Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Strange Faith of the Centurion

“Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.”—Luke 7:1-10 (King James Version)

Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Foto: Klut
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Foto: Klut Paolo Caliari gen. Veronese 1528 Verona – 1588 Venedig Der Hauptmann von Capernaum Öl auf Leinwand; 178 x 275 cm Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Gal.-Nr. 228 Verwendung nur mit Genehmigung und Quellenangabe

I must confess that the centurion in this story has always rubbed me the wrong way. If Doubting Thomas had an older brother with perfect hair and a winning smile—an older brother who got straight A’s in school, did well in sports, and excelled at pretty much everything—one of those “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” brothers—that brother would look like this centurion. His faith is like that spotless house that’s so flawless it’s annoying. This isn’t the faith of a grown man; it’s the faith of a child, or a simpleminded idiot like Forrest Gump. And yet this guy’s clearly not a child. Nor is he a simpleton. He’s a military man, a leader of men, with a serious job and some thoroughly grownup responsibilities.

Shouldn’t this guy be a little more jaded? A little more worldly? A little more cynical? Where’s the fashionable nihilism we find in world-weary Pilate, who famously retorts, in John 18:38, “What is truth?” My guess is that this centurion’s exceptional faith in God’s order was rooted in his exceptionally positive experience with Roman order. My guess is that he was an exceptionally lucky man, and an exceptionally good leader.

We need to remember how profoundly strange this story is. Relations between representatives of the Roman state and the Jewish community were often contentious—especially in places like Capernaum, known for its radicalism. What might we reasonably expect to find in a place like Capernaum: a place that looks like Ferguson, Missouri: a place defined by the heated relationship between an oppressed minority group and the state representatives who are supposed to keep them in check. Instead, we find a Roman centurion who’s adored by the people, a guy who builds synagogues, a guy who’s willing to move heaven and earth for a slave. This is no ordinary centurion!

Unless you were stationed way out on the periphery of the Empire, where battlefield deaths opened up positions for advancement with some regularity, the Roman military hierarchy was notoriously rigid and maddening. If the soul-crushing cubicle-world of the 21st-century office made Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, one of the wealthiest cartoonists in the world, the soul-crushing hierarchy of the Roman military made Stoicism one of the most popular philosophies in the Empire.

In many ways, Stoicism is about learning how to deal with a world that doesn’t make sense: a world where your boss is an idiot, a world where the wrong person gets the promotion because they’ve got the right connections, a world where the people working for you are often clueless, a world that’s often highly dysfunctional. And yet this Roman centurion seems to have experienced none of that. Quite to the contrary: his description of how his commands are heeded brings to mind the flawless factories depicted in old Soviet propaganda films. Perfect order reigns in this centurion’s ranks: “I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion’s faith in Jesus’s power is, I suspect, rooted in his own experience of Roman power. And can we really fault the Israelites for having a less than rosy view of Roman power? These are a subjugated people after all, a minority population that was crushed under foot from time to time. And yet Jesus says we ought to have faith like this privileged man, this centurion, this extraordinarily lucky man. What are we to make of this? Is Jesus just being mean? Blaming the victim? I don’t think so. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says that we must “become as little children” before we can “enter into the kingdom of heaven.” What could this mean? What do children and exceptionally privileged men have in common? I think they share a kind of naïveté. And I think that Jesus is saying that there’s a wisdom in that naïveté, just as there’s a wisdom in innocence.

We know that Paul debated “Stoic philosophers” in the public square (Acts 17:18). And it’s not hard to imagine what they argued about. Stoicism, especially its more popular and less sophisticated forms, was all about being reasonable and realistic, whilst Christianity was all about being unreasonable and unrealistic. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek rightly observes: “Christianity is anti-wisdom: wisdom tells us that our efforts are in vain, that everything ends in chaos, while Christianity madly insists on the impossible. Love, especially a Christian one, is definitely not wise. This is why Paul said: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’ . . . . We should take the term ‘wisdom’ literally here: it is wisdom (in the sense of ‘realistic’ acceptance of the way things are) that Paul is challenging, not knowledge as such.”

We’re often told in this day and age that the privileged are all deluded and the underprivileged see things as they are. In practice, this is usually just a covert defense of the cynical perspective, because seeing things clearly always seems to mean seeing things cynically. But I don’t buy it. Never have. I think lack of privilege reveals just as much as it conceals. Just as you need to have seen blue things (like the sky on a clear day) in order to understand what blue is, you need to have experienced beauty and love and order to know what beauty and love and order are. If you’ve never really experienced true love, you might be tempted to conclude that it’s a myth. If you’ve never seen government work well, you might be tempted to conclude that good government is a myth. You have to believe that “Another World is Possible” before you can make another world possible.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Make America Small

A great problem with America these days is the fact that we are not one nation (even as the Romans, in late antiquity, were not). We do different things, in different places, with different culture, and when we do meet one another, our public square is virtual, dominated by the worst kind of entertainment and entertainers–the kind necessarily divorced from the particular circumstances of everyone and anyone as it attempts to bridge incredible geographic and cultural gaps (urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, majority vs. minority, educated vs. uneducated, etc.).

Some of our differences are intractable: I cannot know what it is to live in Miami, and I have no interest in finding out. Making me vote on the problems of Miami is a disservice to me and the people of Miami (who actually live there: they are invested in their city as I am not). Even if I am ‘educated’ (as it happens I am), this will not magically make me aware of Miami in the same way as though I were a citizen. Until I live in Miami, I don’t really deserve a stake in its fate (positive or negative: I should be divorced from praise and blame, tax hikes and tax breaks, etc., that signal for an environment where I do not exist).

Modern America is like a gigantic dysfunctional city in which the garbagemen, the policemen, the administration, the schools, and the rest of us live so far removed from the consequences our actions that we cannot behave well, even when we mean to. Education has not lived up to its promise as capable of making me understand how my behavior affects stuff I cannot perceive: witness the wars in the Middle East, the collapse of Wall Street, the death of Eric Garner. Did any of these events arise because citizens understood risks and acted intelligently? No. Has society learned anything from these events (about the consequences of outsourcing the military to mercenaries, the market to pirates, or the making of law to morons with no police experience)? No. The same stupid incentives remain in place, incentives for me to take an advantage for which you pay the penalty–and I don’t care, because I cannot see you. I don’t even know you exist, more often than not. We have become the living embodiment of everything Plato hated about democracy: a bunch of idiots voting on shit that most don’t remotely understand. They don’t even misunderstand it: that requires an expert, somebody competent to sit down and spin a rational narrative about politics, economics, and the various kinds of culture we use to make our lives. They are completely clueless, hanging upon the latest word of someone else. Here Plato steps in and says that we might hope for education to provide us with infallible experts. Unfortunately, that hope has proven historically naive. Most of our experts are wrong quite often, more often as they attempt to work with larger groups of people spread over more geography. Academic worship of Socrates just makes more of us live like Alcibiades.

Where to go from here? I don’t know, but I suspect the solution lies in becoming smaller rather than bigger, in building alternative politics and economics that don’t attempt to solve all problems with alliances “too big to fail” (since such alliances are also too big to be accountable, too big to render individuals capable of becoming cognizant of the consequences of their actions). Make America small, ungreat, fractured, disjointed, again! (One nation, disunited under God? E pluribus plures!)

Waiting in Line for Free Flowers

34Dentists and lawyers waiting in line for two hours on a sunny Saturday in May to get $15-worth of free flowers from the city. Have middle-class values ever been made so manifest? How frugal these people are with their money! How profligate with their time!

Of course I’m writing this on my iPhone whilst waiting in line for free flowers. But that’s besides the point. Because this isn’t about me. It’s about middle-class values.

The middle class has always sought to differentiate itself from the wasteful rich and the wasteful poor. “We are the careful, hardworking, frugal ones.”—this is their greatest source of pride, their central and defining conceit. “We weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths, goddammit! We didn’t inherit our money like those spoiled rich brats over there. We earned every penny of what we have. And we’re smart with our money. We save and budget and look for specials (even when we don’t need to!). Unlike the wasteful poor, we don’t spend all of our money on beer and cigarettes and lottery tickets.”

Paying full-price is for the middle-class moralist what a mortal sin was for the medieval Catholic. This makes them especially zealous comparison shoppers who will readily waste an entire Saturday driving around from mall to mall just to save $20 on a toaster oven at a big-box store in the burbs. You might be tempted to remind them that life is short, that the day would have been better spent at home, playing with the kids. And you might be tempted to point out that they probably burned far more than $20 in gas on their day-long suburban pilgrimage. But don’t bother because they’ll hear none of it. Trying to reason with a zealous comparison shopper is, I’ve discovered, about as pointless as trying to reason with a Christian fundamentalist. Besides, in their heart of hearts, they’d rather lose money on gas than overpay for that toaster oven! As such, when you compliment a person who grew up middle class, they invariably tell you that they didn’t—god-forbid—pay full price! They got it on special. It was 50% off or 75% off or TWO-FOR-ONE.

The spiritual victory of middle-class values in North America has been nothing short of astounding. Even the ultra-rich Bill Gates drives a sensible car and walks around in khakis; and, in so doing, signals that he’s still spiritually middle class, despite the money. By contrast, the hip-hop star’s bling signals that he remains—psychologically speaking—a product of poverty, despite the millions. We’re all supposedly middle-class today (despite the fact that we’re manifestly not). And the appeal of the Tea Party must be understood within this context. For instance, when the Tea Party rails against big government and wastefulness, they’re really just standing up for middle-class values (such as thriftiness). Likewise, when they roundly reject the noblesse oblige—“to whom much is given much is required”—tradition (which produced Kennedys, Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Trudeaus), they’re really just standing up for the middle-class rejection of luck, fate, and fortune. “We earned our money, goddammit! Don’t owe you bums a thing! Why should I have to pay taxes to support social programs for people who are too high or lazy to work? Word harder! Save more! And stop looking to me for a fucking handout!”

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

Top 10 Elbowgate Proverbs

1. The elbow is mightier than the sword.

2. The squeaky MP gets the greasy news cycle.

3. Fortune favors the bold bullshitter.

4. Never look a gift accidental elbow in the facts.

5. MP molestation is in the eye of the beholder.

6. Every accidental elbowing has a silver lining.

7. Strike while the elbow is hot.

8. The road to hell is paved with accidental elbows.

9. You reap what you elbow.

10. I went to a fight the other night, and a parliament broke out.

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

Praeparatio Mortis

Parents teach you how to live.
And Pragmatists teach you how to live in the world.
Pedants and Prudes teach you how to live
in the world of the past.
And Prophets teach you how to live
in the world of the future.
But Philosophers teach you how to die.

Parents want to fill you with food and values.
And Preachers want to fill you with faith.
Politicians want to fill you with hope.
And Pundits want to fill you with opinions.
But Philosophers want to fill you with doubt.

Parents care about your dreams.
And Partners want you to care about their dreams.
Preachers and Poets want you to dream their dreams.
And Pessimists want you to dream their nightmares.
But Philosophers just want you to wake-the-fuck-up!

Patricians run for The Cure.
And Politicians run for office.
Players run for the ball.
And Prophets run from The Call.
But Philosophers walk. Slowly.

Parents prepare you for the life they didn’t have.
And Preachers prepare you for the life you ought to have.
Pessimists prepare you for the life they’ve had.
And Pragmatists prepare you for the life
you’re likely to have.
But Philosophers prepare you for the death
you’re sure to have.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2016)

I Take Care of My City!

“Niggers always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do. For some shit they just supposed to do. A nigger will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigger will say some shit like, ‘I take care of my kids!’ You supposed to, ya dumb motherfucker!”—Chris Rock, Bring the Pain (1996)

walk it offImagine if you complained to a surgeon friend about the extraordinary number of patients Montreal hospitals were “losing” lately and she responded by saying, defensively: “Well, most of my patients live! But I don’t see you talking about that!” That’s what it’s like to talk to a cop about police violence in Montreal!

Imagine if you confronted a sleazy professor you know who’s sleeping with his 17-year-old student and he responded by saying (rather defensively): “Well, I don’t sleep with most of them! But I don’t see you talking about that!” That’s what it’s like to talk to a cop about police violence in Montreal!

Imagine if you caught your boyfriend cheating on you and he responded by saying: “Well, I don’t cheat on you most of the time! But I don’t see you talking about that!” That’s what it’s like to talk to a cop about police violence in Montreal!

I’m so sick and tired of cops I know telling me about all the great things they do in the city. As if it gives you the right to pepper spray an elementary school teacher in front of her students! As if it gives you the right to rough up an elementary school janitor for justifiably yelling at you for speeding through a red light (without your flashers on) in a school zone! Do you really think that doing lots of good stuff cancels this out?

I appreciate all the great work cops like you do, really I do. And I know it’s a tough job. And I know you don’t get nearly enough credit. But you seem to have forgotten that there are plenty of tough jobs in the city, plenty of people doing great work they don’t get nearly enough credit for (e.g., nurses, social workers, garbage collectors). There are plenty of heroes here. Not all of them cops. Plenty of martyrs too. Where did this whiny sense of victimization come from? This overgrown sense of your own importance?

All that great stuff you do for the city: you’re supposed to do it. It’s your fucking job! That’s what we pay you for. If you don’t like doing it, get another job.

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

Shit Aaron Says (season 6, episode 3)

Shit Aaron SaysProfessor Smartypants: “Tony Hoagland is the greatest poet of his generation.”

Aaron Haspel: “Nonsense. The man’s a hack. What he writes isn’t even poetry; it’s prose, and bad prose at that.”

Professor Smartypants: “You should know that I’ve got a PhD in this stuff. Been teaching it for years.”

Aaron Haspel: “Arguments from authority are rarely made by authorities.”

Professor Smartypants: “So you’re going to mansplain literature to me now?”

Aaron Haspel: “Sure. Shall we start with the Elizabethans?”

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

Shit Aaron Says (season 6, episode 2)

Shit Aaron SaysAbbott Student: “How can we get the most out of our college experience?”

Aaron Haspel: “Party a lot. And don’t waste too much time studying.”

Abbott Student: “You’re very critical of the education system in your book. What would you replace it with?”

Aaron Haspel: “Child labor.”

Abbott Student: “How would you summarize the message of your book?”

Aaron Haspel: “You suck so much more than you think.”

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

Reincarnation

342My main objection to the theory of reincarnation isn’t that it’s not true (after all, I love the fantasy genre precisely because it’s not true). No, my main objection to the idea of reincarnation is that it’s just not a very good story. Reincarnation is sort of like one of those shitty sci-fi flicks that’s filled with internal inconsistencies and plot-holes as big as Sin City pot-holes. For instance, why are people who believe in reincarnation always the reincarnation of something really cool, like a slain warrior or a Mayan princess or a Pharaoh or a Druid priestess or some famous criminal or a crucified rebel or Galileo or some other interesting person like that? You know what I’d love to hear, just once? I’d love to hear someone who believes in reincarnation tell me that I’m the reincarnation of a boring accountant from a small forgettable town: a little guy with ear hair who lived a quiet, unremarkable life, and died during breakfast in his 86th year, after choking on his oatmeal.

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

The Champlain Sea

“So-called world history is at bottom merely much ado about the latest news.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak (1881)

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If you got in a time machine—a flying time machine—and flew over the Montreal area 12,000 years ago, you’d see nothing but the tip of Mount Royal, because this whole region was submerged beneath an ancient sea: the Champlain Sea. So the next time you’re at the lookout on the top of Mount Royal, imagine that you’re standing on a beautiful little island looking out upon an ancient sea: an ancient sea filled with whales.

The Champlain Sea was created by the weight of the glaciers that blanketed this area during the last ice age. Think about what the weight of a two-meter-thick layer of snow and ice has done to buildings in places like Canada, Germany, and Poland. Now imagine what the immense weight of a two-KILOMETER-thick layer of ice can do to a landscape! The massive glaciers that covered eastern North America during the last ice age squashed the land beneath them severely—so much so, in fact, that when the glaciers receded about 13,000 years ago, the newly-exposed land was far below sea level. The salt waters of the Atlantic Ocean rushed in and flooded the region, creating a vast inland sea, which we anachronistically refer to as the Champlain Sea.

Land that’s been squashed by glaciers bounces back eventually. Geologists call this process isostatic rebound. It took this land we call home about 3000 years to bounce back (11,000 BCE—8,000 BCE). During this period, Montreal was home to sharks and killer whales, belugas and bowheads, and the mighty fin whale (second only to the blue whale in size); Mount Royal was a little island covered in puffins, seals, and nesting seabirds.

Although Montreal poets have always referred to Mount Royal as their city’s ancient volcano, it’s actually an ancient volcanic tube, an igneous intrusion. What’s the difference? Well, like the difference between a mountain and a hill, the distinction is to some extent arbitrary. Still, for what it’s worth, your typical volcano forms when molten lava comes up through a crack in the Earth’s crust with great force. By contrast, volcanic tubes form when the molten lava oozes out of a bunch of different cracks at once, with less force, for hundreds of millions of years.

Volcanic activity of precisely this kind is what created the chain of mountains that begins with Mount Royal and the Oka Hills, and continues south through the Eastern Townships with Mont Saint-Bruno, Mont Saint-Hilaire, Mont Saint-Grégoire, Mont Rougemont, Mont Yamaska, Mont Shefford, and Mont Brome; the chain ends in southern Quebec, about 15 kilometers north of the American border, with its tallest remaining peak: Mont Mégantic.

The fact that we refer to these mountains collectively as the Monteregian Hills is a testament to how incredibly old they are. They’ve been worn down by the sands of time into the rounded hills we now see. It blows my mind to think of what they’ve seen. Our moment in the sun really is just a moment. We know practically nothing about the history of this place. As Carl Sagan once said: “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)