Monthly Archives: July 2015

Why Sitting Down is often the Best Way to Stand Up for Western Civilization

894830_10151801086137683_557615151_oThe bathrooms of households containing young boys are often disgusting. Seriously, they smell like the public urinals at a rock concert. Of course if you say something about this, as I often do, you’re invariably told, with a sigh and a smile: “Well, you know, boys will boys.” What the parents mean by this, I gather, is that it’s normal for little boys to hose down a bathroom the way dogs hose down a fire hydrant. Bullshit! Many things are normal for boys, but this isn’t one of them. My wife and I have two boys. And our bathroom never smells like the human equivalent of a kitty litter box. Why? Because the dudes in our house sit down to pee. Really, it’s that simple.

Our sons have friends over quite often, and, as such, from time to time, they are forced to socialize another boy into the ways of civilized men. It’s quite comical to watch actually. A typical scenario looks something like this: young boy rushes into bathroom, slams toilet seat cover up loudly, pisses all over the place (getting some in the toilet, but most on the toilet seat and surrounding bathroom floor), fails to flush, fails to wash his hands, and returns hurriedly to play video game with other boys. A moment or two later, one of our boys goes to the bathroom, finds the pungent nastiness left by the previous kid, and returns to the bedroom to make a big deal about it. The kid who hosed down our bathroom is publicly shamed until he returns to the bathroom, cleans up his mess, flushes the toilet, and washes his hands thoroughly. Trust me, that kid never does it again! Ever. Maybe in your house. Maybe when he’s at home with his clueless, uncivilized parents. But not in our house!

In the midst of our obsession with self-esteem and enthusiasm for anti-bullying campaigns, we seem to have forgotten that peer pressure and public shaming aren’t always bad. In fact, they’re often central features of the civilization process. For instance, I know a kid who used to pick his nose and eat it compulsively. Often in public. Drove his mom crazy. She was so embarrassed. Thoroughly humiliated by his behavior. Told him to stop countless times, but to no avail. The kid would sit there in the middle of a family gathering and meticulously eat his own yellow-green snot.

But he eventually stopped, rather abruptly, a week or two into kindergarten. Why? Because the other kids in the schoolyard teased him about it. They laughed at him when he picked his nose. Mocked him for his repulsive habit. And he stopped. Right away. Just like that. What my sons do to little boys who think it’s their God-given right to hose down my bathroom like tomcats is of a similar stamp. And I’m proud of them for it. When they perform this useful service, they are, quite literally, agents of the civilization process and forces for good in the world. After all, sitting down is often the best way to stand up for Western civilization.

—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2017)

Religion Good and Bad

“Now, broadly speaking, I don’t think religions in general
are particularly good ideas.”
A friend said this, and I agree.–JGM

Modern religion is almost all ideological–a matter of ideas–which is really unfortunate, since religion is about shitty ideas. The best religions cultivate skillful means of dealing with shitty ideas. They aren’t “about” those shitty ideas. which only exist the way poop exists. We experience human emotions–love, joy, transcendence, sorrow, anger, etc.–and the waste product is some shitty idea. We eat food, and the waste product is poop. Of course the master of ceremonies and his crew need some method for dealing with shit at the banquet, but shit is definitely not “what the banquet is about”–unless and until we invent modern religion, which I would liken to a really shitty banquet, a symposium wherein we skip directly from sullen sobriety to vomit-and-piss drunkenness with no poetry or philosophy in between. We have learned over generations that religions founded on ideas are stupid (best-case scenario: we arrive, get hammered, and wake up wearing underwear on our heads) and dangerous (worst-case scenario: the underwear is all that remains of our entire wardrobe, and we are in jail with no memory of how we got there). But for some reason we keep insisting on ideology as being profoundly important (instead of profoundly stupid and dangerous)–and ignoring the reality that religion has been about so much more than stupid and dangerous ideas over the course of human history.

Maybe it is time for more of us to realize that we can make music, poetry, and philosophy (not to mention other kinds of art) without identifying any of these things as particularly important. We don’t have to crucify Peter when he writes a rap song instead of a cantata. We don’t have to burn Paul at the stake for preferring haiku to hexameter. We don’t have to worship Plato or ban him: we can laugh and get on with our lives, telling our own dumb story (or making endless commentary on his). Theology is not serious; or if it is, then it is seriously important that we avoid fooling ourselves into thinking that we must get it right. Every generation before us has gotten it wrong (sometimes stupidly and dangerously). We must not expect to be exceptions to this rule. We must not oblige ourselves to treat ideas (in general) with more respect than their record warrants. Religion is there historically not to impart factual information (about how the world really works in some concrete, predictable circumstance), but to help us deal emotionally with the reality that we are all unpredictably fragile (in ways that are concretely insoluble, no matter our ideology).

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is only anathema if we practice bad religion (the kind of religion that assumes “having a nice party” necessarily involves getting trashed and shitting everywhere). If we know how to eat, drink, and be merry without wreaking havoc, then that ideology is fine. There is nothing inherently good or bad in ideas themselves (the idea of a party, say): it is execution in particular circumstances that makes them whatever we experience. Rejecting one dumb idea does not protect you against another. Being really careful to avoid the tequila party at your parents’ house so that you can hit the crack van down by the river is not smart–not even when you tell yourself over and over how dumb the people chugging tequila are as you smoke crack. It doesn’t matter how dumb tequila is, fool: you are smoking crack. The point of a good party is not to find the right drug, the one anyone can ingest at any dosage without experiencing harm, and then let everyone go hog wild. There is no such drug. The point of a good party is to make whatever drug becomes available as little harmful as possible. Keep the dumb ideas dumb. Keep the dangerous ideas dangerous. Just warn people beforehand, and have safeguards in place to keep the party from becoming too ‘modern’ (i.e. wild, devoted to intoxication for intoxication’s sake). Mix your wine with water, the Greeks would say, and remember that wine exists to facilitate other things–conversation, music, poetry, philosophy–not to replace them.

Ideas are fun entertainers. Occasionally they can even be useful servants. They are terrible masters. Surrender your humanity to them at your peril (not to mention everyone around you).

Sexuality Dysphoria

“all who are male slices pursue the males . . . . it is not out of shamelessness that they do this but out of boldness, manliness, and masculinity, feeling affection for what is like to themselves. . . . When they are fully grown men, they . . . naturally pay no attention to marriage and procreation, but are compelled to do so by the law; whereas they would be content to live unmarried with one another.”—Plato, The Symposium (191E-192B)

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Of all the sad specimens I meet in this broken and burning world, few evoke more spontaneous sympathy than those heterosexual folk who are, it seems, prisoners of their own sexuality. I’m talking about the straight women who clearly can’t stand men. And I’m talking about the heterosexual guys who really, in their heart of hearts, don’t like the company of women. Some of these guys are downright misogynists. But in my experience most aren’t. Women are simply a mystery to them, a mystery they’re not interested in solving. Gender is for them a kind of tall garden wall, a barrier made of solid stone, which keeps them from seeing women as people. These guys are happiest when they’re hanging out with “the guys”.

Wouldn’t they be happier if they could get a little man-on-man action at the end of the night? I think so. Incidentally, I’ve yet to meet a gay man who hates men. And I’ve never even heard of a lesbian who hates women (with the possible exception of Camille Paglia). Regardless, it’s now common to speak of gender dysphoria (e.g., being a woman trapped in a man’s body). But perhaps we need to start talking about an equally tragic condition: sexuality dysphoria (e.g., being a heterosexual douche who simultaneously desires women and can’t stand them, the kind of guy who wants women but can’t seem to relate to them as human beings).

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Anarchism and the Tyrannical Will to Rule

“In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth,” cried I, getting angry, and glad to be angry, because so only was it possible to oppose his tremendous concentrativeness and indomitable will, “cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?”
“Be with me,” said Hollingsworth, “or be against me! There is no third choice for you.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

MansonI was born in a hippie commune. What’s more, as a scholar, I have, for years now, studied utopian communities that have flirted with anarchism. And I can tell you that they all more or less suck. Why? Because they all, sooner or later, default to charismatic authority. This is a problem, I hasten to add, faced not only by utopian communes. Jo Freeman and others have demonstrated that many radical feminist organizations that tried to get rid of hierarchy and structure altogether eventually came under the sway of one person (a bully who was especially charismatic and/or machiavellian). Ironically, it’s the liberal (and more moderate) women’s groups that, on average, had more widespread member participation. Why? Because (a) the structure actually made it MORE (not less) likely that introverted and/or shy people would participate; and (b) leadership and authority are, in these more moderate organizations, to some extent forced to be transparent and accountable.

Of course none of this would surprise the great sociologist Max Weber. He saw charismatic authority as a kind of human default. When traditional forms of authority breakdown (think: Lord of the Flies), we default to another form of authority: charismatic authority (which is, trust me, I know from personal experience, rarely a good thing). Whatever, to my mind, it all comes down to this: we are intensely social creatures, and, as such, we’re going to organize ourselves according to rules somehow. So the question isn’t Rules vs. No Rules; it’s These Rules vs. Those Rules.

The dream of a world without rules is as adolescent as it is implausible. Besides, look at the people on Facebook who most loudly proclaim anarchism: the vast majority of these anarchist activists are (quite obviously to everyone but themselves) wannabe tyrants. These people want to rule! And they want you to shut the fuck up and obey. If you doubt me, look at how these people behave as soon as they get even a little bit of power in any organization and you’ll see. Do they look for broad consensus? Nope. Do they listen to people who disagree with them? Nope. All to the contrary.

I have a deep suspicion of people who promise freedom from society’s rules. They all more or less remind me of my father.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Scrapping CÉGEP?

IMG_3390If scrapping the current CÉGEP system were to go along with a massive reduction in class sizes for introductory classes at our universities and a concomitant increase in the pay (and education requirements) for high school teachers, it might not be such a bad idea. But, as it stands, it’s a remarkably stupid idea. Under this new regime, my kids would spend an extra year in high school with tapped-out teachers who’ve long since given them all they have to give, and an extra year in university with poorly-paid part-timers who can barely make rent, much less remember my kid’s name. At CÉGEP, our kids get the full attention of highly-qualified professionals who are not subjected to the soul-crushing forces of the academic rat race (e.g., the pressure to publish a steady stream of forgettable crap, to devote two months out of every calendar year to SSHRC applications, to attend at least two pointless academic conferences a year). This makes CÉGEP profs uniquely able to do something that’s increasingly rare these days: we actually get to teach.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2016)

Shut Up and Join the Party

“To be a full adult is not to be a better version of a worldly young adult, capable of more impressive cynicism, but to contain both the child and the young adult, to contain both optimism and cynicism, wariness and hope.”—Aaron Elliott, “Optimism and Cynicism,” Committing Sociology (November 10, 2015)

As a healthy white guy with a good job, living in one of the wealthiest countries on Planet Earth (indeed, in human history), I find it surprisingly easy to be optimistic and cheerful about life, the universe, and, well, pretty much everything—in fact, I’m tempted, at times, to conclude that everything’s great and wonderful and the whiners should all just shut up and join the party.

But then I remember the true identity of The Tempter, and I remember what became of Odysseus’s men in The Land of the Lotus Eaters, and I feel my blissful yoga-retreat ignorance giving way to something a little more grown-up, something akin to Buddha’s joyful participation in the sufferings of the world.

We all need to achieve the sort of balance Kwame Brown speaks of: between responsibility to pleasure and responsibility to pain. But we get to it from different directions. People on the front lines of the struggle have to keep their heads from going up in flames. People like me have to keep their heads out of the sand.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

A Response to Mike Pawelski’s “The Craftsman”

Dear Mike,

Although I don’t know you, I was nevertheless profoundly moved by what you said about your father, Ray Pawelski. I wanted to respond to your post immediately, but I waited because I felt that I ought to give this a great deal of thought. I haven’t experienced a loss of this magnitude yet, and, as such, I’m sort of skeptical about what kind of solace mere words can provide, especially the words of a stranger. Be that as it may, I can relate to having a craftsman in my life, and perhaps what I have to say will be in some way meaningful to you:

While growing up, I remember my grandfather showing me how to solder wires, patiently going through the steps with me, allowing a young teen to handle a blow torch and melt metal in an act of creation. With a tug on each end of the wire, he showed me the strength in what I had just created. The permanence and accomplishment that he showed me through his simple acts have become ingrained in my memory. The pleasure that glowed on his face after he helped someone with his craft. Even today he retains this ingenuity of a craftsman. He recently showed me his contraptions in the retirement home where he lives. He’s a little out of his environment, but he’s making the best of it despite his old age. Still, he has that infectious craftsman’s grin of fascination.

I think these fond memories of my grandfather where a driving factor in why I couldn’t complete my conversion to Judaism. I would hear that my pursuing this new path made my grandfather uncomfortable, and it was starting to make me uncomfortable as well. Judaism began to distance me from him, and that worried me. When I was in mechanics school, a teacher would remind me of these moments I spent with my grandfather, how he would teach me, and each time it hurt a lot. Judaism was clashing with the system of values that my grandfather had instilled in me, values I did not yet know I cherished. Only in this pain did I begin to understand the simple values that he clearly exemplified: namely, that being a mechanic is a way of life (e.g., stopping on the road for a person having car trouble, fixing or welding a broken tool back into functionality, to be used again by a friend in need).

I can relate to the pride that you expressed about your father. We craftsmen strive to create works that we can be proud of, works that will, as you say, stand the test of time. And I realize this lesson is one I treasure deeply, as I see kids around me mindlessly rushing through their mechanical work, unaware of what it really means to be a mechanic, what it really means to be a craftsman, like your dearly departed father.

With great respect,

Nathan

Butterflies not Crocodiles

IMG_7221-002A central problem with progressive parenting manuals is that far too many of them assume that children are little more than miniature adults. But this is manifestly not true. We undergo massive changes in our development that make us much more like butterflies than crocodiles. What do I mean by that? Well, baby crocodiles are ready to go on Day One. They are, quite literally, miniature versions of their parents. All of their proportions are the same as their parents, all of their instincts, everything. But butterflies start out as caterpillars. And caterpillars have a diet, motion, and morphology of their own. Eventually they go through a series of dramatic changes and become butterflies. And butterflies have a diet, motion, and morphology of their own.

It would be foolish to try to care for a caterpillar the way you’d care for the butterfly it’ll one day be. Likewise, it would be foolish to try to reason with a toddler the way you might reason with a friend. Children aren’t miniature adults. They’re cute little talking puppies. And, like puppies, there are times when they simply cannot be reasoned with. For instance, I knew a four-year-old boy who ran into traffic every chance he got. It was terrifying. And his mom was at her wit’s end. She tried everything: time-outs, taking away his toys, etc. She even went so far as to show him some roadkill (a squashed squirrel). Told him that this is what could happen to him! But to no avail, the little rascal kept on bolting into the street every chance he got. So, after yet another near-death experience, she whacked him in the ass. Hard. And guess what, the little monster never did it again. Not once. Ever.

When I recounted this story to a particularly judgy colleague, she launched into a long mommy-shaming diatribe about the rights of children (she doesn’t have kids, of course). I tried to defend the mother in question (a close relative of mine), but this only made my preachy coworker more mad. She stuck her finger in my face and asked me if I would slap my wife if she wasn’t doing what I wanted her to do. I laughed and said that comparing the use of corporal punishment on a fellow adult to the use of corporal punishment on a four-year-old was absurd. She looked puzzled.

“Why?”

“Because we’re butterflies. Not crocodiles.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Deadwood Zen

Sometimes I cannot resist the urge to write really bad poetry.  This time, the occasion was the removal of some fruit trees from the parking lot of the apartment complex where I live.  –JGM

Remnant of the orchard
Left alive to grow
Rising from the parking lot
Fruit upon the bough

Some came to eat
Some came for shade
Some came for the living
Some came for the dead

Unwanted by the Owner
Twisted by the years
Shedding useless fruit and leaves
Cut down I lie here

Stripped of Life’s sick cloying mess
Dead stump in dry earth
Rotting into dust
I was: now I am not

Screwed on Kijiji

Our 12-year-old son Indie said he wanted an iPod Touch for his birthday. But we really didn’t think we could afford to get him a new one. So we checked on Craigslist and Kijiji and soon found one for $180. We’ve purchased and sold thousands of dollars of stuff via Craigslist and Kijiji over the years without incident. Seriously, not even one bad experience. Until today!

In retrospect, I guess I should have known something was off when (a) the seller’s phone number was listed as “Private” and (b) he asked to meet at Mont-Royal metro station instead of his house. But, then again, I know people who don’t want others to know their phone number, and I’ve met a buyer or seller twice in the past at Mont-Royal metro. Some people (especially women) just don’t want people to know where they live. And I get that.

We met the guy at Mont-Royal metro and he didn’t set off Anna-Liisa’s excellent bullshit detector. Didn’t set off my shitty one either. And the iPod Touch looked fine. So we gave him the $180 and went our separate ways.

IMG_0579When we got home and tried to activate the iPod Touch we discovered that it was still linked to the seller’s ID. So we tried to send him an email. But his Kijiji ad was taken down. Already! Literally twenty minutes after we bought it. Regardless, we managed to find the seller’s address and phone number on the iPod, called the seller, and discovered that, well, the seller wasn’t the seller. The iPod was stolen. As it turns out, the iPod was stolen from a 12-year-old boy who lives about ten minutes away from our house. In the last two hours, I’ve spoken to the kid, his mother, and, just now, his father (who’s coming to pick it up as I type this).

I feel so unbelievably stupid. Even so, I’m determined to learn from this. Here’s what I’ve taken away from this experience thus far: Rule #1: Don’t trust overly private people who don’t want you to know their real name, phone number, address, etc. For years now, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been saying that you shouldn’t trust people who don’t trust you, and I think I finally see the wisdom in that. Rule #2: If you decide to ignore Rule #1, and meet a shady private person in a public place to do the deal, take a picture of them!

Just gave it back to its rightful owner (the dad), a delightful man named Jean-Marie. He shook my hand vigorously, hugged me warmly, showered me with blessings and assured me that a reward awaits me in heaven. Good to know.

Since the 1970s, much of the ethical training at John Abbott College (and elsewhere) has revolved around teaching young people how to make rational ethical choices. We present them with ethical dilemmas (often absurdly clear-cut ethical dilemmas that would never happen in real life) and teach them how to choose good instead of evil. But this is probably for the most part misguided. We should probably be cultivating phobias, aversions, and emotional responses to evil. For instance, it occurs to me that I never even considered, not even for a moment, keeping the stolen iPod Touch. There was no ethical dilemma to resolve. There was no conscious moment of indecision. Indeed, there was no “decision” (the very idea of keeping the iPod makes me feel sick to my stomach). What’s more, much as I’d love to tell you different, returning the iPod Touch wasn’t first and foremost an act of kindness (though Jean-Marie’s gratitude surely felt good). Ethical behavior is for the most part a kind of second nature, like riding a bicycle, which we learn early on and then act upon for the rest of our lives without overthinking it.

Ethical people usually can’t tell you what ethics are; people who can usually aren’t especially ethical. For example, my friend Daniel Weinstock is a real mensch, one of the most ethical people I know. He also happens to be a philosophy professor who teaches classes on ethics. But I don’t need to take one of his ethics classes to learn ethics from him. I just have to observe his behavior. That’s how the vast majority of humans have learned about ethics since the beginning of time.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2017)