Thursday, October 19, 2017

An open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates.


I have just finished reading the self-indulgent exercise in question-begging that ran in the Atlantic under the tantalizing heading, "The First White President." Tautology from a-z. And you don't see it, do you? You can't see it. So blurred are the paranoiac lenses through which you regard American life that you see only in caricature; distorted allegory. You inhabit a grim world of dog whistles and racial code, implicit bias and all manner of invisible slights or slanders. You basically imply that Donald Trump won because the mass of white Americans, when at home, strut around in Klan garb, secretly fantasizing about the perfect tall oak from which to lynch their black coworkers. (I may be overstating for effect, but your piece is only slightly less scurrilous and disgusting in its characterizations.) In fact, Trump won because of the phenomenon your piece epitomizes: Good, hard-working people are sick of being labeled racists, misogynists, deplorables; sick of being told they're “angry because they're losing their power.” They're angry because of the ceaseless repetition of that trope. The Trump vote was a counter-punch from decent Americans who resent being scapegoatedAmericans (overwhelmingly) without malice in their hearts who tired of being called ugly names for doing nothing more sinister than living their daily lives and/or, at worst, voicing an impolitic point of view now and then. They reject the notion that the accident of having been born white constitutes a sinful privilege for which they're obliged to apologize* (even as they're being laid off from their jobs or having their homes foreclosed, perhaps). And speaking of privilege, they bristle at the suggestion that someone who commits a violent crime or otherwise fails at life should enjoy the privilege of invoking his great-great-grandfather's infelicitous circumstances as a defense. Many of these decent folks never accepted excuses from their children and will be damned if they'll accept them from grown men and women. That is not bigotry, sir, but rather a philosophy of self-sufficiency/personal responsibility...a philosophy that happens to be embraced/espoused by any number of prominent blacks...who are also called ugly names for their trouble. (See under Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Larry Elder, Morgan Freeman and many others.)

So those voters began thinking tribally, the one identifying characteristic of the tribe being not whiteness per se but disgust with the blanket recriminations spewed into America nightly by CNN's punditry panels. And their disgust was such that they flocked to a dismal excuse for a man like Donald Trump, who, for all his personal and political shortcomings, defended them against gratuitous attack.

"The word racism is like ketchup...It can be put on anything..." Thomas Sowell
And by the way, what of the 93% of blacks who voted for Obama? (As did I, FYI.) Did they do so because they found his views on NAFTA energizing? Or was something a bit more superficialepidermalin play? 

You have become a sesquipedalian Sharpton, the quintessence of race-baiting, and Literary America enables you. If you keep it up you'll help re-elect the man, God help us all. Please talk to someone outside your bubble of hurt and projected rage. If you won't do it for me, do it for Samori's sake. You are poisoning the mind of your boy, who came into this world as an innocent and did not need to be steeped in your reductivist racial nihilism. Give him a chance to find his own way in life without making him wear the mantle of the victim that he neither was nor ever was meant to be. Damn it, man. Stop this.

* or pay reparations, as you've also argued.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Monday, October 09, 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!"?

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. 

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.

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.