Monthly Archives: July 2016

On Voting in America

338143_10150513817942683_457116294_oWhen I was in high school, I was selected as a representative to Girls’ State, a week-long summer program which teaches young women about the political system by guiding them through simulated local, municipal, state, and federal elections. In short, we learn about politics by running for office. I ended up running as a candidate for Senator to Girls Nation, inspired by the then radical idea of improving democratic participation through motor-voter registration (which, as an aside, I lost to another young woman who boasted the far more exciting platform of multicultural education). Over the next decade, states implemented, to varying degrees, their own policies to accord with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (signed by Bill Clinton) that required states to adopt motor-voter registration. While it wasn’t particularly exciting politically, the simple logic of increasing voter participation by easing access—by registering someone to vote automatically when they registered for a license–became an agreed upon standard for registration and proxy for voter participation across the U.S. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this in the past week, as the federal appeals court struck down parts of North Carolina’s 2013 voting law which required, among other provisions, residents to present a valid photo ID at their polling station in order to vote—of which, a valid driver’s license was the most commonly accepted ID.

While the appeals court provided evidence that the law was racially-motivated and discriminatory, the language and provisions limiting early voting, out of precinct voting, same day registration and, in particular, a valid photo ID, on the face of it seemed (especially to Republicans) altogether reasonable. How difficult, after all, is it to get a photo ID, to register before election day, or show up to the right precinct to vote? These seem reasonable to ensure the sanctity of the democratic process, right? Not really, as it turns out. And the truth is that, even in the process of liberalizing registration laws to make registration easier for many—like motor-voter registration—we have increasingly taken voting rights for granted at the same time that we fail to recognize privilege and inequality in our ability to freely exercise our vote.

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The Goldfish

Justification

There was an eagle soaring in a bright blue sky. “Financial security,” intoned the narrator, in a deep manly voice. “This is what it looks like. Now imagine what it feels like.” Could swear it was that guy—you know, the guy who does all the movie trailers—the one who just died. You’ve got to admit that there’s something godlike about a disembodied Father Figure who can convey divine omnipresence whilst remaining nameless and faceless. Seriously, if Netflix was a country, a religious country, with a Cold War agenda, we’d put “In the Deep Manly Voice We Trust” on our money.

But that’s not what bothered me about the commercial. It was that stupid eagle: that’s what failed to ring true. Because when I think about financial security, I imagine myself sitting by a warm fireplace in the dead of winter. I’m on a comfy old chair. Curled up with a blanket and a book. Enjoying my creature comforts. I glance periodically at the blizzard, a blizzard from hell, that’s raging out there, on the other side of the window, in the real world.

And when I try to imagine what my spirit animal might look like, my financial spirit animal, it’s not an eagle or a lion or a bear. Nothing predatory. Nothing noble. Nope. All I see is a goldfish: a sickly, unloved goldfish, who finds himself, at present, in a freshly flushed toilet.

It’s not that she’s a bad pet owner. It was an accident. She thought the goldfish was dead: really, she did. It was floating in its bowl, after all. Thing only started swimming when it hit the cold toilet water. But, at that point: well, you know how these things go: it was too late, far too late to turn back. So she decided to stay the course, stick to Plan A, and bury him in that watery grave, dead or alive.

But the goldfish didn’t go down. So she gave it another shot, and then another. She flushed him again and again and again, watching him swirl and whirl, around and around and around. But the pathetic little goldfish just wouldn’t go down.

It’s a metaphysical problem—really, it is—because we’re okay with the idea that the universe might be terrifying or unknowable or meaningless or absurd. We’re even okay with the idea that the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons or Tom Cruise might be right about everything. But we’ve never really entertained the possibility that the universe might be boring, and I mean really boring, you know, like, bean-counter boring.

But what if the goldfish is a sinner in the eyes of an angry bean-counting deity, a God of Accountants and Actuaries, Audits and Austerity Measures? What if HE punishes the profligate in the porcelain purgatory of the john? What if the goldfish deserves to suffer? Look, I doubt it, but it’s hard to be sure. Theological truths of this stamp are slippery fish: hard to grasp, and harder to hold. Regardless, this much I do know, and I know it’s enough:

I’m a goldfish, and if you’re my age or younger, you’re probably one too. We’re a generation of goldfish, a generation of redemptioners; a generation that was tricked into taking on mortgage-sized student loans; a generation that was promised passage from Proletaria to Professionalia. We paid top-dollar for the voyage to middle-class America. Yet few of us made it. Few of us arrived. Most, it seems, remain lost. Lost at sea.

There’s this stupid poster that sold really well when I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s. It depicts an opulent mansion and a four-car garage filled with assorted sports cars underneath this obnoxious message: JUSTIFICATION FOR HIGHER EDUCATION. It was the kind of thing teenage guys had on their bedroom wall, sandwiched between posters of Cindy Crawford and Mötley Crüe. The poster’s message to my generation was pretty clear: Wanna get rich? Do whatever you have to do to get a higher education.

Though it pains me to admit it, I’m pretty sure I wanted one of these posters during my Alex P. Keaton phase. But I didn’t get one for fear that my hippie mom would disown me. Or simply drop dead of a heart attack. Imagine, for a moment, how horrified a hard-core fundamentalist Christian mom would be if she found a Hustler centerfold on her teenage son’s bedroom wall: well, no joke, that’s precisely how thoroughly disgusted my hippie mom would have been if she saw this crass consumerist poster on my bedroom wall. It represents a value system which is the very antithesis of my mother’s value system.

Be that as it may, knowing what I know now, it’s hard not to cringe when I look at this poster. Because it’s not only gross, it’s also profoundly untrue. My wife and I went deep into debt to fund our higher education (close to $200,000). And, like many of our friends in their forties, we’re still paying for it! Indeed, my guess is we won’t be debt-free until our early fifties. We didn’t get the five sports cars and a mansion. We got mortgage-sized student loans and job insecurity. So looking at this propaganda poster now, in 2016, is sort of like watching one of those insane DDT commercials from the 1950s: you know, the ones wherein smiling kids are being sprayed with a fine mist of DDT as they play in the park. The DDT spray is supposed to be perfectly safe. Indeed, it’s supposed to be good for the kids. But we know it’s really REALLY not! We know they’re actually being exposed to something dangerous and damaging, something that’s gonna have all sorts of horrible long-term consequences.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck is like getting stalked by a hungry lion that never quite catches you, and never goes away. And debt’s the leg weights that render you fast enough to jog but too slow to run.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

The Problem of Politics in the Age of the Actor

rtsimg6He was a recently retired big shot from DC, running a well-funded foundation, and he offered me something I desperately needed in graduate school: paid work. The money was good, and the job was fairly straightforward: research a particular issue and write a report. I think I probably assumed that the report was for internal consumption, though I don’t recall that he misled in me in this respect. Regardless, not once did he mention that (a) he intended to have it published in a trade publication; and (b) he intended to put his name on it.

I was shocked when the article came out. Blindsided, perplexed. Here was this guy, a renowned intellectual superstar, a talking-head on CNN, and he was stealing from a lowly graduate student. I wasn’t so much offended as I was dumbfounded. But alas, I soon learned that he’d been doing this for decades.

Continue reading The Problem of Politics in the Age of the Actor

Celebrating Diversity

benetton-races_3481677bIf you wish to learn about Australia, talk first to Australians and those who’ve actually been to Australia; if you wish to learn about war, talk first to people who’ve actually been to war; if you wish to learn about parenting, talk first to people who actually have kids; and if you wish to learn about racial profiling, talk first to people who’ve actually experienced it. What these people have to say doesn’t have to be accepted as gospel truth. It can be criticized, even rejected; but it deserves special consideration. While it’s true that all men are created equal, it does not follow that all men’s perspectives are created equal.

Few communities are less diverse than that which clamors for diversity. And I say this as a member of that community. Most of my friends who celebrate diversity think they’re looking at real diversity when they look at a Benetton ad. These are the same people, incidentally, who’ll say a Facebook thread is insufficiently diverse for similarly superficial reasons.

We tend to think of diversity only in terms of race, gender, and, to a lesser extent, class and sexual orientation. This is a remarkably blinkered view of diversity. What about religious diversity? After all, white Pentecostals tend to have far more in common with black Pentecostals than they do with white atheists or white lesbians. What about political diversity? Ideological diversity? Linguistic diversity? Geographical diversity? Even diversity of brain function! I’ve had long conversations with high-functioning autistics. Their view of the world is radically different, and thoroughly fascinating: it’s like meeting a talking salamander. Our elders, the very old amongst us, are also often in possession of some much needed perspective. Same is true of the mentally ill, especially those who struggle with schizophrenia. Any comprehensive conception of diversity ought to include their views too.

Demanding diversity for diversity’s sake is about as silly as demanding art for art’s sake. We need to remember that there’s nothing inherently good or bad about diversity in and of itself. It’s important solely because different people bring different things to the table, and people unlike ourselves often notice things we miss. If we’re ever going to make sense of this world of ours, we’ll need a real diversity perspectives, a diversity of perspectives not presently found amongst those who celebrate diversity.

If you’re talking about diversity, “Should we or should we not be a multicultural society?” isn’t the right question. Because nobody’s trying to make our great metropolises multicultural, they already are multicultural. And they’ve been multicultural for well over a century. As such, the right question to ask is “What do we do about all of this diversity?” In the first half of the twentieth century, the prevailing solution was to enforce majority norms. Among other things, this led many immigrants to change foreign-sounding names to English-sounding names. Jerome Irving Cohen became J. I. Rodale. Charles Dennis Buchinsky became Charles Bronson. The more recent solution is to celebrate diversity. There are obvious advantages and drawbacks associated with both of these strategies. But that’s besides the point. Diversity is a fact on the ground. Anyone who fails to acknowledge that is arguing in bad faith.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

Civilization

Rider_elephantModern society requires two things. First, you must expect lies. Second, you must not presume that all liars have it in for you (or even that they are aware of how they lie: some are aware; some are not; some lie with good intent; some do not).

The wrong solution to these modern problems is to demand truth, since society has only ever functioned by lies. The best society lives by noble lies (as Plato recognizes); the worst by ignoble. There is no such thing as truth as a foundation for collective human endeavor. Truth may emerge accidentally, usually destructively, but it is never the foundation. The real foundation of society is not an idea, let alone a rational platform or tissue of ideas. It is pre-rational, emotional connection with other people. The ancient world recognized this by making human association into religion, which was always more about behavior (specifically behavior in groups) than ideas (which came later, after the behavior, as reflections of and upon it). Historically, we are charitable (and just and loving and the rest of it) to a fault before we invent some particular dogma of charity (e.g. referring it to some rational perspective or mythical-historical personage).

It is a grave mistake to suppose that the modern ‘Social Contract’ (in American terms, the US Constitution) has done away with the irrational religion at the root of human society. We don’t create societies upon simply rational foundations. When we pretend to do this, to legislate rationally about matters fundamentally irrational, we set ourselves up for problems (when powerful emotions fail to yield to weak reasons, whose weakness is endemic and intrinsic: unconquerable even by the most powerful reason we might invent, because emotion is prior to reason). The appropriate role of reason in modern society is to react to emotion, not to prevent or mask it. To use the old metaphor, the rider cannot ever perfectly dominate the elephant–certainly never to the point of guaranteeing that musth cannot occur. Society is built by containing and channeling emotion, not legislating against it. Behavior is prior to language, and while we can use language to shape behavior, the relationship between the two is asymmetric: behavior shapes language more than language shapes behavior.

Does a Dog Like To Go For a Walk?

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We all love our own animals first, as they do us.

And though I came in a distant second, Lucky seemed to find me an acceptable alternative in Fred’s absence. So it was only as we counted down Lucky’s last few days that I realized the residual loyalty I felt toward my recently deceased cat had prevented me from acknowledging that I loved Lucky as if he were my own, even though he’d never feel the same toward me.

I only knew Lucky for the last few years of his long life, and he was in pretty good shape until recently. In the beginning, I saw him only as Fred’s affable pooch, a goofy old thing, until one day, during the summer of 2011 on Fred’s deck, Lucky exited the kitchen, walked directly toward me, put his chin on my knee and looked up at me with sleepy eyes. He honored me with that deliberate act of recognition, and our friendship moved to another level.

Then, last summer, I had the unexpected pleasure of looking after Lucky on the weekends Fred would spend in Pointe Claire. In the abrupt intimacy of our many walks together in the sunny Plateau, something changed again. I began to make excuses to go over to Fred’s and walk with Lucky. Sometimes, from my apartment a few blocks away, I’d wonder what Lucky was up to, even though I knew he’d just be snoozing on his soft blue bed. And except for a few times, he’d usually meet me when he heard the key in the door, his tail wagging slowly as he gave me his shy, sideways/upper glance that we’d only recently learned was because he’d gone blind in one eye.

To meet Lucky, you’d never have guessed that he’d been abused for so long before finding Fred and the loving home where he died on October 28, 2014. His first owner had been wickedly cruel, and his second had been cruel by ignorance, leaving Lucky for long winters in a freezing garage. But never burdened by such human frailties as resentment, it seems that once the abuse ended, so did the trauma. Once it was over, Lucky apparently reverted to the meek, unassuming dog he probably was as a puppy. How he managed not to hate people is beyond me. But Fred’s tenderness was clearly a factor.

Never a crotch-sniffer or brawler and not huge on chasing things, Lucky had a single red rubber toy which he adored — the only thing beyond himself that he knew to be his alone. Lucky looked at the world calmly, circumspectly and with wonder and curiosity. To walk him so many times last summer was to stop twice a minute so he could privately ponder some detail of his sidewalk universe: a car being parked, people moving furniture, or a kid with a stick and ball; rapt by the mundane come and go. Lucky loved to encounter other dogs, too, and always seemed hurt if they displayed hostility, baffled that they weren’t simply enjoying a walk on the hot, sunny sidewalk meeting other dogs like he was.

I also witnessed, close-up and first hand, how Lucky’s wonderful muzzle (broad on top, which I kissed many, many times) was constantly accumulating information far beyond my own senses. Lucky reminded me, inch by inch of sidewalk, how much I was missing by living in the mess of my interior world.

Fred had told me about Lucky’s bad days, though I’d never seen one myself. But one Sunday morning, I did. When Fred came home later, he took a very unsteady Lucky for a walk himself. But only to the end of the lane, where I witnessed Fred’s final moment of reckoning.

On Monday, Fred’s friend Georgia, who’d studied veterinary science, came to visit and delivered a laundry list of everything that was going wrong with Lucky. Besides the crazy tumors that had been growing out of his haunches for the last couple of years, he’d lost most feeling in his paws, and his hindquarters were void of muscle. He’d burst an anal gland, which was poisoning him from the inside. And he’d gone blind in one eye. Unlike last year when Fred came so close to putting Lucky to sleep, this time there was no denying the inevitable. Georgia arranged to arrive with the vet on Tuesday night.

Happily and almost predictably, Lucky rallied by Tuesday morning and had woken up much younger than the preceding days. His last day was filled with hamburger and walks and music and Fred’s tender ministrations.

Fred tells me that by day’s end, even after the vet had arrived and the needle had been prepared, he asked to take Lucky for one last walk. Except that it had begun to rain and Lucky didn’t like the rain any more than the rest of us.

To hell with this, thought Lucky, and tugged Fred back toward the house where he knew so much love was waiting.

—David Lieber

Halloween Blackface

960Alex and I were obsessed with Eddie Murphy that year. We’d watched Delirious (1983) and Raw (1987) dozens of times over the summer and knew every joke by heart. I was dressing up as Eddie Murphy for Halloween. Of that I was sure. The only question was whether I’d go with the red leather Delirious outfit or the purple leather Raw outfit. Thank God my mom talked me out of it! It was 1988, I was thirteen, and my intentions were entirely innocent: I wanted to be Eddie Murphy the way other kids wanted to be Superman. But, in her infinite wisdom, my mom explained why that didn’t matter. “White guys dressing up like black guys to be funny: that’s got a history, John.” Why, in 2016, are we still dealing with this? Why, in 2016, does my old friend Lateef have to tell a grown woman in blackface at Comic-Con: “Um, lady, that shit’s got a history.”

“You’re like a peanut-butter allergy with a pulse!” That’s what the frustrated interlocutor said, to a Facebook friend of mine, who takes this whole cultural appropriation thing way too far. “Why fret about relatively minor things like cultural appropriation when most of the reserves don’t have clean drinking water? When young black men walking around after dark are guilty until proven innocent?” Although I’m often sympathetic to this line of argument, I can’t help but notice how utterly ahistorical it is. Has there ever been a racist society that conceded big time on a bunch of symbolic stuff whilst going with the status quo on the big issues? I haven’t been able to find one; and I’ve been looking, for quite some time. Seems to me like the big stuff and the little stuff change at more or less the same pace. And that would seem to indicate that this is a false choice, that you can sweat the small stuff and, at one and the same time, work towards changing the big stuff.

Look, I’ll readily concede that there are oversensitive outrage junkies in this world, and we need not be held hostage to their silliness. But I think those folks are actually quite rare. Way more common is the kinda guy who waltzes into a synagogue eating a ham sandwich and then wonders why everyone’s giving him dirty looks. Way more common is the kinda white chick who waltzes into John Abbott College on Halloween dressed up like Pocahontas and then wonders why all of my native students are giving her dirty looks. Finding these changing times confusing? Not sure what’s kosher? Here’s a handy heuristic, something that’ll help you chart a course through these troubled waters: If you can avoid being a dick, avoid being a dick.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Why I’m Sick of Friends of the Mountain

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”—Mark 2:27 (King James Version)

IMG_1879Visiting Frederick Law Olmsted’s house in Brookline (MA) today makes clear something Montreal’s Friends of the Mountain seems to have forgotten: man was not made for the park; the park was made for man. Olmsted, who designed Mount Royal Park, along with Central Park in New York City, wanted it to be a public park, a people’s park; but Friends of the Mountain seems to think it’s their park. They regularly harass citizens for trivial infractions of their petty rules; make life miserable for people enjoying a public park their taxes pay for; behave like a police force when they’re really nothing more than a self-appointed morality squad; and impose a draconian version of the invasive species doctrine on the flora and fauna who call the Mountain home. Look, if someone’s picking trilliums or shooting songbirds, by all means, give them shit; but if a mother is walking two meters off the path to show her daughter a beautiful red mushroom, for God’s sake, leave her alone!

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2016)

My Position in the Great Debate

My academic life revolves around posing answers to a family of related questions: how does education inform life? does it improve outcomes or cause unnecessary harm? how? when? what is the role of the sciences, and other forms of culture involving human concepts and percepts, in human life?

In my experience, the significant break in answers given comes down to different ways of structuring knowledge. Some people (who might be scientists, humanists, or artists) believe that knowledge should be universal, at the very least in theory, and that education consists in generalizing the particular to some kind of universal (e.g. “the scientific method” writ large across all historical sciences in their various fields of endeavor). Other people (as diverse as the first group in their education) believe that there is no such thing as universal knowledge, that knowledge is a particular byproduct of living mindfully in certain environments (physics labs, biology labs, the jungle, the desert, the artist’s studio, the university, the marketplace, the courtroom, etc.). For these folks, the quest for perfecting universal conceptual systems (e.g. creating a universal map of Platonic forms or Aristotelian categories) is hopeless–and a waste of time, definitely not the point of any education worth having.

For better or worse, I am a member of the second camp. I have more in common with physicists who denigrate universals than with humanists or philosophers who embrace them, even though I am accidentally a member of the humanist faction (with more serious reading logged in philosophy than in physics). I don’t think there is any solution to our conflict in sight: people who believe in universals will always struggle for them, as we who disbelieve will always struggle to escape the kind of thinking we regard as fundamentally imprisoning, stultifying, and illiberal (unfree, requiring definitive universal answers to questions that are beyond universal definition).