None of us are 100% a part of the group we say we are.
“It is the weak characters with no power over themselves who hate the constraint of style: they feel that if this bitterly evil compulsion were to be imposed on them, they would have to become commonplace under it—they become slaves as soon as they serve; they hate to serve.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887)
I once caught a liberal friend of mine doing something shameful in his basement. The lights were off and the blinds were down. And there he was: on the couch, staring at the screen, transfixed, mesmerized. Didn’t even hear me come down the stairs. Oh, it was terrible, horrible: he was . . . he was . . . watching football! Of course he tried to make light of it. Tried to say he was just watching it “ironically” (whatever that means). But that only made it worse. Kind of like saying you just buy Hustler for the articles, after someone finds your stash. But seriously, I’ve always been thoroughly delighted by inconsistencies of this stamp. I love catching the vegan with a hamburger in his mouth. Love catching the feminist laughing at Two and a Half Men, the environmentalist forgetting to recycle, the pacifist playing Grand Theft Auto. I’m convinced that inconsistencies like this keep us human and humble, though I couldn’t tell you precisely how they do this. Maybe it’s that we’re reaching out for a balance that we intuitively know we lack. If this is indeed the case, it would explain why liberals love profoundly conservative cop shows like NCIS.
Okay, true confession time, folks: Hello. My name is John Faithful Hamer. And I’m a liberal. So’s my wife. But we’ve had a problem for about ten years now. At first it wasn’t a big deal: you know, just something we’d do on the weekends, from time to time. But it’s become a real problem—heck, we’ve even got our kids hooked on it.
The drug in question isn’t LSD, THC, or MDMA; it’s NCIS. Yes, that’s right, we’re hooked on NCIS, the hit cop show starring Mark Harmon. We’ve watched at least ten seasons of the show with our kids. And we all love it like we love popcorn. But lately I’ve been giving our love for the show a little more thought. Lately I’ve been trying to understand why liberals like us love shows like NCIS so much. My best guess, thus far, is that liberals watch cop shows the way bible-belt fundamentalists watch porn: it’s a guilty pleasure that reminds them of something they suspect they’re missing out on.
Cop shows like NCIS remind liberals that there are virtues in this world other than fairness and equality: virtues like loyalty, valour, honour, patriotism, bravery, obedience, and self-sacrifice. What’s more, shows like NCIS remind us of something that ought to be obvious: namely, that a 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 in the Fall 2015 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 kids 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, diehard supporters and diehard 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, From Here (2015)
Photo: Flickr/Brandon Harer