Sunday, April 16, 2017

Pride is Prejudice...finally in print.

Been trying to get these thoughts published in some form for the longest time...literally since Obama was campaigning for the presidency. Even my usual editors were disinclined to touch the piece, given that it's both politically incorrect and very much out of tune with the tenor of the times. But if anything, the piece is more relevant than ever today, as never before (in my lifetime) have we been been so unapologetically focused on identity politics, groupthink and the like (which is, of course, the implicit target of the piece).

The editors cut one line: "Practically and logically speaking, what is the difference between your pointing to the number of blacks in the NBA and my pointing to the number of blacks in prison?" At first I was sad to see it go, but in retrospect it only muddies the waters...and would be seen by some as so inflammatory that it overshadows the rest of the essay. My editor said the point is better made obliquely, and I now agree. 

Curious to hear what anyone thinks. I'm obviously way behind these days, as this piece ran in USAToday on April 1, but the times have been a mostly good way, however. 

I have some more interesting stuff upcoming soon, FWIW.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tweet heat.

The other day a little thing happened that I found big-ly significant. It involved Chris Cuomo, whose work for CNN I much admire (in contrast to the tendentious work of most of Cuomo's high-profile peers). He tweeted a reply to a nasty critic that I found concerning, because it sounded as if Chris were daring the guy to man up and "come for" him. I immediately tweeted back, reminding Chris that there are wackos out there who might take him at his word—and I added that unlike certain other careless tweeters of note, he lacks Secret Service protection. Although Chris remained his unflappable self, a number of his followers jumped on me, accusing me of being the wacko and of coyly threatening Chris. One guy even emailed me from an anonymous account, warning that he'd saved my tweet and would be "watching how you conduct yourself going forward." Thankfully Chris soon came to my defense, calling off his hounds, and the onslaught stopped.

To me this minor dust-up shows how how easily "triggered" we are in our tribalism. How paranoid in our polarity.

Everything is personal. There is no other side. An opposing idea is by is nature an ad hominem affront. A threat. Even if, as in the case at hand, you're trying to look out for someone else, people will sniff out a nuance or an overtone to be disturbed about.

I experienced this phenomenon on a daily basis throughout the closing months of Campaign 2016, when my tweets criticizing people in media for unfairly attacking Trump invited a torrent of rabid condemnation from those who assumed I was a mindless Trumper. In the beginning I took pains to remind people that attacking journalists who unethically attacked Trump is not the same as supporting Trump. I did not, I was clear, support Donald Trump. I just didn't want him savaged by an obviously partisan media. But I just couldn't seem to get through to the #WithHer crowd. After a while I stopped even trying to explain myself.

People...if we don't start looking to find points of agreement rather than points to ridicule (or worse), we are going to unravel as a society. The social contract will be no more. We're getting pretty damned close as it is.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Bonus enlightenment. Outtakes from my piece on James Ray.

UPDATE, Jan. 18... An email exchange this morning reminded me of one of the killing paradoxes of self-help Gurodom. Gurus from the exalted Tony Robbins on down to the exiled James Ray will claim wonders for their respective psychic regimens, citing client breakthroughs ranging from simply "getting unstuck" to wholesale personal transformations. And yet at the same time, these same gurus seldom talk about—and/or disclaim responsibility for—any adverse psychological reactions to their spiels. 

But consider, please: Wouldn't a thought system powerful enough to yield the psychic rebirths these guys promise also carry with it potentially devastating side effects, at least for some people? (As is also true of our most potent mental-health drugs.) Side effects like, say, a Colleen Conaway jumping to her death at a James Ray seminar? It's probably a good thing that so many of these programs don't work, that they're little more than time-wasting intellectual masturbation. Because the annals of transformational self-help already include enough stories of breakdowns and other forms of suddenly appearing dysfunction, up to and including suicides (aside from Conaway's). Thankfully most of the breakdowns were temporary. The suicides, alas, were permanent.

The balance of this post appeared originally on December 1, 2016.


Today Slate features my essay on James "Death" Ray* and CNN's Ray biopic Enlighten Us, which will now premiere Saturday, Dec. 3, as per the network. What follows is what I'd intended as a postscript to the piece. I can see why it was cut: Note to young writers, when you label something a postscript on a story that's already running long, it's your signal to your editor, "Cut this self-indulgent crap." I still think it makes interesting points, and the Bob Proctor connection is fun. Read the Slate piece first as a refresher course, then read this and let me know what you think. Also, please let me know if you "get" the allusion in the piece's inside title. My editor was dubious.

Proctor and Ray: Two peas in a fraud.

It bears noting that Ray's best-selling book, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life you Want, gave prominent play to a blurb from fellow Secret alum and self-described “metaphysician” Bob Proctor. Proctor is an eye-opening case study in his own right. After the economy tanked in 2008—thus signifying that the Universe had rebuffed a lot of those acquisitive vibes put out by Secret faithful—Proctor began offering his "11 Forgotten laws" download for the low, low price of $97. These were a set of pointers that Secret creator Rhonda Byrne had somehow overlooked...and it was a damned shame, too, because they just happened to contain the very knowledge without which the law of attraction remains stuck in neutral! That's what had gone wrong for all those poor Americans who lost their homes, cars, and credit ratings just two years after The Secret broke. But we digress.

In his fulsome blurb, Proctor says of Ray's book, “Harmonic Wealth is a classic. James Arthur Ray did not just write a book, he went out into the world and made it happen...”

It's a quote that not only drips with dark irony, given some of what Ray “made happen,” but that also reveals more than Proctor intended.

James Arthur Ray is Patient Zero in the cynicism, the narcissism, the utter lack of shame and responsibility at the heart [sic] of modern self-help and its “empowering” liturgy. He sold a philosophy in which selfishness masqueraded as empowerment—and, you see, the empowered person does not amicably abide detours along the path to his rightful place in the order of things. So it was with Ray himself. When Colleen Conaway fell from that balcony in San Diego, Ray could not abide a detour in his program. He could not abide consequences. Same with the sweat lodge. And now, in his legal gambit, he seeks to retrospectively undo the detour of Sedona and the 20 months he spent behind bars. For prison was not Ray's rightful destiny. His rightful destiny was Oprah and CNN specials and the red carpet that he walked at the Tribeca premiere of his film. As though he were Sly or Spielberg.

And the staggering magnitude of the hypocrisy. As one example, for all of Ray's rants about the power of the human spirit and celestial “vibes,” detectives investigating the Sedona episode found in his hotel room a suitcase full of performance-enhancing drugs including steroids, HGH and anti-aging potions. So if his customers needed only their warrior wills, Ray apparently needed a trove of pills. He sent his hopeful dupes out into the desert without food and water and insisted that they learn to harness the power of the mind; meanwhile, he went back to his suite and harnessed the power of something quite different.

Despite self-help's bubbly, non-serious public image, there is an ugliness at its core; danger lurks. In too many cases (especially among "no limits"/Empowerment types) it is a “belief system” constructed on notions that are antithetical to everything we teach our kids. It is a realm where winning is indeed the only thing, and how you play the game matters only insofar as its efficacy at animating that victory. What's more, the people in your orbit are mere props in this quest. They're expendable.

And as Proctor tells us, no one in self-help has done a better job of modeling this behavior than the master, James Arthur Ray himself. He is the proof of his curdled pudding.

* as the inimitable Salty Droid called him.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The gift of perspective: the sequel.

The second Sunday of 2017 strikes me as the perfect day for wading even more deeply into the waters of moral controversy than in my last post. So let me lay this one on you:

Pets and children do not understand the concept of "a necessary evil" or "for your own good." Therefore, from the vantage point of the pet or child, getting a vaccination or a nail trim may well be the same as, say, being sodomized with a pencil. We are the only ones in the scenario who are confident in the propriety of one act vs. the other. If you've ever seen a large recalcitrant dog getting its nails trimmed with a dremel, you know the phenomenon of which I speak. It is traumatizing for both the animal and the (uninitiated) observer; the dog will howl and bark and strain against any confinement as might another dog being frankly tortured (except in the case of a nail trim the animal has no recourse; if it's awake for the procedure, it's usually muzzled and held or tied down). Veterinary pros grow inured to the histrionics and shrug them off...just as I suppose serial pedophiles get used to the whimpers and/or screams of their young victims.

The same applies in the case of the severely vaccination-phobic child who's dragged kicking and screaming into the pediatrician's office.
This would be a good place to reiterate that we are talking from the point of view of the pet or child only. In no way does this post even begin to imply that those of us on the outside should regard pedophilia or torture as no more sinister than nail trimming or vaccinating. I'm speaking only of how your pet or child likely interprets those experiences.
So no, I am not proposing some bizarre false equivalence between pet groomers and/or pediatricians and pedophiles. I am saying that to the pet or child, the abuse is the same: Pain and terror are being inflicted while the people they trust most in life, Mommy and/or Daddy, are standing by and letting it happen. And it doesn't matter that the vet or pediatrician is speaking in consoling tones. Child molesters often do that too.

Think about it. And think about the fact that we often say that young victims of pedophiles are scarred for life. Just think about it. As always, that's all I ask here.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

For Christmas: the gift of perspective. On glass houses.

I posted a shorter version of this item some years back, when SHAMblog was still very much "a thing," and the reception was not warm. Apart from criticism in the comment section here, I received wide-eyed emails (now there's a visual) from the colleagues in writing and editing I then had. People accused me of moral relativism, which I found odd and ironic (and telling, since that is exactly the phenomenon I'm targeting in this post: the moral certitude so many of us feel in acting holier-than-thou, in launching stones from our own glass houses). I ask you to read this and think about how it applies in your own life. We can argue about the danger of the implications of this school of thought...but...dangerous or not, I don't think I'm wrong.
A vignette. I know any number of people who drive fast on the highway. (Sounds vaguely Rain Man-esque, no?) These people appear to have an inner clock about how fast is "just right," and they expect to be able to drive at that speed without being impeded by motorists cruising at, say, the speed limit. Regardless of traffic conditions. Take my wife, for example. (Please.) Her comfort zone is somewhere between 75 and 80. So she'll come up on a car doing 68 in the left lane and begin to display annoyance. She'll grumble through the windshield at the woman in front of us: "Why are you in the left lane? If you're going to go that speed, move over, lady!" So eventually "the lady" moves over, and my wife proceeds along at 78. Then, a few minutes later, someone comes up on my wife's tail, and now she's annoyed about that. This time she's talking into the rear-view mirror: "What, 80 isn't fast enough for you, buddy? Get off my tail." Sometimes, at her passive-aggressive best, she'll slow down (or even briefly brake-check) her tailgater. One time she slowed down so much that we ended up getting passed on the right by a motorist she'd coaxed out of the left lane moments earlier.

With that in mind, here's a funny postscript that goes back some years. My father was a tailgater, too. One time we were zooming along in the left lane on Brooklyn's notorious Belt Parkway until we found our progress blocked by an old Dodge ambling along at 50 or so. Dad gave the guy his brights a few times then passed him on the right and, noticing a SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT sign ahead, honked his horn to get the Dodge driver's attention, pointed to the sign and yelled its instructions out the window. We then zoomed past him. A mile or so farther on, traffic crawled to a halt due to construction. Suddenly the Dodge was again alongside us. Now it was his turn to honk. He got my father's attention, pointed to a different sign on the highway shoulder and yelled its instructions: SPEED LIMIT, 55. I thought that was damned clever, though Dad did not concur
There's a point here, and it's not just about driving. 
If there’s a single human trait that bemuses and at times enrages me more than any other, it is the tendency to rationalize and excuse whatever degree of larceny or sinfulness we find in our own hearts, while pointing an accusing finger at someone else whose own degree of larceny or sinfulness extends a hair beyond our own, or merely differs from our own. We get comfortable with our personal foibles, or the degree of our personal foibles, despite being irate over the foibles of our neighbors. Thus people who break the law by driving 78 grow apoplectic over people who break the law by driving 83. But it hardly ends there.

The woman who's had an abortion will have all kinds of nasty things to say about another woman she knows who's had two abortions. Or the woman who has two children, then has an abortion next time around for matters of convenience, demands justice after a gang member accidentally kills one of her first two kids in a drive-by shooting.

The guy who overspends on an Audi costing $56,000 gets pissy about his neighbor's $98,000 Benz.  

The guy who enjoys farting around his girlfriend when he knows that she hates it gets irate over the guy who smacks his girlfriend now and then. 

The man who cheats on his taxes scorns the man who cheats on his wife. 

The woman who engages in an adulterous affair with a married man scorns the same married man who then cheats on her with someone else.

The president who sends troops off to die in some foreign land is "doing his job"…but vilifies the Mafia don who took matters into his own hands during a local turf war.

The boss who treats all of his employees in dehumanizing (but legal) fashion shakes his head and grows indignant reading the story of the (jovial, generally good-guy) boss who groped some of his female employees.

The bar bully who likes to pick on the weak thinks the Jerry Sanduskys of the world should all be shot. 

The black guy who hates white guys scorns the white guy who hates black guys. 

The man who hunts deer for sport condemns the man who hunts humans for sport. (Oh, that's not the same thing at all? Bill Maher, among others, would disagree.) 

The venal corporate executive who sacks his company feels no qualms about prosecuting the “young punk” who broke into his house to steal a stereo. 

The Pope who kept silent about the Nazi outrage during World War II now tells millions of Catholics how they need to take a stand against evil when they encounter it.

The U.S. politician who deplores the killing of innocents in Sandy Hook favors greater trade relations with nations that use children as slave labor in dangerous working conditions.

Really, who decides what’s worse than what? Is it worse to rape a woman—or shoot ten bison grazing peacefully in a field? To rob a bank? Or set fire to a puppy? Is it worse to tell a lie that you think is small (because you never see the end-term consequences that your lie sets in motion, which turn out to be catastrophic) or to kill one person without whom the world would be better off anyway (though the world may not know it at the time you kill him)? There is no way to know the answer to such questions. Certainly not here on earth. 

A man cheats on his wife, that’s immoral. A woman makes a man feel small every day of his life, treats him like a piece of furniture with a checkbook—and that’s "just marriage"? 

We also tend to discount sins of omission. The rich woman who wears a $2500 designer gown to a social event where she will be greeted like royalty has probably killed people in doing so—she just doesn’t know it. She could’ve worn a $200 gown and donated the rest to prevent African children from starving. Is what she did—wearing a pretty gown to a social event—better or worse than the crime of the impoverished inner-city husband who ends up beating an elderly woman for her purse, so that his pregnant wife can eat?

And as I've asked before—also inviting condemnation—is what Charlie Manson did worse than what the boys at Enron or Goldman did? Tell me why.

I've tagged this "hypocrisy," but that's not the deepest explanation for what's going on here. We label it hypocrisy only when the sins are analogous—when, say, you point fingers at someone else who got caught doing the same thing you’ve been doing in secret. But we somehow manage to avoid seeing the parallels between the things we do and the different things others do. We see it as apples-and-oranges, when in fact it's apples-and-apples at the core (ahem). We excuse the code by which we live, the Faustian bargains we make, while excoriating others for their codes and compromises. In truth, all sins are analogous and to some degree created equal. We each have degrees of sin we can live with, within ourselves. We each have our own mostly hard-wired capacity to avoid sinning, or certain types of sinning. This is especially the case if one views life through a deterministic lens, as I do. 

The first time I posted something like this, one of my critics accused me of doing the devil's handiwork...I was attempting to undermine the (high) standards by which we all should live (which of course just happened to coincide with my critic's own high standards). I prefer to see this as a call for understanding. Take a second look at the people you've been judging. Give a bit more thought to the traits you find so "wrong" in others. Then take another look at your own glass house. That's all I ask.