Super Wednesday

Since I’m writing this on Tuesday morning, I have no idea what will happen in all those primaries. What I want to happen is pretty clear to me though and I think this might be the right time to think about it.

Biden 1The Democratic party is split again. There was a time when Democrats were notoriously disorganized at the national level. [1] It was this phase that caused Will Rogers to quip, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

The Democratic party under FDR and his successors were dominant; a ruling party. But that was achieved by uniting “the solid South” with the “liberal North.” It was a great way to win elections, but when it came to policy choices, it tended to split north and south.

Then the Republicans managed to do what would have amazed Will Rogers: they organized the Democratic party. The “Southern strategy,” Lee Atwater’s strategy to appeal to Southern racism trading, by his calculations, five white votes for every black vote they got. Obviously, this shift of “the Solid South” from being solidly Democratic to being solidly Republican, changed the Democrats. They were now—finally—integrated on policy questions. Rather than being “the liberal wing,” they were now “the liberal party.”

The current split, the one that is now stressing Democrats, is between the programmatic left (democratic socialism) and the left of center pragmatists. You can see that split in the orientation of this year’s candidates. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent the programmatic left. The leader of the centrist pragmatists today is Joe Biden Jr. We’ll see how things are on Super Wednesday.

Implicit in this one split are several subordinate choices. One is how important it is to defeat Donald Trump. Every Democrat and at least one Independent wants to beat Donald Trump, but is it worth taking a risk? If Trump is massively unpopular, unpopular at the Goldwater in 1964 level, it would be the perfect time to roll out the new agenda and start trying to look like Finland. If we are going to win anyway, let’s not blow this opportunity.

If Trump looks like he is going to make a very close race, then the risk of allowing him another four years is a big time risk, and the first job is to defeat him and take the Senate. Democratic socialism is a great idea, but first let’s make sure the Democrats are back in power. That means appealing to the swing voters and consolidating the core Democratic programs.

Vote.pngA second consideration is what used to be called “coattails” and is now called “down-ticket effects.” It is the effect the top of the ticket—we are interested now in presidential candidates—will have on candidates for other offices further down the ticket. Some candidates are personally popular, but don’t have a positive effect on candidates for House and Senate from their own party. Some lead a wave of pro-party voting.

That’s what I want. In this time, when the goal of conservatives is to keep government from operating at all, a candidate who won the White House but did not add 5 or 10 points to down-ticket races is not the candidate I want. I want to see, particularly for the Senate, a real improvement in the prospects of Democratic candidates given that X is at the head of the ticket. I’m just solving for X on this dimension.

Finally, the dynamics of the election will be entirely different, depending on who the Democrats nominate. Trump is an angry candidate. He appeals to the anger and resentment of his base. Sanders is an angry candidate, too, and while I wouldn’t say his base doesn’t have resentments, they have aspirations too. That would be two warriors standing at the top of huge pyramids of supporters and whanging away at each other.

A Trump v. Biden race would be another kind of thing entirely. People like Joe. He isbiden 2 very strong in the very group—white men without college degrees—that has sustained Trump. If he won that group, he would be ripping the heart out of the Trump coalition. It seems plausible to me that he would help out other Democratic candidates, but I’m willing to wait and see what the polls show.

I really like the idea that the Democratic convention might be called upon to make a choice this year. The choice would not be only of candidates for President and Vice President, but also a choice of direction for the near future. If they still televise conventions, I might want to watch this one.

[1] Oddly, some very well-organized local Democratic machines were operating at the same time the national party was working with paper clips and tape dispensers.

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Zen agency

I’ve been thinking about agency a lot lately. A agency is fundamental to being human; the costs of giving up on it are catastrophic. By “agency,” I mean only having the sense of acting on your own behalf.

In Martin E. P. Seligman’s superb book Helplessness, he reports on experiments with animals who are actually helpless and those who believe they are helpless, whether they actually are or not. Even a casual reading of that book will give you a rich sense of how valuable agency is.

And then, today [1] I got a contrary idea. I’d like to tell you about the contrary idea and then I would like to find some way to affirm them both.

zen agencyThe contrary idea came to me from W. Timothy Gallwey’s book, Tennis: the Inner Game. Gallwey’s idea is that to play tennis well, you need to expose your body to the game long enough that it can learn the right responses, to give it enough time to learn them, then you need to get out of the way. Give your mind something to do so it doesn’t get in the way of the kind of tennis your body knows how to play.

One of my favorite stories from Gallwey’s book is about an exercise in the topspin forehand. Gallwey is the instructor, and he aims the tennis ball machine where he wants it and tells the student that he just hit away; that Gallwey doesn’t really care where the ball lands. All he cares about, he tells the student, is the student’s ability to say just where the ball lands so he has the student watch watch where every stroke lands and call it out. Two feet too far, just inside the line, three feet out, and so on.

Gallwey doesn’t really care about the student’s ability to do that. He just wants to give the student’s mind something to do so it doesn’t get in the road of his body’s ability to play tennis. So over the course of this exercise, the amount of topspin the student puts on the ball increases. The student doesn’t know that. The clean address of the ball by the racquet gets more consistent. The student doesn’t know that. By the end, the student is hitting screaming forehands that land consistently six inches or less inside the line—gorgeous forehands! And he doesn’t know it until Gallwey calls his attention to it.

This is one of my favorite tennis stories, but what, exactly does it have to do with agency? If agency is the explicit attempt to realize my intention and if my intention is the problem—it puts me, not my body in charge—then agency is the problem, not the solution. The solution for me as a player is to let go and let my body do what only it can do—play tennis.

That’s what Gallwey says. But he knows it isn’t really true. He knows that if the question is who, you or your body, is going to notice that when your opponent begins to rely too much on slice returns, the answer is that you will. “It” will not. On the question of how best to reply to some particular slice—not sliced returns in general—you body will do a much better job than you will and, in doing so, will rely on information you never become consciously aware of at all.

So there is a kind of interplay between “you” and “it.” And, as in all cases of such interplay, there are three jobs. There are the jobs you do better, the jobs it does better, and the job of deciding whether any particular instance falls into the one category or the other.. Imagine that you are the personnel director in a two-person department and that you are one of the employees. (“It” is the other one.) Your job is to hand out all the assignments and to actually do the assignments that come to you.

And if, as seems likely, you are accustomed to doing all the jobs there are, you will have the additional task of getting out of the way and staying out of the way on the jobs that are assigned to “it.”

It is this interplay of doing and not doing that I am calling “zen agency.”

[Gunning Fog Index: 10.63]

[1] In the middle of a stretching class, actually, I had an idea I was afraid I was going to forget, in the middle of all the deep breathing and stack your vertebrae one on top of the other. I was so afraid I would forget it that I left the class and found a piece of paper and a pen and wrote it down. This is it.

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A complaint about Thomas Edsall

Who is Thomas B. Edsall and what is the complaint.  Thomas B. Edsall is one of the best things that happens in a week of The New York Times.  He publishes a column on (most) Wednesdays.  The column is about, says the identifying blurb that comes with it, “politics, demographics, and inequality.”

He has a method for preparing his columns that I like very much.  First, he comes up with Thomas B. Edsall really good question.  Here’s an example: “Aggressive, insulting campaigning is said to be good for turning out your partisans, but does it turn out just as many people to vote against you?”  Is there, in other words a “net turnout gain?”

Take these two paragraphs, for instance, from the same column I am going to complain about.

“We identify three possible negative outcomes for democracy,” the political scientists Jennifer McCoy and Tahmina Rahman of Georgia State and Murat Somer of Koç University Istanbul, wrote in their 2018 paper, “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy.”

The three negative outcomes, according to the authors, are gridlock; democratic erosion or collapse under new elites and dominant groups; and democratic erosion or collapse under old elites and dominant groups.

A really interesting question is posed.  A paper is cited.  It is, you will notice, hyperlinked and the whole article is available is you want to pursue it further.

Having a good question in hand, he writes a bunch of people who have studied the question he has asked.  He writes really good people; he writes people whose books and articles I know.  They write back to him and sometimes he writes back to them to clarify or challenge some point.

The result is a column with a lot of quotations in it.  Edsall provides the question and the narrative and his “guests” provide the experimental data that the question requires.  Edsall actually does more than that and I value the additional things he does—until this last week—but I am trying to present a general model of how he works.

He is in touch with a very considerable range of informed opinion.  He doesn’t “cover” the range from left to right because most of the questions he asks are not left/right questions, but he does use research that relies on different models of data aggregation and different kinds of experimental research and that helps me be confident in his conclusions.


This last week, he cited a paper by Joshua Kalla and David Brookman, who had done an experimental study of “exclusionary attitudes”—prejudice against outgroups, for instance.  They describe a kind of conversation that can produce “durable reductions” in such attitudes.  That sounds to me like a good thing to pursue.

To this hopeful study, Edsall makes two objections: one serious, one snarky.  It will not surprise you that it was the snarky one I object to.  The serious objection was that to the extent the problem is misinformation, the increase in newspaper fact-checking should help.  I don’t think so.  I haven’t been able to access the whole article yet, but the overview appears to have very little interest in  “misinformation.”  And you would not expect it to, given that the focus, as given in the title, is on “exclusionary attitudes.”  So I think Edsall just missed that one.

But he follows that up by saying that to the extent the solution to this problem is what Kalla and Broockman say it is, i.e. the non-judgmental exchange of narratives in interpersonal conversation, it isn’t going to work.  And maybe if won’t.  But Edsall ridicules it by taking the language of the study—language borrowed from therapy—and using that language in a setting where it would obviously fail and where Kalla and Broockman did not propose that it be used.

It is hard, Edsall says:

to conceive of circumstances under which Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, or Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, would “non-judgmentally” exchange “narratives in interpersonal conversations.”

Imagining such conversations between high-ranking politicians noted for their combative style is, indeed, a challenge and I am quite sure—I’ll tell you for sure when I locate the whole article—that Kalla and Broockman did not propose such a conversation.  I also think that Edsall knows they did not propose such a conversation and that he cited the language of the study not to criticize it, buy only to ridicule it.

That’s my complaint.

There is no need to ridicule this study, particularly if you have no better solution yourself.  Edsall does not have a better solution.  I am quite sure that if I asked him what solution he proposes, he would say that proposing solutions is not really his line of work.  I accept that as a valid excuse.  In his studies of “politics, demography, and inequality,” there is really no reason for him to be proposing solutions.  

On what basis would he propose them?  That they have been shown to work is small studies at universities?  That they worked when they were tried in South Africa?  That, as tenuous as the methodology seems, it is the best one proposed so far?  None of those really work for Edsall.  They are not his line of work.

So why should he go out of his way to ridicule a method when a)it’s not his job and b) he doesn’t have anything better?

That’s my complaint.Having said that—and hoping he doesn’t do it again—I want to remember that he is a wonderful source of good questions and solid research that bears on those questions.


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Going uphill requires resources

The summary I found for the recent movie, Downhill, starts like this: “Barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps, a married couple is thrown into disarray…”

I don’t mean to imply that that is inaccurate, but that is not the movie I saw. I want to tell you about the movie I saw. I am aware that it is probably not the movie that directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were trying to make, but it is the movie I went there to see.

Let me illustrate and then we can do a little exploration. Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)and and Pete (Will Farrell) are a barely married couple (they haven’t divorced yet) whose marital poverty is revealed by their responses to the avalanche. They are a couple utterly without resources, without mutual affection, with a goal, without any means of navigating jointly toward that goal. I called attention, in the title I gave this essay, to the fact that it takes energy and resolve to go uphill because that is not the journey gravity has in mind for you. Billie and Pete don’t have energy and resolve—at least not as a couple—so downhill is the only plausible course.  You can almost tell that by looking at them in the picture below.

dowhill 1How do we know their marriage is so poor? Because Faxon and Rush go to some lengths to tell us that in many ways. A good example shows Billie and Pete going down to dinner. [1] There is another couple in front of them. The woman has taken the man’s arm and is turned toward him as they walk. Billie and Pete are walking behind them, side by side, with their hands almost, but not quite, touching. When the weight of the example in front of them begins to press down, they hold hands very tentatively. [2] When the other couple turns into a side hallway, they drop their hands immediately and resume the side to side posture.

Neither there nor at any other time in the film do they show any physical affection for each other. That could have been a resource for them, but they don’t have it.

Here’s another example. Pete has planned this “family vacation.” It is a “family” vacation in the sense that they brought their two pre-teen sons along. It is not a family vacation in the sense that Pete has any idea of doing things the boys would enjoy doing. They are all going to go to Austria and do the things Pete thinks the family might like. [3] Pete planned the trip because he desperately wants to be a hero and spending a lot of money in a beautiful setting on activities that his family can get through only by gritting their teeth, is as close to being a hero as he can come.

It wouldn’t have to be that hard. In saying this, I know I am running the risk of saying that it is all Billie’s fault. That is not what I am saying. I am saying that 
Billie controls whether Pete feels like a hero or not. Pete wants to be a hero to his wife and has, so far, failed, and in his desperation, he has planned this preposterous ski trip to Austria.

If Billie had planned the trip, it would not have been to this hotel; it would have been to the nearby “kid-friendly” hotel and there would have been lots of things to do that the kids like. Billie is a much more sensible person than Pete; she is more realistic, more organized, more practical. But Pete wouldn’t let Billie plan the trip—none of this is in the movie, I’ m just extrapolating from my sense of the fundamental dilemma of the marriage—because he needs to be a hero.  It’s a shame he is so bad at it.

He could, of course, recognize how much better Billie is at planning and settle for being the “big idea guy.” He gets the idea that the family needs a vacation, sells it to Billie, and then supports her in every way as she makes the arrangements. Recognizing Billie’s superior ability doesn’t feel heroic to Pete. Maybe it never did. Maybe it would have, back before his need to be a hero became such an obsession. We don’t know any of that. In any case, it is not what he chooses. This vacation trip is a kind of Hail Mary pass for Pete and like most Hail Mary passes, it is not received successfully.

Pete also does not protect the time he wants to have with Billie. On their first visit to the restaurant, they are invited—insistently invited—to join a hotel employee for dinner. Neither of them wants to go, but eventually, Pete says Yes. It is awful. A work colleague of Pete’s shows up with a free-spirited girlfriend and they take over the next possible “romantic dinner.” Again, Pete could have said No, but Pete does not say No. He does not say No to anyone. He doesn’t understand, apparently, that saying Yes to everyone necessarily implies saying No to the kind of relationship he wants with Billie.

Billie knows that, even if Pete does not. She experiences Pete’s failure to protect the zone of intimacy that would allow them to remember what it was like to be a romantic couple. [4] There is no room in the movie for Billie to tell Pete that—the plot wouldn’t allow it—so I don’t want to say that she should have. I am saying only that she understands what Pete’s affability is costing them and Pete does not.

That’s part one. The skiing trip is a disaster and the reasons I have given are why it is going to fail—avalanche or no avalanche. Part two is about the resources they might have had—they don’t—to navigate the disaster successfully and return home as an intact family.

What would it take? I have made Pete the principal cause of their difficulty so, in a spirit of gender equity, I am going to focus on Billie as the principal cause of their failure to work their way out of the difficulty. In fact, there are so many things wrong, I could stay with either.

Billie’s worst moment—she would agree with this, I’m sure—is the time she and Pete are in a dispute about how he reacted to the avalanche. These were not happenstance avalanches; they are set off by firing cannons placed on the slopes. These are regular and controlled avalanches. Nevertheless, one of them exceeds its mandate a little and breaks over the terrace where Pete and Billie and the kids are eating breakfast. Some people react by running indoors; some by hunkering down at their tables. [5]

The view of the directors is that Pete deserted his family because of his cowardice and that is the view of Billie and the kids as well. Pete holds that accusation off as long as he can and his tendency to deny when he can and obfuscate when denial no longer serves, finally pushes Billie over the edge and she does something that even she knows is wrong. She goes and gets the kids and requires them, in public, to say that their father had deserted them. Pete never recovers from that accusation and, in my estimation, Billie never will either.

She needs to be right. That is her flaw. Ordinarily she holds it at bay, balancing it with other needs she and the family might have, but Pete’s denials are, finally, too much for her and she determines to have her rightness put on display at whatever cost to Pete and the family.

That action that Billie takes, does, however, set up the one potentially redemptive action in the whole movie. They are all taking a last run down the slopes. Pete and the kids have finished but Billie—the best skier in the group—has not made it down. At that point, Pete is reduced to looking anxiously up the hill. [6] Then he goes up looking for her. He finds her sitting on the snow with her skis stuck in the snow vertically. She is done, clearly.

He scoops her up—“rescues her”—and carries her in his arms back down the hill to where the kids are waiting. This is the kind of hero Pete really wants to be, but Billie puts some boundaries on it. “This is for the kids,” she says. “It doesn’t really change anything between us.” Billie is taking an action that will save this family until the boys leave home. It does nothing for the marriage and nothing, also, for the kind of marriage they are teaching their boys to expect for themselves. Pete complains, on the way down the hill that she looks at him as a loser. That is true. There is no compassion at all in her judgment; only embarrassment. She says that if he doesn’t want to be looked at as if her were a loser, he needs to show her something else.

And maybe he does. I wouldn’t bet on it. Pete’s “heroism” is going to require a lot of support from Billie. He really can’t do it on his own. She is going to have to help him decide just what is heroic and to provide the support that allows him to feel heroic when he succeeds. Pete has a lot of strengths as a person—none of which are explored in this film—but acting heroically in the eyes of a wife who sees herself as one of the Olympic judges is not one of those strengths.

So I wouldn’t bet on Pete. That means that I wouldn’t bet on Billie’s willingness to do what she would have to do to turn her doofus husband into the hero he needs to be. You could say that he shouldn’t have that need and that he should give it up. You could say that Billie ought not to have to manage the little dramas which will help Pete feel like a hero. I am sympathetic to both those points.

But neither of those is going to get the job done.

[1] That’s the way I remember it. Bette remembers that they were on their way outside.
[2] Bette remembers that Pete takes Billie’s hand. That’s plausible; Pete cares a lot more about how the family looks to others than Billie does, but I remember it the other way.
[3] These are not, by the way, the things he would have chosen for himself. Faxon and Rush are trying to illustrate Pete’s cluelessness as a father.
[4] One symbol of that failure of Pete’s is that he takes his cell phone with him everywhere he goes and answers it whenever it rings. He does not protect Billie from it which, in my judgment is much worse than failing to “protect her” from the avalanche.
[5] Either response seems reasonable to me, but, in fact, Pete chose to go inside and Billie chose to hunker down with the kids. This difference became the charge that Pete/Daddy had “deserted them.”
[6] Bette remembers that Billie was calling Pete and that he finally heard her. I admit that sounds like Billie, but I didn’t hear her.

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Heaven as dessert

I don’t think this is a totally crazy metaphor. I think it’s mostly crazy.

Let me deal first with the instance in which I think it is not crazy. The way heaven is pictured in some of the slave songs of the American south is not all that different from some of the prophetic accounts of what this world will be like when God establishes His reign fully. This is a picture generated and sustained by a people in slavery.

The common term is that God will make things right. The difference is that in the first, there is a Realm where “rightness” is the natural and necessary condition; in the other, ‘rightness” will be established here, where iniquity now rules. The notion of heaven has a place in those conditions, I think, and that’s why I am not going to call the metaphor of heaven as some kind of dessert entirely crazy.

Heaven is, of course, no one’s desert. No one deserves heaven.

The celestial [1] metaphor I want to work with is you get dessert if you finish your dinner—particularly if you finish your vegetables. Why is it always vegetables?
The deal here is that the meal is disagreeable, but there are compensations for putting up with it.

dessert 1Just to set them aside, let’s eliminate some reasons why the meal is so bad that you have to be bribed to finish it. The first is that it isn’t really bad; it’s just that you have not yet developed an appreciation for it and you will if you have continued experiences with it. The second is that it could have been good except that somehow, salt got used where menu called for sugar. The third is that a lot of good ingredients were ruined by ignorant and/or uncaring preparation and the only reason you have to eat it is some odd moral insistence on “finishing things properly.”

All those situations have their obvious remedies. None of them are what I am talking about.

The distinction at the heart of this veggies/dessert distinction is that you don’t like veggies. That is why you have to be bribed to eat them. But imagine, instead, that you are talking about a lowly job in a sequence of jobs and that you have your heart set on the highest one. The phrase that is often used in such a situation is that you have “paid your dues.” [2] You get to seek a higher job because you have done a lower job. There is the little problem of what is higher and what is lower, but we’ll waive that for the moment.

The lowly job which is a down payment on the more exalted job is better than the veggies/dessert distinction, but it doesn’t really address the problem.

Or consider the famous “marshmallow test” devised by psychologist Walter Mischel and tested out first in his daughter’s elementary school. You can have this marshmallow [3] right now or, if you are willing to wait, you can have two marshmallows. Some children were able to wait and others were not. My interest in the Marshmallow Test as a way of envisioning heaven is only that heaven is sometimes thought of as a reward for all the things you didn’t get to do here on earth. Picture the sins you are most liable to as “the marshmallow.” You were able to postpone “eating the marshmallow” here on earth, so you get lots more marshmallows as your reward in heaven.

That uses a different kind of connection than the veggie/dessert combination, but it has all the same flaws. All it really does is to substitute not doing something bad (your own marshmallow) for doing something good (the veggies). Not much of an improvement.

Let’s try one more. Imagine that you want to have a very good relationship, say a marriage, and in order to prepare for it, you go through some really bad marriages. This fails the “pay your dues” test because you don’t really learn how to have a good marriage by having bad ones. [4] It even fails the veggies and dessert test because there is no relationship—except possibly in the mind of a really bad parent—between between enjoying the veggies and enjoying the dessert. Such a dessert is, at best, a reward for doing something that is judged not to be worth doing for its own sake. That is why the marriages and the vegetables are “bad.”

All those notions of heaven fail right at the beginning. They are so clearly misunderstandings that there is not even much incentive to pursue them to the ugly end. But two other notions of heaven are available. Neither of them takes seriously the notion that heaven is a place.

The first imagines that there is such a thing as dessert. It is everything the meal was…and more. There is nothing compensatory about his notion of heaven. Heaven is like the meal, only more so; like the meal, but without the distractions; like a meal, but perfectly prepared. That notion of dessert is what the experience of the meal leads to and surely that is what we want as our notion of heaven.

In the light of that, I took some pleasure in discovering that our word dessert comes fromdessert 4 a French expression that means “clearing the table.” The French verb is desservir, literally to “un-serve” the meal. Imagine your death, then, as clearing the table. You had a wonderful meal [5] but you dirtied a lot of dishes and silverware. Not to mention the sauce you dripped on the tablecloth and the faint wine ring at the far edge of your plate. All those are cleared away. That is the fitting end of that experience. But it isn’t the end of the meal. After the table has been restored, they bring the fruit and cheese or the sweets or whatever they bring and the appropriate and desired end of the meal has arrived.

In this image, the dessert doesn’t compensate for the meal—as the veggie/dessert picture does—but completes it perfectly. I like that image best of the ones so far, particularly in that it features the “clearing the table” metaphor for death. The one difficulty I have with it is that it requires a “place” in too literal a way for me. If heaven is a place, it needs to be, for me, a “place” in another sense.

I’d like to offer “place” in the sense a married couple might use it in saying that after years of misunderstanding and distraction, they have arrived at “a good place.” Place, in this sense, in another way of saying “time.” We have arrived at a good time. Now imagine that this this couple is a metaphor for a Christian notion—I almost said “the Christian notion,” but I caught myself in time—of a spiritual life in union with God.

Paul imagines something very like that. John is explicit about it, as is Jeremiah. This is a oneness not interrupted as it is “here” (during our life) or “now” (during our life). It is that oneness as it can become when we can give ourselves to it fully. Then we can “come to know” as we have been known all this time. [6]

These are wonderful metaphors and I enjoy them, but I can’t take that ride all the way to the end of the line. The first problem is that while the loving married couple is a good metaphor for the relationship with God, it isn’t a perfect metaphor.

Imagine that the wife is the “God” figure in the marriage, and we want the husband to become more and more “wife-like.” We can say with a straight face that we aspire to be more “Godlike.” But the strain that is clearly apparent in the language of “wife-like” shows that the intimate loving couple is just not good enough.

dessert 3The second problem for me is that I can’t make any progress in thinking of heaven as a place at all, much less a place we come to deserve because we ate our veggies. For me, the notion that I have come to a good “place” with God, meaning, as in the example above, a good “time of relationship” with God is as far as I am willing to go. It is as far as the leash of my need to understand what I am talking about, will let me go. I am perfectly willing to imagine that in my struggle to know as I have always been known, I have come to a place where my continued physical existence really doesn’t matter all that much. In this picture, I will have lived “the life of the ages” as the Johannine Jesus puts it in John 3 and “the life of the ages” is under God’s care.

When I die, I want the table to be cleared and prepared for the next course. I’ve heard it’s wonderful.

[1] “Celestial” refers to the skies, or, in the old days to the canopy which we mistake for the skies. We use it more broadly to mean “heavenly” now.
[2] Not to quibble or anything, but to whom have you paid the dues? If there are actual monetary dues, then there is a treasurer, but ordinarily it is thought of metaphorically and there is no treasurer. There is only the sense that you have done some less attractive and/or less rewarding work and that you have gained something by that experience—possibly a sense of the value of other people’s work or the way the system as a whole functions.
[3] It was columnist David Brooks who first gave it the name “Marshmallow Test.” In fact, the children were allowed to choose whatever kind of treat they liked best. That’s really the only way the test would work.
[4] You might learn how to truly appreciate the good one, but you would not learn how to contribute to it.
[5] There are, I don’t need to tell experienced eaters, all kinds of ways to have a good meal. Some are symbolic, as in lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Some are purely sensual. Some are exactly what your body needs right at that time. All those, in this metaphor, are “good meals.”
[6] That is, in fact, the relationship of knowing and being known toward which the verbs in 1 Corinthians 13:12 point us. Then, Paul says, I will know (a future indicative verb) as I have been known (an aorist, a one instance passive verb). I have tried to catch that relationship in my paraphrase.

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I feel so judged

There was a time—even I remember it—when someone who was really good at something, was admired for it.  Or “respected;” it depends to a certain extent on what it was.  I don’t think we are entirely out of that era—not quite—but a severe challenge to it is being pushed forward and I offer as exhibit one,Jennifer Wiener’s column in the New York Times today.  The headline, for which, as I understand things, Ms Wiener is not responsible, is perhaps the worst face that can be put on this challenge.  It is this: “I feel personally judged by J. Lo’s body.”

Ms. Wiener is 50-ish, she says in the column, and she is looking at the 50-ish body of JLo1Jennifer Lopez, most of which, to judge from the picture, was on display during the halftime show at the Superbowl, and “feeling judged.”  I suspect that Ms. Wiener’s column was written tongue-in-cheek and that the demographic she had in mind when she wrote it found it either hilarious or comforting.  I really don’t have any problem with the column or with Ms. Wiener, but I would like to make this argument the poster child for a truly serious grievance that I do have.

This grievance has several parts. [1]  The first is the “feel” in “feel judged.”  There is no answer to how Ms. Weiner feels.  No one is identified as the one who is judging her, not even herself.  And this isn’t “judged” in some evenhanded manner. [2]  This is a “condemned” kind of “judge.”  This is “found to be inadequate.”  To help us understand why Ms. Weiner feels that way, it would be a great help to know who she thinks is judging her.  The headline doesn’t say and the column doesn’t say clearly.

I think I will still say that “judged” is the second part even though I dealt with them both at the same time in the paragraph above.  I didn’t know I was going to do that

The third element is “ J. Lo’s body”  A naive reading of the headline could imagine that “J. Lo’s body” is the answer to the second question, i.e. it is J. Lo’s body that is doing the judging.  Nobody thinks that.  What Ms. Weiner means, and what everyone reading her understands her to mean, is that J. Lo’s body is the basis, the criterion, on which Ms. Weiner’s body is being judged.  And again, by “judged,” she means, “found to be inadequate and worth of derogation.”

J Lo 2I want to move to a more general point about our attitudes toward excellence, but J. Lo’s body provides such a specific and concrete instance that I want to stay with it as little more.  What would happen, for instance, if Ms. Weiner’s lament were categorized as jealousy?  Jealousy is a bad thing, everyone agrees, and so Ms. Weiner “ought not” be making a home for it in her heart and she should do better.  There is no criticism of Ms. Weiner in “I feel judged.”  She is not “being jealous”—something she does—but rather is “being judged,” which is something someone else is doing.  Just who is doing it, we are not told, but the almost automatic retreat to the passive voice is a technique we will see again.

Part of Ms. Weiner’s critique could, I believe, be called sexist. [3]  She says, “

The answer, I think, is to watch these types of performances like a man.  Women watch a 15-minute show featuring elite entertainers and, in some cases, end up feeling bad about ourselves. Men, meanwhile, watch a three-hour game, played by elite athletes with single-digit body fat, and most won’t feel a single twinge of self-doubt, or miss a single chip from the nacho platter.

The “sexist” criticism involves assigning “men” to one style of watching and “women” to another and then arguing that the way men do it is better.  At least it is better in terms of the subject of this column, which appears to be “self blame.”  But she could, I think, have given men a little better reaction than not feeling “a twinge of self-doubt.”  What about simple whole-hearted celebration? [4]  “Not feeling self-blame” is the very very lowest edge of the spectrum of appreciation.

But the sexism aside, the real premise underlying Ms. Weiner’s critique is, “I ought to be able to do that.”  I look at J. Lo’s body and I think I should be ashamed of not having a body like hers.  Or maybe I think others are judging me harshly for not having a body like hers.  Or, worst of all, I feel others are condemning me and I agree with them.

Just a minute now

Let me come at this from a different angle.  My friend, Connie, and I are members of a working group.  Recently, we have been alternating in producing the minutes of the group’s meetings.  She is really good.  She not only gets it all right, but she uses the need to have an accurate record of the group’s decisions to remind the group that no clear decision has yet been made.  The level of skill she shows has the effect of asking the group an important question: “Is that it?  Is that what I should write down as an action taken?  Is that the person you have agreed is responsible to do this job by that date?”  She is, briefly, very good.

So…should I “feel judged” by Connie’s level of performance?  Would that be different from Ms. Wiener’s “feeling judged by J. Lo’s body?”  I think a good response for me is to make myself Connie’s apprentice and move in the direction of getting as good at it as she is.  I know I am not going to get there.  She has been a master of these techniques for years, but I could get better.

Ms. Weiner imagines a different response.  It manages to reject, without ever saying so, the “feeling judged” experience and accepts the “that’s not me” standard.

Still, I’d been picturing 50 as the year when I’d be done. I’d quit dying my hair and donate my high heels; I’d greet the occasional chin hair with a Buddhist master’s zen and treat my body like a place I could exist without apology…

Two solutions

So, with the single exception of the wistful construction, “I have been picturing…” I see this as Ms. Weiner’s solution to her jealousy.  The solution she has actually chosen.  Having a body she doesn’t feel she needs to apologize for will require letting go of the standard that judges her for not being one of the sexiest women alive—that’s really a standard she wants to affirm?  Really?—and adopting instead standards that allow her to be who she really aspires to be.

That means that my solution—trying to learn how Connie manages to be so good—and Jennifer’s solution, which is relaxing into a life that is guided by standards she really respects, not standards she thinks someone else might hold her to.  Those are two good solutions, I think.  Mine is “I could learn to do that” and hers is “I don’t have to do that anymore.”  Good for me.  Good for Jennifer Wiener.


And now that we have approached this issue in a small and trivial way, let’s take on the 1000 pound gorilla in the room, which is “excellence.”  Excellence is an achievement-related word.   It comes from the Latin verb excellere “surpass, be superior; to rise, be eminent.”  The attack against it often uses the word “exclusive.”  Skipping over the prefix ex-, meaning “out,” we see another Latin verb, this time claudere “to close, shut.” [5]

Note that excelling is something you do.  It is something to which you may legitimatelyJ Lo 3 aspire.  It presupposes agency, the sense of “doing-ness” which characterizes us at our best.  Note also that being excluded—notice the passive voice again—is something someone else does.  It may be fair or unfair, but it is not something I do.  And even if there are things I should do about that process by which I am excluded, that passive verb does not direct me toward it.  That verb doesn’t even say I really ought to be included, although it allows us to imply that.  There is no sense in this ad that the masters are “excluding you” or anyone else.

So, to touch briefly on my own field, American government, let’s imagine the excellence of the Founders as merely exclusiveness.  That is, in fact, where we are going as a culture, so let’s take that standard and put it back in the 1780s.  The design of a new government balanced between a central government and several constituent governments?  Oh yeah.  The separation of the three branches with interlocking and mutually inhibiting grants of rights? [6]  Love it.  The notion that there is a supreme law of the land, not just the power exercised by the the politician best placed to control events?  Love it now more than ever.  These guys were really good!

Or should we say, rather, that I feel really bad that I would not have been allowed to be part of that group?  Should I define them by how “unrepresentative” they are?  [7] Should I look at their gifts and at their hard work and see only that others were excluded?

That, I think is where American culture is going.  I hope we stop and reconsider.  The present challenge to excellence is mean-spirited and small, I think.  And it’s lazy, too.  Condemning “exclusiveness,” rather than praising “excellence” requires someone else to do something.  Stop excluding me.  Emphasizing excellence requires me to do something.  I need to get better.

So…passive resentment or active emulation.  Hmm.

[1]  Here is one of the truly great things about writing a blog.  As I wrote that sentence, I realized that I didn’t know yet what those “several parts” were.  I have a large seething boiling hitherto inarticulate protest against the attitudes that Ms. Weiner is either representing or lampooning (I’m not really sure which) but I haven’t taken the opportunity to understand all that resentment in terms of its constituent parts and their functions.  Here’s my chance.

[2]  The goat I presented at the competition was judged best in the show.

[3]  Of course, it isn’t sexist of she is lampooning these attitudes in her column.  I am taking them at face value because it provides me a beachhead for my counterattack on the war on excellence.

[4]  For instance, I was a basketball player.  When I see good college players do things it never occurred to me to try, I am impressed is a distant not-fully-engaged way.  But when I see them do things I tried to do, myself, and to do them flawlessly, I feel a fully engaged celebration of what they can do.  I could, I suppose, if I put my mind to it, feel judged by their excellence, but I don’t and I don’t think I should.

[5]  Not that the etymologies of these words determines their meaning, but here, as often, we find a persuasive metaphor in the root.

[6]  So the executive branch has some judicial powers and some legislative powers; the legislative branch has some executive and some judicial powers, and so on.

[7]  Also true.  We are talking here about what is to be emphasized.

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“Because I’m worth it.”

It’s a powerful sentiment. No question about it. It is a sentiment, however, not a fact. I think it works as well as it does because it sounds like a fact.

We are accustomed to statements about “worth” and this seems like one of them. We might say of alternative modes of transportation that the more expensive of the two costs more but saves time. “It is worth the extra cost,” we might say, estimating the value of the time to us by comparison with the value of the money. That is subjective, of course, because the value of your time is subjective, but both the cost and the time are external to you. You are the one who estimates their comparative worth.

That doesn’t work any more when you, yourself, are one of the items as well as the chooser.

Because the product that is associated with this slogan is a hair coloring product, we worth it 1might make some progress by having the woman say, “…because having blonde hair is so important to me, I am willing to pay the extra money to get a good product.” That works the same way the transportation example worked. There is a chooser; there are two values external to the chooser and she is required to prefer one ordering to the other.

Even “It is worth it to me” works. But I think “I am worth it” does not work. What am I worth?

If the chooser is another person, someone external to the speaker, then we are back on familiar territory—personnel management, in this case. In sports, it is common to say that one person is more valuable than another. I would pay $10 million to acquire this player, but only $5 million to acquire that one. [1] That works just fine. The chooser is external to both the choices, even though both choices are persons, and the utility has a common metric.

What metric works for my judgment of my own worth?

I can think of one. Just one. There are some patterns of behavior that are widely recognized as belonging to relationships where worth is recognized or denied. These serve as templates. When I am given more than the template would normally allow, I am grateful and when I am given less, I am resentful. In both of those cases, we might say that the person is asserting a “worth” of himself/herself and making a judgment that the worth is recognized or denied or even exceeded.

This is a kind of half-example. There is a worth of the self, that the person himself/herself recognizes and that is accommodated (or not) by others. But this is a half-example only because of the use of the template. It is the template that is the external thing. It is used as an independent and external estimate about what a given person is worth. How should a supervisor be treated, a waitress, a talented artist whose work doesn’t sell, an ignorant and noxious professor who is beloved by his students? Use the template.

All this is background. None of it prepares us to take account of a woman who says she uses an expensive hair color because “she is worth it.” There is no external chooser here. There is no template of social expectations here. The woman’s worth can be measured not by how much the hair color cost her, but by whether her hair (herself) is worth spending that much money on.

You can see what is in this for L’Oreal. It attaches the cost of their product to the worth it 2affirmation of self-worth by the woman who is buying it. Does she want to say she can’t afford it? Not really, because that slides downhill into not being really worth it. All the stress is taken off the cost, but it is not put, as it would ordinarily be, on the value of the effect. No, it’s just of the worth of the woman. The more money she is prepared to spend on hair color, the more she is worth in her own estimation.

That rationale got a little rich for some of the actresses who were called upon to look into the camera and proclaim their worth. Again, this outrageous proclamation doesn’t cost L’Oréal anything, but it apparently cost the actresses something. One story I heard said that it was Andie McDowell who finally said the line just didn’t feel right to her. She proposed, the way I heard it, changing the line to “…because you’re worth it.”

Of course, this changes the dynamic entirely. Now you don’t have to generate some (high) estimate of your worth. You don’t have to consult a social template of some sort to determine just how a person like yourself ought to be treated. All you have to do is to accept a few simple propositions from a beautiful and well-known actress. One is that she, who does not know you, knows what your worth is. Two is that the worth is very high. Three is that that worth justifies spending a lot of money on a product to change the color of your hair.

If you accept all three of those propositions, you go and buy L’Oréal and just hope someone chastises you for spending all that money on yourself. [2] If you want to bail out on any of the three, which will it be? Each is fraught.

Which is, I suppose, why it works. [3]

It does have that one little down side of equating your sense of your own value with the amount of money you are willing to pay for a product that advertises itself as unusually expensive. It is, bluntly, consumer spending as the indicator of self-worth that really costs us.

And I really don’t think it’s worth it.

[1] This is a little trickier than it sounds because of the way labor markets work. If a player is available who will provide $10 million of services to the team, you would pay $10 million to get him or her if you had to. But if there are other players available, you might not.
[2] The critic would not say “on yourself” or even “on your hair.” Possibly “on your appearance” or, if the critic is really nasty, “on cosmetics.” The critic knows that once “the self” is established as the receiver of value, the critic’s game is lost.
[3] Or why it “worked,” I should say. The current ads, I learned today, emphasize the health and strength of the hair, not the color. Health is good. I saw an ad recently promising “fiscal health.”

Fog Index 9.444

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