an infant nation: about 300 years of total history under our collective belt, Colonial years included. Today, we are the world's only true superpower. Ninety-five percent of us are employed. Current economic uncertainties notwithstanding, we enjoy, in the overall, a high standard of living. We have available to us an array of consumer products and services that no other nation in the world can equal, or in most cases even approach. Despite the incessant (and, yes, often valid) carping from the Green crowd, we have an abundance of breathtakingly beautiful open spaces for personal or family enjoyment. The menu of sports to be watched or played at almost any level is mind-boggling. So is the cornucopia of other leisure activities, many of which are free.
This may come as a shock to readers who've learned to take at face value ex-candidate John Edwards' perpetual hand-wringing over "the two Americas"**, but in multinational terms, even our poor aren't poor. I'm not out to politicize this post in any way. I'm simply going to list a few facts about "poverty, American-style," as an article in Human Events recently put it. Based on Census Bureau figures and official government benchmarks, here are just a few of the amenities commonly possessed by families living in poverty, as we define it:
* A home of their very own, 46 percent. (The average home owned by an American classified as poor features 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, and both a garage and a porch.)
* A color TV, 97 percent. (Over half own at least two color TVs.)
* A refrigerator, 95 percent.
* Air conditioning, 76 percent.
* A car, almost 75 percent. Almost 30 percent of America's poor own two cars....
You get the picture (and so do they: 62 percent of America's poor also have satellite TV. I don't have satellite TV). Bottom line, we should've at least finished ahead of Bhutan. And if you think I'm making too much of our 23rd-place finish, just Google the question "Why aren't we happy?", as I've done here, and see how many people agree that we're not getting the mileage we should be getting out of the happiness that's there for the taking. That irony was not lost on the Times of India, which, noting America's so-so ranking on the happiness map in an editorial, threw in this zinger: "...even though it was the first republican democracy in the world to incorporate the pursuit of happiness in its Constitution as a worthy national goal."
It becomes hard to avoid certain questions that we've asked before: Could it be that the conscious pursuit of happiness itself causes unhappiness? Is it coincidence that America-the-only-moderately-happy-in-spite-of-itself is also the venue for the most feverish activity of the self-help movement?
I'm not the only one who thinks such questions are worth asking. I linked to this a few posts back, but it bears highlighting again in this context.
I go back, also, to my own piece on happiness, which I'm not going to bother to link anymore: If you teach people to constantly question "how things are going in my life," they're going to find problems (or, worse, invent them). That is not an implied argument for having your head in the sand. I'm not saying, for example, that women who are locked in abusive, unfulfilling marriages should just "learn to make do." I'm saying that everyone who's human and lives a real human life is going to have things missing from it. That is not unhappiness, per se. In most cases, it's just life. The ability to recognize that as life—and not obsess over fixing it, improving it, or even straining for a way to rationalize it—is one of the most important preludes to happiness. If there is a gravest sin of which the Happiness Movement is guilty, it's that of taking people who might have been neutral about their lives and, under the guise of "fully actualizing" them, forcing them to focus primarily on what they don't yet have. (And may never have.) In the name of happiness, then, that movement induces people who see the glass as half-full, or who have no particular feelings on the glass, to see it instead as half-empty. That's unforgivable, in my view.
Let me also say this: A visitor criticized me last time by pointing out what s/he no doubt saw as a "winning" irony: that for a guy who says we talk too much about happiness, I sure talk an awful lot about happiness. With all due respect, that strikes me as a pretty facile interpretation of what I've been trying to accomplish here (and on this blog as a whole). In truth, I'm doing the exact opposite of what the Happiness Movement is doing: I'm telling people who are already thinking far too much about happiness to stop doing that. In a nutshell, my basic argument is this: Most of us have within our grasp the ingredients of a happy life. We have ample happiness available to us, but we don't see it (or appreciate it for what it is) because our eyes are focused much farther down the road (or over the neighbor's fence and into the expanse of his supposedly much greener grass). I'd be, well, happy to stop talking about happiness if I could get everyone else to stop worrying about how happy they are and just live their lives!
I think there's no better way to close than by invoking my adorable, sweet-natured, deeply religious goddaugther, Lauren (shown on her cell phone, which makes her very happy). When she was small, she used to say now and then, totally out of the blue, "Jesus says, Be happy what you have." While I'm not goin' Mike Huckabee on you here, the expression has obvious value without ever bringing Jesus into it.
Take it from Lauren: Be happy what you have. You probably have a lot more to be happy about than you thought you did.
* and maybe even including them. See, by the way, the new TV series, Dexter, whose dubious hero is a serial killer.
** which of course was already a favorite media story line before Edwards discovered it.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
To pick up where we left off last time: Finishing 23rd on a list of 178 might not seem that bad. It's just that when you consider what this nation has going for it objectively—the wealth, the opportunity, the sheer diversity of possible lifestyles, wherein just about anybody except serial killers* should be able to find a comfortable niche—you come away wondering how we missed being first or second.
Monday, January 28, 2008
I don't know how many of you watched the State of the Union address all the way through—admittedly, it's a lot to expect from anyone, for any reason. But if you did, and you paid attention at all, and you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably know already what I'm going to say. By my count, President Bush used the word empower fully 10 times in the first half hour of his speech. It got silly after a while, to the point where I could almost see it coming: Every time he started talking about how America needed to get behind a certain initiative or segment of society, he'd say we needed to empower the affected individuals to do such-and-such. This can't just be coincidence. Clearly someone in the Bush White House sees what's going on in society-at-large and "gets" the cultural significance of that most sacred of all self-help buzzwords; clearly someone gets the power of empowerment, if you will. It is now understood at the highest levels of American culture* that for a certain, sizable demographic (like, people who watch Oprah and/or buy The Secret), the use of That Term has a subliminal, elevating impact that infuses far greater meaning in the literal message of the words that surround it. Though you and I might find the word cloying, to that target demographic, it's akin to a religious incantation.
Just as interesting to me, however, was that President Bush used the term in discussing the nation's domestic issues only. Once he moved on to the second half of his speech—about Iraq, the war on terror and so forth—he dropped empowerment like a pair of Bill Clinton's old undershorts recently discovered in some White House closet. I found that odd and yet also revealing, because if there's any setting where one would expect people to be empowered, it's where you're bringing one's power to bear in confronting and defeating a deadly foe. But no. In outlining his military agenda, Bush fell back on the more muscular, quasi-biblical rhetoric we're accustomed to hearing from him. He spoke of our determination to "deliver justice" unto our enemies. And tellingly, when he referred to power at all in this context, it was in its root word form, stripped of the jargony em at the front.
Say what you will about the President's conduct of the war itself, empowerment as a concept appears to have no place in a discussion of the actual power required to do something forcefully.
UPDATE, Tuesday morning: I'm now looking at the full text of the President's speech. I was wrong. He used the word 11 times.
* Yes, even by a man who still can't wean himself off saying nu-cu-lar after seven years in the Oval Office.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Happiness has been much in the news. Which is not to say that the news itself has been happy. (An unhappy view of life is, of course, built into the news business, which occupies itself with murder, malfeasance, and the dark side of humanity as a whole.) But there's been a fair amount in the news lately about happiness—and the paucity of same here in the U.S.
Notably, the U.K.'s University of Leicester once again has been touting its "happiness map," a first-of-its-kind global assessment introduced by the university, amid much media hoopla, in 2006. (The map got at least a mention on any number of newscasts and TV newsmagazines I watched.) The Leicester findings, credited to analytical social psychologist Adrian White, are the product of what's known in academic circles as a "meta-analysis"; that's a research project that seeks to extrapolate some overarching truth from other studies and data that have been variously compiled in the subject area. White's research considered no less than 100 prior studies encompassing 80,000 people worldwide.
The happiest nation, according to White? Denmark. Rounding out the top 10 are Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Finland, Sweden, Bhutan, Brunei, and Canada. To which I say:
And where does the U.S. place in this cartography of good cheer? Twenty-third. Behind not just the foregoing, but also the likes of Malaysia, Malta, Costa Rica and St. Kitts. And if you look at the point system White used, we're not all that far ahead of Guyana, a third-world Machete-dom—best known for a historic cult massacre—whose overall social ambiance was summarized as follows a few years ago by one editorialist: "...35 per cent poverty and 15 per cent unemployment, as well as the crimes of narco-trafficking and gun-running, strident anti-government attacks from the main opposition People's National Congress (PNC) and on the police that blend with that party's rhetoric to make the country 'ungovernable.' "
All is not lost for us. We do beat out Japan (90) and India (125), while we easily out-smile Russia (167). And we're light years ahead of the three nations bringing up the rear: the Congo (176), Zimbabwe (177) and—at 178, the official anti-Disneyland—Burundi.
Does the list mean anything? Should we take it seriously? The criteria employed at Leicester were fairly complex. (If you want to know more about how the results were tabulated, follow the link in the second paragraph of this post.) But here's further testament to the list's validity: There's at least a rough correlation between the happiness map and global suicide rates. For example, Russia and other components of the former Soviet Union dominate the end of the suicide list that you don't want to be on. Japan also fares poorly in both rankings. On the other hand, some nations that place highly in happiness appear to have a suicide problem nonetheless. Scandinavia in particular has long been linked with pretty high suicide rates, and that trend continues. Such oddities, as well as the lack of suicides in nations where you'd otherwise expect to find them, may have to do with religious taboos and other cultural factors that mitigate for or against self-killing.
We'll get back to the U.S., and what these findings mean for us, next time.
(Of course, all thoughts are welcome in the interim.)
* And if you're a teenager reading this—especially in certain parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx—no, it doesn't mean what you think it does. That's a totally different word.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Got an email from Tony Robbins this past Monday. As many of you know, some years back I registered as a member of his online community—facetiously referred to herein as Robbins World—to keep tabs on TR and entitle myself to these little marketing missives he sends out at regular intervals. Tony, as we also know, has a knack for turning every holiday or established occasion into a sales op. This applies regardless of whether the occasion is celebratory or somber in nature; it applies regardless of whether there's any natural link between the occasion and Tony's wares. It's all the same to him. In the past, we have noted his endeavors to variously commercialize Mother's Day, Labor Day and even, yes, 9/11.
The latest email reposed unopened in my inbox till Wednesday morning. And now that I've read it, I have to say, I think Robbins has outdone himself.
A photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., taken during his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech—the visual context is easily recognizable—dominates the top of the email. Alongside Dr. King there's this quote, which, as it happens, is not from that speech: "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
Then we get to the content of the actual email.
Under a heading that reads, "Discover the Power of Emotions," Tony writes, "You could have financial security, tremendous health and a fulfilling relationship, but if you expend emotions such as worry, guilt, anger or frustration to reach your goals, it may all be for not.* As Tony Robbins has learned in working directly with more than 3 million from over 100 countries, your emotions determine the quality of our life."....
The pitch goes on in that vein for another few paragraphs, during which Dr. King and the broader concerns of all humanity do not come up again. Of course, there is the obligatory link to Robbins merchandise.
The King reference is there just...to be there. It is there for no ostensible reason except to capitalize on the holiday and—put more bluntly—to take what was a great and ennobling moment, with a unique place in American history, and twist it to Robbins' commercial purposes. Consider the stunning dissonance between the message of the quote and the message of Robbins' marketing copy. The King quote is all about self-sacrifice and doing for others (from a man who walked the walk and was martyred for it). The Robbins material is all about YOU. And the more you break down the email into its component parts, the clearer this dissonance becomes. Tony talks about not letting such presumably unproductive emotions as "guilt" get between you and your personal goals. (By the way: You think maybe Dr. King occasionally felt a pang of anger or frustration en route to his goals? Did that make it "all for not"?**) TR concludes by exhorting the reader to "keep checking your e-mail for practical tips and strategies for creating a life you deserve [emphasis added]." You see? No need to worry about the collateral damage of your crusade for personal fulfillment or any of those other inconvenient emotional distractions. Just do it, baby! I mean, you deserve it, right? Follow your dream!
It may not be the kind of dream Dr. King was talking about. But was that ever important here?
* That idiom, "be for not," is in common usage today, but I never liked it. It doesn't make sense to me. Be for naught is the way I'd go. And by the way, the following line does indeed read "Tony has learned in working directly with more than 3 million from over 100 countries." In other words, there is no people where you'd expect it to be, after the "3 million."
** And what exactly does Tony mean by the implied concept of "guilt-less wealth"? Think about it.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
A firestorm is about to erupt across Pennsylvania.
That's because the state has decided to do the unthinkable: to insist that graduating high-school seniors actually know the material that graduating high-school seniors are supposed to know. The plan is to give the kids exit tests to confirm such mastery. Diplomas will be withheld from students who fail. Now, if you're a high-school goof-off living in PA, you don't need to start lobbying Mom and Dad to move just yet. The plan is subject to broad review from unions and other interested factions; that may eat up another year before the tests are made law, and given for the first time to the Graduating Class of 2014. (And of course, if the dissenters are effective enough, the whole plan may be scrapped.) Just be careful where you wanna move: At least two dozen other states already have their respective versions of such competency tests.
We shouldn't really be glib, however, because this is no small matter. A few years ago when Arizona administered a prototype of its newly mandated test to 50,000 sophomores, 88 percent failed the math part, and 92 percent failed at least one of the test's three parts (math, reading, writing). When Florida beefed up its test in 2003, some 4000 seniors flunked in Miami-Dade County alone. It is for such reasons, by the way, that a number of states have quietly retreated from the first-generation, hard-line versions of their tests. Simply put, nobody could pass. So bureaucrats watered the tests down.
According to current PA assessment figures, 45 percent of graduating seniors (that's 57,000 kids in raw numbers) can't meet 11th-grade standards. Here's another way of saying that: Almost half of the seniors in Pennsylvania don't even know what the juniors are supposed to know. Personally, having spent a decade teaching college-level writing courses—including teaching Writing 101 to freshmen—I am not shocked by this. It isn't overstating to say I was appalled by the writing skills, if you will, of the typical incoming college student. And listen, I'm not talking about advanced concepts like style, flow, use of metaphor (ha!), etc. I'm talking about the spelling of commonplace words and mastery of even the most basic concepts in grammar. I'm talking about students who write sentences like, "He don't no if he's comming, to." I swear to you, I had a fair percentage of kids who wrote exactly as if they were ESL students—recent transfers from the Ukraine, perhaps.
I expect the loudest outcry here from minority interests. No, not because minority kids are "too dumb to meet the standards"*, but because history suggests that minority groups always rise up in protest every time academic standards are raised. And if anything, it's the continuing activity of these so-called advocacy groups that suggests to minority students that they're "dumb." What else could the message of an argument for lax standards possibly be? It says to the kids, "You can't do this work. You can't meet the same high standards that are expected of the other kids." I ask you: Is that a progressive message? Is that "affirmative action"?
And really, this points up the fundamental absurdity of the debate I'll be witnessing statewide over the next year. An actual controversy will explode over whether it's unfair to really expect kids to learn what we say we expect them to learn. No matter how you slice it, the logic of the forces of mediocrity reduces to this: Yes, by all means, we can have standards...but god no, we can't enforce them! I'm reminded of an exchange I once had with a student of mine. He came to my office during student-meetings week** quite agitated about the C I'd told him to expect in my class. "I can't get a C," he said flatly, wasting little time on pleasantries. "I'm pre-med. I need a B at least." Annoyed at his entitlement attitude, as well as the implication that this was somehow my problem, I reacted more gruffly than I might have otherwise. "Yeah, well, you should've thought about that during class," I told him. "You should've worked harder." To which he replied—in this teeth-grittingly dismissive and patronizing tone that made me want to strangle him right there and leave the still-warm carcass for the next student to see—"OK, fine, but we're past that now. And I can't get a C...."
Notice the built-in assumption? We're past that now. There's this kind of winking notion that, Yeah, we all know there are standards...wink...and we all know that I'm supposed to meet them...wink...but in the end, if I don't, you give me the grade anyway. And maybe to some people who don't think it through, that almost sounds reasonable: "Hey, the kid tried." But the catch is that they don't try. Not as hard, they don't. When kids are aware of this tacit little bargain (and they are, today, believe me), they just don't give a full-out effort. Except among the modest percentage of super-highly motivated students (who tend to be that way because education and excellence are stressed in the home), there's no incentive to excel nowadays. Students know that by simply coasting, or hardly doing anything at all, they're almost guaranteed a C. Again, I'm not overstating. Professors are under intense pressure to give students no lower than a C, especially at pricey private colleges where the kids—and their helicoptering parents—seem to believe they're paying for good grades.
This, too, is the legacy of self-esteem-based education, wherein nothing is as important as equipping the student with a "positive sense of self-worth!" After all, as Hillary would tell you, bad grades hurt people's feelings....
* And let me be clear: This is NOT ME TALKING. Nor am I even implying that minority kids are any "dumber" than anyone else.
** a required, end-semester opportunity for students to raise questions or air any grievances they may have about what went on during the semester.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
BUT FIRST, in BREAKING POLITICAL NEWS (3:45 p.m. Nevada time): Duncan Hunter has decided to drop out of the Republican presidential race after learning that (a) less than 1% of voters in today's Nevada caucuses supported him, and (b) over 94% of voters nationwide never even knew he was in the race....
And now, a few more choice words on the obsessive pursuit of happiness stoked by today's enough-is-never-enough movement.
Also today, I present for your reading pleasure a mildly edited email I received from Linda S., a Los Angeles-area reader, after my essay on happiness appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News. I reprint it here with her permission:
"Your article reminded me of something that happened in my life several years ago. I had been devastated by the loss of a favorite horse, along with the fact that my finances were not in great shape, and I was very depressed.... Then one day I found that I was smiling as I walked to the market. At that point I realized that my happiness wasn't dependent on things because it came from within.OK, so first of all, let's state the obvious: This is one pretty joyful (and lucky) lady. It's not too many of us who, while (circuitously) en route somewhere, find ourselves in mid-guffaw. Irrepressible does indeed seem like the right word. The point, though, is that she finds herself that way. It just sort of bubbles up from inside and overtakes her. She's not always testing her happiness, asking herself, Am I guffawing? Do I guffaw as often as I used to? Will I guffaw this way again tomorrow? (And Linda, if you're reading this, I'm not making fun of you. I'm using your own honest, evocative language to make an important point. We could all benefit from a few more chuckles and guffaws, I'm sure.) She isn't expecting or demanding guffaws out of life, as many will these days, and what's more, she isn't constantly seeking artificial, external stimuli—that "materialist fuel"—to provide more guffaws. Even when she receives such artificial stimuli as Christmas gifts, she regards them in terms of the "warm feeling" that links giver and recipient, not in terms of the jolt of adrenaline provided by the gift itself.
"Since then, I've been through some other tough times. In fact, very recently I ended up leaving my place of employment after several wonderful years because it was no longer a good fit. About a month after I left, I found myself taking a most roundabout detour to get where I was going. [Then] I found myself smiling; I found myself chuckling; I found myself guffawing. I knew that I was positively bubbling with irrepressible happiness.
"Happiness dependent on money or things is not genuine happiness. Happiness based on those items is temporary and requires materialist fuel. I don't mean to negate the happiness that comes from receiving a special Christmas present*, but again, isn't that warm feeling coming from the thoughtfulness expressed in the giving of the present?
"This is longer than I meant, but I wanted to let you know that your article touched a chord."
Anyway, Linda, I find myself feeling happy that I struck that chord for you.
* Linda wrote this shortly after Christmas.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
What I find most intriguing about the California Psychology Board's looming inquiry into Dr. Phil's hospital visit with Britney Spears is the degree to which it epitomizes the slipperiness of the SHAMscape as a whole. For those who hadn't heard: Someone, presumably a practitioner holding an actual California license to practice—which Dr. Phil happens not to have—complained about McGraw's off-the-cuff approach to therapy as well as his public disclosures about Britney later. I don't expect much to come of the inquiry itself. Maybe Dr. Phil will get his hand slapped. Again. If you've read SHAM, you know that McGraw had a bit of trouble back in Texas, once, when that state's Board of Examiners reprimanded him for improper behavior involving a female hire.
The larger point is that the Spears/McGraw debacle underscores the way in which SHAMmers play fast and loose with the rules and orthodoxies of the fields in which they dabble. In self-help, you can get away with just kinda "wingin' it," as Dr. Laura also has shown us for years: You can get away with telling people after 78 seconds of telephone interplay that they should leave their husbands or stop talking to their mothers or kick their kids out of the house for good this time. If there's money to be made, or mere buzz to be generated, it doesn't matter if you're cutting corners or breaking rules. Most gurus, after all, don't have the credentials to be doing what they're doing in the first place, so why should they worry about following procedure to the letter? To paraphrase Wendy Kaminer's classic line, the only thing distinguishing the average advice-giving guru from the average advice-giving aunt or auto mechanic is that the guru can write well enough to land a book deal. And in many cases, even that much isn't true: The raw idea may be salable, but the guru needs to have somebody ghostwrite the particulars.
Recently we talked about exploitation and manipulation, and though one hates to be cynical all the time, it's hard to escape such feelings here. Amid the hoopla over Britney Spears—her sanity and her weight and her poor kids and those spy shots of her naughty bits and that disastrous marriage to Federline and her rumored impending marriage to a member of the paparazzi—it's all too easy to forget that Spears isn't the only celebrity in this soap opera. Dr. Phil is a "name" in his own right. Celebrities who minister to other celebrities achieve a multiplier effect, and I'm sure it wasn't lost on McGraw that if he came to Britney's rescue, an awful lot of PR would accrue to him. Not just that, but he'd penetrate a demographic (i.e. teenyboppers) who normally don't give that much thought to a stodgy old bald-headed coot like Dr. Phil. So it could be said that McGraw's white-knight routine, no matter how well-intended, was also a helluva marketing move and, perhaps, a calculated risk/reward business decision; he could've figured that any censure that might result would be outweighed by the PR benefits of having his name linked to Brit's.
The bottom line for all the major players in SHAMland is to keep your name out there. Nowadays, that alone will ensure the continued flow of money, regardless of the intrinsic merit of what you're pitching or whether people have a genuine need for it. Get yourself on TV somehow and a reasonable percentage of people will buy whatever you're selling, just by virtue of the fact that they saw you on TV. That is the culture in which we live, wherein celebrity is its own reward. You think it's coincidence that the first thing ordinary people do when they're thrust into the public eye is begin shopping a book deal? Used to be that in order to become a successful author, you had to have something to say. No more. Fame, today, is circular and often self-sustaining: If you become a celebrity, America ipso facto considers you worthy of being a celebrity.
Even if you have nothing new to say and someone else is writing the very words with which you say it!
....which actually brings us back to the land of Simon, Randy and Paula...
I don't know how many of you saw this year's American Idol premiere Tuesday, but one of the highlights (clearly Idol's producers thought so) was the post-rejection meltdown of Alexis Cohen, a contestant who hails from Allentown, just a few miles east of where I sit as I write this. Today's Morning Call contains a story about Cohen, and how her edgy, over-the-top performance and profanity-laced histrionics not only won her invites to popular talk shows (she's already done Live with Regis and Kelly and The View), but prompted a spate of feelers from "talent agents," as the Call charitably identifies them. So you see? Let's sum up: You don't really have the pipes or the stage presence to make it past the first cut on Idol. You come damn close to going postal in front of millions of viewers. Yet somehow all that becomes the makings of a mini-career in its own right, providing you access to plum shows like Regis and The View, where countless singers with decent voices and docile personalities have no chance of ever being booked. You're a celebrity with a portfolio built on a third-rate voice and a first-strike mentality. You're a freakin' freak show. But you're a bankable freak show. Why, with any luck, you could be the next William Hung!
Ahh, don'tcha just love it!
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Saw an interesting little study the other day that has much to say about the power of perception. Or about how stupid and materialistic we are. Or both.
The study, reported by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (after being run by equally prestigious Caltech), focused on wine-tasting habits. Researchers had 20 volunteers come in and taste what they thought were five different varieties of Cabernet ranging in price from $5 a bottle to $90 a bottle. In reality, the study used just three different wines. A $5 bottle was the source for the samples listed at both $5 and $45. The samples listed at $10 and $90 were both poured from the $90 bottle. The fifth wine retailed for $35 and was correctly identified as such in the study.
Guess what. Right down the line, the volunteers' subjective enjoyment of the wine escalated along with the alleged price. They liked the "cheapest" wine least and the "costliest" wine best. This wasn't just lip service, either: The Caltech researchers hooked the volunteers up to MRIs, and noted a stepped-up response from the brain's pleasure centers as the tasters tasted progressively "more expensive" wines.
Though one doesn't want to jump to all sorts of unwarranted conclusions, there's no mistaking the implications for the wider subject of mind-over-matter—and hence, for this blog. If thinking that something is "better" makes it seem better, then maybe all this money people throw into self-help isn't such a waste after all. That's the emotional way of looking at it. (You'll notice from my poll question that I'm exploring the dichotomy of emotion vs. intellect these days.) On the other hand, there's no denying that this feeling of "better," in the wine study, was fraudulently obtained. The $90 wine was exactly the same as the $10 wine. If that test were translated into buying habits, people would be overpaying ten-fold. And that's the rational way of looking at it.
So. Should we be concerned about this? Should we try to educate consumers out of such foolish elitism? Or is the enhanced pleasure all that matters, in the end?
Consider, also: Most of us on this blog think The Secret and its mantra of attracting happiness is pretty damn silly—out of conformity with everything we know to be true about the physical world. But if people who subscribe wholeheartedly to the law of attraction simply feel better going through life that way, then even if it's one colossal load of steaming b.s....who are we to judge?
One last thing to consider before you answer: Why draw the line at the personal here? Why not extend it into the social/political? If you think about it, the crux of the issue is a clash between knowledge and illusion; the question becomes, whether it's really best to shatter the illusions if the truth is going to take away your happiness and/or peace of mind. So, for example, wouldn't we be happier as a nation, and feel more optimistic about life these days, if we knew less about the goings-on in Iraq? Maybe Washington should spin everything it tells us, and tell us only so much in any case*; maybe U.S. reporters shouldn't have been allowed in to begin with, and the government should also censor all news that arrives from the likes of the BBC and Al Jazeera. Maybe we should all live in Lake Wobegon, or think we do....
A toast, then, to rosé-colored glasses! From the $90 bottle, of course.
* Cynics would say that's already the case.
Monday, January 14, 2008
I honestly don't know how I missed this, but in honor of American Idol's 2008 premiere Tuesday evening, I thought I'd mention that there is now—as of last November, actually—a Chicken Soup for the American Idol's Soul. Oh yes, there is...thus lending credence to the facetious musing, quoted in SHAM, that if the endless brand expansion continues, one of these days we'll see Chicken Soup for the Ax Murderer's Soul. All told, the Chicken Soup franchise boasts more than 100 million copies sold, spread over 148 titles (one of which, Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul, includes a work by your host, obtained by arrangement with Sports Illustrated, where the essay first ran). The current Idol-based book, says a cover line, features "stories from top idols from every season," more than 70 of them in all.
"It makes sense that one of the most successful book franchises and one of the most successful reality shows would join forces," writes Kathy Lauer-Williams, reviewing the book for my local paper, The Morning Call. I gave it a thumb-through at a nearby Barnes & Noble—needless to say, I had no intention of buying a copy—and as expected, it's a tour-de-farce in buzzwordery, full of inspirational phrases like "I was following my dreams," "never did I imagine," and so forth.*
It must be said that of all the more successful written manifestations of the SHAMscape, I find the Chicken Soup series among the least objectionable—if the books are being read simply for diversion and a nice helping of the same warm-fuzzies one might get from any feel-good book or from watching The Sound of Music for the 163rd time. As a side note, this is one reason why I was so flustered and upset when Anderson Cooper's people subbed in Chicken Soup co-patriarch Mark Victor Hansen for Tony Robbins during my notorious appearance on Cooper's CNN show back in November 2005. I'd spent days cramming for Robbins, committing his personal background and professional shtick to memory...and then an hour or so before air time, they tell me I'm getting "the Chicken Soup guy" instead. I mean, really—of all the charges one can lodge against self-help, how much can you say about chicken soup?
And yet it's more than mildly ironic that this particular book should be bracketed as "inspirational," because the show itself, as we've noted a number of times on this blog, may be the best mainstream example of what happens when wishful thinking runs up against the cruel realities of cultural Darwinism. If there's a more stark refutation of the "PMA trumps all" movement, I haven't seen it, even though the winners, year after year, insist on crediting their "faith in my dreams" and "belief in myself." In fact, on American Idol, it matters little what your dream has always been or whether you truly believe in yourself; if Paula, Randy and Simon don't share your generous self-appraisal, you and your dream are going down in flames. Since the show's debut in summer 2002, America has watched hundreds of people** discover, to their horror and apparently for the first time, that they suck at singing, and that their fantasy of becoming a pop star, regardless of how heartfelt, is and always was a "non-starter," as political types like to say of proposed legislation that's in the no-way/no-how category. (Sure, lots of people try out for American Idol on a lark, or even as a goof. Still, there are plenty of true believers, a new crop of whom will begin debasing themselves tomorrow night at 8...to the groaning delight of millions of viewers, including, I confess, this one.) They almost certainly, in 99 percent of cases, should've devoted their efforts elsewhere. And they probably would have, too, had they not been enabled by (a) a coalition of friends and loved ones who though it was doing them a favor by encouraging them, and/or (b) today's climate of obsessive narcissism, which rejects any criticism of a person's "individual goals" as "disempowering" and an "assault on your self-esteem!" I might mention here that the other co-founder of the Chicken Soup series, Jack Canfield, is also one of the fathers of the American self-esteem movement, now being widely repudiated by not a few of its other founding voices.
See, on Idol, you have no choice but to accept the grim truth. There are big, burly security guards who'll usher you off-camera and help you give up your dreams, if you still refuse to....
* The careful reader will note the contradiction between following your dreams and never imagining, and that the latter phrase also constitutes a serious breach of the Law of Attraction.
** representing tens of thousands more, of course.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
I'm not sure I've ever written a SHAMblog item aimed at a specific visitor/reader. To me, such carping seems beneath the general level at which business is done on this blog—and also strikes me as a form of bullying, since I'm the one with the power of the pulpit. But it's a Sunday—the day of pulpits—and also a day when, if I post at all, it's typically on more personal/offbeat subjects. So it's as good a time as any to address an annoying behind-the scenes situation that I've never really dealt with.
Regular readers know that I often invoke my father as a beacon of wit and wisdom. I had great love and admiration for my dad, who was one of those men of his generation who basically got screwed by life, but never took out his frustrations on those around him; he bore his disappointments with dignity and reserve, and still managed to build a pretty good life for himself and, especially, his family. Most recently, for example, I wrote an essay around Dad's advice in matters of happiness, which ended up running in several major newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal.
Here's something else Dad once told me: "People who go out of their way to try to embarrass other people usually end up embarrassing only themselves."
You know who you are, Moron. Your anonymous and inappropriate sniping at me and other regular contributors to this forum is not going to see light of day—so why not stop making a platinum-plated ass of yourself and find some other outlet for your pettiness, mean-spiritedness, and utter lack of intellectual capacity. Nuff said? We shall hope.
To the rest of our community, my apologies for involving you in this bit of nastiness.
* No offense is intended to actual morons and idiots. I've met a handful in the course of my years in writing and youth coaching, and they were always very nice people.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 11:55 AM
Friday, January 11, 2008
By now you've probably heard that Sir Edmund Hillary died. Not that you really care.
Edmund Hillary was, of course, the first person known to have summited Everest, a feat he achieved with his Sherpa climbing partner, the first* Tenzing Norgay, on May 29, 1953. (It is conjectured that George Leigh Mallory may have beaten him there by almost three decades, though given the "fog of climbing," which is to say, the singular set of challenges and uncertainties that arise in the so-called Death Zone, the facts may never be known. Mallory disappeared on the northern flanks of the 29,028-foot peak in 1924 and his body lay undiscovered until 1999. Incidentally, it was Mallory who, when a New York Times reporter asked him why he'd even consider such foolishness as climbing Everest, simply and brilliantly replied, "because it's there.")
But back to Edmund Hillary. A shy beekeeper by trade, he was an imposing-looking young man with a prominent jaw and, overall, features as sharply etched as the rock formations on The Great Mountain itself. Hillary's Everest exploits made him one of the most revered figures in all the British Empire, back when there still actually was something of a British Empire. (Interesting, isn't it, that many of their cultural icons, unlike so many of ours today, actually did something noteworthy? I know, somebody's gonna come back at me now with the Queen and all that. But give me this one, OK?) Nor did he rest on his laurels after Everest. He summited other famous peaks in the Himalaya and elsewhere, continuing to make his mark as an explorer and adventurer in points across the globe.
Hillary said of himself, later in life, "I was an ordinary man of ordinary talents, but I was very motivated." First of all, he undersold himself, perhaps because of his unassuming nature. More to the point here, motivation is a talent unto itself. I've never quite understood the dichotomy we establish in separating the impetus to do a given thing from the ability to actually do the thing, once you get there. Motivation is physical. (It exists in the physical body, does it not? It arises from the physical brain, and is processed through the physical adrenal glands, and other organs.) Motivation can probably be trained to some degree just like one trains one's muscles (and as mountaineers like Hillary train their bodies before an ascent), but I'm not sure it's something that can be assimilated just by absorbing certain words of wisdom from others. (Again, if you have a copy of SHAM, flip to page 96 and read Jim Bouton's timeless quote on the related subject of confidence.) Geneticists and biophysicists will tell you that you can make yourself only so big via weight training, depending on the muscular potential programmed into your body. I think it's much the same with motivation. Maybe you can "exercise it" to make it bigger. But for many of us, the sky is not the limit; the limit comes at a much more modest height.
My larger point is that, whatever the particular balance of motivation and talent present in Edmund Hillary, he went out and he DID. He didn't talk endlessly or lecture others about "climbing every mountain" and "overcoming every challenge." He lived his life in his own way. He charted his course, in this case literally, and he followed it to where it took him, which was up the side of a great and forbidding mountain. When Hillary climbed that mountain, he didn't make the impossible possible; he simply showed that the impossible had been, for him anyway, possible all along. Does that mean he could've mastered other impossible feats—like, say, climbing his way to the moon, if he put his mind to it? Of course not. Does it mean that climbing Everest is possible for you and me? (More on "me" in a moment.) No. Not necessarily. He showed that it was possible for him, at least that one time. In that sense, you might call him the poster boy for an authentic and intensely personal brand of self-actualization.
Now. The reason Edmund Hillary means something special to your host is that I've long regarded him with envious fascination, of a sort that some of you will find maudlin. See, for years it has been my dream—this may tell you something about me—to die on my way to the Everest Summit. Ideally, of course, I'd like to die on the summit, but given my advancing age and my asthma, I think it quite unlikely that I could reach the top. Perhaps I would simply run out of steam, collapse in the snow at the side of the Southeast Ridge Route, and die of hypothermia (which they say is a very peaceful death, once you get past the frostbite part). Perhaps I would simply lose my footing on the infamous Hillary Step or the Yellow Band and plummet some 7000 feet into Tibet.
That doesn't mean I won't give it a shot someday, if the doctors ever sit me down and tell me something like, "Well, we think we got all of it..."
* or at least the first famous one. There have been many legendary Sherpa climbers, some of them with the same exact name, without whom Everest could not have been conquered, certainly in the early days. Then again, as many veteran Alpinists advise, you never really conquer Everest; if she's in congenial spirits, she may simply permit you to linger for a time in her fickle embrace.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
I wondered what the upshot of the developing (but now seemingly fractured) Spears/McGraw Alliance would be. And though a few of you have congratulated me for "calling it right" the other day, I don't think I'm quite that deserving of kudos. I knew there'd be fallout from Dr. Phil's appearance on-scene and his decision to interpose himself into L'Affair Britney. The current buzz, however, has the Family Spears accusing its long-time celebrity friend of being exploitive in the very public nature of his hospital visit to Brit, and especially in his desire to build a Dr. Phil segment around her. They allege a betrayal of trust, and characterize McGraw's public statements on Britney as "inappropriate." (We'll leave aside the question of whether the Spears family, through its collective behavior, has forfeited its right to use words like inappropriate.) While I'm not at all surprised about the idea for a show, which McGraw says he has scrapped for now, the charges of exploitation were unexpected. I kinda figured that whatever came out of this, they were all in it together. And who knows...they may still be.*
Anyhoo, no matter how you slice it, this once again raises questions about the sincerity of the mainstream self-help movement, and especially whether its more high-visibility elements—like Dr. Phil and (non)-Dr. Laura—should be taken seriously as "help" or dismissed as mere "entertainment." Either way, I think the answers are troubling. For a variety of reasons (here I'll refer you to SHAM, if you have a copy, because it's way too long to get into on a blog**), you can't expect the people who turn up on Dr. Phil to achieve an instant turnabout; ergo, their faith in that outcome, assuming they had any, is misplaced to begin with. And if we take the more cynical, sophisticated view—"hey, it's just another freak show, it's all about ratings"—we shouldn't forget that we're talking about people's mental health here. What does it say about us as a culture that we abide making a spectacle of troubled people for the sake of Nielsen/Arbitron points? What does it say about Dr. Phil himself? Interestingly, if you caught Dr. Laura's appearance (click and scroll down) on Larry King last night, you know that she wasn't thrilled with McGraw's conduct, either. "I was particularly horrified when this pathetic situation and this poor, sad, sick girl is now going to be used as a television show for ratings," she said, before adding that she was grateful that someone with "good sense" and "taste" pulled the plug. Thus giving us another important lesson in pots, kettles, honor, thieves, and all that.
In fairness, I don't know McGraw personally, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as to his sincere interest in seeing Britney get her head straight. (And that may be an even more ambitious project than we ever realized; among other things, she reportedly spoke with a British accent at times during her recent hospitalization.) He is, after all, a friend of the family who, say what you will, has come to Mama Lynne's defense when things were at their darkest. But I think this incident also shows clearly that the profit motive is never very far off-stage.
* Remember: When you're talking about the folks we're talking about here, nothing is ever truly final, and the unexpected is to be expected. There may be several shoes yet to drop. And who's to say whether the whole thing isn't some massive PR stunt, like the meticulously choreographed "feuds" stars used to have during Hollywood's golden era?
** See especially pp. 48-50, 68-70 and 177-178.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
I'd meant to get to this sooner and I apologize if it seems a bit out of date (in more ways than one, perhaps).
At one point during the holidays, my older son and I got to talking about how improbable and contrived so many of today's movies are. We laughed about the absurd premises and plot-lines of films like The Game—which got my son's nomination for the most contrived film ever made—and, more recently, National Treasure. (I haven't seen the sequel, but the trailers suggest it's every bit as ludicrous as the original, if not more so.)
After Gary took his family home, I came down here** to work for a while. As many of you know by now, I usually have something on in the background as "white noise." Sick of the standard holiday reruns on the major channels as well as Lifetime ("Television for women...and Steve"), and unable to summon up much enthusiasm for staring at the Yule Log for the next hour or so, I began absently watching this old movie on Turner Classics. It was something from the late '40s, and the name escapes me now...but talk about improbable! Get a load of these plot elements:
The husband didn't cheat on his stay-at-home wife. At no point in the film was there even a suggestion that he was tempted.
The wife didn't seem to think the epitome of wifely purpose was to keep up a running sarcastic commentary on the husband's behavior that—while at times oblique—nonetheless communicated her passive-aggressive contempt.
There were hints that the two of them had been each other's first loves. Thus, presumably, both were virgins when they married.
The children all came home to holiday dinner. The older ones that brought boyfriends/girlfriends did not sleep in the same room with them. The unmarried people did not have children. Girls dating boys did not crawl out of bed after a multi-hour sexual romp, meet their girlfriends for lunch and say things like, "I think it might be getting serious between me and Josh..."
The kids didn't text-message their friends during family dinner hour.
There actually was a family dinner hour.
There wasn't a single appointment made for the younger female children to get their Gardasil shots.
The male children somehow got through their entire school day without shooting anyone. None of them was diagnosed with ADD. There were no metal detectors at school entrances.
When Mom and Dad encountered a problem, individually or together, neither felt the need to browse the self-help racks to get in touch with any inner children or find some artificial mechanism that might make them feel "empowered." They felt that way already, and just did what needed doing.
No one fretted constantly about the status of his/her happiness or the progress of his/her self-actualization.
No one cursed at anyone's parents or kids. In fact, no one cursed.
Nobody so much as mentioned Prozac, Paxil or Xanax.
None of the kids was in daycare.
All of the family members went to church. Together.
...I could go on and on, but really, can you imagine? I mean, have you ever heard anything so ridiculous...?
* This is, of course, an allusion to the title of a movie from the post-war period (the war being World War II).
** "here" being my basement office.
Sunday, January 06, 2008
UPDATE, 8:20 p.m., Sunday night*: Now, during its highly publicized 60 Minutes interview with Roger Clemens, CBS is hyping Dr. Phil's appearance on Monday morning's edition of The Early Show. He's going to talk about his visit with Britney in the hospital psych ward.
Didn't take long for people to figure out how to commercialize this, huh?
I gotta give the guy credit—the guy being Dr. Phil McGraw. As of this weekend, he has injected himself physically into the Britney Spears debacle. No, I do not mean to imply that he, too, is having sex with Britney (though little would shock me at this point), but merely that he visited her in the hospital after her latest meltdown, and then escorted her personally to the cab that took her home. The reason I give McGraw credit is that this strikes me as a risky step on his part. He is, after all, Dr. Phil, and I'm sure there are some among his millions of faithful who see his entry into the case as the cavalry showing up to restore order and settle the matter once and for all. This group probably believes that within six months, not only will Brit reclaim her brood, but she'll be giving lectures on responsible parenting and, in her spare time, running UNICEF and AA.
On the other hand, some might say McGraw has little to lose, that Spears is so far gone, and so widely maligned in the culture, that only someone also capable of converting water into wine could be expected to rehabilitate either Brit or her sickly public image. In other words, Dr. Phil or no Dr. Phil, it's unlikely at this point that people expect very much from the elder Ms. Spears (and there's still the younger Ms. Spears to deal with). We shall see. Could there be a new Dr. Phil book in the offing: Custody Rescue or, perhaps, The Ultimate Kid-Loss Solution?
On the third hand, of course, it's unlikely that McGraw will play any direct role in Spears' much-needed psychological rebirth. We're just talking perception here.
McGraw, by the way, is already on record as saying that Lynne Spears, putative matriarch in this two-ring circus, did a "great" job raising Brit and Jamie Lynn. (McGraw, you will recall, previously stated that Clara Hitler and Kathleen Manson also did fine jobs raising their kids.... And yes, that qualifies as "obvious satire," if you're from the McGraw/Spears camp and you're reading this blog with litigation in mind.)
You know, the Spears girls are behaving so badly that you almost wonder if the rumors are true. See, supposedly Jamie Lynn wasn't all that upset about turning up preggers, since that gave the media a reason to focus on her instead of her wilder older sib. Which meant in turn that Brit, now, had to go even farther out on a limb to regain the advantage in the buzz wars. What a wacky, entertaining bunch! If only there didn't have to be actual, living children caught in the cross-hairs of all this.
Finally, two quick links to "SHAM in the news": One is an article about self-help by Jen Miller, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer; she quotes me in several places (though I think her choice of quotes was a bit odd, given my recollection of the interview). The second is a slightly longer reprise of my piece on "happiness," this time for the L.A. Daily News.
* The main item, below the === , was posted Sunday morning.
Saturday, January 05, 2008
I get a decent number of emails off-blog—in general, a lot more emails about the blog than actual comments submitted to the blog. One of the common themes among people who read SHAMblog as a "body of work" (as opposed to, say, just a random fusillade of observations) is that I'm all over the map ethically, philosophically and politically. "You sound like a die-hard conservative on Monday and a bleeding-heart liberal on Tuesday," is a fairly predictable sentiment, or words to that effect. "I don't get it, Steve. What are you, at heart?"
Or there was this, which I'm quoting explicitly: "How can you be the voice of moral righteousness in one essay [sic] and then a total Bohemian the next time. It doesn't make sense. I don't see how those beliefs could exist simultaneously in the same (sane) person."
We'll leave questions of sanity to the experts. But to take a stab at the former question in the prior paragraph, I'd have to say that "what I am," in most areas of life, is uncertain; uncommitted. At least in my view, SHAMblog concerns itself more with raising questions than finding answers. Yes, there are things I'm pretty sure I believe, based on my analysis of the evidence as I understand it...but I hold those beliefs with humility. I constantly play devil's advocate with myself (and with readers), throwing various ideas into the breech and examining them on their own terms and merits. In the end, I find that—again, in most areas—I'm far less sure of what's true and what's false, what's good and what's bad, than are most folks I know. Or most folks who visit this blog. (Also keep in mind that I'm not the kind of person who believes that what's right for me is, by definition, right for everyone. You'd be shocked at how many people are incapable of managing that simple duality. Or maybe you wouldn't be.)
To take it a step further: I think most of us would agree that the rape and torture of a child is bad, and that going down to the local homeless shelter to volunteer one's time is good. Such extremes in human behavior aren't normally where the problems crop up, however. One's success in life, in both practical and ethical terms, often is built on the skill with which we mediate/navigate the huge mass of gray that exists between the fairly well-defined poles.
Apropos of which, I spent my second cup of coffee today with a column by Rabbi Marc Gellman. I'd like to quote the first paragraph of his reply to a reader's very difficult question. The nature of the questioner's problem doesn't matter that much. It's Gelman's answer that stuck with me, to wit:
"Your heartwarming question should remind us all that the ethical dilemmas we face are hardly ever a choice between good and evil, but more often between bad and slightly better but also bad. The notion that the problems we face are amenable to simple and obvious choices is false to the truth of both sin and repentance."Amen, Rabbi.
* and even then, we should never forget: The fact that almost all of us agree on something doesn't make it objectively true or inherently "right."
Friday, January 04, 2008
I can't tell you how many times someone will say to me—after I've voiced thoughts like those appearing in my two posts thus far—"Yeah, well, you wouldn't talk like that if some 15-year-old raped your daughter!" Actually, I hear that every time I make this case. Every time. And the people who say that are correct. I'd probably be out of my mind in homicidal rage.
Which, as I see it, is precisely why we need to take the emotion out of sentencing and the criminal-justice system as a whole. Victims may be the very last people who should have a say in what happens to perpetrators.
I can sympathize with the blood lust of people who've lost loved ones to violence. But should the judicial system really be reduced to a means of achieving a sanitized version of the extreme vengeance an angry victim might exact on his own? (This is also one reason among several why I've never quite understood so-called victim-impact statements. People have different ways of handling grief, and I cannot fathom why a loved one's subjective experience of loss, or the efficacy/intensity of one's courtroom declaration of that loss, should have any bearing on the sentence imposed. If the mother of a sexually assaulted daughter falls into hysterics during her appeal to the judge, is that judge supposed to pronounce a harsher sentence on the defendant than if the woman had remained composed? Is the wife of a murdered young stockbroker whose two kids have lost their daddy somehow entitled to see the killer receive sterner punishment than the wife of a struggling pizza deliveryman who had no kids? A crime is a crime, and there are specified penalties for it. Punishment should be meted out based solely on a rational, deliberate analysis of the facts involved. I would argue that that's how relevant laws should be made, too.)
Lest we forget, the historic legal dichotomy between juveniles and adults considers the fact that young people are not yet "fully formed emotional wholes," as one state code used to put it before that state's legislators fell in step with today's more hard-line approach to juvenile justice. Adolescence is a time of rebellion, experimentation; a time of boundary stretching. Above all, it is a time of learning. What is the worth of "learning from your mistakes" if the very first mistake takes away your freedom, therefore making further learning, in essence, pointless? (And what do we expect them to learn during decades of confinement alongside older habitual felons?)
Despite the current mood of cynicism in matters of rehabilitation, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we're prepared to abandon that component of the justice system in our search for some magic anti-crime pill.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
If there's one single notion that underlies today's frenzy to discard the bad apples before they ever ripen (click here for Part 1 in this series), it's a presumed equivalence between sinister kids and sinister adults. And there is, in fact, such an equivalence—just not in the way hard-liners suppose. The common denominator that links the 15-year-old felon to his 30-year-old counterpart isn't adulthood, but the opposite: Crime is an inherently juvenile phenomenon.
As Judith Martin (better known as etiquette expert "Miss Manners," but also a respected essayist and lecturer) tells us, "The belief that natural behavior is beautiful, and that civilization's restrictions spoil the essential goodness inherent in all of us noble savages, is, of course, the Jean Jacques Rousseau School of Etiquette.... A major influence in Jefferson's time, Rousseau's philosophy continues to survive in the pop-psychology and 'human potential' movements of today, and in the do-nothing school of child-rearing, which has given us so many little—savages. In point of fact, we are all born rude." Rude, or worse; much worse. Family counselor and columnist John Rosemond reminds us that there may be no more sociopathic entity than an infant: "Every child comes into the world carrying a Pandora's box containing unbridled narcissism: the 'I want, I deserve' impulse that drives every antisocial event." We should thank our lucky stars that tantrum-throwing 3-year-olds (generally) lack access to guns and/or the wherewithal to use them; the murder rate would soar ten-fold.
The problem, then, as I see it, isn't that we have too many kids out there who've turned prematurely into adults. It's that we have too many adults out there who never got past being kids.
Further, where's the logical foundation supporting the idea that the more loathsome the offense, the more it deserves prosecution in adult court? A few years ago in Indianapolis, a 7-year-old boy took a gun to school, put it to the head of a classmate and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the weapon jammed. But the misfire was a quirk of fate. Suppose the weapon had gone off, splattering classmates with the wounded child’s brains. Suppose it could be proven that the boys had fought the previous day, thus making this a "revenge killing." What to do with such a youthful killer? Charge him with homicide? Execute him?
Such hypotheticals suggest that sentencing guidelines cannot and should not be based solely on the repugnance of the offense. Appropriate weight must be given to other factors, including intent, overall mental capacity, and the role of sheer happenstance. (I won't belabor the latter point, since it's something of a separate argument that opens many new cans of worms. But I ask you to consider a scenario wherein a wife, enraged at her husband, grabs a heavy glass ashtray and hurls it at his head. She misses. Later she apologizes for the ashtray-hurling, there's a clinch, and all ends well. Except...suppose the ashtray had connected, whereupon the man fell, hit his head on a marble table top, and died. There are no happy endings for the woman in this second case; she faces, at the very least, a manslaughter charge. Which begs the question: What exactly are we penalizing here? Her intent? Or her aim?)
There are also practical grounds for being dubious about all this. A study by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice looked at 1,400 offenders between ages 11 and 24. The study's authors concluded that younger defendants often have as much trouble understanding their legal dilemmas—and thus as much difficulty exercising their constitutional right to participate in their own defense—as adults ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial!
For all of these reasons, it not only strikes me as harsh, but incongruous with every known truth about human development, to sentence a teenager to a lifetime behind bars for a misdeed he might not have committed, given a few more years of seasoning.
We're understandably hesitant to give the truly malicious youngster a "free shot" to commit one heinous crime before reining him in. Hard-liners use Lionel Tate as the poster boy here; he was imprisoned for a second violent felony a few years after courts overturned his initial life sentence. "See?" they'll say. "See what happens when you let 'em out? They don't deserve second chances!" No, I don't see. Tate got the second chance to which all teens and preteens (if not all people) are entitled, and he blew it. That reflects only on Tate. You can't use him as evidence for the argument that we should "just lock 'em all up the first time and throw away the key!"; no more than you can use some random John Doe's benevolent act as proof that Mr. Doe will continue doing good works for the rest of his life. Neither human behavior, nor life itself, is quite that neat.
Interestingly enough, we're unwilling to bend the rules the other way. We don't recognize children of uncommon precocity by awarding the exceptional 13-year-old a driver's license, drinking privileges, or the vote. "Oh come on," we say, laughing. "He's just a kid." Indeed.
A few final thoughts on the matter next time.
Read Babies and bath water. Part 1.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 11:44 AM