Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fatal presidency?

Some of you may recall the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case: Womanizing Green Beret kills his wife and young daughters at Fort Bragg on a rainy night in February, 1970. Murdered the wife in an instantaneous explosion of rage, then deliberately slaughtered his daughters in concocting a cover story about Manson-like intruders. The late, marvelous writer Joe McGinniss wrote a book, Fatal Vision, that became a true-crime classic (as well as the inspiration for my own book, Deadly Blessing, which, like Joe's book, became a TV movie amid the period's true-crime mania; my film was called Bed of Lies). I've been re-reading Fatal Vision. It focuses a lot on the psychic malady of pathological narcissism and the threat posed for those in the narcissist's orbit. As I read along I am struck by how many of the characteristics apply to Donald Trump. The parallels are astonishing. Now we're all in Trump's orbit, and all subject to the threat. Incidentally, widening the lens, we have spawned several generations of potential Trumps by fanning the flames of narcissism via the self-esteem movement, helicopter parenting, "never give up your dreams" and related cultural phenomena. 

But I digress. So Hillary's prophesy has come to pass: "a man you can bait with a tweet" has got "the nuclear codes," and he's playing out his psychological disarray on the global stage. As we've seen, he is so emotionally fragile that he cannot let himself be seen as fragile, even for a moment, and will go to any lengths to quell his sense of inadequacy if pushed. (A classic symptom of the malaise.) This whole Korea business was inevitable, and if the nation survives it intact, it won't be the last time. Trump will see to that, unless he is removed from power somehow. 

I am complicit here: one of the citizens comedian Bill Maher excoriates on every show. I did not vote. I thought Trump a buffoon but simply could not bring myself to press the Hillary buttonand as most of you know, I despised the media for going in the tank for Hillary. So I and my millions of like-minded fellow non-voters let this happen. I hope this is a lesson to the Dems in 2020, if the nation still exists and is habitable. Though I would not make the same mistake again, I'm sure there are countless Americans who aren't going to get behind an awful, unappetizing candidate simply because she's considered a form of royalty and it's "her time." How I wish Joe Biden had run. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Self-esteem takes another hit.

This is a very nice piece on the phenomenon, and not just because yours truly is quoted extensively. The writer, New York's Jesse Singal, did his homework.

Makes you wonder: How long before we fully escape the damage wreaked on American society by the simple, deceptively appealing idea "you're special!"?

Monday, June 05, 2017

Our American Demeritocracy

Preamble: You're going to be inclined at first to think this is mean-spirited. As is often the case, I urge you to set aside any kneejerk reactions and think about what I'm saying here.
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After batting practice one afternoon I took my 16-year-old grandson to Burger King, where we encountered a queue of cars that stretched well back beyond the drive-through, clogging the entrance to the adjacent strip mall. This struck me odd, as it was 2:45, not normally a peak time in the land of fast food. The reason became clear, however, once we'd inched our way to that familiar first window where the money changes hands. The young man in charge of the transaction stuttered so badly that it took him fully five minutes to confirm our order—one burger, fries—and narrate the exchange of funds. He spent an eternity on the word “bacon” alone. (It was not unlike that classic scene in My Cousin Vinny, where the alternate defense attorney struggles to get through his opening statement, faltering on every consonant.) But there was no mirth in this, even to my normally lighthearted grandson, whose brows just knitted in confusion. Behind us, more cars joined the procession. I wondered if the lad ever worked the dinner shift.

My answer came the following week, on a day when my grandson and I got a later start. We swung by at 5 and the line was twice as long, the same young man clearly recognizable at his post. "So, you want to try Taco Bell?" asked my grandson.

One perceives the wholesome motivations that result in such ill-advised pairings between job and job-holder, but to me, this largess suffers from at least two major flaws. The first is an arbitrariness in our distinctions between disability and inability. Burger King would not likely keep on an employee who spoke flawlessly but dispensed money in a seemingly random manner. To the afflicted, though, a math impairment can be as palpable a hindrance in life as a stutter. We are all limited by our limitations. Indeed, suppose the boy who stutters is a natural at calculus—unlike millions of kids, my grandson included, who require extensive tutelage. Although I don't think anyone would propose granting my grandson special admission to MIT in accommodation of his math struggles, we will fill customer-service slots with employees who cannot deliver adequate customer service (and may even send patrons to competitors). It seems illogical to privilege one deficiency over another simply because it has a name and formal diagnosis.

The larger point is that my drive-through experience is a minor but memorable indication of a meritocracy that has lost its way. Amid our national obsession with “inclusionary” thinking and “being respectful to all,” we are abrogating our duty to uphold and reward excellence as a way of life. Once, excellence was what we were supposed to seek and admire—vocationally, behaviorally, in every sense. America was never a perfect meritocracy, as there was always too much advantage accorded certain classes of people. But at least we had a consensus understanding of which attributes were “optimal” in any given setting, and we incentivized and reinforced such attributes. No longer.

The damage goes far beyond the world of the drive-through. Teachers at all levels face enormous pressure not to fail students (nor merely assign the mediocre grades many earn). This applies even in college, where I teach. The rationale is that we don't want to ding their GPAs for resumé purposes. Few colleges want a reputation for being institutions where students are graded severely (that is, honestly). Grade schools are disinclined to suspend or even discipline the unruly student, lest they be accused of compassion deficit and/or stigmatizing children.

Hence, too: social promotion, diversity-mania, trophies for winners and losers. HR policies are rewritten to enable unmotivated millennials to remain unmotivated and hold their jobs.

In setting after setting, we rethink obvious explanations for dysfunction in order to wash away the stain of failure or worse. The mass-incarceration trope inverts the traditional view of crime by putting the onus on society. Pop culture celebrates out-of-wedlock pregnancies and other infelicitous circumstances that predispose a non-excellent life for most everyday folks outside zip code 90210. The more than one-third of Americans who are clinically obese are exhorted to “love your body,” no matter their weight's impact on their health or the health system itself.

This is why there's much to be said for the Darwinism of pro sports. If you are the best at what you do, you get a job. I hear no call to place short people in the NBA just to be fair, and shortness of stature—unlike stuttering—isn't fixable. If your dream is to play in the NBA and you are 5-foot-3 and not named Muggsy Bogues, you are effectively disabled.

In our zeal to help people like the boy with the speech impediment, we're being unhelpful not only to the folks in line, but to other job seekers who might enable the business to run more like the well-oiled machine Coolidge envisioned in his timeless line, “The business of America is business.” I do not champion a society without compassion. I'm saying that each of us needs to pursue excellence in our individual way, based on the skill set we were given. I would urge a more objective, dispassionate lens on abilities and disabilities in the broadest sense, with no “approved” categories of disability beyond those needed as a safety net for those simply incapable of excellence.

We are all uniquely abled and disabled. The key is to figure out where each person's mix best fits, thus promoting maximum benefit to the individual and society.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Bad medicine...AKA the one that got away?

So many good books coming out now about the failures of modern healthcare, which the authors blame on the corrupting influence of the profit motive, inefficiencies built into the ACA and other concerns that should really be extraneous to quality medicine. But what people don't realize is that even when the healthcare system is hitting on all cylinders, it still isn't about delivering optimal healthcare. That's because in too many cases we still don't know what works and why; we deliver healthcare "solutions" based on bad science. 

Bottom line, America is awash in placebo medicine. Which naturally makes me think there ought to be a market for my moribund project, Placebo. Such a shame.

Friday, May 05, 2017

I'm OK...You're the Antichrist*

So let's review. (It's been a while, after all.) Back in 2005, when the world was young and unspoiled and we all mostly agreed on the nature of reality, I wrote a book called SHAM in which I deconstructed the self-help/human-potential movement. Although reviews were generally quite kind, if I was criticized for anything it was for an overreach in my perception of the movement's wider impact on society-at-large. In the book I made some dire forecasts about the possible long-term effects of motivational themes that were then taking shape.

Today, as I look at Donald Trump's Washington and our fractured society, it's hard not to think I underestimated the potential damage.

The excesses I critiqued chiefly had to do with America's growing faith in the decisiveness of mental attitude—that is, the belief in belief itself as an inherently transformative force. During the 1990s that most queasy-making of buzzwords, empowerment, must've been uttered on Oprah's show alone a few thousand times a day. By the turn of the millennium the trope was being endlessly reinforced in classrooms, locker rooms, and corporate meeting rooms, as well as in films and TV series. The power of positive thinking is not new, of course, but the gurus of personal empowerment took it to a new level, insisting on a straight-line relationship between attitude and aptitude. Today there is arguably no more revered a cultural incantation than the simple mnemonic rhyme, “Believe it, achieve it.” Many of us unthinkingly accept mere avowals of success as failsafe IOUs for success itself.

Hence, Donald Trump. There can be no question that Trump was propelled to the Oval Office in part by the notion that confidence = competency, spunk = skill.

This is not overreach, folks. It is an accurate taking of the American pulse.


Even now, as the president abandons plank after plank of the platform that got him elected, his disciples continue to cling to their belief; most say they'd vote for him again. Because, you see, empowerment isn't really about what anyone does. It's about having the stones to keep guaranteeing that you will do in the end. Indeed, the empowered mindset seems to value the ability to weather recurring failure more than it values the wherewithal to actually succeed. So in Trump's case, for all the walk-backs and outright flops of his first 100 days, he continues to speak (and tweet) in that same muscular argot, without qualifications or apologies. He projects that same bulletproof persona. To millions of rapt disciples, that's all that matters.

But wait, you ask, can't his followers see with their own eyes that the emperor has no clothes?

No, they cannot. Their eyes do not perceive the world the way the rest of us do. That may be partially because in 2007 the empowerment malignancy metastasized into something far worse—with the advent of The Secret. The perverse genius of the blockbuster book/DVD parlay was its ability to mainstream the delusional outlooks that once were identified with schizophrenia and other forms of genuine psychological pathology. The beneficent universe was at your beck and call, just waiting for you to get in touch and communicate your wants with conviction. (And here again, for this to work you had to believe and believe and BELIEVE....self-doubters need not apply.) This was no fringe movement, by the way. Reinvention-minded Boomers in particular embraced The Secret in in droves. The book sold 20 million copies and the DVD millions more. The concept was romanced by Oprah, Larry King and other media heavyweights.
Shameless narcissism was not only destigmatized but encouraged. New Age mainstays like Deepak Chopra also weighed in with the contention that nothing existed apart from our consciousness of it. Between The Secret and the likes of Deepak, we arrived at the concept of “designer reality”:
Suddenly there was no longer a consensus universal truth. Your world was whatever you believed it to be
And once again this pseudo-thinking received ambient reinforcement that extended its reach well beyond direct consumers of self-help products. Morning TV hosts exhorted America's youth to “never give up your dreams!,” to reject the reality checks offered up by those who point out that we can't all be president or BeyoncĂ©.

Thus was also laid, inadvertently, the groundwork for “fake news.” 


(I repeat...an accurate taking of the American pulse.) 

Post-Secret, information that challenged one's worldview was by definition bogus, invalid. Millions of people afflicted with a fatal case of confirmation bias blithely cherry-picked facts (or pseudo-facts) that supported their preconceived notions, while ignoring anything that might cause them to call their beliefs into question. Among other things, I submit, this currency helps explain the seemingly bizarre manner in which Trump partisans will embrace claims (inaugural attendance, millions of undocumented voters) for which no one can find verification. They did not see the empty spaces on the mall the same way you or I did. They make allowances; they eat up the rationalizations advanced by Trump and Sean Spicer. They continue to rationalize away the man's foibles in order to justify their ongoing confidence in his confidence; to do otherwise would be to concede that their designer reality is flawed, that their own confidence—in him—was misplaced. And that's simply untenable.

At the same time we are at our core a tribal species, so we forge alliances with others who see the world as we do. In this brave new schema there is no obligation to respect those who differ with you because, after all, your view of reality is reality. Dissenters are simply wrong. And while Trump may be the most conspicuous example, the GOP hardly owns the franchise on such irrationality. Think of all of the contemporary issues where there's zero give on either side. Think of mass incarceration, where the Left sees only systemic racism and the Right sees only an alibi for thuggery. Think of the emotional polarity of sanctuary cities or funding for Planned Parenthood. Think of the mood on today's college campuses. It follows that when another tribe opposes you on issues with strong moral overtones, that tribe is not merely mistaken, but something closer to evil. In this secular battle for the American soul, compromise and conciliation become dirty words. We inhabit a binary society wherein those who belong to opposing tribes aren't mere political opponents; they're apostates in a holy war, as it were.

One only hopes we can turn things back around before the crucifixions begin. 
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* If you don't get the play on the iconic self-help title, you probably have no business reading this blog. Though I do love having you here...