October 31, 2008
One of the most extraordinary events in the Old Testament occurs when Sarah banishes Hagar from Abraham’s tents and sends her into the desert to fend for herself. Despite having giving birth to Abraham’s son, Ishmael, Sarah banishes Hagar and Ishmael to the desert.
This event occurred after Abraham and his son Ishmael had bonded, as father and son. For 13 years they had lived as a family. Nevertheless, with the birth of Isaac, everything changed- so much so that that Hagar and her son Ishmael, Isaac’s brother are not only uprooted from the lives they had known but banished to what is almost certain death in the desert.
Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael all acquiesce to Sarah’s demands.
This is more than a bit troubling. For all intents and purposes, Hagar was Abraham’s wife, not simply an anonymous concubine. She bore him a son when Sarah could not. How could Abraham yield to Sarah’s demands?
How is it that Abraham gave into Sarah’s demands after only a mild protest? How is it that Abraham allowed the mother of his firstborn to be subject to much abuse and suffering? God had promised Abraham that his offspring would found great nations. How could Abraham turn a blind eye to the fact that banishing Hagar and Ishmael into the desert was in fact a death sentence? Was this what God expected from His servant?
The question is not so academic. Years later, God tells Abraham to offer yet another son up on an Altar. The old man says, “Sure, no problem.” History repeats itself. Isaac, like Ishmael, puts up no fight and offers up no resistance. Abraham is now ready to banish to death of his son Isaac, the one with whom God struck a covenant. At the critical moment and in the same way God provided a miracle for Hagar and Ishmael by providing water and sustenance in the desert, He provides a ram to take the place of Isaac on the Altar.
One man, Abraham, offered both his sons to death without a protest. This is more remarkable when you consider that Abraham was not a hardened warrior who routinely enjoyed the spoils of war and took slaves and concubines or engaged in the rape of the vanquished. He was a shepherd. More remarkably, this man Abraham raised two sons with a trust in God as fierce and unshakable as his own. Each son willingly accepts his father’s commands, knowing full well the meaning of those commands.
Of course, no one can see with an eye that is Divine. We see events in a linear fashion, framed by a time line that is uniquely our own and that encompasses only what we are capable of seeing and comprehending. God sees it all, the past, present and future. He sees and understands how the effects of the butterfly that flaps it’s wings in South America and displaces that tiny bit of air, might impact us here. That kind of overview is one of the things that is in God’s purview.
The biblical tale of Noah and the ark is easy to comprehend. The story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael is not as clear. There is more of a troubling and nagging mystery than an easily digestible lesson in ethics. That story reminds us of the butterfly flapping it’s wings in South America. No matter how hard we try, we don’t always get the Big Picture, no matter how much we want to.
Fortunately, we are only obligated to deal with the small slice of time that is given us as best we can. We can leave the Big Picture to God.
Yesterday, Fausta wrote Not Remote Control, a post in which she examines and self examines issues of control and domination- not unlike the issues we have been discussing.
She questions the apparent need for control and the need for domination. What is referred to, only obliquely, is the wasted energy and human potential that are the results of the efforts expended to control another. What Fausta does not refer to is the human cost- the hurt, disappointment and resentment that are the inevitable by products of the control and domination that is imposed. That cannot be emphasized enough. Fausta’s post is important because it is a testament to the human spirit. No matter how overwhelming or relentless, control and domination will always be resisted. That truth is known to everyone who has been enslaved, in one form or another.
Fausta’s post is important because it celebrates the resilience of human spirit at a time when that spirit is most often deflated, hurt and underfoot. That is no small matter because in the end, there are no free rides for those who trample the spirits of others.
In what is more than a bit of irony, Abraham was banished to travel the deserts because of famine. He ends up in the court of an Egyptian Pharaoh- in the very land of Hagar’s birth and home to his son Ishmael’s new life. There is a bitter and unasked question that must run through the minds of Abraham and Sarah. Later on, the children of Jacob sell Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites and Ishmael’s daughter marries Jacob’s brother, Esau.
Sarah believed she was exerting control and her domination by banishing Hagar and Ishmael into oblivion. Clearly, that did not happen and in fact, the Bible is full of reminders that was not the case. Notwithstanding Sarah’s convictions, no matter how well intentioned, her husband’s offspring were destined to realize each others reality.
It is nice to think the Bible offers up only clear and understandable tales of morality, but of course that isn’t the case. What is moral isn’t always clear. Passionate moral arguments can be made for and against the death penalty, for example and arguments for or against the morality of the United Nations, a less than stellar institution, can be made.
Moral arguments are made by those who have never experienced war and terror and racism and hate and have no clue to what it means to be controlled or dominated – and moral arguments are made by victims of war and terror and racism and hate and those who know too well what it means to be controlled or dominated.
When Abraham dies, both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury the father they and their descendants revere. Each love the father that loved them- and yet each lead very different lives.
Perhaps one lesson that can be learned here is that Abraham never attempted to assert control or dominion over that which he knew was in God’s purview. Each of his sons were promised great legacies and Abraham trusted enough in God to not interfere, despite what must have been clearly a great conflict within himself. Not to assert control or domination but to trust in God- really trust in Him- takes a kind of maturity, not so easily learned.
The Big Picture isn’t so easily recognizable, but what we comprehend is that control and domination serves to degrade and not elevate. Those who attempt to assert control over others simply for the sake of control and domination will find that destiny will in the end, not favor them. Those who attempt in the name of God, to assert control over others, have not yet learned that God alone has Dominion over his creations. Discord will always yield a Divine Destiny, one that should teach humility.
That is a lesson that some of Abraham’s descendants would do well to learn.
Portions of this post have been previously published.
October 30, 2008
What is a hero? Who qualifies as a hero?
In some cultures, hero worship centers around sports cultures or entertainment figures, precisely because they make no moral statement whatsoever. We are inspired by acts of physical prowess or by the role played by someone pretending to take a moral stand. In other cultures, heroes are derived only from the ranks of those who take a moral stand.
Some cultures see Mother Teresa and others who expend similar efforts as heroes. Other cultures see those who would kill Mother Teresa and others engaged in the same kind of work as heroes.
Of course, we have in each us the secret desire to be a hero. We only need to define that desire. Do we want to be great conquerors or artists, or do we want to be great leaders or teachers?
The answer depends on who we are and how we understand our relationships with others.
If we see ourselves as creatures demanding no more than immediate gratification then we require no more than a shallow relationship, based on immediate attractions. If we see ourselves as possessing real depth, we seek out more intimate and developed relationships. There is a very big difference between relationships predicated on attraction versus relationships predicated on intimacy.
If relationships are primarily based on cultural ideas (and it makes no difference where that culture is centered), then those relationships will ones dependent on attraction. That is to say that the prevailing culture determines who is and isn’t attractive or desirable.
A relationship that has it’s foundations in values is a much more intimate relationship.
It is all about balance, of course. We cannot live outside our prevailing culture and part of a society, we do share common values. The proportions are what matter here. We can choose to make culture or values the dominant influences in our lives. The choices we make last long after we are gone.
Mother Teresa and Anna Nicole Smith were both celebrities. Who will be long remembered and admired, and who will be forgotten is already assured. Albert Schweitzer and Beverly Hills plastic surgeons went to medical school. The differences between them are great indeed.
When we are young, our definition of what is a hero is simple. We see ourselves as being capable leaders, with legions of warriors under our command, saving the day and restoring the honor and dignity to those we liberated. We can be Robin Hoods, fighting injustice and getting the girl or we could be swashbuckling pirates, making our great fortunes.
As we get older, we learn about the other kind of hero, the silent kind. In American culture, that is the cowboy who rides off silently into the sunset after helping a young widow mend a fence. In some versions, the cowboy comes to the rescue of tenderfoots from back east seeking a new life. He shows them the ropes of frontier living and survival and he helps and then teaches them how to defend themselves from persecution by the criminals who would steal their possessions.
The cowboy says little, preferring his actions speak for him. He asks for little, seeking only to share the warmth of a fire. In this uniquely American legend it is the humility of the unnamed cowboy that is remembered as he rides off into the sunset.
This American hero was very different. He sought no recognition and no advancement for his efforts. He sought only to enable others to survive and thrive.
The American cowboy can be found today all over the world, committed to freedom and to liberating the oppressed. We don’t lack for heroes. We have a culture that refuses to recognize them.
Sadly, we have come to believe that only by being very visible and in the spotlight can we overcome our mundane ‘humanness.’ Desperate young people believe that fame of any kind will counter their purposeless and nameless anonymity. That is why they pick up guns and shoot people in shopping malls. They believe that some kind of fame means their life will have had some kind of meaning. For those tragic and lost souls, subjugating and killing others can make up for their sense of powerlessness in a world that refuses to recognize them, simply because they exist. They are acting out not only out of their own frustrations, but they also believe they are making a heroic stand for all humanity’s ‘little people.’ It is those beliefs that the tragic lost people hold onto. They believe they will be remembered as ‘martyrs’ for the oppressed. They believe they will become legends, icons and heroes. They believe their last moments on earth taking lives will give them immortality.
They believe this in no small measure because many allow for, apologize for and somewhat sympathize with suicide killers elsewhere, affording them a kind of hero status.
We live in a world where heroes and heroism are defined by culture and not values.
In fact, each and every one of us has the ability to be a real hero if only we allow ourselves the privilege.
As long as we allow culture to define what heroes and heroism really are, we will continue to live vicariously through others. We and our children will seek out the lives of sports heroes and entertainment figures as if their antics had some relevant meaning to our lives. We will come to accept their dysfunctions as acceptable and in the end, we will lessen the values of our own lives and our own potential.
If we don’t really believe that heroism is within our grasp, we will live lives or unremarkable ordinariness and heighten our own mediocrity, without ever reaching for the true greatness that is within reach.
Real heroes retreat from conflict whenever possible. Real heroes engage in conflict when necessary to preserve the elevated man. Real heroes do not act to be applauded or remembered. Real heroes act to right a wrong or elevate another, no strings attached.
Real heroes conquer their own consuming passions and addictions so as to better their own lives and the lived of those around them.
Real heroes live quiet lives and act out of loyalty, love and duty. There are no marching bands, no medals or great rewards (here is the true story of one real hero).Real heroes are not born for adventure or to conquer. Real heroes are born to serve.
Abraham Lincoln was a hero, a most reluctant and suffering one at that. Despite the persecutions, he persevered. The Gettysburg Address was written not from victory but from humility. His letter to Mrs Bixby was written not by a mighty President of the United States, but by a man struggling to express the pain and gratitude of a nation. There are few heroes today who could pen such words and be believed as sincere.
There are cultures in which suicide bombers, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Bashar Assad, et al, are considered heroes. It is also true that cultures that venerate such people produce nothing of value to mankind.
There are other cultures who see heroes in Mother Teresa, Mandela, Ghandi and firemen.
Some cultures see it heroic to raise children who are taught to hate and even kill. Other cultures seek to raise children to be productive and embracing.
In our cultures, heroes may be flawed and imperfect. In other cultures, even the most evil and repressive of ‘heroes’ are considered sacred.
Much can be learned about the values of a society and culture by looking at their heroes.
In a civilized society, real heroes are those for whom commitment to the elevation and dignity of themselves and others are paramount. It matters not if they are Prime Ministers or milkmen. In the end, we will leave a legacy. After the requisite and high minded eulogies, we will be remembered as being ordinary or extraordinary.We will be remembered for a few achievements or accomplishments or we will be remembered for our heroism in how we inspired others and elevated our family and friends. We can choose to be remembered for the charities we supported and the charity we gave at home. We can be remembered for how we loved our spouses and for how easily we forgave.
In the end, real heroes are remembered for who they were and not for what they achieved.
For another look at heroes, see Gagdad Bob’s superb The Cluelesscide Of The West.
October 29, 2008
This week, we have examined the nurture-nature aspect of the human potential. Freud, Trees And A Well Hidden Id, is a look at the engine that drives human nature. In Animal Man vs Elevated Man, we questioned the meaning of our existence. Is the underlying reason for our existence solely to survive or is there a more meaningful purpose to our existence?
Today, we want to discuss man’s relationship with God and religion. Is religion really no more than primitive man’s attempt to understand his world? Do we really look to the heavens because we cannot fathom a life without meaning?
There are those who say just that. They point to the Creation story and say, ‘All of this flies in the face of science!’ Or they say, ‘Religious teachings are backward,’ as if these absurd critiques alone are arguments of some merit.
Religion has not endured because of the Creation story or because of the Bible as a historical document. Religion has endured because it is about choices, morality and virtue. People believe in God because their belief offers them something of great personal value that takes them outside their individual selves. Perhaps the most important idea religion offers man is a sense of identity and his place in the cosmos.
Let’s look at families in a society as defined by a culture that does not embrace God.
If our identity is determined primarily by our own temporal culture, we are very poor indeed. Western cultures are today a canvas of aimlessness. Great nations are foundering, bereft of direction and purpose because too many people don’t know who they are beyond what the culture and media tell them. The prevailing culture has birthed a family that is defined by a kind of depression.
Husbands come home feeling like failures and empty if they don’t make enough money to satisfy an ever demanding consumer culture. They sit in front of the television, anesthetized and repeat the pattern day in day out, year in and year out.
Wives too, come home exhausted and spent. In addition to helping keep the family afloat, our culture demands much of them. Look pretty, they are told. Be fashionable, underweight and be a domestic diva. After tending to the family’s physical needs, she seeks out affection and intimacy that just isn’t there.
Children are the big losers. Moms and dads are no longer heroes or role models. Kids seek meaning in movies, video games and shopping. They have not learned what healthy relationships look like and unhealthy, disrespectful and inappropriate relationships between girls and boys is the order of the day. Children’s dreams are fueled by television sitcoms. The magic of childhood imagination is drowning under the polluted waters of a culture that nurtures apathy, antipathy and cynicism.
As a result of all this, homes are now very empty places, inhabited by dysfunctional adults addicted to TV, video games, the Internet, the gym and a myriad of activities outside the home. Activities outside the home become a substitute for what needs to be activities, conversations and exchanges inside the home. The need for real family cannot be overstated. It isn’t just inner city gang members that join gangs for that very reason. Homes offer no inspiration, no real warmth and they exist solely as a place to come into out of the rain or to get laundry taken care of. Families have been rendered impotent by the drug that is our soulless modern culture. They can no longer recognize what is healthy, natural and inspiring.
From The Tragedy Of The Lost:
Often, we compensate for the aimlessness in our lives by pursuing success in less meaningful parts of our lives: We focus on careers, money, entertainment and most of all, detached self gratification. When it comes to dealing with more substantive issues, such as relationships, past pains and traumas and even the realities of dealing with everyday life in a healthy and constructive way, far too many people are simply lacking the skills and learned tools to do just that. The lack of those skills came about as the result of a deep sense of alienation. As we noted, a sense of aimlessness means a lack of commitment and passion. Too many people do not understand that these are skills they need, not only to survive, but to thrive.
That has resulted in two phenomena: First, the incredible ease with which media and prepackaged ideology can easily replace rational and critical thought with pablum and contrived, agendized ‘meaning,’ and secondly, the near religious stature of the ‘anything goes ideologies.’ Nothing is amoral, nothing is impermissible. There are no forms of self gratification that are off limits- witness the increased defiance of pedophiles ‘defending’ their rights and noble good intentions, and witness entire cultures advocating the death of entire peoples, with their bored, spoiled and privileged supporters cheering them on.
By definition, aimlessness defines no moral boundaries.
If a world without God were indeed a better and more moral world, there would be far less misery and degradation in our families and society than we see every day.
Now let’s talk about God.
To understand the relationship between man and God, we need to make clear the differences between dogma and doctrine. For believers, all dogma are immutable truths. Doctrine is how that dogma is interpreted. Dogma cannot exist without doctrine.
It is true that the Bible is replete with plenty of violence. It is also true that organized religions have their own sorry tales of hurt and tragedy and that cannot and should not be overlooked.
The Spanish Inquisition, that renowned dark and ugly chapter in Catholic Church history resulted in the tragic and unfortunate deaths of less than 5,000 persons by most accounts and no more than 10,000 deaths at the outside.
Deaths as a result of progressive secular ideologies have numbered in the hundreds of millions.
Still, this is not about numbers- it was and remains about dogma and doctrine.
Religious doctrine has changed an evolved. Christianity is no longer defined by violence. When we talk about the Catholic Church today, we see the Church of Mother Teresa and John Paul II. When we speak of Evangelicals, we cannot help but note their humanitarian efforts on every continent. Over time, the Judeo-Christian religious doctrine has evolved into a direction that focuses on the elevation of man and the world he lives in.
The secular/cultural agenda has seemingly devolved in a more primal direction. Is happiness reflected in a 50% divorce rate? Have weekends at the mall, enveloped in intoxicating consumerism and replete with that impulse purchase ‘just because,’ come to be more meaningful and fulfilling than mean more to us than nurturing our spiritual selves?
These things are driven by instinctive desires. They are neither refined or developed, nor do they reflect our ‘elevated selves.’
We are not elevated when we worship our bodies and our looks. Men and women obsess over the hours they spend at the gym or the money they spend on cosmetic surgery, rather than take the time to read a good book. As our own four cubits become smaller and at the same time we obsess over our tiniest physical imperfections, our showcase houses become bigger. All the while, our kids look on and learn from us, as kids are supposed to.
They are learning to medicate themselves and they are learning to sexualize their childhood. Our children want to leave the innocence of childhood so that they can engage not in the nobility of man, but rather in the corruption and pursuit of our most base and carnal desires. Pre pubescent children don’t want to be leaders, they just want to get laid- and we wonder how that happened.
Religious dogma matters little. It is religious doctrine, the rules by which we live by, that serves as the measurement of our worth. Religious beliefs are plentiful and differ greatly. In the Judeo-Christian ethic, those who choose to live by religious doctrines live remarkably similar lives and share similar values that serve to elevate man, family and society. The Judeo-Christian doctrines seeks not to oppress, despite ascribing to very different dogma.
Freud saw in man the potential hero of mythic proportions, unencumbered by religious influences and limiting doctrine. Tomorrow, we will examine the heroes influenced by cultural values and those additionally influenced by religious values.
Just maybe, faith and God have something to offer.
Portions of this post have been previously published.
October 28, 2008
What follows is a continuation of our discussion that began with Freud, Trees And A Well Hidden Id.
This is the second of a four part series.
If we are indeed no more than descendants of cosmic bacteria, what really distinguishes us from other animals? If the Darwinian model is really applicable in toto then there are no differences. In our fight for survival, our primary concerns are pretty basic. Only the present moment exists, only our immediate needs, wants and instincts need to be sated, even if those needs and wants are sated at the expense of others.
While Freud never directly ‘connected the dots’ between his theories and Darwinism, the implications are clear and to this day, there is a decidedly Darwinian bend to Freud’s beliefs.
Nevertheless, there remains a obvious conundrum to the Freud-Darwin model, because the human species functions very differently. The behavior of human beings, their thoughts, emotions and feelings are anything but animal like. They are the result of a complex interaction between the primal Id, the pragmatic Ego and the elevated Superego. Often, when the balance of interactions are out of kilter, anxiety and/or various pathologies emerge. The more ‘animal-like’ we are, the less human we become.
That is a reality that is hard to discount. If we are no more than ‘bricks on the evolutionary path,’ we are first and foremost guided by our own narcissistic tendencies to survive and sate wants and desires. If that is truly what defines our species, then we ought not have any expectations of ‘humanness’ from any one. We ought not be disappointed or let down if and when we get hurt by others in their pursuit of their selfish desires- nor should anyone be disappointed in us if we hurt others in our own pursuit of narcissistic desires.
Lets’ take this a step further. Do we exist solely to avoid self destruction or do we exist to elevate and better ourselves?
It is true our cultures and societies have imposed laws and rules of conduct on us, but why? Do those imposed laws and rules of conduct simply assure our survival, or are they the foundation of something else? Traffic lights keep us safe. They are equally applicable to all. In a free society, that equal applicability also extends to democratic rights, those rights that elevate and better man. In a society that is not free, those traffic lights exist only to prevent accidents. The ‘equal applicability’ applies to nothing else. It is only the imposed laws
In an elevated society, one not encumbered by Darwinian laws, those who break the law are punished after a free and fair trial. In a not so elevated society where ’survival of the fittest,’ is the order of the day, those who break the imposed laws and anyone else the top dogs want out of the way can be punished at will, no matter how pretty their constitutions read. The former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations as well as Communist China are grim reminders of that truth.
An elevated society expects us to be law abiding citizens and to keep our narcissistic desires in check when they might negatively impact others or society. We are expected to maintain decidedly non narcissistic behaviors. In a not so elevated society, the expectation is that given the chance, most people would resort to crime, against each other or the state. That view is not hard to understand. In societies and cultures that are dominated by Darwinian strong men, clashes for dominance are inevitable. The top dog will do what he has to do to maintain his position.
It is ironic that that schools are ‘dumbing down’ and negating the secular Darwinian laws they so fervently espouse. Even the best of teachers (like Mamacita) are discouraged from challenging the brightest students to excel because of the ’self esteem’ issues of other kids. So much for Darwin.
It seems the schools want it both ways- Man as animal and human as elevated. No wonder kids are so confused- and left feeling hollow. ‘Who am I?’ has become much harder to answer.
When a child is taught that his primary existence is defined by his animal self, it is inevitable that the child will respond only to fear and threat. He learns that fear and threat of punishment are what keeps him or her in check. That is not an exaggeration. Ask any teacher on the front lines what keeps kids from having their narcissism explode. Ironically, the ‘educators’ that have promoted the narcissism have scrambled to put the genie back in the drawer. In the process they have limited punishment and hogtied teachers from succeeding in their mandate to teach and prepare children for the real world and life.
In the world where people believe humans are something other than yet another species of animal, they believe their lives have real meaning and value. Healthy adults live lives defined by reflection, preparation and actions. There is a sequence to the balance of Id, Ego and Superego.
In the very broken broken world where the ferocious belief of man as animal is so firmly rooted, it is the self serving and narcissistic Id that dominates. To understand what that means, one only has to look at individuals, nations, cultures and societies that are dominated by those for whom control (Darwinism) is paramount. There is no such thing as a benevolent despot- just an disengaged tyrant who managed to find another way to insure his supremacy.
People who believe that man is elevated over other species fear the animal man for good reason, because the animal man has always authored darkness and death, as is his way. For the animal man, the elevation that empowers man is a threat. In it, he sees his own demise. The animal man sees no selflessness, heroism or bravery. He sees no nobility in those willing to stand up and fight for others or to protect them. He sees only those who come for him.
The animal man cannot integrate humanness, human values, ethics or virtues into the Darwinian model.The animal man cannot integrate righteousness into that model. The animal man cannot hear the cries of those unjustly oppressed or suffering because in his world, those things matter little. It is all about who’s on top, right?
Tomorrow, we will discuss the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we are best defined by the elevated self and not the animal self.
Portions of this post have been previously published.
October 27, 2008
In the secular account, “You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach 3 1/2 billion years ago. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere.”
In the Christian view, by contrast, “You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him.”
Now imagine two groups of people — let’s call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe — who subscribe to one of these two views. Which of the two is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.
We have come to understand our own place in the Cosmos largely by way of how we have come to define ourselves. The philosophies of the temples of science revolve around the notion that each of us are really no more than a brick on the evolutionary path with no real point to our existence. There is only the here and now and that is all that matters. What is good and bad are determined by the needs, desires and ideologues of the moment.
Are we really no more than just another brick on the blind path of evolution? For many, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ For most people on the planet however, the answer is ‘no.’ Despite years of indoctrination and secularist ideas forced down the throats of billions of people for successive generations, life has a meaning and purpose that extends beyond the here and now.
Progressive and secular ideologies have never been accepted by most people on the planet. If progressive and secular ideologies were subject to the rules of business, they would be deemed ‘also rans.’ Progressive and secular ideologies are influential beyond their numbers because western legal systems allow for their equal influence. They can demand their ideas be imposed on a larger majority because our legal system recognizes their rights to not share in what most of us believe.
In fairness, that is not always a bad thing. Religion cannot and should not be ‘imposed’ on anyone or any group.The government must never be allowed to endorse one religion over another. In a democracy, very few if any, argue that.
The issue today is about who gets to decide what ‘imposition’ means. Is a Christmas tree in an airport imposing faith? Is a Menorah at City Hall equally offensive?
In a roundabout way, those questions were first addressed by Sigmund Freud.
As the 20th century approached and the Victorian Era ended, Freud addressed the issues man had struggled with from the beginning of time. He started a movement that was to examine our search for context and meaning in a contemporary and scientific way, outside the traditional or religious ‘box.’ He attempted to look at the human psyche outside religious or traditional garb.
We are all endowed with primal and more sophisticated needs (see Maslow’s Hierarchy) . We need to survive, we need to eat and we seek physical gratifications of all kinds.These needs are individual and self centered.
We need to be a part of a community and we also need to establish relationships on a more intimate level. So that our community and more intimate relationships with our families and loved ones might flourish, we take comfort in living productive lives and making our little corner of the world a better place. We develop a conscience and establish moral and ethical codes of behavior, all based on shared values.
Lastly, we seek to aspire higher. We retreat back into ourselves and struggle with our spiritual selves and our search for meaning. These things do not come easily. We struggle with the forces that influence our behavior. Sometimes, people are willfully mistreated. Other times, people are abused because we deliberately choose to turn our backs.
Each of us is engaged in some kind of struggle.
Children learn from us the lessons that will determine how they live their lives. If we teach them that life has meaning and purpose beyond the immediate, they will live their lives accordingly. If they learn that life is to be lived for the here and now only, they will live a very different life with a very different set of values.
The stakes are high, because if we are anything less than sure of our personal and communal values our children will pay for our insecurities. As parents and stewards of the next generation, it is incumbent upon us to prepare children to be sure of themselves and unafraid to confront the future.
When our own adversarial and opposing ideas and values come into conflict, children are impacted. They become immobilized and are invariably hurt by the collision.There is an entire generation of the walking wounded that have to pick up the pieces of broken and undefined lives, heal and learn to establish a meaningful life- all because they never knew who they really were. They never knew if their lives has meaning beyond the immediate or if they were a panel in the tapestry of life.
When a person is taught that life is about the here and now only, we ought not be surprised when some kids pick up guns and shoot up malls or churches, or high school or college campuses. They want to be famous, they say. They want the celebrity, they say. In fact,what they really want is meaning. They want to be remembered as something other than a consuming and valueless individual. They want to have a purpose and leave a legacy. Sadly, in a world that encompasses the here and now only, the world legacy has taken on a new meaning. People identify with sleazy politicians and not with priests. Kids want to be singers and not surgeons.
Those things that influence our here and now are meant to be diversions from our real lives- they are not meant to replace them. Entertainment and entertainers are pleasant diversion and offer a few moments respite from our busy and productive lives. Entertainment and entertainers are not meant to serve as the blueprints and models for our lives. Actors and Hollywood values were not meant to replace academics and poets were not meant to replace soldiers who defend our nation and the values of freedom.
Back to Freud. Who are we, really and what drives us? Is it the here and now or is it something else?
The easy answer is the Darwinian one. The here and now, the selfish and self serving model is the engine of the human psyche. We are no different than any other species of animal. Of course, that only addresses our physical survival and not out psychological evolution. The ideas of Social Darwinism were in vogue for a very short time, because those kind of ‘here and now’ ideas justified colonialism, European domination and the wildly unequal distribution of wealth and power. We were perfectly happy with physical evolution and a lot less happy with social evolution. That bothered our conscience. We weren’t quite ready to throw the poor and powerless to the wolves, ’survival of the fittest’ notwithstanding.
Freud’s primal ‘Id,‘ that part of us that is consumed by the desire and chase for pleasure is tempered by the ‘Ego,’ that part of us that lives in the real world and sees beyond the animal here and now. The Ego introduces rational thought and reality into our interface with the world and people around us. We come to understand compromise and negotiation amongst ourselves and our community via the Ego.
The Ego also serves as the ‘broker’ between the Id and the Superego, that part of us that is moral and ethical. Our Superego wants what is best for our children and society and in fact, we obviate our primal Id in favor of our Superego. We live by rules because because we are all better for it. The here and now is an impediment to personal and communal growth and security.
We are not meant to define our lives by the here and now alone.
Who we are is a complex interaction of our Id, Ego and Superego. If we are not very clear on which of our psychological attributes are most important to our existence, we will live lives of profound inner conflict and anxiety and engage in the most self destructive kinds of defense mechanisms (see Dr Sanity, here).
We are not animals, concerned only with our needs for self gratification and desires for immediate pleasure. We desire that our offspring excel and not just survive.Our history as a species proves that. We may not always get it right, but in the end, we do more often than not. Our greatest failures come about as the result of an active or passive focus on the here and now. We can choose to address problems, pretend they don’t exist or turn a blind eye to them.
If we focus on the here and now only, we have no right to demand anything of others. If narcissism is the order of the day, why should we care who gets hurt in the process of our seeking to fulfill our needs?
There are those who might argue that imposed rules keep us from destroying ourselves, but in truth that is a hollow argument. The best reason people have for coexisting are shared values and ideals- equivalent Superegos that supersede the Id’s here and now. People understand that to be a parent and to live in relative peace is in their own best interest. There is something beyond the here and now.
This is not ‘coexisting’ on the savanna’s of Africa. Humans exist to cooperate, share and elevate each other. If anything, Social Darwinism dictates that rather than exclude, we have thrived as a species because we have included.
It is not the lowest common denominator that has served to elevate man. It has been the highest. While we all have basic and primal instincts, they are overshadowed by our own potential and capacity, a most uniquely spiritual endeavor.
That highest part of ourselves, our Superegos, do not fear the religious message of the Holiday season. Christmas trees and menorahs are meant to elevate and not intimidate. All too often, the here and now of the Id, camouflaged as something other that what it really is, takes center stage- and we’re all the poorer for it.
Portions of this post have been previously published.
One great way to briefly turn the conversation toward myself at a party is to answer the question, “So, what do you do?” with, “I’m a writer.” Not that most of the people I’ve met at parties have read my novels or short stories or feature articles; when they ask, “Have I seen any of your stuff?” I shrug and the conversation moves on. If I want attention for an hour or so, however, I’ll tell them my horrible secret — for several years I made much of my freelance income writing term papers.
I always wanted to be writer, but was told from an early age that such a dream was futile. After all, nobody ever puts a classified ad in the paper that reads “Writers Wanted.” Then, in the Village Voice, I saw just such an ad. Writers wanted, to write short pieces on business, economics, and literature. It was from a term paper mill, and they ran the ad at the beginning of each semester.
Writing model term papers is above-board and perfectly legal. Thanks to the First Amendment, it’s protected speech, right up there with neo-Nazi rallies, tobacco company press releases, and those “9/11 Was An Inside Job” bumper stickers. It’s custom-made Cliff Notes. Virtually any subject, almost any length, all levels of education — indulgent parents even buy papers for children too young for credit cards of their own. You name it, I’ve done it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plurality of clients was business administration majors, but both elementary education majors and would-be social workers showed up aplenty. Even the assignments for what in my college days were the obvious gut courses crossed my desk. “Race in The Matrix” was a fashionable subject.
The term paper biz is managed by brokers who take financial risks by accepting credit card payments and psychological risks by actually talking to the clients. Most of the customers just aren’t very bright. One of my brokers would even mark assignments with the code words DUMB CLIENT. That meant to use simple English; nothing’s worse than a client calling back to ask a broker — most of whom had no particular academic training — what certain words in the paper meant. One time a client actually asked to talk to me personally and lamented that he just didn’t “know a lot about Plah-toe.” Distance learning meant that he’d never heard anyone say the name.
In broad strokes, there are three types of term paper clients. DUMB CLIENTS predominate. They should not be in college. They must buy model papers simply because they do not understand what a term paper is, much less anything going on in their assignments. I don’t believe that most of them even handed the papers in as their own, as it would have been obvious that they didn’t write them. Frequently I was asked to underline the thesis statement because locating it otherwise would have been too difficult. But that sort of thing was just average for the bottom of the barrel student-client. To really understand how low the standards are these days, we must lift up the barrel and see what squirms beneath. One time, I got an e-mail from the broker with some last-minute instructions for a term paper — “I told her that it is up to the writer whether or not he includes this because it was sent to me at the last minute. So if you can take a look at this, that is fine, if not I understand.” The last-minute addition was to produce a section called “BODY OF PAPER” (capitals sic). I was also asked to underline this section so that the client could identify it. Of course, I underlined everything but the first and last paragraphs of the three-page paper.
The second type of client is the one-timer. A chemistry major trapped in a poetry class thanks to the vagaries of schedule and distribution requirements, or worse, the poet trapped in a chemistry class. These clients were generally lost and really did simply need a decent summary of their class readings — I once boiled the 1000-page New Testament Theology by Donald Guthrie into a 30-page précis over the course of a weekend for a quick $600.
Others are stuck on their personal statements for college applications, and turn to their parents, who then turn to a term paper mill. One mother unashamedly summarized her boy and his goals like so: “[My son] is a very kind hearted young man. One who will make a difference in whatever he does. Barely can go unnoticed because of his vivacious character, happiness, and joy in life. He is very much in tune with his fortune and often helps the less fortunate.” The kid planned to be a pre-med major if accepted, but was applying to a competitive college as a Women’s Studies major because Mother was “told the chances of him getting into [prominent college] under less desirable subjects (as opposed to Business) was better.” Finally, she explained to me the family philosophy — “Since our family places great emphasis on education, [boy] fully accepts that the only guarantee for a good and stable future can be only achieved through outstanding education.”
The third group is perhaps the most tragic: They are well-educated professionals who simply lack English-language skills. Often they come from the former Soviet Union, and in their home countries were engineers, medical professionals, and scientists. In the United States, they drive cabs and have to pretend to care about “Gothicism” in “A Rose For Emily” for the sake of another degree. For the most part, these clients actually send in their own papers and they get an edit from a native speaker. Sometimes they even pinch-hit for the brokers, doing papers on graduate-level physics and nursing themselves.
Term paper writing was never good money, but it was certainly fast money. For a freelancer, where any moment of slack time is unpaid time, term papers are just too tempting. Need $100 by Friday to keep the lights on? No sweat. Plenty of kids need 10 pages on Hamlet by Thursday. Finals week is a gold mine. More than once the phone rang at midnight and the broker had an assignment. Six pages by 6 a.m. — the kid needs three hours to rewrite and hand in the paper by 9 or he won’t graduate. “Cool,” I’d say. “A hundred bucks a page.” I’d get it, too, and when I didn’t get it, I slept well anyway. Even DUMB CLIENTS could figure out that they’d be better off spending $600 on the model paper instead of $2,500 to repeat a course. Back in the days when a pulse and pay stub was sufficient to qualify for a mortgage, term papers — along with gigs for dot.com-era business magazines — helped me buy my first house.
Term paper work is also extremely easy, once you get the hang of it. It’s like an old dance routine buried in one’s muscle memory. You hear the tune — say, “Unlike the ancient Greek tragic playwrights, Shakespeare likes to insert humor in his tragedies” — and your body does the rest automatically. I’d just scan Google or databases like Questia.com for a few quotes from primary and secondary sources, create an argument based on whatever popped up from my search, write the introduction and underline the thesis statement, then fill in the empty spaces between quotes with whatever came to mind.
Getting the hang of it is tricky, though. Over the years, several of my friends wanted in on the term paper racket, and most of them couldn’t handle it. They generally made the same fundamental error — they tried to write term papers. In the paper mill biz, the paper isn’t important. The deadline, page count, and number of sources are. DUMB CLIENTS make up much of the trade. They have no idea whether or not Ophelia committed suicide or was secretly offed by Gertrude, but they know how to count to seven if they ordered seven pages.
I had a girlfriend who had been an attorney and a journalist, and she wanted to try a paper. I gave her a five-page job on leash laws in dog parks, and she came home that evening with over 50 pages of print outs, all articles and citations. She sat down to write. Three hours later she was rolling on the floor and crying. She tried to write a paper, instead of filling five pages. Another friend of mine spent hours trying to put together an eight-page paper on magical realism in Latin American fiction. At midnight she declared that it was impossible to write that many pages on books she had never read. She was still weeping, chain-smoking cigarettes, and shouting at me at 2 a.m. I took 20 minutes and finished the paper, mostly by extending sentences until all the paragraphs ended with an orphaned word on a line of its own.
The secret to the gig is to amuse yourself. I have to, really, as most paper topics are deadly boring. Once, I was asked to summarize in three pages the causes of the First World War (page one), the major battles and technological innovations of the war (page two), and to explain the aftermath of the war, including how it led to the Second World War (page three). Then there was this assignment for a composition class: six pages on why “apples [the fruit] are the best.” You have to make your own fun. In business papers, I’d often cite Marxist sources. When given an open topic assignment on ethics, I’d write on the ethics of buying term papers, and even include the broker’s Web site as a source. My own novels and short stories were the topic of many papers — several DUMB CLIENTS rate me as their favorite author and they’ve never even read me, or anyone else. Whenever papers needed to refer to a client’s own life experiences, I’d give the student various sexual hang-ups.
It’s not that I never felt a little skeevy writing papers. Mostly it was a game, and a way to subsidize my more interesting writing. Also, I’ve developed a few ideas of my own over the years. I don’t have the academic credentials of composition experts, but I doubt many experts spent most of a decade writing between one and five term papers a day on virtually every subject. I know something they don’t know; I know why students don’t understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.
It’s because students have never read term papers.
Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a “slice of life” featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles. That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.
There’s another reason I never felt too badly about the job, though I am pleased to be done with papers. The students aren’t only cheating themselves. They are being cheated by the schools that take tuition and give nothing in exchange. Last year, I was hired to write two one-page summaries of two short stories. Here are the client’s instructions:
i need you to write me two different story in all these listed under. The introduction of the story, the themes, topic and character, please not from internet, Or any posted web sites, because my professor will know if from internet this is the reason why i’ m spending money on it.Not two much words, because i will still write it back in clsss go straight to the point and write me the conclution at end of the two story, the second story different introduction, themes, topic and character. Thank you God Bless.
At the parties I go to, people start off laughing, but then they stop.
October 23, 2008
So intense have the Republicans’ suspicions of their Democratic rivals become in the last weeks of this presidential race that they are now accusing the delightful Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Senator Joe Biden, of withholding the results of his brain scans from his recently released medical records. Their charge is false. The results of those brain scans are spread across several pages of the senator’s records for all to see. Admittedly those pages appear to be blank, but what did the Republicans expect? Have they not been listening to the great man’s solemnities on the campaign trail?
In an interview with his fellow airhead, CBS’s Katie Couric, late in September, the senior senator from Delaware expressed his firm belief that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States in 1929 and that in that illusory year FDR had at his command a large and apparently receptive television audience. Ha, ha, ha — and the mainstream moron media insist that Senator Biden’s opponent, Governor Sarah Palin, “stumbled” when she was interviewed by CBS’s cutie. Stumble Governor Palin might, but Senator Biden fell head over heels and he has continued to do so.
There have been his repeated bold intimations that while flying over Afghanistan in a helicopter he was forced down by enemy fire. Actually, the threat was from inclement weather. Or savor this: despite being caught years ago plagiarizing a British Labour leader’s public recollections of life in the Welsh coal mines, Senator Biden has again rather incautiously recalled being a coal miner himself. His recollection is in error. Most deliciously, this month he yawped: “The number one job facing the middle class, and it happens to be as Barack says, a three letter word, jobs, j-o-b-s, jobs” Possibly the senator’s handlers have told him to avoid four-letter words on the campaign trail. At any rate, for those of us who enjoy a laugh Senator Biden’s campaign has been a picnic.
Now he is apparently collaborating with the McCain-Palin campaign in stressing Senator Barack H. Obama’s inexperience. “We’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy,” Senator Biden warned, referring to his running mate, Senator Obama, the least experienced presidential nominee of either the twentieth or the twenty-first century. Oh wait, I forgot Wendell Willkie, the “barefoot boy from Wall Street” who ran against FDR, the television pioneer.
That the gaffable Senator Biden has not become the laughingstock of this campaign is astonishing. Equally astonishing it the fact that Senator Obama’s inexperience — though there have been a few beautiful gaffes from him too — has not become an issue. Instead, the members of the media and their fellow Democrats have made a vexed issue out of the perfectly normal — albeit abnormally charming—Governor Palin. The claim is that she lacks the experience to be president. So too does the Prophet Obama.
The media’s coverage of this election has been the shoddiest I have ever seen. The country has been walloped by a financial crisis almost wholly created by the Democrats’ relaxation of mortgage lending to low and moderate income borrowers. It is a matter of record that the Republican nominee attempted to tighten those regulations. The Democrats’ intrusion into the markets began in 1977 with their vaunted Community Reinvestment Act, encouraging bank loans to low and moderate income families. In 1995 the law was expanded, leading to an 80% increase in such loans.
Along with this, beginning in 1992 Congress imposed on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase what we now know as subprime mortgages — that is to say, risky mortgages. In 1996 the Clinton Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), enthralled as ever to the Democrats’ urge for social engineering, ordered Fannie and Freddie to assist home purchases by low income earners seeking homes in higher income neighborhoods — more subprime mortgages! HUD expanded this project in 2000. Also in 1996 HUD began targeting the number of such mortgages, requiring that 12% of Fannie and Freddie’s mortgages assist low income home purchasers in higher income neighborhoods. In 2000 the number was increased to 20%.
The consequence of all the Democrats’ meddling with real estate markets and with established regulations was that these subprime mortgages were secreted into bundles of mortgage packages and sold all over the world. Now we see a crisis and magically it is blamed on Senator McCain’s party. The answer is to elect Senator Obama and his lovable sidekick to the White House. Yet, as readers of this column read last week, the chair of Senator Obama’s finance committee, Penny Pritzker, gutted her own bank with subprime loans and has had to pay $460 million in penalties. Moreover, Wall Street abounds with Obama supporters who prospered on these subprime dealings.
What? What is this? Change the subject to Sarah Palin — you betcha!
October 22, 2008
A word is an arbitrary label—that’s the foundation of linguistics. But many people think otherwise. They believe in word magic: that uttering a spell, incantation, curse, or prayer can change the world. Don’t snicker: Would you ever say “Nothing has gone wrong yet” without looking for wood to knock?
Swearing is another kind of word magic. People believe, contrary to logic, that certain words can corrupt the moral order—that piss and Shit! and fucking are dangerous in a way that pee and Shoot! and freakin’ are not. This quirk in our psychology lies in the ability of taboo words to activate primitive emotional circuits in the brain.
My interest in swearing is (I swear) scientific. But swearing is not just a puzzle in cognitive neuroscience. It has figured in the most-famous free-speech cases of the past century, from Ulysses and Lady Chatterley to those of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Over the decades, the courts have steadily driven government censors into a precarious redoubt. In 1978, the Supreme Court, ruling on a daytime broadcast of Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue, allowed the Federal Communications Commission to regulate “indecency” on broadcast radio and television during the hours when children were likely to be listening. The rationale, based on rather quaint notions of childhood and of modern media, was that over-the-air broadcasts are uninvited intruders into the home and can expose children to indecent language, harming their psychological and moral development.
In practice, the FCC recognized that the impact of taboo words depended on their context. So in 2003, when Bono said in a televised acceptance speech, “This is really, really fucking brilliant,” the FCC did not punish the network. Bono, they noted, did not use fucking to “describe sexual or excretory organs or activities.” He used it as an “adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation.” This usage differed from Carlin’s “patently offensive” routine, with its “repeated use, for shock value,” of taboo words.
But the Bush-appointed commissioners flip-flopped on that case and subsequently targeted the Fox television network after it broadcast awards ceremonies in which Cher said of her critics, “So fuck ’em,” and Nicole Richie asked, “Why do they even call it The Simple Life? Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple.”
In 2007, after a federal court invalidated the FCC’s policy as “arbitrary” and “capricious,” the commission appealed to the Supreme Court. That’s when I got dragged in. The FCC claimed that “even when the speaker does not intend a sexual meaning, a substantial part of the community … will understand the word as freighted with an offensive sexual connotation.” A brief filed earlier this year by the solicitor general in defense of the commission’s position quoted from my book The Stuff of Thought as follows: “If you’re an English speaker, you can’t hear [words such as the F-Word] without calling to mind what they mean to an implicit community of speakers, including the emotions that cling to them.” In fact, the words elided in the brief were “nigger or cunt or fucking,” and the context was an explanation of why people are offended “when an outsider refers to an African American as a nigger, or a woman as a cunt, or a Jewish person as a fucking Jew.” I was certainly not arguing that when listeners hear “It’s not so fucking simple,” their minds turn to thoughts of copulation!
On the contrary, I noted that over time, taboo words relinquish their literal meanings and retain only a coloring of emotion, and then just an ability to arouse attention. This progression explains why many speakers are unaware that sucker, sucks, bites, and blows originally referred to fellatio, or that a jerk was a masturbator. It explains why Close the fucking door, What the fuck?, Holy Fuck!, and Fuck you! violate all rules of English syntax and semantics—they presumably replaced Close the damned door, What in Hell?, Holy Mary!, and Damn you! when religious profanity lost its zing and new words had to be recruited to wake listeners up.
The FCC was right that I think linguistic taboos aren’t always a bad thing. Fuck-peppered speech gets tedious, and malicious epithets can express condemnable attitudes. But in a free society, these annoyances are naturally regulated in the marketplace of people’s reactions—as Don Imus, Michael Richards, and Ann Coulter recently learned the hard way. It’s not clear why swearing on the airwaves should be the government’s business.
Indeed, given how language is interwoven with thought—the major theme of the book cited by the solicitor general—any ban on words will lead to absurdities. Take Carlin’s monologue. Carlin mentioned the word fuck not to describe sexual activities, nor to shock his audience. He mentioned it to show how people use taboo words and to advance the argument that the government should not regulate them. The ruling that restricted his language restricted public criticism of the ruling itself—mocking the very rationale for free speech.
And consider the press release issued by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin expressing his displeasure when his ruling was struck down:
Today the [court] said the use of the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ by Cher and Nicole Richie was not indecent … I find it hard to believe that the New York court would tell American families that ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ are fine to say on broadcast television during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience.Somewhere, George Carlin is still smiling.
October 21, 2008
There was little in the federal bailout bill that most Americans could wrap their arms, much less their minds, around. What did strike a chord—and one of the rare notes of consensus—was that greedy executives of failed institutions should have to give up their high salaries and golden parachutes before getting a life raft from Uncle Sam.
But the CEO’s needn’t be too alarmed. The $2 billion their industry has invested in Washington politicians over the last 20 years will likely bring healthy returns. Pesky details like “who” and “how much” to penalize were kicked down the road or left wide open for interpretation—nothing a few fat friends on the right committees and a team of crack lobbyists can’t handle.
The hard lesson here will be that hard lessons are for chumps who can’t afford otherwise.
“The money always pays off,” said Melanie Sloan, head of the Center for Reform in Elections in Washington. “It’s all about being there, being in the room” when the details take shape behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. “And you’re not in the room if you’re not making these contributions or having highly-paid lobbyists well placed.”
The finance/insurance/real estate (FIRE) sector has given approximately $180 million to House and Senate candidates in the current election cycle, and $116 million to presidential candidates, including $25 million to Barack Obama and $22 million to John McCain.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the FIRE sector is the biggest contributor to federal candidates in Washington. Companies cannot give directly, so they leave it to bundlers to solicit maximum contributions from employees and families. They might have been brought down to earth this year, but they’ve given like gods: Goldman Sachs, $4.8 million; Citigroup, $3.7 million; J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., $3.6 million; Merrill Lynch, $2.3 million; Lehman Brothers, $2.1 million; Bank of America, $2.1 million.
Some think the long-term effect of such contributions to individual candidates was clear in the roll-call votes for the bailout. Take the controversial first House vote on Sept. 29. According to CRP, the “ayes” had received 53 percent more contributions from FIRE since 1989 than those who voted against the bill, which ultimately failed 228 to 205. The 140 House Democrats who voted for the bill got an average of $188,572 in this election cycle, while the 65 Republicans backing it got an average of $185,461 from FIRE—about 23 percent more than the bill’s opponents received. A tinkered bill was passed four days later, 263 to 171.
“The lobbying effort on the bailout has been brief but intense. To make up for time they do not have, interest groups have undoubtedly capitalized on relationships they’ve built over many years. And in Congress, campaign contributions are an essential tool for building relationships,” said CRP’s Sheila Krumholz.
Americans have come to eschew the excesses of Wall Street, but that doesn’t mean that lawmakers—especially presidential candidates—turn away its money. In fact, they are rolling in it.
Half of Obama’s top ten contributors, together giving him nearly $2.2 million, are FIREmen. Of that figure, $748,000 comes from Goldman Sachs, which recently reincorporated, with the Treasury’s blessing, into a bank holding company, hoping to survive. While it looks like Obama relies less on bundlers from this sector than McCain, “his campaign has ignored repeated requests from the Center for Responsive Politics and other watchdog groups to disclose his bundlers’ employers and occupations,” said CRP, with the $13 million so far attributed to such bundlers—called “Obamasaurs” by the New York Observer—“probably” an undercount.
Meanwhile, McCain’s bundlers are guys like Elliott Broidy of Broidy Capital Management, William Strong of Morgan Stanley, John Thain of Merrill Lynch, and Paul Singer of Elliott Associates, all of whom helped raise at least $500,000. Called “The Opportunist” by a February Bloomberg Markets profile and a “vulture capitalist” by others, Singer’s shtick is buying up bankrupt companies and the debt of foreign countries and squeezing money out of them. He was a big fundraiser for Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani, who raised $13.5 million from FIRE sources for his failed presidential bid, wasn’t shy last month about how the system works: his firm announced a “financial industry task force” of his friends in the business to “guide” institutions, funds, and investors through the “legislative, regulatory and enforcement challenges” posed by the bailout. Democrats called it “crass opportunism,” but more realistic observers accepted this as business as usual.
Meanwhile, wary eyes have turned to wizened congressional leaders, with their generous coffers and inability to rein in the industry when it matters most. Sen. Chris Dodd, now chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, was recently dubbed a financial “PAC-Man” by the New Haven Advocate. He’s gobbled up $13 million from FIRE since 1989, including $5.8 million in 2008 for his failed presidential bid. Citigroup led the pack with $314,000.
Dodd and other Democratic committee leaders—including Sen. Chuck Schumer ($12 million from FIRE since 1989), Rep. Barney Frank ($2.5 million), and Rep. Charlie Rangel ($4 million, the top recipient in the House)—have been accused of taking truckloads of contributions while failing to act on the looming mortgage crisis. Dodd finally pushed mortgage reform last year, said his hometown paper, The Hartford Courant, “but by then, the damage was done.”
Republicans don’t starve. Sens. Arlen Specter, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Richard Shelby, and Mitch McConnell round out the list of non-presidential candidates with no less than $4.3 million each from the sector in the last two decades. Invariably, they helped pass the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act to take down the regulatory firewall between investment and commercial banking activities in 1999, softened some of the blow on the accounting industry in reform efforts like Sarbanes-Oxley in 2005, and assisted the banking and credit card industries by championing the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act in 2004.
Much of the criticism directed at Democrats has been over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now in federal receivership. Critics say Democrats incentivized mortgage-lender Fannie Mae and mortgage-investor Freddie Mac to run amuck, leading to a situation in which the government-backed giants owned or guaranteed half of the nation’s $12 trillion mortgage market. When the market went sour, they crashed, bringing a lot of investors down too. The Democrats deny charges of killing GOP legislation in 2004 that would have strengthened oversight of the institutions.
Fannie and Freddie have always spread the wealth around, giving slightly more to the party in power, and Republicans were getting the grease back then. Still, Dodd is the biggest recipient of their campaign donations over the last 20 years, followed by Obama, who has only been in office since 2004.
FIRE money is raging through Washington, but what does it ultimately pay for, when many of these wealthy contributors suddenly find themselves on skid row? Wall Street is calling on its angels—grateful lawmakers with control over bailout-related legislation and billions of dollars to dispense.
October 20, 2008
Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize this week and that tells you all you have to know about how politicized the award has become. American writers no longer win prizes for literature because they are “no longer mainstream,” but Paul Krugman — well, he hates the Bush Administration! He’s one of us.
There’s more to Krugman’s fame, though, than just pandering to European aristocrats. In one of the shallowest intellectual gambits of recent decades, Krugman has been the point man for the bizarre thesis that America has become the “land of inequality.” For the last five years Krugman has used his New York Times column to trumpet the theory that nearly all the wealth creation since the Reagan Era has accrued to approximately 13,000 families at the top while the rest of America wallows in squalor. Here’s the way he puts it on his website:
Since the late 1970s the America I knew has unraveled. We’re no longer a middle-class society, in which the benefits of economic growth are widely shared: between 1979 and 2005 the real income of the median household rose only 13 percent, but the income of the richest 0.1% of Americans rose 296 percent.… [T]he winners’ circle is actually very small. Even households at the 95th percentile… have seen their real income rise less than 1 percent a year since the late 1970s. But the income of the richest 1 percent has roughly doubled, and the income of the top 0.01 percent… has risen by a factor of 5.
Krugman’s thesis — “Income inequality in America is now the greatest since the 1920s” — has become an article of faith in liberal politics, endlessly reiterated in New York Times editorials and among Democratic politicians. And it has become the main impetus for Barack Obama’s “spread the wealth” tax plan that will supposedly lower everyone’s taxes except that undeserving top 5 percent, who have been hogging all the wealth since 1980. So let’s see where Krugman gets his information and what the effect of Obama’s plan is going to be.
Although crusading American economists have been massaging the numbers ever since Bill Clinton left office, the chef d’oeuvre was performed by two Frenchmen, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, in a 2001 paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research and titled “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998,” At the time Piketty had barely visited the United States and Saez had parachuted into Berkeley where he found a warm welcome. Without taking much time to examine American society the pair reached the astounding conclusion that 90 percent of Americans were living on an average income of $25,000 a year — barely above the poverty line of $20,000 — while the rest of America’s wealth was concentrated at the very top. In other words, conditions were not much different from France at the outbreak of the French Revolution.
NOW LET’S START with a little common sense. Look around you. Does America seem to you like a country where 90 percent of the population is living barely above the poverty line? One out of every twelve Americans annually visits Disney World, making Orlando the nation’s 9th busiest airport. With children in tow, the trip easily costs several thousand dollars yet the place is always packed. Eighty percent of American homes now have air conditioning. Almost everyone owns a television set. Seventy-five percent have a cell phone. The poorest in America — the people in the bottom “quintile” — live as well as the average American did in 1970. Calorie intake is now perfectly level across all classes in America — meaning we have reached the millennial dream where everyone has enough to eat.
In fact if the rich suffer at all today it is because what were once considered exclusive luxuries have become accessible to the masses. Nantucket, once a hideaway for the rich, has been invaded by McDonald’s. BMW now sells a luxury car for downscale buyers. Americans now employ 9,000 personal chefs, as opposed to only 400 a decade ago. Godiva chocolate, once available only in Neiman Marcus, has now invaded Hallmark Card. The situation got so bad that Godiva finally brought out a special “G” line of handmade chocolates at $100 a pound in order to keep its richest customers happy.
So how did Piketty and Saez get things so wrong? Probably a third grade math teacher could figure it out.
First of all, they measured income by looking at individiual income tax returns. Right away you can see the problem. People working part time file income tax returns. Teenagers with summer jobs file returns. Babies in their crib with college funds file. This wildly distorts the picture. Say you’re a married couple making $150,000 a year with three teenagers in the house. All three have summer jobs each making $3,333.33. That makes your household income $160,000. You’ll have to file four income tax returns. That makes the average income $40,000 and the median $3.333.33. It’s easy to see why personal tax returns do not reflect family or household income.
In fact the average household income has risen from $44,000 in 1980 to $57,000 in 2006, a 30 percent increase. Yet even that doesn’t really capture rising affluence. Over the same period the size of the average household has shrunk from 3.2 persons to 2.6. That’s because families are smaller, elderly persons live more independently, and children are more likely to move out on their own. Alan Reynolds, who has critiqued the entire Piketty/Saez/Krugman axis in his book Income and Wealth, points out that Krugman and other interpreters continually misrepresent P&S by saying they measured “household” and “family” income rather than individual tax filings. Reynolds probably won’t win the Nobel Prize for his effort.
Another amazing distortion is that Piketty and Saez’s database does not reflect taxes, Social Security or any other government transfers. The “rising inequality” Democrats have detected over the past eight years doesn’t include those government programs designed specifically to redistribute income. When these are included the “Gini coefficient,” a mathematical equation that expresses income inequality, falls 25 percent.
Still, the biggest distortion is yet to come. It turns out that the “individual income tax filings” no longer represent only individuals. Half the corporations in America now file “personal” income tax returns under Subchapter S. The big switch came after the 1986 tax reform, which lowered personal rates from 64 to 70 percent down to 28 percent, while corporate rates remained at 30 percent. At the time thousands of doctors, lawyers and farmers were forming C corporations so they could file at the lower corporate rate. All that changed after 1986 and corporations began switching to subchapter S to file personal returns. In 1986 S-corporations with up to 35 stockholders were eligible. This was expanded to 100 stockholders in 1990 and the Small Business Protection Act of 1994 allowed banks to file under subchapter-S. One-quarter of all business profits in the country now file under personal income taxes. These are the figures Piketty, Saez and Krugman are reading when they discover the “super-rich” who have been hogging America’s income over the last twenty years.
AND SO WE COME to the crux of why Barack Obama’s “share-the-wealth” program will stifle the economy and why John McCain is absolutely right when he says small businesses are the real target. Most of the supposed “growing inequality” in America simply reflects the migration of small businesses into personal income filings. Now Barack Obama is going to try to punish these job-generators by going after them with higher taxes. As everyone now knows after Wednesday’s Hofstra debate, the plan was on display this week when Joseph Wurzelbacher, a self-employed Ohio plumber, told Obama, “I work 10 or 12 hours a day to build my business. Don’t you believe in the American dream? Why do you want to raise my taxes?” To which Obama responded: “I want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance for success, too. I think when you spread the wealth around it’s good for everybody.”
Good for everyone, that is, except those who work hard. As Reynolds points out, 80 percent of the high earners in the upper quintile are career couples holding down two full-time jobs. People in the top quintile work the longest hours in the economy while people in the bottom quintile work the least. High-income households now have an average of three people in the work force while those in the bottom quintile have only .5. Of course much of this only means that people in the bottom quintile are retired people living on pensions and Social Security or young people just starting out on their own. Forty-six percent of people living in poverty own their own homes and the poverty rate — 11 percent — is now the lowest in history.
So what will be the outcome of this misguided effort to redress a problem that doesn’t exist? Small businesses will simply migrate back to C-corporation status, where the tax rate of 35 percent is still the second-highest in the world. Tax revenues will fall. Job creation will decline and more work will be outsourced. Two-career couples will cut back on their grueling workload and start looking for tax shelters instead. Meanwhile, the welfare system will be reinvented as a “refundable tax credit” that is nothing but a government check. People at the bottom will once again find it more rewarding to live on the dole while people like Joseph Wurzelbacher will decide maybe the American Dream isn’t worth all that work after all. Poverty rates will increase because, in a strange way, poverty has become more attractive. Stagflation is the probable result. And all because crusading economists decided to play a few new tricks with numbers.
Is there a recall system for Nobel Prizes? Maybe it’s time to start considering one.
October 17, 2008
Barack Obama has a Louis Farrakhan problem and not because of his endorsement from Farrakhan. Instead, it is because of Obama’s more-than-passing association with Farrakhan and those who are close to the Nation of Islam leader.
In spite of Farrakhan’s long history as a racist, bigot and anti-Semite, Obama thought favorably enough of him to join Farrakhan’s 1995 march on Washington, D.C. Reportedly, Obama joined Reverends Jeremiah Wright and Al Sharpton in organizing the march.
Farrakhan’s bona fides as a purveyor of hate are well-documented. He called Jews “bloodsuckers,” Judaism a “gutter religion” and referred to Adolf Hitler as a “great man.” Farrakhan said, “The God who taught me calls the white man the skunk of the planet earth.”
Farrakhan promoted the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that “the AIDS epidemic is a result of doctors, especially Jewish ones, who inject the AIDS virus into blacks.” According to Farrakhan, blacks are prevented from progressing in the arts, sports, academia and politics because of Jews. “When I talk to the Jews, I am talking to a segment of that quorum that holds my people in their grip,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Farrakhan claimed that the POWER line of toiletry products he launched in the 1980s failed to succeed because of pressure from Jews. Obama blamed the failure of Farrakhan’s products on whites. In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote “That the POWER campaign sputtered said something about the difficulty that faced any black business — the barriers to entry, the lack of finance, the leg up that your competitors possessed after having kept you out of the game for over three hundred years.”
This should not be quickly dismissed as merely guilt by association because the overall narrative is one of someone continually associating with a group of repugnant individuals. Consider Obama’s 20-year close relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a long-time Farrakhan supporter.
Wright’s close friendship with Farrakhan goes back at least to the 1980s. Wright joined Farrakhan on a 1984 trip to Libya to visit Moammar Gadhafi. Wright predicted that once this became public knowledge “a lot of his [Obama's] Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in Hell.”
In his 1996 book When Black Men Stand Up for God, Wright called Farrakhan’s black critics “‘colored’ leaders,” “Oreos,” “house niggras,” and “enemies.” Wright praised Farrakhan as recently as last year. “Minister Farrakhan will be remembered as one of the 20th and 21st century giants of the African-American religious experience,” he said. “His love for Africa and African American people has made him an unforgettable force, a catalyst for change and a religious leader who is sincere about his faith and his purpose.”
Trumpet, a magazine operated by Wright and Trinity Church, honored Farrakhan in November 2007 with the “Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Trumpeteer” Award.
Farrakhan was knee-deep in a racist and anti-Semitic scandal the year before his D.C. march. Senior Nation of Islam official Khalid Abdul Muhammad delivered three hours of remarks at New Jersey’s Keane College that attacked whites, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and white South Africans.
Muhammad called Jews “the blood suckers of the black nation and the black community.” He warned the audience of “Columbia Jew-niversity over in Jew York City.” He called the U.N., the “Jew-nited Nations.” He said Jews were named Reubenstein, Goldstein and Silverstein because they “[have] been stealing rubies and gold and silver all over the earth. That’s why we can’t even wear a ring or a bracelet or a necklace without calling it Jewelry … but it’s not jewelry, it’s Jew-elry.” Muhammad argued Jews who perished in the Holocaust had it coming to them. He asked, “[D]on’t nobody ever ask what did they do to Hitler?” Then he answered his own question with, “They had undermined the very fabric of the society.”
A public outcry erupted and several public figures implored Farrakhan to repudiate Muhammad. Instead, Farrakhan backed Muhammad at a rally saying, “We know that Jews are the most organized, rich and powerful people, not only in America, but in the world. They are plotting against us even as we speak.” Then Farrakhan clasped Muhammad in an embrace on stage. Yet, this did not dissuade Obama from joining Farrakhan’s march the following year.
Obama admitted to showing interest in the Black Muslim faith when he was in his 20s. “I would occasionally pick up the paper [The Final Call, the Nation of Islam's newspaper] … sometimes because my attention was caught by the sensational, tabloid-style headlines (CAUCASIAN WOMAN ADMITS: WHITES ARE THE DEVIL),” he wrote in Dreams. “Inside the front cover, one found reprints of the minister’s speeches, as well as stories that could have been picked straight off the AP news wire were it not for certain editorial embellishments (“Jewish Senator Metzenbaum announced today …”).”
Renewed scrutiny of Obama’s decades-long associations is not helpful to his candidacy especially considering the concerns of many in the Jewish community over Obama’s ties to noted anti-Semites and critics of Israel. It has not gone unnoticed that it was not until after he began his presidential run that Obama first offered mild criticism of Louis Farrakhan.
October 16, 2008
October 16, 2008
Are the great American habits of directness, foursquare honesty, and a hearty handshake being undermined by fancy-pants French critical theory? You betcha! From the Obama-McCain struggle to find the proper meta-analysis of the word celebrity to the deconstruction of the mainstream media’s treatment of John Edwards, from the “framing” and “repackaging” of political constructs to the rise of identity politics for white people, the trend is clear: We are all postmodernists now.
The mainstreaming of pomo thinking has been largely a stealth project, something Americans do without committing overt acts of academia. We thought we were trying to clear away the cobwebs of shoddy analysis and elite hypocrisy, but all along we were bringing the tools of critical thinking to the masses. Go into any bar in the country, and you’ll find somebody unpacking the assumptions in someone else’s text.
Yet the mainstreaming of critical theory hasn’t necessarily been good for its original practitioners. Just as the old media were left cold as their once difficult and rarefied functions were ceded to any slob in his pajamas, so the bards of meta-analysis are struggling to survive in a world of front-porch semioticians. The brilliant Berkeley linguist George Lakoff ‘s most recent book, The Political Mind, purports to give new critical (but not New Critical!) tools to Democrats. Lakoff invented the popular “framing” concept, in which repellant concepts can be made attractive, and vice versa, depending on how you describe them. (We don’t call them “taxes,” we call them “investments.”)
Yet Lakoff ‘s star has dimmed since the first half of this decade, when hapless Democrats found him a welcome answer to Frank Luntz, the pollster who does pretty much the same shtick for the Republicans. An excellent August 15 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed how Lakoff ‘s principles have been falling out of favor—not so much because of any failings by Lakoff but because the Democrats are back to winning elections. “After a heady few years when he seemed the person Democratic policy makers wanted on the other end of the telephone, Lakoff is finding that what they’re asking for—and are willing to put money behind—is not always what he can provide,” Evan Goldstein wrote. “Lakoff’s foray into politics is a story marked by intellectual breakthroughs, the allure of influence, and a fall from great heights.”
The problem may not be that Lakoff, or Luntz, faded as thinkers but that their ideas have proved so enormously popular. When the McCain campaign lashed out at Obama as a “celebrity” candidate, Obama launched a textbook pomo counterattack, cherry-picking clips to demonstrate that McCain was the real star-humper. Faced with this kind of interpretive standoff, the mainstream media usually settle for a truth-is-somewhere-in-the-middle compromise, but independent bloggers and commentators took it to the next level, charging that the McCain ad’s use of the supreme xanthochroid Paris Hilton against the mixed-race Obama implied miscegenation. So who, if anybody, had the truth in all this? It all depends on how you frame it.
Except when it doesn’t. This summer the National Enquirer caught former Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards (to Lakoff, an anti-corporate crusader; to Luntz, an ambulance chaser) meeting with his mistress in a Beverly Hills hotel. The Los Angeles Times demonstrated a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the story in its own back yard, even putting out a notice to its bloggers to avoid mentioning it. Before long, Mickey Kaus and other prominent media critics had jumped all over the paper. As a participant in the fun (I approved the one blog post the L.A. Times had on the matter prior to the gag order; I and the author of the post were both subsequently fired, though the events were unrelated…as far as I know), I can say that while some of the principal players’ roles were misinterpreted, the overall characterization was accurate. The L.A. Times desperately wanted to avoid this damaging story, dressed up its desires in media-diligence drag (we were told not to comment until the paper’s reporters were through looking into the matter), and as a result was beaten and humiliated in its own backyard. Tim Rutten, the sanctimonious endomorph who leads the paper’s columnist lineup, ended up admitting as much in a column written after Edwards had confessed and everybody else had stopped caring. Bias unpacking: 100 percent successful.
For many people, postmodern analysis and semiotics are dirty words, products of a rising barbarian anticulture bent on replacing Edward R. Murrow with the paparazzi. One of the bracing things about old-school postmodernism was the way it provided the tools of Enlightenment critical thinking to anti-Enlightenment folks: Islamists, post-colonial nationalists, psycho feminists, and so on. Deconstruction and anti-Orientalism were essential means for undermining what was perceived as a white male power structure.
It was only a matter of time before the white males would start getting in on the action. In the recent reaction of Hollywood conservatives against entertainment liberalism, critical and satirical tools are used to undermine consensus and elevate pre-Enlightenment ideals. David Zucker’s comedy An American Carol tries to get yucks by standing up for old-fashioned patriotism, while Ben Stein’s flat-earth documentary Expelled posits a conspiracy of evolutionists to keep creationism out of the academy. The message is as clear as a Pluggers cartoon: We, the salt of the earth, are being systematically undermined by the American elites whose monopoly on good thinking is just a cover for self-interest.
Interestingly, the most gifted exponent of this way of thinking is a liberal Democrat: Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, whose 2004 history of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, movingly and angrily evokes a tradition of trailer-trash Americans who built the country yet have always ended up at the bottom of its society. These are identity politics, deftly transposed for white people.
Is Webb’s argument true? As good poststructuralists we should not be so gauche as to ask such a question. But like all the flavors of popular postmodernism, it is invigorating. Nobody (except those with positions of authority to protect) can argue that muddying up elite opinion has been anything other than liberating. That it’s used so often by people who believe in absurd or bedrock truths just sweetens the pot, because critical thinking was never about saying there’s no truth out there. It’s about saying no one of us has all of that truth.
Of course, that’s just my opinion.
October 15, 2008
October 15, 2008
Americans have seen their retirement savings shrivel, home equity evaporate and job security vanish. The only numbers zooming upward seem to be gas and food prices.
It may look like there’s nothing to smile about, but that shouldn’t stop us, said Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has been studying happiness for more than a quarter-century. Here’s what he wants you to know: That disappearing 401(k) balance? It’s no more a barometer of sadness than winning the lottery guarantees life satisfaction. It’s all a matter of perspective.
“There are people who have little money and are quite happy . . . and then there are people who feel poor making $150,000 a year,” Diener said. “If we ratchet down some of our aspirations and expectations, we can find contentment—even in a slowing economy.”
He is no blithe guru spray-painting smiley faces along Wall Street. Researchers like Diener are trying to convey what philosophers have long written: True happiness lies in the pursuit of deeply held goals, not in fleeting pleasures and possessions.
We intuitively understand the common-sense distinction between short-term pleasure and long-term happiness. Research suggests the brain also processes those feelings differently—though exactly how the mind creates abiding happiness is unclear.
Diener is co-author, with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, of the new book “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.” He is part of the positive psychology movement that started about two decades ago and bypasses the Freud model of disease and dysfunction, focusing instead on emotional hardiness.
In their view, psychological wealth includes relationships, spirituality (“not necessarily religion . . . but the feeling you are connected to something larger than yourself”), physical health and a sense of engagement.
What separates those with psychological wealth from miserable peers is their ability to adjust. “That means controlling what is controllable, . . . diversifying your stocks, then returning to the areas of your life that are going well, such as friends and family,” he said. “It means making a conscious decision to be resilient.”
It takes strong character to find happiness in the face of adversity, but scientists often have found that aspect too vague a topic to study. Understanding how the brain processes raw feelings of desire and pleasure is far easier. Most creatures seek pleasure in some way. Pleasure motivates us to seek food, sex and a multitude of things that ensure the survival of an individual or species.
“There’s an enormous evolutionary advantage to getting pleasure from these things,” said Martin Cassell, a professor at the University of Iowa. “The more long-term aspects of what causes happiness are much less well understood.”
Cassell said he believes a key brain area for both pleasure and long-term happiness is the insular cortex, a region buried under the flaps and folds toward the front of the brain. Also called the insula, the region has been linked to sensations of joy, disgust and pain and even to out-of-body experiences. But beyond joy, a hallmark of human beings is the ability to forgo immediate gratification for the sake of some deeper contentment. That aspect of happiness takes willpower—another big subject neuroscientists have found difficult to study.
“We have no precise sense of what willpower means in the brain, or why some people are better at it than others,” said Todd Braver, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis.
Braver’s team is studying how the brain area called the prefrontal cortex is involved in long-term decision-making. They want to understand how the anticipation of a reward far off in the future—such as the increased satisfaction of a fulfilling but low-paying job—can sometimes overrule the enticement of short-term pleasure.
The mysteries of human behavior and happiness have long dominated Diener family dinner conversations. Diener, 62, also known as “Dr. Happy,” had ample opportunity to reflect on the nature of happiness during his early-marriage years in Champaign, when dining out meant a $1 entree with his wife, Carol, also a psychologist.
Three of their five children went into the family business, including Robert, a psychologist and lecturer at Portland State University. The father and son have traveled all over the world, collecting data on well-being from tens of thousands of subjects in more than 100 countries.
Whether in the gold markets of Dubai or the Australian outback, the scientists have learned happiness goes beyond genes and circumstances. We require enough material wealth to be self-sufficient, the psychologists believe, but the levels of contentment do not dramatically increase after our needs are met. While there is a spike after a major acquisition—like a new car—the euphoria over leather seats doesn’t last.
The same is true with setbacks: Watching one’s nest egg dwindle is enough to pull anyone into a deep hole, but a year later, people typically rebound.Some people find happiness in escaping the seesaw of fleeting gains and losses. Steven Biedermann, 45, an investment banker, was living the good life in a Gold Coast condo with all the requisite perks—but he longed for meaning, not bigger bonuses.
Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “That was the match that lit up a bundle of kindling that had been piling up for years,” he said. The next fall, Biedermann sold everything and joined the Peace Corps. He headed to Kiribati in the Central Pacific, swapping the condo for a small stick hut and swanky restaurants for fish and rice. He grew closer to his Christian faith.
Upon his return, he was hired to manage the Chicago Public Schools investment portfolio—a way to make use of his skills, but with a loftier purpose. Though he earns less than he did his first year after graduating from DePaul University in 1986, Biedermann said he’s fulfilled. “It’s about serving others, not being served. That’s where my happiness comes from.”
October 14, 2008
October 14, 2008
I find it rather ironic that Barack Obama can get away with the argument that the cost of an early withdrawal from Iraq is going to be acceptable. Especially since Somalia continues to prove it’s obvious fallacy. Not only has the 9/11 commission acknowledge the important role that withdrawal played in the rise of Al Qaeda and the thinking of Osama but the headlines keep coming: Another Tanker hijacked ; Islamist Insurgents attack African Union troops in Mogadishu; Somalia: Islamists execute militia commander in Kismayo ; THE Asian Shipowners’ Forum (ASF) calls for urgent action to be taken to eradicate the piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden.; Pirates take weapons ship; Somali Pirates Say They’ll Sink Ukraine Ship If Ransom Not Paid.
Yes, despite MSM’s best efforts, Lawless Somalia elbows its way back into the news. Why am I writing despite MSM’s best efforts? Because no one wishes to return to chaotic Somalia or examine the lessons it offers for Obama’s preferred solution for Iraq. Obama argues that if things all apart in Iraq, the US (with it’s Obama led allies) can return. Anyone is advocating a return to Somalia? The situation there is dire enough.
Long the world’s most ignored tragedy, Somalia largely dropped off the West’s radar after U.S. forces ignominiously withdrew in 1994, five months after 18 U.S. soldiers died in the dust of a Mogadishu street, during a one-day battle gone disastrously wrong.Yet out of the spotlight, its humanitarian horrors have grown exponentially, greased by the continuing cycle of international neglect and misguided intervention, as well as by recurring droughts. That’s not to mention the depravities of a gangland society that has lost its internal order and glue.
With one in every five Somali toddlers dying before their fifth birthday and nearly half the rest chronically undernourished, more international light couldn’t come too soon. Especially since it’s the international caregivers — teachers, aid workers and transporters of desperately needed food — who find themselves prime targets of the gunmen and terrorists. At least half a dozen aid workers and teachers have been executed this year; as of July, another seven were being held hostage.
Street warfare has virtually emptied much of Somalia’s once-bustling seaside capital, Mogadishu. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that more than a million Mogadishu residents are internally displaced and living in squalid camps outside town. That’s on top of a million Somalis who already fled the country. That means at least one fourth of the nation’s populace have abandoned their homes.
Sadly, what drew the world’s attention was not this human trauma, but the offshore drama focused on modern-day Somali pirates in fast boats with advanced weaponry and GPS systems, who seized a Belize-flagged ship, its mostly Ukrainian crew and Ukrainian cargo of 33 military tanks, six anti-aircraft systems and other arms, and is holding them for ransom.
As of this writing, that standoff continues, with a Russian frigate on the way and a half-dozen U.S. warships surrounding the pirated vessel to make sure the military hardware doesn’t go to al-Qaida-linked groups.
Now imagine the Straits of Hormuz filled with pirates and armed gangs fighting it out in Iraq. John McCain argues that he opposed Clinton’s Somalia policy. That should not prevent him from making clear that as heavy as the price of early withdrawal from Somalia has been, it cannot compare to the price that an early withdrawal from Iraq is bound to be. He should ask Obama whether he recommends sending American forces back to Mogadishu or does he hope that he can sit down with the pirates and convince them to give up their most lucrative terrorist financing operation?
John McCain, it’s time for some honest straight talk about the Somalia lesson for Iraq.
October 13, 2008
October 13, 2008
Imagine you were put in a position to exert permanent influence on mankind. What your message be? What does ‘influence’ really mean, anyway? Is ‘influence’ determined by the quality of content, or is ‘influence’ measured by how many people hear and absorb the message?
Do ideas become meritorious only after they are accepted by masses of people? Is the Palestinian ’cause’ meritorious because of their institutionalized bigotry and racism or despite that dysfunctional ugliness?Is that any different from the German volk who were swayed by Hitler and Nazism?
Sometimes, masses of people are what it takes to make a difference. Other times, only a handful of decent people can make a difference.
The Biblical tale of Abraham his negotiations with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah is instructive. God agrees to save the cities from destruction if only 10 good men are found. On many levels, the exchange is extraordinary.Why does God enter into negotiations with Abraham?
The lessons are many but one thing is certain- real influence is never determined by the numbers. Real influence is determined by the quality of the message. A moral message, given enough time, can and will change the world. Moral and just ideas have a life of their own, influencing ever growing numbers of people over time. The best if mankind is best represented by a tsunami of moral ideas embraced by millions. The worst of mankind has usually been the result of a few men influencing masses of people by way of tyranny, fear and oppression.
There is no shortage in history of examples of deliberate attempts to impose influence and ideas. Those examples include Nazi, socialist, communist and even radical Islamic ideologies. In the end however, great and influential ideas, like great and influential art, survive the test of time. Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind remain great cinematic art- Terms of Endearment and The Sting, Academy award winners each, will not fare as well.
An influential message may take years, even centuries, to realize full potential. Real influence endures. Shallow influence is fleeting. Religions endure because the messages and lessons they endorse are meaningful and are meant to uplift spirits. Religions that demean and marginalize people or are predicated on hate, in the end, prove to be hollow and repressive.
In fact, the most influence any individual can have is the influence he or she exerts on him or herself. Will we challenge ourselves to reach our potential or, will we submit to our baser selves? We all ask ourselves the same question: Do we matter? Do we really matter? We noted, In A World Without You In It, that
On the face of it, we are part of a dispensable and disposable world. Whole populations are killed and are seemingly forgotten. As events around us fly by at the speed of light, there is no real sense that our lives- or the lives of anyone else for that matter, are of significant or meaningful merit in the great scheme of things.
In fact, we suffer a kind of debilitating malaise- “Nothing I do or say really matters.” There is the belief that whether or not we contribute anything to the the world and those around us, the world would be no different. It is the ‘my vote doesn’t really count’ school of thought. No matter our efforts, nothing will ever really change.
If you truly believe that your efforts and contributions are meaningless, can you really know and have passion? What can you truly look forward to, what will truly excite you? To what can you truly be committed? Will you ever know that ‘fire in the belly’?
In fact, we each have the capacity to influence mankind, with our actions, dreams and beliefs. How we behave, the goals we set for ourselves and the nature of our beliefs is ours alone. We are each uniquely qualified to make a difference. Our potential influence may not be immediate but the contributions we make may have a resonance with others in another place and another time that we cannot to even begin to fathom. Van Gogh couldn’t sell his art in his lifetime. He was never to know how he was to change and influence the way man would looked at art forever.
There are those who will argue that they are ‘wounded’ or carry ‘too much baggage.’ They ‘depersonalize’ their own value or worth. Often, those people demand special treatment and special status. They want to be exempt from the rules and standards the rest of us must adhere. They demand they need not beheld accountable for their failed lives and refusal to change their dysfunctional behaviors.
Those individuals question their own worth and value- and then demand attention and sympathy. “Value me because I am worthless,” is their plea. They do not see the incongruity of their own self perceptions.
The best therapists reinforce the inherent value of their patients because it is from within that inherent value, patients will find the strength to overcome the obstacles that weigh them down and preclude them from achieving the influence, big or small, that they are capable.
Influence is not determined by sheer strength or by Darwinian survival skills. Influence is determined by how well we realize what our capabilities and capacities are- and how best to reach those capacities. Recognizing and understanding those capacities is the most personal and intimate expression of self knowledge. Positive influence is always passed on, generation after generation. The Mamacita’s of this world were influenced by their teachers, who were in turn influence by teachers before them. Mamacita’s legacy as a teacher will not be measured by the number of her students who became doctors or lawyers or bankers or millionaires. Her legacy will be measured by how many of her students would go on to positively influence others. Her legacy will assured because she refuses to allow her students to say, ‘value me because I am worthless.’ Like van Gogh, she will not know or see all the fruits of her labor. Nevertheless, her life and the lives of the very few teachers that share her passion has had profound meaning. She has spent a lifetime influencing one classroom at a time in a positive way, not by way of ideology but rather, by way of morality. She has proved time and time again that diversity of beliefs can be shared with a common morality and ethic.
Mass communications, mass production, mass depersonalization and the massive amounts of statistics threaten to become the source of our identities and worth. We are increasingly defined, measured and valued by our banks accounts, credit card limits, looks, clothes, homes. Often our worth is determined by our associations and religious or political affiliations. That reality has turned into commodities rather than the individuals we really are.
What happens when we are no longer human? The answer to that question has been played out before in Europe and is being played out again in the Middle East.
Things aren’t much different at home, either. Clarence Thomas isn’t a story of success- depersonalized, he has become an ‘Uncle Tom’ or a ‘House Nigger.’ Condi Rice is referred to in even more vile terms. That’s what happens when people become commodities- no more than statistical and demographic ‘blips’ to others with a different political agenda.
Is it any wonder then, that people feel insignificant or are afraid to ‘step out’? Here’s something to ponder. Can people who are ‘commoditized,’ experience real love? Can parents really parent if their own sense of worth is defined by a cold and impersonal materialism? Have relationships become no more than expressions of selfishness? These are real possibilities. Both Dr Sanity (here) and Shrinkwrapped (here) have written extensively on ever growing narcissism and the effects that narcissism has on our culture, society and families.
What can be extrapolated from their discussions is clear. The tsunami of narcissism is an almost reflexive expression of a clear dysfunction. When ‘You don’t matter; your feelings don’t matter; your function and purpose here is to serve my needs,‘ are considered a form of healthy and acceptable ‘expression,’ is it really a surprise that deep and real interpersonal relationships and happiness, elude so many? And when so many interpersonal relationships are lacking or broken, is it any surprise that our community and culture have been undermined?
In a world where technology and deliberate depersonalization threatens to tame us, instead of the other way around, the need to recognize our own capacity and potential for good is more important than ever. We must recognize, reflect and react to the deliberate attempt to dehumanize and belittle our significance- the three ‘R’s’ of our own redemption.
There are also those people who believe that that influence is brought about by creation- that is, to have enduring influence comes about as the result of creating a physical manifestation or expression of their ideas or beliefs, be that in art or politics are any other field of endeavor.
These people wrongly believe that to create is to have influence, whereas in reality, it is influence that creates.
Making an object or having an idea that is separate and distinct from myself, separates me from that object or idea. I am not a part of that object. If on the other hand, by way of ideas and insight, I influence the world around me, then I have truly created something meaningful.
For example, if you influence your child in way that results in that child growing up to be a productive, decent and caring citizen, you have wielded real influence. In A Tale Of Two Peoples, we noted Nobel Prize winner Robert Aumann cried as recalled his wife who had passed away from cancer, seven years earlier, in his award acceptance speech:
“….You Scientists can write endless article, but most of them will be forgotten over the years. I influence the education of my children, and I too will be forgotten in another 150 years- but my influence will exist and dozens and hundreds of children will walk around who were influenced by me.” This is actually what we scientists want- to influence and change. The prize for me is not the main issue. Of course I am not sorry to win, it represents the fact that I have reached a certain point, but the prize is not the point…
Objects and ideas only assume real value when their qualities exert a positive influence. Food is important because food is life sustaining and thus allows us to exert positive and productive influences. Ideas and education assume real value when their qualities exert a positive influence and we use those ideas and education to empower ourselves and others. Books assume real value when their qualities exert the kind of influence that makes us think. Just because the Bible and pornography are both printed and bound, does not make them equal in value, any more than achieving nationhood status makes the Israelis and Palestinians equal in status. Assuming the garb or uniform does not bestow equality.
There is big difference between truth and knowledge, and that difference also measures what it means to have influence and our search for meaning.
Seeking knowledge is a human endeavor and as such, is both never ending and limited at the same time. Seeking truth is very different- we can find truth and be satisfied and sated, even if we do not completely understand or comprehend that truth. We can work to increase our understanding of truth, but the essential truth never changes.
Our search for meaning and truth cannot be found through our quest for knowledge.
Salvation is not achieved through the search for knowledge. Salvation and meaning come about as the result of the search for truth. It is in the search for truth that truth is found.
The distinctions between truth and knowledge has become blurred because we have blurred the line between ‘identity’ and ‘idea.’ We have come to believe (mistakenly) that ideas are in perfect union with reality. “I have an idea or belief and therefore, you must agree and afford that idea or belief respect and credibility, no matter how irrelevant, offensive, silly, etc., it may be.”
The search for knowledge without the search for truth is a pathology, an intellectual obsession. It is a fixation on the exterior of things that precludes real intimacy. Anyone can learn the mechanics of anything, without getting close. The mind consumes rather than luxuriates. The mind devours, rather than contemplates. The mind inhales, rather than loves.
The accumulation of knowledge becomes a mechanical process of method, protocol and system. The search for truth is has always been defined as dialogue, contact, acceptance a and communion.
In the the search for truth, rational thinking and questioning are forms of redemptive knowledge. The difference is that in the search for truth, rational thinking and questioning become a foundation stone of positive influence. The search for truth acknowledges our humility and not our hubris.
While not everyone believes in God, much can be learned for the search for truth in the way some seek faith:
In our humanness, we are clothed with finite attire- we cannot divine the mind of God. When we demand absolutely certain truth, we are attempting to play God. We may believe that there are absolute truths, but in fact, we are bound by our understanding at the moment. Scientific truths alter as our understanding alters.
If we presume we can understand the ‘absolute truth’ about God, we are destined to fail in our desire to know God and to accept God as God. The ‘absolute truth’ about God changes as we come to understand ourselves, our world and even others.
That ‘absolute truth’ can never be corralled or understood because only God is ‘absolute.’ As humans, we are the opposite of absolute. We can be ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ we can be ‘more’ or ‘less.’ For us to exist as God’s creations, we must know joy and we must know suffering. We need to succeed and we also need to fail. We are meant to be less than perfect, because it is through our imperfections that we find ourselves and our potential.
God treasures our spiritual achievements. He treasures our failures along the way even more, because in facing and overcoming our failures, we have shown that we are indeed worthy of the humanity He bestowed upon us. We are not meant to become perfect in our struggle and search for meaning and faith- we are meant to overcome the limitations, imperfections and obstacles along the way.
Relating to God is about relating to that most human side of ourselves.
Portions of this post have previously published.