Habits

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Carl Jung

Virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.

Aristotle

After exhausting my music and podcast options, I have been searching for quality audio books to listen to while I am on the treadmill each morning. So far, I have listened to Jordan Petersen’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos; Victor Davis Hansen’s Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom; and James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. All of these have been excellent and thoughtful books. Beyond that, they have all been so engaging to listen to that the miles pass by without my even noticing.

Until recently, I have never considered myself to be of the “self-help book” persuasion. To say I find women like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sheryl Sandberg annoying would be an understatement. Every time I hear a woman complain about how she gets paid less than men, I want to walk her down the aisles of pseudoscience and crank psychology books marketed (with great success) to women in bookstores. Keto cures cancer and autism, you know. Measles can be treated with lavender oil. Micro-dosing on psychedelics will help you with mood swings. You should shove rocks up your vajayjay. (And be sure to call it your vajayjay, because nothing says feminism like communicating in baby talk.) The only thing keeping you from material success is scribbling affirmations on your mirror with your lipstick. Exactly the kind of person you want in the corner office, right?

But listening to Atomic Habits had me thinking about all the psychology books I have listened to or read recently that are fantastic critiques of our culture.

Atomic Habits is a great book – I highly recommend reading it – but it’s also simply a reworking of the philosophy of Aristotle. The author’s main thesis is the most effective way to change your habits is to focus on the kind of person you want to be (I want to be healthy), rather than dwelling on discrete outcomes (I want to lose 15 pounds). Most of the book focuses on manipulating how you respond to unconscious cues, how your practices relate to the mechanical, biological organization of your mind (what you might consider your “self”).

This is essentially Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Whether or not someone is happy or flourishing is the cumulative effect of their habits. A virtuous person is a person with good habits. To be a good person, you don’t need to hang out in the agora talking about goodness in the abstract. You simply need to start acting like a good person acts here and now. If you want to be courageous, put yourself in positions that demand courage. If you want to be charitable, start working toward a cause. If you want to be a reader, be the kind of person who goes home and opens a book every day instead of turning on the television or mindlessly scrolling Instagram. Good habits become your identity and that is how you flourish over time.

In many ways, some of these more thoughtful psychology books are reclaiming philosophy. Jordan Petersen is expanding on Freud and Jung. Victor Davis Hansen talks about being a classicist as a lifestyle rather than professional curiosity – not just studying Greek, but preserving Greek-ness. I even saw a book called Unfuck Yourself, which revisits stoic philosophy like Marcus Aurelius.

Academia has pretty much destroyed the real human value of philosophy as a discipline. There are plenty of academics who go around calling themselves philosophers, but what they are doing is not philosophy anymore. You open up academic philosophy journals now and you see articles like Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological Oppression (The Monist), Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism and the Challenge of the Exotic (British Journal of Aesthetics), and Refugees, Safety, and a Decent Human Life (The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society). At best, these articles are simply Twitter-esque political blathering with some philosophical sounding wordplay. There’s not a lot of love of wisdom happening in the academy these days. The citizens of Athens would not recognize or promote this activity.

Philosophy as a durable human project is not dead, but is now coming from improbable places. It’s on YouTube. It’s in podcasts. I’m not sure I should be surprised by this. Just as Aristotle trained generals, Clear is training folks in the business world.

At any rate, if you know any good audio books, please pass on their titles.

L'enfer, c'est les autres

This is an infuriating article from the New York TimesA pedophile writer is on trial in France — along with French literary and elite culture. The article includes a long interview with French writer Gabriel Matzneff, who for decades was fêted by cultural and political elites in the western world. His books involved very detailed accounts of his sexual relationships with children, sometimes as young as 8 years old. I am not going to provide an excerpt here, because the facts of the case are revolting (as the mother of an 8-year-old). But I still recommend reading it and pondering narratives regarding where we are as a society.

France has now had its own “Me Too” political moment, and Mr. Matzneff finds himself both in extreme legal jeopardy and a pariah among terrified elites who still don’t know what’s wrong with “trussing a domestic” behavior. They’ve tried calling their detractors prudes to no avail. How did a man who boasted about traveling to the Philippines so he could have sex with several 8-year-old boys at a time end up a reliable fixture of a French president’s social life? How did it come to be that such a vile human being was invited to live with fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, business tycoon Pierre Bergé, when the police were pursuing him (at age 50) and his barely-in-her-teens girlfriend? He was given a lifetime stipend in celebration of his work detailing his (very non-fiction) practice of pedophilia. Of course, it’s not like he’s the first famous French writer to think or write this way.

We are (according to the media) living in a period of profound political turmoil, where the masses have (wrongly, according to the media) come to distrust and outright revile cultural and political elites. This is supposed to be some sort of a crisis, a turning away from the “tasteful” behavior of the wealthy and well-educated toward the provincial and barbaric tastes of the middle / working class and adequately / under-educated. Our social and cultural institutions (according to the media), which have served us (them) so well across the centuries, are in a state of collapse. We are situated in the midst of a populist emergency, led by people who have decent lives but (gasp) are inarticulate and impervious to the forces of fashion and ridicule like the professional class and their rentier gods.

This has always struck me as something of a false narrative. In many ways, the elites are tasteless and barbaric. Michael Bloomberg talking about how you just have to throw black boys up against the wall to fix crime is tasteless and barbaric. Many “elite” artists and critics are tasteless and barbaric. To the “art scene,” being deviant is a criterion for producing “good” art. Elites buy fruit duct-taped to a wall and call it art, while the city they live in has a record number of homeless and heroin addicts. They don’t understand why literally no one cares what they have to say about how the government should be run. To not care about these people is rational.

Americans have made avocados the new cash crop for Mexico's drug cartels

I have been loosely following the kidnapping of the well-known Mexican conservationist Homero Gómez González, who has made it his pet cause to protect the habitat of monarch butterflies who migrate to Mexico annually.

Left-leaning American news media like NPR have made it sound as if he was likely murdered by one of Mexico’s cartels for his conservation efforts. If you read the local papers in Mexico, however, it seems like he was simply another citizen kidnapped for ransom money. It’s makes a less interesting narrative and reinforces the point that Mexico is not as safe of a country as it used to be, which many take to be merely a Trumpian talking point rather than a physical reality. But it is worth withholding judgment until the facts are out.

Anyhow, thanks to my interest in this story, I have learned a lot about the avocado industry. People in the US take it for granted that an endless stream of avocados will be imported to Mexico to feed the new fad of putting avocado on virtually everything. I’ve even seen pajamas and blankets being marketed to the Millennial and Generation Z crowd that have avocados on them.

America’s demand for avocados has turned avocados into a multi-billion dollar industry in Mexico. This means that the cartels that would usually be trafficking in heroin and marijuana are now deforesting land in monarch preserves for … illegal avocado orchards.

Organized crime in Mexico and Central America has been diversifying away from drugs for a while now:

The cartel members showed up in this verdant stretch of western Mexico armed with automatic weapons and chainsaws.

Soon they were cutting timber day and night, the crash of falling trees echoing throughout the virgin forest. When locals protested, explaining that the area was protected from logging, they were held at gunpoint and ordered to keep quiet.

Stealing wood was just a prelude to a more ambitious plan.

The newcomers, members of a criminal group called the Viagras, were almost certainly clearing the forest to set up a grow operation. They wouldn’t be planting marijuana or other crops long favored by Mexican cartels, but something potentially even more profitable: avocados.

Mexico’s multibillion-dollar avocado industry, headquartered in Michoacan state, has become a prime target for cartels, which have been seizing farms and clearing protected woodlands to plant their own groves of what locals call “green gold.

More than a dozen criminal groups are battling for control of the avocado trade in and around the city of Uruapan, preying on wealthy orchard owners, the laborers who pick the fruit and the drivers who truck it north to the United States.

“The threat is constant and from all sides,” said Jose Maria Ayala Montero, who works for a trade association that formed its own vigilante army to protect growers.

After seizing control of the forest in March, the Viagras announced a tax on residents who owned avocado trees, charging $250 a hectare in “protection fees.”

But they had competition. Rivals from the Jalisco New Generation cartel wanted to control the same stretch of land — and residents were about to get caught in the middle of a vicious fight.

In May, a convoy of pickup trucks loaded with Jalisco fighters raced into the woods and an hourlong gun battle broke out.

Juan Madrigal Miranda, a 72-year-old professor who runs a small nature center in the area, cowered on the floor of his small cabin as bullets flew overhead.

His fear eventually gave way to anger at the growing power of the criminals, 10 of whom died in the forest that day.

“Around the country, the cartels want land, forest and water,” Madrigal said. “Now they are fighting for the keys to life.”

Homicides are at an all-time high in Mexico, which has long been home to the world’s most powerful and violent narcotics traffickers. Yet much of the killing today has little to do with drugs.

Organized crime has diversified.

In Guanajuato state, the homicide rate has nearly tripled over the last three years as criminals battle for access to gasoline pipelines, which they tap to steal and sell fuel.

In parts of Guerrero state, cartels control access to gold mines and even the price of goods in supermarkets. In one city, Altamirano, the local Coca-Cola bottler closed its distribution center last year after more than a dozen groups tried to extort money from it. The Pepsi bottler left a few months later.

In Mexico City, bar owners in upscale neighborhoods must pay taxes to a local gang, while on the nation’s highways, cargo robberies have risen more than 75% since 2016.

Compared with drug trafficking, a complex venture that requires managing contacts across the hemisphere, these new criminal enterprises are more like local businesses. The bar to entry is far lower.

This new approach to organized crime was pioneered by the notorious Zetas cartel and spread in response to the government’s 2006 declaration of war on drug traffickers.

Mexican forces, with strong U.S. support, focused on capturing or killing cartel leaders. But that strategy backfired as the big cartels fractured into smaller and nimbler organizations that sought criminal opportunity wherever they could find it.

“For many of those smaller groups, it’s far easier to just prey on local populations,” said Falko Ernst, a Mexico-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, which promotes nonviolent solutions to conflicts. “It’s a myth that it’s only about drugs.”

In Michoacan, where there have been dozens of cartel splits over the last dozen years, organized crime’s invasion of the avocado industry is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the country — and a potent illustration of how the government has unintentionally fueled more violence.

Many people here now long for the early 1990s, when just one family trafficked drugs through the region and the state was largely at peace.

America’s favorite food has become a source of serious misery to families in Mexico:

Originally part of La Familia and later the Knights Templar cartel, which emerged in 2011 after the government crackdown, the Viagras later joined a government-run rural police force designed to topple the cartels.

When that force was disbanded, the Viagras lost their paychecks. But they still had their weapons and military-style training, so they returned to crime.

At the same time, another important change was transforming the state: Americans were falling in love with avocados.

Between 2001 and 2018, average annual U.S. consumption increased from 2 pounds per person to nearly 7.5 pounds.

Michoacan, whose plentiful rain, sunshine and rich volcanic soil make it an ideal place to grow the fruit, was uniquely positioned to capitalize on its rising popularity. It is the only state in the country allowed to sell to the United States, which banned avocados from Mexico until 1997 over concerns about pests.

As exports of Michoacan avocados boomed — on their way to $2.4 billion last year — luxury housing developments and car dealerships sprang up in Uruapan and elsewhere as huge swaths of forest were cleared to grow more.

And the increasing number of criminal groups all wanted a piece of the action.

On a recent chilly morning at a large farm a few hours outside Uruapan, dozens of avocado pickers sipped coffee around a crackling fire, preparing for a grueling day.

Scaling trees and clipping avocados pays much better than many jobs in Mexico — $60 a day compared with the $5 minimum wage — but it increasingly comes with serious risks.

Mayco Ceja, a slight 28-year-old who spent his childhood in California, said the dozen-man team of pickers that he leads was recently summoned to a farm that turned out to be run by gang members.

“They came at us with pistols,” he said. “They forced us to pick for seven hours and didn’t pay us.”

On other occasions, gangs have barred his team from working in order to create a scarcity in supply, which raises the profits for cartel-controlled groves.

Before the Valencia family trafficked drugs, it grew avocados, and it is an open secret here that for decades criminals have used avocado farms to launder money. But never have the lower rungs of the industry been so vulnerable, with multiple gangs extorting cash from small-time growers and state officials recording an average of four truckloads of avocados hijacked each day.

One driver, who was heaving 45-pound crates of avocados into a tractor-trailer, said that in the last six months he has been held up twice by armed men who forced him to drive to a safe house and unload there.

He was too afraid to give his name. “They’ll come to your house and shoot up your whole family,” he said. “Kids included.”

Last year, 1,338 people were killed in Michoacan, more than any year on record. This year has been even deadlier, with 1,309 homicides through October, putting the death toll on track to top 1,500.

Security has become so tenuous that in June a group of avocado producers bought ads in several national newspapers warning of an “irreparable impact” to the industry unless officials address the problem.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended its avocado inspection program in a town near Uruapan after threats to some of its employees. Local media reported that one inspector had been carjacked and another group of employees subjected to intimidation after they canceled a farm’s certification.

That whole piece is rather eye-opening. I have only included small excerpts here, but it is worth reading.

Where did helicopter parents even come from?

I remember laughing when the state of Utah enacted a law two years ago making “free range parenting” legal.

First, it’s kind of hilarious that people are now talking about children as if they are livestock raised for commercial purposes. (But in a weird way, that is sort of how our society treats them.)

Second, it was entertaining to think that policymakers felt they needed to codify that parents could not be charged with neglect for such mundane things as letting their child walk home from school alone or letting an older child stay in a locked car with the air conditioning on while mum darts into the grocery store for butter. How many people could possibly be getting worked up about this stuff?

But it would seem helicopter parents – the opposite of “free-range” parents – calling Child Protective Services because they saw some other couple’s children climbing a tree and thought they were in mortal danger has become such a bureaucratic nightmare that a formal policy must be established regarding how to respond to these folks. (It would also seem that this is not merely a middle-class phenomenon, but a real problem in areas with lower income residents who are “free-range” parents out of necessity.)

As our child has grown older, I have ceased to find helicopter parents hilarious. There truly are a lot of them, and they truly are a colossal pain in the ass to be around. They do seem to make it their mission in life to ruin everything that is good and holy about childhood.

We live in a gated community that is about as safe a neighborhood as one could imagine. Neurotically so. The walls around the community are superfluous, because to break into the neighborhood one would have to trek through swamps and jungles on one side (complete with alligators and water moccasins) or take a boat across the Intracoastal Waterway on the other side. At the gates, anyone who does not live here has to present their driver’s license to a guard, who photocopies it and records their tag numbers. Then he has to call someone on his list of residents to confirm the person has business there. There are cameras everywhere. Pretty over-the-top, right?

We don’t have a problem letting our daughter – who is about to turn 8 years old – play outside, usually with our Jack Russell terrier in tow. In fact, this is part of our routine as homeschoolers. After she is finished with her school work for the day, I tell her to go run around outside. Sometimes we send her on quests. Pretty much the only thing I am afraid of is that she might encounter a venomous snake. (This is Florida, after all.) We try to teach her how to handle encounters with nature, as we are a very outdoorsy family and this is important.

But something has started happening with regular occurrence. She’ll be playing outside in our yard and a neighbor will take her by the hand and walk her back up to our front door, ring the doorbell, and tell me they “found” our daughter and wanted to let me know that she was outside unattended.

Um, duh, I sent her out there so we could get on a conference call, which you interrupted.

Okay, I was just worried about her being out there, on a pretend safari in your flowerbeds, all alone.

They do this with our dog, too. I will let him outside to go to the bathroom and then my phone gets blown up with texts about how our dog is loose… in our yard…. as if a fourteen-pound puppy is terrorizing the city like King Kong.

I have never missed having a fenced-in yard so much. Apparently one of the purposes of a fence nowadays is to give your child the privacy to have a childhood. And people complain that kids are obese and play video games all day.

When we first started homeschooling, I had other homeschooling friends tell me that one of their biggest headaches is having nosy neighbors who see your kid playing outside during “normal school hours” and threaten to report you for child abuse. Then you have to explain to the authorities that (1) your child is homeschooled and extremely well-educated, here is your curriculum, your attendance records and work samples; (2) that a homeschooled child can do more work in three hours than a child in a traditional school does in a week, and said work is already long done; and (3) the kid is allowed to play outside. In an era where every little bitty posts garbage about her neighbors on NextDoor, this has evolved into social media bullying by people you don’t even associate with as well. I didn’t believe it when they told me these horror stories, but I totally get it now.

When we sent our daughter to horse camp, I was amused that helicopter parents had sent their kids there with tiny little bottles of hand sanitizer. So they wanted their kids to have the experience of working on a farm, but farms are dirty and animals carry disease. Their experience was supposed to be muck a stall, Purell hands, muck another stall, Purell hands, give a horse a bath, Purell hands. In the 1990s, we had parodies of this behavior in As Good As It Gets and Nim’s Island. Now this is mainstream parenting.

I’ve been buying party supplies for our daughter’s birthday party, which has a dragon theme. One of her requests was for a dragon piñata. This is how I learned that the traditional piñata – that you hang from a tree branch and take a baseball bat to while blindfolded – is going out of style. I guess swinging a baseball bat at a papier-mâché animal reeks of “toxic masculinity” or something, because the new trend is having a piñata with little ropes dangling from it. Each child gets to yank on a rope – sans the traumatic, disenfranchising blindfold – that makes the animal crap candy. The piñata is no longer some violent tableau and every child gets to experience being the hero who brings the goods back to their cheering tribe. No kidding, they found a way to turn piñatas into participation trophies. Birthday parties must be radically egalitarian affairs, where every detail is negotiated so no child is threatened with even the slightest pang of negative emotions.

I can go on and on with bizarre examples of this phenomenon. What I would really like to know, however, is where it all started. Who was the primum mobile who set this trend into motion?

Is this the toxic output of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village to Raise A Child mentality? Like you have a baby and the village is suddenly up in your business 24/7 telling you how to raise it?

Was there some original trendy helicopter parent that all the soccer moms wanted to emulate?

Was there some crank child psychologist with a cult following who introduced the idea of affirmation (like, you must affirm your child’s bad decision-making and emotional state or they will inevitably become alienated, depressed, and suicidal, and you’ll have to live with the fact that it all started with a piñata) and micromanaged rites of passage?

Is this simply one of those things that comes with living in a decadent society, where people have so much material security that they have to invent increasingly bizarre perceived threats?

The invention of care

A friend recently sent me a screenshot of a Facebook conversation from a neighborhood group in an affluent area of Houston. A mother was asking for recommendations for a personal trainer for her four-year-old son – yes, she actually wanted to hire a professional personal trainer for a preschooler – because her son was having difficulty running and would frequently fall down or crash into things.

What was surprising about the conversation was how many respondents took this request very seriously. The one mother who responded sensibly, suggesting that this was normal development and the mother should spend more time outside with her child herself, you know, just kicking around a soccer ball or something, was shamed by the group for being disrespectful of the honestly delivered “needs” expressed in the original post. There was nothing to do but laugh at it all.

I’ve given up all of my social media accounts, mainly because I don’t enjoy what social media turns people into. Attention is the currency of social media, and it leads to a lot of personal and collective insanity. People say things and start to believe things they never would if they lived most of their lives in the real world.

I’ve seen people on social media behaving like a pack of dogs in the wild more times than I can count, wanting to cause people actual harm, in their relationships or career, because of some perceived slight that was amplified to strangers. I have no doubt that social media is at the center of phenomena like school violence and bullying, teen suicide, exponential increases in kids adopting fringe lifestyles that defy any rational clinical explanation, and many other social issues. (See my earlier posts, The Lonely Generation and What the Society of the Spectacle Says About the Life Cycle of Social Media Platforms.) It’s nuts, I have no idea why anyone continues to engage in that. I have no idea why more parents aren’t flat-out fighting their kids over social media use, as it stands to impair every aspect of their future happiness.

But that’s just the destructiveness of social media on a personal level. What’s interesting is folks are starting to study the economic and other impacts of this behavior as a sort of epidemiological concern. What does it look like when you stop talking about social media as a personal problem and more like a disease that scales up through society?

The health insurer Cigna did this recently, studying “loneliness” as a generational problem, among other things. The insurer was not at all altruistic in launching this investigation. It is known that the federal government spends at least $6.7 billion more on Medicare for clients that lack social contact. People will invent a malaise just to have people pay attention to them. And this practice of inventing illnesses or other opportunities to be cared for becomes an entrenched mental illness as it is habituated.

Loneliness as a durable psychological condition impacts people at the extremes of the age spectrum the most: teenagers and young adults and the elderly.

And it turns out that social media is not “social” contact at all from a psychological perspective. In Cigna’s research, there is “an increasing correlation between social media usage and feelings of loneliness. Seven out of 10 heavy social media users, 71%, reported feelings of loneliness, up from 53% a year ago. That compares to 51% of light social media users feeling lonely, up from 47% a year ago.”

When you see posts like a mother who wants to hire a personal trainer for a preschooler, chances are she’s not asking for that advice because she is a stupid or a negligent mother. Chances are she simply wants the attention such a provocative post would inevitably attract. She wants the people who would react in astonishment. She wants the people piling on in defense of her absurd request, as if the people mocking it were physically abusing her person. It’s all attention, and if she had posted something mundane, she wouldn’t be getting attention. It’s not any different than the 75-year-old who feels like they are having a heart attack one day and malaria the next. What they crave is contact – any kind of contact – and social media a poor narcotic substitute.