Category Archives: Vices and Virtues

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)

Being Yourself vs. Being Original

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

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

Many of yours too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I do. Now. Finally. At 42.

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

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Loyalty

“Admonish your friends in private; praise them in public. And distrust anyone who does the reverse.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Why’s Taleb right? Two reasons: (1) People who praise their friends publicly aren’t just praising a friend; they’re declaring a loyalty, which gives them skin in the game (i.e., a small stake in that person’s reputation; if you go down, I go down). By contrast, those who do all of their praising in secret are invariably flatterers who want something from you. (2) People who habitually trash their friends in public can’t be trusted. Witness the younger generation of university-aged activists: they turn on each other with shocking regularity, often going so far as to post private correspondence publicly in the midst of a “call-out” (i.e., witch-hunt) campaign against someone who was supposedly their friend last week. With friends like this, who needs enemies? Indeed, with friends like this, who needs the NSA?

It’s interesting to see how much people value social justice on Facebook (via various forms of virtue signalling). But justice isn’t the only virtue in the moral universe, and, as such, it’s also good to note how much they value friendship and loyalty. Because “no man is an island” and you can’t right the wrongs of the world alone. The realization of any project of social justice requires widespread cooperation: indeed, it requires a social movement. And social movements are now, as they have always been, held together by bonds of friendship and loyalty. As such, how can advocates of social justice who make manifest on a regular basis that they don’t value friendship and loyalty ever hope to change the world? Even the shadiest criminals know that there can be no successful thieves without honour among thieves. Why, then, do activists think there can be successful activists without honour among activists?

The wisdom of Martin Niemöller famous lament (“First they came for the Socialists . . .”) applies to private life just as much as it applies to public life. That loose cannon you hang out with, who turns on his own friends from time to time with a ferocity that astounds you: mark my words, he’ll turn on you one day too. And that activist friend of yours, who seeks to publicly humiliate her former friends and allies by posting their personal correspondence on Facebook: mark my words, she’ll turn on you one day too. Movements, groups, and institutions that prize loyalty above all else are destined for moral disaster; but those that act like loyalty doesn’t matter have no future.

Loyalty’s having your buddy’s back in a barfight he started. Loyalty’s my country right or wrong. By itself, like any virtue, it’s a fucking disaster (law enforcement’s toxic “blue wall of silence” is a case in point). There are plenty of virtues in the moral universe, and we need them all; but let’s be sure about what each one is and is not. Being a loyal friend means having your friend’s back. End of sentence. No amount of casuistry will ever convince me that publicly shaming your “friend” is a manifestation of loyalty.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Gnostic Lullaby

14569626_332573817093970_1553337268_nWe say “de gustibus non est disputandum” (there’s no accounting for taste) when we’re feeling cornered and embarrassed (e.g., when someone discovers your Céline Dion CDs, your kitten calendars, your extensive collection of vintage garden gnomes). We say it when we’re feeling lazy or wish to avoid conflict (e.g., you say “tow-may-tow” and I’ll say “tow-mah-tow”). We say it when we do not wish to defend that which we dimly suspect to be indefensible. Why do we frequently find it hard to give a rational account of our aesthetic judgments? I’m not sure. But I know it applies to our taste in people just as much as our taste in music, calendars, and collectibles.

Just as there are hot people who leave us cold, there are good people who we respect immensely but avoid socially. Love and friendship often march to the beat of unseen drummers. When pressed by a modern-day Socrates, I find it very hard, at times, to justify my seemingly eclectic taste in friends. Most of the time, I really couldn’t tell you why I gravitate toward the one, avoid the other. All I can say with certainty is that it’s got something to do with a highly idiosyncratic estimation of a person’s character.

I can tolerate some pretty major flaws in my friends—flaws that others find insufferable—and yet there’s one relatively minor vice (stinginess) that I find thoroughly repulsive. My estimation of the virtues is equally uneven. I find, time and again, that I am partial to particular virtues, such as courage. Truth be told, I am attracted—irresistibly attracted—to courageous people, even if their views and interests and values differ from my own immensely. All of this leads me to suspect that de gustibus non est disputandum applies to ethics just as much as it applies to aesthetics.

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

When I Realized I Was a Coward

GhostCrabI remember the exact moment that I realized I was a coward: it was a warm summer’s night in July, about 30 years ago. I was just a kid, and we were on a beach—Myrtle Beach—vacationing with the whole family, having a blast with cousins I rarely saw. We lived in our own giddy world on these trips, bouncing from one sugar high to the next, utterly uninterested in our beer-drinking, Scrabble-playing parents. We had a bunch of cottages on the beach. After dinner, in the early evening, just after dark, whilst the adults were settling into a game of cards, my cousins and I would go out and explore the beach. It was magical: the warm sea breeze on my face, the smell of the ocean, and—this is where it gets weird—these amazing glow-in-the-dark crabs. The locals called them ghost crabs—and they really did look like ghosts, bluish-white ghosts from Pac-Man, defeated ghosts that have recently been chomped. They were so fast. But alas, we were often faster. I wanted to pick them up so badly, so very badly—but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do it. I was afraid of getting pinched by those big claws. My cousin Andy, who was younger than me, had no trouble picking them up—even though he was pinched hard repeatedly. His courage shamed me, and yet I still couldn’t bring myself to pick up the crabs. It was then that I realized that I was a coward, by nature, and that I would need to struggle against that basic fact for the rest of my life. I realized, as well, that I would be forever in awe of naturally courageous people.

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

Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them.”—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile (1762)

11893893_10153118448507683_2349096820217962039_oI’ve dealt with a number of famous authors and activists who rail against materialism in their books and interviews. They claim to have nothing but contempt for worldly things in public. Yet in private they turn into hard-nosed capitalists as soon as the subject of “getting paid” comes up. They want to be put up in the finest hotels, taken out to the finest restaurants, paid top dollar for their talk. It’s always so disappointing, so gross. These people, who talk about how much they love humanity in their books and interviews, are often abusive assholes in person. I watched one famous Canadian environmentalist (who shall remain nameless) reduce a teenage waitress to tears. Why? Because her salad wasn’t quite right. She was a terrible tipper too. It was actually embarrassing.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb isn’t like this. Not at all. The man is consistently kind to taxi drivers and waiters, janitors and hotel staff, bartenders and street people. What’s more, he cares about getting heard and spreading his ideas far more than he cares about getting paid and spreading his brand. I could give you numerous examples but the following should suffice. When the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability asked Taleb to come up to Montreal for a talk, the event organizers made it clear that, due to budget cuts, they had no money. Taleb said that was fine: he’d do the Concordia talk for free and pay for the entire trip out of his own pocket. And he did! Seriously, dude wouldn’t even let us buy him a shish taouk! Meanwhile, two weeks later, a well-known environmentalist, who rails incessantly against capitalism and greed, told us, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t show up for less than $10,000.

It’s nice to know that there are public intellectuals out there, people like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who walk their talk; people who remember what philosophy is, what the examined life looks like, and what this whole ideas thing is for.

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

Cop John

If you see fraud, and don’t shout “fraud”, you are a fraud.—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile (2012)

10eowgWhen we lived in Baltimore in our mid-twenties, before the kids and all the rest, Anna-Liisa and I went out dancing every weekend. Our favorite club was this place called “1722” on Charles Street. Everybody’s got a nickname in Charm City, even the house dealer at a nightclub: dude was known as “Cop John”. He sat at the bar and dealt ecstasy and coke openly. We assumed that his nickname was a joke (like calling a big guy “Tiny”) until we saw him in handcuffs on the six-o’clock news. He was actually a cop! And his name was actually John (John Harold Wilson). Officer Wilson had been selling drugs confiscated on the job for years. Had a bunch of his fellow officers in on it too. I couldn’t help but think of Cop John as I watched The Seven Five (2014) last night, a Netflix documentary about the crazy levels of criminality amongst New York City cops in the 1980s and 1990s. There’s a profound philosophical truth communicated by The Seven Five, and it’s something my Police Tech students don’t hear nearly enough: namely, that loyalty, like any virtue, can become a vice when it’s not balanced by the demands of other virtues, such as justice, integrity, honesty. Most cops aren’t like Cop John. But cop culture’s single-minded obsession with loyalty is precisely what allows the Cop Johns of this world to flourish and prosper.

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

A Meditation on THE MEDITATIONS

From the vantage of the 21st century, Marcus Aurelius is one of the most appealing characters of Roman antiquity.  Not only a Roman emperor, but a good one, who administered the affairs of state in the public interest and didn’t abuse his authority, but also a thoughtful man, a philosopher, whose private commonplace book, “To Myself”, remains in print today as Meditations, a classic work of Stoic philosophy. Meditations is a true classic, re-discovered periodically by those seeking wisdom in difficult times. It was beloved of figures as diverse as Matthew Arnold (who wrote “So spake the imperial sage, purest of men, Marcus Aurelius”), WEB DuBois, and Bill Clinton. To me, it’s a remarkable book, one that inspires and repels: and not serially, but simultaneously. The passages that seem most noble are, at the same time, the most inhuman.

For Marcus, the good life for human beings is one of dispassion. Perhaps the most widely quoted line from the Meditations is “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”; this sounds appealing to modern ears. Marcus sounds as if he is suggesting that life is about challenging and facing down difficulties, rather than simply seizing fleeting pleasures, and no doubt Marcus would agree; but that’s not what he’s trying to say in this passage, which is truncated. In the original text, he continues that living well is like wrestling “inasmuch as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.” That is, the danger that life poses us is disruption of our mental equilibrium. Certainly pain can do this, and vice, but so too can pleasure and virtue. “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not,” he writes, “but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”

This insistence that pleasure and virtues are, in their own way, traps, distinguishes Marcus and the Stoics from other ancient schools of philosophy, like the Peripatetics or the Epicureans. The strongest argument Marcus has against those bodies of thought is that they admit that the good life requires certain external goods and circumstances. For Aristotle, the good life was lived in the city-state, and absent that form of social organization, human life can’t reach its full potential. Epicurus believed something similar, that the pleasant life required a well-governed society that minimized harms, for such was a prerequisite of the pleasant life. Marcus, living in a time when Rome warred against Persians and Germans, insists that the good life has no external needs: the power to live well lies within in everyone. “It is perfectly possible to be godlike, even though unrecognized as such. Always keep that in mind; and also remember that the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics and physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.” Such a life will be filled with pains and difficulties, but these are to be accepted, even welcomed. He writes: “So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to be bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune'”. In a similar vein, life will seduce with pleasures, but these too are snares. He reminds himself that “Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible.”

A human’s greatest fear, Marcus posits, is the fear of death.  Again and again in the Meditations he offers advice for overcoming this fear, which is to keep one’s death in proper perspective. Anticipating Milton, he emphasizes that such fear is a  product of the mind, and can be changed by the mind. “Everything is but what your opinion makes it; and that opinion lies with yourself. Renounce it when you will, and at once you have rounded the foreland and all is calm; a tranquil sea, a tideless haven.” He suggests imagining one’s own funeral, and recognizing how, even among your friends, there will be people relieved to be free of you and the obligations you bring, which should make the fear of leaving them less. In fact, death is to be imagined at every opportunity: “Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time you may be given to you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with Nature.”

There is wisdom here. Even more than Marcus, we 21st-century Canadians are prone to look for happiness as a thing out there, to be acquired through our latest acquisitions, and modern Stoics like Mr. Money Mustache or Juliet Schor remind us that this temptation will always be with us, and hard as it is to overcome it, doing so is imperative for anyone seeking a pleasant life. Marcus’ advice to cultivate patience and perspective about the difficulties and pains of life is also well taken; we’ve all known people who lacked such perspective, and seen how much unnecessary suffering they underwent. Marcus’ description of such a person, in the second person, is apt: to be such a person is to be a “stranger in your own homeland, bewildered by each day’s happenings as though by wonders unlooked for, and ever hanging upon this one or the next.”

But at the same time, Marcus’ insistence that we must detach from joy is too much to ask. The soldier may take pride in fulfilling duty; but there is more to life than duty. A human being is more than a robot, and finding delight in books, in family or friends, in food and stories and sex, seems to me to be also part of the good life. For all of his iron austerity, it seems to me that Marcus felt it too. The most poignant passage in the Mediations is this one, where Marcus seems to shudder at his own limits, and that of his way of life: “O soul of mine, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh? Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting; craving nothing yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company? When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of that perfect living whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things, upholding and enfolding them, and at their dissolution gathering them into itself so that yet others of their kind may spring forth? Will you never be fit for such fellowship with gods and men as to have no syllable of complaint against them, and no syllable of reproach from them?”

I admire Marcus; but I do not follow him.

—Andrew Miller

In Praise of the Welfare State

The-Wire-HD-BluI learned about white privilege from the streets, not the classroom. My teachers were teenage criminals who spoke in plain, easily-accessible English (or French), not jargon-laden academics with PhDs in sensitivity. The lessons I received from them were practical and experiential, not theoretical. And they made me pretty good at stealing stuff for a spell. Like many bratty kids from my neighborhood, I went through a shoplifting phase when I was a teenager. Like many other social animals, such as wolves, my friends and I hunted in packs and employed a coördinated strategy that played upon the weaknesses of our prey.

Our intended prey was the store staff; their racial prejudices were the weaknesses we exploited. We were four, more often than not: one black kid and three white kids. After carefully choosing a store, we’d enter it separately. The black kid would immediately attract all of the staff’s attention. It was amazing! The kid didn’t have to do anything suspicious. Didn’t have to smell like weed. Didn’t have to dress like a thugged-out rapper. Didn’t have to wear dark sunglasses. Nothing. He just had to be black. That was enough. The staff would be totally fixated on the black kid and follow him around the store while me and the other three white kids robbed the place blind. The four of us would meet up about an hour later, usually at a metro station, and divvy up the spoils. Incidentally, the dude who finally caught me at Galeries d’Anjou was a sweet, middle-aged Haitian guy. He caught me and my degenerate friends precisely because he wasn’t blinded by racism.

I met my black doppelgänger at a rooftop party in Baltimore. It was 2000 and we were both 25. We had the same metrosexual mannerisms, same ridiculously loud laugh, same taste in music, same taste in literature, same strange obsession with snakes and salamanders. But it gets weirder still: because, as it turns out, we were both raised by single-moms on welfare, in rough neighborhoods. Both of us went through a super religious phase in our early teen years, followed by a troublemaker phase. Both of us changed schools often and repeated the 10th Grade. I could go on and on: it was eerie. And yet our lives couldn’t be more different: I was in Baltimore on a full scholarship, in a PhD program at Hopkins, whilst he had just gotten out of jail. Six days ago! He’d been in prison for the last seven years—seven years!—for drug offenses that wealthy Hopkins undergrads regularly get probation for.

My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. And he grew up in Baltimore. Because I grew up white. And he grew up black. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get to go to well-funded public schools that provide them with a high-quality education, an education which can take them wherever they wish to go. And he grew up in a place where poor kids are forced to go to crappy public schools which are crumbling, crowded, and chronically underfunded—schools that provide even their best students with a substandard education that hobbles them for life. Because I grew up in a public housing project that was clean and affordable—a place that allowed us to live our lives with a certain amount of dignity. And he grew up moving from one overpriced cockroach-infested shithole to the next. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get the same universal healthcare available to children of the rich. And he grew up waiting nine hours to see a nurse at the free clinic. Because I grew up in a place that gives bratty kids lots and lots of chances to get their shit together. And he grew up in a place where a few stupid mistakes can seal your fate for years.

My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. I grew up in a secular society informed by quintessentially Christian values: such as sharing, forgiveness, and compassion. What is the modern welfare state, after all, if not an amazingly ambitious application of Christian ethics? Is it perfect? Of course not. It’s a flawed and imperfect work-in-progress, like everything else in this fallen world of ours. But when did we stop seeing how breathtakingly beautiful it is? Why did we allow sneering cynics to make us feel so thoroughly ashamed of ourselves? What’s wrong with our values? What’s wrong with trying to take care of each other? What’s wrong with trying to institutionalize the virtues Jesus stood for in a social safety net? We keep reaching for fig leaves, friends, when we really ought to be dancing in the streets, celebrating in the alleys, and shouting from the rooftops: Thank God Almighty for the Welfare State!

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)