Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Petraeus Scandal and the Stoic Warrior

The resignation of David Petraeus has the feel of both farce and tragedy. For some, he was a paragon, felled by something as trivial as a sexual impulse. For others, his affair, and the foolishness with which he carried it out, for example, using a Gmail drop-box to communicate with his paramour, showed the feet of clay behind the trumped up image of a disciplined and intelligent military leader.  I want to focus this post, not on the question of his character, for example, was he too self-promoting, but rather on the meaning of his affair within the wider culture.

Some people have wondered if the popular response to this behavior, the shock and the disappointment, reflects a stubborn puritanism in the culture, even in an age when pornography is so widely available and adultery is common. I want to propose a different thesis. I think Petraeus represented the idealized image of what Nancy Sherman has called the “Stoic warrior.” The Stoic warrior is the military person who gains control over his feelings, particularly fear and anger, even in the face of the enormous stresses and losses associated with war and battle.

In a famous incident during World War Two, General Patton, a U.S. military hero, slapped and kicked a soldier who had been admitted to an army hospital for shell shock. Moved by the many bandaged and wounded soldiers he saw, Patton could not tolerate the idea that this solider could escape the line of fire by pleading nervousness. The incident was scandalous because witnesses saw Patton lose control in so egregious a manner. As Abraham Zaleznik writes, “At the height of this brief but violent encounter, Patton appeared to have been shaken by his own conduct. He began to sob, wheeled around and told Colonel Currier, ‘I can’t help it. It makes me break down to think of a yellow bastard being babied.’” The solider, it turned out, had just seen his buddy gravely wounded.

Encountering such a moment frightens people because it highlights how, when a leader loses control over this feelings, power can lead to abuse. History is of course filled with what Freud called “primal fathers” whose rage, paranoia and narcissism destroyed many lives. One thinks for example of Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin and Charles Taylor. And surely, most every child experiences moments when parents are frightening, and the gap between “big” and “small" feels so fateful and final. The stoic warrior is an ideal because it creates the hope that we can entrust leaders with the power they need to protect us, without them turning against us. Petraeus of course was not violent, but his foolishness suggests that he gave way to feelings of lust, so much so, that he became careless. Indeed, one signal measure of an army’s discipline is the degree to which its commanders ensure that the troops do not give way to lust for example, by raping vanquished women.

One question is how do we create stoic warriors, not only in the military but also in civilian life. After all, in every setting we face the risk that power will be abused. One is reminded here for example, of how the Tour de France bicycle champion, Lance Armstrong, abused his position as the seven-time winner to punish co-conspirators who revealed, or threatened to reveal the fact that he and his team members had used drugs to enhance their racing performance. He was enormously competitive, as all warriors must be, but he was also brutal. We have of course codes of ethics, stoicism was just a code, and we expect our leaders to be disciplined in their work, most importantly to bear the pain associated with long term achievement on our behalf. Petraeus had just this image of a man of great discipline, a capacity for work, and integrity.

But I want to suggest that our image of the Stoic warrior is linked as well to an idealized image of the parental couple. It is a common cultural trope that men learn to be responsible when they have children. They relinquish some degree of self-aggrandizement, and the freedom of adolescence, by learning to protect their children and make sacrifices on their behalf.

A Washington Post article conveys a revealing image of the Petraeus couple in this regard. ( The reporter describes how Petraeus, and his wife Holly, “projected unity and love “as they presided “over their daughter’s wedding in Berryville, Va., at the stunning Rosemont Manor,” one month before the scandal. “Gen. Jack Keane, a longtime mentor who attended the nuptials noted that, ‘When dinner was over, Holly and Dave were both beaming throughout their evening.. They made their own way around the room saying hello to their friends and relatives.’ The reporter goes on to note that, “To many army couples Petraeus and his wife represented a role-model marriage.” Holly, herself the daughter of a four star general, had endured long separations from her husband when he was oversees and spent much of her work-life lobbying on behalf of veterans. “As the assistant director for the Obama administration's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she monitors and investigates consumer complaints from U.S. service members.” It is also a common cultural trope that the family is a civilizing institution.

One hypothesis is that the presidential election was partly about whether and how we can and/or should sustain this idealized image of the parental couple. As David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times wrote, after the election, “At some point over the past generation, people around the world entered what you might call the age of possibility. They became intolerant of any arrangement that might close off their personal options. The transformation has been liberating, and it’s leading to some pretty astounding changes. For example, for centuries, most human societies forcefully guided people into two-parent families. Today that sort of family is increasingly seen as just one option among many. The number of Americans who are living alone has shot up from 9 percent in 1950 to 28 percent today. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans said that children are very important to a successful marriage. Now, only 41 percent of Americans say they believe that. There are now more American houses with dogs than with children.” (

Perhaps part of Obama’s appeal, and why the Republicans failed in their effort to characterize him as a radical, is that he appears so temperate and controlled, even if sometimes dull and disengaged. Most people would find it inconceivable that he would engage in extra-marital sex, as did his more exciting predecessor, Bill Clinton. It is also likely that Brooks wrote his column in response to the discourse about the coalition that elected Obama. It did not include, “white males,” one cultural repository, at least for some people, for the image of the good patriarch. 

This may be one reason that the Petraeus scandal, occurring so close to the election, had special resonance. It occurred on the heels of a cultural struggle, in which the stakes are high and there is no clear path forward. If Petraeus was as talented as some claim, then we faced the farce of losing a great leader to a sexual peccadillo. But if he also represented the hope associated with the ideal parental couple, our loss, while largely symbolic, hurts us more.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The New York City Marathon and Mayor Bloomberg’s decision.

In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, which devastated communities along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg faced an important decision. The New York City Marathon, which the city had sponsored for 40 years, was scheduled for the Sunday following the hurricane. The city expected forty thousand runners from all over the world. Yet this was only six days after the hurricane had devastated parts of lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn, all boroughs of the city. As Sunday approached, many families still lived in unheated and darkened homes and apartments. Yet to mount the marathon the city would have to provide electric generators to heat marathon tents, provide runners with emergency medical care, food and water, deploy police to oversee the marathon and close off streets in neighborhoods that suffered flood damage. Over 400,000 people were still without power two days before the marathon was to start.

Looked at pragmatically there were good enough reasons to hold the marathon. Many runners made substantial sacrifices, measured in time and money, to participate in the marathon, and they would be deeply disappointed. In addition, charities that sponsored runners would not get their expected contributions, and the city would lose about $340 million in marathon related spending, a significant sum, though trivial compared to the damage the hurricane wrought. Responding to citizens who felt the marathon would detract from the work of recovery, the Mayor assured them that the marathon “does use some resources, but it doesn't use resources that can really make a difference in recovery...There will be no diversion of resources." He added that, "If I thought it took any resources away from that, we wouldn't do that. We haven plenty of police officers who work in areas that aren't affected."

Perhaps sensing that pragmatism was not enough, Bloomberg also referenced a decision that the prior Mayor, Rudy Guiliani, took some two months after 9/11, to in fact hold the marathon. “I think Rudy had it right. You have to keep going and doing things, and you can grieve, cry, and laugh all at the same time. That's what human beings are good at." He added he had talked to Giuliani that morning, and Giuliani advised him to move forward: "New York has to show that we are here, and we are going to recover, and while we help people, we can still help companies that need business, still generate a tax base, and give people something to be cheery about in what's been a very dismal week for a lot of people."

The public reacted angrily, with people calling the decision selfish and unfeeling, while the Borough president of Staten Island, which had suffered great damage, called the decision “asinine.” A few hours later Bloomberg canceled the marathon.

One interesting question is, if Bloomberg was in fact unfeeling, what had he failed to feel? I don’t think it's sensible to say that he did not understand the public’s suffering. Rather, he failed to understand something more subtle, namely how the Marathon, if held, would lead people to feel that their suffering had been trivialized.

Bloomberg’s reference to 9/11 is telling. One can imagine holding a marathon after a terrorist attack --maybe even a week after -- if the event is experienced as a message to the terrorists and others that the city may be “bowed but not broken.” Under these circumstances the marathon becomes part of a narrative, which gives the disaster, in this case the attack, retrospective meaning. The narrative’s punch line is “we cannot be defeated” or “we represent life.” This message is embedded in a larger story about how people, when united, can defeat their enemies. Because an enemy launched the attack, people can feel that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

The link between meaning-making and trauma is well established, and in fact is the basis for “logotherapy,” a form of psychotherapy developed by Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist who was a concentration camp prisoner during World War Two. Logotherapy’s presumption is that we can bear suffering, and even grow psychologically from it, if we can infuse it with meaning. One reason that a personal trauma -- a rape, a deadly disease -- is traumatic, is because it is random. The trauma not only attacks our physical being but our belief that the world is orderly and that our life has some purpose. People who cope with trauma by discovering a meaning or purpose in it, for example, to live life fully, to help others who suffered, or to bear witness, are said to be resilient. While logotherapy has been called “the third Viennese psychotherapy,” to contrast it with Freud’s and Adler’s conceptions,  psychoanalysis can be thought of, in part, as a therapy for making meaning. The patient learns to tell the story of their personal suffering, where it came from and why, and in this way gains some psychological distance from it. 

People once saw meaning in natural disasters. Recall the tale of Jonah and whale. To avoid God’s injunction that he preach to the people of Nineveh, he escapes on a ship, which is soon lashed by a storm. Jonah knows that the storm is a message from God, and so, to calm the waters and save the people on the ship, he offers to be thrown overboard. But to those who accept a scientific worldview, the message of a natural disaster is that there is no message. While the natural world is our home it is also wholly indifferent to us. A comet could destroy most life on earth in an instant. That is why for example, Pat Robertson, the evangelist, insisted that hurricane Katrina, which resulted in New Orleans’ catastrophic flooding, was God’s message that abortion was a sin. This was the only way to preserve his conception that the natural world is orderly and meaningful. It is a measure of meaning’s salience that some people are willing to acknowledge that they are guilty and deserve to be punished, in order to give a disaster meaning. In this sense, the disaster strengthens belief. This is one reason why Orthodox Judaism is thriving in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

To be sure, in the longer run, many people, particularly those who were not directly affected, will draw out some meaning from this storm. To many, Sandy is even now a “message” that global warming imperils us, and that we need to take steps now, to save generations to come. But presently, people experience the storm and its impact as arbitrary. Indeed one feeling people have when faced with arbitrary outcomes, is the feeling that they have been treated “unfairly.” This feeling is a protest against randomness, but without denying it, as a religious person might. This also means that people are very sensitized to being treated unfairly in the disaster’s aftermath. This may be one reason that people in New York City, believed, despite the Mayor’s protestations, that the marathon would unfairly divert resources from the work of recovery to the plebian business of mounting a marathon.

One question is whether or not it is in the character of a pragmatist to be insensitive to these nuances of feeling and experience. I am inclined to answer, “at least sometimes.” Bloomberg is a very popular mayor, so much so that he persuaded New York City residents to change the city charter so that he could run for a third term! People appreciate deeply his focus on solving problem, using data in decision making, and planning for the long run. His administration was a respite from the polarizing politics of his predecessor, Rudy Guiliani, and from the racial politics of the mayor, David Dinkins, who preceded Guiliani. Pragmatists are practical people, who to their great credit and to our great benefit, are oriented to reality. That is why they are so good at solving problems. But their conception of reality can be too one dimensional – linked too tightly to the interplay between means and ends. They can’t see the reality beneath the surface.

This may account for Bloomberg’s clumsy rationale for mounting the marathon; “You have to keep going and doing things, and you can grieve, cry, and laugh all at the same time. That's what human beings are good at." The term “human beings” is an abstraction. Why not say “people” instead? One hypothesis is that his word-choice is a measure of his retreat from feeling, perhaps because as a pragmatist he cannot cope with its complexity. We say children are innocent because they do not recognize pain's necessity. We say that adults are naïve when they fail to understand feeling’s nuances, particularly its mixture of pleasure and pain. Perhaps it is not that Bloomberg can be unfeeling, but that he can appear naive. Perhaps this is one price we pay when we follow and reward pragmatists.