Category Archives: Activists & Activism

Ethical Followership

flock-of-sheepA well-functioning society cannot consist merely of leaders. We can’t all be leaders at the same time. Most of us have to be followers most of the time. Yet you won’t see any wealthy suburban kids going to Followership Camp this summer. Nope, they’ll be going to Leadership Camp. Nor will you see any of the same kids enrolling in Followership Programs next semester. Nope, they’ll be enrolling in Leadership Programs. It’s laughable, when you really think about, and dangerous: because the biggest ethical challenges these young people are likely to face in their lives will be about ethical followership, not ethical leadership.

As sophisticated moral dramas like NCIS make clear, ethical followership is all about balancing the competing claims of equally noble virtues. It’s about knowing when to acknowledge the claims of loyalty and when to listen to the cries of justice; when to follow orders and when to disobey them; when to trust your boss’s judgement and when to question it; when to play by the rules and when to break them; when to cover for your colleagues and when to blow the whistle on them.

Moral dilemmas such as these are resolved easily by none but the single-minded. After all, die-hard supporters and die-hard detractors have at least one thing in common: they’re never forced to make difficult choices. Because it’s easy to say YES all the time or NO all the time. What’s hard is to know when it’s time to say YES and when it’s time to say NO.

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

Welcome to Likeville

iknowwhereimgoingtolive_32818b_4859529The promise of Social Media Land was always, to some extent, an imperialistic dream. The geeks who created this online world were all, to a man, urban liberals who hoped the Internet would bring the light of civilization to Sameville, a mythological small town where everybody’s white and wrong. The enlightened minds of the multicultural metropolis were going to bring the true gospel of diversity and tolerance to the benighted citizens of Sameville. If these guys had a theme song, it would be a cover of Walter Donaldson’s Jazz Era classic—“How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” (1919)—entitled “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down in Stupidlandia (After They’ve Seen Portlandia)?”

how_ya_gonna_keep_em_down_on_the_farm_after_theyve_seen_paree_sm-2-073The dream came true. Well, sorta. When I was a kid, there were still people in my working-class neighborhood who believed that if you scared a pregnant woman, her baby would be born with a tail. Ignorance like this of shockingly medieval proportions was everywhere to be found. Few of my friends had a working 20th-century knowledge of human anatomy, much less the natural world. But I’m happy to report that the Internet, and especially Wikipedia, has cleared up much of this ignorance.

My children have access to far more accurate knowledge about things like how a woman gets pregnant than most of my friends did at their age. What’s more, to the best of my knowledge, none of their friends believe in babies with tails. To some extent, then, the Internet has indeed been a force of enlightenment in our world. But its enlightenment has been limited in scope, in part, because the geeks who dreamed of conquering small-town ignorance failed to anticipate the emergence of Sameville’s online doppelgänger: Likeville.

16These days, any simpleminded partisan with a political ax to grind can find a Likeville, an online community of like-minded whack-jobs who’ll happily Facebook-like every stupid thing he says. Likeville isn’t just a safe space for stupid, it’s boot camp for bullshit. Likeville arms its citizens with plenty of ideological ammunition (e.g., bogus stats, pre-fab arguments, etc.). Before long, what was once a more-or-less harmless, single-issue troll has morphed into something far more monstrous and formidable: a veritable Swiss-army knife of bullshit, a perfect storm of bad ideas, a walking Wikipedia of stupid.

Alexandre Bissonnette is a product of Likeville. And what he did in Quebec City ought to be a wake-up call. If the Mosque Massacre proves anything, it’s that these Frankenstein creations of the Internet, these Likevilles, aren’t just a major obstacle to 21st-century Enlightenment; they’re a serious threat to peace, order, and good government.

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

The Year of Living Homerically

emile_levy_-_circeGetting sucked into the insanity of the 2016 election was like getting sucked into an ancient myth. One minute you’re living your life, next minute you’re a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Seriously, I feel like I should write a sequel to A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically (2007) entitled The Year of Living Homerically (2017). Were we not, like Odysseus’s men, turned into swine? Were we not, like Odysseus, bewitched? Did we not lose track of time, trumping till two, night after night? Waking up this past weekend, after a thoroughly unhealthy, year-long obsession with American politics, I felt like disoriented Odysseus, coming to his senses on the Island of Ogygia.

Angry people are incredibly easy to manipulate. Same is true of the self-righteous. The more “political” you become, the more you become a mere pawn in someone else’s chess game. Your ideas are no longer your own. They’re not even your friends’ ideas. They are, instead, prefabricated ideas, manufactured by spin-doctors, mad scientists of the spirit, who understand human nature better than most, and are practiced in the art of deception. These master manipulators understand that the pleasures of politics may be ugly pleasures, but they’re pleasures nonetheless. Anger feels good. Self-righteousness feels good.

But these pleasures come at a cost. Politics erodes your creativity far more than it erodes your humanity. I can’t believe how boring I’ve become. I can’t believe how boring many of my friends have become. Thinking prefabricated ideas all the time is sort of like moving into a prefabricated suburban row house. You get to choose the drapes, what color to paint the walls, little else.

Oh Aristotle, stop snickering in the back row! Yes, yes, yes, I know! Man is indeed the political animal. But it’s equally true that the political too often brings out the animal in the man. And you, Edmund, for God’s sake, save your breath! I know what you’re gonna say: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Of course there’s truth to what you say, much truth. But can you not conceive of a species of evil that’s akin to quicksand? Can you not see why Epicurus admonished his followers to shun politics?

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

How to Kafkatrap like the Joseph McCarthy of Montreal Feminism

kafkatrap, v. To accuse someone of some form of “ism” (sexism, racism, etc.) and to proclaim that their denial, or any attempt they make to defend themselves, is proof that they are guilty.—Urban Dictionary

STEP ONE: Insert yourself into online debate about anything: monetary policy in Bolivia, forestry practices in Bulgaria, salamander mating habits in Belgium, the placement of stop signs in Baie-d’Urfé. Truth be told, pretty much anything will do.

STEP TWO: Claim that the thing in question is a clear example of misogyny.

STEP THREE: When some poor sucker objects, attack them viciously; be sure to call them a misogynist, and, for good measure, refer to them as a hapless tool of the patriarchal order.

1docksPoking fun at Zionists who seem to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is an antisemite (or a self-hating Jew), Aaron Haspel once quipped: “Anti-Semite: A person whom Jews hate.” There are feminists who reason in a similar fashion: they seem to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is a misogynist. Hence, for this minority (and they really are a minority) we might quip: “Misogynist: A person whom feminists hate.”

The history of the struggle for social justice is filled with symbiotic relationships between radicals and reformers: radicals angrily insist upon the moon, and, as a consequence, make those asking for the mountaintop seem, by comparison, reasonable. But that’s not what’s going on here. The Joseph McCarthy of Montreal feminism isn’t a radical; he’s a buffoon. He doesn’t make more moderate feminists seem reasonable; he makes all feminists look ridiculous. After all, if an argument explains everything, it explains nothing.

A colleague of mine at John Abbott College worked with two different radical environmental organizations back in the heady days of the 1980s. These groups were being infiltrated by undercover agents often. But the spies were pretty easy to spot, he says, because (1) the spies were invariably those “activists” taking the most insanely radical positions on every single issue; and (2) the spies were invariably those “activists” who consistently advocated violence. The aim of these agents provocateurs was clear: to discredit environmentalism. The aim of the Joseph McCarthy of Montreal Feminism is far less clear. Obviously he’s not being paid to discredit feminism. I’m sure he means well. But with friends like this, feminism really doesn’t need enemies.

Like snake-oil salesmen, who need to convince you that you’re sick before they can sell you their cure, Nietzsche maintains that Christian missionaries had to first convince pagans that they were all born guilty—tainted, from Day One, by Original Sin—before they could sell them on the Jesus cure. The worldview of social justice warriors like the Joseph McCarthy of Montreal Feminism is strikingly similar. But does it really make sense to say that we’re all sick, that our society’s sick, that the Original Sin of misogyny and racism taints us all from birth? I don’t think so. A net that catches the whole sea isn’t much of a net. And an argument that explains everything, explains nothing.

Saturday Night Live needs to bring back Dana Carvey and resurrect his Church Lady character as an obnoxious social justice warrior. Aside from a new outfit, they’d just have to replace “Satan” with “misogyny” (or “racism”). Unlike Satan, racism and misogyny are real, and that’s an important difference. But it’s less salient than it might seem at first blush. What made the Church Lady character so funny in the late 1980s was, not so much her belief in Satan, but rather the fact that she blames everything on Satan. Everything she dislikes about the world is, directly or indirectly, a function of Satan. It is, then, not the content, but rather the form of the Church Lady’s argument—its stridency and circularity—that makes it so ridiculous. The same is true of the claims made by the most obnoxious of the social justice warriors. If there’s no way for you to be wrong, you’re not making an argument, you’re making a statement of faith.

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

Prosecuting Professor Prick

4m39dravm9g5ehgrtv9i9hlwljt8rxjq65axuypiskh1py3fwmc1e7wvs6g5bgma_large_2A hard-core feminist friend of mine was once faced with a moral dilemma: her mom, a hard-core traditionalist, insisted that her wedding invitation be addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Dad’s Full Name. Needless to say, this offended her feminist sensibilities: “It’s like she wants to erase her own identity!” Of course she caved. Because she’s a decent person who realizes that you’ve gotta call people what they want to be called (even if you think it’s silly). This is a simple truth of social life that’s lost on Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor who has, rather ridiculously, decided that he’s going to heroically stand up for the right to be a prick to trans students. That being said, prosecuting Peterson for being a prick is equally ridiculously. Indeed, probably more so. As my friend Matt Talley puts it: “just because it’s decent, doesn’t mean it should be legally mandated behavior.” Being a prick’s bad, but outlawing pricks is worse.

17553957_10154564066002683_6941119405797140254_nMany of the criticisms of The Open Society that I hear from the far left and the far right come down to the same thing: The Open Society is, like a big city, far too loud, rude, uncouth, hectic, smelly, stinky, disgusting, profane, disorderly, gross. They say that if The Open Society is going to survive and thrive, if it’s to have a future, it must become The Respectful Society. I know it sounds like a good idea, maybe even a noble idea, but The Respectful Society people on the far left and the far right long for is little more than a mirage, a misleading myth.

17499049_10154564125622683_1696717189446780712_nThere have always been but two choices available to us: We can live in The Open Society, which is a messy, chaotic place where nobody gets their way all the time, a place where everybody has to put up with shit they don’t like. Or we can live in The Closed Society, which is, in practice, usually just one big fat “safe space” for the ruling majority. Every time we allow a piece of public space to be seized and transformed into someone’s private little safe space, every time we allow touchiness to trump tolerance, we become a little less free. Our thin-skinned age needs to remember that The Open Society isn’t a safe space; it’s a tolerant space. And tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. The Respectful Society isn’t a new and improved version of The Open Society; it’s a new and improved version of The Closed Society.

Although I find some of his ideas maddening, I’m glad that we live, for now, in the kind of Open Society that makes it possible for Jordan Peterson to voice his opposition. He’s not my enemy. But if you’re one of those people who wants to silence him, or get him fired, you are.

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

On Political Philosophies and “What Works”

This is mostly in response to John’s fine piece titled “Why Libertarians Are Like Judgy Know-It-Alls Who Don’t Have Kids”, which can be found here

The problem with arguments against normative theories that appeal to “what works” is that in them is already built a normative theory. As a result, they beg the question.

This took me a long time to realize, though Aaron Haspel clearly knew about this for awhile now. When I first met Aaron at John’s place and this topic came up, Aaron nonchalantly rattled off the above observation as though it were a matter of course. It was humbling and, to be honest, mildly embarrassing.

At any rate, in this fine piece, John writes that “Much in America works. And works very well.” But to libertarians (and Marxists, etc.), violating people’s rights doesn’t count as “working”, even if the overall arrangement is generally desirable or pleasant. This point is brought out especially well by Ursula Le Guin’s award-winning short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this story, Le Guin writes of a utopian city known as Omelas.

Omelas is shimmering, bright and beautiful. Everyone is happy, has food to eat and there is no social strife. Everything works wonderfully. However, Omelas has a dark secret. It turns out that the city’s splendor depends on the infliction of suffering and misery on a single child who is locked away in a basement.

When they come of age, each Omelian citizen is taken to see the child. The story is about the ones who, after seeing the child, decide in the dead of night when everyone’s asleep to walk away from Omelas.

The point is this: To those who walk away from Omelas, the city doesn’t “work.” For before we can do or judge what “works”, we need to know what counts as working. As normative theories, Marxism, libertarianism and (insert political philosophy here) try to provide the criteria for what counts as working.

Now, this does not take anything away from John’s insight that libertarians are very wrong—and indeed, childish—when they complain that the government does nothing well. The government undoubtedly provides many valuable services, and sometimes does so well and efficiently. To categorically say otherwise is false and, worse, dogmatic.

But on political philosophy more generally, I agree with Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen that our principles of justice (which are delivered by our particular political philosophies) ought to be fact-insensitive. That is, I don’t think facts about a principle’s feasibility (in terms of people’s willingness to comply with it) should count as evidence for or against the principle. More concretely, “But, in the real world, people will always rape!” is not a valid objection to “Rape is wrong.”

As the saying goes, Marxism may not work “in practice” because we are too selfish and greedy to be good Marxists, but most people agree that it’s morally the right way. That is enough to concede that Marxism is true. (Libertarians, of course, disagree.) Indeed, Marxism is just a normative thesis, and normative claims do not entail anything about what descriptively is or will be the case. Their truth stands independently of it.

Appeals to “what works”, then, either don’t count as any evidence against Marxism or libertarianism, or beg the question against them.

—Chris Nguyen

In Defense of Black Lives Matter

LivesMichael Richter claims to be criticizing social justice activists for their inability to appreciate nuance or to allow for a spectrum of different experiences and opinions within larger umbrella movements, but the article comes across as rant which does the exact four things he is trying to call out:

1. Has a Holier than thou tone.
2. Focuses on differentiation by reducing the complicated concept of allyship to a distinction between critical thinkers and “useful idiots”.
3. Is a blatant expression of narcissism, by which the author passes judgment on a bunch of perspectives he is completely out of touch with.
4. Holds unrealistic expectations for how to be a well-behaved activist who doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

The article oversimplifies complex social movements and political perspectives, and pits “good” activists against “pointless” and “petty” activists, solely based on the author’s personal feelings when confronted with their arguments. It seems to me to be an awfully transparent attempt to discredit anyone trying to expose hypocrisy, laziness or oppression within mainstream, whitewashed, NGO-led social justice activism, all the while claiming to be above inter-movement squabbling.

There is nothing new in this person’s observations (yes, activists are going to disagree with one another over theory and tactics, and sometimes these disagreements will lead to hurt feelings), and it might be excusable that he repeats a bunch of old, tired arguments if his attitude and ignorance towards the movements he’s insulting wasn’t actually a BIG part of the problem. He clearly doesn’t understand the action that took place at Toronto Pride, yet he feels entitled to reprimand people trying to hold their own community accountable, all in a way that is entirely in the tradition of Pride.

Black Lives Matter Toronto is a movement largely led by queer and trans Black people. Not only do those same individuals belong at Pride, they have always been a big part of the LGBTQ activist communities fighting for the social and political changes that make the lives of queer people better. Pride is supposed to celebrate their accomplishments and highlight injustices that still need to be addressed. That is what Pride is: it started as riots by trans and queer people of colour who were fed up with police violence against their communities, and those voices are STILL relevant. It is normal that there are people who are upset with the fact that the only voices acceptable at Pride today are either people who will celebrate the “victory” of equality for LGBTQ people, or unrestrained corporate sponsorship and co-option.

There are two really problematic things that Michael Richter says that really discredit his “critique” of BLM Toronto:

1. The BLM activists who led the sit-in at Pride are not outsiders seeking more attention. It is pretty gross to pit one marginalized group against another that way. These individuals are a part of the LGBTQ community that the Pride Toronto organization is supposed to represent. (And yes, Michael Richter, wrongly assuming that these activists were hostile, trouble-making outsiders who for some reason don’t belong there IS a tad racist). There are many queer and trans people of colour who are saying that when Pride increases its police presence and involvement, they end up getting harassed, stopped and arrested more – at events that are supposed to be FOR them. And when Pride allows the Toronto police department to have a float in the parade, it pushes a narrative that the police are saviours to the LGBTQ community, protecting them from gay-basher and homophobes, where the reality is that many factions of the LGBTQ community (people of colour, sex workers, drag queens and other performers, poor queer people) still suffer more violence at the hands of police than anyone else. That is an important perspective that deserves to be heard. And that is literally what Pride is supposed to be about: making systematic and state oppression against members of the queer community less invisible. Seriously though, how dare someone claim that these people and their message don’t belong there?

2. Another misguided and dismissive claim that the author makes is that people of colour and gay people “have a similar shared history of oppression and violence.” Not only is this statement false, it is made here simply for the purpose of silencing a group who is declaring loud and clear that in fact they do NOT experience oppression in the same way as rich, white gay people. Of course they don’t. A black trans woman growing up in a rough part of Toronto may have a very different relationship with the police than a gay white man living in a mansion in Markham. An queer immigrant without status can not access police services in an emergency and cannot go to Pride because if they get detained (which is more likely to happen to them than a white person at the same event), they may end up being deported. There are larger issues of gentrification within gay villages across Canada that have the effect of excluding poor queer people from spaces that were created as safe community hangouts for queer people. The value that these different perspectives bring to the table, even if they are sometimes expressed with anger and resentment, is completely lost on Michael Richter. That is his own weakness, not a failure on the part of the activists raising these concerns. What I see is a person who is afraid and unwilling to engage in these tough conversations, and so he is instead dismissing a broad and diverse group of people advancing legitimate and valuable critiques as a bunch of “smug assholes,” based solely on his own emotional reaction to their criticism.

I think that the same points can be made about his annoyance towards “fragmented” feminist groups. He is literally complaining that the dialogue about what meaningful feminism is has progressed beyond the simple statement that women and men should be socially equal. It was easy to believe in feminism when all it meant is that every aspect of our society should stay the same, except women should also be allowed access to the same opportunities as men. The conversations that are a lot harder to have are the ones about that point out invisible and systematic sexism within political and educational institutions, within our legal system, within socially acceptable hierarchies in the workplace or in other organizations, within pop culture, etc. It has always been hard to point out things that we have been socialized to accept as normal, and this kind of criticism has always been met with defensiveness or dismissed as overly sensitive or divisive. Discussions about rape culture and culturally enforced gender binaries are incredibly emotional. Discussions about the harms caused by carceral feminism or certain expressions of white feminism that validate state violence towards minorities or that render women of colour invisible are always going to be difficult to have. But they are not the enemy of social progress and to treat them as such is ridiculous.

The most harmful thing about this article is that it justifies its laziness and ignorance with regard to extremely important and complex political ideas by falsely claiming that there is some big scary powerful “THEY” out there saying that the only way to be an ally is to become an uncritical and arrogant puppet. The challenge of trying to be an ally is not dogmatic or one-dimensional. It simply means that you strive to responsibly engage with a struggle for social justice that doesn’t directly affect you. It means that you understand that your experience on a particular matter is inherently limited because you will never experience that particular kind of violence or oppression. It does not mean that you turn your brain off and follow orders. The fact that this author sees the concept of allyship this way shows me how out of touch he is.

What I see is a trend for every generation to feel entitled to unilaterally decide that the goals for social justice movements have been set high enough, and that anyone attempting to push them further along the progressive path is being unrealistic and divisive. Anyone attempting to promote an intersectional approach to social inequality is in fact hurting their own cause. This is not true. It is also a very self-serving point of view that pretends to be rational and objective, which in my view, is an extremely pervasive and dangerous form of moral cowardice.

—Ally Hobson

I’m Nobody’s “Ally”

All over political movements, particularly on the left, there’s a call for “allies”, which is to say people who are not of the particular movement’s core demographic (blacks, say, or LGBTs, or natives or feminists or whatever) but who are onside with the cause, supportive of the activities of the group.

I am not one of these.

Causes

Yes, it is true that I’m a believer in many causes.  Most of them are “leftist” by American standards (but of course these days Francisco Franco would be “leftist” by American standards…).  I believe in racial equality, for example, and think the current situation with blacks in the USA (or natives in Canada (or Turks in Germany (or …))) is a scandal of epic proportions.  I believe in gender equality.  I believe in spreading the wealth around so that we don’t have 99.9% of the populace owning less than 10% of the wealth.  There are numerous causes that I’m sympathetic to, and again most of them are, I stress, “leftist”.

I am, and never will be, however, an “ally” to any of them.  You will never see me participating in slacktivist “awareness-raising” of any of these things.  You will never see me “signal boosting” anything from these camps.  You will never see me in a virtue-signalling dogpile on Twitter or Facebook.  My politics are, to those who can read, pretty clear if you take a look at my social media presence.  I’m not a member of anything, though.

Activist toxicity

There is, of course, a reason for this: the toxicity of these groups.  Even with the best of intentions, social activist groups will and do, over time, become venomous caricatures of themselves.  Any hope that these will accomplish anything positive then dies.

Before I go into my guess as to the reasons for this, allow me to show some examples.

Consider, for example, a left/right-neutral topic like atheism.  Atheism is a pretty simple concept: “I don’t believe in supernatural entities” (gods).  I have to stress a lot these days, however, that I’m a small-a atheist, not a big-A Atheist because atheism as a notion has been hijacked.  What started off as a pretty simple, basic concept (there are no gods) has become a hugely obnoxious movement of smug assholes who think by virtue of being infidels they are intrinsically more logical and smarter than those who believe.  (The fact that this belief is a perfect example of a non sequitur fallacy is the only redeeming feature of these twits, largely because I enjoy watching unintentional irony in action.)

For another example, look at various feminist groups.  Why “various”?  Because the movement has fragmented so quickly since the relatively simple statement that women and men should be socially equal that there is no longer a single meaningful definition for what a “feminist” is.  Seemingly every year I see another schism developing as feminists turn in on themselves and tear each other to shreds over minor differences instead of focusing on what they have in common in a huge battle they have yet to win.

Let’s talk social justice now.  A perfect example is the “Black Lives Matter” movement who recently, in Canada, disrupted a Gay Pride event because they felt they weren’t being given enough attention.  Twice.  Here are two groups that have a similar shared history of oppression and violence (at least in the USA) and instead of working together one of them grandstands at the expense of the other (and, naturally, calls anybody who thought it was in poor taste “racists”).

Even mostly civilized web sites like The Good Men Project are showing signs of this disease.  A web site that has the tagline “The Conversation No One Else is Having” has a recently-republished article that tells a huge swathe of society to, and I quote, “shut up”.  How, precisely, do they think you have meaningful conversations after you’ve told people to shut up?  Does anybody out there who isn’t a deranged jackass think that this is how conversations actually work?

The entire political activist world, on both the left and the right, is replete with this kind of pointless, poisonous poppycock and, in my opinion, it undermines any cause these people purport to promote.  I used to actually participate in these kinds of groups and movements, but stopped after observing that they always go bad, sometimes in astonishingly short times.

The reasons

There are several reasons for this inevitable trend toward rancor and spite, I think.  These include:

  1. Holier than thou.
  2. Differentiation.
  3. Narcissism.
  4. Unrealistic expectation.

Holier than thou

This is the obvious one.  Human beings, even those who consider themselves “enlightened” like most political activists (again, left or right!) do, are intensely competitive.  If I believe that women should be given a fair shake in society, inevitably someone else will have to prove they’re more pure in their politics than me and say that not only should women be given a fair shake, they should be given a boost because of past mistreatment.  Then another imbecile will up the stakes more and yet another will raise them again until we get to the bizarre fringes of feminism where people seriously postulate that men should be preemptively jailed because they commit 90% of crime.

Every movement seemingly undergoes this transition.  What starts off as a relatively moderate (and sane) movement with large membership gets more and more extreme (and insane) over time, shedding the “dead weight” that won’t play the one-upmanship games.  Eventually the movement becomes an echo chamber resistant to any external mitigating influence and then really starts going into the deep end.

Differentiation

Human beings are tribal primates.  We like, as a whole, belonging to things “bigger” than ourselves.  We also like to make it clear that the things we belong to are different from the things someone else belongs to.

Let’s say we have two groups of atheists.  Both groups are very similar in makeup and in beliefs.  They have, naturally, by virtue of being human institutions, minor differences between them.  One, for instance, believes that we should demonstrate the superiority of the atheist lifestyle by being good examples of it.  The other believes that religious people need to be actively guided to atheism.

With these two groups being so similar, and with humans being so tribal and seeking to differentiate, it is inevitable that a schism will arise between these two groups.  The one that believes in the superiority of the atheist lifestyle, for example, may choose to start harping on and on about how superior they are to the religious.  The other group will, in a bid to be seen as different, start employing ambush tactics to abuse the religious in a misguided attempt to get them to “see the light”.  Both get pushed into more extreme directions on the small areas of non-intersecting belief simply because of our need to be different.

Narcissism

This is where that BLM Canada thing against the Gay Pride parade falls into.  Aside from the fact that BLM Canada is an utterly ludicrous movement to begin with, they’re also incredibly narcissistic.  How dare anybody pay attention to any group other than them for a single day?  Of course they had to grandstand and ruin the parade.  That was the only way to make sure that eyes were on them instead of another group.

You can see similar things in groups ranging as far as Greenpeace or, from the other side of the political spectrum, the witless “War on Christmas” types, not to mention the Men’s Rights Weenies complaining that they actually have to treat women with dignity these days.

Unrealistic expectation

This is more a disease of youth than it is of political activism.  It’s just that the stridently political tend to be young so it shows up in the political world most visibly.  Unrealistic expectations of things like “all racial disharmony will vanish tomorrow because we did such a good job of raising awareness” turn into dismay and bitterness when tomorrow comes and not much has changed.

See in the real world cultures change very slowly.  We have this bizarre belief in the west that our culture is changing rapidly because superficial changes tend to dominate our thinking and our reportage.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because our technology is changing like crazy, and with it the way we communicate (or fail to) that our culture must be changing equally as rapidly.

Of course if you have a slightly broader perspective on life, you’ll note that there are elements of, say, Chinese culture which have remained largely unchanged since about 3000B.C.E.  Or if you visit Europe, where historic things that are over a thousand years old litter the landscape around you, you’ll see just how much sheer cultural inertia there is.

Most young people, however, lack this perspective and as a result, when faced with dispiriting lack of visible change in the society around them, turn to ever more extreme ways of expressing their political will.

(This is probably the part where I bring up that old canard about how the perfect is the enemy of the good.)

So what does this have to do with being an ally?

At issue is that most political activist groups don’t want allies.  They want useful idiots.  I see, for example, in Twitter, a lot of groups–LGBT to name one at random–who are constantly calling for non-member “allies” to “signal boost” their tweets.  These “allies” are welcome so long as they do absolutely nothing but pass along whatever message the “real“membership wants to transmit.

If, as an “ally” you dare to engage in conversation that isn’t purest “yes man” stuff, be prepared to be excoriated or even eviscerated for daring to “undermine” the movement.  You will be shouted down.  And if you refuse to be shouted down you will be shunned, demonized, and dogpiled upon.  You will, by refusing to be the useful idiot, be turned into the enemy.  You will be doxxed.  You will be harassed.  You will, eventually, be evicted from a movement you believe in because you dared, as a person who wasn’t a core member, to have an opinion of your own.  (You’ll be DOUBLY damned if you’re actually right!)

What do you do instead?

Me?  I work on individuals.  I find someone potentially receptive to a message like “you know, there’s no reason to think Muslims are Satan Incarnate”.  If it looks like the seeds are falling into fertile soil, I ramp it up a bit.  If it looks like the person is just not going to take up the message I move on.  If I see an activist group operating in the same place, I leave.  I leave because I know where it’s going to go (nowhere good) and I have better things to do with my time than to fight with deaf and/or illiterate zealots.

Yes, my work on these causes isn’t as splashy as the huge grandstanding efforts of the politically strident, but I allow myself the conceit that in the long term it’s more effective.  And I can look at myself in the mirror without wondering what I’ve become.

An ally’s life is simply not for me.

Why Michael Moore Gets On My Nerves

“When God wants to punish you, He sends a person of bad character who shares all of your opinions.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)
66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)

I saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) with five friends. All of us are big-time supporters of gun-control. So he had us at hello. And yet he managed to lose us. All of us. We walked out of the theater disgusted with Moore. Although the film was manipulative and misleading throughout, the moral nadir of the propaganda piece—the real low point of the film—was when he went to Charlton Heston’s house. We were all furious by the end of that scene. What an abuse of trust, hospitality, decency, and good will. As my buddy put it, as we walked out of the theater: “Wow, Moore almost makes you wanna join the NRA!”

I’ve often suspected that the extreme self-righteousness one often finds amongst documentary filmmakers who specialize in exposés is a kind of psychological defense mechanism. People like Michael Moore need to believe that their cause is perfectly just, and people like Charlton Heston are perfectly evil; it’s the only way to avoid facing up to the fact that what they’re doing is often profoundly unethical. After all, people like Moore get people to trust them so they can publicly humiliate them. It’s hard to make that look good. In fact, on the face of it, it makes them seem about as decent and respectable as the scandal-mongering gossips who write for celebrity mags like The National Enquirer. Of course documentary filmmakers don’t want to see themselves as bloodsucking parasites, and that’s precisely why they need to demonize their opponents. The ends justify the means only if your opponents are devils and your friends are angels. The rationalizations one overhears at certain film festivals are, at bottom, not unlike the rationalizations one overhears at certain pubs frequented by sleazy salesmen: “Suckers deserve to get suckered.”

Documentary film has been good to the left for well over half a century—not, I hasten to add, because most documentary filmmakers have been left-leaning, but rather because the genre is itself remarkably well-suited to the transmission of progressive ideas. Unlike slow-paced, text-heavy mediums (e.g., the scholarly book), which privilege a kind of dry intellectualism devoid of heart, or fast-paced, image-heavy mediums (e.g., the TV news), which privilege a sordid sensationalism devoid of intellectual content, the very format of the documentary film facilitates the construction of long arguments, with lots of moving parts; arguments which clarify, and make manifest, the subtle connections between large social processes and the lived reality of people—people just like you.

If you’re looking for the most devastating critique of Michael Moore, you won’t find it on Fox News, or amongst his right-wing detractors; you’ll find it, after a few glasses of wine, at a documentary film festival. Nobody loathes the man more than other progressive filmmakers. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin—the brilliant minds behind award-winning documentaries like Girl Model (2011) and Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005)—are a case in point. They’ve told me, on numerous occasions, that Moore hasn’t just compromised the specific causes he’s championed; he’s undermined the credibility of the entire genre. When you undermine the credibility of something like documentary film—something which has been immensely useful to progressive causes—you’re ultimately undermining the left.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2017)

Late Capitalism’s Greatest Trick

zhdssMy first serious girlfriend said that her motto, the creed which she lived by, was “go with the flow” (indeed, it was her high-school yearbook quote). She was (and is) such a sweet person. Such a good person: kind, loving, patient, wise. But, truth be told, I remember being viscerally repulsed by her yearbook quote, and, since I was arrogant and obnoxious at sixteen, I probably told her as much. Probably said something really mean. Something I’ve conveniently forgotten. Regardless, I remember thinking that even though my life was a complete mess, even though I was flunking out of school, even though I was totally confused, even though I was angry all the time for no good reason, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I could, nevertheless, be sure of at least one thing: I did NOT want to go with the flow!

Much of my twenties were consumed by a quixotic (and, in retrospect, rather ridiculous) attempt to live a life less ordinary. But when I look back now, at all that crazy countercultural stuff I did, I find that the vast majority of it was shockingly ordinary. When I swap war-stories with people my age, after a few beers, we invariably discover that we’ve got the same twenty stories from our twenties. Buddy of mine calls them twin tales. Because they’re so hard to tell apart. Proper nouns being their only distinguishing feature. 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 swallowed. After all, the commonplace nature of my generation’s countercultural war-stories is hardly their most unflattering feature. The worst thing you can say about us—the thing that many of my friends still fail to acknowledge—is that the crazy countercultural stuff we did wasn’t particularly countercultural.

Nor was it particularly radical. As Thomas Frank makes clear in The Conquest of Cool (1997), much of what passes for countercultural behavior since the 1960s is, in actual fact, an integral part of the “flow” of consumer capitalism. So I guess you could say that I’ve been going with the flow for quite some time now, regardless of my intentions and pretensions. Even at the height of my twenties—when I was an obnoxious, self-righteous, left-wing vegan, with blue hair and tattoos—my individual-centered approach to social change pretty much ensured my complicity with Late Capitalism. As the poet Tony Hoagland puts it at the end of “Hard Rain” (one of his best poems): “I used to think I was not a part of this, / that I could mind my own business and get along, / but that was just another song / that had been taught to me since birth— / whose words I was humming under my breath, / as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.”

The personal isn’t necessarily political. That said, society does benefit when individuals decide to, say, quit smoking, get in shape, or learn how to control their anger. But the benefits accrue primarily to the individual in question. Those close to the individual—such as partner, children, family members, close friends—also benefit; however, outside of that sacred circle, the benefits are largely negligible. Trying to solve the world’s problems with a program of individual-centered perfectionism is like trying to solve the problems of the poor with a program of trickle-down economics.

If the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Late Capitalism’s greatest trick was to convince us that we could be radical without being political. The “one percent” isn’t threatened by your tribal tattoos, your hard-core haircut, your skateboarding, your edgy music, your veganism, your yoga, your recreational drug use, your bisexuality, your dreads, your piercings, your kinky taste in porn—or anything else you do by yourself (or with other consenting adults) in the privacy of your own home. You may see a radical subculture, but they just see another niche market.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)