"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Importance Of Stigma– Calling A Spade A Spade

The avoidance of stigma and shaming have become part of the progressive campaign for inclusiveness and diversity where all people are welcome under the big tent whether black or white, Anglo or Hispanic, gay or straight, and healthy or ill. In this extreme populist view, advocates have ignored the universal stratification of human society,and the natural tendency to be suspicious of The Other, and the importance of stigma and shaming as social regulators.

No society present or past has been completely communal and democratic. Leadership is essential for organizing groups for productive, efficient, purposeful action.  The bell curve of intelligence applies to both the Jivaro Indians in the Amazon and to Americans. Some people are smarter than others and will ascend to positions of leadership, power, and wealth.  In remote tribal communities, priests and medicine men have assumed this role. They have a canny understanding of human nature and man’s need for belief.  They have studied tribal cosmology and the links established between the gods and man. They are ambitious and know the tributes both social and economic conferred on men like them.

Jivaro Indians

In large, mature civilizations like that of India, life has always based on social stratification, religion, and a priestly class.  The caste system is based on the assumption that the only purpose of life is spiritual evolution, and that regimentation of the necessary but irrelevant aspects of life – food, sex, money, and family – allows the soul to mature and finally achieve nirvana.


Even in highly industrialized societies, society is conservatively ordered around the modulation of human nature – not too much self-interest, territorial ambition, pursuits of wealth and power.

Anything that upsets the social order is immediately suspect.  It is no surprise that fundamentalist Christian America finds gay sex and marriage wrong because the Bible says that it is ‘an abomination’, a procreative family has been at the heart of human society since its beginnings, and that non-reproductive unions are antithetical to its integrity.

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Anyone who threatens what is perceived as the natural order is marginalized, criticized, and stigmatized.  If one is not sure how dangerous the outsider, better to keep him beyond the protective perimeter.

Modern progressives have tried to reverse these natural trends. By assuming that all people are the same and that there is no such thing as The Outsider, they have ignored consequences. The legitimate promotion of women’s rights has necessarily affected the integrity of the family. It is difficult to give children the proper attention, time, early education, and caring consistently correlated with adult maturity and success.  The equally legitimate recognition of gay rights has indirectly changed the character of marriage and family. Although a child with two loving fathers or mothers can certainly do well, he grows up in an ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ (as Dolce and Gabbana have recently characterized it) family.  Playwrights since Sophocles have understood that the male-female family is the crucible for maturity.

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The mentally ill have been included within this same progressive category of diversity. The mentally ill are no different from you and me, should have the same rights, access, and freedom as anyone without stigma or shame. Severely disturbed individuals like the Alps mass murderer or school shooters who have been treated for suicidal depression, are considered to be simply ill, and no different from those suffering from cancer.  They are not put on a watch list, a no-fly sheet, or in police files.  The concern about stigmatizing all mentally ill people has kept the dangerously demented in the shadows.

A former head of CDC remarked privately in the early 80s that he had never seen a serious, virulent, infectious disease like HIV/AIDS not treated as an epidemic. It was clear from the onset where the epicenter of the disease was – in the homosexual population of San Francisco, and it may have arrived there through contact with gay prostitutes in Haiti.  Yet, the public health physician went on, HIV/AIDS because of social concern for stigma, became ‘everyone’s disease’. Financial, professional, informational resources were spread widely instead of focusing on the locus of the disease and its vectors.

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In Africa, it became clear that frequent, often random extra-marital sex was spreading HIV/AIDS. Sexual mores through much of Africa were permissive by Western standards, and serial unprotected sexual partnerships facilitated the quick and efficient spread of the virus.  Yet international health workers were not allowed to criticize the practice, for that would be culturally myopic and patronizing.  All cultural practices are morally equally according to ‘progressive’ cant, promiscuous sex included.

As a result, focus was on the use of condoms – a mechanistic solution which avoided talking about the irresponsibility of unprotected frequent sex in an HIV/AIDS environment. Most of all, no one should ever suggest that those who practiced unprotected sex were morally responsible for the deaths of others.  Avoidance of cultural stigma was considered more important that slowing the disease.

Progressives are careful not to criticize the obese.  Fat people, the say, are no different from thin ones.  They have made their own lifestyle choices and who are we to criticize them?  Medium sizes expand to large, to extra-large to XXXL.  Dolls are now made plus-sized, furniture is resized to fit the obese.  Firms like Abercrombie and Fitch and Lululemon are criticized because they have chosen to sell to a restricted market – fit men and women.

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The French know that stigma and shaming work as means of weight control. French women are thin because of longstanding and universally-respected cultural norms which favor the trim and fit.  Again, ‘progressives’ have raised concern for those many women who starve themselves to fit into petite sizes.  They have been shamed into thinness, these critics say, and fat women are stigmatized.

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No doubt there are many French women who would love to put on a few pounds; but the public health of the society as a whole benefits from the rigorously self-enforced social norm. 

In public elementary schools, inclusiveness trumps performance. To call out the intellectually slower students would be to stigmatize them and erode their self-esteem.  Instead of acknowledging their limited intelligence and forcing them to reach the highest limits of their genetic potential, they are left to languish while other, less critical skills are admired, encouraged, and announced.  One should never stigmatize these slow students.

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The point is, American society has veered far too far towards inclusiveness and diversity for its own good.  In a recent article in the New York Times (3.29.15) Judith Shulevitz writes about the the new ‘emotional fragility’. We seem afraid of our own shadows and feel the need to be protected and shielded from life’s unpleasantness.  It is less painful to assume that people are all equal rather than focus on individual delinquency, dysfunction, or anti-social behavior. We have been mollycoddled by parents and teachers who want to keep us from the truth.

Few of us however are that delicate.  We understand that targeting the schizophrenic, potentially dangerous individual is not a mass indictment of the millions with neurosis, bipolar disorder, or simple anxiety.  We are capable of having respect for gay people who want the freedom to enjoy the same rights as other Americans but also of making up our own minds about the ultimate rightness of the homosexuality, its Biblical references, or its effect on the family. We can decide for ourselves whether it is right to keep out all travelers from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea because of the raging Ebola epidemic in those countries regardless of ‘stigma’, or whether there is a better, more targeted way to protect our shores.

In other words, we should not avoid stigma at all costs; but take each new social, environmental, cultural challenge separately.  Decide whether the collective categorization of a group makes practical sense (as in the CDC Director’s observation about San Francisco) or not.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Story Of A True Individual - Who Said The Good Life Has To Be Moral?

We are living in an abstemious age. Excess is out, moderation and temperance are in. We are concerned about health, restoring moral values.  We wish to lead moral, compassionate, and considerate lives, to do good, and to invest in the future.  The devil-may-care, come-what-may dissociative and hedonistic life are things of the past. We get regular check-ups, watch our diets, and drink socially but never alone.

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Brent Linins was a throwback, a high-liver, big spender, and boulvardier. He was a womanizer, an aggressive financier, and an atheist. No one could have predicted his life trajectory since he was the son of a solid, faithful bourgeois family.  His father taught the family the importance of social propriety, good taste, and a respect for others. They went to church on Sundays, summered at respectable, pleasant but unremarkable beaches on the Connecticut shore, and preferred parochial schools.  Bert’s father was a doctor who took his profession seriously.  He kept his fees low and the quality of his practice high. He believed that not only was medicine a worthy profession, but one which responded to a higher calling.

His mother was a dutiful wife, member of the Hospital Auxiliary, avid amateur golfer, and attentive, concerned mother.

Brent had been a difficult child, always in trouble, disrespectful, and headstrong. To his parents chagrin, they were often called in for one-on-one teacher evaluations sessions during which they were told that their son was becoming an anti-social menace.  He teased, bullied, and disobeyed, and seemed to care less about the feelings of others. He was a good if not gifted student,but his social skills were sorely lacking.  He seemed, even at his very young age, to have few if any moral pillars.

Brent’s father had many man-to-man talks with his son, but nothing seemed to take. At times he seemed like someone else’s child, and his uniqueness caused no end of suspicion and doubt between his mother and father.  Yet since both could vouch for his paternity and legitimacy, the assumed the blame for his unexpected and increasingly shameful behavior.

Brent was not a mean boy.  Far from it.  He simply marched to the beat of his own drummer; and as he grew older realized that this sense of defiant independence was exactly what attracted girls. Women, he quickly found out, were indeed drawn to bad boys, especially those like Brent who was physically appealing, smart, and athletically talented.  They somehow didn’t mind his cavalier and dismissive treatment of them.  Just the opposite.  The more diffident and dismissive he was, the more they wanted him. Even as a young teenager he realized that absolute self-confidence and resolute personal ambition were not traits to be avoided as his father had counseled, but the keys to success.

Investment banking was the perfect career choice for the young Brent.  Wall Street cared little for anything but acquisitions, mergers, and financial reward; and finally and at last he felt loosed from the conservative moral fetters of his family. He was finally on his own with no responsibilities to anyone but himself. Moral compunctions were things of the past, left behind in New Brighton, never to be revisited.

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Although Wall Street has often been characterized as amoral and venal if not indecent in its pursuit of profit, the reality was far from this distorted, idealistic vision.  His investments enabled new enterprises, made millions for investors, and was the engine of America’s prosperity. Of course Brent never thought in these philosophical terms.  He was only happy that his unalloyed ambition and indomitable will and self-confidence were valued and appreciated.

He spent his wealth according to his own tastes. He had no concerns for image or social acceptability.  He knew for every woman who wanted a Nantucket, polo-playing, Porsche-driving executive, thousands more wanted a ride in his Corvette, a swim in his heated pool atop 314 Lexington Avenue, and vacations in Acapulco.

“Isn’t it about time you thought about a family?”, his mother had asked him, predictably on one of his dutiful pilgrimages home. “And children?”; but he had no interest in either, and was happy with his very satisfying life of personal pleasure.  He, better than any nihilist philosopher, understood that there was no higher purpose for being, no divinity guiding his fate, no celestial rewards.  The only tragedy in life was not living it fully.

Many of Brent’s Yale classmates, although impressed with his success were a bit surprised at his lack of philanthropy or commitment to broader social issues. To be honest they were privately critical and his indifference to ‘giving back’.  A Yale education conferred not only privilege but responsibility.  Brent of course had no time for such reflections, enjoyed the company of his colleagues, and went back to New York as happy as ever with his life.

“What ever happened to Brent Linins?”, asked an old friend who knew him at Yale.

“Nothing”, I replied.   “He has retired to St. Bart’s and is living with a Sierra Leonean princess. I think his Yale days are over.”

Brent Linins was a man of philosophy without ever speaking of it. He lived as pure and uncomplicated a Nietzschean life as the philosopher himself.  He had no need for explanation, justification, or context.  He was, more than anyone, his own man.


Avoid Unpleasantness–We’re Too Emotionally Fragile

In a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article, Judith Shulevitz writes about the emotional fragility of college students and how they are influencing administrators to help keep trauma away.

At Oxford’s Christ Church College last November, for example, students demanded that the dean (whose title is “censor” in Oxfordspeak) cancel a debate between two men on abortion and were “relieved” when they succeeded. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.” (Maggie Gallagher, National Review)

Christ Church College

On the other hand, as Gallagher reports, Chris Hernandez, a cop and former combat Marine says:

If your psyche is so fragile you fall apart when someone inadvertently reminds you of “trauma,” especially if that trauma consisted of you overreacting to a self-interpreted racial slur, you need therapy. . . . I must be old-fashioned, but I always thought coming to terms with pain was part of growing up. I’ve never expected anyone to not knock on my door because it reminds me of that terrifying morning decades ago.

It certainly seems as though we are living in a mollycoddled age, afraid of our own shadows, and pleading others to be nice. Everything is off limits – race, gender, ethnicity, physical size and characteristics, accent, religious beliefs, and moral judgment. Bullying, which is no more than ugly duckling natural selection and a preparation for the tough adult life ahead, is outlawed.  Shaming, the best way to enforce conformity to majority norms, is considered hurtful and unfair. 

At the same time, public discourse has never been more divisive. Liberals have no problem mocking Christian fundamentalists, openly and aggressively criticizing their ignorance and retrograde beliefs. Steam from conservative Southern boilers is scalding when it comes to Washington progressives. Left and Right lambaste each other online, on the stump, and in every political forum available.  There is no concern for political correctness when it comes to calling out the political opposition.  Why then, do we tread so lightly when it comes to individuals?

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The cult of diversity is a good place to start.  In primary school every child is taught that they are special, each gifted with a unique talent or ability.  A student may be as dumb a a knot on a tree, but praised for his ability to jump or color within the lines.  No student should be ragged, razzed, or even mildly criticized.  Self-esteem is more important than academic performance, and no one’s feeling should be hurt.

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In higher grades, awareness of race, gender, and ethnicity is reinforced; and children are put into these arbitrary categories and encouraged to define themselves by them. No one is allowed to impugn, criticize, or mock any other. They are sacrosanct and untouchable. Open discussion of the persistent ineptitude of black communities to right themselves is forbidden. Challenges to conservative fundamentalism and Biblical absolutism not allowed. Discussions of the social implications of gay marriage or the moral considerations of abortion are off the table.

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Members of each group are told that their beliefs are valid, right, universally defensible, and therefore immune and protected.  This sense of righteous entitlement continues in college where progressive theology is pervasive.  Defamatory, insulting, and ‘hateful’ speech is outlawed. Lecturers are screened to keep the campus a debate-free zone, one which can remain philosophically pure but isolated and insulated from contentious debate.

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Parents, too must share the blame for emotional fragility.  They have become risk-averse and over-protective of their children while at the same time promoting them shamelessly regardless of their ability or talents. Intimidating parents demand good grades and special attention.  They are quick to cry racism or reverse favoritism, and are unremitting in their demands. They have an exaggerated and fantastical opinion of their children, and want to shield them from criticism and promote them at all costs.  Again, it is no wonder that children grow up with an unrealistic self-appraisal.

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Finally, American culture is all about happiness, positivism, and good feeling. Death and dying are no-no topics – morbid, negative, and depressing.  Moral values and religious faith are considered the bedrock of American values and should never be challenged.  The righteousness of American political action is the basis for patriotism and love of country. A belief in American exceptionalism shields us from European realism. Our long history of isolation has allowed us to be simplistic and comfortable in our assessment of international affairs. 

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The irony of all this self-protective and insulating behavior is to drive resentment, hostility, and aggression underground. Virulent racist, misogynist, and prejudiced sentiments do not disappear simply because a liberal establishment outlaws them by diktat. In every home in America, every private club, and every self-selective enclave such sentiments are expressed.  They will disappear  only when social equality is achieved, and if history is any guide, that is unlikely to happen.  Human society has been stratified, unequal, suspicious, and hostile ever since the first human settlements. 

Children will continue to be artificially protected and coddled until risk-aversion erodes enterprise; self-esteem degrades academic performance; and diversity retards assumption of moral responsibility.  The country cannot maintain its intellectual and economic superiority unless the constraints which limit children’s will, ambition, and energy are removed.  Not all people are equal, the fittest survive, and the most talented and able rule.  A reconfiguration of childhood rearing and education is needed to focus on these essential, unmediated realities.