Saturday, January 31, 2015

Notes on Political Correctness

Ross Douthat has an interesting take on Jonathan Chait’s critique of political correctness. (Via Maggie's Farm.)

For an enlightened post on the discussion see mine, entitled: “Saving Liberalism from Political Correctness.”

Douthat argues that people use political correctness to shut down free expression because the strategy works. Instead of debating the merits of an argument, leftists have shunned and shamed those who disagree, making it far too costly for the average individual to reject the party line.

In Douthat’s words:

If you look at the place where the left has won arguably its biggest political-cultural victory lately, the debate over same-sex marriage, you can see an obvious example of this dynamic playing out. In the recent examples of ideological policing around the marriage debate, particularly the high-profile case of Brendan Eich, we aren’t watching a cloistered circular firing squad whose actions are alienating most Americans; we’re watching, well, a largely victorious social movement move to consolidate its gains. Was there a time, in a more divided and socially conservative America, when the P.C.-ish pressure on Mozilla to ease Eich out, and other flashpoints like it, would have backfired against gay activists? No doubt. Do we live in a world now where making an example of a few executives and florists and blue-state colleges is likely to lead to backlash against the cause of same-sex marriage? I very much doubt it; it seems to that the cause has enough cultural momentum behind it that using taboos to marginalize its few remaining critics is likely to, well, work.

And homosexuality and same-sex marriage really are cases where what once seemed like hothouse ideas and assumptions — an expansive definition of homophobia, a dismissal of traditional arguments as sheer bigotry — first took hold college campuses and then won over the entirety of elite culture. The mood and norms and taboos around these issues that predominated when I attended a certain prominent Ivy League college back in the early 2000s are the moods and norms that now predominate just about everywhere that counts. So even if they’re mistaken about how to apply the lessons of their victory, I think it’s very natural for left-wing activists, on campus and off, to see that trajectory as a model for how other cultural victories might be won.

If your goal is to produce groupthink, the strategy works. Or better, it keeps all opposing arguments out of the marketplace of ideas. This does not, of course, mean that the ideas disappear, or that the people who are pronouncing themselves in favor of same-sex marriage really believe what they are saying.

They have simply learned to keep their views to themselves.

Douthat suggests that political correct zealots got their idea from society’s general rejection of anyone who mouths anti-Semitic or white supremacist thoughts.

If it worked there, it ought to work for other causes:

The reason some on the left look to our present taboos around anti-Semitic and white supremacist speech as models for how other issues around race and religion and sex and identity should (or shouldn’t, more aptly) be debated is precisely because those taboos really are powerful, really do work. Not always and everywhere, sometimes they backfire and encourage people to act out and rebel … but mostly they create very strong incentives to tread very carefully around anything that might be construed as a racist or anti-Semitic foray or idea.

As it happens, anti-Semitism is far from dead. In fact, it is undergoing something of a revival, for the most part by Muslims and those on the radical left.

Douthat should also have mentioned that the thought police are practicing pogroms, the better to rid society of cultural products that they consider to be alien to their values.

Finally, he observes astutely that people who shut down opposing points of view are absolutely convinced of the correctness of their position.

So if you feel absolutely certain that you have a similar justice on your side on other issues, if your primary mission is to ensure that your definition of “expanded freedom” triumphs, why wouldn’t you use the levers of coercion available to you? If you know that your opponents are in error, and that their errors are at least on the same continuum with the errors of segregationists, why would you want to give them oxygen and space?

This form of ideological zealotry contradicts the basic premise of scientific inquiry, namely that all scientific truths are subject to doubt. It also contradicts the basic premise of the marketplace of ideas: namely that no one holds a monopoly on the truth.

Douthat makes the case for doubt:

The strongest answer, as I’ve tried to suggest before in debates about pluralism, has to rest in doubt as well as confidence: In a sense of humility about your own certainties, a knowledge that what looks like absolute progressive truth in one era does not always turn out to look that way in hindsight, and a willingness to extend a presumption of decency and good faith even to people whose ideas you think history will judge harshly. 

Better to say: “I believe in free debate because I know that my ideas about the good and right and true might actually be wrong (or at least be only partial truths that miss some bigger picture), and sometimes even reactionaries are proven right, and we have to leave the door open to that possibility.”

To be fair, it’s more than over-confidence that causes people to shut down debate and to try to destroy people who do not think as they do. The condition more closely resembles a delusional belief. They are convinced that their opinions are more valid than reality.

If it was really as self-evidently true as they think, they would not have to force people into assenting to it.

In truth, the zealots who use political correctness to shut down debate do not believe in the marketplace of ideas or in any other free market. Seeing themselves as sole possessors of the truth, they believe it their sacred mission to save humanity from error by forcing everyone to think as they think.

True enough, they lack humility and many other civic virtues. But it is also true that they are among the most profoundly bigoted people around. They are bigoted against anyone who does not think as they think. 

Today they are bigoted against white males because they blame this group for everything that has gone wrong with the world since the Garden of Eden. And they are certainly bigoted against any minority group member or any women who does not toe the party line. In many cases they are also bigoted against Jews… as in the Boycott Divest Sanction movement.

Wasn’t it Nietzsche who said that the worst conflicts were over ideology? You cannot know when someone is just echoing your beliefs because he fears the retribution that will befall him if he doesn’t. You cannot know whether someone really believes what the politically correct zealots want him to believe or whether he is just saying so in order to get a good grade.

If you say that white males are disqualified on ethnic, racial and gender grounds, you are also saying that your own ethnic or racial or gender identity validates your ideas.

Obviously this is bigotry, straight up. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Obama's War Against Israel

Give the Obama administration points for chutzpah.

Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address both houses of the American Congress. He did it without consulting with the White House.

Undoubtedly, he knew that if he had done so, Obama would have vetoed the idea.

Given that the president has shown only minimal respect for Congress or for Israel, Boehner’s action was a political masterstroke.

Presumably, the Obama people were outraged at the breach of protocol. It’s nice to see that an administration that flouts its ability to circumvent the Constitution should have discovered the virtue of protocol.

Speaking for the president, unnamed sources said that it was a slap in the face and that it would undermine America’s relations with Israel and sabotage the ongoing negotiations with Iran.

The administration did not call Netanyahu “chickenshit” again, but surely its tantrum was more worthy of a child than of a diplomat. After all, it could have said that it welcomed the speech but regretted that it could not meet with the prime minister in person.

That it preferred to heap scorn on the prime minister speaks volumes.

If you had ever had any doubt about the extent of Obama’s hatred of Israel and of its prime minister these statements should have dispelled it. If anyone else had acted this way the world would quickly have recognized anti-Semitism.

Besides, as has been widely reported Obama political operatives are in Israel working to defeat the Netanyahu government in the upcoming elections.

To say that the relationship between America and Israel is going to be damaged by the Netanyahu speech is absurd. The relationship is already damaged by the work of Barack Obama.

To say that the negotiations with Iran are going to be undermined fails to recognize that the negotiations are a farce and that Obama’s “darker purpose” is to find a way for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

The only person who will be damaged by the Netanyahu speech is Barack Obama. Anyone who opposes the speech is acquiescing to Obama's policy in the Middle East.

Republicans who want to occupy the moral high ground do not understand that the Democratic Party has never hesitated to undermine the foreign policy of Republican presidents. The reason is: Democrats understand politics and many Republicans prefer being holier-than-thou.

Note well: while the Obama administration was excoriating and cursing the prime minister of Israel, thus revealing its true feelings, its state department was hosting an Egyptian delegation that included members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At a time when the new president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist terrorism, thus being the most important Arab leader to fight the jihadis, Barack Obama decides that it’s time to show some respect for the outlawed terrorist organization, the godfather of Hamas.

The Washington Free Beacon reports what followed:

The Muslim Brotherhood called for “a long, uncompromising jihad” in Egypt just days after a delegation of the Islamist group’s key leaders and allies met with the State Department, according to an official statement released this week.

Just days after a delegation that included two top Brotherhood leaders was hosted at the State Department, the organization released an official statement calling on its supporters to “prepare” for jihad, according to an independent translation of the statement first posted on Tuesday.

The statement also was issued just two days before a major terror attack Thursday in Egypt’s lawless Sinai region that killed at least 25.

“It is incumbent upon everyone to be aware that we are in the process of a new phase, where we summon what is latent in our strength, where we recall the meanings of jihad and prepare ourselves, our wives, our sons, our daughters, and whoever marched on our path to a long, uncompromising jihad, and during this stage we ask for martyrdom,” it states.

Preparation for jihad is a key theme of the Brotherhood’s latest call for jihad.

One notes that Obama reserves his venom for Israel. Do you recall a time when he even spoke ill of the Iranian mullahs, the Palestinian terrorist organizations or the Islamist extremists of the Muslim Brotherhood?

As of now, Democrat senators have been rallying to support Obama. They understand that he and they will be the major losers when Netanyahu speaks before Congress.

Sometimes all you need to know is which side you are on.

[Addendum: Peter Wehner explains the Obama attitude toward Israel well on the Commentary site. Happily, his views converge with those I have expressed on this blog:

No world leader has been treated by President Obama and his administration with the contempt they have shown Prime Minister Netanyahu–from this snub in 2010 to being called a “coward” and “chickens*** prime minister” by senior administration officials.

But the problem goes much deeper than a personality clash. President Obama is, quite simply, anti-Israel. In every conceivable situation and circumstance, the president and his aides give the benefit of the doubt not to Israel but to its enemies. This despite the fact that Israel is among America’s longest and best allies, democratic, lawful, takes exquisite steps to prevent civilian deaths in nations committed to destroying it, and has made extraordinary sacrifices for peace. No matter; the pressure that’s applied is always applied most against Israel–even when, as in last year’s conflict with Hamas, Israel was the victim of lethal attacks.

This is morally shameful. In a world filled with despotic leaders and sadistic and ruthless regimes–North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, and on and on–which nation alone does Mr. Obama become “enraged” at? Which is the object of his disdain? Which provokes his white-hot anger?

Answer: Israel. Has it struck you, as it has struck me, that with every other nation, including the most repressive and anti-American on earth, Mr. Obama is careful never to give offense, to always extend the olive branch, and to treat their leaders with unusual deference and respect? Except for the Jewish State of Israel. It always seems to be in the Obama crosshair….

Perhaps given President Obama’s history–including his intimate, 20-year relationship with the anti-Semitic minister Jeremiah Wright–this shouldn’t come as a surprise. But that doesn’t make it any less disturbing.]

The Republican Reality Show

Nick Gillespie makes a good point about the Republican presidential candidates. He does not say, as others have, that the latest foray into Iowa looked more like a reality television show than a pre-presidential primary, but he has identified a serious problem.

Unfortunately, he undermines his own argument by calling certain prospective candidates: “schmucks.” Whatever their deficiencies as candidates, they are accomplished professionals in fields outside of politics. They are surely not schmucks. By insulting them Gillespie makes himself look foolish.

Beginning with the observation that her performance in Iowa ensured that Sarah Palin will not be a viable candidate, Gillespie goes on to mix astute analysis with gratuitous insults:

So America’s most-famous snowbilly [Palin] is out of the running for the 2016 Republican nomination. But what about all the other manifestly unqualified novices, jackasses, and publicity hounds that surface every four years when the GOP starts fishing for someone/anyone that can beat whatever sad sack of chum the Democrats toss in the water?

Unlike the Democrats, who never stray far from career politicians when selecting a presidential candidate, Republicans always seem to be looking for some sort of otherworldly savior to waltz in and take the country by storm. Someone unsullied by, you know, much (if any) actual experience in holding office, winning elections, and governing on a daily basis. Though GOP voters typically end up selecting major-state governors (Reagan, Bush II) or long-serving, partly mummified senators (Dole, McCain), they spend a hell of a lot time in primary season dancing with some pretty strange suitors.

Some of the candidates are clearly vanity candidates. But they are not jackasses. Many are successful businessmen, businesswomen or professionals. But they are not even remotely qualified to run for the office of the presidency of the United States. An act of God could not put them in the White House.

To be fair and balanced, the current Democratic president brought nothing to the office. He had no experience and no qualifications for the job. True enough, he was a politician and a United States Senator, but, beyond that… nothing.

In the meantime vanity candidates are making the Republican Party look less than serious.

Gillespie writes:

In the past, Republicans have coalesced around such obvious joke candidates as businessman Herman Cain, whose main achievements involved management stints at two of the nation’s most grotesque fast-food chains (Burger King and Godfather’s Pizza), and Alan Keyes, whose resume includes a brief stint as a Reagan appointee to the reviled-by-conservatives United Nations, hosting an ironically titled MSNBC show (Alan Keyes Is Making Sense), and a historic loss to one Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race.

That Cain and Keyes are black is no accident. While the GOP struggles to crack double digits in terms of votes from African Americans, the party’s overwhelmingly white membership seems to have an unending appetite for high-profile, successful black men whose very presence on a debate stage softens charges of hostility and indifference to issues about race. This helps explain why The Weekly Standard is officially “Taking Ben Carson Seriously,” as Fred Barnes’ recent cover story puts it.

Herman Cain was a successful businessman. Ben Carson was a great neurosurgeon. Neither has any business presenting himself as a candidate for the presidency. If neither man knows any better, then surely Republican voters should. And Fred Barnes should certainly know that he diminishes the Republican’s chances for victory when he starts taking Ben Carson seriously as a presidential candidate.

Gillespie continues:

Unlike the Democrats, who never stray far from career politicians when selecting a presidential candidate, Republicans always seem to be looking for some sort of otherworldly savior to waltz in and take the country by storm. Someone unsullied by, you know, much (if any) actual experience in holding office, winning elections, and governing on a daily basis. Though GOP voters typically end up selecting major-state governors (Reagan, Bush II) or long-serving, partly mummified senators (Dole, McCain), they spend a hell of a lot time in primary season dancing with some pretty strange suitors.

It is not quite nice to call Bob Dole and John McCain “mummified,” but unfortunately, that is the way they appeared to the American public. Surely, they both had the requisite experience, but both seemed to be largely past their prime.

For reasons that escape me Gillespie neglects to mention the last Republican who won the presidency twice, G. W. Bush.

You might think, as I do that Mitt Romney was far more experienced than Barack Obama. He had more executive experience and more political experience.

And yet, Gillespie says, he did not seem to have a taste for governance. Worse yet, he was doomed by the nominating process, process that did not make the Republican party look very serious. Romney came across as nasty and negative. He was the last man standing, but he alienated many Republican and independent voters. Surely, Romney did not know how to run a national political campaign:

Perhaps it’s the analogue to the longstanding and still-potent jibe that Republicans don’t really want to govern. They disdain the political process to such a degree that it takes them forever to pull the switch for a politician. Even the 2012 nominee Mitt Romney was touted more for his supposed business acumen as a turnaround specialist at Bain Capital than he was for his record as governor of Massachusetts. I’d argue, too, that Romney’s refusal to stand for reelection as governor in 2006 mirrored his party’s damaging dislike of politics. If you want to be president but can’t be bothered to actually learn how to govern, well good luck with that.

As it happens, beyond Sarah Palin and Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, Republicans have a very good field of candidates:

On the GOP side, there is a fistful of governors ranging from Chris Christie to Bobby Jindal to Jeb Bush to Scott Walker. There are young, energetic senators such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, who either have considerable legislative experience at the state level or have already demonstrated seriousness of purpose by sponsoring important legislation.

But, if it puts on something that looks more like a reality show than a nominating process, the Republican party will disrespect voters and disrespect the country.

Gillespie concludes:

If history is any guide, Republicans will prevaricate as long as possible and make goo-goo eyes at candidates who have no meaningful experience and no real shot at winning the presidency. That’s their right. It’s a free country after all. But the longer they wait to get serious about vetting their party’s candidates for president, the more they will lose support among the independent voters who will decide the 2016 election. And if they lose them, they will only have themselves to blame, regardless of who the Democrats put up to run.

I hesitate to say it, but Gillespie should find out what the word “prevaricate” means. It looks like something he fished out of a thesaurus. And, he should find himself a better editor.

Drinking Beer Is Good For You...

Just in time for Super Bowl Sunday comes the latest in hard science: if you drink beer regularly you will be less likely to contract Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The Daily Mail reports:

Regularly drinking beer could help slow dementia, research suggests.

Scientists have discovered an ingredient in hops which they think could slow the progression of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

In laboratory experiments they found that the chemical, called xanthohumol or Xn, could help protect brain cells from oxidative damage associated with dementia.

The research, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, suggested that people who regularly drink beer might be better able to ward off the progression of neurological diseases.

As with all good things, beer should only be consumed in moderation. Too many brews will harm you:

British scientists, however, warned against drinking beer too often.

Previous research has suggested that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to brain tissue loss and that binge drinking is associated with an increased risk of dementia.

And separate studies have concluded that developing a beer belly in middle age boosts the risk of Alzheimer's in later life three-fold.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Men Who Crave Amputation

Given our politically correct age and given that the transgendered are now an oppressed class, it took courage for New York Magazine to look at the question of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID).

And to treat it as a psychiatric condition, falling somewhere between a mania and a delusion.

A patient with BIID knows exactly what he wants. He wants to have one of his healthy limbs amputated. Since he is convinced that his left leg is not really part of his body, he believes that whoever put it there made a mistake. He believes that he will never be whole until it has been amputated… above the knee.

New York Magazine explains:

Rather than a coherent psychological disorder, BIID is better thought of as a cluster of conditions, united by the strong sense in a sufferer that a limb, usually a leg, shouldn’t be attached to their body — a sensation of not “fitting” one’s body akin to gender dysphoria.

Note well that the condition resembles “gender dysphoria,” the technical term for those who believe that their true gender identity differs from their biological gender identity. That is, the transgendered.

It is worth noting that gender dysphoria, like BIID, is a belief. It is not a scientific fact. And, like BIID, it manifests itself in an extra belief-- that the problem can only be solved by surgery.

A BIID sufferer, quoted in the article, describes his belief as obsessive.

In his words:

My biggest problem is a complete secret: I have an unexplainable desire to do something that most people would dread. I want to have my left leg amputated, just above the knee. I strongly feel that my left leg just shouldn’t be on my body. I’ve thought about it obsessively every single day of my life.

The patient describes how his mind relates to his offending limb:

It’s a strong feeling that I should have been born without my left leg. If I make eye contact with it and I’m not fully concentrating on something else, I obsessively think: This leg shouldn’t be there. And it’s very disturbing because I know that’s not normal. It’s like my brain perceives my body without a left leg. I can be talking to someone and suddenly unable to focus on what they are saying because I’m thinking about my leg and wishing it wasn’t there.  It’s an overwhelming urge. I might be dozing on a recliner and I get this weird feeling around my knee that that’s where it needs to be off. The busier I am the more I can control it, but if I get stressed the thoughts intensify.

What triggered the disorder? He explains:

When I was about 5 or 6. I was in downtown L.A., and since it was just after the war, there were lots of amputees around. I vividly remember seeing a man get off a streetcar. He had a peg leg and I thought: I wish that were me. Later, I began to tuck my foot right up behind my bottom when I was in bed at night — little kids are very flexible. I’d then place the covers down over my knee so it looked like there was nothing there.

And he had other experiences that added to the childhood trauma:

When I was a kid, a relative’s husband got his hand stuck in a machine and he cut some of his fingers off. I recall visiting them and they were playing cards with another couple he’d met through rehab. I shouldn’t even remember any of this except this other guy had lost his left leg. He was sitting in a chair, wearing a pair of jeans, and his leg was off above where the cuff of the jeans were so the cuff was empty. 

It stuck in my mind. It was around the same time I saw the guy with a peg leg. Later a close male relative who was a race-car driver got in a bad accident and ended up having his leg amputated.

Was the problem caused by a series of incidents that appeared to be connected? Did their confluence suggest that someone was trying to tell him something? Perhaps, but I do not know.

For the record, the man's understanding of the etiology of his condition will not change his condition. It will not persuade him to abandon his other delusional belief, namely that surgery can solve his problem.

For most of his life this man had kept his condition a secret. When he told his second wife, he felt some relief, but he saw that she was distressed by the information. He chose to stop talking about it.

He has done online research into those who have undergone the operation. (You are not surprised to learn that some of these people manage to get the operation done. Some manage to hurt themselves so badly that the operation becomes inevitable.) The results were less than encouraging:

But there are some people I have exchanged emails with, via an online group. All of them have had left leg amputations. They still obsess about their limbs and talk about other amputations even though the leg is gone and they claim to be much happier. My dream is if I had this leg amputated it would all go away and I’d be a normal person, with a fake leg. That’s the difference between me and these other sufferers. Having the leg gone but still being plagued by these thoughts would make my life worse. 

Some people insist that surgery has cured them, but large numbers of those who have had their left legs removed have discovered that they still suffer from their obsessive cravings.

At a time when it is becoming impossible to discuss gender dysphoria, and at a time when the strength of an individual’s conviction is an accepted reason for damaging hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, it is helpful to see these obsessions or manias in psychiatric terms, the better not to make them a human rights issue.

Or to make the transgendered pawns in the culture wars.

In a culture where more than a few people believe that there is no very significant difference between biological males and biological females and where people also believe that everyone can choose his or her gender identity, regardless, using individuals who have serious psychiatric disorders to advance a cultural agenda is frankly cruel.

Culture warriors seem to want to trot out those who suffer from gender dysphoria as proof that gender is a social construct, or better, that it can be corrected surgically.

To them, this condition proves definitively that biology is not destiny. It proves that we can, with the aid surgery, make ourselves whatever we want to be.

I would add that we do not know whether all the talk about the transgendered is causing people to convince themselves that they have the condition when they do not.

After all, gender dysphoria is an obsessive belief. Since cultural attitudes impact belief, even to the point of producing waves of certain psychiatric disorders—like hysteria during the Victorian period—it might well be that the current glorification of the transgendered is persuading more people that they have the condition. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Saving Liberalism from Political Correctness

Jonathan Chait wants to save liberalism. By extension, he wants to revitalize the Democratic Party by expunging the rot that seems to have invaded its core.

Chair knows that the horrors that are being committed in the name of political correctness are dragging down the Democratic Party. Perhaps at some point the party was happy to have the support of the radical left, but the situation has gotten out of hand. Democrats lost a lot of elections a few months ago. If things continue this way, the Democratic Party might go the way of the Whigs.

Chait does not mention that the American electorate breathed a new vitality into political correctness by electing Barack Obama to the presidency.

When Obama became president, political debate was no longer about ideas. In social media and universities those who opposed Obama were slandered and defamed.

Let’s not forget that Obama used to pal around with radicals like William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi. It’s not as though America elected a good liberal Democrat to the presidency.

Now, with the candidacy of Hillary Clinton looming, the debate will no longer concern Mrs. Clinton’s thin resume and  barely visible accomplishments, but about the sexism of those who oppose her.

Among other points, Chait echoes an argument that I have occasionally made against the fashionable notion of trigger warnings. The point bears repeating:

Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma — an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering. Indeed, one professor at a prestigious university told me that, just in the last few years, she has noticed a dramatic upsurge in her students’ sensitivity toward even the mildest social or ideological slights; she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma — or, more consequentially, violating her school’s new sexual-harassment policy — merely by carrying out the traditional academic work of intellectual exploration. “This is an environment of fear, believe it or not,” she told me by way of explaining her request for anonymity. It reminds her of the previous outbreak of political correctness — “Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’

Several columnists have challenged Chait’s idea that political correctness is antithetical to liberalism. I tend to agree with him that it belongs on the radical left:

But political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.

If political correctness is a symptom, of what is it a symptom? Chait suggests that it is symptom of ignorance and stupidity. Those who cannot engage with ideas, who cannot participate in political debate resort to calumny, slander and defamation.

After noting that he himself is a white male, Chait despairs at the fact that the radical left considers his identity to be the only important point about his ideas.

If you consider this [my] background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.

In many ways this reflects what is called identity politics. The value of someone’s work, especially in academia and the media depends more on the person’s racial, ethnic or gender identity than on any intrinsic merit.

Political correctness is simply the radical version of identity politics. It refuses to debate ideas, disparages the notion of intrinsic merit and promotes people who owe their jobs to their identity, not to what they have achieved.

Every Breath You Take

Always on the lookout for the latest and easiest forms of therapy, I chanced upon this: to improve your mental and physical health you should improve your breathing technique.

Sumathi Reddy reports the groundbreaking discovery in the Wall Street Journal:

Breathing and controlling your breath is one of the easiest ways to improve mental and physical health, doctors and psychologists say. Slow, deep and consistent breathing has been shown to have benefits in treating conditions ranging from migraines and irritable bowel syndrome to anxiety disorders and pain.

“If you train yourself to breathe a little bit slower it can have long-term health benefits,” said Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Deep breathing activates a relaxation response, he said, “potentially decreasing inflammation, improving heart health, boosting your immune system and maybe even improving longevity,”

Breathe more slowly, and breathe from the diaphragm. One understands that breathing techniques are part of yoga, but now psychologists are getting into the game:

Belisa Vranich, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, has been conducting breathing workshops around the country for just over a year. Among her biggest clients: corporate managers eager to learn how to better manage stress.

Dr. Vranich says she instructs clients to breathe with their abdomen. On the inhale, this encourages the diaphragm to flatten out and the ribs to flare out. Most of us by instinct breathe vertically, using our chest, shoulders and neck, she says.

Abdominal, or diaphragmatic, breathing is often taught in yoga and meditation classes. Experts say air should be breathed in through the nose, and the exhale should be longer than the inhale. Dr. Vranich recommends trying to breathe this way all the time but other experts say it is enough to use the technique during stressful or tense times or when it is necessary to focus or concentrate.

So, take a deep breath, exhale slowly. It might not cure everything that ails you. It probably won’t. And yet, it is certainly not going to hurt you. The possible benefit is largely incommensurate with the effort it takes to learn this new habit.

The Therapy Culture Confronts Islamist Terrorism

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the perverse misuse of the concept of empathy.

As I have often mentioned, on this blog and in my book, the concept of empathy is being promoted as the latest, greatest psychological panacea.

Therapists believe, as an article of faith, that psychopaths and sociopaths suffer from a lack of empathy. Obviously, they are happy to apply this deep thought to the terrorists who are running amok around the world today.

If only Islamists would learn to feel for the humanity of their victims they would lay down their suicide bombing vests and join the family of man.

Thus, terrorists are suffering from emotional disturbances. We need not fight them; we need not denounce them as evil; we need merely to cure them. They do not need bombs, they need therapy.

In a recent Daily Beast article, Gil Troy explains what happens when the therapy culture tries to solve the problem of Islamist terrorism. Not by denouncing, but by diagnosing. Not by attacking, but by offering compassion.

As you know, the White House has responded to the terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere by convening a conference on what it calls “extremism.”

Troy describes the purpose:

To demonstrate his determination [to fight terrorism], he [Obama] will host a conference on the subject on Feb. 18. The White House announcement emphasized that this summit will study strategies for involving “education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders.”

Happy to pick up a trendy idea, our president confidently asserts that Islamist radicals—the ones he refuses to call Islamist radicals--need therapy. Their emotional difficulties have been caused by social conditions, like the rampant injustice that condemns them without trying to understand them.

It’s not new. Well before he entered the White House, Obama thought in these terms. If I may, the terms resonate well within our own therapy culture.

Troy exposes what then state senator Obama had to say about the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the time they happened. First, he offered a diagnosis. Then, he unearthed the social cause. The remarks are, to say the least, revelatory:

Even after the 9/11 attacks, some Americans resisted bin Laden’s own framing of the assaults as Islam versus the West. In Chicago, Obama, then a 40-year-old state senator, was evacuated from the Thompson Center, the Illinois state government office building, on that awful day. He watched the horrifying images at his law firm’s townhouse. “The essence of this tragedy…” he wrote a week later in the Hyde Park Herald, “derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity.” Obama explained that it “most often… grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.” Filtering reality through the therapeutic culture’s gauzy belief system, Obama reduced Islamism to a psychological shortcoming, while rationalizing a particular form of violence as a logical, if insensitive, response to poverty and illiteracy.

Obama was analyzing the problem with the terms provided by the therapy culture. But, this culture did not merely prevent him from understanding the nature of the threat. It also softened and weakened him and us. It has told us to introspect, the better to cure our own guilt-ridden souls. Once we have overcome our own problems, the terrorists will have no reason to attack us.

By extension, the 9/11 attacks were a way of punishing a nation that refuses to accept its own guilt. As Obama’s mentor so eloquently put it: our chickens came home to roost.

Troy’s remarks resonate with views expressed on this blog:

Beyond insulting billions of poor people who never turned violent, Obama’s 2001 reaction raises questions about whether America’s I’m-Ok-You’re OK overly-psychological culture can handle Islamism’s I’m-Ok-Die-Infidel! death cult. Our pluck, our grit, our occasional righteous anger, our absolute sense of right and wrong, has been counseled out of millions of us. One 2013 survey estimated that a third of Americans have sought “professional counseling for mental health issues.” Some estimates run as high as eighty percent of Americans having received some form of psychological counseling during their lifetimes.

Overall, the therapeutic focus on the neurotic self often undermines social solidarity and relativizes perceptions. While the resulting therapeutic culture is more tolerant, forgiving, and sensitive to others, it is also more guilt-ridden, apologetic, and self-loathing.  Reinforced by the post-1960s Great American—and Western—Guilt Trip, which emphasizes our own society’s flaws while excusing our enemies’ sins, the fight against absolutist, totalitarian ideologies like Islamism starts looking doomed. We see the results in ++politically correct college campuseswhere students accept someone waving the ISIS flag but denounce waving the Israeli flag. We see it in an identity politics that allows narratives of victimization to trump traditional liberal commitments to free speech….

Ideological combat requires clear-seeing warriors who distinguish good from evil, not mealy-mouthed social workers who believe everyone and every idea is good.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Psychoanalysis as Overpriced Storytelling

Those who have read my book, The Last Psychoanalyst might recall that I called psychoanalysis “overpriced storytelling.”

Thus, I am naturally intrigued by the story of Jay Neugeboren’s psychoanalysis, as he recounted in The New York Times. You see, Neugeboren is a writer. If nothing else, he was in psychoanalysis for the story.

For the record, Neugeboren does not call his therapy psychoanalysis, but since his therapist, Dr. Jean Franklin was sitting behind him and not saying much of anything, I believe I am labeling it correctly.

As Neugeboren describes her technique and tells us what he learned from it:

Dr. Franklin rarely commented on the stream of stories, memories and feelings that poured from me, instead guiding me to understand feelings, present and past, largely on my own. In my last month on the couch, pleased to realize I’d actually come to like myself, and thinking of ways I’d changed — my ability to be sad and to sit inside my sadness; feeling capable of loving and being loved; trusting, increasingly, my feelings and my imagination, however strange, mad and mysterious they seemed — I said that I thought I had, in the rooms of my mind, succeeded in opening a few doors and windows, in making some small changes.

Of course, Franklin was giving her patient the silent treatment. She helped him to manufacture a ton of stories, and even convinced him that those stories had been hidden in his mind.

This continued, off and on, for more than fourteen years.

Neugeboren had first consulted a therapist when he had a frightening experience.

He explained:

On the day, some decades ago, that I sent off the manuscript of what would become my sixth published book, I was suddenly possessed — there is no other word — by the desire to leave this world, and to do so by stepping in front of an oncoming bus. I walked to the edge of the sidewalk, stepped down, hesitated, let the bus go by, and decided to go home, where, if one of my children, then ages 4, 2 and 1, defied me in any way, I imagined picking that child up and throwing the child against a wall or through a window.

One understands why he sought help. As it happened, he was able to solve the problem in a matter of weeks. He did so well that Dr. Franklin prescribed psychoanalysis.

At the moment he started thinking of throwing himself under a bus, his life was going well:

... at the age of 37, I had a life better than any I’d ever believed possible. I had published five books (after having written, by the age of 27, eight unpublished books); I was married; and I had three delightful, healthy children. I had not, like my father, been a failure, and had not, like my younger brother, Robert, gone mad and been institutionalized.

After a few weeks of therapy, Neugeboren undertook six years of analysis, three times a week. He got completely into his mind and produced reams of material for his silent analyst. And he seems to have been happy with the experience.

And yet, we are within our rights to ask about the outcome of his adventure.

Unfortunately, a couple of years after his first six year foray, his life fell apart:

But I stayed on, three times a week, for the next six years. And when, two years after that, my family fell apart and I became single parent to my three children, I returned and stayed on, twice a week, for eight years. 

It would perhaps have been more accurate to say that his marriage fell apart. He would have done better to mention his wife. His account erases her from the story.

You might believe that Neugeboren got so completely lost in his mind that he checked out of his marriage. Then again, the reasons his marriage failed might have had nothing to do with his years of psychoanalytic self-involvement or with his transference relationship with his analyst.

One notes, in reading his account, that he had developed a very good, albeit apparently unanalyzed transference to Dr. Franklin.

Witness his remark about his relationship with her:

I approached therapy sessions with the same energy, intensity and sheer playfulness I brought to my writing: I brought in journal entries, letters, books, photographs, my typewriter, my baseball glove and drafts of works in progress. So large was my desire for my doctor to know me that I once appeared at her door with that day’s show-and-tell piled high in one of my children’s toy wheelbarrows.

Anyway, as happens in psychoanalysis, and as I explained clearly in my book, Neugeboren dealt with his failed marriage and his failed psychoanalysis by signing up for eight more years of psychoanalysis.

Naturally, he wants us to believe that he gained extraordinary insights from treatment. When you have invested as much as he did, you had better think that the insights are mind-altering.

Insight notwithstanding, Neugeboren was, by his testimony, making himself into a fictional character.

In his words:

I gave myself up to my own life and feelings in the same way that, when inventing characters, I gave myself up to what my characters felt and experienced. By imagining an experience back into existence I came closer not only to what had happened and what I’d felt, but to what I’d forgotten, or had not felt, or not seen, or might have felt. I became lost and frightened the way characters in my novels became lost and frightened, and I found ways of surviving in ways my characters did. Like my writing, psychotherapy enabled me to make sense of a world that often seemed senseless.

Making yourself into a fictional character does provide something like a meaning to your life. But it is a fabrication, something that will alienate you from other people and their real world problems.

While you are getting lost in your mind, they are living their lives. And they are expecting that you will be there for them and will uphold your responsibilities as a member of the family.

Thus, I note that Neugeboren manifests a tendency that I identified as central to the Freudian project: to make you into a fictional character living in a fictional world.

By his own account, Neugeboren’s treatment helped him to open up of a few small windows in his mind. When he called them “small changes,” his ever-helpful analyst corrected him and declared that they seemed “pretty large” to her.

He seems to think this was momentous, but in the world of storytelling, this is not a very good ending.

One notes that when your analyst remains silent for the greater part of your time the few words that she deigns to offer you will sound oracular.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Changing Habits: Who You Are and What You Do

Why is it so difficult to change habits?

Gretchen Rubin explains that changing a habit changes our identity. We are loath to become someone else, even if it means having better habits. It’s one thing to change what you are doing; quite another to change who you are.

If virtue, as Aristotle suggested, involves practicing good habits, the more you practice such habits, the more others will accustom themselves to the new virtuous You.

It is not, Rubin suggests, an automatic transformation. Becoming someone else does not happen overnight.

Rubin explains her thought:

Our idea of “this is the kind of person I am” is so bound up in our habits and actions that it can be hard to see. But our sense of identity can make it easier or harder to change a habit.

Often, habits can’t change until identity changes. For instance, a person identifies as the fun one, the one who says “yes” to everything — but also wants to cut back on drinking. A person identifies as a workaholic, but then wants to work reasonable hours. The identity is incompatible with the change in habits.

James Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.

Continuing, Rubin suggests that one must change one’s identity before one can change a habit. Agee, however, in the passage she quotes, says that changing the habit came before he learned to be someone else.

She also suggests that we can only change our identity by rewriting our story. Some researchers have recommended the exercise in order to transform ourselves, as Augustine did, from sinner into saint, but most people, I believe, use the exercise to buck up their courage and to continue developing new habits before the benefits become manifest.

Rubin raises several important questions.

I would address them by noting, after Aristotle, that you can only overcome bad habits by replacing them with good habits. Considering that you identify yourself with your habits, you can only develop a new habit by working at it, by struggling against a tendency to retain the familiar bad habits.

Yet, if you try to change your identity before you change your habits, you will fail. Many psychotherapists have proposed that changing a habit requires some kind of prior mental change. The results have invariably been that you change your mind but keep your habits.

It should go without saying, but no one has changed a bad habit by discovering its meaning.

The reason is clear. You are not merely who you think you are. You are not merely who you feel you are. Your identity is based on what you do and on how other people see you.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, you are the only one who can never see your face directly.

If you change a bad habit, other people will for a time still identify you as the person who presented himself with the bad habit. You might decide to clean up your life, but other people will treat you as the person who, for example, drinks and smokes to excess… the life of the party.

If you are the life of the party you will probably receive more than your share of invitations to fun parties. But you will not be hired to do a job and your friends will not want to fix you up with their sisters.

When you abandon a bad habit, those who have known you by your bad habit will resist, even distrust the new You. Only consistently good behavior will persuade people to treat you as someone they can trust and rely on.

The more time this takes, the more you might feel discouraged when people do not catch on. The more you feel discouraged the less you will feel that it is all worth the effort.

It has less to do with self-perception than with the way other people see you and the way they treat you.

In time, your good behavior will become so automatic, so second nature that you will feel that it really is You. Eventually, other people will recalibrate their expectations about you, act differently toward you, introduce you to their sisters and solicit your views on weighty matters.

Put it all together and you will become a new You. If this involves a radical change of identity I think it fair to say that you will have become someone else.

I suspect that you eventually reach what Malcolm Gladwell called a tipping point, where the new habit feels natural and where other people accept it as You.

If I had to venture a guess, I would imagine that the influence of other people is more important than your self-awareness.

One should also to recognize that, among your friends, family and colleagues, some people will more quickly accept the new You while others will remain skeptical.

Evidently, you should put greater stock in the actions of those who trust you than in the derision of those who do not. Thereby, you will build confidence and identify with your new virtuous You.

I close with a few lines from Aristotle. Therein the philosopher argued that you are what you do. You cannot be a builder unless you build something. And you cannot be courageous unless you act courageously.

One might see in this text the foundation of cognitive therapy:

This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.