Wednesday, April 28, 2010



Over the last half century, "imperialism" has become a dirty word in American academic discourse. During that time, prevailing rhetoric has extolled multiculturalism, tolerance and multiperspectivism. It has championed the rights of historically disadvantaged groups while denigrating traditionally powerful ones. It has empowered the downtrodden and strengthened the weak. It has justified the historically unjustifiable. In the process, university rhetoric has identified "imperialism" as the worst thing one culture can do to another. Great civilizations, so the rhetoric goes, no longer conquer and dominate others. Great civilizations tolerate everyone and allow every culture to flourish within their borders.

Yet I venture that this is an anomalous trend. In fact, I argue that Nations unafraid to act imperialistically are strong Nations, while Nations afraid to do so are weak.

I understand that this squarely contradicts how we are "supposed to think" about imperialism today. But true to my word, I am determined to speak out this week about uncomfortable subjects. To use Nietzsche's term, I am determined to make "Uncontemporary Observations" concerning subjects we have been taught never to consider any other way.

Imperialism is about national power. In its purest form, it means the purposeful, intrusive projection of one Nation's military and cultural power over another Nation. To understand what that entails, it is essential to understand what "Nations" are. In past essays, I have noted that "Nations" and "States" are distinct terms. "Nations" refer to discrete populations united by common linguistic, cultural, genetic and religious traditions. "States," on the other hand, refer merely to a population's adherence to a particular governing instrument for the sake of common administration and convenience. Many Nations can exist under a common State. But Nations are unique.

Throughout history, some Nations have prevailed, while others have fallen. Nations that have prevailed generally have successfully engaged in imperialism. They have crushed and dominated their neighbors. They have brutally stamped out opposition and imposed their own cultural traditions on their defeated enemies. These Nations cared nothing for multiculturalism or tolerance. They did not blink at brutality. Rather, they felt so secure in their own power that they gladly violated other Nations' territory to absorb them into their own realms. This is not a popular thing to do these days. But history shows that the most influential Nations have been the most imperialistic, too.

Consider Rome. Rome grew to eminence because it projected its values across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. By sheer will and military prowess, it subjugated its neighbors, occupied their territory and imposed its values on them. It even made them speak Latin and build infrastructure according to the Roman model. It forced them to live under Roman law and observe Roman customs. Rome was strongest when it was unafraid to conquer. It affirmed its own beliefs when it ruthlessly destroyed all who stood before it. Through imperialism, Rome made itself great. At its height, Rome conquered and killed without a second thought. It believed so strongly in its own values that it did not hesitate to eradicate whole Nations.

But consider now how Rome fell. Rome collapsed several centuries after it stopped waging imperial wars. Once it reached its territorial zenith, Roman values began to weaken. Its government began tolerating new ideas and new cultural trends. Internal cultural cracks developed. Its military power waned. Barbarians began picking away at the frontiers. Put simply, Rome lost its appetite for imperialism. It lost faith in its own rightful dominance. So Nations with more assurance in their own values filled the void. They overran Rome and destroyed it.

Turn now to England and Spain, the "great" European colonizers of the Americas and Asia. Both Nations achieved spectacular eminence because they shamelessly engaged in imperialism. Both Nations reached their zenith when they brutally laid claim to others' land and genocidally slaughtered anyone who opposed them. They unswervingly believed in their own causes: Just like the imperial Romans, the British and the Spanish believed that their values were far superior to the Natives they displaced. So they killed, enslaved and uprooted them without a second thought. In the process, they reshaped the world. Like it or not, the fact that English and Spanish are among the world's most spoken languages is the direct result of unabashed, vicious global imperialism. Like it or not, the only reason why European white people live in North America today is because England and Spain barged in and killed everyone else who used to live there. The very existence of the United States is the product of an original, shocking act of imperialism by Great Britain.

To summarize, Nations are strong when they conquer. They believe in their own values so much that they do not shrink from trampling and absorbing other Nations. Nations weaken when they lose faith in their own dominance and begin tolerating dissention in their own borders. Imperialism showcases a Nation's shameless belief in itself; and its contempt for any culture that differs from it.

Needless to say, it is no longer popular to endorse imperialism. It is no longer acceptable to say that one Nation is rightfully superior to another, let alone to suggest that one Nation has the authority to seize territory and butcher native inhabitants in another country. Yet it is precisely that vicious cultural intolerance that created the United States. That same intolerance sustained all the world's mightiest empires. When a Nation engages in imperialism without shame, it declares to all the world: "My Nation is so great that it deserves to dominate you."

America presents an interesting case. Despite all the recent discourse condemning imperialism, the United States remains an immensely imperialistic country. Since roughly 1865, America has engaged in imperialism all over the world. First, it eradicated or marginalized native populations in its own continental borders. Second, it overran Hawaii. Then it battled Spain and conquered Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Philippines and numerous Pacific islands. In World War I, it projected its national power into European affairs, playing a substantial role in dictating the peace terms at Versailles. In World War II, the United States achieved monumental national power by almost single-handedly defeating Japan and Germany, then permanently occupying both defeated countries. After World War II, the United States created the United Nations and oversaw "world peace" by policing various national conflicts from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Central America. Later, the United States invaded Iraq on fabricated "self-defense" grounds, plunging that country into civil war.

America's voracious imperialism does not end with military conquest. Beyond physical incursions into other Nations' affairs, America also engages in unabashed cultural intrusion. Its music and film industry dominate the entire world. Children from China to Germany to Africa all learn English so they can listen to American songs and watch American movies. People in Beirut listen to Michael Jackson and Rihanna. Business people all over the world adopt English as their lingua franca. America's cultural imperialism is so complete that when two foreign businessmen meet, chances are they will speak English to each other, even if neither is a native English speaker. None of these things would ever have come to pass if America had not engaged in overwhelming, successful imperialism over the last 150 years.

In this light, perhaps it is not a bad thing to say that a Nation like the United States is "imperialistic." After all, America dominates the world in a way not seen since Rome. Its culture, language and military cow the globe into submission. All other Nations measure themselves by the American standard. Like all empires in history, America's imperialism shows that the United States ruthlessly believes in itself. It does not tolerate dissention abroad. And it has shown that it will crush any Nation that opposes its power. Put simply, America is strong; and it is not afraid to beat anyone down who thinks otherwise.

Is imperialism unpopular? In university rhetoric, of course it is. But when we look closely at what imperialism means--and what it has wrought in the United States--we discover an embarrassing truth: We are all the products of imperialism. Our "American civilization" arose because England and Spain were unafraid to savagely kill the natives who once occupied this land. We speak English and Spanish in North America because the British and Spanish felt so superior that they had a right to set up shop on a foreign continent. And we now live in the world's most powerful Nation because the United States carried on the imperialistic tradition that gave it life in the first place.

America was born in imperialism. It will always be imperialistic. Imperialism showcases American values. It reflects intolerance for all who oppose us. In a perverse way, however, it also confirms America's health. As long as America is unafraid to savagely destroy its enemies and to project is culture over all the world, it is still--as Rome was--at the height of its power. America has not stopped expanding. Indeed, it is not in our nature to stop expanding. Once we stop expanding--whether culturally or militarily--we are no longer imperialistic. And when that happens, we can expect our power to gradually wane, just as Rome's did.

Thus, despite all the criticism, an imperialistic Nation is a healthy Nation. Imperialistic Nations might act like ferocious animals, but ferocious animals defeat any living thing that opposes them. In that light, we can thank imperialism for giving us this mighty Republic, as well as all the comforts it brings.

This is my uncontemporary observation for the day.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010



I want to take some time to mention what I'm planning to write over the next few days. I think it's especially important to lay out my intentions this time because I am about to venture into very difficult territory.

Whenever I set out on a new intellectual endeavor, I always think of my mentor: Friedrich Nietzsche. In this instance, I think about the title to one of his aphorism collections: Uncontemporary Observations. Nietzsche did not care whether he wrote about subjects that ruffled traditional feathers. He purposely contradicted the expectations of the "the present" and "contemporary" society. His ideas at times recapitulated themes from distant history. At other times, they foretold the future. In either case, he was not "contemporary." To the contrary, he purposely defied "contemporary."

Writers face constant pressure to be contemporary. After all, you can't be successful if you don't write to meet present expectations. Yet no one ever evolves without taking daring chances; and writers are no exception. By accident, I find myself in early 21st Century America: A strange, confusing, conflicted, changing civilization. There are certain subjects that we simply do not talk about, or at least we do not voice certain sentiments about them in public. It is irrelevant what we privately think about these "taboo" subjects. We just never voice what we really believe. Sometimes our beliefs are not even conscious.

Race is among those subjects. Personally, race is an obsession of mine. It frequently inspires my writing because it is so maddeningly relevant. Yet there are certain things we simply do not say about it, no matter how often we think them.

Race has played a pivotal role in American civilization from our earliest history. Through race, we have seen just how low American civilization can fall. Through race, we see our principles challenged. All our grand rhetoric about equality, dignity and fairness falls flat when applied to the American experience with race. It is no surprise that much of my satire involves racial realities in the United States. After all, when we honestly view race in America, we see several different Nations living in one. And they aren't all equal, no matter what the law says.

But I struggle with my own conflicts about race. In my writing and in my public expressions, I vociferously advocate equality. I believe that everyone in this country--no matter their origins--should have equal legal opportunities and a fair shot at success. I truly believe that. It is only just. We cannot claim to live in a just society if some people do not have the same chances for success simply because of their ancestry in a certain country or a certain continent.

Yet even in saying this I feel myself a hypocrite. In fact, I come close to a confession when I say that I am a racist. But we all are. Americans simply do not understand that racism comes in many shades. Some are overt, but most are extraordinarily subtle. Everyone in the United States is a racist in their own fashion; you do not have to be David Duke to be a racist. Rather, every American--including declared liberals--harbors deep-rooted cultural expectations about the "ways" of different ethnic groups. Every American believes on some level that people in other ethnic groups are "different" and "act differently" than they do "because that's the way they are." They do not necessarily mean it in a malicious way; but it is ever-present. And it is racism.

We are racists the moment we say: "Two guys and a black guy entered the room." I was raised with these distinctions. I also grew up in a distinct cultural background (southeastern Connecticut; and as the biological product of hardworking Northern European Protestant descendants). Both by nature and by operation of economic forces, that cultural background was racially exclusive. For the longest time, I never thought I was racist. How could I be? After all, I always learned that it was "bad to be a racist" and that I wasn't a racist because I did not publicly say bad things about people in other ethnic groups. But my own family--the same family that taught me these abstract lessons about race with the best possible intentions--cultivated a set of cultural values in me that made me completely dissociate myself from other races. Those values also made me intuitively judgmental toward anyone who did not share them. And on a subconscious level, I began to believe that my values were normal, while others were not. That was racist.

Racism is everywhere in the United States. It is on everyone's mind all the time. And it is intensely private. When white people eat at a restaurant and a black beggar enters the restaurant, I challenge everyone sitting there to say that they do not harbor certain negative assumptions about black people: "Why doesn't he work? Why do they beg? Why are they all so poor? They're all like that..." they think. They might be ferocious liberals and believe in equality. But in that cultural situation, I challenge them all to say that they do not make immediate judgments about black people in their own private minds. And it is not their fault: It is simply a function of their own cultural backgrounds reacting to another cultural background.

America elected Barack Obama. But that does not mean we are not beyond racism. My "uncontemporary observation" on this subject is that EVERYONE IS A RACIST. It is just a question of degree. We may bear no conscious ill-will toward other ethnic groups. Yet when we make even the most subtle assumptions about them, we are racists. Even disadvantaged ethnic groups engage in racism. I challenge any black person to say he harbors no assumptions about white people when placed in a social situation with them: "He's not going to be fair with me. He's not going to treat me right. He's going to condescend to me. He's going to exploit me. He's going to disrespect me. He's going to fire me because I'm black. That's what they all do. White people are mean and will hurt me any chance they get." Racism goes in both directions--all the time.

Overcoming racism is about more than turning to the law for superficial equalization. Overcoming racism is a mammoth cultural endeavor; and we are nowhere near achieving it. Until we truly harbor no assumptions or expectations about "how other ethnic groups act," and until we truly do not think "How typical" when someone from a particular ethnic group acts in a particular way, we are racists. Yet we do these things all the time without even knowing it. We are merely giving expression to the combined weight of our respective cultural heritages. Heritage bears down upon us in America as in no other country on earth. Nowhere on earth have so many disparate cultural traditions been thrown in with one another. And nowhere else has such burning intolerance arisen when those traditions clash.

Let me be clear for the record. I live my life to avoid racism in all things. But I am still as racist as every other American because I cannot honestly say that I do not occasionally make negative assumptions about other ethnic groups in difficult situations. In this sense, we are all racists. When a black youth wearing a doo rag, low pants, a crooked hat and gangster-style sports garb acts rowdy with his friends on a subway train, I intuitively think: "He is up to no good. He's going to cause a scene." I wish I didn't. But I do. I tell myself I shouldn't think it. I challenge any white person from my cultural background to claim the very same thoughts do not flash in his mind in the same situation.

I have no solutions to the racism problem. The best we can do is to forbear as much as we possibly can in our external behavior. We must try to understand one another as best we can for the sake of order and coexistence. It is relatively easy never to "act like a racist" or "say racist things" in public. It is easy not to be David Duke. But it is not so easy to truly drive racist thoughts from our minds in pressing circumstances.

I wish we weren't all racists. I really, really do. But we would all be dishonest if we said we weren't. And I will immediately call anyone a hypocrite who denies his own racism. Racism is not just the overt hatred we hear about in groups like the KKK. Racism is also about unconscious economic segregation. Living in a part of town that no black person can afford is racist, too. Supporting an economic system that perpetuates racial inequalities is racist, too. After all, why do most wealthy white people live in areas that black people cannot afford? Because they won't have to be around black people. When black people are around, it's a "bad neighborhood." Even using the term "bad neighborhood" is racism. It is no coincidence that "bad neighborhoods" are always the poor, black areas. And it is racist to assume the poor, bad areas are always black. Yet people who claim not to be racist use the term "bad neighborhood" all the time.

Consider a white real estate broker who thinks he is not a racist. He says to his client: "You don't want to live above 96th Street. That's a bad neighborhood." Why? Because black people mostly live there. How can that not reflect deeply entrenched, racist assumptions about black people? Think about how often we use terms like "bad neighborhood." They are racist. And most barely comprehend why.

Racism in the United States is exquisitely subtle. It is the inevitable byproduct of placing so many cultural backgrounds in close proximity to one another, along with the natural human propensity to resent those who are different. As such, racism is everywhere. I know it's not popular to say. But that does not mean we cannot honestly grapple with it. Is it terrible? Of course it is. But there are lots of terrible things about American life; and in my view it makes more sense to call a spade a spade than to pretend it's not.

This is my uncontemporary observation for the day.

Monday, April 26, 2010



I am a very polite person. Even when it makes sense not to be polite, I am polite. It is almost reflexive for me to be polite. In my early life, I learned always to be polite. My mother always said: "Be polite! Say thank you! Do not ask for more!" My mother had another name for this institutionalized politeness: "Good manners."

I did not have a choice. I had to be polite. On the other hand, I grew up in suburban Connecticut. People were not out to get me; in fact, most people were extremely nice. Why not be polite to nice people? They deserved it; they meant me no harm. I didn't mind being polite. In the process, I learned to respect everyone I met. They never hurt me, so it was only fair for me respect them.

But things changed as I got older. Once I graduated from college and started living in the commercial world, I quickly found that not everyone was as nice as they were in my Connecticut childhood. To the contrary, I discovered that most people were dishonest scoundrels who would sooner backstab you than help you up if you slipped on a banana peel. In fact, they would probably even laugh if they saw you fall. Even if they weren't malicious, I found most people flaky and unreliable. If someone told me they "would call me again some time," in almost every case they did not.

Yet I was always polite with these people. I shouldn't have been, but I was. After all, it was reflexive. It was a vestige from my idyllic childhood. I smiled with them, said thank you, made small talk. I even did favors for some. Then I received nothing in return. Many even took advantage of my politeness and gained from it.

Slowly, I realized that it made no sense to be polite all the time. Most people exploited it. And almost no one appreciated it. In fact, it seemed that impolite people succeeded much more frequently than polite people. Impolite people ran right over the polite people and got away with everything. What good did smiling and thanking do? Not much.

Still, I was determined not to become just another impolite ogre on the New York streets. I simply learned to be more wary about according respect to everyone I met. I adopted a new rule: Be polite with exceptions. I used my intuition about whether someone deserved my respect. I tried to sense whether someone was worth respecting, or whether they were just another self-interested shark in the water. Sometimes it was obvious to me that someone was a self-interested shark. So I wasn't polite to them. They had nothing ethically in common with me. So there was no need to be polite. Why be polite with someone who would just as soon leave you dead in a gutter? That is just stupid--and servile, too.

I developed a real suspicion toward new acquaintances. Eventually, I could detect immediately whether someone was a complete selfish asshole or whether they were worth further emotional investment. In some settings, I was polite no matter what, as when I interacted with sales staff and other pathetic commercial pawns who obviously meant me no harm. But in all other settings, I kept my guard.

Recently, for instance, I walked back into my building after taking my dog for a stroll. I got on the elevator. A moment later, a very smily, well-dressed woman with a leather portfolio and an expensive cell phone joined me, along with some bewildered looking adolescent who wore his hat backwards. She was clearly a real estate agent showing apartments to this little punk, who probably had just graduated from college and whose dad was definitely paying the rent.

As soon as the doors closed, this insufferable woman opened her mouth. "What a cute little dog! What's his name? What's the breed? This is a nice building, isn't it? The elevator is very nice. It is very convenient. The lighting is good. BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH."

I was about ready to vomit. I couldn't help but notice the Cartier bracelet on the agent's wrist as she spewed forth her endless, dishonest pleasantries. I knew instantly that she was just talking to keep things on an even keel with her client. After all, no one likes awkward silence. So she filled the air with condescending blather. "It's a wonderful building! You like it here, don't you? It's such a great location, isn't it? There's a grocery store right downstairs, you know," she told me, as if I didn't know there was a grocery store in my own goddamn neighborhood.

"Yes, there sure is," I said, without a smile. I consciously said it impolitely. "And my dog is a she."

"Oh, wonderful," she responded without missing a beat; and without really registering what I said. God forbid any silence should intervene to make her client feel uncomfortable. For his part, the youth-soaked client just stood there staring at the floor indicator as the elevator rose. He was wearing shower shoes, shorts and looked like a smug, boring-ass moron. On weekdays, he probably put on a suit and shlepped to some skyscraper to type emails for one of his dad's friends. Worse, he probably even felt important for it. I could see it immediately.

Thankfully, client and professional stepped off the elevator two floors below mine. They went about their business. The agent kept chatting the whole time. The client bumbled along a step or two behind. He was probably thinking about going out later that night. She mentioned something about a trash compactor as they faded from earshot.

I thought about how impolite I had been with this woman. It didn't bother me at all. Why should I have been polite to her? What did she mean to me? Would she have helped me with anything? And why was she even talking to me in the first place? To provide confirmation for her silence-destroying questions? She was using me as an instrument to avoid awkwardness with her client and talking to me as if I knew nothing about my own building. I knew what she was trying to do. She was trying to seal the deal with this little brat by appearing "friendly" and glib with everyone she encountered along the way. I was just a bump along the road to her commission. That's what bothered me.

Why should I have respected this woman? Why should I have been polite? I do not award politeness to people in situations like this. I do not respect people who ingratiate in order to fill their own pockets. So I do not smile or act nice. Now, that does not mean I am an impolite person. Quite the contrary; it simply means I am judicious with my natural politeness. It also means that I resort to impoliteness with people who deserve to be treated impolitely. Don't be fooled: They are out there. And it is actually worse to treat them politely.

I have been walked over too often for being polite. That is why I now know when to be polite, and when not to be. Believe it or not, it is undignified--and very weak--to invariably be polite with everyone you meet. On the whole, people don't deserve it. So you need to learn when it works to be polite, and when it doesn't.

Friday, April 23, 2010



At some point in our lives, we all wonder whether we are "good people." We live with others. We know how "good people" act. We have an intuitive sense about what makes a person "good." We even hear things about what makes a person "good:" They are friendly, kind, forbearing, compassionate, ethical, honest, caring, loving, trustworthy, gracious, forgiving and generous. "Good people" do not hurt you. They do what they say; and they apologize if they do not. They consider you at the same time they consider themselves. Aristotle and many other philosophers have written tomes about what it takes to be "good." It is an age-old question.

Of course, not everyone can agree on what is "good." You can't know you are a good person until you know what is good in the first place. What is good in one person's eyes may be bad in another. It is easy to lay down absolute standards for goodness. Yet like all ethical dilemmas, only we can say whether we subjectively feel that we have done right. Nonetheless, we can generally all agree that being "good" involves living without intent to injure other people. In that sense, being a "good person" essentially depends on positive motivation. And that positive motivation shines through in good actions toward others. Good people think selflessly; they refuse to hurt others to advance their interests. Bad people do the opposite; they are willing to hurt others to help themselves.

Being a good person is an individual lifestyle. It does not depend on how much money you make or what you do for a living. While it is possible to identify "objective" factors that hint whether a person is "good," true goodness comes from the heart, not from action alone. Enron fraud artists probably donated some money to charity the same year they robbed millions; that donation did not make them good people. No, being good is internal; and good shines through in external action. It is hard to verify. But everyone knows it when they see it.

It is refreshing to know a truly good person because they are rare. In our world, it is hard to be selfless and honorable. There are so many impulsions to discard goodness toward others in order to advance yourself. By the same token, it is hard to be patient. No one wants to wait or understand others' problems. Nor do they want to waste their time on others without reward. After all, people need to fend for themselves. They only have a limited time to get the job done. If they waste their time being nice to others, they might injure their own fortunes. And no one likes to do that. Put simply, we expect most people not to be good; our society frustrates goodness. That is why it is a welcome relief to meet a good person.

There is no formula to being a good person. Yet people throw the term around far more than they should. In many cases, they say someone is "good" solely because they act in a way that enriches them. That misunderstands what it means to be good. A truly good person acts with malice toward no one. The fact that a person acts the way another person wants them to does not make him good. To the contrary, expecting a person to act in a way that is beneficial to you undermines their value as an individual. It "instrumentalizes" them; it makes them pawns in a game you want to win. Just because someone pays you according to a contract does not make them "good." Merely fulfilling an external legal obligation is no shortcut to goodness. A good person holds to his word because it is his word, not because the law threatens him to do so.

Yet many people think that observing external obligations makes you "good." It is easy to make this mistake. After all, complying with the law seems like a "good" thing to do. But the law is indifferent to intention. And intention is the only thing that determines whether a person is good. In that sense, it is possible to seem good by fulfilling every imaginable legal standard. Yet it is also possible to have only bad intentions while complying with the law. You can be a total scoundrel yet do nothing illegal. If a person did not know you, they might say: "Well, he is law-abiding. So he must be a good person." To that extent, fulfilling external obligations can disguise ethical flaws.

I encountered an example to illustrate this easily confused distinction in the New York Post a few days ago. I read an article about some poor web designer who got run over in a Brooklyn street. See N.Y. Post, Horror hit-run in B'klyn, April 19, 2010 at p. 9. The article quoted his landlord. She spoke about his character: "He works. He comes home. He's a very good person (emphasis added)."

What did the landlord know about this guy? How did she know he was a "very good person?" She based her assessment on the fact that he works and comes home. What does that have to do with ethical goodness or pure intention? Nothing. If anything, it reveals that the landlord thinks the web designer was a "good person" solely because he went to his job, came home every night and ostensibly paid the rent. He might have been an utter scoundrel who doublecrossed his friends and broke women's hearts. Yet as far as the landlord was concerned, he was a "good person" because he adhered to his contractual obligations to pay rent. He also was a "good person" because he quietly went to his job and caused no disturbances.

I suppose this is what it takes to be a "good person" in a landlord's eyes. Landlord apply a "formula" for goodness: Have good credit; make an income; cause no trouble; pay your rent; keep your mouth shut; pay next month's rent; pay a late fee after the first. Your intentions do not matter. And "being a good person" means acting exactly the way the landlord wants. In this case, the landlord happened to like the way her tenant behaved because he did what enriched her. She morally approved him because his behavior coincided with her interests. His own ethical qualities did not influence her appraisal. It was "all about her." And that determined whether he was "good."

This gravely misunderstands what it means to be a "good person." A person is not "good" simply because he acts in a way that enriches another. Nor is he "good" simply because he adheres to contractual obligations under law. Rather, goodness is more subtle than that. There is no checklist. Action is not enough. It takes real reflection to see whether someone is good. Getting a rent check in the mail every month does not suffice to prove goodness.

Criminals and scallywags can mail rent checks, too. That does not make them good people.

But who has time to sit down and really think about character in our society? It seems we only care about character when we want to damage a foe with some embarrassing "flaw." And once again, we do that to merely to advance ourselves at their expense. By hurting them, we help ourselves. And hurting others is rarely good.

Thursday, April 22, 2010



In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes "successful" lives in the United States. In large part, he focuses on work: What draws "successful" people to their work, and why do they enjoy it? In broad outline, he asserts that "satisfaction with work" involves three distinct criteria: (1) Autonomy: You must have control over what you do; (2) Complexity : Your work must involve fresh mental challenges, not mind-numbing repetition; and (3) Connection between Effort and Reward : You must receive compensation in an amount that fairly correlates with the amount of effort you believe you have expended. Gladwell says that all three criteria must be present for a person to "enjoy their job."

I agree with Gladwell that people who have autonomy in their working lives "enjoy" their work far more than people who receive condescending orders all day in a suffocating corporate hierarchy. I also agree that people who face fresh new tasks every day enjoy their jobs more because they do not burn themselves out endlessly doing the same thing day after day. And I agree that people who get paid what they think they deserve obviously feel better about working than people who receive virtually nothing for ceaseless effort.

But who the hell fulfills any of these criteria at a typical American job, let alone all three? Gladwell's formula might be accurate, but it is essentially inapplicable: In America, our employment system is not designed to grant autonomy, complexity or fair rewards. To the contrary, it is designed to suppress autonomy, eliminate complexity and pay the least for the most effort. This is the sad truth. And it is no one individual's fault: It is the fault of private capitalism and its tendency to instrumentalize human beings for private profit. And this is also why no one is really "happy" at their job, at least under the Gladwell criteria.

Gladwell's criteria are antithetical to a private employment system committed to corporate profit. In America, most working people are corporate employees. That means that they serve an incorporeal legal entity that is, in turn, established to enrich those who own it. As such, they are mere pawns in a vast machine that is not working for them; it is working for the shareholders. Indeed, they are not just practically working for the shareholders. They are legally bound to act in their interest. Corporate employees are "fiduciaries." That means they must set aside their own personal interests to serve the corporation. If they put their interests first, they could face a lawsuit for "breach of loyalty."

In this environment, "autonomy" is anathema: Corporate employees must know their place in the hierarchy. They do not control their working lives. They receive orders from supervisors, branch office managers and other "higher-ups." They do as they're told, not as they want. While they might have "illusory" autonomy over a few meager peons in the mail room, in reality they are just pieces in a larger corporate jigsaw puzzle. They have no autonomy. They are instruments. In this light, it is impossible for the vast majority of American employees to meet the "autonomy" prong of Gladwell's analysis. As such, they cannot be "satisfied with their jobs."

Private capitalist employment systems also make "complexity" an impossible goal. In most corporate settings, employees exist for a single reason: To perform a discrete task calculated to maximize corporate earnings. Companies do not expect complicated thinking or novelty from their employees; they expect employees to learn their role and do it every day--forever. After all, companies operate under the so-called "profit principle." They expect a certain profit every month, and they hire employees to carry on the operations necessary to win that profit. If the employee deviates from his expected role, he threatens the profit margin. That is unacceptable. As such, employees cannot rightly insist on "complexity" in their jobs. That would contradict their purpose in the corporate scheme. They exist to do one thing: Process claims; answer phones; file papers; send mail; appear in court; put shoelace in shoe; hammer nails; the list goes on.

Employees are like machine parts. What good is a cog if it insists on being a wheel? Cogs must be cogs and nothing else. That is how our system works. And that is why it is impossible to achieve "complexity" in most American jobs. It would undermine the entire reason why employers hire people: To transform them into single-minded profit generators who do a simple task and no more.

Finally, our private capitalist system also heavily disfavors a "connection between effort and reward." Companies do not employ people to pay them what they think they deserve. Rather, companies exist to generate a particular profit level for their owners. To generate that profit level, managers must examine two factors: Income and expense. Employees are an expense. But they are necessary to generate income, too. Thus, employees represent a "profit balancing act" in the corporate scheme. They must be paid; but never so much that their salaries threaten the expected profit. Employee effort has nothing to do with it. It is all about numbers-crunching to satisfy the shareholders. While a happy employee would certainly like to get money commensurate with his long hours, employee satisfaction is not the goal. Employers don't care whether their employees think they are getting a fair deal. They don't care whether employees feel that they are getting comparatively nothing for their effort. None of that matters. Only the profit margin matters. In that light, almost no American employees--or any employees in a strictly capitalist system--can insist on a "just" connection between their effort and reward. After all, it is not about them. It is about the shareholders.

Considering all these things, it is no wonder that almost no one "likes their job" in the United States. Those who say they like their job are probably just being dishonest with themselves. Perhaps they meet one factor from Gladwell's test and mistake it for true happiness. Maybe they get to perform a novel new task every Thursday and now think their work is "complex." Maybe they have a few college students to supervise and now think they have "autonomy." Or maybe they got a $500 Christmas bonus for working 2500 hours last year, and now think they have a fair "connection between effort and reward." Yet these are all illusory "achievements." They do not change the system. The employee remains firmly under the corporation's control. And he remains instrumentalized: He exists solely to generate profit in exchange for the smallest paycheck possible in the circumstances.

Some will say I am exaggerating how many people cannot meet Gladwell's test for "work happiness." Some will say that only certain job "classes" cannot achieve autonomy, complexity and just reward for effort. But I know from experience that so-called "better jobs" are no more satisfying than "lesser jobs" under Gladwell's standard.

I was a lawyer. People think that lawyers are all rich and have wonderful working lives. They are "professionals," so they must have autonomy. They are highly educated, so they must encounter interesting, new and "complex" work every day. And they obviously must make a lot of money from their effort.

Yet that was not the case: I was a pawn in our law office. I had virtually no autonomy. I had to follow instructions from senior lawyers and the firm's boss. I received harsh criticism and discipline for failing to know my place. I was reprimanded for suggesting novel ways to approach old problems. In short, I was low on the totem pole. I did not control my own destiny. And it felt really bad.

Neither was my work "complex." I did the same things every single day. I filed papers, I made phone calls, I met with clients. Then I consulted with my boss and we discussed how to make the most money from cases. True, the work involved technical expertise that I learned in law school. But it was all dismally formulaic. It was horribly boring and stressful at the same time. It was always the same. There were knee-jerk responses for every type of case. We even sent the same standard questions to opposing counsel in every case. The details may have changed from case to case. But the overall structure was gruelingly banal. There was no "complexity." To the contrary--and applying Gladwell's contrasting term--it was "mind-numbing repetition."

And I certainly did not receive a reward to equal my effort. I made $50,000 a year in the law firm, without regard to the number of hours I worked. I was at my desk every morning before 8. I normally stayed in the office past 6:30 every evening. I even worked weekends. I brought work home. Yet no matter how much I worked or how much I won for the firm, I got the same lousy $50,000. To add insult to injury, I got a $50 bonus for Christmas after breaking my ass all year for more than 60 hours a week. My friend got nothing, so I guess that made me "lucky." In short, there was no connection between my effort and the reward I received.

I mention all this to show that every working person in America faces the same insuperable challenges. Lawyers and Fed Ex deliverymen grumble about the same thing. They are both dissatisfied with their work because they are instruments in the same private capitalist system. The same "profit principle" applies to them. And the "profit principle" does not exist to make workers happy; it exists to enrich owners. That is why Gladwell's test for "work happiness" is hopelessly utopian. Our system does not exist to grant workers autonomy, complexity or fair rewards. It strips away those things because they are inconsistent with the profit principle. If workers suddenly had autonomy, complexity and fair rewards, corporations would start losing money. That would be unacceptable.

In the end, it does not matter whether people are happy with their work. Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents that human beings have a "natural aversion to work." Strachey, trans., p. 30, fn 5. Additionally, they can never achieve the autonomy, complexity and just rewards they seek from it. People not only just don't like work; they can't get any satisfaction from it once they begin it.

People aren't supposed to be satisfied with their work. Our system is not designed to satisfy workers. And it functions just fine without satisfying them. In fact, it would break down if it did. In that light, Gladwell's criteria for "work satisfaction" are all well and good. It's just that our system works strongly to ensure that no working person ever fulfills them.

No, the only people who enjoy autonomy, complexity and just rewards in their work are the wealthy owners, employers and entrepreneurs. These are the true capitalists. These are the men who instrumentalize others. These are the men who take home the profit after cutting the paychecks. They control their own destinies. They don't listen to anyone but themselves. They get to do different stuff every day. And they set their own salary. They get it all.

There just aren't that many of them. They don't want newcomers in their club, either. So they keep membership low. That leaves more goodies for them.

They might be miserable, wretched, contemptible, exploitive fuckers. But at least they fulfill Gladwell's factors. They are satisfied with their work. Hey, if you had a mountain of money, called all the shots, did whatever you wanted all day and paid yourself a mammoth salary, wouldn't you be satisfied with your work, too? You know you would.

But that's not you. So shut up, get back to your desk and await further instructions from your supervisor.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010



By : Ms. Vanessa H. Breaker, M.S., University of Texas (Facilities Management); Founder and Chairperson, Help-U-Advance, Inc., a Career Management Consulting Bureau (Houston, TX); Author, You Can Do It : A 10-Step Formula to Achieve Wealth, Success, Money (And Yes, Love, Too); Owner, several real estate tracts in central Texas; Married; Cowboys fan.

Recently, a college graduate came into my office and asked: "How will I ever get a job in this economy? How will I ever pay my own rent?"

I can understand his frustration. By all accounts, times are very hard out there. For people just starting out in the world, life looks intimidating. No one is hiring. No one even gets an interview. And without a job, you can't pay your rent.

But success is possible. It is possible to defy the odds and live the American dream. Anyone can learn how to be successful. There is a recipe for success: You can learn it. Successful people all behave in a similar way. They all have similar habits. By learning those behaviors and acquiring those habits, you can be successful, too. And when you achieve success, you not only get the job, you get the promotion, the raise, the bonus and the beautiful wife, too! Doesn't that sound nice? You bet it does.

So what are successful behaviors and habits? Well, let us begin by stressing that success is a lifestyle. Success is not a hobby; it is a discipline. You must eat, drink and breathe success. You cannot tolerate failure. And you must be tough: This is a race; no one hires the runner-up.

Living success begins at an early age. Successful people get on the track to success when they are children. They understand what they want from life and they commit themselves to excellence. To that end, stable households produce more successful people than broken ones. After all, a child will not develop the basic skills needed to get good grades and work hard if he or she suffers parental sexual abuse and beatings every day. Those challenges make doing math homework difficult. And kids who fail math won't go to Harvard. In that light, a peaceful home is essential to growing up successful: It allows the focus needed to "home in" on success.

Successful people do not give in to distractions. To achieve success, it is necessary to "stay on track." That means working hard, getting good grades, going to bed early, taking instructions seriously and remembering your place. Yet it is easy to forget these rules when peers goad you to go dancing on Friday night, or when you'd rather watch television shows all evening than do your homework. Put simply, distractions surround us every day. And they threaten to derail us from the success track. To resist distractions, you must simply say: "I want to be successful. I will avoid these distractions." It is about mind over matter: Forget the video games: Think about the accounting job you want.

Education is essential to success in America. In bare outline, success means getting a good job at a good company, making good money and owning property. Yet good companies do not give good jobs to just anyone; they only give them to good people with good educations from good schools. In that light, success requires that you get a good education at a good school. That, in turn, requires that you live successfully without distractions. Only children who live appropriately during childhood will get into the schools needed to get good jobs. It is not so much about learning as it is about showing: Firms want to see good grades from good schools. As long as you get into a good school and show the good grades, you will get a shot at the good jobs. It does not matter whether you remember what you learned. And you will stand no chance at all if you don’t get into a good school: Good grades from bad schools will not impress good companies.

Still, successful living means more than just getting good grades. Once you actually get a job, it is essential to observe successful habits. Successful people keep their jobs because they know what is expected. That means they understand their employer's mission and loyally advance it. They also observe decorum by dressing appropriately, speaking respectfully and refraining from all distractions while carrying on the employer's business. In this sense, successful living is all about acting appropriately on the job: Loyal workers advance far. Ultimately, they rise through the ranks. Good companies love loyal workers who suppress their own interests to earn profits for them. Self-sacrifice is a hallmark of successful living: And it is rewarded.

Intangible factors also influence career success. For better or for worse, birth has much to do with success. Wealthy children stand a better chance to live stable early lives. That, in turn, prepares them to "get on the success track" without distraction. Additionally, powerful parents who attended good schools can assure that their children, too, attend those schools. Wealthy parents can also pay large tuitions and urge employers to hire their children. In some cases, wealthy parents are the employers; and they naturally award jobs to their own blood. In this light, the importance of fortunate birth cannot be overstated. Although it is impossible to "learn" how to be related to powerful people, blood is a sure way to get a big head start in the success race.

Still, success is never guaranteed, even for people who enjoy all the advantages. After all, even a minor mishap along the path to success can sink an entire life. A student may develop a drug addiction, ruining his semester grades and costing him a job at a banking firm. A junior associate might have a relationship dispute and perform poorly at work. A promising employee might fall in love and show up late for work. A woman might give birth, requiring her to put off career focus. Put simply, things can happen in life. And they can easily knock a person off the "success track." Just one distraction can unravel a lifetime of work.

And that is to say nothing about the danger of massive cranial injuries. In the above examples, otherwise successful people gave in to distractions through some fault. In other cases, otherwise successful people might fail to achieve success simply because something massively damages their cranium.

Consider, for example, a first-class legal scholar who has done everything right. He has been born into a good family, his father was successful, he had a stable childhood, he followed instructions, he went to bed early, he dressed appropriately, he got into first-class schools and got first-class grades his whole life. He even landed a job at a first-class law firm and the managing partner said: "He is bound to be successful because he has successful habits." He worked hard his whole life and had every reason to expect success. But he amounted to nothing because someone shot him in the forehead with a .38 caliber revolver. This example proves that massive cranial injury can ruin even the most successful lives.

Consider, too, a respected office manager with an excellent salary. This man did everything for his company. He gave up personal relationships to make sure his employer profited. He worked nights and weekends as he advanced up the company ladder. Through his childhood, he followed instructions and did everything he was supposed to do. He never rocked the boat; people called him a square, but it never bothered him because he achieved success. But one day on his way to work he tripped over a piece of fruit and fell into the street, where a concrete mixing truck rolled over his head. Once again, massive cranial injury derailed an otherwise successful life.

These examples say nothing about all the potentially successful people who suffer massive cranial injury prior to achieving success. What about the countless young people who study hard for exams, refrain from drugs, avoid peer pressure and go to bed early, only to be shot in the head with rifles? What about the super interns who give up everything for the company and win glowing reviews from supervisors, only to have their brains dashed out by falling cinder blocks?

No matter the circumstances, these examples teach a clear lesson: Avoiding massive cranial injury is a crucial step on the road to success in the United States. While it is essential to learn positive behaviors to achieve success, it is also vital to avoid being fatally struck in the head while practicing those behaviors. After all, a lifetime of hard work, study, high birth and promise can be instantly destroyed by a single bullet to the brain. That is why the most successful people absorb this lesson: You must not only live successfully; you must also avoid massive cranial injury at all costs.

Massive cranial injury is a worse threat to success than distraction or inappropriate workplace behavior. After all, it is possible to rally from distraction or an office faux pas. But it is not possible to rally from having your skull crushed by a concrete mixing truck. A person's career can recover from an embarrassing extramarital affair or a "C+" on an exam. But it cannot recover from a pointblank shotgun blast to the face.

In all these cases, the lesson emerges: The real key to success in America is to avoid massive cranial injury. After all, no person who suffers massive cranial injury will ever achieve success. And any success he has achieved up to that point instantly vanishes. To that extent, massive cranial injury is the worst thing that can happen to a promising career. Interview mistakes, bad resumes, lackluster university performance and even drug abuse do not threaten careers as much as being brutally slammed in the head with a baseball bat.

You can fix a resume. But you can't fix a shattered cranium. And people with shattered craniums do not get promoted or hired.

In conclusion, if you wish to achieve success in America, remember what is important: Avoid massive cranial injury first. The rest is just details. Because even the best career habits can vanish the moment someone cracks your head open.

Friday, April 16, 2010



In recent weeks, my writing pace has slowed. I am thankful for that. It has allowed me to look back over my work and reflect on what is important to me. No one likes change, but I welcome this one.

I write thematically. Last week, I looked over several old pieces and started to think about the themes that occupy me most. I asked myself: "Why do I write about these things? Why are they important to me? Is it apparent why they are important?" Perhaps it is apparent why I write about reason, dignity, evidence, law, power, money, death, fairness, equality and happiness. Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps people think it's just because I am a hermit who writes whatever he thinks on a certain day.

But that would be incorrect. Common threads unite all my themes. Those threads bind all my pieces together. Taken together, they present an overall philosophy about our existence. I am a consummate individualist: I never surrender who I am. I do not like to follow, but neither am I a zealous leader. I am not presumptuous enough for that. If my ideas gain traction, it is by quiet assent, not by compulsion or advocacy. In the end, I am a voice against all the forces in our society that subvert individual creativity and value. I criticize commerce because commerce is antithetical to both. I do not like forces that instrumentalize human beings or reduce them to purposes. I do not like convention. That is why I write satire, too. Normality makes me laugh--hard.

Among the threads that unite my work is a respect for time. I write about time in many ways. But in the end I admonish my readers to remember that time is vital because it is all we have. Without time, we cannot cultivate our interests or expand our personalities. Nor can we experience joy or feel good about ourselves. Yet so many forces compete for our time. When we lose our time to some competing interest, we lose the opportunity to live for ourselves. That is one reason why I am so critical of employment: Employment robs our best time and leaves nothing for us. It purports to "compensate" us for the robbery with a paycheck. But what good is pay (even really poor pay) if you can't spend it until your best time is gone? We have just a limited time to experience positive emotions before we die. If we give up our time in unpleasant ways, we never get it back to spend it pleasantly. We have only one shot at joy.

My views about time have changed significantly over the years. Before my father died in 2006, I had a very dismissive attitude about time: I always thought I would have more. I did not mind working for 14 hours a day in an office because I knew there would be time to enjoy myself later in life. I had smug assumptions; I thought life would just wait for me as I slaved away, wasting my time. I thought for sure that I would have at least 25 more years with my mother and father. I thought they could wait until I put in all that work, so it wouldn't hurt if I skipped seeing them for Christmas. I thought they would understand if I had to work a weekend.

But all those smug assumptions came crashing down when my father died. He died without any warning. In January 2006, he was a healthy 58-year-old who ran half-marathons every year. Then he developed pancreatic cancer. By June 2006, he was dead. And I had skipped his birthday every year for five years before that because I had no idea that he could die. I was focused on my "traditional career program." I did not respect time. And I suffered for it.

Thankfully, I learned my lesson. Only after living with death did I start to respect time. It made me rue the choices I had made in my life. I did not care about "success" any more. After all, what good does "success" do when you can suddenly just die at any moment like my Dad? Who cares whether you get a certain job or own a home? It's all meaningless; it can all end before you know it. Recognizing how fast life can end makes you respect time. And it makes you start spending your time more wisely, too.

Within six months after my father's death, I resigned my job at the law firm. It came to nauseate me. It probably would have nauseated me even if my father had not died. But after experiencing his death, I simply could not bear the pettiness of law practice. I could not bear hearing people whine and bicker about money. I could not bear the infighting about filing papers, sharing copy costs, managing calendars and setting docket dates. And I could not bear the ceaseless criticism about "not moving fast enough" to make profits on cases. It all seemed utterly, utterly meaningless. I did not care in the least. After all, what difference did all this make? I could just die suddenly like my father; what good what profits and docket dates do then?

When my father lay dying, he was not thinking about success, careers or money. He was thinking about his own existence. He was thinking about the fact that his time was running out; and whether he had spent it well.

I took that lesson to heart: Was I spending my time well? Or was I wasting it in a chase after meaningless rewards? I concluded that I was wasting it. I began living in the awareness of death; and that made me treasure my life. I started savoring my time. I resented anyone and anything that impinged on my time; for how was I to know whether I would be here tomorrow? I wanted to be master of my own time, because time gave me my chance to live. Obviously, this did not make me a good candidate for employment. So I had to adjust my approach to supporting myself.

I contented myself with making just enough money to feed and house myself. And I did so in a way that did not rob my time and dignity. Since then, I have been happier with my lot. For the most part, I am master of my time. That brings its own rewards.

I never forget what happened to my father. It tempers me whenever I feel the impulse to get into the "success race." I reflect on how little time I have to relish my life. Then I think how much time I will have to yield in order to achieve "career success." That is to say nothing about the sacrifices in dignity, ethics and happiness I would have to make to achieve it. Finally, I think: "Even if I do achieve 'career success,' what will I feel? What good will it do? What if I simply die on the way? When I lay dying, what will I think about how I've spent my time? Will I regret all the days and nights I toiled in an office fighting for a company's profit?"

These thoughts comfort me. They assure me that I have made the right decision for my life. Having said that, I know not everyone will make the same decision. My views about time reflect my experiences. They work for me because I live in the awareness of death. My respect for time intertwines with my respect for death. After all, life--with all the joy and misery it can write upon our bodies--hangs by a thread. It can end instantly. And life is time: There is our time, then there is death.

That is a pretty good impulsion to spend our time well. Because once it's over, we're over, too.

That is why I write about time: It is the tragic, ever-diminishing coating that encapsulates us all. When we waste it, we waste ourselves. So I choose not to intentionally waste it on anything that does not bring me joy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010



People often approach me for relationship advice. I don't like to flatter myself, but I'm good at it. I know a thing or two about human beings and their capacity to live with each other. I have credentials. I have been in a committed relationship for eleven years and I have endured every emotional, physical and sanity-damaging challenge you can possibly imagine. Along the way, I have coped with jealousy, envy, longing, lust, passion, disappointment, infidelity, vanity, heartache, reconciliation, misunderstanding, rage, sleeplessness, abuse, frustration, ecstasy, contentment, simple joy, tension and anxiety. I have even weathered trying health troubles at my partner's side, like unforeseeable life-changing accidents and mental illness.

When it comes to living with another person, I've been around the block. I'm not a boy anymore. I'm a man. That's not a boast. That's a fact.

In many cases, people ask me whether they should transform pleasant acquaintances into lasting relationships. Others ask me how to overcome consumptive attachments they develop to people, then the terrible disappointment that flows when their love interests do not reciprocate their devotion.

These are related situations. They arise frequently. When a person tries to force a relationship onto another level, a power struggle ensues. One person wants something the other might not. This leads to a disparity in desire, as well as wishful thinking and blind faith that the other person is acting in accordance with your fantasies. In short, it is emotionally dangerous. When you start expecting another person to act the way you imagine they will, you are setting yourself up for heartbreak or worse.

I did this in my first love. I became very close friends with someone when I was just a teenager. I loved our time together. We had a very special friendship and I felt respected whenever we met. Eventually, my feelings grew stronger. I wanted a romantic relationship. I started believing that he did, too. He really didn't. I wanted him to love me the same way I loved him. I turned it over in my mind all the time; it kept me up at night. I wanted to talk to him all the time, but I didn't want it to seem that I was the only one making the phone calls. So I would wait around for days at a time wishing that he would call me; and of course he didn't. When he finally did call, my heart would race and I would stumble on my words. I felt that I was speaking to my savior; he had all the power over me. It was just pathetic. I was slavishly dedicated to him even though he never gave me the reciprocation I craved.

It took me several years to break my attachment to this person. I wasted so much psychic energy on an illusion. I will never do it again.

Now I see clearly what I did wrong. I created a whole mental patchwork of fantasies about my friend. Those fantasies overwhelmed my mind. I expected my friend to act in accordance with them. It was unrealistic, of course, but when you're craving a person's love, you do not think reasonably. My mistake was this: I fell in love with a subjective fantasy image, not a real person. And when the real person did not act according to the fantasy script in my mind, I felt crushed. I expected too much; and I learned that people are basically inscrutable: They rarely act the way you really want them to.

My youthful attachment to my friend was unhealthy for another reason: It led me into slavishness. I hung on his every word. I followed his every action with total devotion. I delivered my fate into his hands. Whatever he did, I followed. I gave him all the power because I wanted him to give me what I wanted. I wanted him to love me so much that I sacrificed my own dignity and spirit to win his affections. I stumbled on my words when I was around him because he was my mental master. I wanted too much. That made me slavish.

I did not break my attachment to this person until I stopped wanting what he had to offer. And that is the lesson: If you have an unhealthy attachment to a person and they are not showing you the love you want, you must convince yourself that they have nothing you want. Once you do that, you will stop obsessing about them. You will regain your peace of mind and dignity. You will reorder your desires and think clearly again. True, it is hard to do. But you will thank yourself if you can pull it off.

Let us try to understand how this works. We develop unhealthy attachments to people when we WANT something they have. "Want" is the most important word in our mental lives. It expresses our truest desires. It honestly discloses who we are. No one controls what we want; our personality dictates it. We are never so happy as when we get what we want because it satisfies our deepest, most personal yearnings.

Problems arise when we want something that only another person can give. In this case, we cannot easily address our wants because we cannot directly slake them. And because the other person has what we want, we make concessions in order to entice him to give us what we crave. We indulge him far more than we should. We bow, scrape, flatter and stumble on our words. We make our love interest our master; he has power over us because he has the discretion whether to grant us what we want. That is unhealthy. It leads us into despair because we willingly enslave ourselves to his will. Disappointment and frustration become our dominant emotions. We never get what we want. And we are crestfallen every time our love interest does not act the way we expect--which is much more often than we'd like.

But there is a way to overcome this cycle. To break the attachment, you must engage your reason. You must take control over your own desire again. You must convince yourself that the other person has nothing you want. If you can do that, the other person loses his authority over you. He becomes indifferent to you. You get to say what you want, not him. You can pursue your own desire again without a fickle middleman. That is freedom in the purest sense.

I know it is difficult to do this when you are caught in an unhealthy attachment. It is hard to engage your reason when you are contorted with unrequited desire. But it is worth the effort. It helps to have a distraction that breaks your incessant attention to your love interest. In my case, I met someone else who took my mind off my obsession. It helped me turn my mind away from its destructive focus on unattainable affection. Within a few weeks, I felt free again. It was wonderful.

If you ever find yourself with an unhealthy attachment to another person, think about why you feel the way you do: You want what the other person has. You put your happiness in his hands. You heap unrealistic expectations on the other person and you disappoint yourself every time he acts some other way. You give him total power over the way you feel. Conceptually, it is easy to understand. To break the attachment, you must simply stop wanting what he has to offer. Once you control your own wants again, no one will ever tyrannize you with frustration and disappointment. And life feels much better when you're not frustrated.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010



I went to Starbucks this morning to buy a coffee. I wasn't really thinking about anything. I was groggy and I was battling a cold. But as I waited for the barista to serve up my venti bold, I overheard the man behind the espresso machine say to his coworkers: "Wikipedia is written by us. Those aren't real facts."

My mind immediately sprang into action. I really did not care about the man's opinion about Wikipedia. Everyone knows that you need to read Wikipedia with a grain of salt. Its reporting can be unreliable, just like any other source. But I took serious issue with his assertion that Wikipedia does not contain "real facts" because "people like us" write it, as if "regular people" are incapable of reporting "real facts."

I was saddened for two reasons. First, the barista's comment revealed the widespread--and servile--public belief that "facts" must flow from certain "official" sources. Second, it revealed the belief that "regular people" do not deserve credibility when they report "facts."

Let us begin with "facts." More than a year ago, I struggled to formulate a workable definition for "facts." Everyone thinks they know what "facts" are. They think "facts" are "things that actually happened." But it is impossible to really know whether something "actually happened" if you were not there to perceive it. Everyone else must rely on second-hand reports to form an opinion about "what actually happened;" and that opinion may not reflect what "actually happened" at all. Facts intertwine with belief; a person calls something "a fact" as long as he subjectively believes it to be true, even if it is not. A person's belief, too, is a "fact." It is a "fact" to say: "John believes that Mary robbed her mother." It is not necessarily true that Mary robbed her mother. But if John believes it, John's belief about it is "a fact."

Viewing all human existence as a whole, most "facts" are incredibly banal. It is a "fact" that I just moved my eyelid and that I just pursed my lips: I perceived these "acts" through my visual and tactile senses, so they are facts. Facts are rarely newsworthy, and almost never "the stuff of history." Yet many people mistakenly believe that "facts" must be "official." Like the barista, they believe that something is not a "fact" unless some reputable source reports it. To use the barista's term, only certain sources can present "real facts," not plebeian sources like Wikipedia.

What is a "real fact?" How does a "real fact" differ from any other fact? After all, a "fact" is any event, act or condition that is objectively verifiable and perceptible by the human senses. Your own emotional state is a "fact" at this very moment. Whether you're wearing blue jeans right now is a "fact." These are "conditions" and "acts" perceptible by human sense. The New York Times will never report these "facts," but they are still facts. Anyone can recount facts. As human beings, we all can recount our sensory impressions through memory and language. Put simply, the power to recount facts does not require a reputable press pass or an advanced degree.

Facts do not distinguish. There are only "real facts" to the extent that another person chooses to believe them. Source is irrelevant to the inquiry whether something is a fact. Source is only relevant to the question whether a reported fact is credible or reliable.

But the barista confused theses issues in a deeply troubling way. He not only manifested a belief that certain sources were not reliable. He also revealed a belief that certain sources cannot even report "facts" at all. According to the barista's logic, only reputable sources dispense "real facts." Sources like Wikipedia do not. Yet this is pure nonsense. Wikipedia definitely reports "facts." It reports "acts, events and conditions that are objectively verifiable and perceptible by the human senses." True, its reports might contain inaccuracies and falsehoods. But that is a danger inherent in all reporting. And in the end, "facts" are not about "what actually happened," but rather about "what we are willing to believe." Both Wikipedia and the New York Times face the same "factual" dangers every day when they report on matters that occurred beyond their writers' own sensory range. Both Wikipedia and the New York Times ask their readers to believe their words to be facts, no more. In that sense, they are exactly the same.

It is dangerous to believe that only certain sources have the power to dispense "facts." When people believe that only certain "official" reports deserve credibility as "facts," they disempower themselves. They yield their power to judge the truth for themselves by conditioning their belief systems on "official sources." The barista's comment revealed this servile dynamic at work. He demeaned Wikipedia because "regular people" write it, not "official sources." As such, he refused to even believe that it reported a single "real fact," as if any fact were more real than another.

Worse, the barista tacitly acknowledged his inferior station in our society's truth-creating hierarchy. Our society perpetuates the notion that truth can only proceed from certain "official" sources, like news agencies, universities, government offices, courts, churches and science labs. While those sources might deserve credibility in particular circumstances, the ultimate decision whether to believe something is entirely individual. And when people do not do their own research by investigating as many sources as possible, they subject themselves to dominant power systems. They accept some reports as "fact" solely because they flow from some exalted source, not because they verified the reports themselves.

We all can perceive the outside world. We know facts because we perceive them. We can report what we know. When we are honest, we know our word is the truth, even if we are not an "official source." We might even write an article about our knowledge in Wikipedia or some other popular publication.

Yet according to the barista's logic, we do not deserve belief. More substantially, we are not even recounting "real facts," even if we saw them with our own eyes. Only "official sources" can dispense "real facts," not regular people. That is not just weak. That is outright capitulation.

I wish more people would understand that we all can report facts as long as we can perceive and communicate. All facts are "real" as long as we believe them. And we do not have to be news agencies to deserve belief.

Friday, April 9, 2010




Commerce would not work without contracts. Contracts provide legal assurance that people will adhere to their commitments. Both commerce and the law presume that men do not naturally hold to their word. But no one would take financial risks if they knew their fellow man would not fulfill his promises. So the law supports commerce by forcing men to do what they say. If they don't, they must face dire economic consequences. Men don't like dire economic consequences, so they adjust their behavior to avoid them.

In theory, contracts reflect a perfectly equal bargain between two perfectly equal commercial parties. One party wants something the other has. Each parts with something in order to gain something from the other. It is not gratuitous; it is methodical. One party suffers detriment in the precise proportion that the other obtains benefit. And there are no flaws in the bargaining process: The law presumes that both parties are rational, shrewd, cynical businessmen who know all the risks before committing to do something. Thus, neither can complain when something goes awry: After all, when two rational, equal adults bargain for something, they have a right to delineate who bears the risk if it does not work out.

But does this sound like commercial reality? Certainly not. In most commercial exchanges, parties are not equal. One party inevitably has more money and power than the other. As a result, the stronger party can leverage his strength to foist more risk and burden on the weaker party. After all, the weaker party needs what the stronger party has. So what authority does the weak party have to influence the bargain? He can take it or leave it. If he leaves it, he does not get what he needs. That is commercial reality: A perennial Hobson's choice. The legal myth of "equal exchange between equal bargainers" is a tiny exception to the rule: Unequal, unfair exchange between parties with gross disparities in power.

I always marvel at inconsistencies between legal myths and practical realities. They always reveal a tension between theoretical aspirations and cruel commerce. After all, theory and reality follow different paths. Just because something exists in theory--as it may in legal doctrine--does not mean that it exists in reality. Theory is just an overlay. Theory concerns objective abstractions; as long as a situation exhibits a few technical requirements, it is "so." But practice is more fluid. It does not restrict itself to formulae or aspirations. In practice, the only inquiry is: "Does it work?" If it works in accordance with principle, fine. If not, no big deal.

In most cases, people just want things to work. That is certainly true in commerce. It is one thing to strike a technically enforceable contract. It is quite another to strike a just one. After all, practical realities reflect existing power structures. Things "work" when they please those who have power. Contracts are usually unfair because they work best when they are unfair. The strong offer terms to the weak in a manner that satisfies legal requirements. As a practical matter, they maintain the unequal relationship. The law has nothing to say about that. And that suits the strong just fine.

On some level, everyone knows this. Everyone suspects that contracts somehow "screw them over." They do not exactly know how. They just know that if the other guy does not deliver, they will have no recourse against him. But if you do something wrong--or if something unforeseeable happens--he will have recourse against you. This is why everyone fears "fine print." It is as if everyone who signs a contract resigns himself to the idea that the bargain is one-sided. They know the "fine print" will work against them when push comes to shove. They just hope it doesn't come to that.

So much for equality in bargaining: Everyone who signs a contract knows that he is subjecting himself to the other's unlimited authority. He doesn't even know how much power he's giving the other guy. He just knows the "fine print" gives the other guy license to do almost anything to him.

I see support for my analysis everywhere. Just yesterday, for instance, I watched a clip from the 1998 movie "Player's Club." In it, Bernie Mac plays a sleazy strip club owner named Dollar Bill. In one scene, his DJ (Jamie Foxx) enters his office to complain about how much money he has to forfeit from his paycheck every week. Bernie Mac looks him straight in the eye and says: "I got a contract between me and you that says you do what I tell you to do. Therefore, shut the fuck up. Don't say nothing, don't speak to me, don't look at me."

That concludes the negotiation. Bernie Mac is the employer with power. Jamie Foxx is the employee without it. The contract symbolizes their unequal relationship. It embodies a fundamental disparity in power. By law, it allows the strong party to tyrannize the weak one; it even allows him to silence the weak one when he complains about the terms. True, the weak party can walk away from the deal. But what if he has mouths to feed? Another Hobson's choice.

These are the practical realities. There is no "equal exchange" between "equal partners" in most commercial relationships. Rather, in most cases, the result is more like the exchange in "Player's Club": One party needs a job and a paycheck; another offers a job and paycheck in return for the power to dictate all the terms and control the employee's conduct. As a practical matter, contracts grant power to one party while subjecting the other to the same power. They generally operate in one direction. And if the weak party complains, the strong party just has to whip out the contract and explain why he has the legal authority to do what he is doing. If there's a dispute, the strong party wins. That's practical reality.

I mention all this because it coincides with my weekly motif concerning employment in the United States. Contracts perpetuate the "Myth of Employment in America" by granting legal authority to strong parties to dominate weak ones. Employment "terms" in America are rarely equal. And they certainly do not reflect full and fair bargaining between two evenly-matched commercial entities. Rather, a weak party needs a paycheck. A strong party offers one; and that gives him the right to dominate the weak party's life in exchange for almost nothing.

According to the law, contracts reflect equality. But practical realities paint a vastly different picture. When it comes to contracts, there is a disparity between law and reality. The real questions are: Who wants what; who's giving it; and who gets to say who does what in exchange for it. Those questions are invitations to tyranny. And when private employers operate under the "profit principle," do you really think they will treat employees in a way that threatens their bottom lines? Certainly not: And that is exactly why contract law allows them to function as they do.

So to all the employees out there who are disgruntled with their lot: "Shut the fuck up, don't say nothing. Don't speak to me, don't look at me."

You signed it. You wanted it (kind of). So live with it.

Go ahead and leave. Think you'll be able to pay your rent if you do? It's your choice.

That's not just practical reality. That's commercial reality, too. It's not a fair game.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010




During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain touted their plans to "create American jobs." No matter what subject they discussed--the environment, the military, the schools--they always related it to the "jobs question." The fact that they talked so much about jobs reveals just how much Americans love jobs. In 2008, Americans were certainly worried about jobs; unemployment was rising after the worldwide financial collapse. They wanted jobs. The candidates understood that. So they talked about jobs.

Since 2008, it has not gotten any easier to get a job in America. Unemployment steadily rose through 2009. Many people lucky enough to get a paycheck during this time got it from some "sub-level" job with no benefits and no entitlements. Americans started to panic about their economic futures on a scale not seen since the 1930s. Why? Because there were no jobs out there. No one was hiring. Skilled workers and professionals compromised; they took jobs with much lower pay and responsibilities than they deserved. That, in turn, left unskilled workers holding the bag. There simply were not enough jobs to go around.

Meanwhile, the old American rhetoric continued to churn: "You must have a job. Go to school to get a job. Learn in order to work at a company one day. You can even learn how to find a job by writing a good resume with the right kind of paper. You can learn how to interview properly, answer employer questions and wear the right suit to the meeting." Yet millions of Americans who followed the program did not get what they expected. Graduates who did everything right found themselves completely unable to land even an entry-level scrub job.

"What happened?" they said. "I got all the right grades, wore the right clothes, wrote the right resume on the right paper and answered the interview questions the way I was supposed to. And I didn't get the job?" Either that, or the employer just wasn't hiring in the first place.

Americans are rightly confused about why it is so difficult to get a job. After all, our history has somehow given rise to an expectation that everyone easily gets a job in this country. When we look back through history, it seems Americans have always been working. Europeans immigrated here to work. They built things. They worked in factories. They worked on farms. Later generations continued working. It was almost a matter of right. Historically, then, America has symbolized work: We provided work as inexhaustibly as our mighty lakes provided fish and our vast plains provided wheat. We were the great "Land of Opportunity." There was always something to do here; and we needed all the labor we could get.

Times have changed. But popular expectations have not. That is why Americans are confused about why it is so difficult to find a job these days. And that also explains why modern jobs are not as appetizing as they were in the past.

Americans simply do not understand how the modern free market system works. To understand why jobs are no longer so appetizing or available anymore, we must investigate how labor operates in the free market system. In essence, jobs are scarcer and more demeaning today than in the recent past because employees are little more than expendable instruments calculated to win profits for employers. At the same time, employee advocacy has fallen, while employer power has grown.

We can begin our investigation with two basic premises. First, people only engage in commercial activity for large profits. Second, jobs are contracts for labor offered by those who intend to use the worker's productive capacity to win larger profits. As such, they are not entitlements; they are private, discretionary relationships that may be terminated at any time. They are, so to speak, a "matter of grace" bestowed by those with enough money to pay.

These two premises lead to two basic conclusions. First, because people only engage in commercial activity for large profits, they offer employment to others on the implicit understanding that they will further their ultimate profit goals. That means that employees are only as good as their profit potential. If they do not further the ultimate profit goal, they are expendable. Second, because employment is a matter of grace, not right, employers assume a necessarily superior position over their employees. This results in a permanently unfair relationship in which one party takes almost all the benefit from the other's labor. All the while, he subjects the other party to ruthless control, discipline and indignity. When the laborer works, in other words, his time is not his. It belongs to the employer. And it all inures to the employer's benefit.

We can more closely understand these conclusions by focusing on the "profit premise." The "profit premise" is the best way to understand both why it is hard to get a job and why existing jobs are so precarious. The "profit premise" takes all the guesswork out of employment. It takes all the subtlety and uncertainty from the equation. Rather, it simplifies the inquiry to simple arithmetic: "Does this employee yield more profit to me than he costs me in expense?" Employees, after all, only have value to the extent that their labor vaults the employer toward greater profit. But the problem is that employees also represent an expense. It is impossible to have profit if expenses outweigh income. In that light, employees must "pull their weight." If they do not justify their cost in profit, they will be fired. And if the employer simply does not have enough money to "purchase" an employee in the first place, he will not hire anyone.

This explains why no one is hiring these days: Companies do not have enough money to spend on new employees. Private employers are usually corporations. Corporate officers, in turn, must answer to the shareholders. The shareholders want profits. If new employees mean threatening the existing profit level, corporate officer cannot spend money on new hires. If they did, they would disserve the corporation and undermine the very reason why people do business in the first place: To make money, not lose it. Corporations have no duty to the public; they only have a duty to deliver a constant profit stream to their owners. Corporations would actually violate their raison d'etre if they hired people as a "public service."

It helps to see the "hiring problem" in strictly economic terms. It demystifies the issues. From a job-seeker's perspective, it also makes life in the job market much easier to understand. After all, the "profit premise" makes all non-profit-related concerns irrelevant: It does not matter what clothes you wear to the interview. It does not matter what paper you use to print your resume. It does not even matter how smart you are or what school you attended. No, all those things mean nothing compared to the ultimate question: Does the employer have enough money to invest in your labor potential? If he does not--or he fears that your labor potential will not generate a suitably high profit level--you will not get the job. It does not matter how charming you are, or how good looking or even how qualified. All that means nothing next to the real issues: (1) Does the employer have enough money to gamble on you? and (2) Will the employer make a big profit on your labor?

In other words, your own talents and will have nothing to do with the employer's decision to hire you. If the economy is bad and the company is unwilling to threaten existing profit levels, you will not get a private sector job. End of story.

Understanding the "profit premise" also helps clarify why companies lay people off. Existing employees present a different question than new hires. Once a private business hires someone, a new relationship arises. The employer has new concerns. Before hiring, the question was whether the company had enough money to invest in another person's profit-creating potential. After hiring, the question is whether the employee is adequately productive. From this point, the employer takes on a more evaluative role. He investigates whether the employee is working "hard enough." He compares the profit generated with the amount he must pay the employee in wages. If the wages are greater than the profit--or if the profit is not sufficiently greater than the wages--the employer lays the employee off. He says there were "cost concerns." The investment did not pay off. So the employer cuts his losses and dismisses the employee. After all, it is voluntary relationship. And the employer can say "good bye" whenever he wants.

Of course, the above scenario assumes that the company has enough money to continue employing people. When the economy tumbles, or when the company suffers overall losses, it loses the ability to continue paying its existing employees. In that case, it does not matter how qualified or productive the employee may be. When continuing to pay wages threatens overall profit levels, employees get cut. That's the "profit premise" at work.

All these examples lead to a more abstract conclusion: Employment is a vastly unfair relationship. Having a "job" not only subjects the employee to ruthless economic appraisal under the employer's "profit principle." It also places him in an institutionally inferior position. Despite all social expectation to the contrary, employment is not a right in the United States. It is a matter of grace. This is significant because a "relationship of grace" is no equal relationship. Rather, only lords, Gods, sovereigns and those with greatly superior power bestow "grace." And only pathetic petitioners and sinful beggars seek grace from their acknowledged superiors.

Some may say that it is an exaggeration to call employment a "relationship of grace." But close analysis confirms it. In a "relationship of grace," a suppliant party seeks the benevolence of another party known to have strength, power and influence. The suppliant throws himself on the master's mercy in a plea for grace. One imagines a lowly feudal peasant begging his local lord for a loan, throwing himself at the lord's feet. Then the lord, with a condescendingly smug look on his face, extends his ring for the miserable peasant to kiss. Once the lord gives his grace, the peasant bursts into tears and thanks the lord for his benevolence. The lord can then count on the peasant's complete dedication in paying back his grace, even if he exacts a sum far higher in obligation than the sum he bestowed in grace.

Isn't this what happens in a modern employment relationship? Isn't this what job-seekers must do to win approval from their lordly potential employers? Don't they have to debase themselves and claw the floor and kiss rings? Don't they indebt themselves to the employer for his generous decision to throw them a few shekels? Isn't it just as pathetic and despicable as this?

No matter what "career experts" say, I cannot escape viewing the quest for private employment in these "feudal" terms. Landing a job requires more than a healthy economy and an employer who can afford to pay you. It also requires a subservient mindset and the willingness to sacrifice individual dignity for "grace," namely a paycheck. To win that grace, employees must kiss the symbolic ring every day. They must shlep to and from their jobs. They must stay awake. They must attend to meaningless tasks intended solely to enrich their employers. They must remain in an obedient position to receive commands for at least 8 hours a day. To add insult to indignity, they must bear all this so that their employer makes a bigger profit. And when they finally go home, they are both physically and spiritually drained. They have neither the strength nor the will to enjoy their own lives. Rather, they live for the employer. They live for their modern feudal lords.

Inwardly, employees thirst for their precious two days (or less) off. They yearn for time that belongs to them, not their lords. But is that not ironic? After all, they fought so hard to get their jobs. They bowed and scraped and sacrificed everything to get hired. Now, once they commit their waking lives to their employer's profit, they dream about the weekends. Is that not somehow disloyal to the lord they pledged to serve? Or at least "less than diligent?"

If you need proof for this proposition, just listen in on some honest employee chatter. Just note how often they mention what they plan to do next weekend or what they did last weekend.

So is this what it's all about? Are these the magical "jobs" everyone wants? Are these the symbols of our strength as a nation? Is this how we all should spend our lives? As expendable economic instruments to be cast away the moment we fail to justify our costs to our employers?

Perhaps it is. Then again, perhaps that is why there is so much unhappiness in our society. Perhaps the unending pressure to have a job stands at odds with what we want as individuals. Yet jobs always win; "what we want" always loses. And we can only ignore "what we want" for so long until we start feeling really, really bad about life.

Worse, what do we gain for all this unhappiness? A paycheck. Only the employer really wins. He doesn't care whether you're happy or sad. You are just a variable in the income/expense equation. You are a figment of the "profit principle," no more.