SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli's announcement that he was abandoning his re-election campaign not only made headlines, it illustrated the point of a less sensational story published the day before. That story explains why Torricelli took his leave in such a graceless way.
High self-esteem, a new study claims, isn't the panacea for any and all social ills that proponents believe it is, nor is not having enough self-esteem the reason that people behave badly. The study supports previous findings that you can be what the man in my life politely calls "a sphincter" and still love yourself, a lot.
"Don't feel bad for me," an emotional but unapologetic Mr. Torricelli told a news conference, before he recited a list of accomplishments. "I changed people's lives."
According to the Justice Department Campaign Financing Task Force, the senator also accepted $53,700 in illegal donations as well as expensive gifts, but Toricelli cast himself as the victim of heartless accusers. "When did we become such an unforgiving people?"
Maestro, please, one chorus of "Don't Cry For Me, Trenton" while we chalk up another success for the self-esteem movement that began, where else, here in California. Enough self-esteem was supposed to cure all society's ills -- crime, poverty, racism, welfare dependency, parking tickets, barking dogs. We only needed to think highly enough of ourselves.
The problem with that theory is that you wind up with people like Torricelli, who know for sure that they're the reason the sun comes up. I wonder, did Torricelli come under the influence of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility? He's their kind of guy.
Created in 1986, the Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem -- the "personal and social responsibility" part of the name fell by the wayside -- was created and funded by the California legislature at the urging of state Sen. John Vasconcellos. Here's an excerpt from Task Force literature, which has been widely distributed in California's schools:
"Accept yourself. Every day when you get up, say to yourself 'I am a worthwhile and lovable person, no matter how many "mistakes" I make.'"
Note that there's nothing said about basing this judgment on accomplishment. Also, putting "mistakes" in quotes suggests that there isn't any such thing, a world view much admired by corporate accountants.
Well intended, I suppose, the concept was "make people feel good about themselves and their inner children will all play nice."
These kids grew up and enrolled in the classes that I taught in a state university. There's nothing like a roomful of 18-year-old princes and princesses, every one of them full of unshakable belief in his or her own wonderfulness, to make you decide you'd be better off in another job, such as cleaning out restaurant grease traps.
My students didn't believe in "mistakes." They didn't believe that they ever fell short of perfection, or ever could, or that it should matter if they did. If they hadn't done an assignment, or if they'd lifted a paper off the Internet, a lame excuse ought to suffice. What mattered was that they were worthwhile and lovable.
No grade but an "A" was ever warranted, even a courtesy "C" on a failing paper, because a "C" was an assault on a person's self-esteem. Anything below a "C"? An assault plus a rape plus a libel, and if the student's complaint about my abuse of authority didn't change my mind, I could expect to hear from the parents.
About half the latter led off their telephone calls with, "I'm an attorney." Would I like to reconsider the damage I'd done to their child's academic record, and therefore his professional prospects farther down the line, and worst of all, his self-esteem? Otherwise, they were prepared to pursue the matter by suing me out of my socks.
It took several years, but dealing with all those permanent two-year-olds, students and parents both, had an adverse effect on my self-esteem -- or, as a freshman comp student once wrote, my "self of steam." I left teaching.
Since then, friends who are still in the trenches tell me that the situation has gotten much worse; college students are no longer the only ones who expect recognition and praise, in lavish amounts, without having earned them.
Kids who are still learning to tie their shoes now speak the language of entitlement, their role models parents like the one my friend Mary encountered in a crowded Starbucks. Mary was making her way across the room, juggling paper cups full of hot coffee. A small child trying to shove his way through the forest of legs slammed into her knees and threw her off balance.
While Mary struggled not to spill coffee on him and burn him, his mother stepped in. "Simon," she instructed her offspring ever so gently, "when you push people, say 'excuse me.' "
After three years of earnest effort, this state's Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem filed a final report. "One of the disappointing aspects, " it concluded, " ... is how low the associations between self-esteem and its consequences are in research to date."
Translation: We've been blowing smoke. Just last year, undaunted, Sen. Vasconcellos revived the movement again. This time he called for self-esteem training programs for juvenile offenders and the officers who deal with them.
No one knows whether boosting self-esteem helps reduce crime, Vasconcellos acknowledged, but it can be proven that "self-esteem deteriorates during incarceration."
No! Really? You could have knocked me down with a feather.
As for those who question his one-size-fits-all theory of human behavior, we're only "the right wing and certain effete intellectuals."
I'm not sure which category fits the researchers who, in 1996, analyzed more than 150 studies in psychology and criminology and concluded that neo-Nazis, wife-beaters and members of the Ku Klux Klan "consistently express favorable views of themselves."
The authors of the newly published study, too, found a correlation between high self-esteem, racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors. "Not everything is about 'me,'" said one of study's authors, shouting down the wind. "There are some bigger things that we should be concerned about."
Meanwhile, America has a new celebrity, Simon Cowell. Perhaps because he's English, the hard-nosed judge on "American Icon" never got the "worthwhile and lovable" message. Cowell informed performers who couldn't sing that they were terrible and that they should get off the stage.
Million of us who've had it with princes and princesses loved him.
(Cyra McFadden is a San Francisco-based novelist and journalist whose articles have appeared in many national publications. A former newspaper columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, she was a finalist for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction for her memoir, "Rain or Shine." She writes a monthly column for United Press International.)