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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Thursday, 21 October 2004

Topic: The Culture

Here in the reality-based community...

Earlier this month in an item called "The Annuls of Cognitive Dissonance" - on the web log here and in Just Above Sunset here - you will find a discussion of a study done by researchers from PIPA, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, a joint project of several academic centers, some of them based at the University of Maryland, and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm.

And what did that study show? Americans who plan to vote for President Bush have many incorrect assumptions about his foreign policy positions. Kerry supporters, on the other hand, are largely accurate in their assessments. The uncommitted also tend to misperceive Bush's positions, though to a smaller extent than Bush supporters, and to perceive Kerry's positions correctly. Steven Kull, director of PIPA, comments: "What is striking is that even after nearly four years President Bush's foreign policy positions are so widely misread, while Senator Kerry, who is relatively new to the public and reputed to be unclear about his positions, is read correctly."

As was said then, at some visceral level about half of the country wants Bush to win in November, if you follow the polls. And wanting that, they make up stuff about what he does, and what he says - to assure themselves he's a reasonable, thoughtful guy who is simply misunderstood. These are decent people and want to believe Bush is being a decent and fair guy. These are your friends and neighbors - and people who want us, as a country, to do the right thing.

And perhaps one can forgive these people supporting Bush for assuming the best about him in spite of the facts. That is natural, and understandable. And earlier I suggested you look up the term cognitive dissonance.

But facts are facts.

Well the PIPA folks are at it again this week with a new study.

Percentage of Bush supporters who recognize that a majority of the world's countries opposed the war in Iraq: 31.0% ...

Percentage of Bush supporters who believe a majority of the world's citizens favor Bush's reelection: 57.0% ...

Percentage of Bush supporters who believe a majority of the world's citizens favor Kerry: 9.0% ...

Is everything we all read in the news just wrong, and are these people right? And how did these Bush supporters come to this unusual grasp of the real truth no one is reporting - that the majority of the world's countries supported us in the war, and a majority people around the world really do want Bush reelected, and hardly anyone anywhere in the world likes the idea of Kerry or anyone else replacing Bush?

Who knew?

Quite curious.

And James Bartlett wonders -
Here in the reality-based community, it's our tendency (perhaps our curse) to figure that there's a rational explanation for everything. And so, many of us look at the poll data every day, scratch our heads, and wonder why the hell Bush is doing so well, when he's so manifestly wrong on so much stuff. We already know that Bush supporters don't think he's wrong. We also know they continue to believe what he says even when you confront them with the truth about the stuff he says. So some of it is self-delusion. But [the PIPA study] indicates the level of the delusion is even worse than we thought.
And Bartlett points to Michelle Goldberg in SALON.COM asking the key question - "How can arguments based on fact prevail in a nation where so many people know so little?"

The answer? Such arguments cannot prevail, or can prevail only with great difficulty. And if arguments based on fact do prevail, a lot of folks are going to be very angry on November 3rd - and these are the folks with guns.

Okay. That is a very snobbish, elitist thing to say.

Pointing out how "the other side" has got the facts wrong rightly offends the other side - as getting on one's high horse and sneering that these folks are all delusional fools and dumb-as-a-post dupes is counterproductive. That just creates more conflict, and God knows we have enough of that.

And a response from that other side might be that the press, and the whole of the liberal media, and the Pew international pollsters, have always had it in for humble Christian conservative leaders like George Bush - and have just reported the facts wrong. On purpose. All that stuff - the reports and film of people protesting in the streets around the world, and those many surveys - all that was a pack of lies the elitist news and fancy-pants research firms made up to bring down the president, a regular guy, a man of the people, and a man of God. Never happened.

No, that won't fly. It did happen. It is happening.

Another response from that other side might be that this disconnect regarding "the facts" is just be a matter of attitude and emphasis. Pessimistic, defeatist people (the Kerry supporters) see the massive worldwide demonstrations against us, the insurgency in Iraq and day after day our guys getting killed in the streets, the incredibly negative polling data, and foreign leaders turning their backs on us, as only a small part of the part of the bigger picture. The UK is with us - well, Tony Blair is, even of the people over there are not. And the Australians have their eight hundred troops with us in Iraq. And Poland hasn't pulled out just yet, even if Spain did, along with six or seven other nations. Fiji and Tonga are still with us. It's all how you look at it - a matter of attitude. And the press, reporting the negative, just stirs up lots of bad attitude. (Well, Fox News doesn't - see this from a year ago.)

So those who attend to only the bad news don't support Bush - but there are always two sides to every story. One should have a positive attitude.

The problem is the facts. Maybe the facts don't tell the whole story?

But if not, what good are facts? Some of us think they're useful. And the true right, the Bush supporters PIPA surveys this week, say it's all how you look at the facts.

Isn't that what they themselves used to say was the problem with those on the left - all the fulminating about moral relativism and how we need clarity about right and wrong, good and evil, the truth and fiction? There's no small irony in this. It's big time irony.

Can this disagreement - about what is actually happening - be resolved? That's going to be hard work. Hard work? You heard Bush whine about that in the first presidential debate. He doesn't like it.

So this disagreement about the facts is not going to be resolved. We just will not agree about what is happening. One side will continue to shout, "Look at what is really happening! Man, it looks bad!" The other side will say, "You just see it that way because you have a bad attitude. Geez, why not look at the good side?"

Facts used to be a common ground. No more.

Posted by Alan at 21:41 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 21 October 2004 21:47 PDT home

Tuesday, 19 October 2004

Topic: The Culture

Everyone piles on - as we move toward civil war, maybe...
Yes, as noted here, more and more web logs and commentary sites are now proclaiming to be a "Proud Members of the Reality-Based Community" - as the lines are more carefully drawn between those who want to deal with facts and actual events, and those of faith who think such things don't matter as long as you believe, truly and deeply, in what you want to happen. Is this the great divide in America? That idea is snowballing.

Now we have this in the British press.

Faith against reason
The US election has exposed a growing conflict between two world views. Can they co-exist in one country?
Jonathan Freedland in New Jersey, The Guardian (UK), Wednesday October 20, 2004

Freeland, after a long introduction detailing a Bush rally in New Jersey - and contracting it to an Edwards rally in Pennsylvania - comes to these conclusions (my emphases) -
... America's centre of gravity has moved rightward, creating a set of shibboleths that cannot be challenged. If liberals established a few forbidden zones in the last 20 years under the rubric of so-called political correctness - making it off-limits to demean women, gays and ethnic minorities - then the right has now erected some barriers of its own.

First among these taboos is the military. No politician can utter a word that seems to question the armed services: so Kerry does not mention the Abu Ghraib scandal. Next is 9/11, which has been all but sanctified in American discourse. Because of that event, the US has re-imagined itself as a victim nation: witness the yellow-ribbon bumperstickers, usually bearing the slogan "Support America". (Ribbons were previously reserved for the suffering: red for Aids, pink for breast cancer.)

As a result, any action taken in the name of 9/11 cannot be questioned. Oppose the Patriot Act, with its restrictions on civil liberties, and you are a friend of the terrorists - and, if you are a Democratic congressional candidate, Republicans will air TV ads against you placing your face alongside that of Osama bin Laden.

Show concern for international opinion, and you are some kind of traitor. Kerry spoke French to a Haitian audience in Florida on Monday, the first time he had done so in public for many months: even to appear to have links with the outside world is a negative in today's politics, which has become all about America first.

All this is partly caused by, and certainly reinforces, that gut feeling of certainty that animates today's American right. Bill Clinton used to joke that when Democrats are in the White House, they think they are renting it. Republicans believe they own the place.
And Freedland then spends some time discussing how the Republicans fundamentally did not accept the legitimacy of a Democratic president in the Clinton years - as with the impeachment for his private sexual misconduct.

But now he says there is a new edge. This is more than partisanship. This is a question of and odd sort of religious faith - an odd blend of the idea Bush was chosen by God at this moment, or at least he's doing God's work, and just as God can make no mistakes, by definition, neither can George Bush, as he is the chosen one.

Some things we have done - and this is we, as Bush is our nominal leader representing us all - may seem really dumb, or at least counterproductive. We have lost the respect of most of the world who see us a blustering bullies, invaded and occupied a country based on mistaken information about the threat that nation posed and its involvement with an attack on us. We have stirred up an ever-growing army of angry fanatics and made that sad business even worse. And somewhere in there we drove the economy into massive debt and paralyzed social programs for those in need, while rewarding those who decimate the environment, while at the same time rewarding the living rich and creatiing massive repayment burdens on generations to come, while beggaring the middle and lower classes, while increasingly limiting any chance of reasonable employment for millions. Some might call this all evil.

But so what? If Bush was a reader you might imagine him quoting Alexander Pope - "All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good; And spite of pride, in erring reason's spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right"

Is it? That depends on your politics. And on your faith that what we have done is right.

After citing Ron Suskind (see the New York Times Sunday magazine item Without a Doubt from October 17, 2004), as we all do, Freedland adds more. He extends Suskind's observations about the inside history of this White House and its reliance on blind faith and scorn for real facts, to its current outward application - the ongoing election campaign and its implications -
Bush is a subtle enough politician not to make his campaign an overt religious crusade. But he communicates, through nods and winks, to his evangelical base: they know the mission he is on. He uses their language, answering a question on abortion by referring to a "culture of life", one of their favoured phrases, or nodding to a 19th-century supreme court ruling often cited in their own literature.

This is a revolutionary shift for a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. If Bush wins on November 2, the chances are strong that the shift will accelerate, perhaps even towards permanence.

Thanks to mortality, three or four spaces are likely to open up in the next four years on the nine-person Supreme Court. The next president will get to pick whether those judges are liberals or conservatives.

In 2000, Bush said his favourite supreme court justices were the ultraconservatives, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. If he named four more in their image, giving them a majority on the court, then the face of modern America could be changed within a few years.

Such a bench would no longer deem abortion a constitutional right; it would allow individual states to ban it, which they would do, across swathes of the country. If past Scalia-Thomas decisions are any guide, laws on everything from clean air to access for the disabled, affirmative action for ethnic minorities to gay rights would all be struck down. (When the supreme court last year heard the case of a gay man arrested for having sex in his own home, Scalia and Thomas sided against the man and with the police.) Crucially, Thomas has argued that the Constitution's ban on established religion might not apply to the individual states.
Well, that's cheery.

And the opposition can do little about it.
The campaign has hardly been fought on this ground. If anything, John Kerry has had to go along with the intrusion of religion into politics - insisting on his own Catholic credentials, telling audiences that he was once an altar boy. But the tension is there.

It has manifested itself in the issue of research using embryonic stem-cells. Kerry says it should continue, using new lines of cells if necessary; Bush wants no more lines to be created, no more of what he calls the destruction of life. Kerry says stem cell research might have found a cure for Ronald Reagan's Alzheimers or for Christopher Reeve's paralysis. Bush says the work will have to stop.
Yeah, we're messing with God's plan.

Freedland is there too when at the Edwards rally there was a sad message being blasted from the loudspeakers at the Bush folks making fun of the Democrats - "Don't be scared of science, guys. Please guys, we need science."

Why does that even need to be said?

Freedland suggests this -
... the clash under way now is about more than Bush v Kerry, right v left. It seems to be an emerging clash of tradition against modernity, faith against reason. The true believers pitted against the "reality-based community".

That leaves two questions, one for the future, one for November 2. For the future: how long can these two competing world views, so far apart from each other and so sharply divided, co-exist in the same country? For November 2: which of these two camps is going to be absolutely determined to win?
Both questions are important, but the first is most troubling. It implies a low level civil war, or a real one.

Posted by Alan at 23:24 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 19 October 2004 23:26 PDT home

Monday, 27 September 2004

Topic: The Culture

Theology: The Paris-Atlanta Dialogs

In Just Above Sunset here (and in these pages here) you will find a discussion of the graphic that seems to show the first three hurricanes that hit Florida this year walloped the counties that voted for Bush in the 2000 election and miraculously spared those counties where folks voted for Al Gore. The title of the item was A Curious Map Reveals God's Politics. Could this be true? Or is this one more urban legend, as they say? Or just political humor based on coincidence and a clever presentation of selected data?

Whichever it was, my friends got to talking about it.

Joseph - our Hollywood expatriate who chucked it all and moved to France - sent this from somewhere near Paris -
Okay, it's a tragedy, a disaster, but far be it from me to resist a bit of schadenfreude...

The map is pretty amusing in the context of the many comments made by yahoos interviewed on CNN. I heard many people say that they weren't worried about the approaching hurricane because god would protect them, or afterwards that they escaped damage because god did protect them.

Did these people think that they were the object of God's protection because they were special, or at least more righteous than those that God would not or did not protect? If they had been hit hard, would they have concluded that they weren't as righteous as those who escaped damage - or that God was displeased with them? Can they not see the deeply un-Christian impulse that lies beneath? "I'm the best! Jesus loves ME!"

If one is ready to credit god when one escapes damage, it seems that one should be prepared to pass a little blame his way if the Big Guy doesn't come through. But the protection hypothesis is sadly a one-way affair. Sadder still, critical thought will end with "whoops" and they will suffer the same fallacy the next time around. I guess you really can't prove a negative. Not to a true believer, anyway.
Phillip, master mason and ace jazz musician near Atlanta rose to the occasion...
Not from around here (the South) are you JT?

Since God is everywhere (he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake), and especially has great cable reception, there is no doubt He will catch the sound bite of trailer trash interviewed beside rubble. Struggling for stature, holiness is about all a rube can cling to - to set them apart from really, really low class dumb asses, you know, booger eating glue sniffers aspiring to be meth heads. But just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no atheists in trailer parks when a storm is spawning a dozen tornados a night. They may actually feel clever buying a house for fifteen grand and a spot to plop it for a hundred a month, even though it is framed with 2x2's with a micron thick membrane of sheet metal as cladding. A lack of structural insight, no doubt. Now let's talk about the guys in Canada who go ice fishing in March and stutter with dee-yas and ehs. Why would anyone live somewhere with a six month winter? No point in even bringing up God. Surely He doesn't even listen to people who lack the brains to migrate to warmer climes. Come on Joe, have a heart. I mean where on this continent would Jesus live?
Then Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, adds something more to the dialog...
Ironically, as I read these words, I am hearing NPR in the background running a news story about the family of an Oregon national guardsman who was killed driving his Humvee over a homemade bomb in Iraq.

His mom was stoical about it, saying she trusted in God to take care of her son, and although she had thought God would bring her son back to her, she said she knows God's plans are not her plans, and she's okay with that. She is also comforted by the fact that her son was a devout Christian who was upset with all our naysaying back home about Iraq, because he understood this war to be a spiritual war, one being waged by a devoutly Christian president who understands spiritual matters.

So does this or does this not point to the crux of our problem, not only in Iraq but also in record budget deficits back home designed to shrink the size of government small enough for some right-wing fanatic to drown it in a bathtub? [That would be Grover Norquist quoted here. -AP]

Let me come at this from another angle: If God really speaks to George W. Bush, as George W. Bush claims God does, wouldn't you think God could have clued him in ahead of time about those WMD's?

PS: Phillip, re Canada and moving south: I don't care what you say about people with brains moving here, I will argue that nobody with real brains DID move here before God invented air conditioning!
Joseph the shot back from Paris...
I mean where on this continent would Jesus live? Jesus? I picture him in Sedona. ;)

Christians use that quote [there are no atheists in foxholes] to imply that atheists are detached from reality and that a good dose of it would make believers out of them, but they are missing the point: fear and desperation are a formula for faith. That inclination to reach out for God when one is being shot at is the philosophical equivalent of the involuntary "pucker" instinct, and ought to pass just as quickly.

Just as one wouldn't go "puckered" for the rest of one's days, that you called for God in your moment of desperation doesn't mean he's there.
And Phillip, master mason and ace jazz musician near Atlanta, had to comment on the whole concept of this God person...
Where is the quote from, oh, what movie? - "When I talk to God I find that I am talking to myself." - played by Peter Sellers. Oh, whatever... The point is religion is comfort, possibly when intellect just isn't enough. My intellect can't really handle this unnecessary war, and so I look to the sky and say - "God, what are they doing?"

Recently God manifested to me as Charles Bukowski sitting beside me in a bar. A cigarette was smoking in the ashtray between us. His hand was on the side of his face and his elbow pivoted on the bar. "Fuck if I know," he said, "and if I did know I wouldn't tell you."

And so I'm left to figure out the madness, or not, on my own by what I observe and piece together. And I think there is a skewed madness to saying it's okay my son got killed like this because of God and Dubya talking to God and it's in book of Revelations somewhere. An understandable madness because the mother so beside herself with grief. It was surely as close as her intellect could get to figuring it out.

Intellect could be used to end the problem. A conservative drummer [remember, Phillip is a professional musician] said the WMDs are in Syria and we should go get 'em. Well the Republican domino theory to the Middle East doesn't much appeal to me. I think we win in Iraq when we leave, but our leader wants to kick sand in faces.

And the only thing I can figure out to do is vote.

PS Rick - And absolutely about the air conditioning. The heat and humidity will, in fact, make you dumber.
I have nothing to add to this exchange. I simply report it.

When I think about awful things happening in this world, to others, to me, or about good things, I shrug. Most of it all, good and bad, can be attributed to people with power, lots of it or a little, who do important, pivotal things without much thought. It - the surprising good or bad out of the blue - is what one comes to expect. As for natural disasters? Chaos theory works for me. The bad times that result from such things just happen. If there is a God directing the path of each hurricane for arcane punitive reasons, She probably has reasons only She knows, if She has any reasons at all. It could be just sadistic fun. But I doubt that. Why bother with us? It's more likely there are no punitive reasons and no sadism - She is just bored and messing around, and idly curious to see what happens. You know, like a dim kid with an anthill and a stick and too much time on his or her hands. She'll get bored and move on - and hurricane season will end.

As for the postscripts, I have lived both in the South - few years in Durham, North Carolina - and in Canada - a few years in London, Ontario. Even as far north as Durham, the oppressive long, deadly hot humid days, and the vacant locals with their menacing grins and slightly sinister good manners (every Southerner's weapon), could drive one to madness, and one could find oneself alone, wandering deep in the shadowy loblolly pine forest thinking murderous thoughts about Yankees, if one wasn't careful, or one didn't have sufficient air-conditioning. London was fine - full of kind, polite and rather quiet good people. But the weather after early October was brutal, and who can explain the sport of curling, or the appeal of long hours of ice fishing? Now here in Hollywood....

Posted by Alan at 18:17 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 27 September 2004 18:23 PDT home

Monday, 20 September 2004

Topic: The Culture

The Work Ethic: Is the route to sanity to do as little as possible in your job while saving yourself for your real life outside the workplace?

A few years ago, after a second bottle of dry red Tuscan wine, or perhaps a third, with my conservative friend and his wife, we fell into a discussion of the American work ethic, and the way the French seemed to approach work. There is a difference. This was after my fourth trip to France, and he and his wife had just returned from one of their trips to Tuscany.

I recall we discussed the idea of whether one worked to live, or lived to work - and that seems to be the basic disconnect. He said the French just don't take work seriously. They define themselves by their personal lives, not their careers. This was irresponsible.

So he was going on about how the six to eight week summer vacations and the thirty-five hour workweek made France an economic loser. I countered with something about the French doing well with some things - how the Falcon jet built by Dassault in Toulouse had the major share of the executive jet market (our Coast Guard alone has forty of them) and how Vivendi had managed to buy up Universal Studios and their theme parks and music businesses (oops - that didn't work out) and so on and so forth. He wasn't buying it.

He said look at their productivity. I countered with the odd fact that on a unit-of-value-per-hour-worked basis the French workers' productivity far outstrips that of Americans.

He countered with the idea that they have to be productive each hour because they start work at ten in the morning, take two-hour lunches, and have innumerable three-day and four-day weekends all year round. And he added, as he is the CEO of a thriving software company, if someone applied for a job with him and asked about vacation benefits, well, that applicant would never be hired - as that was a sign that applicant didn't take work seriously, and had no ambition.

I seem to recall that when I worked at Hughes Aircraft in the eighties and nineties - later Hughes Electronics, then Hughes-Raytheon, then a new part of General Motors, then DirecTV after shedding Raytheon, then sold by GM and now part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation - the fellow who ran the communications lab (satellite payloads and top secret communications gizmos) was famous because in twenty years he had never taken one day of vacation, ever. By California state law we had to pay him a big chunk of change for that. My conservative friend was impressed - this was the kind of hard worker and ambitious go-getter that made America great. (The fellow was Japanese, by the way.) I was appalled.

So we didn't agree. I asked what was so damned good about productivity? He looked at me like I was from another planet. And we had even more wine and let it pass.

That all came back to me last week when I came across an item in the International Herald Tribune and my friends on line started discussing it.

Meanwhile: Workers of the world, unite and don't work!
Michael Johnson - The International Herald Tribune - Friday, September 17, 2004

First of all, know that Michael Johnson is the author of "French Resistance: The individual vs. the Company in French Corporate Life." And he opens with this -
A few years ago I co-authored a book called "Workaholism: Getting a Life in the Killing Fields of Work." It sank like a stone. Maybe the title was too clunky.

More likely, my timing was off. Both Europe and the United States were living through a mild spasm of anti-work rhetoric in the 1990s, but it was nothing like what is happening today in France and Britain. This new wave goes far beyond downshifting and life balance.

Two best sellers reflect this tune-out culture: Corine Maier's "Bonjour Paresse" in France and Tom Hodgkinson's "How to Be Idle" in Britain. Both authors advise that the route to sanity is to do as little as possible in your job while saving yourself for your real life outside the workplace.
So, in essence, this is a book review with personal anecdotes.

Johnson, who has been a manager in both the UK and France, says that when he arrived in London he was told that "one must not be seen to be striving." And he says that in France, "dodging work and responsibility in my company was an art."

Johnson too says the key difference between Americans and the Brits and the French is that there the work ethic is that work life and private life are separate, and friendships tend to be unrelated to professional life.

But here's the real key -
In the French publishing firm where I worked, employees simply did not buy the argument that their work might be inherently worthwhile and essential to the success of the firm, the source of their sustenance. They resented the fact that shareholders took home unearned income from their daily work.

This disconnect creates a standoff between leaders and the led.
As well it might.

Johnson notes that French workers demand precise job descriptions so that management cannot take advantage of their energies. And that means "initiative and extra hours are out of the question." And he quotes a fellow who worked for him in France saying - "We want you to tell us exactly what you want us to do, and we'll do it if we feel like it."

Well, that makes a manager's job a bit harder.

Corine Maier's "Bonjour Paresse" is mentioned in little detail, although he notes she is "a chipper professional economist with a disarming subversive streak." The book is intended to help you "use your company instead of letting yourself be used by it." And the books does refer to recent polls that indicate only three percent of the French are willing to give themselves to their work whereas seventeen percent are "actively disengaged" - their attitudes are so unconstructive as to "approach sabotage."

Maybe my conservative friend was right. And too, Maier is scheduled for a disciplinary hearing at her job later this month. Perhaps she should not have written this book.

But the bulk of Johnson's item is dedicated to the UK, where "Margaret Thatcher's self-help culture has eroded since her departure from public life, allowing the old slacker malaise to creep back into daily life."

Johnson covers the nascent "chav scum" movement - the Kevs, steeks, spides, ratboys, skangers, stigs or scallies. The workers who don't give a damn.

Read it. It's quite funny.

And Johnson says we are safe over here -
On a recent visit to the United States I watched for signs of erosion of the bootstrap culture Americans have always been proud of. I browsed the shelves at Harvard's Coop bookstore, finding nothing at all on downshifting. Finally I asked the manager where he was hiding these books. "Can't help you," he said. "We're mostly about upshifting here."
We are? Well, a bit of this was discussed previously here.

But what about our president, the top American?

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, muses about that -
Geez, reading about all these French and British slackers gives me pause to worry about the state of the world! In our country, folks with no sense of responsibility and who don't believe in showing up for work, at best, all tend to end up voting Republican, but at worst, are elected President!
Why, then George Bush, by this reasoning, what with the long vacations and inattention to anything like hard work or the silly details of the job, and his life-long history of goofing off and avoiding real work, would be, well, sort of... French? What a concept!

Don't tell anyone.

Nico in Montr?al, the most French of cities in North America, says the American work ethic is an anomaly, and even the Canadians doesn't quite get it -
Lots going on in this article, but the work ethic Johnson talks about an American phenomena.

It is the willingness of many young Americans to do what it takes, and go where they need to be, to have their career. People are constantly on the move across the country. This shows they are keen and, probably secondly, know no one in the city they live in, or rather, near.

A further point is that for every unemployed worker in the US, there are probably two over-worked ones, willingly participating to sacrifice their private lives for productivity gains for companies that would just as soon cast them out than go over budget on toilet-paper.

Most of my American (and even Canadian) friends think it odd that I would choose where to live, then figure out a career or just get a job. Having been "right-sized" a couple times myself, I have stopped trying to include work-mates into my private life. As long as I still live and work in the same city my professional circles are still there and growing with each new job. They are held together by the odd email chain, cinq-a-sept, or run-in's on the street.

At the end of the day, the question is why this "corporate idealism" when most know that American business is more than ruthless when it comes to 'right-sizing' and casting off devoted workers who make the workplace the center of their worlds.
I too have been "right-sized" a few times. One takes care of oneself. Making your job the center of your world? That way lies madness. I agree with Nico.

And the people who have worked for me - and I was a senior systems manager - have become my friends, but always after they left or I left the job. Work is work. Life is life.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, has a response to Nico -
I have no problem with picking a place to live first, then picking a job. Cool enough! Hell, that's what I've been urging Alan to do for years. Then again, I suppose it'd be hard to move to Paris without a work permit, then find some job that suits you.

But the idea of getting hired to work for a company, then trying to get away with working as little as you can, sounds not only like it takes way too much effort, but also insures you'll spend the whole day staring at the clock and wishing you were somewhere else.

And also, the idea of working in an environment in which all your co-workers frown on you if you are "seen to be striving" sounds too much like spending an eternity in hell, turning big rocks into little ones. God help you if you'd actually want to work your way up into management.

And to live in a whole country where this passes for a "work ethic"? How could it avoid having shoddy goods and services? No wonder we see so many things here that were made in China, and very few made in Britain or France. When I first moved to St. Croix [US Virgin Islands], I thought I would like this whole concept of "island time" and the relaxed attitude toward work, but that was before I had to stand a whole two hours or so in line one day (with only one other person in front of me) to get a driver's license.

The truth is, although I'm definitely no flag waver and don't know if the United States is (as all those bean-dip-for-brains conservatives brag) "the greatest country on Earth," I keep getting reminded that, in spite of all its problems, I'd really rather live here than anywhere else.
Well, I'm the Alan that Rick mentions, and I know getting a carte de sejour to work in Paris isn't likely - and Hollywood really is pretty fine.

And in two weeks I start work for an HMO - with the task to expand a department and staff it up, to build a nationwide claims processing suite of applications. And I hope it is not "too much like spending an eternity in hell, turning big rocks into little ones." And I will be in management. I think the idea is to do a fine job, and help others do a fine job, but not take it too seriously, as work is not all of life.

But that aim - doing well but knowing there is more to life - goes against the grain of life here in the United States. Should I stumble there are a thousand, and maybe many thousand well qualified others waiting to take my place, unemployed and unhappy, and more than willing to sacrifice family and health and all spare time to the organization. It is well to remember them.

They may be foolish, given what they can realistically expect in return - mostly nothing. What one gets for disregarding one's family and undermining one's health must come from within - a sense of worth based on career and title and, in my trade, elegant, flawless software. Hey, if that is what defines your worth in this world, well, that is your choice.

But there are other criteria for defining your worth in this world, to yourself.

And as for whether the French or the Americans are using the "right" criteria is an interesting question, but finally personal. Rick is right to point out the limitations of what he calls "island time" - that laid back vaguely French way of living life in the moment and savoring friends and family, but getting nothing much done. And Nico is right to point out the empty shallowness of giving your all-too-short life over to a corporate career, for a handful of dust, and, more often than not these days, a pink slip.

Perhaps the answer is to be a CEO like my conservative friend. From the top the choices are easier. But I do know some petty burnt out CEO's who endlessly think of chucking it all. I know one in San Diego who buys a lottery ticket for each drawing so she can, maybe, one day, sell the company and get some sleep. Maybe being on top isn't always the answer.

So I dream of Paris - I lived with Rick's family in the Virgin Islands for three or four months and I'm over that particular dream - but you make the compromises. You do your best.


Reactions -

From Joseph, who used to do film stuff here in Hollywood but now lives in France...
Two items:

Despite the impression pandered in the US media, France is not working toward becoming more socialist; quite the opposite. Sure maybe thirty years ago, but it's been running the other way for quite a while.

I submit an exhibit: Recently, the French government sold a large portion of it's holdings in France Telecom, thereby relinquishing majority control. Quelle dommage. It seems they sold about a sixth of their sixty Billion stake. More is apparently sure to follow. This made me wonder what the complete portfolio of the republique came to, and particularly in relation to the current fiscal deficit. Perhaps Ric Erickson [see MetropoleParis] has a figure at his fingertips, but I invented a figure of about 350 billion euros. If the holdings are in this range, that seems a significant kitty in comparison to the budget deficit. This is the interesting part. While the US has to go even deeper in to debt to meet it's obligations in the future, France may merely have to sell the family silver to cover the shortfall imposed by the looming demographic catastrophe. This one's a no-brainer. Guess which country is going to have the greater tax burden in twenty years time?

Alan, you may want to look for an article from the IHT about eight weeks ago, FP/ATF, about why Europe doesn't have to compete with the US, and why taking so much vacation time is logical; leisure is a luxury good, and as people become more wealthy, the consume more of it. Adam Smith would have approved. Everyone seems to understand this except Americans, who seemingly can never get enough of anything, so long as it's tangible.

By the way, whenever Americans want to pick on Europe for it's "socialist policies", long vacations and generous welfare state, why is the devil always France (Rick has already guessed, no doubt - it's the enemy within) when GERMANY, (ya die vaderland, suck it up, German-Americans) is a better example of this by almost any objective measure.
The IHT item? That would be the International Herald Tribune, the Paris daily essentially run by the New York Times, and the item Joseph refers to, I believe, is this:

Work and leisure in Europe
[ no byline ] - The International Herald Tribune - Friday, August 20, 2004

The opening -
Those vacation-loving Europeans are not pulling their weight in the effort to reignite global economic growth, Americans often grumble, and the International Monetary Fund seemed to agree in a report issued earlier this month. By calling on Europeans to jump-start their economy by working more, it intensified the trans-Atlantic debate over the increasing divergence in work patterns. As their society has become wealthier, Europeans are working less, while Americans are working more.

The longstanding debate over whether Europeans are too easygoing or whether Americans work so hard they miss out on enjoying the fruit of their prosperity - more leisure time - is an interesting one...
Yes, but the author asserts the real issue the IMF is raising is persistent high unemployment in western Europe, and the odd work rules that make that inevitable.

Key paragraphs:
The answer for Europe, in other words, is not necessarily to turn its back on its own culture's balancing of economic productivity and leisure. Americans, as a rule, may derive more satisfaction from working longer hours, though recent social research suggests that one of the reasons Americans work almost one-fifth more hours than Europeans do is a fear that if they don't, someone else will take their job. Surveys show that Americans would prefer to work less and have more time to enjoy leisure and family.

... Europe's problem is not that its workers work too little, but that the system that protects them also makes sure that the unemployed stay that way. High minimum wages, high payroll taxes and laws that make it excessively hard to dismiss workers discourage hiring, and the people who lose out are usually those who weren't around when the rules were written, such as the young, immigrants and mothers returning to the workforce.

... As for the question of working hours, the answer may be simply to give people more choice - to let them find their own balance of work and leisure, now or later - but give them more responsibility for funding their retirement years.
You get the idea.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, does respond to Joseph, of course -
Joe, nicely put.

I think I agree with everything you said, including that "vacation time being a luxury worth living for" stuff, but especially the wisdom of a nation holding a portfolio in reserve to hedge against budget deficits that might come back to bite the country in its collective ass sometime down the road. Perish forbid a U.S. president should look to France - or any other country, for that matter - for better ideas on doing anything, but I have a feeling that a hypothetical President Kerry would do just that, once past the election and emboldened enough not to fear being caught speaking French in public.

Still, I should clarify something you probably already knew, that I wasn't attacking France for its (maybe imagined) "socialist" ways; in fact, I only used France and Britain as examples because those were the two countries addressed in the article I was responding to. In fact, not so much France, but what the guy said about working in England -- and even post-Thatcher, non-"socialist" England -- is something I myself have heard often from some of my friends who live there.

All I meant to say was, although I have little problem with grunts who do their work and get paid for it and go home at the end of the day, I just wouldn't want to work in an environment where there was peer pressure to slack off. I myself would prefer working in an environment where there's freedom to enjoy what I do for a living.
Along with the hypothetical President Kerry, then, we now have this hypothetical workplace full of folks who enjoy their work and still have a life outside the workplace.

Such places are few, and far between.

When I worked for Perot Systems one of their mantras was that at Perot Systems all folks loved their work, and got up each and every day eager to get to the office and do more of it. And Perot Systems made sounds about the importance of vacation - that you had to take your vacation as earned, so you didn't neglect your family and yourself in your enthusiasm. That was the Perot way. But H. Ross Perot got old and retired, and turned the company over to his son, who saw just how cutthroat the economy was becoming. Something shifted. My regional position was eliminated, along with two others, for one manager directing work of forty people in three states remotely from Phoenix - and I was given a project to manage - then was laid off as the overhead was high and the customer wasn't paying Perot enough for all the work. Fifty of us left in the first wave of that - all projects abandoned - and then another fifty got their pink slips a few months later as maintenance service to the customer was cut to the bare contractual minimum. Perot then trained me on HMO billing systems and assigned me to manage an implantation of this software here - and the client suddenly canceled the contract and sixty of us were left with nothing to do. The only thing left? A high priority contract in Boston - and that meant full-time travel, sixty-hour weeks, living out of a suitcase in a hotel on Tremont, and getting home for a day and a half every third weekend. So being somewhat France in my attitude toward work, I resigned. The cost to my own life was far too high at that point. I suppose I wasn't dedicated - and wasn't committed to the career and to success. Or I wasn't buying into the new Perot Systems definition of success.

Shame on me? I made my choice. No regrets.

And perhaps in two weeks I will be working in the sort of environment the now elderly and frail H. Ross Perot once envisioned. We shall see.

Posted by Alan at 22:13 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 21 September 2004 11:38 PDT home

Tuesday, 14 September 2004

Topic: The Culture

Books: If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?

This is about intellectuals, the thinkers, and not necessarily the doers.

As a warm-up, some comments from others -

"I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches."
- Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist ("The Incredible Lightness of Being" and others) who a decade ago moved to Paris, learned French well, and now writes his novels in French, not his native Czech. A show off? A toothache undermines the premises of Cartesian epistemology?

"There's always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side."
- Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident playwright who seems still amazed that he became the leader of the country at the end of the Cold War. He thinks winning undermines his credibility as a thinker?

"I've never been an intellectual but I have this look."
- Woody Allen (in Manhattan that will do)

"Humanity I love you because when you're hard up you pawn your intelligence to buy a drink."
e.e. cummings

It unfair to discuss a book before its release but consider this:

Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?
Subtitle: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism
Frank Furedi
Continuum Books
Publication Date: November 1, 2004
ISBN: 0826467695
160 Pages
$19.95 (hardcover)

The publisher's blurb -
The intellectual is an endangered species. In place of such figures as Bertrand Russell, Raymond Williams or Hannah Arendt - people with genuine learning, breadth of vision and a concern for public issues - we now have only facile pundits, think-tank apologists, and spin-doctors. In the age of the knowledge economy, we have somehow managed to combine the widest ever participation in higher education with the most dumbed-down of cultures.

In this urgent and passionate book, Frank Furedi explains the essential contribution of intellectuals both to culture and to democracy - and why we need to recreate a public sphere in which intellectuals and the general public can talk to each other again.
We need to do that? Don't tell anyone. The general public will run for the doors.

Of course, what with Just Above Sunset and this web log, I suppose I fall under the heading of Facile Pundit, if that. Or maybe I'm a Spin Doctor. Whatever. I don't suppose I count as an intellectual.

But Furedi's table of contents in amusing:
Introduction: A personal journey through the land of the philistines
Chapter 1: Devaluing the Intellect
Chapter 2: Trivial Pursuits
Chapter 3: Dumbing Down
Chapter 4: Social Engineering
Chapter 5: The Culture of Flattery
Chapter 6: Treating People as Children
These topics have come up here. I shall track down the book as soon as I can. Maybe I can claim I'm an intellectual if I read it. I don't look at all like Woody Allen so I do need some help.

The book has been released in the UK and Terry Eagleton, the author of the ever popular The English Novel: An Introduction (Blackwell) has an amusing review of this Furedi book in the current issues of The New Statesman.

Eagleton opens with a reference to music I don't know (shame on me!) but I get the general idea.
The spooky music of Mastermind says it all. Intellectuals are weird, creepy creatures, akin to aliens in their clinical detachment from the everyday human world. Yet you can also see them as just the opposite. If they are feared as sinisterly cerebral, they are also pitied as bumbling figures who wear their underpants back to front, harmless eccentrics who know the value of everything and the price of nothing. Alternatively, you can reject both viewpoints and see intellectuals as neither dispassionate nor ineffectual, denouncing them instead as the kind of dangerously partisan ideologues who were responsible for the French and Bolshevik revolutions. Their problem is fanaticism, not frigidity. Whichever way they turn, the intelligentsia get it in the neck.
Oh woe is me, Terry seems to be saying.

But that's the way it is. The 1964 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction went to Richard Hofstadter for his Anti-intellectualism in American Life, laying out how it has always been so on this side of the pond, from Colonial times to now. (Order a copy here and you too can feel put upon and misunderstood.)

Eagleton says the classical intellectual, "in the heroic mould of Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt," seems to have shut up shop. We did inherit the idea of the intellectual from the 18th-century Enlightenment - all that stuff about truth, universality and objectivity - and those days are long gone. These days? - all that stuff is suspect. And Furedi seems to be asserting that these were formerly a problem for the political right. Hey, if you're going to appeal to prejudice, hierarchy and custom, then truth, universality and objectivity are not useful concepts at all. But now the left doesn't like these concepts either. Odd that this happened, isn't it?

Eagleton on why there is now no one around like Sartre, Fanon and Arendt (my emphases) -
In the age of Sontag, Said, Williams and Chomsky, whole sectors of the left behave as though these men and women were no longer possible. Soon, no doubt, they will take to imitating the nervous tic by which the right ritually inserts the expression "so-called" before the word "intellectual". Right-wingers do this because they imagine that "intellectual" means "frightfully clever", a compliment they are naturally reluctant to pay to their opponents. In fact, there are dim-witted intellectuals just as there are incompetent chefs. The word "intellectual" is a job description, not a commendation.

One mark of the classical intellectual (more recently dubbed a "theorist") was that he or she refused to be pinned to a single discipline. Instead, the idea was to bring ideas critically to bear on social life as a whole.

... In fact, a snap definition of an intellectual would be "more or less the opposite of an academic". Once society is considered too complex to be known as a whole, however, the idea of truth yields to both specialism and relativism. Because you can now know only your own neck of the woods, the general critique as launched by the conventional intellectual collapses. There is no longer any big picture, a fact for which our rulers are profoundly grateful. And given that anyone's view is now as good as anyone else's, the authority which underpinned that critique is downsized along with it. To suggest that your anti-racist convictions are somehow superior to my anti-Semitic ones comes to sound intolerably elitist.
Ah, so no one really knows anything much these days. There is no big picture.

But we do value knowledge. People still trot off top graduate schools and the economy depends on a core group of folks who know lots of stuff - management theory, complex computer systems, logistics and distribution, probability and chaos theory as it applies to the trading of financial derivatives, and automobile and aircraft and satellite design. We live is a "knowledge economy" after all.

But there is a catch -
A society obsessed with the knowledge economy, Furedi argues, is oddly wary of knowledge. This is because truth is no longer precious for its own sake.

... At an earlier stage of capitalism, knowledge was not so vital for economic production; once it becomes so, it turns into a commodity, while critical intellectuals turn into submissive social engineers. Now, knowledge is valuable only when it can be used as an instrument for something else: social cohesion, political control, economic production. In a brilliant insight, Furedi claims that this instrumental downgrading of knowledge is just the flip side of postmodern irrationalism. The mystical and the managerial are secretly in cahoots.
Huh? I'll have to think about that last comment - but not too hard. When intellectualism became useful it became useless?

Eagleton explain this, as I understand him, by saying we're short on critical intellectuals - as "thinkers" became "experts" and, in general, culture and education "lapse into forms of social therapy."
The promotion of ideas plays second fiddle to the provision of services. Art and culture become substitute forms of cohesion, participation and self-esteem in a deeply divided society. Culture is deployed to make us feel good about ourselves, rather than to tackle the causes of those divisions, implying that social exclusion is simply a psychological affair. That to feel bad about ourselves is the first step towards transforming our situation is thus neatly sidestepped. What matters is not the quality of the activity, but whether it gets people off the streets. Extravagant justifications for culture are piously touted: it can cure crime, promote social bonding, pump up self-assurance, even tackle Aids. It helps to heal conflict and create community - a case, ironically, dear to the heart of that bogeyman of the anti-elitists, Matthew Arnold. As Furedi points out, art can indeed have profound social effects; but it rarely does so when its value as art is so airily set aside.
Well, people do want what the do to be useful - we are a utilitarian lot. Art for art's sake? That doesn't pay the bills or make us feel better.

And what about education these days? As a former teacher of the useless - English and music - I found this amusing -
The feel-good factor flourishes in education as well. University academics are discouraged from fostering adversarial debate, in case it should hurt someone's feelings. Why indulge in it anyway, if what matters is not truth but self-expression? "Student-centred learning" assumes that the student's "personal experience" is to be revered rather than challenged. People are to be comforted rather than confronted. In what one American sociologist has termed the McDonaldisation of the universities, students are redefined as consumers of services rather than junior partners in a public service. This phoney populism, as Furedi points out, is in fact a thinly veiled paternalism, assuming as it does that ordinary men and women aren't up to having their experience questioned. Rigorous discriminations are branded as "elitist" - an elitist attitude in itself, given that ordinary people have always fiercely argued the toss over the relative merits of everything from films to football clubs. Meanwhile, libraries try frantically not to look like libraries, or to let slip intimidatingly elitist words such as "book".
Ouch! Too true. Did I worry too much about my students' self-esteem? Perhaps I should have undermined it by making them intellectually uncomfortable. Well, actually I did some of that too.

What a mess. We need to identify how we got to this sorry state, where thinking the uncomfortable and challenging each other is a social taboo.

It seems Furedi does not see "market forces or the growth of professionalism as the chief villains in this sorry story." The problem is the politics of inclusion - seeing a virtue in everyone agreeing without much examination of just what it is to which they are agreeing. Can't we all just get along?

Some of us say no. That does not necessarily make us intellectuals, but it's a start.

Posted by Alan at 11:38 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

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