All posts by John Faithful Hamer

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

Who Gets the Job?

benetton-races_3481677bConnections get you the job in a corrupt organization, but they’ll get you absolutely nothing in a perfectly meritocratic organization (which doesn’t exist). In a perfectly normal organization, connections won’t get you the job, but they’ll get you the interview. In his controversial bestseller, In Praise of Nepotism (2003), Adam Bellow maintains that giving interviews primarily (or even exclusively) to people with connections is by and large a good thing. Despite what you might think, connections are an excellent filtering mechanism. What’s more, when you hire people with connections, the reputations of their connections are to some extent on the line. This gives everyone skin in the game. And that matters. Big time.

But of course, like all things human, hiring people with connections isn’t without its drawbacks. If people with connections are the only ones who get the interview, people with connections are the only ones who’ll ever get the job. For many organizations, this isn’t a problem; but for organizations like the CIA, it is. Soon after 9/11, the CIA realized that they needed to hire more sophisticated urban types from the coastal cities, more people with Arabic and Farsi. What’s more, they realized that they needed another corn-fed, blonde, blue-eyed Nebraska boy like they needed a hole in the head (they don’t blend in especially well overseas). If you wish to diversify your organization’s personnel, you have to interview people without connections.

In 1775, Samuel Johnson wondered at the hypocrisy of American slaveholders prating on and on about freedom: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Thinking along similar lines in 2017, we might reasonably ask: How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for meritocracy among people who got their jobs through connections? Once you let go of your attachment to that fiction known as the perfectly meritocratic organization, it’s easy to get over your resistance to affirmative action.

Can affirmative actions programs be gamed? Sure. Everything human can be gamed. Will the oppressed of today become the oppressors of tomorrow? Maybe. If they do, we’ll fight them. But let’s cross that bridge when we get to it. Will minorities within your organization eventually become an entrenched interest group that fights to keep affirmative action in place long after its goals have been achieved? Probably. I’d expect nothing less (or more) from flawed human beings like me. But so what? That’s not a valid argument against affirmative action. It’s merely a sad reminder of the fact that the struggle for justice is without end.

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

The Real World

10507119_10152224074252683_6351617770361211778_o-001Although the idea that reality might be little more than a collective hallucination has probably occurred to thoughtful people since the beginning of time, it has achieved widespread acceptance only amongst certain kinds of people. In ancient China, it appealed primarily to government workers, eunuchs, urban-dwellers, and bureaucrats who were, for the most part, divorced from the earthy realities of farming and child-rearing, and the bloody realities of animal husbandry and military life. Theirs was a world, not of blood and soil, but of numbers and words. This allowed them to develop a remarkably theoretical view of the world.

600x-1As I read Scott Adams’s blog-post this morning, it occurred to me that very little has changed. Articulations of this idea have changed—in ancient China it was couched in the language of Buddhism, in the twentieth century is was couched in the language of postmodernism, whilst today it’s often couched in the language of evolutionary biology—but the kinds of people it appeals to hasn’t changed. It still appeals to people who live in a world, not of blood and soil, but of numbers and words. It still appeals primarily to men like Scott Adams who are, for the most part, divorced from the earthy realities of farming and child-rearing, and the bloody realities of animal husbandry and military life.

I take a long walk in the woods whenever I’m tempted by the likes of Scott Adams. Spending time in the woods reminds you that a real world exists out there, outside of the virtual world of fire-light shadows that we create for ourselves (and each other). I say this not, I hasten to add, to denigrate the human-built world (I’m a city boy, after all), but merely to put it in its place. Aristotle was right: a human being divorced from political life isn’t fully human. But a person divorced from nature is something far worse.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

The Golden Age

“Creating the future is a frightening enterprise, especially when we do it without any awareness of the past. I am amazed how little we actually care to examine past human experience. It’s like hunting in a wood full of bears, ignoring all the disarticulated skeletons of dead hunters, and confidently proclaiming that bears don’t really exist. They belong to the past!”—Joseph Gresham Miller

Lucas_Cranach_the_Elder_-_The_Golden_Age_-_Google_Art_ProjectDo you dream primarily of what is, what once was, what could have been, or what could be? Your answer to this question tells me almost everything I need to know about you. Political conservatives locate their Golden Age somewhere in the not-too-distant past (e.g., the 1950s), whilst religious fundamentalists locate it somewhere in the unsullied early history of their movement (e.g., the Early Church for Pentecostals, the Pious Predecessors for Salafists). Progressives and starry-eyed idealists locate it somewhere in a future purged of the sins of the present, whilst Romantics locate it in a past purged of modernity, a pastoral place that looks a whole lot like The Shire described by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Most environmentalists seem to locate it in some eco-friendly pre-modern past wherein we all lived in happy harmony with sweet Mother Earth. Computer geeks locate it in a shiny future replete with flying cars, robots, and killer apps, whilst defenders of the status quo, apologists of the present like Steven Pinker, insist that we’re living in a Golden Age right now. The outliers, of course, are the pessimists, like Arthur Schopenhauer and St. Augustine, who insist that life in The City of Man has always more or less sucked, and that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a Golden Age.

St. Augustine argues in The City of God that Original Sin has so corrupted human nature and the natural world—with sin, disease, and death—that the reformation of the individual and of society will always, of necessity, have to be a highly circumscribed exercise. All is not possible, insists the Bishop, because the freedom to do good is habitually hemmed in by this-worldly corruption. “The choice of the will,” avers Augustine, “is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sins.” St. Paul the Apostle likewise believes that decisive victory in the war against sin is not possible in a fallen world; the battle is, instead, fated to rage on and on, even within his body: “I know,” he once lamented, “that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:18-19). Like Paul, Augustine maintains that there are some intractable human problems which the individual and society will have to grapple with again and again, until the end of time. Perfection can be nothing more than a noble goal in The City of Man. Always before us, yet perpetually out of reach. A beacon on the horizon of a fallen world.

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

The Battle of the Sexes is Bullshit: A Review of Stephen Marche’s The Unmade Bed (2017)

imagesAt the dramatic climax of Traffic (2000), Michael Douglas’s character, the guy in charge of the War on Drugs, breaks down in the middle of a press conference and goes off-script: “If there is a War on Drugs then our own families have become the enemy. How can you wage war on your own family?” The overarching message of Stephen Marche’s The Unmade Bed (2017) is of a similar stamp: namely, that the martial language employed by “social justice warriors” and “men’s rights activists” is a toxic dead-end. The Battle of the Sexes is bullshit: “Rather than enrich the realm of politics with the difficult business of intimate life, identity politics flattens the personal until it fits into established intellectual categories.” If the hawkish ideologues who fan the flames of the “Gender Wars” in Social Media Land are to be believed, then our own families have become the enemy. But how can you wage war on your own family? And why would you want to? Your spouse isn’t the enemy: “The central conflict of domestic life right now is not mothers against fathers, or even conflicting ideas of motherhood or gender. It is the family against money.”

The Unmade Bed is a deeply moral book. And Marche treats his subject with all of the seriousness it deserves. But it’s also a remarkably funny book. The following scene is a case in point: “I was at a bachelor party, one of those bizarre rituals in which men have to stoop to their stereotype as a kind of recognition of common brutality, and we were all drunkenly heading to a strip club when my wife called. She needed to talk. A man she worked with called her ‘Honey.’ It pissed her off. It pissed me off. It pissed me off that this classic old-school garbage should survive. And so I found myself enraged, genuinely enraged at the sexism of a world that would call my wife ‘Honey’ just as I was entering a business in which I was going to pay to see women naked. Such are the everyday minor anti-epiphanies of living through the twenty-first-century rearrangement of gender. They subtract from rather than add to what I thought I knew about myself and others.”

Marche’s discussion of housework in the last chapter is equally hilarious: “Housework is the macho bullshit of women. And, in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that men have not started doing more housework. Men might be willing to lose the garbage of their own gender stereotypes, but why should they take on the garbage of another? Equality is coming, but not the way we expected. The future does not involve men doing more housework. . . . Caring less is the hope of the future. Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude. Fifty years ago it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and vacuum drapes; they were necessary tasks. The solution to the inequalities of dusting wasn’t dividing the dusting; it was not doing the dusting at all. The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is that simple: Don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. . . . Never make the bed. . . . A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.”

As Marche demonstrates, in loving detail, we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not, and we’re going to have to find a way to muddle through it together. We didn’t create this mess, this mess of world-historical proportions, but it’s ours to clean up: “Instead of furious despair, what our moment demands is humility and compassion.”

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

River Wisdom

The saltwater seas have lessons to teach us,
same is true of the freshwater lakes,

but these are not the lessons taught
by the world’s great rivers.

Long before we were connected by
highways and railways and airways,

we were connected by rivers.
And it is thus great rivers like the St. Lawrence

which remind us of our connections
to everything else.

He that hath ears to hear,
let him hear The River.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

(photo credit: Sebastian Furtado)

The Montreal Massacre

cover (14)Anne-Marie Edward was a John Abbott College student
who got into UdM’s prestigious engineering school,
École Polytechnique.

Though I was just fifteen,
I’ll never forget the day she was murdered:
December 6, 1989.

My enthusiasm for Pentecostalism was fading,
Susan and I were getting serious,
and I was already in trouble at Argyle Academy.

I had a black eye and two broken fingers
from an LD dance fistfight,
which I won.

I was lying on my bed when I got the news,
listening to U2’s “Drowning Man”
in my tropical Galt Street bedroom.

After letting the men go,
he told the women who remained:
“You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.”

Fourteen young women died that day
—and, although it wasn’t immediately apparent,
something youthful and beautiful died in us too:

an innocence, a naïveté, a sweet faith
in the inherent goodness
of the world.

We became feminists on that day
—not in a showy-but-harmless,
politically-correct sense,

but in a quiet, dangerous, deeply-religious,
once-I-was-blind
-but-now-I-see sense,

the sense intended by the Psalmist
when he angrily declares:
“Ye that love the LORD, hate evil.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Book of the Dead (2017)

Andrew Potter’s Finest Hour?

Morpheus2When the guy on the battery-powered radio said the army needed volunteers to go house to house and check in on shut-ins and the elderly, two days into the great ice storm of 1998, my buddies and I were out the door in less than ten minutes. When we got to the high school, the gymnasium was already half full. Ten minutes later, it was full. The commanding officer had one of his men go outside and turn everyone else away. Tears streamed down his face as he divvied up the assignments. He was profoundly moved, as were we. Our neighborhood wasn’t, I hasten to add, especially benevolent; volunteers were turned away all over the city. That’s the Quebec I know and love. That’s my home. And that’s how my people behave in a crisis.

My wife and I live in the middle of Montreal, in the most densely populated electoral district in Canada (Plateau-Mont-Royal), and yet parents still parent each other’s kids here, neighbors ask suspicious strangers what the fuck they’re doing, a guy shovels his neighbor’s stairs unasked (simply because he noticed that his neighbor’s leg is in a cast), and people smile discreetly when they see you without expecting a conversation. It’s the best of both worlds: the privacy and pseudo-anonymity of the city without Kitty Genovese. Bowling Alone? I think not.

But I’m writing to you today, not because I disagreed with your article, but because I was deeply impressed by your thoughtful retraction. Is this not precisely what we need more of in the Age of Trump: grownups who know how to calmly admit error and move on with life. And is this not also precisely what we’d expect from a philosopher? Strange as it may sound, I actually cherish those moments when I’m dead wrong about something in class, because it gives me an opportunity to teach my students, by example, how to admit error gracefully.

Denial’s for the true-believer, and casuistry’s for the mendacious. Rationalization’s for the ideologue, and anger’s for the know-it-all. Fear’s for the weak, and shame’s for the fragile. Excuses are for the guilty, and tears are for the lifelong valedictorian, who’s known far too little failure. But the philosopher’s not fazed by criticism. The philosopher just acknowledges the error, and calmly corrects course. Criticism is, after all, for the Socratic, merely information. Nobody fears making a mistake less. As Marcus Aurelius puts it in the Meditations: “If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm.”

—John Faithful Hamer

Breaking Bubbles

615427_10151224031087683_1802102030_oAnna-Liisa quit her job at Dawson College in my dream last night and opened up a wildly successful soap-making business which was eventually transformed into a hit reality-TV show entitled Breaking Bubbles. I still think she should have gone with Soap Club, but, you know, whatever, it’s her show.

SPOILER ALERT: In the first episode of Breaking Bubbles—entitled “She Had No Idea What She Was Getting Into”—Anna-Liisa’s business gets raided by the FDA, and rival soap-making queen Anne-Marie, founder of Bramble Berry®, hires Russian hackers to crash her website.

As Anna-Liisa discovers, the soap-making business isn’t for the faint of heart.

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

Why It’s Hard To Be a Facebook Filosopher

1. Everything’s Written Down. All communication in Social Media Land is based on the written word. For philosophy, this is hardly ideal. It’s good to remember that most ancient philosophers wrote little or nothing. They received and transmitted their ideas via the spoken word. Some did this, of necessity, because they were themselves illiterate; but most did so, like Socrates, because they were profoundly suspicious of the written word. The spirit of philosophy was first and foremost, they thought, a function of speeches not scribbles; it couldn’t be captured in chirography, but it could be conjured in conversation, and, to some extent, encapsulated in aphorisms. For instance, Roman soldiers who could barely read often managed, despite their lack of learning, to commit much of Epictetus’s Enchiridion to memory. Likewise, many an Epicurean shopkeeper living in, say, 2nd-century Athens, would, though functionally illiterate, memorize most (if not all) of Epicurus’s sayings and maxims. These aphorisms contained—albeit in a highly concentrated form—more than enough wisdom to last a lifetime.

2. Everything’s Public. All communication in Social Media Land is public. For philosophy, this is hardly ideal. In Plato’s Symposium we learn that many of the ancient Greeks thought philosophy was impossible without privacy and alcohol. So long as people are sober, they won’t tell you how they really feel, what they really think. Hence the phrase: in vino veritas. Likewise, when people are in a public place, they invariably say that which is politically correct, that which is appropriate. They don’t tell you the truth about how they see things. For these reasons, and others, philosophical discussions happened in ancient Athens only among friends, behind closed doors, and after a fair amount of drinking. The veritas that comes out because of the vino isn’t necessarily The Truth, but at least it’s a good starting point from which to begin moving dialectically towards the truth.

3. Trolls Look a Whole Lot like Philosophers. The difference between a troll and a Socrates is roughly equivalent to the difference between a reckless person and a courageous person. From the outside, their actions are often indistinguishable. That’s why you have to try to see inside the person: to their motivations and mental state. For instance, if I take on a bouncer three times my size for no reason in a bar-fight, because I’m shitfaced, you’re probably looking at recklessness. But if my buddy Jed takes on the same wall-of-a-man the following night, when he’s stone-cold sober, because the bouncer roofied his sister, you’re probably looking at courage. Likewise, from the outside, at least initially, it can be hard to tell the difference between a Socrates, who has the courage to tell people things they don’t want to hear, and a troll, who just likes to hurt and humiliate people in public. But if you’re paying attention, you can usually tell them apart sooner or later. Because we’re fairly good at telling the difference between an asshole and a philosopher in the real world. Alas, the same is not true online. Trolls and ideologues abound in Social Media Land, and they often look and sound a whole lot like Socrates; so if you block everyone annoying outright, you’re gonna throw out a whole lot of Socratic babies along with that troll-infested bath water. Hence the need to tolerate trolls. If you value the examined life, blocking everyone who gets on your nerves isn’t a viable option. You need to hear what they’re saying from time to time. But you don’t have to agree with them. Nor do you have to respond to them. In fact, if you’re going to survive the mean streets of Social Media Land, you’re going to have learn how to resist the urge to respond, how to turn the other cheek. You have to let yourself be abused by trolls and ideologues, let them call you names and misrepresent your views, let them squeeze you into their ill-fitting categories and pre-fab narratives, and refuse to fight fire with fire, refuse to stoop to their level. It’s hard. And there must be limits to what you’re willing to put up with. But it works. For the same reason that “extinction” works on bratty kids.

4. Freedom of Facebook is Under Threat. An increasingly long list of people (e.g., police officers, border guards, nurses, government officials, etc.) are being told what they can and cannot say on social media. Policies are being put in place with clearly stipulated sanctions for those who violate them. To some extent this is little more than a codification of commonsense (e.g., obviously you shouldn’t be posting half-naked pictures of yourself if you teach my kid’s kindergarten class). But these policies usually go far beyond the realm of commonsense. Indeed, I fear that we’re moving, with startling rapidity, towards a world that looks a whole lot like the world of ancient Athens, wherein the freedom to speak your mind in public about important political matters was the exclusive privilege of a tiny percentage of the population. It’s important to remember that, in the 19th century, one of the central arguments against the extension of the franchise to workers—an argument which was repeated ad nauseam by reactionary conservatives (the enemies of democracy)—was that “wage slaves” couldn’t be trusted with the vote because their employers had far too much power over them. Only the independently wealthy were free to follow the virtuous voice of conscience. Only those of sufficient means could speak and act like free men in the public sphere. If we acquiesce to these new social media policies, are we not proving these reactionaries right? As Aristotle rightly observed long ago, participating in the political life of your community is central to what it means to live a fully human life. The free man who can’t (or won’t) take part in the on-going public conversation about the common good is, he maintained, no better than a child, an idiot, or a well-to-do slave. Machiavelli would surely add, with a sardonic smile, that the free man who can’t (or won’t) participate in politics won’t be free for long. If the Florentine’s ghost could speak and we were willing to listen, I suspect he’d leave us with this question: “How free are you now if you’re not even free to use Facebook?”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Does Money Make You Mean?

“Human nature has a flaw. Under conditions of apparent competition, when a hierarchy of relative winners and losers is created, no matter how, the people at the top tend to fall for something called a self-affirmation fallacy which causes them to attribute their high status to their own merits and qualities, even if they became rich by winning at some gamble which could have gone the other way. Being rich literally makes people change, makes people less sympathetic, less compassionate, less law-abiding, less honest.”—Helga Vierich, Professor of Anthropology, Yellowhead Tribal College (Spruce Grove, Alberta)

LordvoldemortAfter years of being an overweight sweetheart, this guy I knew in high school started working out, lost all of the weight, and eventually looked like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Before this dramatic transformation, he had plenty of female friends who adored him and confided in him (but alas, never hooked up with him). The girls saw him as a sweet, understanding, empathetic guy. But soon after his manly metamorphosis, he became a repulsive “bro” who used girls with the indifference of a sociopath. And, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about a garden-variety player. I’m talking about a full-blown misogynistic asshole with the conscience of a turnip! At one point I confronted him about his nasty behavior: “What happened to you? You used to be such a nice guy.” “I’m hot now,” he said, with a sleazy smile, “and you don’t have to be nice when you’re hot.”

That’s when I realized that he was, in fact, always an asshole; he was just really good at hiding it. The power that came with his newfound hotness afforded him the opportunity to behave in ways that accorded with inclinations that were always there. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorism—“You will never know for sure if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich”—follows the same logic: money doesn’t make people mean, it just allows mean people to be mean. Or, to put it another way, as Taleb once did on his Facebook page, in a clarifying remark: “People reveal their temperament when they have choices.” Paul Piff’s research into the relationship between social class and unethical behavior suggests that Taleb may be wrong about this. In numerous experiments, he has demonstrated that you can turn a completely normal person into a sociopathic jerk. It’s actually quite easy: just give them some power. If Piff is right, then it’s not so much that latent asshole tendencies are brought out by wealth but that wealth (in and of itself) can turn many perfectly normal people into assholes.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2017)