Monthly Archives: January 2017

Anatomy of a Kellyanne Conway Interview

alternative-factsConfused about the breathless turns and twists that leave you wondering which way is up when reporters try to ask Kellyanne Conway critical (any) questions about Trump?  We’re here to help.  Consider this your guide to the Conway spin machine:

Interviewer:  Welcome, congratulations, you are something amazing/gender related and unprecedented.

Kellyanne (smiling): Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here BUT more importantly to be part of something so awesome related to how awesome Trump is and how unprecedented/history-defining he is.

Interviewer:  Yes, well let’s get to that since you mentioned it.  Today, Trump tweeted this outrageous/untrue thing that clearly contradicts the real world, as proven by these facts [insert inauguration crowd size and other popularity related threats or payment for the wall and other policy promise threats here].  Is this shit real?

Kellyanne:  Yes, let’s talk about that.  And yes, he’s our President, his shit is real.  But let me tell what it really signifies and what’s really going on here and why it’s so annoying that you are asking me that question……..Obama!   And Hillary!   And the Democrats!  And did I mention how he is so popular….

Interviewer:  Yes, but….

Kellyanne:  No, no, no….because this is what we need to talk about—how popular he is and how everyone loves him and how everyone hates the Democrats and Obama and all the terrible things they did…..

Interviewer:  AHEM, yes but that’s not what I asked.  That’s got nothing to do with it—that’s not what I asked, what I want to know is….

Kellyanne:  Of course it is!  It’s exactly what this is all about.   It’s all about how unfair you [the press] have been to him…

Interviewer:  But he said….

Kellyanne:  Yes, I know he said, but what he means is something glorious and wonderful for the American people.  All of the American people.  He is going to make America [insert good feeling adjective here] again.  But YOU don’t want to talk about what’s in his heart or what he really meant when he said untrue/outrageous thing and you don’t want to tell the REAL story of that because you are all biased against him.  The real problem here is the media and your obsession with the facts. Why do you keep asking about them when you can just tell the story of how awesome he is?

Interviewer:  Well, you still haven’t answered….

Kellyanne:  Yes, yes, I have, you just keep wanted to dwell on it, when YOU (the media) have said this untrue thing/this inaccurate thing and reported on this unflattering thing when you should be talking about this other issue with these other facts and this other issue with these other facts and this other issue with these other facts and how you didn’t cover this thing and this other thing and how you didn’t even ask the Democrats or Chuck Schumer about this—who are, by the way, being really unfair to Trump.  The media have been so unfair and should be better about respecting how popular and awesome and amazing he is; I mean, you should all just get out of the way and show more deference to him, considering how much he gets the people and how much you are all a bunch of elite snobs who are so obsessed with truth and facts and this and that and latest outrageous thing he has said instead of covering ALLLLLLL of the issues I mentioned, plus…….

Interviewer: Okay, well I did cover that and we did talk about that and we did report on this issue you mentioned….

Kellyanne:  Yeah?  No, I didn’t hear about it.  You are all just so biased and are out to get him and this obsession with fact-checking and this and that twitter feud/thing he said and asking about this issue when he says “believe me”, like you want details or something.  The details will come—you should just shut up and believe him.  Because did I mention yet how you were all wrong about Hillary?  And, Obama!  And the Democrats! Why don’t you ask the Democrats who suck and are so unfair too and are getting in the way, why don’t you talk to them and ask them why they won’t let him get his way on absolutely everything?

Interviewer:  Well, I am going to talk to [insert Democrat here] later and ask them that question, but let’s get back to….

Kellyanne:  Well, good.  Maybe you can ask about how they suck in this way and how they are to blame for everything bad in the world which now Trump is going to fix.  You know, what you don’t want to admit is that this election wasn’t about facts–people don’t care about the facts of what he said and whether their true and what promises he made or about the details, like how that wall is going to get paid for.  They care about how he’s going to make everything great for them again, like their tax returns and their safety and their jobs and everything and he’s already done that in his first week.  Don’t you see how busy he is and how may orders he’s signed and how many pens he’s given away?

Interviewer:  Well, there have been massive protests and the President of Mexico cancelled his trip…

Kellyanne:  No, no, so much just isn’t true because you covered it this way and didn’t cover these other awesome events and you didn’t pay attention to twitter, so he’s just not getting the benefit the doubt with the people because of you which is, you know, demoralizing and making it difficult for him to enjoy signing all of those executive orders and being President and…

Interviewer:  Well, I guess we are out of time and will have to leave it there.  Thanks, Kellyanne.

Kellyanne (smiling):  Why, thank you.  See you next time.

—Anna-Liisa Aunio

Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine

la-fontaineAlthough his beautiful house in Overdale is falling apart, his legacy still stands. Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine’s political life was defined by a visceral aversion to injustice, a deep-seated respect for the citizenry, and an unflinching commitment to the common good. He left the country better than he found it. Alas, the same will not be said of you, Stephen Harper. Or you, Pauline Marois. History will judge you both harshly. But at least you’ll be remembered. The same cannot be said of the police officers who arrested and illegally detained Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in 1838. Their names have been forgotten, just as the names of the police officers who kettled peaceful protesters during the Maple Spring protests will be forgotten. Bullies with badges don’t get public parks named after them.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

Wolfred Nelson: The Most Important Montrealer You’ve Never Heard Of

wolfred_nelsonWolfred Nelson (1791-1863) lived an unbelievably full life: doctor, revolutionary Patriote, Reformer, advocate of responsible government, prisoners’ rights activist, champion of various public health initiatives, outlaw, prisoner, exile, writer, and, for a few years, Mayor of Montreal. Although his leadership in the Rebellions of 1837 was at least as important as that of Louis-Joseph Papineau, Nelson’s role is largely forgotten. This is for the most part because he messes with the simplistic “French vs. English” narrative that reactionary demagogues like Lionel Groulx have been foisting upon the citizenry of my home province for well over a century.

In an age defined by identity politics, Nelson refused to be defined by the politics of identity. Although he was born and raised in the bosom of the British élite, Nelson transcended the blinkered worldview of his privileged Anglo-Protestant origins: “I was in my earliest days, a hot Tory and inclined to detest all that was Catholic and French Canadian, but a more intimate knowledge of these people changed my views.” He learned French, embraced Québécois culture, and fought for French-Canadian civil rights. For so doing, he was denounced as a traitor to his class by racist organizations like the Orange Order and reactionary rags like the Montreal Gazette.

If responsible government means anything, it means that the most important decisions are made by elected officials who are responsible to the citizenry. As the Wikileaks revelations made clear, this is no longer the case in 21st-century Canada. These days, more often than not, the most important decisions are made behind closed doors, in secret meetings, between trade organizations, multinational corporations, and corrupt government officials. We’re going to have to fight for responsible government all over again. And we’re going to have to do it in this generation. That’s why now, more than ever, we need to remember Wolfred Nelson—and others like him, men like Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, Robert Baldwin, and Wilfred Laurier.

If we’re going to survive these turbulent times, and make it through to the other side of this dark age, we’re going to have to remember a few things which were obvious to wise men like Wolfred Nelson: namely, that the English-French divide serves the interests of reaction not reform; that meaningful change is impossible without unity; and that the fight for responsible government can end in victory if, and only if, we transcend the petty politics of identity.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Dictionnaire Diabolique

020active listening, n. Pretend listening.

alternative facts, n. Bullshit. Example: Grant was caught having sex with his wife’s best friend. And there was smoking-gun proof: a sex-tape made by a private investigator hired to check up on him. But Kellyanne says she can get him off. She’s gonna present his wife with some alternative facts.

apocalyptiboner, n. The feeling of great enthusiasm and excitement which washes over some people when they contemplate the complete destruction of the world. Example: Everything he said about the impending crisis made sense, but the glee in his voice was downright disturbing. He could barely conceal his apocalyptiboner.

appetude, n. Hunger-induced bitchiness. Example: Look, I know it’s been a long ride, but I’ve had just about enough of your appetude.

attachment parenting, n. Parenting.

cc-ebomber, n. Machiavellian colleague who regularly sends out passive-aggressive emails, cc-ing everyone, whose sole purposes are to: take credit for other people’s work; cast aspersions on colleagues; and give their superiors the impression that they’re taking care of business.

codependent relationship, n. Meaningful relationship.

cuck, n. Full-grown man. Example: Peter is a really great husband and father who treats women like human beings. He’s such a cuck!

dis-disease, n. Degenerative disease of the soul characterized by a hypersensitivity to real and imagined insults. Starts out as garden-variety touchiness but grows into an obsessive concern with disrespect. Before long, the sweet kid you once knew has turned into a hateful, poisonous adult who harbors resentments for decades, keeps a detailed record of every past “dis” (real or imagined), and prayerfully pages through a hateful little Naughty List each and every day.

down-to-earth, adj. As unexceptional as me; devoid of excellence; that which does not make me feel inadequate, insecure, jealous, or envious.

elites, n. Smart people who disagree with me and can demonstrate precisely why I’m full of shit.

I’m boredinterj. Entertain me.

I’m fine, interj. I’m not fine.

interdisciplinary, adj. Undisciplined.

irrational, adj. Not convinced by your rationalizations.

like buzz, n. The endorphin rush that follows a well received social media post.

liker’s remorse, n. The deep sense of regret that washes over you when you realize that you’ve liked something horrific on Facebook.

Luthecostal, n. A polite Protestant who speaks in but one tongue; the offspring of a Pentecostal and a Lutheran.

narcissitter, n. Single person who manages to strategically occupy an entire four-top table at a coffee shop.

networker, n. A person who treats human beings like instruments and pretends to care about people they don’t care about because they think they might be useful to them at some point in the future.

nostalgiagasm, n. An emotionally ejaculatory experience brought on by an intense wave of nostalgia. Example: Had an intense nostalgiagasm last night whilst listening to The Pet Shop Boys. It was actually too much to take. Had to turn it off right in the middle of “Being Boring”.

philosopher, n. A person who fails to see that the unexamined life is in fact well worth living.

poster’s remorse, n. The deep sense of regret that washes over you when you realize that you’ve jumped into a social media debate and posted a stupid, ill-informed comment. Especially prone are those who comment on articles before reading them.

primal cellscream, n. The sound you make after your cell phone falls into the toilet.

privilege laundering, v. To conceal, or downplay the significance of, one’s privileged origins by (a) fabricating a history of oppression outright, or (b) stressing the importance of an underprivileged ancestor. Highborn patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher unwittingly inaugurated a pernicious political tradition when he reinvented himself as Joe Average to get elected in 59 BCE. Our upper class is filled with Richie Riches masquerading as self-made men. In fact, my guess is that the number of rich people who conceal their privileged origins in 21st-century America is roughly equivalent to the number of noblemen who hid their humble origins in ancien-régime France. My friend Clayton Bailey refers to this process as “privilege laundering”. Ambitious social climbers used to invent aristocratic ancestors; these days, they fabricate histories of oppression and talk incessantly about their underprivileged ancestors. Example: It was privilege laundering of unprecedented proportions. Almost everything about dread-locked Rachel was a lie. Her enslaved ancestors didn’t exist and her interracial heritage was a sham (she kept her skin dark by tanning on the sly all year round). Her ghetto accent and gangster mannerisms were all part of an elaborate act (she had in fact attended one of the most expensive private schools in the country). What’s more, all of her stories about “coming up hard in the hood” were, we discovered, complete and utter bullshit too (she was in fact raised in the lap of luxury, in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city).

pryrrhic victory, n. When a BS artist within an institution—who specializes in PR, cc-ebombing, self-promotion, and little else—succeeds in seizing control of a project he didn’t create, doesn’t really understand, and is thoroughly unprepared to manage. Example: After wresting control from the pilot, he realized that he didn’t know how to fly the plane. It was a pryrrhic victory.

redemptioner, n. A callow emigrant from Proletaria to Professionalia who pays for the voyage to middle-class America by going into debt for an unspecified period (usually a decade, though frequently much longer). A redemptioner is enticed to take on mortgage-sized student loans by poverty and/or shrinking job prospects.

revolution hawk, n. Activist who advocates revolutionary violence without knowing anything about revolution or violence.

Sanctimonium, n. Newly-discovered element; a self-righteous metal; most recent addition to the periodic table. Silvery-gray in color, and surprisingly lightweight, Sanctimonium has been classed on the periodic table with Preachium, Pontificatium, Moralium, Priggium, and the rest of the self-righteous metals. Although it is found in trace amounts everywhere, concentrations seem to be especially high in Canadian water.

scalarious, adj. Scary and hilarious.

sharer’s remorse, n. The deep sense of regret that washes over you when you realize that you’ve shared something stupid on social media. Especially prone are those who share articles before reading them.

sociologist, n. A person who believes everybody’s blinded by social forces, everybody but sociologists.

surreal, adj. Not like the movies.

teaching critical thinking, v. Teaching students how to think like you.

trumping, v. Spending an inordinate amount of time on the Internet obsessing over Trump’s latest antics.

Twitter feed, n. An ongoing stream of messages that lets you know who all the good people are ganging up on at the moment.

unreasonable, adj. Not convinced by your reasons.

white knight, n. Decent human being who refuses to participate in the bystander effect. Example: Did you hear about that Good Samaritan guy who helped the woman from Jerusalem who was badly beaten, robbed, stripped naked, and left for dead on the road to Jericho? Bet he was just trying to get laid. Such a white knight!

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

Lake Lovering

lake-loveringIt was the summer of 1990, I was fifteen, and I was in love. We’d been together for about a year. Our friend Kay hatched an ingenious plan, the teenage equivalent of a Ponzi scheme really. Everybody told their parents that they were going to a friend’s cottage (TRUE). Everybody said parents would be there (FALSE). The Arthur Andersen worthy ways in which we pulled off this scam would have made the smartest guys in the room at Enron beam with pride. But I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that ten of us, all underage, piled into a rickety old van and made our way down to a cottage on Lake Lovering, an hour and a half south of Montreal, where we’d be alone for four days—FOUR DAYS!—without any adult supervision.

Of course what followed was a comedy of errors. First we got lost. A trip that should have taken an hour and a half took almost six hours. Then we ran out of gas just as we pulled into the driveway. Turns out, one of those flashing lights was the gas light. We arrived at the cottage a little before midnight. Exhausted. Hungry. Pissed Off. Badly in need of a good night’s sleep. But that would not come, not for awhile, because of the fleas.

Kay’s mom’s best friend had, we later on discovered, stayed at the cottage the previous weekend with her three, big, flea-infested dogs. She and her dogs had, at some point, gone back to Montreal. But most of the fleas stayed. And they were starving. The fleas started biting soon after we walked into the cottage with our bags and gear. Most of us were bleeding and crazed before long. Took us an hour to find some Raid. Another hour or two to kill them all. That first night was terrible. Didn’t get to sleep until three or four in the morning.

The following morning we realized that we hadn’t brought nearly enough food. We realized, as well, that we’d forgotten to pick up some beer (a shocking oversight, all things considered). Had to get gas too. We knew we were going to have to walk into town. But Kay assured us that it wasn’t far. Maybe an hour. Turns out, it was more like two. It was an altogether gendered division of labor: the girls stayed at the cottage to clean up whilst the guys trekked into town to get supplies. Took us about two hours to get there and—since we were now heavy-laden with food, gas, and cases of two-four—about three hours to get back.

The girls had gone wild while we were gone. First they helped themselves to Kay’s mom’s private stash of wine coolers. Then they decided to go skinny dipping in Lake Lovering. We arrived, shirtless and sweaty, upon a scene straight out of Homer. It was paradise: laughing mermaids frolicking in the midday sun. My girlfriend and I did it later on that day. It was her first time. My first time too. And we were so in love. So in love on Lake Lovering.

But then everything went to shit. Our parents found out where we were (somehow). On Sunday, a posse of pissed-off parental lawmakers piled into a Pontiac, got on the highway, and made their way south: to bring justice to the Eastern Townships. We didn’t see them coming. Didn’t hear them coming either. Because we were blasting our music. Because we were wasted. Because we were dancing around outside, frolicking in the sunshine half-naked in a place outside of time, a place that felt like heaven.

The parents arrived, fuming and furious, upon a decadent scene straight out of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. They quickly transformed it into a dreadful scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno. I remember thinking: this is it: this is the worst moment of my life. But it wasn’t. Not even close. The bad memories faded long ago. All I remember now is the play of the sun on the water, the laughter of the mermaids, and the smell of my girlfriend’s perfume. It was beautiful: Estée Lauder’s Beautiful.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

Don’t Talk About Politics and Religion at Dinner

image-adapt-990-high-wasps_010914-1389429793710“Don’t talk about politics and religion at dinner.” That’s what my WASPy friend’s grandmother used to say. I was already into Aristotle in my late teens, and I was really into politics, so I thought this was a ridiculously stupid rule. Isn’t talking about politics central to what it means to live a fully human life? Besides, what else are we gonna talk about? The weather? This past year has led me to reconsider my friend’s grandmother’s rule.

At her funeral, I learned that she was a deeply religious woman; I learned, too, that she was a deeply political woman (a lifelong activist actually). It’s taken me decades, but this horribly divisive past year has led me to reconsider the wisdom of her dinnertime rule. I can see now, and only in retrospect, that she was policing the boundaries between sacred and profane. She was setting aside dinnertime, family time, as a sacred place.

What’s more, I think she was forbidding the discussion of politics and religion, not because she thought these things were bullshit, but rather because she saw how powerfully divisive they could be. Thinking along similar lines, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic insisted upon the importance of the separation of church and state, not because they thought religion was bullshit, but because they respected its power.

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

Place Matters

15843925_10154320505237683_8770527364191556256_oWhile hiking up Mount Royal last summer with my wife’s parents, a curious young boy of about eight or nine came up to me and asked me what I had in my hand. I told him it was a blue-spotted salamander. Much to my surprise, however, the kid really wasn’t that interested in seeing or touching or talking about the living, breathing salamander in front of him. Instead, he wanted to tell me about another salamander and give me a little pop quiz consisting of one question: “Do you know why the fire salamander is called the fire salamander?” I was puzzled by the question. After all, the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) is native to Europe. And we’re not in Europe. I turned to the boy’s parents and asked them if they were from Europe. They said they were not. Any family in Europe? Nope. Had he seen a fire salamander on a European vacation? Nope. The kid had never been to Europe. Not even once. This, my friends, is what’s wrong with nature shows! This, my friends, is what’s wrong with nature books for kids!

It’s sad that most of the kids I meet in Montreal can tell me the names of ten dinosaurs or ten animals from the African Savannah or ten marine mammals, but they can’t name ten Montreal animals. This tells me that their boilerplate globalized knowledge of Nature comes from nature shows and mass-market children’s books produced by multinational corporations based in New York and London. Their knowledge of Nature ought to come from an intimate connection with the world immediately around them, with the plants and animals who share this island with them. Instead, it’s derived primarily from what I call “nature porn” (e.g., British-accented nature shows with their zoom lenses, impossible camera angles, and all-seeing eyes). The difference between real Nature and the Nature depicted in a David Attenborough documentary is roughly equivalent to the difference between real sex and the sex depicted in Debbie does Dallas (1978). Just as a kid who learns about sex from porn is going to have some seriously messed up ideas about sex, a kid who learns about nature from nature shows is going to have some seriously messed up ideas about nature. Nature porn reinforces the Romantic conception of Nature as a pristine place you visit: in the summer (e.g., at camp, at the cottage), or on vacation (e.g., on a Costa Rican eco-tour).

We live in an increasingly globalized world where every thing and every one and every place is supposedly expendable, unimportant, and interchangeable. The company your dad works for moves the factory to China to save a few bucks and kills a small town in Idaho. The New York movie you’re seeing tonight was shot in Toronto, and the dystopian DC show you watched last night on Netflix was shot in Montreal. The malls in Missouri look just like the malls in Ontario, and, though you’ll never admit it, you went to McDonald’s when you were in Italy because—goddammit!—you know what you’re gonna get! So much of our global culture—the very same way of life that’s systematically destroying the living systems upon which we depend—is based upon a radical denial of place. As such, one small way to struggle against this global culture is to stubbornly insist upon the placeness of place. It may seem odd at first, but it’s really no different than saying: “I don’t love humanity in general, I love you. And I don’t love cities in general or rivers in general or mountains in general. I love this city, this river, and this mountain.” Never before has the real been so radical. Place matters. Reality matters. Now more than ever.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Private Schools Suck

imageThe bathrooms at a certain college (which shall remain unnamed) were, for years, terrible: dirty, smelly, often out of toilet paper, often out of hand soap, and frequently out of order. Students complained. Faculty complained. But very little changed until a certain Solomon-like prof (who shall also remain unnamed) came along with a rather ingenious solution: Close down the private bathroom used by the executive (the deans, upper management, etc.), and make them use the ones used by everyone else. It was jointly proposed by a few different departments in a very public fashion, and the executive had to approve it because of the college-wide space crunch. Their private bathroom was soon transformed into much-needed office space, and they now had to use the public facilities used by faculty and students. Guess what: the bathrooms have been in good working order ever since.

Finland has the best school system in the world. But this wasn’t always the case. They had one of the worst systems in Europe for a long time; however, thanks to a number of ambitious reforms, they were able to turn things around. Finland’s first—and, some would say, most important—reform was to close every single private school in the country. When the powerful have to use the same bathrooms and schools and health services as everyone else—when they’re subjected to the same stop-and-frisk policing and drug laws as everyone else—they have a way of making sure that those things work well. And if they don’t work well, they have a way of making sure that they’re fixed forthwith. When the rich and powerful have “skin in the game” (e.g., when it’s their kids who’ll have to go off to war), they tend to behave in a more intelligent and public-spirited fashion.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)

Why Lions and Tigers Die Young

18629460_303Lions don’t live long (10-14 years). Same is true of tigers (8-10 years). And wolves (6-8 years). As a general rule, terrestrial apex predators tend to have short life spans. This is especially true of those with fast metabolisms. A full-grown reticulated python can go without food for over a year if need be, whilst a tiger can go without food for no more than two or three weeks. Has it always been like this? I doubt it. There have probably been long-lived apex predators who were exceptionally effective and efficient hunters. Such is the nature of evolution by natural selection: given enough time, sooner or later, almost everything happens. If we knew all there was to know about the history of life, I suspect that we’d discover that super predators of this stamp have indeed roamed the Earth from time to time; and, whenever they have, my guess is that they’ve been responsible for mass extinctions and the collapse of entire ecosystems. There simply isn’t a terrestrial ecosystem in the world that can support an apex predator that has lots of babies, a high metabolism, and a long life. Like a gas fire that extinguishes itself by sucking all of the air out of the room, a tiger with an average life span of 80 would wreak havoc on its environment. But what if a long-lived animal from the middle of the food chain bootstrapped its way to the top via tools and technology? Would its success lead to mass extinctions and the collapse of entire ecosystems? Go back to the beginning. Think about it. Take, if you like, all day, tiger.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Being Yourself vs. Being Original

“It is unhealthy, and extremely modern, to worry over one’s originality. The Elizabethan poets used to rewrite each other’s poems to try to improve on them. That was a far superior attitude.”—Aaron Haspel

westworld3-700x525If a time machine like the one described in David Fiore’s Hypocritic Days (2014) was discovered tomorrow, and I was asked to write a travel brochure for the 21st-century West next week, I’d be sure to mention individualism as one of our era’s big attractions. The freedom to be yourself, do your own thing, choose your own profession, move to a new place, break with tradition, make a new family, be a little weird, have a little privacy: we take these things for granted far too often. Many of our ancestors would kill for what we have. Many of mine died for it.

Many of yours too.

Still, individualism is a human thing, and, like all human things, it’s flawed. And it comes with a cost. Sometimes a hefty cost. So don’t get me wrong: I know full well how much trouble the emancipation of the individual has caused. But I would nevertheless argue that the freedom to be yourself is one of our culture’s greatest accomplishments. It’s well worth fighting for, despite its drawbacks.

At some point, however, in the not-so-distant past, we seem to have collectively forgotten what it is that we were fighting for all along, what it really means to be authentic, what it really means to be yourself—and I think I know why: we’ve confused being yourself with being original.

Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have to swallow. Because we can’t all be original. Just as there’s a limited amount of beachfront property in the world, there’s a limited number of people who can be first, unique, singular, and truly original (sui generis). To some extent this is a function of the limited number of geniuses in the world. But it’s mostly a function of dumb luck: some people just happen to be the first one to think or do something new. After all, someone has to be first.

If, like Sam in Garden State (2004), you think that to be an individual, to be yourself, you’ve got to “do something that has never, ever been done before . . . throughout human existence,” you’re bound to go through life profoundly disappointed with yourself. Because this is an unrealistic goal, a silly ideal. You’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s time to return to the sensible authenticity proposed by the Roman Stoic Epictetus. In The Art of Living, he maintains that “one of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. . . . Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”

Schopenhauer makes a similar point in “On Thinking for Yourself” (1851), wherein he stresses that being the first one to think a particular thought isn’t what’s important; what’s important is that you make a thought your own. What’s important is that this newly discovered idea enter “into the whole system of your thought” as “an integral part, a living member”; “that it stand in complete and firm relation with what you already know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of your own way of thinking . . . . This is the perfect application of Goethe’s advice to earn our inheritance for ourselves so that we may really possess it: ‘What you have inherited from your fathers, earn over again for yourselves or it will not be yours.’”

It occurs to me now, and only in retrospect, that this is probably the original purpose of that annoying high school injunction: don’t just copy it out, rephrase it in your own words. I always found that exercise tedious and pointless. Drove me nuts. Seemed like a complete and utter waste of time. After all, if Aristotle said it so well, why can’t I just quote him? I remember asking a few of my teachers questions of this stamp. Not once did I receive a good answer. And I strongly suspect that this is due to the fact that they didn’t have one to give.

But I do. Now. Finally. At 42.

Rephrasing one of, say, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, in your own words, using examples derived from your own lived experience, is in fact a worthwhile exercise. I see that now, at long last. Because to do it, and do it well, you have to truly grasp the idea Nietzsche’s referring to; and if you can truly grasp the idea, it’s yours just as much as it’s Nietzsche’s. This isn’t plagiarism; it’s pedagogy. The ideas I present to my students semester after semester are no more “mine” than the air we breathe in the classroom or the water we drink in the hall. They’re a part of a vast spiritual commons, part of the shared intellectual property of the most fascinating animal ever to walk on God’s Green Earth.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)