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Friday, April 29, 2011

On the "Wedding of the Century": Royalty as Natural or Exaggerated?

On April 29, 2011, the world watched in utter fascination as a crown prince in one of the E.U. states married a wealthy commoner in London's Westminster Church--the same edifice in which Queen Elizabeth had married in 1947.  The prince is of course William, and his bride is Kate (or Catherine to the purists), who in one hour's time went from being the daughter of two wealthy commoners to royalty.  It is as though she leap-frogged from “the many” past “the few” to join “the one”--the firm. My question is whether these distinctions, involving birth as well as wealth, are natural in terms of human nature or exaggeraged artifices borne of excessive privilege and power.

The seemingly-eternal tripartite division was on display during the wedding, as throngs watched large screens in large parks and crowded pubs while a relative few, which had been invited to attend the ceremony in person, took their seats inside the church after which the royal family arrived with great attention to each individual member. Of course, “the one” literally refers to the person of the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who uniquely stood deliberately silent as the congregation sang “God Save the Queen.” One might ask whether having a living human be the subject of a national anthem evinces a category mistake wherein a person is taken for the nation as a whole (i.e., an abstraction). Does aristocracy go so far as to end up as standing for a nation itself?

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both referred to a natural aristocracy of virtue and talent. Such differences do indeed exist between people, and thus are generally agreed to be quite natural. Indeed, most people view it fitting that distinguishing people by their character or effort is a perfectly valid basis for rewards. The two American founders also wrote of an artificial aristocracy based on birth and wealth. While nobility and royalty are typically associated with the latter, a monarch may also serve as a check on the sort of artificial wealth that grabs more than it is entitled to on the basis of character and effort. In other words, a king or queen, being in the job for life, can in theory protect titles from simply being bought. This potential benefit of royalty implies a downside to the aristocracy in the American republics wherein what counts is the size of one’s bank account rather than whether one has been raised well and is talented.

In virtually any of the American states, for example, a boorish used-car businessman or subprime mortgage salesman who has become newly rich by providing lemons could join a country club and thus be reckoned as part of his city’s aristocracy. Similarly, wealthy CEOs like Lew Glucksman and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers could be members of the most exclusive country club in New York and yet lack “gentlemanly traits.” Such qualities cannot be purchased like some commodity traded by investment banks; instead, a gentleman is fashioned from birth. Such natural aristocracy is beyond the reach of the vast wealth of the sort like the envious Glucksman and the childish Fuld even if they could buy themselves into exclusive country clubs. In a European state such as Britain, however, the monarch could theoretically forestall a grasping capitalist from buying a title. Hence, even a rich CEO in Europe can remain a commoner regardless of his or her wealth, which in an American state would clearly differentiate him or her from the masses in terms of exclusivity and privilege.  This is not to say, however, that European aristocracy and royalty are without their downsides.

That Kate Middleton, a millionaire’s daughter, would be lumped together with the other “commoners” only to become royal in marriage ignores the rather obvious economic distinction between rich and poor. That is to say, because of Kate's parents’ wealth, there was something artificial in Kate being referred to as a commoner before her wedding. Moreover, royalty itself might be a highly artificial construct in so far as royals come to believe they do not share humanness with other people.

The director Ken Loach points to the irrationality in the behavior of “commoners” when they ignore the artificiality that is in the expectations of royals. Good people “have knelt before the Queen at some point in their lives. . . . the woman you’re kneeling before represents all that is wrong with this country—inherited wealth, inherited privilege, the apex of the class system. Let’s have a bit more dignity than to crawl before that woman, please.” In other words, subjects as well as monarchs are adults and they should all act the part. There is something undignified for people such as the Middletons who created a business from scratch regressing to childlike behavior in front of a person simply because that person is regarded as the symbol of the state. Furthermore, there is something insulting in the royals referring to the Middletons as commoners because the appelation does not recognize the family's achievement in business.

Perhaps Europeans have the potential benefit in royals acting as a check on ugly usurpers grabbing off too much societally, yet at the cost of artificiality in the royal-aristocrat-commoner distinction wherein the common human denominator in all three is ignored or relegated. Ironically, I suspect that the royals themselves may be among the casualties in the severing of a recognition that we are all human beings. In addition to holding themselves to standards of behavior that may be at odds with human nature itself, royals may tend to forget that commoners are just as human as are nobles and royals. For example, we all die, and none of us knows what, if anything, is in store for us after death. So while there are real and artificial distinctions, there is also the shared basis in all of us being human. Accordingly, my instinct should I come in contact with a royal would be to relate to him or her simply as another person, whose need for genuine human contact is just as real as mine.

Source on Ken Loach: “Between Commodity and Communication: Has Film Fulfilled Its Potential?” International Socialist Review, 76 (March-April 2011), 28-44, p. 44.

See my related essay, "On the "Wedding of the Century': History Made or Manufactured?"

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Palestinian Democracy as a Precursor to Peace

The two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, announced on April 27, 2011, according to The New York Times, “that they were putting aside years of bitter rivalry to create an interim unity government and hold elections within a year, a surprise move that promised to reshape the diplomatic landscape of the Middle East. The deal, brokered in secret talks by the caretaker Egyptian government, was announced at a news conference in Cairo where the two negotiators referred to each side as brothers and declared a new chapter in the Palestinian struggle for independence, hobbled in recent years by the split between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza. It was the first tangible sign that the upheaval across the Arab world, especially the Egyptian revolution, was having an impact on the Palestinians . . . Israel, feeling increasingly surrounded by unfriendly forces, denounced the unity deal as dooming future peace talks since Hamas seeks its destruction. ‘The Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a televised statement. The Obama administration warned that Hamas was a terrorist organization unfit for peacemaking.”

Analysis:

Prime facie, an agreement that puts aside years of bitter rivalry is apt to give one a sentiment of moral approbation. Furthermore, an agreement by rival parties in a young democracy on having elections is along the lines of furthering or strengthening representative democracy itself—a political form that, while hardly perfect and susceptible perhaps to excessive democracy, looks like the best around. This is not to say that the results of an election (assuming a fair and transparent one) are pleasing to interested bystanders nearby or halfway around the world. However, if those who claim to value representative democracy hold the form hostage where it is young just because the victors of an election happen not to be the anointed party, the bystanders risk being viewed as hypocrites interested in political expediency.  To the Israelis who proffer the false (or artificial) choice, unity among the Palestinians simply means having a more formidable opponent in bargaining. Surely there is more at stake than jostling for strategic advantage.

                            Rita Castelnuovo of The New York Times

The Palestinian agreement represents real progress in terms of human rights and democracy. “A desire for unity has been one goal that ordinary Palestinians in both areas have consistently said they sought. Until now it has proved elusive and leaders of the two factions have spoken of each other in vicious terms and jailed each other’s activists.”  Furthermore, contrary to the Israeli prime minister’s view, the agreement could provide the chance for negotiations to resume with Israel after being stalled in the context of Palestinian division and further Israeli settlements. Although the chances of an eventual peace treaty cannot be known at least as of April of 2011, the context going into the Palestinian agreement was certainly not amenable to a broader resolution.

Beyond Palestinian politics and Israeli reactions, the question of the impact of a gradually more democratic Middle East on Palestinian-Israeli peace is, in my opinion, more important. For besides the possible (though uncertain) prospect of democratic Arab states being more invested in such peace, a common political form could itself make possible an eventual Middle Eastern Union capable of relegating conflicts that seem today to involve such high stakes. That is to say, the stakes themselves might someday be relativized in importance by a process begun by the democratization of Arab states in the Middle East. If this is so—and it could admittedly be far-fetched—it is in the world’s interest not only to protect unarmed protesters from their betraying rulers, but also to do more to facilitate the transformation.  It would certainly be ironic were some of the world’s democratic players strategically against furthering democracy in the Middle East.


Source:

Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, “Fatah and Hamas Announce Outline of Deal,” The New York Times, April 28, 2011, p. A1.

So You Want to Become an Excellent Writer?

A good writer writes well. That is to say, a good writer is (or ought to be) well-versed in the craft of writing. Unfortunately, this takes some good old-fashioned study in grammar and spelling. In spite of the effort and discipline that are involved in such banal study, the mechanics furnish only the means of entry. The quality distinguishing the excellent writer from even a good one is passion-fueled insight. The writer who writes out of a strong urge, or instinct, to express such insight publicly naturally finds his or her own voice, and thus identity, as a writer.  In this sense, a writer is like an entrepreneur whose passion breaks through the confines of an organizational structure, like lava pushing through the tough shell of a lava dome. Even though I do not know whether he is a writer, Richard Branson illustrates my point.

The entrepreneur founded the Virgin Group, which contains more than 300 companies as of the spring of 2011. Ordinarily, the reality of running a cumbersome corporation saps entrepreneurial talent, enabling managerial creatures to swoop in and take the reins of power from founders (often times without due respect, as per the nature of the managerial race). In the case of Branson, however, having a large company has not prevented him from taking on new commercial ventures that reflect his dreams in a way that solidifies rather than enervates his control. "I'm just ridiculously lucky," he says according to USA Today, "and [I] just love to live my dreams." True to form, he has been pioneering Virgin Galactic into space and Virgin Oceanic into the deep sea, utilizing the wealth of a large corporation rather than being hampered by organizational strictures.

The key to the dynamic is Branson’s passion for exploration being of such strength that it cannot but be in the driver’s seat. "The interesting thing about exploration is . . . you never quite know what you're going to discover," he says. The uncertainty involved could have easily been choked by organizational technicians who reflect the caution innate in corporate culture. Branson’s zeal to explore has broken through that crust because his passion is real rather than borne of a fickle management fad such as visionary leadership. Accordingly, his advice on choosing a profession is: "don't try to start a business because you think you can make money. Start a business because you really want to." In the case of Richard Branson, business is merely an extrinsic shell housing his innate curiosity.

Similarly, the excellent writer utilizes the mechanics of writing to express an underlying passion rather than merely to write for its own sake or to make money. Such a writer is likely to deliver a unique and interesting perspective that is a real contribution because passion tends to go further in the sense of uncovering.

For example, I once visited friends in Leipzig, which is in Germany, which in turn is a state in the European Union. I discovered that Europeans tend to paint the entire U.S. as homogenous—as if equivalent to a state with a very large territory in the E.U.—while assuming that the E.U. states are so different they could just as well be different planets. Meanwhile, most Americans are oblivious to the category mistake, not to mention sheer unfairness, in a state in the E.U. being reckoned as equivalent to the U.S. rather than to one of its states. Both the category mistake and the unfairness, as well as the getting-away-with-it, trigger my passions for logical consistency and fairness.
 
Passion-fueled insight can be revolutionary, and thus provoking to the interests vested in the status quo. Such is the power of passion that it can change the world. Because it is in the nature of energetic insight to erupt into being expressed, writing is a natural channel for it.  

Please click to add a question or comment on the role of passion in excellent writing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sexual Harassment on College Campuses: A Wider Picture of Intolerance in Political Correctness

In his commentary on “Sex and the College Dean” in The Wall Street Journal, William McGurn bemoans what he calls the “surrender [of] what little moral authority [deans and college presidents] have left to their in-house counsel and off-campus government authorities.” McGurn points in particular to the rising influence of lawyers in college administrations. “Today deans have given way to lawyers. The consequence has been endless gestures to raise ‘awareness,’ constant upgrading of procedures and the proliferation of committees—all designed primarily to limit the institution's civil liability. Thus Rutgers says it is working on making the school ‘more inclusive’” after a gay student killed himself after his roommate posted video secretly shot of the gay student having sex in the dorm room. Not to completely dispute McGurn’s “lawyer thesis,” I do, however, want to broaden the explanation based on material provided by McGurn himself.

Specifically, the “more inclusive” language McGurn cites is the signature of the political-correctness movement that has swept college campuses in North America since the late 1980s. Whereas McGurn claims that deans of students have gone from being adults to legalists in seeking to minimize their school’s liability, I contend that those deans have gone from being adults to ideologues as well. So Yale fraternity students chanting outside women's housing that "No means yes. Yes means anal," was red meat to any (male or female) feminist dean of students within earshot. For such a “dean” (a loose term applied to deans of students), seething anger would be the driving force, albeit dressed up as a salubrious and well-meaning  need for the “campus community” to be “more inclusive.” Such administrators often use community as a subterranean weapon to impose their will ideologically under the rubric of description. “We are an inclusive community” is meant to assert rather than merely describe. To use Nietzsche’s celebrated parlance, the statement is essentially the will to power of a weak person who seeks to dominate nonetheless.

At Yale, political correctness (PC) is not limited to administrators (male or female). Indeed, McGurn reports that based in part on the frat’s chants, “16 female students and alumni are claiming under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act that the campus is now a ‘hostile sexual environment’ that denies women the same opportunities as their male counterparts.” As a Yale alumnus, I am highly doubtful that the campus is now such an environment even in spite of some immature frat guys who surely must have known of the dominant PC feminism on the campus; those students are more guilty of abject stupidity than careless (and likely drunken) insensitivity. In making this point, I am not excusing their behavior—rather, I want to put it in some kind of perspective without resorting to legalisms.

Yale’s campus is so politically correct that the sensitivity training needed might be for women and racial minorities—particularly on how they should treat white males who come from states like Oklahoma and do not necessarily think like Northeastern liberals. White conservative male students really do feel marginalized at Yale. A drunken fraternity incident does not outweigh the overall atmosphere of the campus enforced by the tyranny of the majority ideology.

At Yale, if you write on race, gender or poverty, you are in. I knew a graduate student in the humanities who secured an assistant professorship and wound up in film studies by writing on comparative slavery. To the outside world, the Yale club consists of legacies such as George W. Bush (he was in a frat). In actuality, the club is political correctness, and exclusion does not stop at the gates to Old Campus.

My more general point is simply that deans of students are apt to be strongly invested in political correctness. Together with a counseling educational background, the political correctness is the driving force behind all the sensitivity programs; the lawyers are likely simply nodding in agreement.  It is important to realize that justice has virtually nothing to do with the involvement of either the “deans” or the lawyers; the latter want to push responsibility away from their clients (a nice lesson for college students) whereas the former are acting out unresolved anger.  

So to understand the driving force in the contemporary campus climate, it is important to recognize the depth of anger underlying the politically-correct movement on college campuses. To be sure, various grievances can be funneled into the need for sensitivity sessions; the issue is not necessarily anger at real injustices. To be sure, there is no excuse for humiliating minority students, such as the gay student at Rutgers; his roommate was rightly brought up on charges and morally condemned for his betrayal alone.

As for the Yale frat incident, there is a difference between what those students did and actual rape. The two should not be conflated. Also, it is important to remember that, as McGurn observes, college kids with raging hormones are not going to behave like forty-year-olds. Traditional college students are in college just after high school, so they are in that “in-between” phase in which there is still a need for adults—not just lawyers and ideologues with an ax to grind. It is important for authority figures—particularly those in settings such as colleges wherein the administrators do stand in for parents (particularly with first degree undergraduates)—to be adults in terms of resisting their own wider agendas. It is also important for the rest of us not to generalize the Yale frat incident, for it runs strongly against the grain of a very politically-correct campus.


Source:

William McGurn, “Sex and the College Dean,” The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2011, p. A15.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Organizational Bureaucracy at Odds with Creativity in Film and Television

Art through corporate bureaucracy can be likened to oil and water. The rise of the studio system to produce film as an art form thus evinces a necessary evil. To be sure, organization is necessary to literally organize the various facets involved in the production of a film. However, needless managerial levels have gone beyond what is needed for coordination, particularly in television, and have stifled good narrative in the process.

Ken Loach, a feature and television film director, declared, “Television kills creativity; work is produced beneath a pyramid of producers, executive producers, commissioning editors, heads of department, assistant heads of department, and so on, that sit on top of the group of people doing the work, and stifle the life out of them” (p. 40). These suits are told to control the creativity even though the latter cannot be controlled without dying out in the process. According to Loach, “if you’ve got ten people sitting on your shoulder you can’t be good, you can’t be creative” (p. 41). For example, directors say they are told that they are not allowed to work with the writers. Instead, the directors work with managers, who somehow view themselves as qualified to write narrative because they are oriented to business factors. The result has been artificially-constructed television programing akin to politicians running solely off polls. Although financial concerns have a legitimate place, they are of such import to the layers of managers that cheap reality shows have trumped serious drama with a coherent, thought-out plot.

According to Loach, television, which “began with such high hopes,” has become “a grotesque reality show” (p. 41). To be sure, Loach admits that “some good work gets through” (p. 41). Even so, it is much too hard for it to survive the inevitable onslaught of the bureaucratic knives unscathed. The editing done by managers is fundamentally different than that which writers would do—and not for the better.

Perhaps rather than tearing up scripts that have been accepted, managers could have confidence in their own decisions in accepting the scripts by letting the writers themselves work out any changes with the directors. In other words, in putting an accepted script through the meat-grinder, are not executives and their staff undercutting their own decision to accept the script?  Of course, a particular acceptance could be to say that a script is only “good enough to get through the door.”  In other words, it would be understood that the script is to be considered as only partially done when it arrives. I would caution against such an “acceptance” because managers oriented to business matters are not likely to function as surrogate writers in finishing the job. A writer is a writer whereas a manager is a manager. Business expertise does not proffer the ability to tell a story.

Therefore, I contend that scripts ought to be accepted that can stand on their own as scripts. That is to say, the accepting executive ought to believe that the scripts he or she pays for are good already, and thus that the respective writers can be trusted to accommodate changes that the director believes are necessary.  

A producer ought to be on the look-out for the following: “What writers need to write are original stories, original characters, plot, conflict, things that dig into our current experience. Things that really show us how we’re living, give us a perspective on what is happening” (p. 41). Sometimes in watching a movie, I can sense what will come next because the formula has already become hackneyed.  I have even thought that nearly a century of films has perhaps exhausted good narrative.

The screenplay’s structure is so “scripted” that the exactitude of the uniform structure may itself willow away originality and creativity. It is perhaps like trying to fit lots of different shapes through a very small hole.  The defining structure, such as there being three acts—the first running twelve to fifteen pages and ending in a triggering event that in turn leads in act two to a critical event that is seen to be resolved in the last act—seems needlessly confining. Are there not other possible structures compossible with film narrative? 

On the other hand, I suspect that creativity can still be applied through the existing structure if there are original stories and characters out there in someone’s imagination. However, the standard structure ought not be allowed to exclude any stories that are original yet not conducive to that particular structure. Perhaps a new structure could naturally come out of such an original story. I suspect that the specificity of the formatting and length is primarily a means of standardizing incoming scripts so they can be more easily compared. While convenient, the guidelines may be contributing to movie-goers viewing the films as too formulaic.  For example, boy meets girl, girl pushes boy away, boy wins back girl, and the two embrace. Girl goes with other boy is scarcely off the formula.

In any case, creativity is urgently needed among screenwriters, and the protection (and respect) of creativity is urgently needed among managers having control over the art. Just because a person can control something doesn’t mean they should hold it so tightly—squeezing the air out of it.


Source:

Ken Loach, “Between Commodity and Communication: Has Film Fulfilled Its Potential?” International Socialist Review, 76 (March-April 2011), 28-44.

On American Business: Is Money-Making the Means and End?

In the month before the Oscars, Turner Classic Movies runs films under the promo, "Thirty One Days of Oscar."  Interestingly, in promoting this series, the network reminds views to watch the Oscars on another network.  Although the strategy could be that if people watch the Oscars, they will be more likely to watch TCM, it could also be that the people who operate TCM really do love movies and they are not bothered at all by viewers going to another network to view the Mecca of cinema: the Oscars. In other words, it could be that a passion for film trumps the incessant drive for more profit that typically occupies the attention of business managers. The culture of cinemateque may eclipse greed.  The implication is that business as usual--the typical rationale for going to work at a given business--can and should be questioned.  All of us can ask ourselves whether we feel the way about our respective industries the way ciinophiles feel about theirs. A way to test whether you are in the right field is if you find yourself saying, "I can't believe someone pays me to do this."  I suspect that few people can marvel at being in such a situation.  Even so, I contend that human nature relishes in it and dies in a sense without it.  That something so vital is so commonly relegated or dismissed in favor of expediency (or greed) is short-sighted, for he who does what he loves is apt to do it better than otherwise. We in the West at least are so used to businesses being constantly attuned to getting the next dollar or euro that it is surprising when the managers of a company put the interests of their passion above their own company's narrow interests. We ought not, in other words, to take business as usual for our default. Rather, we ought to look for creaks of passion particularly where it checks greed, even if just for special events, at the balcony.  If passion spreads such that we put things before ourselves, society would feel much different. I suspect that we have no idea how much, being locked in as though frozen in constant motion.

Click to add a question or comment on the purpose of business.

On doing what you love, see http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2011/04/corporate-metaphors-money-making-and.html

On curtailing greed, see: http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2011/02/godliness-greed-how-effective-is.html

Is the Moneyed Interest Oriented to Ending American Federalism?

James Madison wrote in Federalist #10, “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union, than a particular member of it.” That is to say, it is in the interest of the wealthy (and especially creditors) that federalism be replaced by a consolidated central government.

In the case of Shays' Rebellion in 1786 in Massachusetts, the debtors were soldiers who had not been paid by the Continental Congress yet still faced payments on their farms. Under such conditions, was stopping such payments an "improper or wicked project"? Moreover, in a republic wherein each citizen of age has one vote, is a tendency to equalize property (as opposed to a concentrating of wealth) so very improper or wicked? Perhaps whether such things are wicked depends on where one stands, though I suspect the good of the whole--the public interest--does not reduce to a partisan position based on self-interest.

Given the diversity that naturally exists in an “extended republic” the size of an empire, such as the U.S. or E.U., the one-size-fits-all interest of the rich is ultimately suffocating. Diversity over such a number of republics in a union must be allowed its breathing room or the pressure from the consolidation will prompt some of the republics to secede. In 2010, for example, there was a movement in Texas to leave the union because the sense was that law from Washington D.C. was not fitting for that republic.

The question is perhaps whether the financial elite can be oriented to the long term, and, thus public interest in the pursuit of a more paricular interest. Moreover, is the public good simply the aggregation of everyone following his or her own particular interest? Even if that works in an Adam Smith economy of competitive markets, does the same logic work for polities?  It could be argued, for example, that unlike a market, a polity requires leadership. The U.S. President can say the U.S. will move against Libya, but does it make sense to say that the American economy is moving as an entity when the market is simply the individual buyers and sellers? Furthermore, nations can explicitly stand for certain principles, whereas a market's principles such as efficiency are given, or inherent.

In the case of the United States, a decision is needed by the citizens on whether to continue to allow the propertied interest to enervate federalism or to reinvigorate the checks and balance in federalism wherein one government checks another. In the end, it is the public's comfort with concentrated power that is at issue. Historically, that comfort was pretty low, but may have subtly changed over decades wiithout being made transparent. One function of leadership in a polity is to act on behalf of such transparency and proffer a directionality.

Click to add a question or comment on wealth, markets, power and federalism.

Corporate Analogies: Money-Making as War-Games as a Sign of Boredom

What to do when analogies go over the top. As an aspiring writer, I was chastised by more than one writing tutor for mixing analogies. The device can add color to otherwise drab prose to be sure, but too many colors at once can be daunting to even a captivated reader. Consider, for example, the following passage from Larry McDonald about the management at Lehman Brothers:

“In a way, Lehman was run by a junta of platoon officers . . . I think of them as battle-hardened, iron-souled regulars” (p. 89). Richard Fuld, Lehman Brothers’ former CEO, was “our spiritual leader and battlefield commander . . . surrounded by a close coterie of cronies, with almost no contact with anyone else. . . . I suppose that was fine so long as the place was chugging along without civil war or mutiny breaking out, and continuing to coin money, which is after all the prime objective of the merchant bank” (p. 90). Fuld “worked within a tight palace guard, protected from the lower ranks, communicating only through his handpicked lieutenants” (p. 90).


The full essay has been incorporated into On the Arrogance of False Entitlement: A Nietzschean Critique of Business Ethics and Managementwhich is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.