Category Archives: Privilege

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)

The Princess and the Pea

“In the morning she was asked how she had slept. ‘Oh, very badly!’ said she. ‘I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!’ Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds. Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that. So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess.”—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Princess and the Pea” (1835)

Rich BitchLike most of you, I read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” (1835) when I was a kid. Haven’t given it much thought since. But a recent essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has led me to revisit it. When I was a kid, I’m pretty sure I came away from the story thinking that the princess was a spoiled brat. But today, at 42, I find myself sympathizing with the princess. She’s a victim of her wealthy upbringing. The girl needs perfect conditions just to get a good night’s sleep!

In our day and age, the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” would grow up to be the kind of woman whose morning is ruined if the new guy at Starbucks messes up her soy-latte; the kind of delicate flower whose entire day is ruined if her favorite yoga instructor calls in sick; the kind of therapy-junkie whose entire week is ruined if her therapist cancels her weekly appointment; the kind of absentee-parent who has a panic attack when the nanny quits because she really doesn’t know how to take care of her own kids. Privilege isn’t always a privilege. And she’s a case in point. Wealth and power have transformed her into an inflexible wimp. Look at her: she’s pathetic. Why do you envy her? You really ought to pity her.

When our sons were babies, many marveled at how easily they could sleep through ambient noise. When asked, Anna-Liisa was happy to share the secret: “If you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment at bedtime, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to go to sleep; if you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment all through the night, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to sleep through the night.” As we now know, this principle of desensitization applies to much else (e.g., allergies, stress, losing at games, etc.). It is, in fact, central to Taleb’s concept of antifragility.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012), Taleb argues that living things (biological systems) don’t just tolerate stress; they actually need it just to maintain the status quo. For instance, as N.A.S.A. discovered a few years ago, much to their chagrin, the bones of astronauts in a space station quickly degenerate when they’re deprived of the regular stress provided by the Earth’s gravitational field. Likewise, my friend’s muscles atrophied rather severely whilst she was recovering from surgery. Three months on a hospital bed, with very little movement, caused the muscles in her legs to degenerate so much that this former marathon runner could barely walk when she was discharged from the hospital. I remember it vividly: we had to practically carry her to the car.

If it’s true that we need a certain amount of stress merely to maintain the strength that we presently possess, it’s equally true that we need to increase the amount of stress on a biological system if we want it to get stronger (e.g., by lifting weights). The rich and powerful are often, as Taleb puts it, “punished by privilege and comfort.” Muscles that are unused atrophy, bones that are unused become brittle, underutilized immune systems grow weak, and pampered princesses become pathetic pansies who can’t sleep on peas.

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

The Strange Faith of the Centurion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Richie Riches in Self-Made Drag

Should we be defined by what we’ve done in the world or by what the world has done to us?

765425Choosing the terrain on which you meet your enemy is of paramount importance. The three truly great treatises on the art of war—Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1521), Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—are in agreement on this: battles are won before the fighting even starts by wise leaders who know which terrain plays to their strengths and which terrain plays to their weaknesses. I witnessed this often on the battlefield of the graduate school seminar.

Though we all paid lip-service to the Hydra-Headed God of Intersectionality, when it really came down to it, the working-class white guys who grew up poor (like me) would invariably (and, in retrospect, rather predictably) try to steer the seminar discussion towards a CLASS analysis of whatever we were talking about (even when it really didn’t fit); the middle-class white women tried to steer the seminar discussion towards a GENDER analysis of whatever we were talking about; and the visible minority students tried (often, alas, in vain) to get us to remember RACE.

Sometimes it felt like we were trapped in a perverse academic version of The Olympic Games, wherein we were all being forced to compete for a gold medal in BEING A VICTIM. At other times it felt like we were trapped in a dystopian intellectual version of The Hunger Games, wherein we were all being forced to tear each other apart to survive. Alas, it’s easy to see all of this as horribly cynical. But, truth be told, I doubt any of us were consciously trying to be manipulative. Privilege is, after all, for the most part invisible to those who possess it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a wealthy white woman who only seems to see sexism. Nor should we be surprised to find a middle-class African-American man who only seems to see racism. Be that as it may, a military man like Machiavelli might suggest that me and my fellow graduate students were all, albeit unwittingly, fighting for the higher ground.

On an actual battlefield, the high ground is usually the most desirable position. Sun Tzu stresses this, time and again: the fighting force that fails to identify and seize control of the high ground is almost always forced into a reactive, defensive position. Opportunities for offensive action are highly circumscribed. By contrast, the fighting force that occupies the high ground gets to set the terms of the engagement.

On the battlefield of the graduate school seminar, the moral high ground is the most desirable position. A graduate student who fails to identify and seize control of the moral high ground is forced into a reactive, defensive position (e.g., trying to prove that she’s really not a racist, that he’s really not a sexist pig, etc.). By contrast, the students that successfully come to occupy the moral high ground in the graduate seminar get to set the terms of the engagement. It’s a powerful position. No doubt about that. But I wonder if it’s really worth fighting for. Should we be defined, first and foremost, by what we’ve done in the world OR by what the world has done to us?

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. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

The Strange Case of Rod Covlin

“Upper West Side Wife-Killer Tried to Pay a Mexican Man to Marry His 13-Year-Old Daughter”—Eric Levitz, New York Magazine (November 10, 2015)

covlin12n-3-webI worked with Rod Covlin at his first job out of college (and mine)—both of us were in an incoming cohort of new traders trained at the same time at a NASDAQ company at the height of the internet bubble. I traded for two years before leaving for graduate school and hung out with a lot of the group I came in with.

Rod was part of all this; he came to more than one party at my place and dated my roommate. He got so drunk one night that he threw up all over himself on our couch in our NYC apartment and we were momentarily worried that if his head hadn’t been tilted to the side, he would have easily choked on his vomit. He also, in the tryst with my roommate, tried to get the two of us to ‘hook up’ for him (didn’t happen) while at the same time extolling the virtues of jdate for his future plans for more committed relationships.

And finally, he was one of the first to leave in a poaching effort by a new company that took on the tones and dimensions of a cult-like ‘industrial espionage’ drama at our work. Strangely, we all wondered, “Rod? Really? He’s a terrible trader. Why did they want him?” A short while after that, I got a dodgy call from him at home asking (opaquely) about my interest in defecting to the new company. And no, I didn’t; I left the job altogether for graduate school.

Sometimes people ask me why I don’t trade anymore. There are lots of people I still keep in touch with and who are good, kind, and even amazing human beings—just like the kind you meet in any other profession. Then there were people like Rod—always looking out for the next sneaky deal to get ahead (often at the expense of everyone else and often because cheating was the only way they could get ahead), obsessed with money and financial largess as the only indicator of success, and filled with an almost superhuman sense of entitlement that drove an insatiable desire for more. Working on Wall Street in a bull market at the height of the internet bubble, combined with the winner-take-all, no questions asked ethic on the job so neatly justified then amplified all of nastiest habits and tendencies that attracted people like him to the job.

No one that I worked with has come close to going as far down this scary road as him (though there has been a tabloid number of financial crimes, settlements, and record fines). However, I couldn’t say that it altogether surprises me that, with his continued failures combined with that outsized sense of entitlement, that he ended up down a road like this.

—Anna-Liisa Aunio

Shut Up and Join the Party

“To be a full adult is not to be a better version of a worldly young adult, capable of more impressive cynicism, but to contain both the child and the young adult, to contain both optimism and cynicism, wariness and hope.”—Aaron Elliott, “Optimism and Cynicism,” Committing Sociology (November 10, 2015)

As a healthy white guy with a good job, living in one of the wealthiest countries on Planet Earth (indeed, in human history), I find it surprisingly easy to be optimistic and cheerful about life, the universe, and, well, pretty much everything—in fact, I’m tempted, at times, to conclude that everything’s great and wonderful and the whiners should all just shut up and join the party.

But then I remember the true identity of The Tempter, and I remember what became of Odysseus’s men in The Land of the Lotus Eaters, and I feel my blissful yoga-retreat ignorance giving way to something a little more grown-up, something akin to Buddha’s joyful participation in the sufferings of the world.

We all need to achieve the sort of balance Kwame Brown speaks of: between responsibility to pleasure and responsibility to pain. But we get to it from different directions. People on the front lines of the struggle have to keep their heads from going up in flames. People like me have to keep their heads out of the sand.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

How to Get the Attention of the Hottest Person in the Room

“Constant praise does bad things to human beings. It’s much like any other drug that affects our dopamine levels: provided sparingly, it induces brief sensations of warmth and happiness, but provided constantly, it induces dependency. Just like the cocaine addict requires constant bumps just to get to ‘normal’, so too does the praise addict require constant reassurance just to function.”—Andrew Miller, “The Perils of Praise,” Committing Sociology (June 15, 2015)

3436e1419052478o9056Though famously ugly, Socrates was a skilled seducer of the young and beautiful. Alcibiades attests to this in The Symposium, and we can witness him in action in Charmides, wherein he quickly gains the undivided attention of the quintessential cool kid: “at that moment, when I saw Charmides coming in, I must confess that I was quite astonished at his beauty and stature; all the world seemed to be enamored of him; amazement and confusion reigned when he entered; and a troop of lovers followed him. . . . all of them, down to the very least child, turned and looked at him, as if he had been a statue.”

Though old, funny looking, poor, and powerless, Socrates could always get the attention of the hottest person in the room. How does he do it? Well, he ignores them: and this causes them to find him extraordinarily interesting. Because extremely good looking people are used to being worshiped. Indeed, they’ve come not only to expect, but to need that attention. From everyone! So if you hold out on them, if you withhold that worship, they’ll gravitate towards you.

Overgrown vanity is a delicate flower that needs daily watering. Socrates was well aware of this weakness and he exploited it often. That he wanted these beautiful young people for students and disciples, not lovers, is beside the point: because seduction is seduction, whether you’re seducing a body or a mind. Socrates would surely say, in his defense, that the philosophical ends justify the manipulative means. And I’d disagree with him. But, be that as it may, if this recurring theme in the Platonic dialogues makes anything clear, it’s that privilege isn’t always a privilege. Great beauty—like great wealth or great power—can make people weak and surprisingly easy to manipulate.

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

The Dissection of a Frog named Louis CK

Watching an academic explain how a gifted entertainer connects with a crowd is like watching a 40-year-old virgin teach Sex Ed. If poetry explained is banal, charisma explained is absurd.

Fullscreen capture 2015-05-17 65934 PM

Though I find the thought of dissecting a frog repulsive, I’m willing to concede that dissection has made significant contributions to the science of herpetology. That being said, it’s important for every budding biologist to bear in mind that the frog corpse you’re staring down at in your Bio Lab is no substitute for the real thing. A dead frog isn’t a frog. So if you really want to get to know these fascinating 250-million-year-old amphibians, get out of that stuffy lab and into the fragrant swamp in the middle of Île-Bizard, where you can listen to the sweet song of the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), marvel at the Cirque-de-Soleil acrobatics of the grey tree frog (Hyla versicolor), and watch bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) as big as kittens chase after dragonflies as big as crochet hooks.

Like the frogs of Île-Bizard, Louis CK cannot be reduced by a scalpel-wielding PhD. So, before attempting a quixotic dissection of his work, I think it’s important for theory-tainted know-it-alls (like me) to bear in mind that a critique of Louis CK’s comedy is no substitute for the real thing. Just as a dead frog isn’t a frog, an analysis of Louis CK isn’t Louis CK. The man is a comic genius. And that’s an unavoidable fact, like gravity or global warming, which we need to acknowledge before we brandish the blade. Louis CK makes millions laugh, and he does so with effortless Castiglione cool—viz., he makes it look easy. Of course nothing could be further from the truth: being really funny is really hard.

Like the medieval Catholic Church at its best, Louis CK has something for pretty much everyone. His comedy isn’t one-size-fits-all. Quite to the contrary, he appeals to diverse groups of people precisely because his message is complex. Everyone in the room is laughing, but they’re laughing for profoundly different reasons. I realized this for the first time after watching Live at the Beacon Theater (2011) with a room full of friends. Some were laughing at him, and some were laughing with him. Still others believed that they were in the presence of a modern-day Diogenes, a radically honest man who tells the unvarnished truth, come what will. It’s this last group that worries me—not, I hasten to add, because there’s anything wrong with telling the truth, but because there’s something wrong with thinking that your truth is The Truth.

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.

We all have a tendency to believe that our experience is somehow universal. This is a human, all-too-human tendency. That said, people with a great deal of privilege—people like me (i.e., white men of a certain class)—seem to get a double-portion of this tendency. Louis CK’s comedy is a case in point. Part of what makes it so effective is a complicated cocktail of awareness to privilege and blindness to privilege. He sees his own privilege with astounding accuracy, and yet—at one and the same time—he speaks about his inner life as a dad and a husband with a naïve presumptuousness which is—in and of itself—a hallmark of privilege.

The assumption behind much of Louis CK’s comedy—sometimes stated, sometimes implied—is that his own experience with parenthood and heterosexual marriage is normative. His message to men is more or less as follows: Come on guys, we’re among friends now, quit the bullshit. The chicks aren’t listening now, so stop trying to be politically correct. You know, and I know, that you’re feeling and thinking and doing exactly the same things I’m thinking and feeling and doing.

Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy has always relied heavily upon this technique. For instance, in Raw (1987), he asks all of the men in the audience “that are loyal to their women” to clap. Though it seems like a perfectly innocent question, we soon realize that it was posed in bad faith. A moment or two after the crowd bursts into applause, Murphy interrupts them loudly, shouting: “Stop! You lying motherfuckers, stop. Stop, stop, stop. Kiss my ass. Fuck, there ain’t no such thing as a loyal man, you lying motherfuckers. Stop it. Yeah, the only reason you’re clapping is because your woman’s sitting next to you right now when I asked you. . . . Get the fuck out. . . . All men fuck other women. We are low by nature and have to do it. . . . All men do it. We have to do it. . . . It is a man thing. . . . It is a dick thing. Do not try to understand it. You have to have a dick to understand this.”

Were some of the men in Eddie Murphy’s audience lying? Sure. Were all of them lying? I highly doubt it. Be that as it may, what’s key to note here is that Murphy categorically refuses to entertain some entirely plausible possibilities, such as the existence of loyal men, and the existence of women who truly get men (“You have to have a dick to understand this.”). It’s also interesting to note that Murphy is making some pretty categorical claims about what it means to be a man (“All men do it. We have to do it. . . . It is a man thing.”). Regardless, I call bullshit. Why? Because I know plenty of guys who don’t fit into Murphy’s straitjacket, just as I know plenty of guys who don’t fit into Louis CK’s straitjacket.

I know plenty of guys who love fatherhood and find married life delightful. Sure, they have bad days, even bad weeks—but, on balance, they really enjoy the life of the householder. What’s more, I know plenty of grown men who aren’t tormented—as Louis CK and Eddie Murphy seem to be—by a never-ending torrent of pornographic thoughts. I know plenty of grown men who really don’t picture every woman they know naked, who really don’t fantasize about fucking every woman they know.

Are these guys an unrepresentative sample of Dude Nation? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Because I’ve got male friends from all walks of life: from the ultra-conservative to the ultra-liberal. Are these guys lying to me? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Because I’m always sure to bring up these sorts of questions in the wee hours of the morning, at the end of a long night, when we’re all fairly drunk (or high), speaking in confidence among friends, and inclined towards the kind of brutal honesty that makes these conversations so memorable.

These guys aren’t laughing with Louis CK; they’re laughing at him. To my mind, the great genius of Louis CK is that he shows us how much of a living hell it must be to be a teenage boy stuck in a grown man’s life. That being said, the fact that so many husbands and fathers sympathize with Louis CK should give us pause. It ought to make us think long and hard about how we raise our sons in this culture.

Are we raising a generation of brave knights that will defend the weak, stand up to the strong, and believe—in their heart of hearts—that to whom much is given, much is required? Or are we raising a generation of whiny half-men who go through life resenting their wives, their children, their ageing parents, the poor, the weak, the needy, and anyone else who dares to make legitimate demands upon them?

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Cooking and Patriarchy: Expectation and Practice

(For my inaugural post on Committing Sociology, I offer the proverbial oldie but goodie, a post from some months ago.)

I’m a guy. I like to cook. So people often say, hey, you must be a good cook! or something to that effect. (No, not really. I’m OK, but nothing like my old friend Richard Hepner, who’s a professional chef, working for lousy pay in very unglamourous venues most of his life while turning out, for instance, exquisite tapas or other Mediterranean cuisine, who has a feel for ingredients akin to a jazz musician’s ear for improv) It makes me vaguely uncomfortable that it’s even the slightest bit notable that I cook, that it’s even mildly something worth remarking upon. Continue reading Cooking and Patriarchy: Expectation and Practice

When Privilege Isn’t a Privilege

Fullscreen capture 2014-04-13 63721 PMWe hear a great deal about privilege these days—as well we should. After all, privilege is an excellent predictor of whether or not you’re going to succeed in life, and privilege is distributed unequally in our society—indeed, increasingly so. Though no amount of privilege can guarantee that you’ll succeed, the more privileged you are, the more opportunities you get. It’s sort of like buying lottery tickets at the dépanneur. You can buy a 100,000 scratch tickets and still win nothing. But, chances are, even if you don’t win the grand prize, if you’ve got 100,000 tickets, you’ll probably win something. At any rate, you’ll have a much higher chance of winning something than the guy who can only afford to buy 10 scratch tickets. Still, it’s important to note that strange and improbable things can happen to the underprivileged just as they can happen to the extremely privileged. For instance, just as it is possible for someone with 100,000 tickets to win nothing, it’s possible for someone with just 10 tickets to win everything. But it’s not bloody likely!

xm57cGeorge W. Bush’s circuitous path to the presidency is a case in point. Bush was a screw-up and a royal pain in his family’s ass well into his late twenties. He messed up again and again and again (e.g., with DWI charges, cocaine abuse, alcoholism, womanizing, etc.), and yet he was still able to turn things around and come out on top. By contrast, a poor kid from Baltimore—born to a teenage, drug-addicted, African-American mother—has very little privilege. He gets very few of the proverbial lottery tickets. He can do everything right and yet still fail. What’s more, if he screws up even once, he can lose everything. For instance, a major cocaine-possession charge could land him in prison for the better part of a decade. When he gets out—if he gets out—his chances of getting a decent job as an ex-con will be severely circumscribed for years to come.

xm3euInequality is a serious problem which threatens the very fabric of our way of life. We ignore it at our peril. Even so, there are disadvantages associated with privilege, real and measurable disadvantages, which we hear about but rarely these days. A notable exception to this rule is to be found in Amy Chu and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (2014). Chu and Rubenfeld identify three groups—Mormons, Jews, and Chinese—that have consistently out-performed White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) in the last three decades. Their explanation is as follows: exceptionally successful groups—such as the Mormons, the Jews, and the Chinese—inculcate all three of these traits in the young: a sense of superiority, a sense of insecurity, and a well-developed capacity for impulse control.

xm3u4Though they get a great deal, there’s one thing that wealthy WASP men—by far the most privileged group in our society—don’t get these days: and that’s THE TRIPLE PACKAGE. Sure, they’re taught to see themselves as better than everyone else (especially if they go to private school). But they’re no longer taught how to control their impulses—not consistently, or as a matter of course. Alas, the description of the Protestant work ethic—made famous by the great sociologist Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)—applies to precious few Protestants these days; it does, however, apply to a whole lot of Mormons, Jews, and Chinese. Still, impulse control isn’t the wealthy WASP man’s weakest suit. His lowest scores are to be found in the second category: sense of insecurity.

xm476The wealthy WASP man has a profound sense of entitlement. He’s been brought up to believe that everything is going to come to him rather easily. He’s optimistic about his future. It’s all going to fall into place somehow, though he couldn’t really tell you specifically how or why. Truth be told, he doesn’t stress about it too much; he’s pretty chill about the whole thing. And that’s why he’s probably destined—at best—to live a lacklustre life of middling mediocrity. It’s precisely here, according to Chu and Rubenfeld, that privilege ceases—to some extent—to be a privilege, because it makes you lazy, passive, arrogant, smug, sloppy, and complacent.

This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the works of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012), Taleb argues that living things (biological systems) don’t just tolerate stress; they actually need it just to maintain the status quo. For instance, as N.A.S.A. discovered a few years ago, much to their chagrin, the bones of astronauts in a space station quickly degenerate when they’re deprived of the regular stress provided by the Earth’s gravitational field. Likewise, my friend’s muscles atrophied rather severely whilst she was recovering from surgery. Three months on a hospital bed—with very little movement—caused the muscles in her legs to degenerate so much that this former marathon runner could barely walk when she was discharged from the hospital. I remember it vividly: we had to practically carry her to the car.

If it’s true that we need a certain amount of stress merely to maintain the strength that we presently possess, it’s equally true that we need to increase the amount of stress on a biological system if we want it to get stronger (e.g., by lifting weights). What’s more, as Taleb puts it, society’s winners (the rich and powerful) are often “punished by privilege and comfort”—viz., by depriving the most privileged people in the world of necessary stressors we inadvertently harm them. Alas, muscles that are unused atrophy, bones that are unused become brittle, underutilized immune systems grow weak, and self-satisfied elites become, well, beach bums.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Every college graduate knows that the philosopher who penned this line was profoundly moved by the plight of the poor. What’s less known is that the author of The Social Contract (1762) was equally adept at sympathizing with the plight of the rich. Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent a great deal of his adult life hanging out with the idle rich. So he knew full well that most of them were bored and miserable. But he didn’t think wealth was the problem. The problem was that they spent their money unwisely.

xm4q4In one of the most fascinating thought experiments in modern philosophy, Rousseau imagines—near the end of Émile (1762)—what it would be like to be rich: how he would and would not spend his money, how he would and would not spend his time. What’s striking about his dream is that it’s nothing like the gaudy adolescent male fantasies found in rap videos. There are no pool-side parties in Rousseau’s reverie. No bikini-clad babes. No gold. No glitz. No bling.

Many “If-I-Won-the-Lottery” fantasies envision moneyed life as a kind of never-ending spa-day, wherein the pampering just goes on and on and on. But Rousseau clearly has little use for this kind of comfort. The opulent mansions showcased by Robin Leach on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous are notably absent from Rousseau’s account.

Though he can now afford a palace for a dwelling, Rousseau tells us that we’ll find him in a modest home. His reasoning is as follows: Big houses require a great deal of cleaning and maintenance. So when you buy a big house, you’re not just buying a big house; you’re also buying the small army of maids, gardeners, and handymen that of necessity come with it. The rich, he quite rightly observes, are rarely alone. All to the contrary, they’re usually surrounded by a cloud of paid strangers—strangers who rob them of privacy, peace, quiet, and solitude. Rich people complain about this often. Yet few seem to realize that the problem is entirely avoidable. Rousseau will not make this mistake when he’s rich.

Though he can now afford a fancy horse-drawn carriage and a driver, Rousseau says he will continue to walk pretty much everywhere. He will also continue to do his own shopping and run his own errands. Why? Because it’s good to get out of the house and get some exercise. What’s more, it’s often entertaining and instructive. The idle rich are bored in large part because their lives are far too sedentary. Even as a rich man, he will live by the following maxim: “we ought to receive from others only those services that we cannot get from ourselves.”

Rousseau wants to purchase two things with his riches: leisure time and freedom from drudgery. And he wants to spend as much time as possible with his friends and family—with people, that is, who love him and enjoy his company, as opposed to people who are paid to do things for him. Aside from Seneca, I can think of no other philosopher who more clearly understood how to avoid the pitfalls of privilege.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)