Quick takes on culture stories from the week that was 9/28/07
First off, I’m estimating single-digit I.Q.’s for the media no-names who accused Bill O’Reilly of being racially insensitive this week. He was telling his radio audience about going to dinner at a high-end, black-owned and operated restaurant in Harlem with civil rights activist Al Sharpton (would a racially insensitive guy even be doing that in the first place?), and he simply made the point that if you formed your impression of black culture based on how it’s often portrayed in the media, there would be a whole other side to the culture (the side that he was on with Sharpton) that you wouldn’t think existed. Remember Louis Renault, the police captain, Claude Raines’ character, in the movie Casablanca shutting down Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart’s character’s) nightclub because he was “shocked, shocked to find gambling going on,” even as he cashed in his own chips? O’Reilly wasn’t any more surprised to find class and civility in a black neighborhood and restaurant than old Louis was to find gambling in Rick’s (that’s why that scene has become the definitive cinematic example of a “tongue in cheek” statement — even people who haven’t seen the movie know it). O’Reilly was speaking sarcastically, satirically, challenging misconceptions about black Americans held by some white Americans whose only exposure to blacks is in the media. What’s more, he had a black guest on the air with him at the time, Fox News contributor Juan Williams, who was in full agreement (and who, ironically and unjustly, got smeared this week as well). Unlike the writers and pundits who attacked O’Reilly this week, I’ve met the man personally. He’s been all over the world and all over this country as I have, and he’s a culturally-aware guy. I know he’s concerned about minorities in this country, and particularly about the negative effect on black Americans of the way black culture is portrayed in the media. I can’t speak for O’Reilly, but I can say that anyone who took his statements as anything other than an expression of regret about positive aspects of black culture not being presented in the media is either blatantly dishonest or cognitively challenged.
Also tonight, there’s this story about a second-grade class in a public school in Massachusetts having a fairytale read to them about a prince marrying another prince. I’ve been asked, as a psychologist, whether I think that’s appropriate at that age, and I don’t. I’ve heard various pundits saying that it’s necessary because we have to teach kids tolerance, but I think they’re stretching the legitimate definition of that term. I have no problem with a second-grade teacher in a public school teaching students that they should behave civilly toward others throughout their lives (i.e. never to hurt or be unkind to people simply because they’re different from them). But, that doesn’t require discussing homosexuality in the second-grade classroom, and it doesn’t require endorsing the acceptance of homosexual behavior as morally equivalent to heterosexual behavior, as the book in question does. I think it should be up to each child’s parents, not to a teacher, to decide what, if anything, they want their second-graders to hear about homosexuality, factually and morally. I’m all for telling second graders that it’s wrong to be mean to someone, anyone (no need to mention specific categories of people because the lesson applies to everyone) simply for being different. But, reading them a fairytale about two princes getting married crosses the line between teaching tolerance and teaching acceptance, and therefore, is not appropriate in my opinion. While I’m on board with a broad-based tolerance message, as I’ve defined it here, I’m not going to tell parents here what I think they should say to their children about acceptance of homosexuality or when I think they should say it because that’s really none of my business, just as it’s none of this teacher’s business. And by the way, what ever happened to letting kids be kids? It’s bad enough that news about the behavior of our real-life, democratically-elected politicians sometimes forces parents to address sexual issues with American children before they’re ready. I see no need to compound that unfortunate situation by intentionally exposing little kids to the sexual behavior of fictional monarchs (or parents, or penguins, …).
Jeffs & Spector follow-ups 9/26/07
Two quick follow-ups:
First, on the Jeffs case — I agreed on the air last week with fellow attorney and commentator Anne Bremner that it was unusual for Warren Jeffs to be tried as an accomplice to rape when no one had been charged with the actual rape (but then I gave a rationale for why I didn’t think that would prevent Jeffs from being convicted, which he ultimately was). Well, the husband whom Jeffs forced the victim to marry when she was just 14 years old has now been charged with actually raping her.
Second, on the Spector case — As I opined just last night, there was doubt in Phil Spector’s jury room, enough to make a unanimous verdict impossible. The judge in the case declared a hung jury and a mistrial today, and the prosecution has vowed to retry the case.
So, if you’ve been captivated by these cases, stay tuned — each of them has a sequel on the way.
Jeffs’ jury in, speculation on Specter’s 9/25/07
As I predicted on the air last week, Warren Jeffs was convicted Monday on two counts of being an accomplice to rape after arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old first cousin (see my previous post “Polygamist preacher probably posing”). He’ll be sentenced within 45 days. Let’s hope it’s a long one.
Also, as the jury deliberates in music producer Phil Specter’s murder trial, people have wondered why I haven’t really commented on this one. Well, as I see it, this case just shows how a guy can be nuts but his nuttiness doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with his guilt or innocence. Specter seems as wacko as Jacko to me, but in this case, that doesn’t really seem relevant. It just seems like a straight-up murder case (no mental issue, no insanity defense, etc.). I will say that the jury has been deliberating for a long time, so it looks to me like there’s some doubt, reasonable or not, in that room.
Overshadowed by O.J. 9/21/07
With all eyes on O.J. this week, some interesting stories have gone virtually unnoticed, so here are my quick takes on just a few:
I don’t know what the judge in the Britney Spears custody case is thinking continuing her 50/50 custody arrangement after ruling that she’s a habitual substance abuser, unless of course the judge thinks there’s equally-bad stuff going on at their father’s house (see my previous posts “All My Fathers” and “Child custody evaluations”).
Along those same lines, Mary Winkler (see my previous post “The preacher’s wife”), as I predicted, is suing her former in-laws for custody of her children. I hope she loses, because if she doesn’t, the kids do.
I predict a competency challenge and an insanity defense in the case of this Sparks guy who (allegedly) killed his wife and her two young sons in Texas and told police he did it because they were trying to poison him. I’ve seen a couple of cases in which people gave rationales like that for violent behavior, and I predict his is bogus (especially because sexual assault also is alleged).
And finally tonight, I don’t doubt that Rosie O’Donnell engaged in self-destructive behaviors as a kid, but I’m skeptical that she actually broke her own bones as she reportedly states in her new book.
He’s baaaaack! 9/20/07
For those who are wondering why I haven’t written an O.J. post in the past week, it’s because I’ve been too busy talking about him on the air. In a nutshell, I’ve opined that he’s a malignant narcissist (someone whose opinion of himself is so inflated relative to other people that he can rationalize and justify harming others to get what he wants — see my previous post “Stupidity + money = trouble” for an explanation of how he might have gotten that way) and a sociopath (someone who puts his own wants and needs before anything else and can be either charming and manipulative or violent and destructive depending on which is most likely to get him what he wants at the moment) and someone who has a lot of rage inside (which is triggered when someone else threatens his sense of entitlement, steals his spotlight, or defies him, as apparently happened 13 years ago when he found his ex-wife on her front porch with another man, and last week when he found someone selling items that supposedly were stolen from him). As it’s already after 4:00 a.m., I should probably go to bed so I don’t look too tired if I end up on the air to discuss today’s developments, but first, I just have to point out that I predicted the exact bail amount that O.J. got on Wednesday when I heard everyone else opining that it would be much higher. Ok, that’s it for this edition, but let not your heart be troubled — there’s plenty more to come as this case plays out. O.J. is truly the gift that keeps on giving for those of us in the media!
On this anniversary of September 11th, 2001, I thought I would address the ultimate question that grieving family members have whenever there’s a tragedy in which some people are killed and others make it out alive — “Why?”. The September 11th attacks are perhaps the most poignant example in modern history, but I noticed the same thing after the Virginia Tech shooting rampage and after the Minneapolis bridge collapse earlier this year — family members of people who survived those tragedies thanking God on camera for saving their loved ones. Whenever I hear that, I’m glad for the survivors and their families, but I worry about the bereaved families who hear it along with me. I know it’s not the intention, but the implication is that God didn’t care as much about their loved ones. So why? Why are some spared and others lost? This question is often posed to psychologists as they help people through grief, but it’s a question that psychology is ill-equipped to handle. If you’ve watched or listened to me in the media or read my blog, you know that I don’t publicly venture into a spiritual zone very often, but I hope you’ll indulge me on this day when we recall the loss of so many of our fellow Americans. In case it’s helpful to anyone, here’s how I, personally, make sense of tragedy. While it makes sense to me that God might, for example, help the driver of a bus full of children to think clearly enough during a bridge collapse to bring the bus to rest safely, I don’t really think the answer is that God cares less about those who don’t make it. What makes more sense to me is that there’s so much more to our existence after this life that when and how this life ends is not as important in the grand scheme of things as it seems to us who know only this life. I know some people who read what I just wrote might think it’s insensitive to how much their lost loved ones meant to them, so please allow me to elaborate: What if the magnitude of the loss of a loved one is as profound as it is to us because this life is all we know? What if the grief that we feel seems like it will last forever because we judge time relative to the length of this life rather than to eternity? What if, to our lost loved ones, our arrival where they are will seem almost simultaneous with theirs, as if we come through the door right behind them even though it’s been decades in Earth time? I can’t promise you that’s how it works, but that’s what I believe, and it helps me. Will it help anyone else on the anniversary of such profound loss? I hope so.
Fair, balanced, and on the official record 9/10/07
Last week, I testified before Kansas legislators at the State Capitol about the practice of doctors making up mental diagnoses to circumvent the state’s late-term abortion law (see my previous posts “Factor coverage of Kansas illegal abortion story” and “Progress, but a long way to go in Kansas illegal abortion case” for background). At one point, a legislator used her questioning time to tell me that she considered me a biased witness because she read in my bio that I’ve appeared numerous times on the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel, which she apparently thinks is a biased program and/or network (she’s wrong by the way – I know the professionals there personally, and the absence of bias in one political direction does not imply bias in the opposite direction). When she finished speaking, I respectfully replied that if she’d read further in my bio, she’d find that I’ve also appeared a number of times on CNN (and I have high respect for the professionals there as well). The look on her face as she located my bio, read through it, and grudgingly acknowledged my point – priceless.
Sex, drugs, and lies? 9/9/07
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a number of stories in the mainstream print media on how parents should talk to kids about drugs. In these articles, the authors have been quoting an “expert” who recommends that if parents have used illegal drugs, they tell their kids about it. I have to weigh in because I’ve worked professionally with drug addicts, and I’ve worked professionally with kids, and I couldn’t disagree more with this woman.
If you’re a parent of a minor child, your mission in life is to get your child to the age of majority as healthy and well-educated as possible and equipped with a set of values that will enable and encourage the child to continue taking good care of him/herself and be a positive contributor to society as an adult. There’s something that I call the “responsibility-power continuum” that comes into play as you strive to accomplish that mission. Basically, when the child is an infant, you have to be responsible for making every decision affecting that child, so between you and the child, you rightly have 100% of the decision-making power. By law in the U.S.A., that ends at age 18. At that age, your kid is fully, legally responsible for her/himself, and he/she then gets 100% of the decision-making power. You don’t want to take her/him from one end of that continuum to the other overnight. Locking the kid up in your house and home-schooling him/her until age 18 wouldn’t equip her/him very well for life in the adult world. So ideally, you need to allow decision-making power to pass from you to your child gradually over time, as the child demonstrates that he/she is exercising the responsibility that comes with the power. Part of allowing your child to make increasingly more of her/his own decisions is allowing him/her to have increasingly more experiences outside of your direct supervision throughout adolescence. That means you have to teach her/him to stay away from things that could interfere with your mission (if you’re smoking pot right now and already forgot what your mission is, stop and re-read at this point), which include drugs.
Some so-called “experts” will tell you that if you used (or use) drugs, the best way to teach your kid about them is to be “open and honest” about your own experiences. Every time I hear that, I seriously want to throw up. Yes, people can learn vicariously from the experiences of others, but in this case, that would require a fully-mature mind, focused on acquiring information about what is most likely to be in its best interests in the long term. That’s not the typical teenage mind. The typical teenage mind is not focused on minimizing risk, maximizing potential, or the long term. The typical teenage mind is focused on minimizing restrictions, maximizing thrills, and the short term. Therefore, as soon as you say that you smoked pot in college, even if you follow up with how stupid and dangerous you now realize it was, the typical teenage mind will process your words this way: “Dad/Mom did it, and they’re fine, so I can do it and be fine and have a conversation just like this someday with my kid.” Basically, the typical teenage mind will be screening your words carefully for anything that can be twisted into permission or justification to do what it wants to do, and you will have just given it both. (By the way, the same goes for promiscuity, and you don’t owe your kid the details of your sexual history — in fact, it’s part of your parental mission to teach him/her to recognize and respect appropriate privacy boundaries even in close relationships, such as parent-child.)
Now, “openness-and-honesty” advocates will tell you that your kid “will find out anyway” and that she/he “will never forgive you” if you lie. First of all, I don’t get how kids, even when they become adults, are likely to find out about decades-past drug use when even major corporations’ background investigators don’t often uncover drug use that didn’t lead to a conviction. Second, if you know anything about me, you know I’m big on the truth, but let’s get real: there are times when the truth can hurt a child more than it can help them, and it’s a parent’s responsibility to make that distinction. For example, if you’re a dad, and your five-foot-five 14-year-old asks you if you believe he can make the basketball team if he does his best at tryouts, and you believe there’s no way on Earth, do you really think he would hate you forever if he found out later that you lied when you said, “Absolutely!”? Doubt it. Similarly, if you’re a mom, let’s say one of your college friends lets it slip during your daughter’s bachelorette party, when your daughter’s 30 years old and an accomplished attorney about to marry an accomplished doctor, that you smoked pot in college. Do you really think your daughter’s going to hate you for insisting when she was 15 years old that she never try drugs and that you never did? Doubt it.
While we’re on the subject of pot, let me just weigh in on that specifically: it’s dangerous, it’s addictive, it’s absolutely a “gateway” drug, and it’s a crime. Over time, it damages the brain, reducing processing speed and motivation. The likelihood of suffering that damage is heightened by the fact that pot is as addictive as almost any substance I’ve ever seen. In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cocaine or heroin or methamphetamine addict who didn’t start with pot (true, not every person who tries pot goes on to try other drugs, but nobody needs to risk becoming one of the people who do). Furthermore, a pot conviction is no laughing matter in many if not most jurisdictions in the U.S.A. Finally, there’s another, intellectual reason for steering clear of intoxication generally, with pot or anything else. Teens might not understand it, but if they do, I think it has value, and it’s this: intoxication impairs your intellect, and your intellect is what sets you apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, so when you become intoxicated, you reduce yourself to … . When you turn off your intellect, you are always in danger of getting hurt because you’re not able to think normally when you need to, and, if you can’t fully enjoy yourself while you’re fully conscious, you have serious issues that you need to address with intellect intact. (And if a teenager asks me what’s the difference between pot and alcohol, it’s that, in addition to being always a crime, the only purpose of smoking pot is intoxication, while alcohol can be enjoyed by adults legally and without the goal of intoxication. I know, what about “medical” marijuana? — the pain-relieving compounds in marijuana have been isolated and can be administered in a prescription drug that doesn’t get you high, so anyone who insists that he/she needs the real thing for pain relief, in my opinion, wants the intoxicating effects.)
I think a lot of parents wrongly assume that it will do no good to take a strong stand against any experimentation with drugs, assuming that their disapproval has no influence on their teens. That’s not consistent with my experience — I think sometimes it’s the deciding factor, and I totally disagree with those who say that “if you forbid it, you’re just pushing them to do it.” A teenager probably won’t tell you that, and you can’t expect much appreciation for carrying out your parental mission while it’s still underway, but once your child is reaping the benefits as an adult, I think you can. And in closing, if you’ve been reading this as someone who’s never experimented with drugs, see how much easier parenting will be for you if you keep it that way?
Three quick updates 9/8/07
First, on the Warren Jeffs story: Jeffs was found competent to stand trial, as I predicted, and his trial started this week (see my previous post “Polygamist preacher probably posing” for more on the case).
Second, on the Chris Benoit story: Based on autopsy findings, some doctors are opining in the media that Benoit’s murderous and suicidal behavior may have been influenced by brain damage resulting from multiple blows to his head over his lifetime. While I don’t doubt the existence of such damage, I doubt that it contributed in a significant way to his double-murder-suicide. With that kind of brain damage, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, I would expect to see, at the most, Parkinsonian symptoms (such as tremors, lack of muscle coordination, muscular rigidity, and possibly some slurring of speech), similar to those exhibited by former boxer Muhammad Ali (and as far as I know, Benoit exhibited none), and perhaps also some dementia symptoms (such as forgetfulness and incoherence of thought, speech, or other behaviors), but not sociopathic behavior like murder. I’ve said that I don’t think heavy steroid use fully explains the tragedy either (see my previous post “‘Roid Rage’?”) so I still think there’s more to this story.
Third, on the Madeleine McCann story: Both of the little girl’s parents are now considered suspects by Portuguese authorities. You may recall that I said there was something off about this case back when the story broke, but I thought it had more to do with the worldwide public relations campaign mounted by the parents (see my previous post “Media, moguls, and the search for Madeleine”). Won’t it be something if that turns out to have been a massive diversion?
The pursuit of happiness 9/3/07
When I heard about the apparent suicide attempt of A-list actor Owen Wilson last week, I considered writing about recognizing when someone’s genuinely suicidal (as opposed to just seeking attention by talking about it), but that would’ve been a short one with this as the bottom line: if they’re talking about it, take it seriously, and let the professionals handle the risk assessment.
As I thought about Wilson’s case, I was reminded of other times when celebrities were struggling publicly with depression, and people have asked me how someone who “has it all” can possibly be depressed. I’ve never met Wilson and don’t know anything about his case except what’s been reported in the media, so I can’t speak directly to what’s going on with him. I can, however, make a couple of general observations. First, outward indications of success, like money and fame, don’t necessarily reflect what’s going on inside someone’s head. History is full of exceptionally talented people who lived exceptionally tormented lives because they didn’t see (or at least didn’t focus on) the positives in themselves that others saw. There’s also a neuro-chemical component to depression whereby it actually becomes difficult for a person to break out of a negative thought pattern (often called rumination). Which comes first, the negative thinking or the chemical deficiency, is a “chicken or egg” question, but they fuel each other — the more negatively a person thinks about him/herself, the more depleted certain chemicals in the person’s brain become, and the more depleted those chemicals become, the more difficult it becomes for the person to break out of the negative thinking. That’s why the “state-of-the-art” treatment for major depression (I’m talking about severe, chronic depression here, not the occasional “bad day” that’s normal for people to experience) is a combination of psychotherapy to address the negative thinking and medication, at least temporarily, to address the chemical depletion. Illegal drugs and/or excessive alcohol, though commonly used to “escape” depression, just exacerbate the problem while creating additional problems (it’s not yet clear how, if at all, those were involved in Wilson’s case).
But the main thing I wanted to address in this post is a particular pattern of thinking that I believe accounts for why some people who are young and successful and appear to “have it all” still feel lost and/or empty and/or unworthy of their success and therefore, depressed. (Caution: I’m about to enter a philosophical zone.) I’ve often heard such people describe their overall goal or purpose in life as “to be happy.” Personally, I don’t think “to be happy” is really why each of us is here on the Earth, and I don’t think the pursuit of “happiness” really gets anyone there. Rather than being a purpose in itself, I think happiness is a consequence of fulfilling one’s true purpose in life. What is that? I think it’s different for every person, and I think it’s about figuring out what special talent, gift, or ability you have and developing that to the fullest of its potential. I believe that everyone can contribute something unique to the world and that, as each person does so, the individual ends up feeling happy, and the world ends up getting just what it needs. (And it also gives the individual a good intellectual standard for differentiating right from wrong — by determining whether an act would further or hinder the development of human potential.) There’s actually psychological research that backs me up on this by showing that the “happiest” people aren’t necessarily the wealthiest or the most famous but rather those with a strong sense of purpose and a belief that they’re at least moving toward fulfilling that purpose. I talk about some of that research in the college course that I teach because I think it’s important for students to consider as they embark upon their adult lives and careers.
By the way, without straying too far from a psychological to a philosophical to a political zone here on this Labor Day, I also think it’s part of the reason why the United States is such an exceptional country — I believe it’s the best place in the history of the world for individuals to develop and realize their full potentials. For each citizen to do that requires a high degree of personal and economic freedom. The U.S.A. provides both to its citizens through a democratic government with strong protections for the individual and through capitalism, which promotes competition between individuals and rewards the development of unique potential. If you think about it, any country in history that achieved power comparable to that of the U.S.A. in today’s world — a lone “superpower” — used that power to take freedom away from people, to conquer. For most of human history in fact, most human beings were living in “Braveheart” conditions, where whoever was powerful enough to kill you basically got to tell you what to do. The U.S.A. has altered the course of human history, in a positive way, far more than would be expected considering the relatively short period of human history during which the country has existed (it hasn’t had a perfect record, but at least it has literally torn itself apart and put itself back together trying to right its own wrongs). The post-Civil War U.S.A. has used its power to secure freedom for more people than ever in the history of the world, making it possible for them to realize their individual potentials and thereby ultimately achieve that elusive state we call “happiness.”
I know, I started writing about Owen Wilson, who I hope gets his life back on track, and ended up writing about why I think the U.S.A. is a great country. If it seemed a little disjointed, this is, after all, a national holiday, and the pursuit of happiness is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Thanks for going with the flow on this one.