Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Problem With Comedians Is... Comedians

Roseanne Barr
ABC’s decision to fire Roseanne Barr, and cancel her eponymous sitcom, should surprise exactly nobody. Smarter commentators than me have exhaustively chronicled her history of repellent and impolitic statements on social media. Disney, which owns ABC, initially ordered her completely off Twitter to prevent exactly what just happened; when she couldn’t comply, they cancelled the highest rated non-sports show on television.

I have no sympathy for Roseanne. She broke one of today’s few hard-and-fast rules. While many celebrities engage in off-and-on dog whistling, legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that naked appeals to undisguised bigotry are the one thing completely off the table. If a racist appeal contains even the slightest ambiguity, we’re willing to accept it, and plug our ears to more nuanced debates. But Roseanne couldn’t follow even that minimal standard.

Yet her firing brings something to light that I cannot lightly disregard. Today’s massive Hollywood shakeout boils down to a cultural reconsideration of what we consider acceptable behavior in a public figure. Roseanne’s coarse behavior, which granted her TV’s top Nielson ratings in 1989, gave her the nostalgia tip to a second Number-One position in 2018. But ultimately, despite getting a diverse panoply of producers and writers, they couldn’t separate the show from the star.

Comedians are, too often, not pleasant people. The stories surrounding implosions by comedians like Gilbert Gottfried, Dane Cook, Michael Richards, and others, have achieved a sort of folktale luster. Lenny Bruce helped transform our post-WWII attitudes about acceptable language, but he also descended into drug-addled psychosis, and his final shows were little more than screams of vulgarity. George Carlin nearly did the same, but returned from the brink.

Gilbert Gottfried
I’ve often wondered why so many comedians act like shit human beings. I’m not the only one. British journalist Mick Hume notes that nice, polite, well-spoken comedians are seldom funny. American journalist Olga Khazan, quoting other researchers and philosophers, notes that good comedy has a consistent theme of transgression and darkness. Comedy regularly rewards misbehavior, vulgarity, and morbidity. Then I had a realization.

Listening to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me on NPR one Saturday, I puzzled over the panelists’ ability to spontaneously come up with funny lines about news stories they were hearing for the first time. Their skill at inventing something funny seemed unreal. I occasionally riff a good line, but when I do, likely as not, by the time it comes to me the conversation has already moved on. How to they not only invent lines, but sell them in time?

Easy, I realized. They do this all the time. They wrap their brains around the process of saying something funny, to the point where they realign their thinking. A carpenter doesn’t need to contemplate how to frame a house, or a stock trader doesn’t need to weigh multiple reports, they just know their jobs. In the same way, a comedian just knows how to say something funny. That’s what comedians practice every day. That’s what they train their brains to do.

And if, as Olga Khazan says, humor has a necessarily transgressive component, comedians train themselves to transgress. They adapt their brains to see the world unlike other people, even if that means offending the masses. To the comedian, only seeing something nobody has seen before, and translating it into words, really matters. Comedians, in short, reprogram their brains to violate consensus social standards… and get paid for it.

The sitcom writers’ room brings some of that transgressive thinking under control. Having six or eight peers to workshop ideas and kill ones that don’t land or that cross some invisible line, ensures the most completely offensive material dies privately. (At least hypothetically.) Individual stand-up comedians do something similar by road-testing their material. But social media rewards instant thoughts, meaning nothing separates the trained transgressor from the moment.

Michael Richards
For over thirty years, Roseanne’s career has turned on saying things so awful, yet supposedly true, that audiences feel liberated to laugh at their own experiences. She’s spent her entire adult life training her brain to reject common restraints and say things we wish we had ingenuity and liberty enough to say. But separated from performance conditions, which bring her back under control, that turns into a direct line into her id. Which happened this week.

In short, comedians are awful human beings; they train and study awfulness for years to achieve the heights of their business. But the performance environment places a filter on that awfulness. Without somebody to workshop their ideas, the words dribbling from their mouths can appear feral, or worse. And that’s what happened to Roseanne. No wonder other awful people, from comedians to the President, have ghostwriters do their tweets.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Innocent Victims of the #MeToo Moment

Harvey Weinstein
I have to give Harvey Weinstein credit—though it pains me to say. His decision to surrender to the NYPD last week and face sex crimes charges, even knowing he has no public support anymore, shows a certain depth of character. Don’t get me wrong, I think he's guilty, and hope he faces jail for the severity of the crimes against him. But I respect that he didn't hide behind his money, like he could have.

Yet I can't help remembering Paige McKenzie. An aspiring teen actress and writer, McKenzie produced and starred in a string of Blair Witch-like YouTube videos entitled The Haunting of Sunshine Girl. When her videos went viral, she snagged a development deal to turn her story into a trilogy of novels and a TV series. I reviewed her first two books on this blog; they were very good.

Her development deal was with the Weinstein Company.

I’ve checked McKenzie’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, and found no indication Weinstein behaved inappropriately toward her. Thankfully. Considering one charge Weinstein surrendered for involved forcing himself on a college student, the mere fact McKenzie is very young probably wouldn't have discouraged him. If she survived a Weinstein encounter with her dignity and artistic integrity intact, I hope she keeps plugging. Those were some damned good books.

But this puts me in an awkward position. I’m happy to see recent movement toward shaking sexual violence and exploitation from the entertainment industry; nobody should have to submit to sexual subordination in order to do the job they love and believe in. But simultaneously, the shakeout has, at least in the near term, a narrowing effect on the industry. Chances are, McKenzie isn’t the only content creator getting squeezed by this temporary market contraction.

One fears sounding like an apologist. Rapists definitely need held to account. Yet right before its collapse surrounding its founder’s public implosion, the Weinstein Company was among the biggest movers in Hollywood, commanding the same clout as generations-old industry masters like Disney. People came groveling to Weinstein to make deeply held ambitions come true, because making and distributing a movie costs more than most individuals will ever see.

Since at least the 1990s, when I began paying attention to such things, culture commentators have inveighed against the conglomerate structure in entertainment and media. The process of “vertical integration” means that just five or six companies control the largest number of book publishers, movie studios, record labels, and more. With Disney’s impending absorption of most of Fox Studios, that number is likely to contract further; remember, Disney already owns ABC, ESPN, Marvel Comics, and Lucasfilm.

Paige McKenzie
Harvey Weinstein, to his credit, powered through that. Working first through Miramax, then the Weinstein Company, he plowed into the business, became a kingmaker, and challenged the traditional Hollywood dream factories. He branched into books, magazines, and television, all often disparaged as “dead” media, and produced successful content. While heritage companies like United Artists, Orion, and Carolco collapsed around him, Weinstein managed to build something.

But, like successful men throughout history, Weinstein’s wealth and influence made him feel entitled. We’ve seen it before. From French royalty to American real estate developers, those who enjoy society’s rewards begin demanding more and more. Some people believe they ought to overthrow governments, as the leaders of the United Fruit corporation did in Latin America. Others think they ought to become world leaders, like Donald Trump.

Yet in every situation, sex becomes a perquisite. Watching the Donald Trump/Stormy Daniels catastrophe unfold before us, informed news consumers should remember how often sex has warped world affairs. The Hittite Empire probably ended over a marriage to an Egyptian pharaoh's widow. Henry VIII, Alexander Hamilton, and Bill Clinton all felt entitled to sex, and abused their power to continue receiving it. Harvey Weinstein is just one among many.

And Weinstein would’ve probably continued trading sex for access to the industry, as he had for years, if cultural currents hadn’t converged on him. Casting couch horror stories have been Hollywood fodder for generations; and people, mostly women, eager to get into the business, have accepted it as a degrading but commonplace entry into the business. Many women probably traded their dignity for access. Some eventually outgrew Weinstein, mercifully.

Sadly, not everyone did. Paige McKenzie’s Facebook page includes appeals for Patreon donors to keep her tentpole franchise going. After four years of development hell, McKenzie finds herself back at the beginning. She doesn’t deserve to get squeezed for Harvey Weinstein’s sins. Yet she’s living proof that bringing justice to a malefactor, like Weinstein, can bring accidental injustices on the innocent, like her.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Is Infidelity Really Inevitable?

Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, MD, Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat

It’s difficult to know how common infidelity might be in today’s sexually amorphous society. However, once it happens to you, the chance of lingering damage is 100%. Psychologists who study people who have been betrayed by their spouses say the damage resembles combat stress disorder, and people who have survived infidelity often spend years learning to trust again. How can we prepare for, or survive, this kind of trauma?

Manhattan psychologist Kenneth Paul Rosenberg started out as an addiction specialist, and he insists the neurological mechanisms of addiction strikingly resemble those of addiction. Hear me out. Though Rosenberg explains it better than I could summarize, in brief, addictions appear to mimic the human need for love and attachment. Addiction basically happens when our love impulse gets misplaced. Having read Johann Hari and Gabor Maté, I find this painfully plausible.

Discussions of “infidelity” sometimes stumble because we don’t have a consistent definition. Does infidelity require sexual intercourse? Rosenberg says no; if you excuse your flirtations because they don’t get physical, the damage to your marriage could be equally devastating. Yet even Rosenberg admits many of his own friendships with women are characterized by sexual tension. So clearly more factors than just “what we do” matter in calibrating infidelity.

Infidelity, in Rosenberg’s telling, has certain predictable neurological patterns. No matter the nuances of your real-life circumstances, the cheating brain goes through mechanical motions which scientists can map and diagnose. By understanding these, you can potentially identify when your thoughts stray into unfaithful directions, and prevent thoughts turning into actions. You can also reverse the trend if you’ve already strayed over the line into infidelity.

Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, MD
The real pain comes, not in your own unfaithfulness, but in discovering your spouse has betrayed you. (Rosenberg embraces moral terms like “betrayal”; he doesn’t hide his loyalties on the issue.) The one person you must trust the most, the one you turn to when others undermine you, becomes the one you actually trust least. You find everything ripped from beneath you. That’s where the PTSD-like damaging repercussions come in.

Fortunately, even in this moment, neuroscience offers us remarkable insights into handling and recovery. We know exactly what motivates people’s behavior in moments of betrayal: the desire to confront the wrong person, for instance, or our tendency to obsessively seek further evidence, a tendency neuroscientists call “pain shopping.” Yes, that’s a real term. And again, by understanding our harmful tendencies, we can avoid falling into the most common traps.

Rosenberg confronts one of the most common human failings in unstintingly scientific terms. This means using hard quantitative research to consider behavior that often has more than one cause. Unfortunately, though the dust-jacket synopsis promises the latest research, Rosenberg admits infidelity is difficult to study longitudinally, and some of his cited research is decades old. I find this regrettable, because all science reflects the era it was conducted in.

But in maintaining his scientific eye, Rosenberg doesn’t have some illusion of complete objectivity. As a clinical therapist, he salts his research descriptions with narratives culled from his practice, including group sessions and couples therapy (he works to maintain confidentiality). After all, no matter how scrupulously scientific his desires, infidelity is a human behavior, with all the complexity and nuance humans bring into the discussion.

Be aware, this means frank discussions of sex. Sometimes, Rosenberg uses the dictionary to call things what they’re called, but he also uses common vernacular language to ensure a general audience understands his meaning. Don’t say you weren’t warned when his language occasionally turns coarse. That said, there were some occasions where I felt his “plain English” ventured into unnecessary vulgarity. Let your values decide.

Rosenberg starts from an assumption of committed monogamy; though he has a chapter on open relationships, polyamory remains mostly outside his scope. He doesn’t, however, assume either heterosexuality or formal marriage (though he uses marriage language as a shorthand). Therefore, he remains approachable for most people in serious relationships. His precepts are scientific enough to apply to differing relationships, yet personal enough to customize for your unique situation.

Infidelity isn’t inevitable, and despite many cheaters’ self-justification, not everybody cheats. But some do, and when that happens, the consequences can go far beyond the sexual realm. Rosenberg wants you to honestly evaluate your situation, to gauge whether your relationship can survive, and how you can recover from your partner’s, or your own, betrayal. He doesn’t pretend it will be easy. But, given appropriate tools, Rosenberg believes that healing really is possible.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Meg Myers and the Cost of Being an Artist



Meg Myers’ newest video, “Numb,” took me by surprise. It starts out static, Meg reduced to merely one among several office drones sitting in low-top cubicles in the “white collar sweatshop,” engaged in mindless behavior that makes somebody else rich. Repeated close-ups on a photocopier make a nice touch. She appears to set us up for a message about mind-deadening work. I expected it so thoroughly that the first hand touching her made me jump.

To date, most of Myers’ songs have been about love, sex, and heartbreak. In some ways, this track resembles “Nowhere Man,” the Beatles’ first non-love song, which opened new vistas for their songwriting, but also for their musical composition. Like that song, “Numb” has introspective themes of identity, asking: Who am I when everyone else isn’t looking? The video, directed by Clara Aranovich, overlaps these themes. But, I suspect, it does something beyond even that.

That first startling hand proves an abrupt turning point in the video. Like the first gun in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” the first hand intrudes on our expectations, transforming our experience, coloring everything that comes after. Once the first hand has entered the picture, other hands begin forcing themselves into the camera range, and with it our awareness. By the chorus, she peaks at eleven people simultaneously adjusting her hair, clothes, arms, and face.

Bob Boilen at NPR talks about this video as a commentary on “innocent touching” and imposition on female bodies. That definitely looms large. But Boilen casually mentions, then walks away from, something equally momentous. This is Myers’ first single since she broke with Atlantic Records, the label that released her first two EPS and her first LP. I’d wondered why she hadn’t released an album in almost three years. Betcha she’s been wrangling in court.

Myers has a few DJs and dedicated fans who evangelize her music. I’ve shilled her work to anyone who will listen for half a decade. But she’s never made a mainstream breakthrough, partly because she refuses to release a radio-friendly single if she doesn’t believe in it completely. Record labels are notorious for their interfering ways, demanding something commercially successful. They’re corporations, after all. The battle between art and commerce is as old as art.

Watching this video, I can’t help noticing the people touching Myers don’t just fondle her face, hair, and clothing. These forms of “innocent touching” are among the most common impositions people make on women, the kind that progress from rudeness to aggression to harassment. But they go further: they start positioning her arms. These people don’t just want to touch Meg, they want to control her, and her floppy, marionette-like movements represent that control fantasy.

By placing the video’s first act in a workplace, and the second at home, director Aranovich says something about the two environments where people, especially men, attempt to control women. Bosses define women’s workplace actions; and remember, music for Myers isn’t a hobby, it’s her job. Then women come home, where fathers, boyfriends, husbands, kids make demands. These demands, like workplace comportment demands, are individually small. But it doesn’t take long before they add up.

Work and home are the two most common places where women, where humans really, find meaning. And when these places deny us meaning, we start shuffling through life, Muppet-like, miming the behaviors others expect of us, without investing our souls. That’s one definition of “numb,” that feeling of disconnection between our bodies and our spirits, especially when be become too tired to rage silently against the injustice. We become robots in our own meaningless lives.

This problem is compounded for artists, because outsiders think they have controlling interest. I can’t help remembering D.A. Pennebaker’s movie Don't Look Back, which followed Bob Dylan’s 1966 British tour. Almost everyone Dylan met, including fans, label executives, politicians, and other musicians, wanted their fingers in his pie, until he began lashing out. One wonders when Myers will snap at fans like me who got pissy because she cut her hair.

Or has she already?

Myers’ latest video definitely hits women’s issues squarely. Though I, and other men, have endured “innocent touching,” rarely do men experience it to the constant, degrading degree inflicted on women. Yet I see a second, equally prominent theme, distinct to musicians and other creative professionals. People who make their living baring their souls, like Myers, must face micromanaging from outsiders who “mean well.” Innocent touching doesn’t just degrade artists, it attempts to steer their souls.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Where Did Women's Rights Begin?

Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Women

Maybe it reflects my American public-school education, but for years I didn't know organized Feminism existed before the Seneca Falls Declaration. I read excerpts of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill in college, but thought them outliers. I had no idea anyone published a bestselling Feminist pamphlet as early as 1789.

According to the introduction, Olympe de Gouges, a renowned literary stylist and abolitionist in her day, greeted the French Revolution as a necessary tonic to systematic oppression. Yet when the revolutionary National Assembly passed its Declaration of the Rights of Man, she read it and realized it meant “Man” in the narrowest, most literal sense. Clearly the revolution still had no place for people like her.

So she published this pamphlet as a rejoinder. Structured in the form of a legislative resolution, it consists of seventeen straightforward articles, most only one sentence long. But these articles are bookended between de Gouges’s poetically styled prologue and epilogue, in which she lays out the idea that citizenship means little of it excludes half the population. If only men are free, she asserts, freedom remains an illusion.

These ideas are surprisingly mild by today’s standards. Besides insisting that women have the right to vote, hold office, and own property, de Gouges asserts such positions as, that women who commit crimes should face trial and serve sentence like any man. It’s amazing this was ever controversial. Yet her ideas were so dangerous that when the Terror of 1793 struck, she was beheaded, alongside Robespierre and Marie Antoinette.

Portrait of Olympe de Gouges
This declaration of women’s identities, rights, and responsibilities might profitably revitalize modern gender debates, and excite feminists. Sadly, this book might not. This book reproduces de Gouges’s Declaration in full, with biographical notes and a brief introduction to context. Each article of her declaration is illuminated by a thematically relevant contemporary art. And there’s where we run into the problem.

De Gouges’s articles, printed in gigantic 48-point type that looks thin on the page, get lost between the brightly colored art panels. Printed in an exaggerated four-color style, the art looks like 1980s-era comic book pages. Their style ranges from what look like construction-paper collages, to New Yorker cartoons, to elaborately detailed watercolors. It’s hard to focus on the tall, skinny sans-serif type when brightly colored pictures draw our attention.

Then, between each article and its matching art, the uncredited editors have sandwiched a selection of open-source quotes which are, more or less, relevant to the preceding article. From famous names like Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, and Victor Hugo, to young and dangerous thinkers like Virginie Despentes, Naomi Wolf, and Julia Kristeva, these quotes spotlight feminist thinking through the ages. As the names suggest, the French are overrepresented.

Sadly, this results in what rhetorician Gerald Graff calls “hit and run quotes,” lines and passages (some exceedingly long) just thrown out there without context or clarification. Presumably the editors thought this mass would accumulate into some kind of point. Without linking text, it’s not only sloppy, but it also vastly exceeds in length the Declaration it’s meant to supplement. Olympe de Gouges gets lost in her own book.

Included with this volume is the 1967 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. This declaration is structured remarkably similarly to de Gouges’s declaration, and that isn’t coincidental: a mere 176 years later, her ideas had become commonplace and acceptable. Though the UN declaration was non-binding, it became a basis for international legislation improving women’s lot worldwide.

Yay for progress, I guess.

These two declarations together represent the progress of women’s rights from the Enlightenment to the modern era, a progress that has been violently irregular, and cost one of its pioneers her life. This is important. Notwithstanding the current #MeToo moment, women’s rights have historically taken a back seat to racial and economic struggles. Perhaps the time is right again for Olympe de Gouges to become the worldwide sensation she once was.

I just wish this book was better organized. This edition looks like half coffee-table art book, half disorganized information dump. De Gouges’s important, ever-relevant content gets lost between the images, quotes, and other content. I might have liked more context for de Gouges herself; if a well-informed reader like me knows little about her life and times, general audiences, distracted by news blurbs and mass media, probably knows less.

In short, I like the idea of this book. But it seems designed to lose its message amidst the spandrels. That’s a shame.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Changes Are Coming to WordBasket

I’ve had my Amazon.com reviews yanked.

After eighteen years and over 1,700 reviews, Amazon has rescinded my reviewing privileges and deleted my reviews. They do this because I violated their rules, accepting items for review at their creators’ expense. This is a common tactic for small manufacturers and indie publishers, to get attention to products that would otherwise go unseen. Without resources for saturation advertising and global distribution, they depend on willing third-party reviewers to carry their words.

This seems particularly unfair to the kind of pop-up content creators that a platform like Amazon makes possible. However, recent news of fake Amazon reviews reveals how a handful of producers (or their agents) toss around tiny commissions, some as little as $10, and distort the market. So it’s a mixed bag, a slight to legitimate reviewers like me who occasionally accept kitchen knives or pre-release CDs for review, but a necessary defense of Amazon’s territory.

It’s also a debate for another time and venue.

More relevant, for the small but dedicated audience this blog has cultivated, is: this leaves my reviewing up in the air. Though I sometimes get more fervent responses from readers for my opinions on popular culture and current events, book (and occasional movie and music) reviews have been this blog’s lifeblood for the last seven years. They represent over two-thirds of my content, and the reason the largest number of users have visited.

And without Amazon, I have no means of getting new books. I mean, certainly, I could purchase my own, and I sometimes to review books I’ve purchased, usually under a separate header, the “1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies.” Even then, I reserve that header for books that I believe are a cut above the general, books that moved me enough that I want to share the experience of having read them with you, my audience, whom I regard as friends.

The largest number of review books comes, instead, from authors, agents, publishers, or Amazon itself soliciting my opinion. Amazon is cracking down on fake reviews because obvious shill reviews hurt market share and can submarine an otherwise good product. But a well-written third-party review can draw business, which publishers hope to continue. And because I’ve developed Amazon cachet, some professionals seek my opinion, which they consider worth money.

I love reviewing. I love the challenge of taking my abstract ideas about the experience I had with books (or other products) and translating them into words. I like sharing that experience with fans and friends. I like participating in the effort of separating worthy from unworthy content in a world that has become saturated with content. Reviewing has made me a better reader, which in turn has, I hope, made me a better writer.

But reviewing hasn’t been particularly lucrative. In the six years I’ve been writing this review blog, I’ve sold only a few products through my links, and made maybe enough to take a lady out to dinner twice. Besides the lack of remuneration from reviewing, I’ve also paid a cost in the time I haven’t spent doing my own writing. I’ve cultivated cachet with my words, but only in response to others doing real creative work; my own writing has stagnated.

These reviews won’t stop overnight. Because I work ahead, I have several reviews written from before I had my privileges revoked, and review books half-read which I will probably go ahead, finish reading, and review. However, without my pipeline of content, the supply of new reviews is likely to dry up pretty quickly. This blog will soon lack for content. And I suppose, if I’m being fair, that’s my own fault.

So, I’m taking the opportunity to rededicate myself to my own writing. When I look over the manuscripts half-finished, the written content I’ve created but not sold or gotten in front of a ready audience, I can’t help realizing this blog has exacted a cost. I only have so many hours in the day, so much strength necessary for the writing act, and I’ve spent it on other people’s writing. It’s time for me to return to my roots and be an actual writer myself.

This blog won’t stop. I will still share reviews, because I believe doing so makes me a better writer, and a better reader. But I cannot afford to write with the dedication of a newspaper columnist anymore, striving (and often failing) to produce three columns per week. Production will become more sporadic as this blog becomes what it should’ve been: a hobby.

I’m sorry it took a reprimand from Earth’s biggest retailer to remind me why I started reviewing in the first place. But I suppose I can either sit around feeling sorry for myself, or I can, in Neil Gaiman’s terms, create good art. I choose the latter path. I thank you, my audience, my friends, for six good years. Let’s go onto the next adventure together, shall we?

Friday, May 11, 2018

Stop Judging Yourself and Live

Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety

Most of us know shyness occasionally. Not everyone knows Social Anxiety, the death spiral of doubt, self-recrimination, and despair that prevents some people from having the most basic conversation. Not merely introverted or soft-spoken, social anxiety sufferers are masters of self-flagellation, punishing ourselves for missteps we haven’t made yet, policing our actions violently. And most realize we’re only hurting ourselves, but we can’t figure out how to stop.

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen left research psychology because she’d rather work with patients. Now a clinician at Boston University and a podcaster, she works heavily with social anxiety sufferers, and admits still struggling with its effects herself. Having conducted her own research into the field, she compiles her own insights, others’ discoveries, and her clinical practice into a hands-on guide to changing our thought patterns which keep social anxiety alive.

Fundamentally, Dr. Hendriksen asserts, social anxiety is a form of overthinking. We all have an Inner Critic, she says; we need that critic. People who lack such self-criticism generally lack restraint necessary to function in society. But for people with social anxiety, that inner critic goes into full meltdown mode, second-guessing everything and rushing headlong into the worst-case scenario. Because we cannot stop thinking, we think ourselves into virtual paralysis.

Hendriksen’s solution begins in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This practice assumes our thoughts control our feelings, and by changing our thoughts, we can overcome maladaptive feelings—like, say, the feeling that everyone’s busy judging us for missteps we haven’t made yet. Most people simply don’t realize the connection between thoughts and feelings, or if they do, they don’t know how to change. We simply aren’t conscious of our own abilities.

Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
Solving social anxiety begins with two steps, which Hendriksen calls Replace and Embrace. When we begin the death spiral of overthinking, she provides a handful of questions to replace faulty thinking. One of those questions is “What’s the worst that can happen?” She knows, of course, that we’ve already anticipated the worst, and are dwelling on it. But she follows that with “How likely is that?” Oh. Shazam.

Embrace is even better. It involves becoming aware of our thinking, separating helpful from unhelpful thoughts, and cultivating the superior. Like a teacher, we can choose to emphasize growth and improvement, or we can punish weakness and make momentary lapses into personal judgements. We know, with others, to do the former; but with ourselves we usually do the latter. If, instead, we embrace and cultivate ourselves, we learn healthier thoughts.

There’s your most important points. Hendriksen obviously explains them better, in terms patients can understand, and with sufficient detail to prevent our natural desire to rationalize ourselves back into our former habits. But like the best self-help authors, Hendriksen positions her most important points at the beginning. Everything after that is fine-tuning, which, admit it, we all need. Because with only broad strokes, the roots of anxiety still survive.

For instance, left to ourselves, most social anxiety sufferers would practice Replace and Embrace in our heads indefinitely, refusing to step out until we’ve already mastered the concepts. Which we never will. In theology, we call this the perfect as the enemy of the good. Instead, we must venture into the world, anxiety and all, and permit ourselves to fail, to practice self-confidence. We can engineer low-risk scenarios for this.

Hendriksen calls this Exposure Therapy. By exposing ourselves to circumstances that trigger our anxieties, and remaining conscious of our thought processes, we can learn to identify thinking that undermines us, and reroute it. But we can only perform this mental reprogramming by getting outside the theoretical realm. We won’t teach ourselves out of social anxiety in our living rooms; we must get into the field we fear, and move among people.

Notice the action emphasis. Hendriksen doesn’t advocate lying on the analytical couch (or sitting in your favorite reading chair) and ruminating through the details. We beat anxiety by doing. In that spirit, she includes exercises we can begin, right now, to identify our thoughts, fears, and how one transforms into the other. Feel free to write in the book, or make photocopies or Word documents to write your insights longhand.

The Internet Age has allowed social anxiety sufferers to realize we’re never alone in our fears. It’s given us opportunities to interact without judgement. But eventually, we get jobs, walk dogs, court spouses. We have to leave the house. Dr. Hendriksen provides practical, active ways to confront our anxiety. Which means, ultimately, finding mastery over ourselves.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The First Time the World Ended

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 90
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

The Late Bronze Age dominated the eastern Mediterranean for over three centuries. Extensive trade routes criss-crossed from Babylon to Greece, from Afghanistan to Egypt. It was a time of globalized trade, of epic warfare and timeless art. Then, in the early 13th Century BCE, it ended abruptly in violence, destruction, and dirt. Empires collapsed, and cities were vacated. Technology, government, and culture skidded backward. What, exactly, happened?

According to GWU classicist Eric Cline, a scholarly consensus existed not long ago. Archaeologists blamed the Sea Peoples, a consortium of migratory refugee groups who attacked Egypt in 1177 BCE. Though Pharaoh Ramses III beat these invaders back, his victory came at massive cost. Egypt didn't regain its regional dominance for three centuries. Classicists assumed the Sea Peoples sacked the entire region, particularly since many archaeological sites were found riddled with bronze arrowheads.

New evidence since the 1990s, however,questions this assumption.  The collapse apparently proceeded over several decades, and not every site shows signs of sacking. Cline writes that current evidence suggests a perfect confluence of climate change, refugee crisis, resource scarcity, and international anarchy, among other influences, created a “perfect storm of calamities” that shattered the foundation of globalized civilization. Cline doesn't comment on today's parallels. He doesn't need to.

Cline starts by reconstructing what we know about Late Bronze Age (LBA) civilization. Given that this era saw the first keeping of widespread records, we know an astonishingly detailed amount about this period. New rising powers like Mycenaean Greece offset dwindling influences of once-magnificent empires like Mittani. States once regarded as almost mythological, like the Hittite Empire, not only really existed, they left copious records… once we knew where to look.

Professor Eric H. Cline
There are limitations to this history. Most record-keepers were state officials and court scribes; some were prosperous merchants. Thus we know the “great doings of great men,” as Thucydides put it. And, after over three millennia, large quantities of important artifacts just rotted away, like food, textiles, and other perishable goods. We must reconstruct how ordinary people lived from court records and metal artifacts, a limitation Cline openly acknowledges.

But that leaves extensive documentation nevertheless. Cline quotes most extensively from Egyptian stelae and temple inscriptions, as Egypt clearly left the most detailed literary record. Yet other sources also exist. Under a century ago, for instance, Ugaritic records were completely unknown; Ugarit was a forgotten minor city-state, its location lost. But now its rediscovered written records provide Cline’s most specific sources on the LBA’s final decades.

The world Cline reconstructs (he admits making occasional leaps of logic where facts are scanty) is both fantastically complex, and hauntingly familiar. Extensive trade routes made LBA society possible, moving uncountable quantities of goods from where they naturally existed, to where humans lived. Civilization in Egypt, Greece, and Anatolia was only possible using bronze, made from Cyprus copper and Afghanistan tin, so peaceful trade was absolutely necessary.

Mercantile culture survives for readers because LBA record-keepers described their trade in extensive bills and receipts. We know as much about certain prosperous merchants as about some kings. Besides land-based archaeological sites, Cline dedicates probably his longest description to an underwater dig, the Uluburun Shipwreck, with has yielded science’s most extensive trove of information about the interconnected, downright globalized, nature of LBA society.

Cline spends almost as much time describing the scientists of the last two centuries who have reconstructed LBA history, as on the history. Since Near Eastern civilization just stopped, leaving huge gaps in historical records, Cline considers how we know that history equally important to what we know. LBA history is modern history, because the rediscovery says as much about ourselves as about the civilization which scientists have painstakingly reconstructed.

Then, after three centuries of almost uninterrupted prosperity, LBA civilization stopped. Historians once simply assumed barbarian invasions destroyed civilization, because Egyptian records mentioned barbarians, and hey, similar invasions destroyed Rome, so why not? But as Cline reconstructs the final, poorly documented decades, it becomes increasingly clear that no single explanation suffices. The end of LBA civilization was as complex, and as fraught with possibilities, as its beginning.

Places and cultures Cline describes are as familiar as today’s post-Arab Spring headlines: Egypt, Syria, Megiddo, Anatolia. Aleppo. And possible causes of collapse, including climate change, refugee crisis, and war, should make thoughtful readers pause. Like all great literature, Cline’s history isn’t only about its subjects, it’s also about us, its readers. It challenges us to consider how we resemble, or don’t, LBA history. The parallels are chilling.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Ross Douthat is a Hack Journalist and a Shitty Human Being

Ross Douthat
Political scientists sometimes speak of the Overton Window. This idea holds that ideas exist along a spectrum. At either extreme, ideas seem ridiculous, unfeasible, even destructive; consider how America defines itself as neither Fascist nor Communist, but something in between. In other words, the extremes define the center. But this carries a scary implication for current affairs: making the extreme seem normal moves the center. Extremists can make the formerly unacceptable seem normal.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ in-house conservative, writes this week that we should take “incels”—self-described “involuntary celibates” who believe they’ve been unfairly treated by today’s shifting sexual values—seriously, because “extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.” He then spins a windy discursion on sex robots, the politics of attraction, and y’know what, you should read this goulash of old-school establishmentarian twaddle for sheer horror factor.

Spoiler alert: he doesn’t mean it. One needn’t read very far into this jeremiad to realize Douthat has cherry-picked some orphan quotes, shared them out of context, and pushed them to their extremes to shove them outside the Overton Window. He means it all satirically, as an appeal to the slippery slope, claiming that somehow incels, whose manifestos identify them as conservative and “alt-right,” are the logical conclusion of liberal sexual values overwhelming Western society.

If you slept through recent weeks, or you’re reading this in a more peaceful future that’s forgotten 2018, “incels” came into common knowledge recently when one jackass, believing his sexual frustrations justified violence, killed ten people when he drove his van into a crowded Toronto sidewalk. Before this act of terrorism, he attempted to position himself as a martyr for the cause. Like Dylann Roof, he thought he’d start some long-simmering populist uprising.

Except ordinary people realize something Ross Douthat dances around: nobody is entitled to sex. Human mental health requires intimacy, but sex isn’t about any individual. Having sex requires two people to agree, which requires communication, compromise, and discourse. Natural human sex requires people to see each other, at least potentially, as equals. Anything else reduces one partner to, in Douthat’s words, “a sex robot,” a lifeless thing which exists to receive another person’s masturbation. Sexual entitlement is always dehumanizing.

Douthat claims sex can be redistributed much like “property and money.” He doesn’t believe this, certainly, but floats the idea in an attempt to (forgive me using a term from rhetorical criticism) kick shit. But he starts from a flawed assumption. Economist Hernando de Soto demonstrates that property requires documentation to have any weight, documentation only governments can maintain efficiently. And Catholic economist John C. Médaille, citing Henry Ford, notes money only exists because banks loan it into existence.

Humorist Tom Tomorrow on columnists
saying ridiculous things for specious reasons.
Click here for the full original comic.
Sexuality is, essentially, the ultimate libertarian transaction. While money and property require an extensive regulatory bureaucracy to even exist, sex is a private agreement between two(-ish) individuals, based upon mutuality, trust, and need. While who we desire is conditioned by cultural standards, as everything is, two people sharing similar conditioning simply make an agreement, and proceed from there. But saying this is impolitic, since it admits libertarian economics is all about getting screwed.

In the final paragraphs, Douthat reaches his real agenda: “There is an alternative, conservative response, of course—namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.” In other words, everything before this has been my hack undergraduate attempt at Swiftean satire, and let’s go back to church.

The old Protestant in me innately sympathizes with the idea of resurrecting the ideals of self-discipline and restraint. But I still have multiple problems here: neither the libertarian, the alt-right, nor the progressive agendae really want restored puritan mores, for separate reasons. And besides, Douthat, a journalist, realizes he withholds his twist too late; whether in print or online, nobody reads op-ed columns long enough to reach his big reveal in paragraph sixteen.

Douthat has, in essence, retreated into ridicule. I’m reminded of author Loren Collins, a self-described conservative libertarian, who bemoans how often his fellow conservatives abandon evidence and reason. Instead, they “poke holes” in others’ logic, in ways that often look plausible to the ill-informed. Rather than staging his own argument, Douthat engages in contrarian histrionics. But to anybody who thinks about his point realizes he contradicts his own principles. Assuming he has any.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What Bill Cosby Really Means To Me

This seems to be my season for issuing retractions and clarifications—though I bring this on myself. On Monday, in discussing Bill Cosby’s conviction and its reinforcement of slow, deliberative justice, I wrote: “let’s define a moral panic as a situation where the response to a perceived offense significantly outweighs any real or perceived harm caused by that offense…” A trusted friend informs me this looks like I’ve dismissively called rape a “perceived offense.”

Nothing could be further from my intent. One needn’t study the psychology of sexual violence to see how this crime stunts individuals, upends families, and disrupts the fabric of society. One need only sit with anyone, man or woman, who has suffered this injustice, to know how disastrous it is. And given both how widespread this crime is, and how frequently it goes unreported, I guarantee you know someone who has suffered this grievous offense.

My fear, rather, is this: consider the magnitude of accusations against Bill Cosby. Sixty women have voiced their accusations, which occured over about fifty years. Considering the time frame, and the nature of the accusation, many more probably haven’t come forward, or didn’t live to see this moment. Now ruminate on how much prosecutorial might it required to convict Cosby of just one assault. Two trials, millions of dollars, months of laying out evidence.

Now imagine this becomes the new “set point” of prosecutorial procedure. If some poor black kid, accused on specious grounds, finds himself facing the might of a justice system newly energized by the #MeToo movement. Moral outrage runs high, and this kid finds himself with only a short-staffed and badly underfunded public defender to protect him. How, if we’re honest, will this turn out?

I don’t use a black kid in my hypothetical example flippantly. Back during America’s “lynching era,” from roughly 1865 to 1955, the leading accusation used to justify lynching black men was rape of white women. And it was almost always false; Ida B. Wells called it “the old threadbare lie” over 125 years ago. As I noted Monday, America’s most famous lynching victim, Emmett Till, was murdered for an accusation we now know was false.

False rape accusations are rare. Exactly how rare is subject to debate, since even authentic rapes go unreported more often than not; we can only achieve useful numbers through mathematical regression and some informed guesswork. But a metastudy published in 2010 anchored the number slightly below six percent. Surely we’ll all agree that’s rare, but not vanishingly rare.

However, I’d suggest the rarity of false accusations underscores the importance of deliberative justice, rather than moral outrage, in addressing sexual violence. Among black men lynched behind rape accusations during Jim Crow years, the incidence of false accusation probably approached 100%. These women, probably egged on by husbands, fathers, and other kinfolk, could make spiteful accusations, confident that their words would never be challenged by evidence.

(If I’m being completely honest, I must recognize this swings both ways. Women who realize their wardrobe, comportment, and sexual history will be entered into evidence, may frequently hesitate to bring even legitimate, fully defensible accusations to the police. This is a high price to pay, and as a society, we must redress this. We must rededicate ourselves to bringing justice to women everywhere.)

I have skin in this game, because I’ve been accused of sexual harassment before, too. At a prior job, a young woman—almost a girl, really—lodged a complaint that I was “looming over” her in a sexually menacing manner. I seldom talk about this, because the accusation blew over in two shifts, when it transpired that she’d felt I was too damn tall while working beside her. And if she felt threatened by that, someone else probably legitimately hurt her previously.

Yet this underscores why I consider moral panic a risk. This accusation happened before #MeToo, which probably explains why I got to state my case. In a world where accusations equal conviction, I would’ve lost my livelihood and probably never gotten another. Instead, we tested evidence, heard both sides, and reached a conclusion. Even she acknowledged she’d overreacted, and apologized; I was plenty satisfied to extend her forgiveness.

Bill Cosby’s conviction remains exceptional because it’s rare, and will likely remain so. Accusations against Steven Seagal, Aaron Carter, Russell Simmons, and most famously Roman Polanski, have not resulted in trials, much less convictions, despite frequently overwhelming evidence. Yet cases like this set standards for larger society. And we must make sure that Cosby’s jury trial becomes the foundation for measured responses going forward.