Vanity and Improvement: An Ethical Evaluation of the Gym-Selfie

Pride may be a sin, but its true nature isn’t how we’re used to thinking about it:

She says ‘I’ve come of age as a writer in a time when it’s no longer possible just to write. A writer must also promote her work and in the process promote her herself as a person of interest. I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminists and pop-culture bloggers; the easy outrage, the clubby comraderie.’ So that was the age she came of age in and where she learned how to write to an audience, and always aware of herself as a kind of media personality, right? Now, what happened to her?

What happened to her was she became a mother. She had this viscerally real experience of becoming a mother, and she said one day, she was with her infant child on the front porch of her house and it suddenly dawned on her that she had no interest in snark. She had not interest in an audience that might want to comment on her experience. She wanted to get utterly into her experience, and let it simply wash over her. It’s as though the dense reality of this baby blew away her preoccupation with with an audience, and with being a personality.

Here’s  something else I want to just read directly from the article. Listen: “Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer type could ever be taken seriously, were she to cave in to conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.” It’s very interesting, isn’t it? It’s as though her baby just kind of broke through this carapace of self-regard, this sort of knowing, snarky distanciation from reality. This always playing to an audience. And she found herself immersed in the reality of the experience.

Now here’s what I find interesting. It’s a cool commentary on the generation today coming of age with social media, but it also points to a very ancient spiritual distinction between what is classically called humility and pride.

Pride is not simple self-aggrandizement, or self-affirmation. It is a kind of superiority derived from a perceived separation from reality, or at least from other mortals. The moral opprobrium derived from the sin of hubris doesn’t come from the quality achieved by the individual, or even their awareness of it, but from the separation — the distanciation — from other people and from the world.

It isn’t a coincidence that the self-proclaimed nihilists you know think that they are better than everyone else. It’s a short walk from distanciation from reality and distanciation from distinctions, from value, and from the ability to derive enjoyment from value.

In my opinion, the greatest application of the distinction between pride, as theologically understood, and pride as contemporarily, culturally understood, is the much-maligned gym-selfie.

Fundamentally what is wrong with taking pictures of yourself while working out?

A possible criticism is the distanciation that the camera itself tends to create (what Davis Aurini calls “the electric eye“). Such a phenomenon can be easily seen in the horrendous case of Fitbit, where the emphasis on metrics has in some cases so dramatically separated its users from the end goal — fitness — that they believe themselves to be “succeeding” if their numbers look good, even if their health and fitness are observably flat-lining or deteriorating.

If a gym-rat is simply taking photos every time they go to the gym, that’s obviously a concern. The photos, and not the work-out, become the goal, and their health can actually suffer from this shift in focus.

But to listen to the mocking and satirizing of photographer gym-goers, usually by people who rarely or never work out themselves, you’d think that the fitness aficionado had committed some sort of felony against common decency. The degree of contempt and caustic snark behind the criticism of the “vanity” of gym-bros ‘n hoes speaks to a different motive than generous concern.

Which side smacks more of “pride?” The people trying to improve themselves, taking pictures of themselves for encouragement, documentation, and personal enjoyment? Or the people who, from a cultural high ground, distance themselves from the reality of physical pain and struggle, pointing and mocking those arrogant pricks who go to the gym and aren’t ashamed to show it?

The watch you see above belongs to one Jocko Willinck. Willinck is a former Navy SEAL, an author, an expert on business leadership, and an avid athlete. He is regularly mocked on Instagram for regularly posting pictures of his watch, which shows what time in the God-forsaken morning he begins his workout. His response, of course, is to tell them to unsubscribe. Joe Rogan, for one, likes seeing what time Willinck is up and killing it in the gym. It motivates him, and it also motivates me. I want to be more like Willinck, and those watch-pictures remind me both of the distance between me and Willinck and of what I have to do to close that distance.

And I do close that distance.

What’s especially ironic about this issue is that any drive towards self-improvement is fundamentally motivated by an awareness of distance between your self and your idealized Self. “Humility,” in the colloquial sense, is the tacit motivation behind any attempt at improving a skill or working out.

What people normally call “pride” is simply a joy in yourself and your accomplishments. This is a good thing, especially when that pride overflows and inspires others to emulate or even surpass you in accomplishment. Vanity in the theological form — the distanciation and separation from this joy, perhaps for viewing it as naive, immature, or “uncomplicated” — is a bad thing. People looking to get in better shape should not let a confusion of these two meanings get in the way of working out, or in participating in the encouraging culture of fitness.

Philosophy v. Theology

I was attending a New Year’s dinner with some old friends a few years ago, when the subject of philosophy came up. My friend had a master’s degree in computer science, with a minor in philosophy, and was exceptionally well-read on the subject. At the word “philosophy,” a friend of my friend’s dad came over. It turned out he happened to have a PhD in the field, and had a thought or two to contribute to our discussion.

My initial challenge to my friend was the purpose of philosophy. My contention was that it was essentially about wisdom, “philo-sophia” literally meaning a love of wisdom. My friend, and the PhD acquaintance, held that philosophy was fundamentally about “truth,” and not wisdom. They were willing to grant that perhaps it had once been about wisdom, but had evolved and matured to the point of being about understanding the nature of things.

“Well, okay, I’ll grant your definition. Philosophy is about truth, which I think is important, but as a servant of wisdom, not as a thing in and of itself. I’m interested in wisdom: what do we call the study of that?”

“Um… pop-philosophy?”

I didn’t bother pointing out the (probably unintentional) condescension latent in the label, being offhand and casual. But the answer didn’t exactly sit right with any of us, and the struggle to distinguish the pursuit of knowledge — what is true — from the pursuit of wisdom — what is good — was challenging. It was distinction that eluded me for a long time after that meeting.

Sometime in the last year and half, however, the answer to the question revealed itself to me. The pursuit of wisdom has a name, and that name is theology.

I was an ardent atheist at the time of the philosophy discussion, and I suppose by the lights of certain fundamentalists, I might still be today. As with philosophy, it’s a label I’m willing to grant if “God” is defined narrowly enough, and “belief in God” confined exactingly enough. But even within Christian theology, there is more than one “God,” as tacitly acknowledged among the first commandments from the decalogue:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

– Exodus 20:3

The precision of opting for “have no other gods before me,” rather than “have no other gods,” is telling. The commandment could just as well have told the Jews to believe there to be no other Gods, and yet it did not. This is not just telling about the spirituality of supposedly monotheistic faiths, but informative about the nature of what a God — and by extension, what theology — is.

Augustus Invictus and I had a lengthy discussion last month about the nature of religion, and of Gods. I brought up Wim Hof of a man who had, quite organically and independently, come upon the word “God” to describe his relationship to the cold, which drew him out of his depression and into a realm of superhuman ability, and into life. Augustus, in turn, referenced Frank Herbert’s masterpiece of science-fiction Dune, saying that religion is that which reminds me that I am not the man I want to be.

There is something odd about these examples, relative to the majority of religious tradition that most people are familiar with. Rather than being a pedagogical system maintained by a hierarchical institution, Wim Hof and Herbert seem to be describing something different, something more visceral, and getting there by a different route.

In my opinion, the most illuminating light that spans this understanding gap is, perhaps ironically, pop music. Consider the words of Leonard Cohen:

At our best, we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology….That biblical landscape is our urgent invitation…Otherwise, it’s really not worth saving or manifesting or redeeming or anything, unless we really take up that invitation to walk into that biblical landscape.

From a traditionalist’s perspective, this may seem like a strange way of framing the situation. But the writer and performer of the famous song Hallelujah knows what he’s talking about. Aside from being a lifelong Jew, Cohen was an ordained Buddhist monk. He understood that religious talk was not so much a metaphysical theory, but a grammar for describing emotions and questions that cannot be described adequately in the language of ordinary life.

Lady Gaga isn’t the only one who understands this without having such a background in faith. Audioslave, System of a Down, and many other artists use Christian (or other religious) language to talk about emotionally complex, mysterious, or downright traumatic subjects. As a rule, artists that take the subject less seriously use the language less seriously; those who care more, as a function of age, inclination, or introspection, tend to use the grammar of religion more carefully and with greater reverence.

I was reading N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God today, and was pleased to hear him make the exact same reference I have been making use of in describing the “truth” of much of the bible. If someone asks “is the parable of the boy who cried wolf true?,” no one in their right mind takes that question as a historical one. The question is clearly about the message; do people stop listening to you if you deceive them? The truth of the parable is, when you think about it, greater than the truth of a historical event. We understand the timelessness of the relationships between archetypes, and no historical evidence is necessary. The parable, in other words, is a language for talking about relationships.

In this way, religion is the language for discussing values, wisdom, and how to live. This makes theology the study of wisdom, in much the same way that philosophy is the study of truth. Words like “epistemology,” “a priori,” phenomenology,” and “existentialism” are all words we use to talk about the truths of our experience of the world, and in exactly the same way, the stories of religious traditions (and here, one can’t help but notice that Christianity and Buddhism seem to rise to the top of these kinds of discussions) are the language for discussing wisdom, values, and the good.

It is for this reason that I’ve gradually shifted my focus from philosophy to theology… assuming, of course, that philosophy is, as my friend suggested, first and foremost about truth. This does not mean that philosophy is of no use, of course; truth is indispensable in pursuit of virtually any endeavor. But is it valuable in and of itself? Living well, and not being right, strikes me intuitively as the superior long-term aim. In this regard, I’m happy to side with Cicero, who’s opening in his Defense of the Republic was making fun of philosophers who sat on the sidelines and accomplished nothing. I share Cicero’s appreciation of theology more now than I did as an atheist, and am glad to be in such esteemed company.

Mostly, I’m just glad to have found a name for what I love studying.

Why Christianity?

Today’s right wing is rehashing an age-old debate, and one that I myself have grappled with for nearly a decade in some form or another: what faith should the West follow? Paganism, Christianity, or Atheism?

The debate begins, to my mind, first with a root separation, of those of faith from those without.  Let me begin by going over my own reasons for choosing religion over atheism.

Between the end of high school (2008) all the way through to about two years ago, I had been a very strong and vocal atheist. I was raised Christian, but saw through the illusion that was literal Christian dogma. I remember quite clearly a video I saw, which logically demonstrated that prayer which was answered by God in the form of “yes,” “no,” or “wait” was equivalent to a Geicko commercial promising to save “up to 15% or more:” it covered every base, and was indistinguishable from nonexistence.

From there I read Dan Barker’s Godless. Soon after that, I read Richard Dawkins, and eventually, the man that was to become my greatest intellectual hero: Christopher Hitchens. The arguments were flawless. God is not dead. He simply is not.

The beginnings of my unconversion (or reconversion, if you prefer) began by sheer chance. I remember stalking the aisles of a Barnes and Nobles, armed with a gift card to dispose of, and the title The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell stuck out to me. Without knowing anything else about the author or the theory contained within it, the title alone seemed to say to me “this is a book with a very big idea.” It was not the first nor the last time I judged a book by its cover, but it may have been the most fortuitous.

I found it to be one of the most difficult books I’ve ever had to read, more difficult even than the Thomas Kuhn I read back in high school. I understood enough, however, to see a deeper layer behind the literature being analyzed. I could not yet discern what it meant, but I could see that it was there.

At the time, I received most of my news, information, and entertainment from YouTube, and so one day, I decided to search for “Joseph Campbell,” and came across The Power of Myth, an interview by Bill Moyers with the famous literary theorist. This interview has since been taken off of YouTube, but for me, it was a light bulb moment.

All my life, I had been raised to think of religion as an assertion of scientific truth. If “God” exists, than he is essentially a man in the sky, who must be falsifiable or else presumed false. With this scientific world-view, the idea of a mythological religious attitude was perfectly understandable, but completely uninteresting. It was like Santa Clause, or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It was not unique, and felt a little puerile. It was lame.

What Campbell began to illuminate for me was a phenomenological understanding of the world, wherein relationships between things, and between types of things, are the substance of our experience and the orienting forces in our life, rather than discreet “facts.”

From a scientific standpoint, a mythological story is inherently uninteresting because it is scientifically false. But mythological stories are not false. They stay with us for thousands of years, and we keep retelling them to each other because they say something essentially true about ourselves and our relationship to other people and to the world. In fact, they are in some sense more true than empirical facts. This, of course, depends on how one measures truth, but if the standard of truth is “what works based on collective experience,” rather than “what is most corroborated by scientific scrutiny,” than the experience conveyed in folklore transcends our contemporary knowledge of physics and mathematics by orders of magnitude, measured both in combined human experience and in relevance to living well. It isn’t much use to most people, knowing how to make an airplane wing in the correct shape. How to make a marriage work, and how to orient oneself in relationship to boredom and to suffering, are relevant to everyone, no matter your job.

I felt like an elite intellectual, like I had discovered the very top of the pyramid called “religion.” But this soon gave way to the feeling that G.K. Chesterton described in his book Orthodoxy, of one who has set sail from England to discover far-off South Sea islands, but somehow miscalculates and discovers England. As I reread old scripture–scripture that I had so casually dismissed once upon a time–a new layer of understanding shone through like a ham-fisted moral in a children’s fairy tale… and yet I had never seen it before.

The deeper understanding hadn’t just been there the whole time: it had been the underlying purpose the whole time.

But this was not my point of re-connection with Christianity specifically. Mythopoetic narratives, establishing, retaining, and building who we are, layered beneath a narrative that survives through literalism, are the foundations of most religions. I found myself facing a new challenge, not between faith and atheism, but between two faiths: Nordic paganism, on the one hand, and Christianity on the other.

Plumbing the depths of moral philosophy had brought me to face the hard-edged suspicion of Nietzsche. In the exploration of master-moralities and slave-moralities, and their resulting effects on the character of the human condition, what once seemed like the harshest criticisms of religion now seemed like weak and insufficient compliments: the problem is not that Christianity is violent and intolerant, but is in fact not violent and intolerant enough.

The national character of pagan faiths make them particularly amenable as psychological homes for particular groups of people, rather than as universal, one-size-fits-all spiritual systems designed for the particular nature of nobody in particular.

The more I thought on the topic, however, the more transparent it became that universal truths do exist, and that universal truths are not exclusive to more particular and contextual truths, of the sort that distinguish tribal faiths from the great monotheisms. The problem was not with Christianity, but with human nature… a problem which Christianity tackled head-on better than any other faith.

By illustration, anyone involved in Nordic paganism knows about and resents the politically progressive, hug-the-world incursions into their religious traditions. Indeed, it seems that most Asatru organizations that aren’t the equivalent of Unitarians are converging in a separate, but equally blasphemous direction: towards a business model, where the religious aesthetic is used as a marketing tool to ply “brutal” and “deadly” merchandise, from knives to t-shirts to necklaces. All in the name of Odin, ostensibly…

I don’t say this to condemn paganism generally. Christianity is not only as bad, in this regard, but arguably worse. What this use of paganism shows, however, is that the weakness in Christianity is not a genuine expression of the faith, but an expression of the weakness of mankind. Christianity is only more commercialized and politicized because it’s larger, at the moment.

I’m reminded of the story of a young woman, a main character in the story Reading Lolita in Tehran. She was a devout Muslim woman, who wore the hijab openly to school, prior to the 1979 revolution. The other women, who were Westernized and broadly secular, made fun of her for her peculiar religious habits. But for her, that made the garment meaningful. It made her special.

We often use the word “special” ironically and as a pejorative today. But this is only because of the way that people who were profoundly unspecial abused the word, and declared that everyone was special, in their own way. This amusing paradox did devastating damage to the previously unchallenged understanding that some things really are special. Indeed, the word “sacred” essentially just means “special,” or “set apart.” We should no more reject the meaning of “special” or “sacred” than we should the difference between our significant other and a stranger, or between our children and another child.

Anyway, the revolution of 1979 saw the return of theocracy to Iran, and now all the women had to wear head coverings. Suddenly, the sacrifice of the one devout woman had been rendered boring and “normal.” When everyone is forced, or perhaps even mildly coerced, into adapting a faith and its trappings, the faith becomes a victim of the character of its new converts. This is something evangelical Christians should bear in mind when proselytizing the faith.

So the choice between paganism and Christianity could not be one between the cultures each had adapted, but between the principles underlying them. The problem here, however, is that the religious traditions have been built slowly, by many errors and corrections, and by trial and error, over thousands of years, by people far more intelligent than myself. There is no way a mortal, even in a whole lifetime, can begin to comprehend the intersecting values, ideas, experiences, and principles that created the value-hierarchy, the beliefs, and the practices that form the core of a religious tradition. It takes what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.”

My decision did not feel particularly sudden, but if there was a decisive moment, it must have been listening to Greg Johnson’s interview with Paul Waggener:

GJ: […]And obviously you have diverged from Christianity as a path to Nordic neo-paganism.

PW: I wouldn’t call it Nordic neo-paganism, though that was certainly one step on the road. That’s not how I would express my spirituality now. I think that would be far too limiting a category to put it in. But yes, I certainly diverged from Christianity, and that was certainly one step along the way.

GJ: OK. So, how do you describe your outlook now and can you describe the Wolves? Tell us a little bit about them.

PW: As far as spiritual outlook, I would say that my spiritual outlook is tribal, in that my expression of spirituality now is organic, and it’s grown as the tribal organization of the Wolves, which I am a member of, has grown. And I think that it’s become a tribally-serving expression now rather than taking something from without and modeling a tribe after that. So, after the tribe took wings and has become more of a self-developed entity, the spirituality developed along with it. It serves the tribe rather than the other way around.

It occurred to me, while listening to their conversation, that religion is not something you choose. Certainly Paul and the Wolves are doing something like creating a faith of their own, but I already have a tribe. I have a wife. I have a brother, a sister, and a brother in law. I have parents, in-laws, and two extraordinarily close friends I’ve known for more than a decade. All of these people are either Christian or come from a Christian background; if they are not Christian, they reject the faith for reasons similar to those I once rejected it on. None of them are remotely familiar with, or interested in, Nordic paganism.

If I were to choose paganism over Christianity, I might experience some novelty, and the joy of exploring for myself a religion I was previously unfamiliar with. But because I was not born into it, I will never truly master the religion as one who was born into it could. And because my family and tribe were not born into it, my choice would be an abandonment of them and the culture they knew.

I have actually half-compromised, based on another passage from that interview, and opted to learn about and practice traditions of Orthodox Christianity, rather than the Catholicism of my mother’s side, the Episcopalianism of my father’s side, or the Methodism of my own upbringing.

Certainly I was raised with a very conservative Christian upbringing, but when I was young my father was actually an Anglican priest and he moved to Orthodoxy later on as a reaction to some of the . . . I think he would probably consider it to be creeping liberalism finding its way into the Anglican Church. He believes that Orthodoxy is a sort of last bastion of true Christianity left in the world.

I confess that I am not a particularly orthodox practioner of any spiritual tradition, and there are blendings of traditions, as much from arrogance in my own understanding as by accident. The necklace I have, for example, is actually an unconnected pair of strings with 100 knots tied in them. In this way, it resembles an Orthodox prayer rope. I also use it as the Orthodox do: to recite the Jesus prayer a minimum of 100 times a day. The knots themselves, however, more closely resemble a Catholic rosary, and moreover, they are separated into numerically inaccurate “decades” (of 25) by beads, as a traditional rosary is. The knots make it easy to casually loop the string into a kind of necklace, which closely resembles a rosary.

To make matters even worse, I will often bring it with me to the gym, and hold the cross in my mouth before attempting particularly heavy lifts. In this way, I hope to associate power and effort with the necklace, and imbue it with associative power that can be drawn from when I need it. While not incompatible with Christianity, this practice seems pagan in spirit.

Yet perhaps this pagan association reflects something that the Christian church has lost, and has a right — perhaps a duty — to reclaim for itself. Every religious tradition, in every generation, must be saved from the corruption of time and humanity. If I am successful in finding new life in Christianity, and showing that to others of my generation, it will make the work of my children no easier for the same task that they will have to perform. Yet it must be done regardless. Or, put another way, I get the privilege of pursuing this noble and rewarding task, despite the previous efforts of minds more brilliant than my own to do the same. Their work was not fruitless, but there is no final solution to the problem of human nature. And thank God for that.

In Defense of Hatred

The concept that began as a short video just over 14 months ago (a gut-response to the terror attacks in Paris), is finally published and up for sale.

You can purchase it in paperback here. Kindle version should be up soon.

The deracination of hatred is a subtle, insidious thing; more a function of mindset and programmed associations than anything else. Yet I still believe that most people, deep down, know that hatred is a moral, righteous emotion, and response. It is right to feel “disgust towards mind,” and to flee, face, or fight the existential threat which induces it.

I hold no illusions about my book single-handedly knocking down the moral superstructure that modernity has built up around hatred. But it should be a start.

If my work provides readers with the confidence in their own convictions, and the ability to laugh away–rather than explain away–the people who criticize their ideology for being “hateful,” than I think the book will have served its purpose.

Read it, and if you enjoy it, please leave a review. Even professionally-published books depend on good reviews, and us self-published authors need it more than them.

On Data and Science


The irrepressible Justicar recently exposed a fraudulent study published in the Journal of American Medical Associates linking Australia’s 1996 gun-restriction legislation to decreases in mass shootings, in which “mass shootings” are bizarrely and uniquely defined as having 5+ fatalities, rather than the usual 4+ used by the FBI and virtually every other serious organization studying the issue. This allows the study authors to tap in a triumphal “0” in the 1997-2013 mass shootings list, and lends credibility to the juxtaposed 1979-1996 firearm homicide mean (0.56/100,000) and 1996-2013 firearm homicide mean (0.2/100,000).

Off the bat, the minute scale of the increased safety achieved should be noted, even if the data is taken at face value. This is like banning vending machines in order to save the 13 people killed per year in the United States, on average. At some point, even convenience is worth a few lives on scale. How much more important than vending machines are firearms? They are not merely a hobby, a source of personal protection, and provider of food, but are enshrined in our Constitution because they are a doomsday provision against a tyrannical government. (No, superior military technology does not make defense against the government moot, or else we would not still be fighting illiterate shepherds with Kalashnikovs in the hills of Afghanistan).

But the data shouldn’t be taken at face value. Let’s break the firearm homicide rate down slightly more honestly:

1979-1981 – 0.65/100,000
1982-1984 – 0.68/100,000
1985-1987 – 0.68/100,000
1988-1990 – 0.46/100,000
1991-1993  – 0.47/100,000
1994-1996 – 0.44/100,000
1997-1999 – 0.32/100,000
2000-2002 – 0.27/100,000
2003-2005 – 0.14/100,000
2006-2008 – 0.16/100,000
2009-2011 – 0.16/100,000
2012-20013 – 0.17/100,000

Wouldn’t you know it, there was a downward trend prior to the enacted legislation.

It is tempting to see the 0.0001% increase in the rate of the preexisting decline, which does appear to be possibly attributable to firearm restrictions. This would, of course, involve trusting the data itself, provided by these dishonest scholars. I’m using it above for convenience and demonstration but otherwise wouldn’t bet my life on its veracity. But this itself excludes the very important issue of non-firearm related homicides. If you’re interested, feel free to study the data for yourself. Suffice to say, firearm restrictions did not meaningfully reduce homicide generally, certainly not beneath the downward trend it was already on. Those too eager to jump from data correlation to causation with the immediate decline might also find themselves in the awkward position of trying to explain a suicide spike in 1997-1998, immediately after the 1996 gun bill. I’m not saying this is in any way related to the gun restriction bill, of course (unless you believe that the gun bill reduced rates of violence, in which case, stop hating depressed people, you murderous psycho). I am simply saying that when culture, pathology, violence, politics, income, and happiness are influenced by more factors than we can possibly account for, and when large, preexisting historical trends are already at work, it is very easy to manipulate statistics and “science” to fit one’s own position.

This is not an argument against science or statistics, for the record. On the contrary, I am in fact making an argument for science, and, a bit more begrudgingly, statistics. What I am arguing against, however, is the tendency for people to allude to other people’s conclusions allegedly based upon science or “hard data” instead of actually making an argument (these people are, almost without exception, never scientists or statisticians themselves). The argument is the essence of science. The reason that scientists follow the “scientific method” is not because God came down from the mountain and told Moses “thou shalt divide thine research subjects into two categories, and thine shalt name the first ‘control’…” The scientific method has evolved into its current form because the results are (ideally) very high quality clay with which a scientist can form a robust argument. The possession of the clay, however, does not in any way relieve the scientist or the ideological champion from the responsibility of actually making the argument. And once the argument is made, it is always open to criticism and rebuttal. The strength of an argument is its ability to withstand this inevitable and never ending scrutiny, and the moment a conclusion is held to be above challenge, it is to that degree not a scientific conclusion any more, but an ideological one.

This means that appeals to science and data are, ironically, unscientific. When an actual scientist is asked a question challenging his own beliefs within his field, what you will almost always see is an argument. He will offer an explanation that utilizes the data and research, of course, but he doesn’t just say “here’s the data” or “I can read a graph.” Those who appeal to science without bothering to make the argument don’t understand the nature of science, let alone the science to which they are referring.

On Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs

Fool, prate not to me about covenants! There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other through and through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or the other shall fall.

—Achilles, “The Illiad”

I recently got into a little facebook conversation over a shirt that read “Operation Werewolf” on the front, and “We WANT the Total War” on the back. Much to my own regret, I had expressed reservations about its’ similarity to a Nazi program by the same name (and symbolized by the same rune), the denial of which wasn’t particularly helped by the phrase on the back.

Differences in spelling aside, the rune, the phrase, the symbolism, and the concept all predate Hitler, and the similarities were incidental (the group selling the shirt, known as “The Wolves,” are certainly not nationalists or socialists). As a point of comparison, a recent conversation I had over the “DadBod” phenomena led my conversation partner to point out that Hitler used Michelangelo’s David as propaganda. If looking up Greek art as an ideal for body image makes me a Nazi, call me Heinreich.

Even yours truly isn’t completely immune to Godwin’s law. Ultimately, I did buy their T-shirt.

But the concept got me thinking about the ideology behind what the Wolves were doing with Operation Werewolf, what the founders call an all-out war on weakness (the war to which the back of the shirt refers; which is why pictures from “the front line” are all of members working out). There is more symbolism too; the Wolves are a self-reliant, interdependent heathen group, like their animal namesake (minus the heathen bit), which makes the wolf-trap symbol fitting in spirit as well as in etymology. Further, the werewolf concept brings to mind Robert Eisler’s “man into wolf” thesis from 1951, in which the justification for sadism and masochism is hypothesized to lie in an ancestral transition from peaceful, herbivorous apes into carnivorous, violent ones, and that finding pleasure in pain lies enmeshed within this latter identity. It is this juxtaposition of power, freedom, and fear that is most worth exploring, and what better way to do it than by comparison to a more recent, uniquely American wolf story.

Lt. Dave Grossman wrote “On Killing” in 1996, where he argued that there are fundamentally three kinds of people in the world: there are sheep, good people who couldn’t hurt others even if they wanted to, but mostly aren’t so inclined. There are wolves, who will kill the sheep if given the opportunity. And then there are sheepdogs; those who look a bit like wolves, but protect the herd from the outside. From the wolves. (Please leave the furry jokes for sheep, you Scotsman.)

If this paradigm sounds familiar, you may have seen it from American Sniper,

Or perhaps from other darker, more humorous places in pop-culture,

But in either case, the interesting differentiation is not between sheep and sheepdogs (or pussies and dicks), the two that are presumably on the same side. The more important dichotomy—if it is that—is between the sheepdog and the wolf.

To extend the metaphor a bit, the sheepdog and the wolf are related, while the sheepdog and the sheep are not. Even as Grossman describes how “the sheepdog has a little wolf in him,” just a cursory glance reveals the comparative distances in ancestry between the dog and the wolf compared to the dog and the sheep. The dog also eats meat, can kill, and, if demanded by his master or the needs of the flock (which we MUST not call a “tribe,” let alone a “pack”… yet), will kill, and will do it without hesitation.

What is the difference to a sheep between a wolf and a sheepdog from another flock?

To us humans, the soldiers of other armies look an awful lot like sociopaths and monsters. Propaganda programs spend a lot of money portraying “the enemy” not as simply belonging to a different herd, but as being evil. They are wolves, but our soldiers are sheepdogs. As the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Do the fighters of the Taliban really view themselves as heartless savages, and American soldiers as sheepdogs, cruelly keeping them away from the tasty sheep-thighs of innocent Americans?

I don’t mean to depict the Taliban as morally comparable to American soldiers; the point is that comparing them morally misses the point. We like our soldiers because they are ours. We share values, ancestry, culture, and nation. We think that our values and culture will be better for Afghans, and this might even be true. But they don’t want it. They don’t share our values, our culture, our religion, and ancestry. Our drones, our animatronic sheepdogs raining death from the sky, look an awful lot more like wolves to them than benevolent sheepdogs, protecting those innocent sheep from wolves that they would probably more readily view as benevolent protectors than our soldiers.

Does this make us evil? No. It just makes us “evil” to them.

But here at home we are not one big happy herd either. Complaints and outrage over police brutality—very justified concerns—indicate that most Americans feel that if the police are serving and protecting somebody, that somebody isn’t them. What’s clear is that a difference in loyalty, not in disposition, is the line between wolf and sheepdog.

And then there are sheep.

Sheep complicate things. A lot. Sheep have a habit of viewing their own protectors as wolves. In large enough numbers, and when the loyal dogs of Plato’s Republic do a good job for a long time, the sheep take their security for granted, forgetting that they can only lie peacefully in their beds at night because rough man stand ready to do violence on their behalf. Criticism of some particular war becomes a criticism of war itself (“what is it good for? absolutely nothing!”), and ultimately, of the warriors who wage it. Their forgetfulness makes them unable to handle the truth, and the truth is that violence is golden. It is the currency of self-preservation, and by extension, everything that comes with life.

If the only difference between a wolf and a sheepdog is loyalty to sheep, why would you ever be a sheepdog?

There is a multi-layered perversity in the attitude of the sheep. First, there is something disconnected, almost creepy, about the way people who would never dream of using violence themselves have no issue using the power of the government—crowd-sourced violence—to impose their will on anything and everything imaginable, be it yoga pants or sodas that are too big. This is compounded by their contempt for the very people enforcing it; the police, the military, and the politicians they themselves voted in to pass these very laws. But the contempt is explained by the fact that the enforcing powers that be—the sheepdogs—in fact do not represent their interests… and how could they? The demands of the sheep are innumerable, contradicting, and mutually exclusive.

Perhaps it is time to do away with the false separation between dogs and wolves; it is the difference between canines and sheep that is important. The solution to the impossible demands laid upon the sheepdog is to transform into a wolf, a canine freed from the obligations laid upon him like a pack-animal by others who do not care in the slightest about him.

The description of wolves as hungry, vicious killers is wrong anyways, just as all other war-propaganda of the past deliberately mischaracterizes them to ensure you stay on the team of us. When lies become a necessary part of that process, then perhaps you shouldn’t be on the team.

When it comes down to it, there are only two kinds of people; those who can protect themselves and others, and those who need others to protect them. The wolf-man is the man who has rejected his muzzle. He is not loyal to the herd, but only to his pack—others who are strong who rely upon him, and upon whom he can rely, or who are not strong and need protection, but will respect him for providing it. More like Rorschach and Batman, the wolf does not kill because he can, but simply doesn’t feel the obligation to save people who sneer at those who guard them while they sleep.