His last purchases—beer, cigarettes, pot—occurred 18 years ago.
July 21, 2021 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Through long talks with Jason about the meaning of life, the nature of God, and how to make people happy, he’d come to see money as plain bad. How could it not be? It enabled organizations and “people who rely on the belief in evil” to do bad things. Armies, borders, possession, ownership—all bad. And not only did money enable what he deemed insane behaviour on a grand scale, the dependence on it, the fear of losing it, the focus on acquiring it wrecked people’s lives and drove them to be dishonest with themselves and others..."And then it just hit me. Like, I've had enough of this. I'm not playing this game anymore. And I was done. I had no use for money.
posted by Grandysaur (197 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Anti fiat currency and UBI advocate is an unusual combination.

Too bad for his kids that they had use for money.
posted by Mitheral at 6:43 PM on July 21 [6 favorites]


That was a good read. He certainly has some salient points during a global pandemic and more importantly I totally agree with the thought that sleeping is an intrinsic right and people should be allowed to do it where they need.

I'm just not onboard with the whole take on his kids though. I wonder if they would prefer more than him having integrity. The author treats him very gently and speaks in his voice very carefully but his take on his own children leans his whole visage toward Quixote and away from societal savior.
posted by chasles at 6:44 PM on July 21 [7 favorites]


You don't need money to contribute substantially to the upbringing of children. That's a disappointment.
posted by praemunire at 7:28 PM on July 21 [4 favorites]


Money exists only to prevent people from having access to things. We think it exists to get us stuff, but it’s the opposite.
posted by bigbigdog at 7:43 PM on July 21 [16 favorites]


Also, he’s still using money. Just not his money. Somebody paid for what he’s eating.
posted by bigbigdog at 7:47 PM on July 21 [108 favorites]


This guy does use money though. Other people use money to buy resources and then share those resources with him. Just because he's not handling the money itself doesn't mean he's not benefiting from its use and exchange. If he was living off the land, growing and hunting his own food, manufacturing his own tools, building his own shelter, then he's living without money (though: who paid for the land he's living on?). But he's not doing that, he's just depending on other people's generosity and claiming that means he's living a life without money. It is fine if he wants to get out of societal strictures and live that way but it's not exactly bucking the system when you're just depending on other people to work it for you.
posted by schroedinger at 7:49 PM on July 21 [146 favorites]


This was a difficult article to read... my own experience with homelessness (and involuntarily so) kept intruding and shouting at him in the back of my mind. I do feel like the author of the article was doing that journalist thing where they write one story with words and a second story between the lines, especially with leaving the part about his kids for the very end.
posted by traveler_ at 8:02 PM on July 21 [19 favorites]


I think this article is perhaps a little too gentle on David Johnston and definitely shouldn't be quoting David Shebib so uncritically on anything. Shebib is a broken clock that just happens to be right on how we have failed people on housing for so long. I'd say more, but MeFi really isn't the place for the minutia of politics and personalities of southern Vancouver Island.

I suggest anyone interested should have a look at Shebib's website where there are many videos straight from the horse's mouth.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 8:06 PM on July 21 [11 favorites]


I found this previous post about the subject's court battle on the so-called right-to-sleep insightful. It's from 2008 in the "related posts" section of this FPP.
posted by glonous keming at 8:11 PM on July 21 [8 favorites]


People who stand in opposition to the world are IME not easy or perfect people because standing completely in opposition to the world requires a certain kind of character. The type of person who says "I would rather die than use money" and means it isn't going to be the type of person who is going to be able/willing (and I'd say those two are fused inseparably) to fulfill normal person responsibilities. It's unfortunate but I don't think it's a choice per se - this guy is some kind of holy fool, not a regular person who has decided that childcare is boring and not your average homeless person who has fallen on bad times and does not want to be homeless.

As to "but other people spend money on him": if we had a society without money, people would still exchange things and give them to each other. He's not saying "in rejecting money, I reject accepting things from others and will single-handedly supply my own every need".

It's interesting how often we react against. Someone says, "the love of money is the root of all evil, I reject money and I'll die to prove it" and we immediately go for "what an annoying asshole, of course anyone who tries to reject money is just a hypocrite and a terrible father".

I don't know, as someone who is chronically around activists and weirdos, I've known some holy fools (and some pretty good artists; oppositional artists tend to have the same character flaws). On the one hand, yes, they have tended to have large obvious flaws and hypocrisies. On the other, in general, the againstness that they inject in life has always seemed to me like a gift, an opportunity for me to act in ways that I would not normally and that are helpful or freeing. I mean, I know a lot of bad dads but relatively few holy fools and the bad dads generally just blend into the scenery.

Another thought: the opportunity to step outside yourself is a gift. It doesn't have to occur in the presence of oppression and tragedy, but even in the presence of oppression and tragedy it is a gift. The chance to give something without expecting anything back, for instance - to stick up your fingers at propriety and prudence and the middle class virtues and "not encouraging them", etc etc. The chance to give something to someone who is engaged in an out of the ordinary project. The chance to help someone who really needs help. This guy is very charismatic, obviously, and a lot of people who need help are not. But sometimes you need a very charismatic person to start expanding people's awareness of what they can do.
posted by Frowner at 8:21 PM on July 21 [94 favorites]


As to "but other people spend money on him": if we had a society without money, people would still exchange things and give them to each other.

See that would be barter. I didn't see any mention in the article of activities or favors or even spending time with his own children that Johnston is providing.
posted by bendy at 8:40 PM on July 21 [16 favorites]


What he's doing is not radically different from what monks, nuns, and ascetics do everyday. I dunno, maybe it's special because there's probably not very many monks running around Victoria, I guess?

And I'd argue that money is still very much occupies his thoughts, it's just that he's thinking about all the ways he would like to rid it and how to intentionally navigate a world without it.
posted by FJT at 9:05 PM on July 21 [6 favorites]


It's unfortunate but I don't think it's a choice per se - this guy is some kind of holy fool

I see your point generally, but, on the specific point of kids, presumably someone could've given him some condoms. And really--I meant it when I said you could be a loving parent and caregiver without contributing an income to the household. When it comes to the economy, I'm fine with people making an example of themselves that says, "Do we have to do this? Why do we have to do this?" That doesn't necessarily require perfect consistency--it is literally impossible to separate yourself completely from our economic system and stay alive. But I don't want to radically reimagine life in a way that just recapitulates old patriarchal patterns.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 PM on July 21 [24 favorites]


He has struck a rich vein of hypocrisy indeed. I especially like how he outlines his plan to end the addiction epidemic while taking a drag on his cigarette.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 9:27 PM on July 21 [10 favorites]


What he's doing is not radically different from what monks, nuns, and ascetics do everyday.

I think the only mendicant order in the Western world that still forbids owning property is the Franciscans.
posted by praemunire at 9:28 PM on July 21


I dunno, maybe it's special because there's probably not very many monks running around Victoria, I guess?
There's actually a Franciscan fraternity in Victoria so it isn't that uncommon to see an actual habit-wearing and poverty-avowed monk in the city.

David Johnston can be polarizing, but it's more the people that he is connected with that are problematic. There is no denying the role his activism and advocacy have played in Victoria and the province in general.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 9:39 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


it's not exactly bucking the system when you're just depending on other people to work it for you.

Actually, I think it is. I think the important aspect of the point he's making is that working the system isn't done to survive but to maintain self-image and the respect of others.
posted by howfar at 9:44 PM on July 21 [4 favorites]


I tend to be very wary of any point of view that boils down a huge and complicated set of circumstances, such as the various Bad Things in the world and sources of human misery, to a single faulty aspect of human society. I'm not dumb enough to think that hoarding wealth is a good idea, but I can also see the point in having currency instead of a barter system, y'know?
posted by axiom at 9:52 PM on July 21 [7 favorites]


Money is both the devil and the savior. It is liquidated obligation and as such it has no moral valence at all. The same money that saves lives by activating research of disease or building sewage plants flows through the very worst that humankind can dredge, be it oligarch pimps or sadistic caudillo megalomaniacs. It is a means to settle all debts absolutely, I give you money and I am done with you, you have no claim on me any more. I am no longer a peasant or a supplicant to your favor I have the power to dispose of relationship and obligation, moral or otherwise; and yet, having it, (in great amount especially,) I can enslave, I can act without moral compunction, I am free to do great things or terrible things without incurring debt or surplus, free from the hold that others may wish to put over me; I am free.

I have no time for the simplistic abhorrence of money, to me it is an incredible invention that allows us to live in such density and alternately to be connected over vast distances of geography and society. Perhaps there will be an evolution, a new invention that will dispose of the worst excesses that come along with it or the fundamental terribleness of it, that would be wonderful; but in the meantime mindless chivying against that satisfaction of blood debt with pieces of paper seems foolish given the alternatives.

No doubt, the worship of money is evil. No doubt the valuing of its getting and holding to the exclusion of all else is the root of considerable misery. No doubt capitalism is a system to drive inequity when rulers are no longer endowed directly by god. However don't give me a line of BS that is more about your frustration at not having the world as you would like it than it is about understanding how the world actually is.
posted by Pembquist at 10:01 PM on July 21 [32 favorites]


He says he emerged with a new understanding: that free will wasn’t real; that although the world was in a state of suffering and everything was wrong, no one was to blame; that evil wasn’t real; that the whole of society was built on lies. He felt intense love. He knew that everything had changed.

So now I feel like I forgot the plot, or lack the courage of my convictions. This happened to me, too, and I just let that truth slip away.

After changing the bylaw, the city filed a Notice of Discontinuance.

Scam.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:38 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


bendy: See that would be barter.

Y'all need to read David Graeber's Debt, where he discusses the fact that barter is a relatively late invention. Barter is what you do when you're dealing with people you don't trust and perhaps don't expect to see again, where there is a desire on both sides to end the relationship as soon as the transaction is done. Barter is the primordial state in economics textbooks, but it wasn't the primordial state in the real world.

In contrast to barter, give-and-take in an ongoing relationship is a complex and organic thing.
posted by clawsoon at 11:31 PM on July 21 [51 favorites]


The dang second line is about him going to a homeless shelter, which uses money to get things. I am going to keep reading this, but am entering the process very annoyed unless he squares that circle.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:36 AM on July 22 [10 favorites]


He doesn't from what I can tell, he's ok with others using money on his behalf but prefers such things remain hidden.
posted by Carillon at 12:44 AM on July 22 [8 favorites]


Nope! He doesn’t! And he wants society to pay off its debts instead of declaring a jubilee or something similar and abolishing them! Austerity, preached by a man who appears to essentially guilt people into helping him. The article makes some big claims about his being a great philosopher, but it doesn’t try to make his worldview coherent. Without that, he isn’t much of a model. I do hope he can guilt his dentist friend into making him some dentures.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:15 AM on July 22 [13 favorites]


In contrast to barter, give-and-take in an ongoing relationship is a complex and organic thing.

He wasn’t in an ongoing relationship with many of the people he traded with besides Shebib. The guy who gave him the flute comes to mind first. When he was selling his book on the street he mainly interacted with tourists and downtown workers. I suspect that he didn’t trust or expect to interact with most of them again.
posted by bendy at 1:17 AM on July 22


Money will stop working because “it’s not maintainable without mass psychotic behaviour,” Johnston says.

Mass psychotic behaviour appears to be quite robust. I have more confidence in its longevity than in Johnston's.

The single most illuminating insight I had during my own recovery from a psychotic break twenty years ago is that epiphanies are unreliable. That feeling of sudden complete understanding, where all the moving pieces magically align and slot into place and everything instantly becomes totally clear? I think that's the essence and bedrock of psychosis.*

So while I have a lot of sympathy for Johnston and I wish him all the best, I think he's missed the fact that although going mad can feel exceedingly beautiful and render all of one's subsequent choices radiantly simple, it puts a hell of a load on everybody who loves you. Were it not for a keen awareness of the weight of that load, I would personally return to my own psychotic state in a heartbeat. It was lovely there. So much spurious clarity.

As for the whole money being the root of all evil stance: I think he's wrong about that. I think that the drive to exert an unlimited degree of power over others is closer to that root, and I think there are endless examples that clearly show that when people who have that drive can't use money to facilitate it they just find something else.

*I also think it's the essence and bedrock of religion. The question of whether or not that makes religion a socially sanctioned form of psychosis is one I will leave to others to judge.
posted by flabdablet at 1:25 AM on July 22 [97 favorites]


A guy who used to book a couple of shows for our band did this. He wanted our manager to pay him his 10% in groceries. The manager told him "no, I am not doing your grocery shopping for you" and gave him a choice of cash or nothing. He took the cash.
posted by thelonius at 1:32 AM on July 22 [26 favorites]


He wanted our manager to pay him his 10% in groceries.

I think that if I were that manager, your show booker would have ended up the owner of quite substantial amounts of kale.
posted by flabdablet at 1:37 AM on July 22 [25 favorites]


@flabdablet dunno the notation standard for trivalent analogies, but
(everyone : asshole : your personality) :: (everything : comprehensible : your cognition).
posted by away for regrooving at 1:45 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Also, he’s still using money. Just not his money. Somebody paid for what he’s eating.
I was a little reminded of the Queen of England who only handles any money on Sundays (a £5 note, for church donation, ironed into a square by her butler). Truly escaping the world of money is really only possible as part of a community of like minded people, I think - and only in exchange for other tokens of value.
posted by rongorongo at 2:27 AM on July 22 [6 favorites]


“People make friends easier when they know you'll never jack them of their dough,” he says, “which is also funny because my actions have directly cost people a lot of money.” (When he ran for mayor, for example, Shebib paid the $100 nomination deposit; when it was time for the refund, Johnston refused to sign the necessary papers).

Worst. Friend. Ever.

I like the idea of people choosing a different path, and he’s certainly welcome to do so. But I don’t think he has stumbled upon any useful revelation or achieved “integrity” in any meaningful way.
posted by snofoam at 3:54 AM on July 22 [12 favorites]


...But I don't want to radically reimagine life in a way that just recapitulates old patriarchal patterns.
posted by praemunire at 12:25 AM on July 22


This!
posted by NoMich at 4:26 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


The article is fascinating portrait of an individual. But what it isn't is a workable manifesto for ending money.

It did make me wonder if there are any moneyless communities out there. A quick google turned up a couple.

Twin Oaks in North America sounds like a classic commune: they grow their own food and build their own buildings, but they also run several businesses to generate the cash for the things they can't do themselves.

An Teach Saor is a smaller community in Galway, Ireland. It seems most famous for its free pub The Happy Pig. I also found a post advertising available rooms in the community:

"Life at An Teach Saor can be as mucky, bloody and sweaty as it can be satisfying; beautiful and rewarding. [...] It involves hauling, sawing, and chopping wood before breakfast; hot tubs under the night sky; wheel barrowing fresh manure through mud; candle lit dinners from the garden; working in rhythm with life; making blackberry wine; butchering road kill deer; knitting socks; tanning skins; sewing clothes; collecting willow on horse and cart; drying herbs; music; dance; writing; art."

It's an interesting vision, in a back to nature way. But part of the point of civilisation is that by specialising, we allowed people to do things like invent medicine. I wonder how many wheelchair users there are at Oak Tree or An Teach Saor, or how many people who depend on insulin to live?
posted by davidwitteveen at 4:33 AM on July 22 [18 favorites]


The article is fascinating portrait of an individual. But what it isn't is a workable manifesto for ending money.

Is confusing it for the latter what is causing the majority of posters who have never met this guy to have such strong emotional reactions against him? Or is something else going on with that? Eg. although I don't agree with all of Johnston's philosophy or find it fully consistent either, the personalness of many of the negative comments above feels to me like that phenomenon where people feel attacked by, and thence verbally attack, someone doing their own thing like spending a year without buying stuff or whatever, out of their own convictions, but explicitly as a personal project only. That thing where maybe people aren't comfortable enough with the alignment between their own convictions and actions or life choices, so feel like other people's choices that are unrelated to them and don't involve them are somehow an indictment of their own life, that was discussed in a previous FPP pre-pandemic, maybe about the "Year of Living Biblically" book? Pretty sure it comes up in the Innuendo Studios "Angry Jack" video series too, though that was several years ago now.
posted by eviemath at 4:55 AM on July 22 [17 favorites]


I started thinking about the right to sleep after my dad casually mentioned that a security guard at a hospital had woken him from a sound sleep in a waiting room to say he "couldn't sleep there".

My chronically-ill dad often had lots of medical appointments scheduled on the same day but sometimes they were hours apart. Usually my mom drove him and stayed during the day, but there was one time where she was busy with my grandmother. I worked just up the road, and my dad was ok with being dropped off at 7am on my way to work and being on his own until I could pick him up around 4pm which just happened to be when he'd be done with his last appointment. I think he even said that he'd "just find someplace to nap" during a multi-hour gap between doctors' appointments.

My father looked chronically ill. His illness also left him feeling cold, so he'd often wear his winter coat indoors. He also had the habit of wearing his favorite winter coats well past their expiration date because they were comfortable and warm. I can only assume the security guard had some reason to think my dad wasn't supposed to be there when he nudged him, but fortunately he was satisfied when my dad explained that he was waiting for his next appointment.

At first, I was angry that the guard had made such a mistake and annoyed at my dad for his appearance, but then I realized that if a random homeless individual is outwardly indistinguishable from a chronically-ill patient, why should the hospital--a place where people come to be healed--kick one out and not the other? Isn't homelessness also a chronic disease that should be treated with compassion and understanding?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:21 AM on July 22 [40 favorites]


But I don’t think he has stumbled upon any useful revelation or achieved “integrity” in any meaningful way.

Who among us has?
posted by paulcole at 5:23 AM on July 22 [9 favorites]


Is confusing it for the latter what is causing the majority of posters who have never met this guy to have such strong emotional reactions against him?

I am definitely turned off by many comments in this thread. People all irritated that a houseless, penniless man living a hard live by his own principles has an approach to live that doesn't meet their own standards for consistency. Ugh.
posted by entropone at 5:30 AM on July 22 [20 favorites]


Well, people's ideas are not entitled to respect or admiration from others simply because they are theirs.
posted by thelonius at 6:01 AM on July 22 [11 favorites]


Who said anything about respect or admiration for ideas? I'm just talking about a punch-down pile-on.
posted by entropone at 6:04 AM on July 22 [5 favorites]


In addition to that...it seems to misunderstand the point of thinking about stories like this, which is not to persuade yourself that some guy is wonderful and has solved the problems of society, or even his own problems, but to consider what insight can be gained from thinking about what it means when a person wholeheartedly rejects a fundamental convention of our current society, what the consequences of such a decision are, and what that reveals about our own approaches and options. It's not just a mean spirited way of looking at the story, it's also really boring.
posted by howfar at 6:26 AM on July 22 [28 favorites]


I think that most of the objections here come down to "I don't care if this guy doesn't touch money, but I don't like that he doesn't earn his keep", when the whole point is that earning your keep isn't necessarily the moral imperative you assume.
posted by howfar at 6:31 AM on July 22 [11 favorites]


entropone: I'm just talking about a punch-down pile-on.

Down? How so?
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:32 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


'I am definitely turned off by many comments in this thread.'
posted by entropone

Glad I'm not the only one.

'I think that most of the objections here come down to "I don't care if this guy doesn't touch money, but I don't like that he doesn't earn his keep", when the whole point is that earning your keep isn't necessarily the moral imperative you assume'
posted by howfar

That's how it's reading to me as well.
posted by kaiseki at 6:38 AM on July 22 [8 favorites]


I had this thought a few weeks back: Money is for getting things from people you don't want to have a relationship with, which means it's great for introverts and sociopaths.

I was thinking about it in terms of retirement savings. What would I have been doing to save for retirement before the advent of money? What is the actual thing that I'd be piling up instead of money? It wouldn't be stockpiles of stuff. It would be social capital. It would be relationships. A good reputation. Ties of mutual obligation. A feeling among other people that "he contributed a lot to our community; he deserves to be supported and respected even after he loses his strength and skill and toddles into old age."

Money allows me to build up an abstract version of that. I contribute to the community in a weirdly abstract way, via my job, and I build up capital for old age in a weirdly abstract way, via money. People will give me food in my old age not because they have any memory of or respect for me - which would be the reason that they'd give me food in a money-free society - but because I give them money I've accumulated.

(How much money I'm able to accumulate will be influenced by my unearned privilege, just like it would influence how much social capital I'd be able to accumulate in a money-free system.)

The advantage of money for sociopaths, as opposed to introverts, is hopefully obvious. It's a handy way to build up massive amounts of power without having anyone care about you, stick with you, or have the tiniest positive feeling about you.
posted by clawsoon at 6:45 AM on July 22 [41 favorites]


Is confusing it for the latter what is causing the majority of posters who have never met this guy to have such strong emotional reactions against him?

I am definitely turned off by many comments in this thread. People all irritated that a houseless, penniless man living a hard live by his own principles has an approach to live that doesn't meet their own standards for consistency


I don't know about other posters, but as someone who is living a hard life while also working to support other people and taking time and energy to take care of them -- I'm very aware of all the responsibilities that he has willfully dropped. He survives only because others don't follow his example and continue to cook and clean and produce the necessities of life - and still share them with him. Society is a web of obligations -- only he has chosen to only be the receiver of care, not the offerer.

If he were living his money-less life by being a live-in caregiver, doing yard work for food or anything that really helped anyone else (and not just communing with the waves), we would admire him. But for me, I've known too many people who have "checked out" of the rat race by just dumping their responsibilities on others (including me). This isn't self-sufficiency, it's (not very successful) parasitism.
posted by jb at 6:48 AM on July 22 [97 favorites]


howfar: when the whole point is that earning your keep isn't necessarily the moral imperative you assume.

I think there's some moral force in "from each according to their ability." I do appreciate the chance to think about what a money-free society would look like, though.
posted by clawsoon at 6:52 AM on July 22 [9 favorites]


I've been very interested in finding materials about post-money society ideas, and I was hoping this would be something like that. It seems like this man has some ideas that may be worth exploring on the personal level, but when the whole world around you is doing something called "spending money" to get food and shelter and such, and you're skimming the edges of it to keep your hands clean of it all, I don't think that's helpful in what I'd be looking for.

I think people deciding to leave the mainstream are always somewhat interesting, but this sounded a bit more like someone tilting at windmills than anything else, to me.
posted by xingcat at 6:56 AM on July 22 [7 favorites]


whole point is that earning your keep isn't necessarily the moral imperative you assume'

Everyone deserves a livelihood, a means to living. But that doesn't mean that they don't need to contribute to the best of their ability. I live with and care for an intellectually disabled adult. She doesn't work, but she definitely contributes: she isn't able to wash dishes, but she can put them away, she sweeps the floors, she takes out the garbage.

None of us live in a vacuum, and it's helpful to think about all the people in your life who do the work (paid or unpaid) that makes your life possible -- and the work that you do to make their life possible. Sometimes these relationships are abstracted into money -- e.g., I do research so I can pay my transit fare and ultimately, the bus driver can buy groceries, in exchange for taking me to the place I do research -- and sometimes it's direct -- I cook dinner for both of us so that my relative can eat, and she takes out the garbage that both of us made. But we're both contributing to the best of our abilities.

Anyone who says "I don't owe anyone anything" - I can't help but think that they are taking without giving.
posted by jb at 6:59 AM on July 22 [38 favorites]


The world and its problems are very big, and individually we are very small. A single person can't possibly change the world, so the rational thing to do is to change yourself to better fit within the world.

This is why ALL progressive change has only ever been made by irrational people.

Oh, I'm sorry, you think this guy's an asshole? He's got less credit card debt than the 70% of us Americans who have trouble paying their bills. He has a far lower carbon footprint than us. He gets himself repeatedly arrested hoping to have a legal battle over anti-homelessness laws but they keep refusing to charge him with anything, while we just retweet "be gay, do crime" posts. Maybe he takes more than he gives (though he definitely takes less than we throw away). Congratulations, his philosophy and economics aren't perfectly thought out and he's kind of batty.

But you're calling his lifestyle unrealistic while the oceans burn.
posted by AlSweigart at 7:03 AM on July 22 [27 favorites]


She doesn't work, but she definitely contributes: she isn't able to wash dishes, but she can put them away, she sweeps the floors, she takes out the garbage.

As someone who hasn't earned a wage in the past eighteen and a half years, I just want to note that unpaid work is still work.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:10 AM on July 22 [25 favorites]


My feeling is that this guy does contribute, that's precisely the point of holy fools and mendicants. He's a walking art project, if you like. When you encounter this type of person, they push you at least a little out of your daily round, they bring a touch of oddity and serendipity. They give you the opportunity to act in a new way. "Contribute to society" doesn't always mean pay-rent-and-do-dishes.

I was thinking about this last night and thinking about how categorical imperative stuff is kind of unrealistic and bad - like, the basic argument against this guy is "if everyone did this, the dishes would never get washed". But the point is that everyone doesn't, because people are different and this guy is a really rare type. Further, if everyone contributed to the world by introducing serendipity, etc, the dishes would indeed not get done and the children not get raised - but that's not how most people are or will ever be. I mean, I don't contribute serendipity and the chance to break from habit - I'm intensely habit-bound, I contribute stodgy politeness, what people have told me is emotional repression, mortgage payments and a predictable willingness to give away small bills when asked. Most people are more like me than they are like this guy.

We don't need to recuperate the world under the sign of the same. People are not immoral just because the lives they live are not generalizable. People are not wrong about everything because they are flawed or hypocritical in some aspects of their lives. Society doesn't need to fit into some charming but rigid Richard Scary diagram of a city where everyone follows exactly the same rules and the same path day after day.
posted by Frowner at 7:11 AM on July 22 [55 favorites]


I like the guy. I am not sure if his point is no money or stick to your principles no matter how much it may hurt. He is clearly ok with barter. He says he would gladly tend to the park if they let him sleep there. Isn't that what he is doing, bartering with shebib? He gives shebib friendship, a good guy to hang out with, a guy who washes the dishes and cleans up in exchange for a roof and food. There is clearly value to each person, just not a price tag.

He avoids cash money, but not exchanging value for value. He is a barter king. Plus, his needs are low. He is also not a drag on society from a cash standpoint. He does not accept the Canadian equivalent to food stamps or the like.

I do not see why him pitching a tent in a public park is so bad. I am certainly not going to impose my values on him wrt to money, stability, lifestyle, etc. I am more impressed he has thrived for 18 years than angry about some perceived hypocrisy regarding money.
posted by AugustWest at 7:17 AM on July 22 [4 favorites]


It really does take a turn at the end there, with that bit about the children, and how he justifies it. I wonder how much they appreciate all that integrity he has to offer them.
posted by jordemort at 7:20 AM on July 22 [14 favorites]


He survives only because others don't follow his example and continue to cook and clean and produce the necessities of life - and still share them with him.

Yeah, nah.

He survives because he's part of a society that freely and habitually discards far more stuff than he needs in order keep body and soul together. He thrives because he is by all accounts a lovely man whose company people enjoy, as well as being one who displays a great deal of respect for the shared spaces he occupies. And there's not a single thing wrong with that.

I think his fundamental aversion to money per se is misconceived, but I have no objection whatsoever to his life choices on moral grounds. It's just a pity to watch yet another instance of rigid adherence to a defective principle being the likely reason for a community losing a valued member before it would otherwise need to.

like, the basic argument against this guy is "if everyone did this, the dishes would never get washed"

...except that the article itself mentions that he's a great house guest who does contribute more than his fair share of the work required to keep a house tidy.
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 AM on July 22 [14 favorites]


I have always been fascinated by extreme living styles, so I enjoyed reading this. If his lifestyle demands financial support through others, his activism on important issues balances that somewhat -- he does work, he does contribute. But his unwillingness to care for his children saddened me. To me his words at the end of the article say, to them, "These issues are more important to me than you are."
posted by JanetLand at 7:30 AM on July 22 [13 favorites]


He sounds to me like a kind of schnorrer, someone who rejects the idea of reciprocity on purpose and consciously offers nothing but the opportunity to be charitable. Shebib says that he cleans up around his place -- not that he earns his keep, exactly, but that he's not much trouble to have around, certainly not as much as some houseguests we have had. In his way, he has contributed to society through his litigation and his principled stands. I'm not sure he would like to think of it that way. He certainly doesn't shake a can for it.

As for his children, he makes it sound as if their mother had them on purpose to try to trap him into giving up his principles. I'm gonna go ahead and doubt that. He could do something for them if he was living with them, which, again, I believe there's a reason he's not. He's not being a great dad, but he's also not being as bad a one as I have ever heard of, including some that make piles of money. (Also, do you think one of them is going to go into finance or something with the aim of getting filthy rich just to show him? The chances are nonzero.)
posted by Countess Elena at 7:35 AM on July 22 [10 favorites]


That part is truly hard to deal with.

Most of the sacrifices are easy to roll with. But the big one—the one he says he thinks about every day—is the loss of contact with his children, whom he hasn’t seen in about a decade. They were born after he’d stopped using money, and now one is 10, and the other is almost 14. While he says their mother knew before they became involved that he didn’t use money—and was warned that he wouldn’t start using it, even if she got pregnant—it became a problem. “It drove her mad,” he says, “like no matter how much we tried to make it work, not using money was not going to allow it to happen.” It made him unreliable as a father because he couldn’t promise his children consistency. How would he know if he’d be able to get to them at any given time for pre-planned visits? And where would those visits take place?

Like, YEAH, "it drove her mad." Caring for kids is a reality. It involves money. I feel like I've seen this story in different forms many times. A man's ideals towards his interests take precedence...and leaves mom with the reality and responsibility of child care. It drives ME mad, and I don't even have kids.
posted by tiny frying pan at 7:38 AM on July 22 [91 favorites]


Wow. Privilege.
posted by Toddles at 7:50 AM on July 22 [10 favorites]


mendicants are supposed to be celibate, which would’ve removed most of this thread’s objections to this guy’s lifestyle.
posted by condour75 at 7:51 AM on July 22 [28 favorites]


I had a hunch when the article mentioned his epiphanies. Kept scrolling and sure enough, there it was: got high, saw Jesus or a version of their truth. No judgment from me; just something I've observed throughout my life with similar friends.
posted by Xere at 8:24 AM on July 22 [4 favorites]


Buddhist monastics generally don't touch money nor engage in explicit transactions. They are supported by their community when they go on their daily alms rounds for food. But the community members "earn merit" (spiritual, emotional, karmic) in supporting the monastics, and all of this happens within a millenniums-old social system. I have no criticism of what Johnston is doing as personal commitment/life-art, but I don't think his purely negative framing ('money is bad') will attract many other followers, let alone enough for a larger society or spiritual movement to develop around that principle.
posted by PhineasGage at 8:49 AM on July 22 [7 favorites]


Is this. Um. Is continuing to refuse to use money also a way to not have to pay child support?
posted by Hypatia at 8:51 AM on July 22 [42 favorites]


If you are a man in North America you must must must have a job that can be recognizable from the male-stripper job pantheon.

Otherwise stay away from children.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 8:53 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


tiny frying pan: Like, YEAH, "it drove her mad." Caring for kids is a reality. It involves money.

It doesn't have to involve money, but it does involve work, and a more realistic model for what money-free child-raising would involve would probably be found in some of the communities that davidwitteveen mentioned upthread.
posted by clawsoon at 8:56 AM on July 22 [8 favorites]


In terms of caring for children, I think it involves interacting with a money-based economy much more heavily. If he doesn't come across food in a day, he just doesn't eat. Somewhat literally, children don't thrive without food every day. And while I can believe that it's not the reason that he does this, he very obviously doesn't pay any child support, or it appears provide any support to his children at all.

I tend to the view that humans invented debt (and so money as a concept) before they invented cash. And that bartering is just a form of implicit money. So I think he's misguided in his principles, but that's not a problem.

I don't think he's particularly 'good' for sticking to them despite the fact that they cause serious practical problems. And I do think society is more amenable to man making these choices than a woman.
posted by plonkee at 9:04 AM on July 22 [16 favorites]


Is continuing to refuse to use money also a way to not have to pay child support?

I doubt he thinks of it as evading child support, and I'm sure he'd love to be involved in his children's lives. But I think his model of supporting his children is bringing them along on his journey, which is obviously impossible in a variety of ways, which he seems to accept as an intractable problem, rather than a fight that needs to be won the way the sleeping is.
posted by fatbird at 9:05 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


But I don’t think he has stumbled upon any useful revelation or achieved “integrity” in any meaningful way.

Who among us has?


Not me, but I also don’t go around claiming that I have. I also don’t claim that my integrity is the only thing I have to “offer” the children I abandoned.

I don’t know if it meant to, but for me, the article completely demystified this guy. It also seems like his life is much worse as far as health, etc than it has to be, but to each their own.
posted by snofoam at 9:11 AM on July 22 [9 favorites]


I think that most of the objections here come down to "I don't care if this guy doesn't touch money, but I don't like that he doesn't earn his keep", when the whole point is that earning your keep isn't necessarily the moral imperative you assume.

In my comment at least I explicitly said it was fine for him to live this way. My objection is this lie that he's not involved with money. He IS involved with money via the money that others spend on him. He is not extricating himself from the monetary system, he is simply transferring the "evil" of handling it onto somebody else.

As for the moral imperative of earning one's keep . . . yes, a functional society is based on collective contribution. It doesn't have to come in the form of a 9-5, but it has to come from something. You can claim this guy is somehow contributing via life-art, but he isn't exactly demonstrating a new and spiritual way of living when he abandons his kids and characterizes the reaction of his partner to this abandonment as craziness. In that light there is not a lot that separates him from deadbeat dads who purposely work low paying or under the table jobs to spite their partners, except that he's taken it even farther than them.
posted by schroedinger at 9:15 AM on July 22 [29 favorites]


But I think his model of supporting his children is bringing them along on his journey

Kids can't eat principles.
posted by schroedinger at 9:16 AM on July 22 [31 favorites]


People all irritated that a houseless, penniless man living a hard live by his own principles has an approach to live that doesn't meet their own standards for consistency.

I was "eh" for most of the article; he came off more of a mooch than a deep philosopher to me, but people apparently like giving him stuff, and he's apparently done some good work for homeless law, so whatever. But the bit about his kids tipped me into thinking he was a narcissist.

First of all, as people have pointed out in this thread, you can contribute to your children's lives without money. You can take them to the local park. You can ask people for a bus pass rather than cigarettes and take them to museums. The fact that he hasn't seen them for a decade since one was an infant tells me one of two things: he isn't actually very interested in seeing them, or he managed to fuck up badly enough, in neglecting or endangering them, that he lost all parental rights.
posted by tavella at 9:19 AM on July 22 [40 favorites]


"It's interesting how often we react against. Someone says, "the love of money is the root of all evil, I reject money and I'll die to prove it" and we immediately go for "what an annoying asshole, of course anyone who tries to reject money is just a hypocrite and a terrible father". I don't know, as someone who is chronically around activists and weirdos, I've known some holy fools (and some pretty good artists; oppositional artists tend to have the same character flaws). On the one hand, yes, they have tended to have large obvious flaws and hypocrisies."

The guy I always think of, when people object that someone radically living their (highly idiosyncratic) truth is Socrates. He just totally gave up on, like, doing the things that get you money or honor (or friends, honestly) in favor of standing around in the marketplace making enemies by pointing out their hypocrisies, in the name of seeking truth, until he pissed them off so much that they killed him. And we remember him as a great and courageous man, an inspiration to every person who seeks the truth, or who stands up for principle in the face of overwhelming opposition.

And yet Socrates was a father, to at least three sons by (the decades younger) Xanthippe, who is remembered to history as a shrill, abusive bitch determined to keep Socrates from exercising his intellectual gifts by, like, wanting him to act like a father and husband and spend less time driving the leaders of Athens into a murderous rage. (Because obviously the 20-year-old girl married off to a 60-year-old man who prides himself on being a dick to people, in a patriarchy where women had virtually no rights, is the one in the position of power. Obviously.)

You can be a great man. You can have brilliant ideas. You can even be right about them! And still be a shitty-ass spouse and parent. (It's harder to think of thinkers and visionaries who were good parents -- Darwin. John Milton, maybe.) So, so many of them were selfish jerks obsessed with their ideas at the expense of their families.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:24 AM on July 22 [85 favorites]


I was thinking about it in terms of retirement savings. What would I have been doing to save for retirement before the advent of money? What is the actual thing that I'd be piling up instead of money? It wouldn't be stockpiles of stuff. It would be social capital. It would be relationships. A good reputation. Ties of mutual obligation. A feeling among other people that "he contributed a lot to our community; he deserves to be supported and respected even after he loses his strength and skill and toddles into old age."

You'd also probably be having a decent number of kids who would be expected, by societal obligation, to care for you in your doddering age.

I'm not opposed to this dude doing what he feels he needs to here, not opposed to the obvious hypocrisies of living this way in a global economic system that operates based on currency no matter what barriers he puts up between cash and himself. (Every one of us makes compromises big and small every day as a part of operating within that framework, and we can simply accept them because we're not being iconoclasts.) I'm not opposed to this dude's life being written about, because I'm glad people are out there trying, even if in a windmill-tilting fashion, to set an example of alternate ways of living. I don't like the idea of him being considered a prophet, or of his worldview being coherent or revolutionary in any meaningful way, but I also don't see anyone seriously making that argument.

I'm reminded of two things here. The first is from my time at the Loyola Law Clinic in New Orleans after my 1L year of law school. One of the other practically-still-kids in the clinic was super-far-leftist, even in comparison to my "pretty-damn-leftist" self, which meant that I'd find myself in light-hearted arguments with him where I'd be having to take up the more conservative position just from a sense of realism and practicality, which felt bizarre to me. The one of these discussions that still sticks in my brain was when he was talking about how we needed to abolish prisons. Prison sentences don't act as a deterrent to crime, and increase likely recidivism rates, he said, so prison only makes crime worse, so why don't we do away with them altogether? And I agreed for the most part, but when I asked about incarcerating violent criminals for the sake of public safety, his answer was, "but what if there was no violent crime?" And, well, there's not really a conversation after an answer like that.

The second is stuff that I remember from Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, about the early puritans in the New World, and how those societal structures worked, and the concept of charity and obligations to community were so ingrained that while the homeless or marginalized within those communities were, well, marginalized, detested, and subject to intense constant judgment, they were taken care of, and we know their names, and in the extreme cases where a member of the community was exiled, the community would still wait until after the harsh winter or whatever to send them packing, because community means having a duty to one another. It's a concept that's basically alien to us now.

This isn't all to make some broader point, really. But the world is usually too big and complicated for simple solutions, and wishing away the facts of the world doesn't actually solve anything. But capitalism, as we live in it now, serves to absolve us of our duties to one another by abstracting them, letting us choose our select communities that we are willing to base upon trust and reputation, and let those outside of those circles become invisible to us.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:25 AM on July 22 [19 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: (It's harder to think of thinkers and visionaries who were good parents -- Darwin. John Milton, maybe.)

Leonhard Euler was a different kind of thinker and visionary who transformed the world, but by all accounts he was an active an involved parent. Perhaps the only great mathematician who was?
posted by clawsoon at 9:29 AM on July 22 [5 favorites]


Can I just say that I really appreciate the discussion here. Lots of different perspectives and nuances being brought up, giving me a lot more to think about than I got from just reading the article. Thanks as always MeFi.
posted by saturday_morning at 9:35 AM on July 22 [22 favorites]


This man is not using money in exactly the same way Queen Elizabeth isn't using money: solely by not handling it.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:37 AM on July 22 [23 favorites]


Sadly a huge chunk of this thread is just reminding me of a city council Zoom meeting where the public got their chance to have their say about a SVDP (St Vincent de Paul) facility in my neighborhood. It was amazing to hear how many people were indirectly saying "they need to be valuable and contribute in order to be considered society."

Do I agree with this guy? On some things, sure, and not on others, but I'm gonna sit here and pretend I have the high road here.
posted by Kitteh at 9:49 AM on July 22 [12 favorites]


This is a homeless, jobless guy (not that there's anything wrong with that) who has a slightly more sophisticated philosophical framework around being homeless and jobless.

But you're calling his lifestyle unrealistic while the oceans burn.

I don't have any beef with this guy and he can do as he pleases within the bounds of society, but clearly someone need to run the sewage plants, grow food, etc.
posted by GuyZero at 9:56 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


If his contribution is to be a holy fool, confronting and challenging us, then surely our negative responses to his challenge are as legitimate as our appreciative ones, no? If he "pays his way" by sparking a discussion like this, I don't see why critique needs to be policed by his admirers.
posted by fatbird at 9:59 AM on July 22 [29 favorites]


Something I gleaned from this is that he has decided to live a life of uncertainty by means of not using money. He doesn't know day to day how he will acquire the goods and services he needs for other people to take care of. That uncertainty would destroy me, or free me, I don't know which. So yeah, it's the uncertainty that he may find to be an adrenaline rush rather than providing a legitimate path for living in a money-free world. This seems like hyper-libertarian thinking more than communal relationships. Getting what you need and not acknowledging the infrastructure you are using.
posted by waving at 10:14 AM on July 22 [7 favorites]


clawsoon: "Y'all need to read David Graeber's Debt"

Was thinking the same thing. It wasn't an easy read for me, but dang if it didn't make me think a lot about money in weird ways.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:18 AM on July 22 [6 favorites]


Would the mother of the two children referenced in the story be able to feed and shelter her kids by disavowing money? I think the answer to that, the privilege involved in what underlies making that decision, provides much of the moral guidance needed for figuring out how I feel. It's one thing to be a carefree bum, and well another to bring life into the world and walk away from it.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:19 AM on July 22 [33 favorites]


I mean, OK, so once the kids are here it is a very dicey proposition to be like, I'm not compromising my ethics for the sake of supporting them. Fine. But it doesn't sound like he tricked anyone into birthing these kids for him; as far as we know, he was fully open with his partner that this was how he intended to continue living.

Why no judgment for the mother who had TWO children while in full knowledge that this was her partner's unwavering stance? She also decided that a life of minimal paternal involvement (or involvement with untenable inconsistency and uncertainty) was fine to do to those kids.

To be clear, I'm not certain either parent deserves the vitriol here but if either of them does, both of them do, surely.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:19 AM on July 22 [11 favorites]


Socrates. He just totally gave up on, like, doing the things that get you money or honor (or friends, honestly) in favor of standing around in the marketplace making enemies by pointing out their hypocrisies, in the name of seeking truth, until he pissed them off so much that they killed him.

He had plenty of friends, not least of all the traitorous Alcibiades. And we have his defense speech. And he had the chance to slip away after the verdict but chose not to take it. We don't have is the case for the prosecution. I.F. Stone wrote one. Stone's book also polarizing, but makes for an interesting cat among the pigeons.

(Are the children named Sue?)
posted by BWA at 10:22 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


I have a stray cat living under my back porch, he moved in during the winter when there was snow everywhere and we didn't have the heart to kick him out. We took to feeding him because he's old and arthritic and in the middle of winter it was either feed him or watch him starve to death. And since he's a cat, and I'm not a monster, he gets fed. He's actually very cute, for an old black-and-white tom cat, and he's a perfectly well-behaved gentlemanly cat now that he's well fed. He likes to lounge around in the fenced-in part of the backyard, he doesn't bother the birds (and the birds can tell, somehow, that he's not interested in chasing them, and are not the least bit put out by his presence). Anyways, apparently much of Metafilter regards this cat as a privileged freeloader, leeching off the hard work of others and not earning his keep. Also, this cat apparently does in fact use money, according to Metafilter, since I pay the grocery store for the cat food which he then eats, so the cat would be deluding himself to think he doesn't use money.

Personally, I think the cat does earn his keep - he entertains us, we look out the window into the backyard a lot more than we did before, just to see what he's gotten up to or if he's hanging around napping in the garden somewhere. (It's amazing how invested you can get in the minor dramas of a stray cat's life.) And it just doesn't take a lot of "earning" to earn your keep when "your keep" is only a couple bucks a week in cat food. I feel pretty much the same way about David Arthur Johnston - he doesn't expect anything, so it's easy for me to believe that he "earns" his pretty trivial keep just by being a an apparently nice enough, friendly, thought-provoking weird dude. I guess it depends on how much value you place on thought-provoking weird people. For me it's an amount that's significantly more than this guy costs to have around, and significantly less than say, Elon Musk costs to have have around.

As to him being a deadbeat dad - yeah, I think it's unfortunate that he isn't helping raise the kids. Seems like he could easily be a stay-at-home-dad and be a ton of help raising his kids without ever touching money. But I think the mom has some agency here; it's not like he decided to stop using money and go off on his vision quest after he got her pregnant. She knew who he was, she knew how he lived, he was upfront that he wouldn't change even if they had kids, and apparently she thought that would be okay (and apparently still thought it was okay, 4 years after the first kid, when they had a second kid), and then at some point the realities of having kids made things harder than they expected. Hardly the first prospective parents to think they can have kids and "make it work" only to find out, after the fact, that they can't and "we'll make it work" wasn't actually a plan. If the dynamic between them became such that they just couldn't still live together, I don't think anyone would disagree that she's the one who should keep the kids; so I can sort of see how he sees it as an intractable problem. He could offer more than just integrity, but not if he can't physically be there, and that's not something that's necessarily up to him.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:27 AM on July 22 [18 favorites]


Why no judgment for the mother who had TWO children while in full knowledge that this was her partner's unwavering stance?

We don't know anything about her, at least from what this story reports. Maybe she was hoping for the best, that his paternal instincts would kick in and he would take his responsibilities seriously. A lot of people do things for others out of love, which are not always in their best long-term interests or those of their offspring. But that's just idle conjecture and it's probably not helpful to put her in the spotlight for his poor decisions, which we are able to evaluate for what they are.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:31 AM on July 22 [9 favorites]


Of the few descriptions we get of the mom, him being quoted as saying "It drove her mad" is a not a good way to describe the mother of your children. And it makes it feel like there's more there and we're only getting part of the story.
posted by FJT at 10:33 AM on July 22 [20 favorites]


It's one thing to be a carefree bum, and well another to bring life into the world and walk away from it.

Perhaps let me correct this: It's one thing to be a carefree bum, and well another to bring life into the world and be able to walk away from it.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:37 AM on July 22 [10 favorites]


If his contribution is to be a holy fool, confronting and challenging us

"If" is doing a lot of work here. I am neither challenged nor confronted.
posted by GuyZero at 10:49 AM on July 22 [12 favorites]


David Graeber's Debt...dang if it didn't make me think a lot about money in weird ways

The parable about how the lowly Confucian monks were gifted "interest" and some compounded time later became gangsters is by far my favorite bit of history ever.

In many ways money and value are the weirdest things outside of subatomic physics.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 11:03 AM on July 22 [8 favorites]


"It's good knowin' he's out there, the Dude, takin' her easy for all us sinners."
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:49 AM on July 22 [8 favorites]


I'm going to echo Kitteh.. the tone in some of the comments really does start to resemble the community responses to addressing homelessness in the rural community I'm in. Years of people emphasizing that it's "a complex issue" but at the end of the day.. zero societal will to address the issue. The food bank in this community was literally driven out of town, a person absolutely needs a vehicle to get to the food bank that (typically) provides a box or two of non-perishable foodstuffs (e.g. crackers, weird snack items that don't sell quickly enough, highly sugared energy drinks and the like).

So yeah, this guy is flawed. But there are worse things in the world than this guy, and to be honest a tone in some of these comments seems worse to me.
posted by elkevelvet at 12:11 PM on July 22 [9 favorites]


She doesn't work, but she definitely contributes: she isn't able to wash dishes, but she can put them away, she sweeps the floors, she takes out the garbage.

As someone who hasn't earned a wage in the past eighteen and a half years, I just want to note that unpaid work is still work.


Sorry - I misspoke. I meant that she isn't in paid employment, but she still contributes (that is, she works).
posted by jb at 12:25 PM on July 22 [3 favorites]


Lol i spent several minutes wincing at this thread before working up the nerve to post. I think this guy is basically cool although his philosophy as shared in the article is straight up goofy and his own way is highly idiosyncratic.

I'm skeptical of his whole "self sufficiency, everyone needs to grow their own food, we can spontaneously self-organize" trip. By contrast, the monks at the temple I go to take vows of poverty and simplicity, so as to be dependent on the sangha. It's not about reducing one's footprint to be self-sufficient, it's about foregrounding the profoundly interdependent nature by which all of us live. Not that this guy needs to adhere to the vinaya or anything. Truthfully we don't have a good role in society for people like this, wish we did.
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 12:30 PM on July 22 [11 favorites]


much of Metafilter regards this cat as a privileged freeloader

Maybe just the ones who've ever had a cat?
posted by biffa at 12:33 PM on July 22 [6 favorites]


I have a lot of resentment toward my own chronically irresponsible, mostly absent and undermployed dad, and how that effected my childhood that I probably can't be too reasonable in my view toward this guy. But I think I can be reasonable toward the author of this piece: there just doesn't seem to be that much there. I guess not every article needs to be aiming toward Pulitzer-prize level analysis, but I was expecting something more just based on the premise. The guy seems like an affable, eccentric homeless guy. He has a particular eccentricity that is slightly interesting, but not as interesting as I figured it would be--it doesn't really seem like his life would be that different if he bought his own coffee.

As for the mother of his kids, she has the same moral responsibility for their kids as he does, but the suggestion from the article is that she has and continues to take on that responsibility. Maybe she views her decision to have kids with them as a mistake, maybe not, but she is presumably taking care of them, while he is definitely not. So why would there be anything to say about her?
posted by skewed at 12:40 PM on July 22 [12 favorites]


And it makes it feel like there's more there and we're only getting part of the story.

That's where I'm at with it too. I do not believe this fellow is a reliable narrator.
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:48 PM on July 22 [6 favorites]


Red flags for me....

I am short on time and am unable to find the paragraph that set off the bells. What caught me was the absolutism of his ideas and the absolutism of his experience. Save the world. Messianic. Mendicant. Charismatic. Very sexy. Petri dish for authoritarianism.

While he'll never go to this extreme, Jim Jones was doing influential work for the underprivileged in San Francisco to the point of being appointed to city commissions.

This can also be seen as a westernized version of India's mendicant society.

Maybe I've lived in Hollywood and an urban environment for too long. In the spiritual environment here, men like this come through every now and then, usually sponsored by someone else, given a place to live for awhile etc. Bhagvan Das is probably the most notable of these His Wikipedia bio is a hagiography. No mention is made of his attraction to underage women, being kicked out of communities for this and his being brought to task for his actions.

And with the pot, meditation and LSD, spiritual bypassing may be going on

For a long while here I lived as far off the urban grid while in an urban area as much as I could. With that, I was in few relationships and had sex with virtually no one as I felt that I would not be able to "pull my weight" in any serious or intimate relationship. I've seen too many men here who were "spiritual" or "artists" being supported by other women. If I was going to walk this road then this would be a part of the path. Because of that, no women, (to my knowledge) were emotionally harmed or put at risk.

I wish the article included talking with the mother of his children and some questions about his personal relationships with women since the cutoff. I wish this would be standard with any men in similar influential situation. It is a great leveler.

I've been on the street. I've lived a semi-ascetic. I get what he is doing. I got a lot of clarity on what drives society via a false sense of scarcity and why debt/lack have to be a part of these systems. though with a different perspective. It influences my life as I do see it as a systemic truth. I am also aware of my own predisposition towards absolutes and authoritarianism. At minimum, it draws attention and is temporarily, more satisfying.

All said, I hope they followup with him 3-5 years down the line to see where he is at.
posted by goalyeehah at 12:50 PM on July 22 [38 favorites]


There are lots of ways that this guy could still be around his children and their mother in a way that would benefit them and not cause him to handle any money. Instead he's shifted the whole responsibility of raising the children onto their mother and whatever support system that she has while he does what exactly? There are lots of other shitty parents out there and one who is only absent is probably better than a lot of them but its still hard to get past, which is likely why it was put in at the end of the article.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:32 PM on July 22 [14 favorites]


Is confusing it for the latter what is causing the majority of posters who have never met this guy to have such strong emotional reactions against him?

I happen to have met this guy - I have the book somewhere - and my personal impression of him accords very much with the negative reactions in this post. I have held off sharing my impression as Metafilter seems to hone in quite well to the situation as I also see it. I agreed with fladablet's assesment - I think that Mr. Johnston may be in a state of dissociation. The so-called "punch-down pile-on" seems a useful corrective to the very well written, even accurate, but one-sided article in the post.

My own negative impression is certainly shared by others in Victora, many of whom see him as having done great harm to their ability to enjoy the use of public parks here, though I do not completely agree with that assesment.


I do not see why him pitching a tent in a public park is so bad.



Wait until 99 other generally mentally ill and addicted people join him there for a year, until stabbings and assault force the courts to act, and you may see why.

He has many supporters as well - a friend of mine, a local historian, commented today : "David Johnson has made more impact on the history of Victoria than any politician" and she's right.

I think howfar got it right as well.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 1:37 PM on July 22 [11 favorites]


Yeah, I don't see why he couldn't spend time with his children, tell them stories, take them to the park, read to them, play with them, teach them arts/crafts* and what have you. There are so many things that you can do with children that do not depend on money.

*Drawing, for example, can be done with burned sticks (charcoal) on cardboard from discarded boxes. Clay can be found in river beds. People can make wonderful things without buying art supplies.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:40 PM on July 22 [7 favorites]


Question that was not asked in the article: is he allowed to see his children? Is he allowed within x00 feet of their mother?

There's also the bit where the city was being lenient about him sleeping in the park/garden, so he willfully trashed the place...
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 1:45 PM on July 22 [6 favorites]


I think his fundamental aversion to money per se is misconceived, but I have no objection whatsoever to his life choices on moral grounds.

I do. He has abandoned his two children for his principles. Can you imagine being a child and having this man as a father?

No support for them, no time with them, nothing with the two souls he helped create.
posted by SuzySmith at 1:47 PM on July 22 [16 favorites]


Wait until 99 other generally mentally ill and addicted people join him there for a year, until stabbings and assault force the courts to act, and you may see why.

Living in Toronto, a city that just had its police force clear out three encampments on public land in the space of a month with overwhelming force and brutality, and then to have the mayor of said city blame the violence on protesters that just wouldn't let the police and private security do their job of kicking out a handful of mostly harmless homeless people who have rejected the shelter system for perfectly valid safety reasons cleaning up parks so taxpaying residents can enjoy them without having to look at a vagrant, forgive me if I don't exactly take your point of view on this one.
posted by chrominance at 2:04 PM on July 22 [17 favorites]


Just a note that calling it a 'book' is very kind, it was barely a booklet of tied together notepaper a little larger than post-its in size. It contained sort of child friendly platitudes, with no connecting logic as I recall. I cannot lay my hands on it right now, but it was a nice little package of fluff of the type I am pretty quick to accept from a homeless person, usually for a small donation, though there was no hard sell for any money from David (this was years ago, at the Causeway where I too used to hang out while being under-housed).
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 2:09 PM on July 22 [4 favorites]


"He has abandoned his two children for his principles." There's a strain of Canadian middle class norms on display here, the fact is I don't know that this person could be a fit parent, not if he tried. It might be a lot worse for the kids if he insisted on "being Dad." It is not ideal that there are two lives going fatherless, but "think of the children" is, well, not my first take. I say this as someone who met my partner after she'd raised two sons and very deliberately chose to raise them on her own. I realize this situation is not at all the same, but the person in the article does not strike me as someone who beguiled a woman to impregnate her, then sneak away. Yes we'd like this story to align to How Things Should Be but we could also ask ourselves: why like that?

I hope this article makes people uncomfortable and does something small to push us in the direction of recognizing a lot of what we do about homelessness is clutch pearls and wish it away.
posted by elkevelvet at 2:13 PM on July 22 [11 favorites]


He gets himself repeatedly arrested hoping to have a legal battle over anti-homelessness laws but they keep refusing to charge him with anything, while we just retweet "be gay, do crime" posts.

Speak for yourself, please. There are a lot of people who manage to be involved in making their communities/societies better while also having relationships with their kids or other family members. The choice isn't Monk or Mindless consumer, and the idea that it is is part of what's gotten us into this mess.

FWIW, I think this guy is mostly fine but I'm not going to be putting him up on any pedestals. It sounds like he does some good activism, but so do many other people who aren't eccentric enough to get free flutes or profiles written about them. He's an asshole for abandoning his children, but so are a lot of men.

(The idea that his former partner is equally at fault for him abandoning his children is some first-rate mother-blaming though.)
posted by lunasol at 2:15 PM on July 22 [37 favorites]


There's so, so much that we don't know in the best of cases about anyone's decisions vis-a-vis raising children without both parents being involved, and I really don't feel passing judgement on anyone there. But in a story where we're only getting the absent father's side of things, and it's coming packaged in a broader tale of one man "freeing" himself from a system of debts and responsibilities and being able to do so because other people are picking up those responsibilities for him, well, you can't blame people for having a really uncharitable read on that situation.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:19 PM on July 22 [11 favorites]


this guy too. rather than right to sleep, he was right to live in a cave in utah.
posted by danjo at 2:23 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Thanks, danjo. This story of living a cash-free life is so familiar (but I'm not bothering with TFA; I've gleaned enough from the comments here). I remember reading of Daniel Suelo many years ago, thought this was about him, but no, they're two different people.
posted by Rash at 2:34 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


forgive me if I don't exactly take your point of view on this one.

My point of view is that actions can have unforseen consequences. I do not see how we disagree - please do not accuse me of supporting the police in Toronto. Or in any other place, as a general rule.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 2:55 PM on July 22


More from a venerable monastic tradition: "Money represents wealth in the same way that the menu represents dinner." – Alan Watts
posted by PhineasGage at 3:02 PM on July 22 [3 favorites]


If you are a big white guy without any significant cognitive or physical impairments, then you can live without money or fixed address with only minimal hassle from the authorities.
posted by interogative mood at 3:29 PM on July 22 [12 favorites]


I've got no problem with people pitching a tent in a park or under a bridge, sleeping on a bench, or wherever else they can find, especially when we as a society refuse to provision sufficient housing, emergency or otherwise, for all people. I'm glad to live in a city where the city and the cops are under a court order requiring them to leave homeless people the fuck alone unless and until they provide sufficient housing and a means to reach it.

I'm not at all annoyed by having to walk around some people sleeping at night. What does annoy me to no end is when people trash a place to the point that it isn't plausible to believe they aren't doing it on purpose. Thankfully, that's the exception, not the rule. Also, using the same damn place as a urinal over and over again. I realize bathroom access is often an issue, so I don't really care if people piss in a corner or whatever, but maybe spread it around some so it doesn't smell worse than a festival portapotty? We get enough rain that it's not really a problem so long as there isn't massive volume all in one spot.
posted by wierdo at 3:37 PM on July 22 [3 favorites]


If you are a big white guy without any significant cognitive or physical impairments, then you can live without money or fixed address with only minimal hassle from the authorities.

... in Victoria. Lots of places would be a lot less friendly to this guy. That said, I wonder if he has a BC MSP card, what with not having an address. Anyway, I suspect he could go to the hospital if he had medical issues pretty much anytime. Yay Canada. Of course, if he did have a chronic medical condition he'd be in pretty serious trouble.

Also, this guys continues to low-grade bug me as I get back to finishing the article:

On the grounds of St. Ann’s, Johnston rolls a cigarette and looks around at his former home. The city could turn this entire place into a garden, he tells me. “It could say, ‘Here’s the gardener tent city—you’ll never have to pay rent again, just put ten hours a week into planting food everywhere.’ But we can't do that, because self-sufficiency is economic collapse

He's not describing "self-sufficiency", he's describing subsistence farming, something that a lot of people risk their lives to try to escape. Also no one is growing a sufficient amount of food for themselves with 10 hours of work a week.
posted by GuyZero at 4:11 PM on July 22 [34 favorites]


what is causing the majority of posters who have never met this guy to have such strong emotional reactions against him?

I suspect it's that because many of us have had someone in their lives who espoused a similar, if not so extreme, philosophy who basically mooched off of them and their other friends while maintaining it was for the sake of their dogma.

I'm reminded of the fetishized "gift economy" of Burning Man where everything is free and isn't it so wonderful, but the reality is that it's not an economy, it's a bunch of yuppies and tech bros throwing a party for themselves and their friends. Which is fine, it's just silly to claim that it's a world changing way of being like some people do.

As with others, I'd have a lot more respect for him if he hadn't chosen to bring children into the world. Whether or not the mother made poor decisions about him is irrelevant. I frequently have to lecture the MRA crowd on Reddit that child support is fine and just even if the father wanted the mother to get an abortion, because child support isn't about what's good for the parents, it's about what's good for the child who has no say into whether they're brought into the world or not and have no agency of their own.

And ultimately, he's likely to be a burden on society, depending on whether he develops health issues that rapidly kill him at a young age (yes, I'm aware of the typical lifespan of the homeless). He may be a minimum financial friction at this time, but if he lasts to the point that he needs substantial medical support and nursing care, he will be being supported by the public.

What does annoy me to no end is when people trash a place to the point that it isn't plausible to believe they aren't doing it on purpose.

Keep in mind that if you're in the US, we don't just have a homelessness crisis, we have a mental health crisis. A substantial portion of the homeless near me aren't messy and scattered out of spite but because they have untreated mental health issues and no viable support system.
posted by Candleman at 5:03 PM on July 22 [16 favorites]


My negative reaction to David Johnston: he's free-riding, with an unjustified attitude of moral superiority.

I think of the Canadian economy as basically a giant shared pool of goods and services. When we work, we're putting stuff in the pool. When we consume goods and services, so that they're no longer available to others, we're taking them out of the pool.

Money is just an imperfect way of keeping track of how much you've contributed to the pool, minus how much you've taken out. If we didn't have money, we'd need some other way to do it, to avoid the problem of everyone eventually free-riding. This is one reason that unpaid labor is often undervalued and exploited - when people aren't required to keep track of it by paying for it, often they don't.

(Note that this is not a lame attempt to justify an individualist "dog-eat-dog" worldview. In Canada we buy lots of goods and services collectively rather than individually, via progressive taxation and public spending: education, policing, health insurance, unemployment insurance, public pensions, welfare. Most of these are basically forms of insurance: risk of illness or injury, risk of losing your job, risk of outliving your savings, risk of paternal abandonment or disability.)

A striking example of the free-riding problem, from Joseph Heath's The Efficient Society:
The simple fact that work is hard creates a free-rider incentive. If there is any chance that someone else will come along and do the job, people are often willing to hang around for a bit before throwing themselves into the task. ...

Our society has such a strong work ethic that it is easy for us to underestimate how serious a problem shirking can be. People have been known to literally starve themselves to death because they are caught in a collective action problem. The most famous North American example of this occurred in the Jamestown colony, established in Massachusetts in 1607. Like many early Pilgrim colonies, Jamestown was initially organized on the model of a giant work crew. Every citizen was expected to pitch in and help build the palisade, sink the well, work the corn fields, etc. In return, everyone was entitled to an equal share of the colony's produce.

The latter turned out to be the weak point in the arrangement. The fact that everyone got a share of the produce, regardless of how much he or she contributed, generated a massive free-rider problem. Nobody had any incentive to actually do any work. Colonists found a million and one reasons why they just couldn't show up for work on any given day. Contemporary observers estimated that the colony's agricultural output was about one-tenth of its capacity. But in the midst of chronic scarcity and occasional starvation, visitors were amazed to see perfectly able colonists passing the time bowling in the streets, instead of working the fields.
posted by russilwvong at 6:26 PM on July 22 [5 favorites]


(Joke omitted about David Johnston falling on hard times since serving as Governor-General.)
posted by russilwvong at 6:28 PM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Free-rider problems remind me of this story from Debt, in a discussion of societies organized around gift-giving:
In contrast, it’s notoriously difficult—often downright impossible—to shift relations based on an assumption of communistic sharing to relations of equal exchange. We observe this all the time with friends: if someone is seen as taking advantage of your generosity, it’s often much easier to break off relations entirely than to demand that they somehow pay you back. One extreme example is the Maori story about a notorious glutton who used to irritate fishermen up and down the coast near where he lived by constantly asking for the best portions of their catch. Since to refuse a direct request for food was effectively impossible, they would dutifully turn it over; until one day, people decided enough was enough and killed him.
posted by clawsoon at 7:20 PM on July 22 [5 favorites]


Also, he’s still using money. Just not his money. Somebody paid for what he’s eating.

He reminds me of a now-deceased friend of my mother-in-law's, a beloved but very eccentric local activist that lived a life of "voluntary poverty", but often needed rescuing from various minor personal disasters (and, eventually, to be cared for full-time during a protracted terminal illness) by her more conventional friends. As my M-I-L once said of her, "Several of us have paid quite a bit to maintain her poverty."
posted by ryanshepard at 7:34 PM on July 22 [22 favorites]


Peers at the Heath quote. I generally agree about shirking -- it's been the downfall of many a commune -- but the fact he put Jamestown in Massachusetts instead of Virginia doesn't give me enormous confidence in his scholarship!
posted by tavella at 7:34 PM on July 22 [3 favorites]


I've been thinking about this article all day, and it still really bothers me. David Arthur Johnston really bothers me.

I have two children, about the same age as Johnston's children. One of my kids has gone through a serious health crisis just last month and requires twice-weekly visits to the clinic. The other child needs to use a wheelchair from time to time. Oh, and my wife is disabled.

Let's just say that I've spent a lot of time in ER waiting rooms and hospital lobbies over the last few years.

So, if I say, "Hey kids, I'm quitting the rat race. You'll lose your health insurance, and you'll lose your house, and your disabled mom will have to take some kind of job to cover the bills, but I have Important Man Thoughts about the Meaning of Money and so I'm going to Change The World with my crappy blog and my stapled-together pamphlet. But don't worry, I can still give you my integrity," I think you can imagine the response from my children.

I don't have to imagine the response, because I've seen this happen to a middle-aged colleague I used to know. Ten years ago, he had some kind of epiphany about Life and Art and Integrity, and he quit his job and abandoned his family to move to some Rainbow Gathering camp in the mountains to live a Life of Poverty and Purpose. His wife lost the house, the health insurance, the college fund, everything. She now works as a part-time secretary in the same office where her husband was and where I still am. The husband now has a crappy blog that talks about Intentional Living and that features photos of his dirt-floor cabin.

And no, I don't spend time discussing whether the wife should have known that he was a flake and that this was going to happen and so it's really her fault for marrying him and choosing to have not one, but two, children with him. No, we don't have those discussions. But I did help her and her two kids move out of their beautiful house and into the low-rent apartment that she could afford.

I don't know if, like David Arthur Johnston, my former colleague thinks about his children every day. I can promise you that they think about him every day and about what he's done to them.

But hey. Integrity, amirite?
posted by fuzzy.little.sock at 8:45 PM on July 22 [41 favorites]


from Joseph Heath's The Efficient Society:

Ugh. I'd be skeptical of what Heath says, he makes okay points and twists them into questionable arguments.
posted by ovvl at 8:46 PM on July 22


What I'm taking from this is it's possible to be perhaps mentally ill but definitely Out There, to be principled and saintly, to be a spur to social progress and to be a dick, all at the same time.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:17 PM on July 22 [10 favorites]


Money will stop working because “it’s not maintainable without mass psychotic behaviour,” Johnston says.

Money could stop working three days from now if the Sun spit a Carrington event level Coronal Mass Ejection at us tomorrow. The electricity grid alone in the affected areas would take a minimum of six months to partially restore according to most analyses. All satellites all over the world would be destroyed, and so would almost all personal computers in the affected areas. I have the impression without doing the necessary research that the affected area could be a hemisphere or more.

We have built a glittering, world-girdling, absolutely dominant civilization which could be destroyed by an event exactly like one that actually did take place ~162 years ago. As I understand it there are reasonable claims that an even worse event took place in the 8th century.

We would be utterly destroyed by something our very recent ancestors were hardly aware of when it took place.

That's what our money has bought for us.
posted by jamjam at 9:17 PM on July 22 [4 favorites]


Yes, it's total bullshit that I have to have a job, and work to pay my rent in order to have a roof over my head. Humanity generates enough excess, at least from where I stand, that it seems possible to live in a society where everyone's basic needs are met, without demanding that I somehow prove my worthiness to continue existing as a human being. The fact that a series of unfortunate accidents could have me living out of my car, until that too is taken away, and then be rendered homeless, is utterly terrifying. (No judgement against anybody that's found themselves in that situation. I have the utmost respect for anyone who's managed to survive that, I think it would kill me.) There are ways individuals can find their way around having a traditional job in order to survive. (Traditionally, marriage has been one way to get into that sort of an arrangement semi-permanently.) The vast majority in such an arrangement still don't live without money, however. They still physically touch money. Baby formula and diapers (and alcohol and cigarettes) all cost money.

Part of the rejection is the article's framing makes it sound like this man's managing to survive through having found this one weird trick (societies hate him!). Maybe I could learn that trick and get out of the rat race? No, wait that one weird trick is being homeless and surviving on the generosity of friends and strangers alike, and going hungry when you can't find food. To be real, I have some regrets about my life's choices, but helping to take care of my sister's twins, with full understanding of how freaking expensive children are, is not one of them. That's not the only reason I stay in the rat race, but college (if they so choose) ain't going to pay for itself. (It's mostly because I haven't won the lottery yet). It is worth my time to examining my other underlying assumptions that keep me in it, and this article does provide some food for thought, so I'll give it that. (The more privileged among us can point out that maybe I need a better job, one that fulfills me. They're not wrong.) I could start going to the homeless shelter for coffee instead of buying (with money) bougie coffee from the coffee snob place. I could finagle food from the food bank instead of having Instacart deliver it to my house, but for some reason, that doesn't appeal to my sensibilities because I have the money to pay for things. ((Having someone else to pick out groceries for me and bag/box them up, and all I have to do is drive there, hang out some, and they'll put the bags in my car's trunk for me, sounds quite convenient, right?)

Thing is, I'm only punching down if we believe that me, with my fancy having-a-job, and paying-for-housing, is above this man who lives without money. I couldn't do that (and I'm not looking to try), so unless you've bought that net-worth = a person's worth as a human being, it's not punching down. I'm absolutely judging another human being for their life choices (in the same way people are freely judging Bezos' life choices), but we really don't know the full story of him, the mother of his children, and his two children, so my judgement is limited to "oh, so you hate the idea of work. Like, a lot." I know a fair amount of people who choose to live frugally, meagerly, and somewhat off grid - some to to avoid paying taxes, others because the system's rejected them for the crime of being poor, but all of these people still handle money.

I judge this guy as dysfunctional in the same way you would me, if I told you I can't talk to my mother, so my sister performs the (unpaid!) emotional labor to manage my communications with her instead. My sister appreciates that I help watch her kids sometimes, but come on. Is that totally fine in this day and age? Justifying my communication issues with stories of a history of abuse and neglect (as this man has with an anti-money philosophy) doesn't really change the demands I make on my sister's energy to have her perform emotional labor that I won't.

(As far as having a cat. Listen, if your cat's Instagram account doesn't have a thousand followers, management needs to talk to the cat about a performance improvement plan, until they start pulling their own weight on rent/food/medical bills.)
posted by fragmede at 9:24 PM on July 22 [7 favorites]


If you are a big white guy without any significant cognitive or physical impairments, then you can live without money or fixed address with only minimal hassle from the authorities.

What about the article made you conclude with such certainty that this guy has no significant cognitive impairments? (Or has received minimal hassle from authorities?) I don't have direct personal or relevant professional experience, but flabdablet's characterization of Johnston's description of his epiphany as sounding like psychosis seems consistent with what I understand from other such descriptions I've heard from from folks. In which case, a lot of the comments in this thread would indeed be punching down.

Relatedly, why are folks talking about him as having abandoned his kids rather than considering the possibility that their mother might have reasonably concluded that not having him in their lives was better for the kids, and taken steps to make that happen? My reading between the lines is not that he doesn't want contact with his kids - he says he does? - but rather that he's prevented from contact. Eg. even if mom moved away with kids outside of the geographic range where he could stay in physical contact given his refusal to handle money (eg. maybe her family lived elsewhere and she needed their support), he would be able to stay in contact with them through public library computers or the cell phones he's had at times. But he hasn't had such contact, despite saying that he would like to. Which indicates to me that he's likely a problematic parent in some manner, but not in the abandonment manner and thus not necessarily/likely because of his refusal to handle money, as some folks seem to be assuming or concluding.
posted by eviemath at 10:01 PM on July 22 [5 favorites]


I do not see why him pitching a tent in a public park is so bad.


Wait until 99 other generally mentally ill and addicted people join him there for a year, until stabbings and assault force the courts to act, and you may see why.


The 99 other generally mentally ill and addicted people I can at least make allowances for. 99 more Johnstons pitching a tent in a public park... because they can't bring themselves to be sullied with that lucre? Fuck no on Moochville. Seriously. You couldn't do a better job of destroying any kind of empathy for homeless people (people who are desperate to not have to pitch a tent in a park), than showcasing the likes of Johnston and his integrity.

Ok. So I think the guy is a mostly harmless asshole/half baked philosopher, but this comment:

Why no judgment for the mother who had TWO children while in full knowledge that this was her partner's unwavering stance? She also decided that a life of minimal paternal involvement (or involvement with untenable inconsistency and uncertainty) was fine to do to those kids.

To be clear, I'm not certain either parent deserves the vitriol here but if either of them does, both of them do, surely.


...is some of the worst whataboutism I've seen around here, ever. We know one thing about her: she's responsible for raising their kids. Speculate about her foibles if you wish. It remains speculation. What we know is that Johnston can't be bothered.


That's what our money has bought for us.

???

Damn you, money, for bringing us all the prosperity, wonders of technology, increased lifespan, comforts and freedoms, that could all be wiped away with a random chance celestial event. When that happens, Johnston will be looking down smugly at all of us, I can tell you.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:02 PM on July 22 [10 favorites]


tavella: Thanks for pointing out the Jamestown error! This is why I love MetaFilter - I read the anecdote years ago and never noticed the error. The story is from the paper "Property in Land," by Robert Ellickson. It's available online.

ovvl: Nobody's infallible, but I think Heath does a good job of explaining existing institutions like the welfare state. A MetaFilter post.
posted by russilwvong at 10:55 PM on July 22


Money could stop working three days from now if the Sun spit a Carrington event level Coronal Mass Ejection at us tomorrow.

Money has its problems, but random solar flares are not a good reason to get rid of it, and people still managed to have an economy before and after 1859. More to the point of the thread, were such a crisis to occur of that scale, I suspect that, on such a day, this moocher will be just as useless at helping others as he is today. If not more so.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:31 PM on July 22 [4 favorites]


My reading between the lines is not that he doesn't want contact with his kids - he says he does? - but rather that he's prevented from contact.

He calls the mother of his kids "mad" for the crime of wanting him to contribute to the raising of his children. This guy SAYS he wants to have a relationship with them but it sounds like he's only willing to do it on very limited terms with minimal expectations of responsibility. And that's the kindest interpretation. The less kind one is that he makes mouth noises about being interested but doesn't give a shit. Maybe you can characterize that as him being "prevented" from contact with his children but to me it seems like he's preventing himself via his own assholery.
posted by schroedinger at 11:48 PM on July 22 [12 favorites]


Speculate about her foibles if you wish. It remains speculation. What we know is that Johnston can't be bothered.

We don't know that. All we know is that there exist currently irresolvable conflicts between his expressed desire to be part of his kids' life, his evidently unshakeable belief that transactions involving money are morally unacceptable, and his relationship with the kids' custodial parent. Which makes "can't be bothered" speculation as well, and unkind speculation to boot.

It's too easy for people who equate work with paid work to fall into the assumption that somebody with strong objections to being paid has equally strong objections to doing work. There are endless people who do endless work without being paid for it. Johnston would presumably not see that as any kind of injustice, he'd see it as exemplary of how all work should be done.

"From each according to their ability, to each according to their need" appears to be the moral principle at the centre of Johnston's thinking. It's as good a principle as any, but like all strong principles it has a kind of blinding moral glare that risks having it transmuted into lifelong error via unexamined epiphany.

The thing about dependants is that the same principle applies in full force to them. The very nature of the human animal makes it take decades for kids' abilities to outpace their needs. It therefore seems to me that having a serious commitment to from each... to each... and being a parent must necessarily involve putting the immediate needs of the dependants ahead of the desire to model the wider behaviours one wishes were more prevalent in society, in cases where those two aims come into conflict.

But I don't think it takes being an asshole to get that wrong. Endless people run their lives as total captives of rigid ideologies, creating vast amounts of otherwise avoidable suffering for themselves and everybody around them as a result. The fact that Johnston's ideology is unusual doesn't make him an outlier in that regard.
posted by flabdablet at 12:05 AM on July 23 [7 favorites]


He calls the mother of his kids "mad" for the crime of wanting him to contribute to the raising of his children

I suspect that the intended reading of "drove her mad" in this context is mad as in angry, not mad as in insane.
posted by flabdablet at 12:09 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


Around the time this article was published, the UK switched to plastic £5 notes. As a result, ironing one would cause it to warp and shrink and possibly melt.

And it's almost a petty detail to most, but QEII's title is not "Queen of England", thanks to the many Acts of Union. People understand the person you're describing, but the United Kingdom has four constituent nations, at least for now.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:25 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


All we know is that there exist currently irresolvable conflicts between his expressed desire to be part of his kids' life, his evidently unshakeable belief that transactions involving money are morally unacceptable, and his relationship with the kids' custodial parent.

As I just said, I don't think we can at all assume that his opposition to money was the irreconcilable issue. He says that the mother considered him a "chaotic" influence in the kids lives. That usually means either mental illness or addictions, or abusive behavior. (With large possible overlap between those categories.) If the former, it may be related to the intensity of his commitment to not use money, in the sense that both have the same causative factor. We (aside from maybe the I think two commenters who have actually met the guy) don't have enough information to conclude that his refusal to use money was the cause of him being an unhealthily chaotic influence in his kids' lives, or even a major contributing factor.
posted by eviemath at 1:47 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


I suspect that the intended reading of "drove her mad" in this context is mad as in angry, not mad as in insane.

There's a long history of men calling women "mad" that can't be ignored though. And whether "mad" means angry or insane, it's still bad either way. Because he's contrasting his own logical and clear thinking against this woman who he says is "mad", or in other words is being emotional.
posted by FJT at 1:51 AM on July 23 [19 favorites]


I thought this was interesting, thanks. I really like the description this sort of person as a "holy fool". We live in a time of plenty, and our problems aren't caused by freeloaders, but rather by inequality, power, and corruption. I think in some sense, it's a symptom of a relatively healthy society that someone like this can survive.

As for the kids thing, the article really doesn't give us enough information what the story is there. Any version of the story where the mother and kids moved a significant distance away means that not seeing your kids for a decade isn't necessarily dramatic... it's just life. On top of that, staying in touch with, let alone visiting a guy like this sounds like a logistical nightmare, nevermind with two kids (and he's certainly not going anywhere). Maybe the mother and kids are okay? Maybe she's happily remarried and the kids feel like their step-dad is their dad, whereas their biological father is a loved, but distant curio?
posted by Alex404 at 2:55 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]


The comments have at their core a fascinating and super tricky question of how far it is possible to reconcile an individual quest for realisation or the path, the way, the truth, authenticity, whatever we call it, with the individual’s collective responsibilities. Hmmmm... tricky indeed. I lost my way already and slid to judgement, why is the one a quest, the other ‘responsibilities’? The one by implication my choice, the other some kind of alien imposition on me? Maybe better to call them both a quest; the one is about me without others, the second is about me and others, a resounding ‘us.’

It’s the Buddha problem. Was Buddha right to dump his missus so he could pursue his personal quest? To be sure that quest, to save the world, had major collective implications but even that smacks of the ends justifies the means and we’ve learnt to distrust that species of justification (Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means is still the business ). Thich Nhat Hanh in Old Path White Clouds, Parallax, 1991 suggests that the Buddha and Yashodhara (his wife) were discussing his going and she agreed. The night before the renunciation she set out his coat and shoes to be ready for him to leave in the middle of the night. This, to my mind, tells us little other than that the Buddha had a very understanding wife who relieved her husband of the burden of reconciling the 2 quests and does not directly confront the issue at all.

The comments speak of the narcissism of great men - I am not suggesting Johnson is or is not one such - it’s the tension between the ‘me’ and the ‘me as us’ that intrigues me. Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians has 3 out of its 4 wand wavers fit the bill - “a socially tortured, war-torn, ascetic rich boy (Wittgenstein), a narcissist who got his suits cut especially so he could approximate his own rugged mountain-man dream (Heidegger), a randy middle class klutz, equally hopeless at love and life (Benjamin)...” The examples are endless. I love Seneca but want to scream at his personal derelictions, “Read your own writings, man - it’s all there!” Freud famously loved Rilke’s work, met him and dismissed him as a miserable little man not worthy of his own ideals.

‘Holy Fool’ is kind but maybe dresses up the problem in sandals and long flowing white robes. Neat encapsulations of a paradox are attractive, don’t resolve much but can help one focus on the essential. Could be worth a revisit. The Grand Inquisitor's interrogation of Christ in Karamazov is a stand out classic.

For that matter, it’s curious that we insist it be a paradox in the first place, that somehow we can’t trust Johnson’s ‘me quest’ because it might come at the expense of the ‘me as us’ quest. It's even more curious that we are reluctant to recognise the legitimacy of a ‘me quest’ in it’s own right - narcissism is hardly a term of approval and talk of psychotic experiences downgrades the 'me quest' even more. Maybe it is just the way we are. That it tends to be one or the other. An either/ or and a brute fact of human existence. Either we holy fool it or we are good family members. Only rarely both. Either way, I am indebted to the poster and commentators for prompting this debate and helping me to think about my own narcissism and how it sits with my wonderful family.
posted by dutchrick at 2:57 AM on July 23 [10 favorites]


the UK switched to plastic £5 notes. As a result, ironing one would cause it to warp and shrink and possibly melt.


As an aside to the main topic, I noticed the other day that the plastic notes I got out of the bank some time ago and which have regularly been moved from one pocket to the next over 15 months are now fixed in awkward shapes, with what look to be permanent folds across them, and bits sticking out at random angles. I'm wondering whether one of the teeny impacts of the lockdown will be to break the new banknotes that they introduced to last longer.

(Obviously, it may be that lockdown means we pretty much stop using cash at all, or at least very much, so it might be a moot point.)
posted by biffa at 3:44 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Sigh. Another example of a Westerner co-opting Hinduism completely out of context.

I don't know if sannyasin still exist in modern India. When I was a kid, they'd sometimes come to my great-aunt's kitchen door and she'd give them a bit of food. But you have to remember, this is a woman who was orphaned at the age of about 5 or 6, because her father was a lay-about drunkard who couldn't keep a job, then her teenage sister got TB and died because they couldn't afford any medicine, so then her mother stopped eating out of grief and died too, and the dad got a delayed wake-up call and went on a pilgrimage to somewhere (the Ganges? the Himalayas? Unclear) and was killed. Or maybe he just abandoned his remaining children and became a sannayasin.

So my great-aunt and great-uncle were raised by her oldest brother and his wife (my grandparents), who were newly married and surprise! two kids to care for. My grandmother, who was the first woman on both sides of my family to go to college and have a professional career, had to quit her job to take care of them; my mother still has the English china set her colleagues gave her as a parting gift. (I'm realizing now that timeline-wise, this would have been right around Indian independence, so I'm not exactly sure how I feel about that china set in context, but it's undoubtedly lovely.)

Anyway, my grandfather always despised people who didn't contribute to society, in paid or unpaid forms. But my great-aunt always gave food to the sannayasin.
posted by basalganglia at 4:19 AM on July 23 [14 favorites]


a fascinating and super tricky question of how far it is possible to reconcile an individual quest for realisation or the path, the way, the truth, authenticity, whatever we call it, with the individual’s collective responsibilities.

None of us asked to be here. Bringing somebody into the world and then telling them "so, nice little life you have here, now toe these lines if you don't want something to happen to it" strikes me as unconscionable. So I'm personally not super persuaded that my "collective responsibilities" are even a thing, except insofar as they amount to responsibilities taken on in order to keep promises that I've freely chosen to make (including the implied promise of securing care for viable offspring, even if those are unintended consequences of freely chosen sexual activity).

Obviously there are many choices it's better to make than others, even when - sometimes especially when - those choices benefit us collectively more than they benefit us individually. But those choices need to be made because of an understanding that we're all essentially in the same boat, not because we conceive of them as obligatory.

Feeling obligated to do a thing, as opposed to doing it because we understand and accept the necessity for it, is a really strong motivation to finagle and half-ass it and try to wriggle out of it instead of doing it properly. So I think the idea of making choices for our collective benefit is quite a lot healthier than the idea of collective responsibilities.

I am completely persuaded that Johnston does see his hardline refusal to engage directly with money as both completely central to his integrity and something he's doing to try to make the world a better place for his kids. I'm also completely persuaded that he does conceive of that degree of committed integrity as a genuine gift for them.

That I disagree with him on all of those counts doesn't lead me to think of him as an asshole or a mooch or a wannabe sannyasin, just deluded in a particular way that my own experiences let me recognize for what I think it is.

There's a devastating loss of innocence that's part and parcel of coming back from the kind of insanity that's built on the certainty of epiphany. It takes a long time to come to terms with that. Twenty years on, I'm still grieving the loss of mine. I don't begrudge him his, not in the slightest.
posted by flabdablet at 4:46 AM on July 23 [5 favorites]


To be honest, this story disappointed me. There is nothing unusual or special to me about an entertaining grifter who has invented some weird justification for his outrageous behaviour. My ex' best friend was someone like that, I have known several others and I still have a friend who is like that. That the weird justification here is not touching money makes it seem somehow political, which probably attracts a very specific group of people, but it is clearly not political. As someone noted above, there are existing ways to live without money and they involve subsistence farming in community organisation, things this guy probably can't deal with, for various reasons.
Then after reading all the comments here, I can see it does raise an interesting discussion. Most of the people I have known who lived/live similar lives had/have some sort of mental illness. Their close families were/are angry and sad and worried, while friends, strangers and distant cousins were/are fascinated by the magic of it all. These people are different from ordinary homeless in that they know how to "sing for their supper". And I think they have always been part of human society, in some way or another.
Probably a lot of people have some vague dream of escaping from the rat race, and these people personify that dream, while also making it perfectly clear that it comes with a huge cost, thus actually justifying the choice not to escape.

Homelessness in a broader sense is a whole other issue, and it is handled differently in different countries and states. Here we have two distinct groups of homeless, though there is a small overlap: mentally vulnerable people who refuse help, and illegal immigrants. If you are just poor and a legal resident, you will not be homeless or hungry. I wonder how it works in Canada? Because obviously, the situation is completely different in the US, where many MeFites live.
posted by mumimor at 4:46 AM on July 23 [9 favorites]


Is there room in this discussion for Johnston to be neither a holy fool not a grifter? Neither a genuine visionary nor a narcissist? Maybe we can take a page from the predominant critiques of Johnston himself here, and dial back the absolutist thinking and rhetoric?
posted by eviemath at 5:50 AM on July 23 [10 favorites]


I'll happily gift the man a MeFi membership if somebody who knows him wants to memail me with his chosen handle.
posted by flabdablet at 6:35 AM on July 23


“Johnston also throws found change into gutters and garbage bins and cuts out serial numbers on bills.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t he have to physically touch the money to do this? (Also, why not just leave it for some other person who needs it?)
posted by elphaba at 7:37 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Both questions are answered in the linked article.

Not apropos of that, though:

David Arthur Johnston on YouTube
David Shebib on Youtube
posted by flabdablet at 7:45 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]




> Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t he have to physically touch the money to do this?

Not to pick on you, but this is the same line of thinking as, "Al Gore is against climate change, but he flies around the world giving presentations." It's not the gotcha you think it is. He thinks money is evil, and by throwing it away he is ensuring it can't be used. Disagree with the premise (I mean, I do) but trying to catch him on some technicality just makes me think you're doing that because you don't have a strong argument against his central idea. (Again, there are plenty of those. Let's just not be lazy in our criticism.) The person who jumps on vegans for eating honey does so because they want to eat steak without guilt, not because they care about the labor of bees.

As flabdablet says, it's answered (very sensibly) in the article:

> He doesn’t seek out money for this purpose [throwing it away], he says. Rather, he handles it like an offensive picture littering the sidewalk or a swear word carved into a tree: “The idea is to not let kids see it.”
posted by AlSweigart at 7:58 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]


Having now spent some time listening to the man himself expound his ideas, I'm even more convinced than before that what's happened to him involves a solid enchantment with a Big Picture largely of his own devising and that this has come at quite a substantial cost to his grasp of the bleedin' obvious.

I've spent some years living in shared houses with people with very similar mindsets, and I cannot imagine anything more likely to drive me mad with grinding, relentless frustration than attempting to raise children with such a person.

If he were in software development I suspect he'd be an Architecture Astronaut.
posted by flabdablet at 8:19 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


I walk through the heart of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver twice a day, to and from work, and have done for several years. Having that sort of daily experience of it shows one an incredible variety of ways that the at-risk population exist, so I now say basically nothing about "what it's like to be homeless". But I do continually think that if I were in that situation, I would be bored out of my mind and very willing to build castles in my head involving a lot of artificial rules, magical thinking, principled certainty, and hot takes, just to occupy myself and have something like purpose.

When I try to empathize with Johnson, flabdablet's description of epiphanies makes a lot of sense, because both the epiphany and the conflict it engenders creates a structured life that's an investment in itself. Throw in a little sunk-cost fallacy, and it's not hard to see it all as a coping mechanism for the joyless drudgery of not having a fulfilling way to engage otherwise.
posted by fatbird at 8:50 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Maybe she views her decision to have kids with them as a mistake, maybe not, but she is presumably taking care of them, while he is definitely not. So why would there be anything to say about her?

I dunno it just seems like if the kids are cared for and nobody was lied to there's not really much to say about HIM either, vis a vis the kids. The kid-having seems to have been a mutual decision made with eyes open, so if it was a bad idea it was two peoples' bad idea. That's all.

It'd be great if every parent was involved and wonderful, but like...this guy isn't the only person in the world to be checked out of their kids' lives and most folks don't have any reason beyond just not giving a shit. At least this guy's got some circumstances and something approximating an ethos about it.

As others have said, we don't have The Truth. He may well have made promises to become a regular ol' job-having person, or to be a particular kind of stay-at-home dad, and then broken those, but that's as much speculation (and seems deeply unlikely at that) as anything else.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:59 AM on July 23 [5 favorites]


(The idea that his former partner is equally at fault for him abandoning his children is some first-rate mother-blaming though.)


(Also uh, no, what the fuck? the mother isn't to blame for him abandoning them. First, I disagree with the framing that he "abandoned" them, because we have no evidence of that at all. As many people have pointed out, she may have taken them out of reach, gotten his custody or visitation revoked, any number of things.

I'm just saying she decided to have two children with a person having NO REASON to believe that person would provide material support for the kids. And I think that is fine, because I do not think there is a moral imperative for children to have two wage-earning parents or even two parents at all. But if you do NOT think it is fine, certainly it was also her decision.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:08 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


Another example of a Westerner co-opting Hinduism completely out of context.

The ascetic traditions of the Western world are also quite old. No need to frame this as appropriation if he isn't specifically using the language.

I think that so much talk of spirituality now comes from hucksters selling podcasts or justifying extravagant lifestyle choices that it comes across as inherently privileged. But it's not necessarily, or historically, a choice of the wealthy. There were a lot more people to some degree like Johnston hanging around the edges of the church in the 70s/early 80s. I remember some of them who attended ours. My parents "lived in common" for a little while before I was born (note: they indignantly repudiate any implications of free love). And of course there were the Franciscans a few blocks down. They were weird, but mostly earnest, and mostly not well off at all. So I have a somewhat higher tolerance of/respect for this kind of choice than I think many solid settled prosperous bourgeois do. But it does founder on neglect of kids.
posted by praemunire at 9:55 AM on July 23 [7 favorites]


Mod note: A few comments deleted. Please keep the conversation relevant to the article.
posted by loup (staff) at 10:17 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


I'm just saying she decided to have two children with a person having NO REASON to believe that person would provide material support for the kids

We really don't know that. Her viewpoint is not represented in the article at all. He may have lied to her. He may have changed his mind. She may be mentally ill. He does not come off as a very reliable narrator in this article, and even if he did, there are always multiple sides to a story. If we heard from her, or from the kids, perceptions might change quite a bit.

certainly it was also her decision

Why is that certain? For all we know there could be a court order that he not have contact with the children. Or, he could have agreed about where to live and then changed his mind.

I don't understand why people are judging the mother of these kids entirely through what he says. Would you like to be judged based on the unilateral account of your worst ex?
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 10:24 AM on July 23 [7 favorites]


mumimor: Most of the people I have known who lived/live similar lives had/have some sort of mental illness. Their close families were/are angry and sad and worried, while friends, strangers and distant cousins were/are fascinated by the magic of it all. ... Probably a lot of people have some vague dream of escaping from the rat race

That's an acute observation. Economic insecurity is a huge challenge, and people are looking for answers. More progressive taxation and a stronger social safety net? Basic income, a kind of low-barrier welfare program? A strongman leader, like Trump? A revival of socialism?

Homelessness in a broader sense is a whole other issue, and it is handled differently in different countries and states. Here we have two distinct groups of homeless, though there is a small overlap: mentally vulnerable people who refuse help, and illegal immigrants. If you are just poor and a legal resident, you will not be homeless or hungry. I wonder how it works in Canada?

In Victoria and in Metro Vancouver, there's a chronic shortage of housing resulting in high market rents, pushing people out of the area or into homelessness. I know a family from France who came to Vancouver so the father could study English; instead of renting, they bought a recreational vehicle and lived in it.

Politics in BC tends to be quite progressive, with the usual split being between progressives, ultra-progressives, and a conservative minority. Street homelessness is a major issue in Vancouver, tied to concerns about drug addiction, mental illness, policing, and the justice system. The approach so far has been "Housing First," e.g. by setting up temporary modular housing: no matter what other issues people have, homelessness makes dealing with those issues harder.
posted by russilwvong at 10:26 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Why is that certain? For all we know there could be a court order that he not have contact with the children. Or, he could have agreed about where to live and then changed his mind.

I will totally drop this but the decision I refer to is the decision to have the kids.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:36 AM on July 23


You know nothing about that decision either.
posted by tiny frying pan at 10:38 AM on July 23 [5 favorites]


I'm just saying she decided to have two children with a person having NO REASON to believe that person would provide material support for the kids. And I think that is fine, because I do not think there is a moral imperative for children to have two wage-earning parents or even two parents at all. But if you do NOT think it is fine, certainly it was also her decision.)
I just ... c'mon, Blast Hardcheese, you can't be serious here.

It is an absolute moral imperative to be responsible for the lives that we bring into this world. I look at deadbeat dads, and that includes Johnston, with scorn and disgust. He doesn't want to provide child support because blah blah blah she should have known waah waah waah? Well, fuck that. He can't hide behind some mealy-mouth argument of "she was warned". Life doesn't work that way. We don't let people say, "I told you I never wanted kids, so you're on your own".

From TFA:
[The children] were born after he’d stopped using money, and now one is 10, and the other is almost 14. While he says their mother knew before they became involved that he didn’t use money—and was warned that he wouldn’t start using it, even if she got pregnant—it became a problem. “It drove her mad,” he says, “like no matter how much we tried to make it work, not using money was not going to allow it to happen.” It made him unreliable as a father because he couldn’t promise his children consistency. How would he know if he’d be able to get to them at any given time for pre-planned visits? And where would those visits take place?
Lots of good stuff here to unpack that illustrates what a complete and raging asshole we have on our hands with Johnston. To begin with, the line "... we tried to make it work" clearly indicates that for a while Johnston was doing something with the kids and their mother. Plenty of parents provide for their children without handling money; they're called SAHM and SAHD's, and nothing in Johnston's "integrity" philosophy would prevent him from doing that. Maybe the two of them split up and didn't live in the same house? Maybe she has full custody or a restraining order? Fine, Johnston still could have provided support by planting one of those community gardens he's always raving about. A weekly delivery of fresh produce could go a long way towards keeping the kids fed. Maybe she moved out of town? Fine, there's nothing wrong with his legs, so he could start walking or just thumb a ride. And what is this "he couldn't promise his children consistency" line? It's not like he has any other demands on his time, for Christ's sake. What else is he going to be doing... writing in his blog?

I'm disappointed in the many comments here that are blaming the mother or giving excuses for Johnston as to why he isn't providing for his children. There are no excuses. It doesn't matter what he said, or what she said, or what he promised her or what she should have known or what he warned her about. None. Of. That. Matters. What does matter is we now have two more children in the world, and two people who are absolutely morally and ethically and legally responsible for them. There is no greater or more fundamental responsibility that we have than this. One of the two parents stepped up to the plate. The other made up ridiculous excuses and now spends his days mooching around.

Oh, and: karma. Johnston keeps using that word. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.
posted by fuzzy.little.sock at 11:05 AM on July 23 [15 favorites]


I don't understand why people are judging the mother of these kids entirely through what he says.

To be fair, dumping a pile of judgement on people we know only a little about is vastly easier than trying to understand them, especially when they don't live the same way we do or hew to the same moral code.
posted by flabdablet at 11:09 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


We don't let people say, "I told you I never wanted kids, so you're on your own".

Like I said (or thought I said? possibly it was in a deleted comment?) I'm probably a pretty far outlier in my stance on this issue, as I do actually think that should be a valid approach, albeit only when such an agreement is formalized, and that absolutely nobody should be compelled to be a parent. But I will concede my monstrousness and claim my new title as the worst bothsideser in the history of MeFi and step well away.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:19 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


To underscore what fuzzy.little.sock said, no agreement or understanding made between he and the mother of his kids effects either of their responsibilities toward the kids. Financial abortion is not a thing.

this guy isn't the only person in the world to be checked out of their kids' lives and most folks don't have any reason beyond just not giving a shit. At least this guy's got some circumstances and something approximating an ethos about it.

Say what you will about the tenets of David Johnson, at least he's got an ethos.
posted by skewed at 11:22 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]


But can he make the trains run on time? That's the test, if I recall correctly.
posted by flabdablet at 11:23 AM on July 23


First, I disagree with the framing that he "abandoned" them, because we have no evidence of that at all. As many people have pointed out, she may have taken them out of reach, gotten his custody or visitation revoked, any number of things.

There's no question that he abandoned his children. Either literally, by walking away from them, or practically, by holding fast to his principles in such a way so as to make him completely unreliable and useless as a father. We have no way of knowing whether the relationship would have worked out if he had changed his stance on money, but the article is clear that keeping that stance is a major factor in preventing him from seeing his children.

It's selfish. My kids are going to have better lives than me because I am determined to make it so and will sacrifice what I need to to make it happen. I don't say that as a martyr, and I don't say it to get kudos. I say it because my children are my responsibility and I owe it to them to give them opportunities to succeed in life.

The sheer boneheadedness of professing to make the world a better place while refusing to take any responsibility for your own children is pathetic.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:08 PM on July 23 [12 favorites]


‘Holy Fool’ is kind but maybe dresses up the problem in sandals and long flowing white robes. Neat encapsulations of a paradox are attractive, don’t resolve much but can help one focus on the essential. Could be worth a revisit. The Grand Inquisitor's interrogation of Christ in Karamazov is a stand out classic.

Agreed. I was going to write that, in my eyes, a holy fool is self-aware, aware of his own hubris, and that it can happen again in the future.

I also have little patience for Buddha comparisons. Relative to a previous post I posted on this thread, it can be strongly argued that Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. are sophisticated authoritarian structures. Almost all are rooted in a periods of hopelessness and basic survival was almost always at threat. It's to everyone's benefit to have dogmatic beliefs that essentially help disassociate one from their own existential hell. What's changed. Hinduism is based in the most highly stratified culture and economically racist country in the world. Buddhism preaches "nothing" and, because of such, valorizes pain. Zen Buddhism did nothing to prevent the insanity and atrocities that came from Japan in WW2. It can be argued that Gandhi was the Donald Trump (writing letters to Hitler offering advice, dismissive of blacks (in South Africa, I believe) or Harvey Weinstein (bedding with young girls to test his own desire or giving them enemas because of his fetish of cleanliness and purity)

I spent two weeks last August sleeping out of my car. A temporary well-paying job was coming up. I had to wait for the check before I could even think of finding a place or hostel to live. I attempted to frame it in the sense of "maybe I can be a "wandering sadhu" I essentially said "F*ck this. I am not going to "use this as teaching moment" or "lean into the pain" I'm not going to buy in the BS, that "I've created my own reality" I'm hurt. I am homeless. I am scared. I need help.

It's one thing to be a holy fool. It's another thing to come out of being one.

I said to a friend a couple of weeks ago, "If your religion scares the sh*t out of 5 year old then it is bullish*t" I am going to add to that "your principles"
posted by goalyeehah at 12:13 PM on July 23 [10 favorites]


I do not think there is a moral imperative for children to have two wage-earning parents or even two parents at all.

Nobody thinks that. nobody is moralizing about children's moral failure to resurrect their dead dads out of the soil. There is a moral imperative for people who have children, however many they be and however little they earn, to look after those children to the best of their ability.

perhaps this guy has no such ability, and no ability to tell the truth about that either. he wouldn't be the first. but the moral imperative is unaffected, whether he is violating it or whether he is somehow not.

anyone who has ever had any number of parents knows that there is a difference between growing up carefree and easy with never a dad to lose, and growing up with a dad out there in the world whom you know for a fact has chosen to find better things to do than be around you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:46 PM on July 23 [12 favorites]


I was disappointed by the apparently "debatable" question of whether using a gift card is the same as spending money.
posted by bashing rocks together at 1:01 PM on July 23


Money is essentially a gift card that's not tied to any specific vendor. There's a reasonable argument to be made that the vendor specificity is a distinguishing feature; it would be difficult, for example, to create a military/industrial/carceral complex using only McDonald's gift cards unless McDonald's substantially diversified.
posted by flabdablet at 1:14 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Sooo... how does the moral imperative to take care of kids one is partially responsible for bringing into the world align with assistive reproductive technologies such as sperm banks, egg donation, or surrogate parents? Are we saying these are all categorically unethical?

And are we now conflating abandonment with abusive parenting? On the principle of believing women I'm assuming that the kids' mother isn't preventing Johnston from having contact with the kids out of spite or without good reason. But multiple options remain, and we don't know if he abandoned his kids, or if he was a harmful person to have in their lives and thus has been prevented from having contact with his kids for their own good. Assuming the first case in the absence of any reliable, definitive evidence (I don't think we should consider his comments quoted at the end of the article as necessarily reliable) seems to me to be denying the possible agency of the kids' mother. Even if he abandoned his kids, we don't know the full story, and to what extent his views on money played a role versus more common and banal reasons why parents (and fathers in particular) often abandon kids. Again, we have exceedingly little detail to go on from the article, and of the detail we have, I don't think that we can necessarily assume that Johnston is a reliable narrator on this topic.

At the least, I don't see that we have a sufficient amount of detail for the level of vehemence and personal, emotional investment that some folks have been expressing in their judgements of Johnston's parenting.
posted by eviemath at 1:41 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]


(I'm neither a lawyer nor a philosopher, but when has that ever stopped anyone on Metafilter in the past?)

It seems to me that the moral imperative to take care of kids can be transferred through various legal actions. This would cover adoptions, surrogacy, remarriage (if the step-parent then adopts the kids), and so on. As far as we can tell, none of these apply to Johnston, so I see this argument as kind of a red herring.

I'm one of those folks that has been expressing a deep level of vehemence and personal, emotional investment in Johnston's lack of parenting, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it's because I've seen too many other men adopt this Moral Principle of living a Life of Integrity that somehow prevents them from doing basic childcare. Maybe it's because I've seen too many of these same men leave their relationships and refuse to pay child support because their ex-wife is "crazy".

As if. As if that somehow erases your basic responsibility to put food on the table.

But what makes Johnston's story different is that he's not just an average deadbeat dad. No, he's the one who has found THE truth which tells him the one and only moral way to live. Which, conveniently, means abandoning his children.

You want to live on the streets and starve yourself? Fine. But now you want your moral philosophy to mean that everyone should live like you, adults and children, to the extent that not only don't you not touch money for yourself but also you actively destroy money (throwing $1 and $2 coins into the ocean) and actively work against providing for your children? That's crossing the line from harmless fool to dangerous demagogue.
posted by fuzzy.little.sock at 3:10 PM on July 23 [9 favorites]


I feel more like this guy, for whatever reasons, is unemployable. This whole not very well thought out philosophy of his is just... kind of the story he tells himself and the world explaining why he can't work in the system.
posted by some loser at 3:47 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]


Michael Ignatieff observes that in practice we have a range of moral obligations, and that they're strongest towards those who are closest to you (like your children) - after all, they're the ones where you can make the most difference. I suspect that's one reason that people here are having a strong negative reaction to Johnston's complete lack of involvement with his children.
In practice, the claims of ethical universalism came to be strongly limited in Christian teaching and then in European natural law by the injunction that a rich man had a merely voluntary [and thus weaker] charitable obligation to strangers in need. In more general terms, a descending order of moral impingement came into place: the claims of kith and kin first, then neighbors, co-religionists, co-citizens, and only at the very end, the indeterminate stranger. To this day, the claim of the stranger - the victim on the TV screen - is the furthest planet in the solar system of our moral obligations.
posted by russilwvong at 4:52 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


how does the moral imperative to take care of kids one is partially responsible for bringing into the world align with assistive reproductive technologies such as sperm banks, egg donation, or surrogate parents? Are we saying these are all categorically unethical?

My personal view is that choosing to add more human beings to an ecosphere already taking substantial damage from the eight billion of us who already stuff it to the gills is unethical by any means, which probably makes me a worse monster than We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese.

It seems to me that as things have stood for at least the last thirty years, the only genuinely ethically sound option for those looking to raise children involves providing loving, nurturing, safe and stable homes for existing children who currently have none of those things. It's not like they're hard to find.

But I'm not about to start issuing chest-thumping denunciations of people whose beliefs and choices around this and related issues are different from mine. The entire point of a worldview that centres ecosystem health is that diversity is good in and of itself. If everybody in the world thought the same way I think and chose the same things I choose, we'd all get along really well for a while but pretty soon we'd be just fucked.
posted by flabdablet at 10:27 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


This whole not very well thought out philosophy of his is just... kind of the story he tells himself

He has at least that much in common with the other eight billion of us.
posted by flabdablet at 10:30 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Modern public intellectuals -- what we would classically call philosophers -- whose area of expertise/theorizing touches EVEN A LITTLE on family life can expect to have their family relationships interrogated on the regular, and eventually publicly. Like, it's in bad academic taste for other professors to interrogate your family, but if you get sufficiently famous to be quoted in mainstream publications, eventually your kids are going to answer questions about you. Peter Singer's kids have given interviews about growing up with him as their father (he seems fine), and who's the economist who argues that cash gifts only are the most efficient gift-giving? His daughter has given highly-amused interviews -- which people have posted about here on MetaFilter -- wherein she laughs and says "I mean yeah that's what he SAYS, but he really gives super-normal Christmas gifts" and she clearly enjoys him as a father and human being. Bertrand Russell, his daughter wrote a book about how crap a father he was. (She still liked his philosophy, tho.) Steve Jobs (to chose a more modern "visionary"), extremely crap father.

So I don't think it's wrong or bad to look at a man whose theories clearly massively implicate how one would conduct family life, and to consider his theories in two ways: 1) in and of themselves, divorced from his personal reality; and 2) as coming from a person who fathered two children and has no contact with them and has totally failed to consider how his philosophy (when universalized) impacts family life when it massively impacts family life.

Like, if you study Martin Luther, you can begin with his copious writings, and move on to Philip Melanchthon's copious writings about Martin Luther. But at a certain point, when you are trying to understand Luther as a man, and trying to understand the human being who underlies Martin Luther's writings, you need to understand his overbearing, demanding father. You need to understand his tutors. And you need to understand that he rejected his vow of chastity, married a former nun, and fathered six children -- some of whom survived and had Things To Say about their father. (Mostly what survives is favorable, if not affectionate.)

Great men (mostly men, to date) whose thinking survives the test of time, who were married, who were fathers, have those rough edges sanded off by time and posterity. Very few people know that Socrates had at least three sons. Socrates, as I noted earlier, was an utterly shit father and husband (as far as we know). A lot of people don't know Martin Luther was a father, and he exists in the full harsh light of history! And even philosophers are not immune from judging other philosophers by their parenting: Peter Singer, philosopher and father, had criticism for the parenting choices of Amy Chua, feeling her choices focused too much on her own children at the expense of all children. [feminist critique of Singer criticizing a mom goes here; there are a lot of them, I know]

Alison Gopnik, who wrote my favorite philosophy/parenting book ever, "The Philosophical Baby," (which is mostly about how the emerging neuroscientific understanding of how babies learn/understand informs classical philosophical questions like "how do we learn?" and "what is love?" and "how do we know things?"), points out that a prominent encyclopedia of philosophy had something like twenty dang pages on "angels on the head of a pin" but two one-line entries on "parenthood." I love me some Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Rousseau, whose theories of child development and education underlie huge portions of the American educational system, has very clearly never raised a child. Possibly has never met one! Has fascinating things to say about his own apparently pretty good father who did a fairly good job meeting him where he was at as a child! TAKES NONE OF THAT ON BOARD as he theorizes from first principals about how human children work, probably, I mean, if they appear fully-formed and half-rational, maybe, who knows, babies seem noisy, let's pretend children appear de novo at the age of reason and start there.

Desiderius Erasmus has definitely not spent time with toddlers, but has a LOT TO SAY about toddlers. And apples. And toddlers with apples, and how that explains God. That is not how toddlers work, Erasmus, and stop handing toddlers food they will choke on to illustrate how God works. You're a celibate priest, man; you don't know how toddlers work, your metaphors are bad! But no one will notice your metaphors are bad for like 500 years until women who have actually raised toddlers are allowed to have ideas about philosophy, and are like, "Your ideas are fine? But your metaphors are INSANE." Until then, your God-metaphors about toddlers will mostly be critiqued by other celibate priests who have never changed a diaper, and sometimes by nobleman-philosophers who have wives and nannies for that.

All of which is to say, if this guy were to turn out to be an influential philosopher remembered by history, history will file off his shitty parenting and remember his ideas, and only scholars who get really deep into it will touch on his bad parenting as a footnote to his important ideas. But it's also totally fair to consider his parenting w/r/t his ideas, and modern thinkers absolutely have to expect that is coming from the jump. And I think it's a mark that we've become more sophisticated, holistic thinkers that we don't let philosophers divorce public life (the realm of men/the market/money) from private life (the realm of women/the home/gifts). That is a major flaw of Western philosophy. You read Hobbes or Locke (for your foundational American philosophy course), and it's startling how they're just like, "I mean, here's how men in the public sphere should interact and I will give you 500 carefully-considered pages about it, but if you have kids, like, that seems like a lady problem that your wives should deal with? Maybe they can read the Bible and stuff? And do that? I dunno, take your sons away from your wives slightly before puberty, wives are dumb and will teach them dumb things. Don't worry about your daughters, it's okay if they're dumb." They're all "Family life is the foundation of democracy!" and Catholicism's all "Family life is the foundation of the Church!" but neither of them have much to say about how family life, the realm of WOMEN, actually works.

In a lot of ways, it's not surprising that this guy should spend so much time reacting against the marketplace and money -- which also means the traditional, male public sphere -- because it has such a massively outsized role in our philosophical lives. How different would our theories of interaction, of transaction, of morality, of value, of education look, if we took seriously the fact that human thought begins in day-old infants? That the largest portion of human education occurs in infants and toddlers, and mostly (in the West) from their mothers? That the vast, vast majority of the interactions and transactions that most of us experience are not in the marketplace, but in the family? (Either as children, or as spouses, or as parents, or as members of an extended family.)

I spent over an hour today letting my 9-month-old niece feed me pretend food -- a massive intellectual leap she just made today and could NOT stop repeating, where she would put a spoon in an empty bowl, offer it to me, I'd pretend to chomp it, and then we'd both make eating noises. (HOW MUCH INTELLECTUAL STRUCTURE DOES IT TAKE TO KNOW HOW A SPOON AND BOWL WORK AND TO PRETEND THERE'S IMAGINARY FOOD IN IT AND THEN ACT IT OUT????? IT'S AMAZING!!!!!) When she is older, as my older nieces and nephews do, she will come to me with Big Questions about philosophy and theology, which my siblings and in-laws delightedly pass off to me with "Ask Aunt Eyebrows, she knows!" And I love answering those questions! But I'm not sure I've ever participated in as big a philosophical leap as I participated in today, where a baby learned to pretend, and learned to pretend she was sharing, and learned that pretending itself could be shared.

It's good to have theories about the marketplace, because the marketplace perverts human relationships. (And I think this guy is right about a bunch of stuff! Although I do think he's probably also dealing with a bunch of stuff. Which doesn't negate his rightness, but points out how his lifestyle choices aren't remotely universalizeable.) But man, if you want to have anti-marketplace theories, have theories about the family and about very small children, because that is an empty philosophical void filled with all the stuff that turns us into thinking humans.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:34 PM on July 23 [28 favorites]


Desiderius Erasmus has definitely not spent time with toddlers, but has a LOT TO SAY about toddlers. And apples. And toddlers with apples, and how that explains God. That is not how toddlers work, Erasmus, and stop handing toddlers food they will choke on to illustrate how God works. You're a celibate priest, man; you don't know how toddlers work, your metaphors are bad!

Strong Jo Brand on Pliny the Elder vibe there :-)

Eyebrows, I love your grasp of the bleedin' obvious and offer heartfelt thanks forever for every furiously lucid exposition of it. We need more of that.
posted by flabdablet at 10:46 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


You want to live on the streets and starve yourself? Fine. But now you want your moral philosophy to mean that everyone should live like you, adults and children, to the extent that not only don't you not touch money for yourself but also you actively destroy money (throwing $1 and $2 coins into the ocean) and actively work against providing for your children? That's crossing the line from harmless fool to dangerous demagogue.

Ooor, as some of us have been trying to point out, and especially given that Johnston isn't exactly gaining anything positive from his philosophy (such as it is), maybe he just has some element of mental illness?
posted by eviemath at 11:08 PM on July 23


In a way, I think the anger, if there is anger, should be directed towards the journalist and Johnston's friends who all seem to admire his "philosophy" and "dedication". I have no doubt that Johnston is a vulnerable person who has developed a method that makes him feel he has some agency in the world. Above, I called him a grifter, which may seem harsh in an age where grifters like Trump become president of the USA, but most grifters I have met have been people like Johnston: vulnerable and scared, unable to handle the pressures of society. I think it is possible to offer them friendship and a couch and a meal now and then without buying into whatever bs theories they peddle.
The part about his children is tragic, and I hope his former partner is able to give them a safe and happy childhood. But what is enraging is that the journalist lets him get away with saying that he does what he does "for his children", which is clearly bullshit. There are lots of ways that could have been handled with more journalistic integrity.
People like Johnston should not have children. But life is never clean and orderly. Who knows what went through their minds when they decided to become parents? And who knows who will be a good parent?
posted by mumimor at 12:08 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Ooor, as some of us have been trying to point out, and especially given that Johnston isn't exactly gaining anything positive from his philosophy (such as it is), maybe he just has some element of mental illness?

Maybe, but that's not really how the story is presented. It portrays him as a generally reasonable and competent, voluntarily homeless man espousing a novel (and plainly flaky) philosophy with great conviction. If we're to take that at face value, why is it difficult to find him at least somewhat repugnant?

This kind of presentation does a disservice to homeless people everywhere who have a lot less choice in their predicament. They're just a bunch of square pegs who can't hold their shit together, sitting around contemplating the folly of money, and mooching a living, like this guy, right?

Perhaps the whole problem so many have with the guy stems from the article taking him far too seriously, and reading it in good faith. As presented, the spectrum between holy fool and grifter, genuine visionary and narcissist is razor thin.

Mental illness? Why not? There's obviously room in this discussion for speculation. His defenders so far seem to depend on it.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:15 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


All of which is to say, if this guy were to turn out to be an influential philosopher remembered by history, history will file off his shitty parenting and remember his ideas, and only scholars who get really deep into it will touch on his bad parenting as a footnote to his important ideas.

I think one thing that's maybe not coming out as strongly as perhaps it should in this thread, despite frowner's useful contribution, is that it is probably a mistake to take this person as a philosopher instead of its inverse. One problem is that the term "holy fool" has both theistic and ableist aspects which I don't like, although it does roughly cover the sort of territory we're talking about. Fundamentally, I think what I value here doesn't come from the wisdom he loves and pursues, but the ways in which he offers an example (which I don't mean in the sense of "setting an", but rather in the sense of his life being a thing I can take something from) of someone abandoning a particular kind of wisdom.

Here's where I'm at, at this point in my life. I don't think people have duties or deserts. I don't think anyone deserves anything good or bad. I don't think people owe or are owed debts, earn punishment or reward, or have either rights or responsibilities. "Is" does not imply "ought" and all of the effort that clever people have put into arguing otherwise ain't going to make it so. As Death says: THERE IS NO JUSTICE, THERE IS JUST US. There's no wisdom to be found that will change this. People have been looking for thousands of years: it's not going to turn up under a sofa cushion now. It ain't there. We are not free beings, we neither choose to live nor to live as we do: the only freedom we can hope for is freedom from the illusion that we are free beings who need the shackles of desert to constrain and correct that mythical liberty.

Believing this doesn't lead to David Johnstone's system of beliefs. It's as antithetical to his belief system as to every other system of ethics. It also doesn't mean that we can't have reasoned preferences about conduct, the treatment of others, societal organisation and all the other things that ethics covers. I certainly do (and I generally don't bring up my underlying scepticism about the usually presumed justification for such preferences). Stopping believing in this stuff doesn't seem to turn us into monsters, although I'm sure that's not for me to judge in my own case. What it means is honesty about our preferences, without claiming we're being forced into holding them by some hidden impartial system, rather than by what we ourselves are.

A currency-based economic system is both founded on the notion of abstract desert and reifies it. It doesn't just say you can quantity exactly how much of the goods of the world each person has a right to, but actually provides a way of dividing up all the goods capable of being transferred by wilful act. There are other systems of distribution operating alongside this, but this system is our primary tool of distribution. I like that Johnston is mounting a futile and quixotic all-out attack on this system. I like that, in respect of many aspects of life, he clearly doesn't care what people think of him.

The things I and others dislike about Johnston, in particular his treatment of his children, do not, I think, emerge as a consequence of him rejecting what he rejects. For me the problem is that he replaces that with another myth he can use to avoid being honest with himself about who he is. He claims he's following a moral imperative and uses that belief to deceive himself about his callous behaviour. He doesn't care about the opinions of other people, but he cares about the supposed divine opinion of the universe. That seems to be what lets him feel OK about not bothering to be a parent. At the same time, I can't help but feel it unlikely that he'd parent if he believed wholeheartedly in capitalism. I think he'd just have a different story to tell himself.
posted by howfar at 2:42 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


He doesn't care about the opinions of other people, but he cares about the supposed divine opinion of the universe. That seems to be what lets him feel OK about not bothering to be a parent.

I've read and heard nothing that counts as strong enough evidence in support of either of those opinions to give them much credence. In particular, it's pretty clear to me that Johnston does not feel OK about his present relationship with his kids. I wouldn't either if I were in his cardboard lined shoes.

We are not free beings, we neither choose to live nor to live as we do: the only freedom we can hope for is freedom from the illusion that we are free beings who need the shackles of desert to constrain and correct that mythical liberty.

Believing this doesn't lead to David Johnstone's system of beliefs.


Wouldn't get a ciggie paper between that and the system of beliefs outlined in "On Transitioning From Capitalism To Heaven" linked above.
posted by flabdablet at 3:21 AM on July 24


Also quite interested in the thoughts of other thread participants on who is the more egregious and objectionable mooch: David Johnston or Jeff Bezos? My money's on Bezos, obviously.
posted by flabdablet at 3:23 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


The thing about being a holy fool: A holy fool is someone who can't make the common sense choice - you can offer them a million dollars, you can threaten them with the law, you can beg them to stop because you love them, you can explain the flaws in their reasoning and you won't get anywhere because their being is inseparable from acting on their beliefs. And yet they don't qualify as "mentally ill" in the popular senses - they don't have obvious delusions*, they are capable of making lives for themselves that they find satisfying and they seem to understand and respond to the world around them. To all appearances, they believe their beliefs**.

For most of us, a little inconvenience stops us from acting on our beliefs! At extraordinary moments, we may act on our beliefs in the face of inconvenience, expense and the police, but in general that's not how people are. It's not because we're terrible, it's because we're humans living in a human society that is pretty rigid.

People like Johnston are not, in my opinion and experience, capable of being good citizens, present fathers, etc. They're not normal. They're not grifters and they're not delusional, but they don't work like average people and you can't make them work like average people. What they do is not universalizable - they're not moral examples. Their presence is a gift because it throws sharply into relief the meaning of the assumptions we make every day, the benefits of how we live and the cruelties, inconsistencies and stupidities of how we live.

Whatever you want to call it - conventional middle class American morality, or whatever - responds to this by saying "everyone is basically the same, if you don't do what we've decided is the right thing, you're either a grifter or delusional, and if you're not a grifter or delusional we are required to assume that you are actually a spiritual leader and follow your path, so if your path has flaws that means actually we're back to grifter-verus-delusional". Recuperating everything under the sign of the same.

That whole "close responsibilities versus far responsibilities" thing from upthread - well hey, what if I decide that in fact my responsibilities to the remote are much greater than my responsibilities to the close? A lot of feminists, for instance, and by no means only posh white ones, have not been very great mothers - and yet they got a lot done for women as feminists! What if I decide that to the best of my ability and understanding I'm going to ditch my family and work for the common good? Middle class American logic says that I'm either a grifter or delusional, because close-up responsibilities come first, but I would suggest that this is a bad description of human history.

With Johnston: The minute you start talking about people like this, you get into all kinds of questions that are in fact tricky to answer satisfactorily. Why do so many people on this thread think that he's mentally ill but don't think that, eg, wingsuit sportspeople who have high odds of dying and thereby abandoning their families are mentally ill? Why is Johnston mentally ill but extreme Medecins sans Frontieres types aren't? Why is he mentally ill but Jimmy Swaggart wasn't? Similar questions can be asked about grifting but are, I think, less interesting.

What is a good life? How much can we force people to live a life we approve of? Who is mentally well, who is ill and what's a grift?

The whole point about "holy fools" (not an ideal term but the first that comes to mind) is that they're not "spiritual leaders" or people you need to imitate, but they're also not grifters or deluded people who should be exposed or forced to change. They are people who cannot help but radically not-fit-in, people who set at naught a lot of our "everyone is or ought to be like X and if they're not they're crazy or evil" beliefs.

*Is it delusional to believe you had a religious experience?
**I find it sort of weird to fall back on the whole "this guy doesn't believe his beliefs; although he's not a grifter, he has just made shit up because his life is hard" bit. How do we prove, then, that anyone believes their beliefs? Are the only people who get to have philosophies affluent, educated and happy people whose beliefs don't offend us?
posted by Frowner at 5:47 AM on July 24 [18 favorites]


Like, human societies, even the best of them, have to have a lot of structure, habit and custom in order to pass on knowledge, protect children and the elderly, provide consistent food and medicine, etc. That's just how things work, it's not that we're all "repressed" and need to be "liberated" and get rid of habit. But it's good to be able to think about and deal with the costs, stupidities and cruelties that come with structure, habit and custom rather than just trucking along saying "everyone is like X or they're crazy or a con artist, X is after all the correct and rational and costless way to be".
posted by Frowner at 5:50 AM on July 24 [11 favorites]


*Is it delusional to believe you had a religious experience?

As you might imagine, I have spent a lot of time pondering that question.

Best answer I can give so far is no, it's not delusional to believe you had a religious experience, but unless you subject the various beliefs you carry away from that experience to thorough cross-checking, many of those will subsequently prove to be and to have been delusional.

Among the common beliefs that people often report holding incredibly strongly after such experiences, I personally rate the ones about the existence of some huge and overarching entity with something resembling a universal loving consciousness as delusional.

I think that this kind of belief arises after entering into a particular mental state where one simply becomes incapable of drawing distinctions, including distinctions between between oneself and everything else or between past, present and future, and yet finds that the experience of awareness persists unabated.

This is a state that can be accompanied by intense euphoria and/or intense terror and/or intense love and/or all of the above and more; the intensity is overwhelmingly profound, as is the feeling of clarity, and the logical conclusion - that self and universe and this limitlessly expansive God-consciousness are in fact not only real but identical - feels overwhelmingly, transparently, obviously, instantly known in ways that simply won't fit into words.

But it's a conclusion that doesn't pay the gas bills. And when my brain is being operated in states that do pay the gas bills, it's a belief that I have found completely devoid of explanatory or predictive power.

Lovely thing to visit, though.
posted by flabdablet at 6:24 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Maybe, but that's not really how the story is presented.

And we have no agency as readers?


That was an important and useful correction on my last comment, Frowner, thanks. I was trying to express the idea that none of thinking of Johnston as a philosopher, thinking of him as an example for others to live by, or thinking of him as a grifter or as someone whose ideas can be dismissed entirely seemed accurate to me or to the situation, but in trying to push back on one such assumption I went a little too far in the other direction.

The detail or the assumption inherent in a number of other comments that I'm trying to push back on is that, although clearly something has gone wrong with his parenting situation, we don't have enough information to conclude that it is due to Johnston's thoughts about money. One could, theoretically, be an involved, loving, and sufficiently consistent (so as not to have others describe one as a chaotic influence in kids' lives) parent without dealing with money. We may more often see this in situations where a mother is entirely economically dependent on a father, who earns and controls all of the household money in what is almost always a very controlling and abusive setup due, at the least, to the inherent power imbalance. Though there are certainly examples in eg. some modern religious communities where the mother in such a situation finds not having to deal with money at all a benefit and relief. What does it say about our assumptions, or about our economic and social systems, that we can't imagine similar positive contributions to child rearing from a parent who doesn't handle money but has more independence and isn't in a relationship with such a power dynamic?

Or is there maybe an element of implicit assumption that perhaps any sufficiently large deviation from standard convention inherently makes one a bad parent in some way? (And if so, why? Eg. could folks think of some different example of a parent who has a principled opposition to some significant standard convention and who acts on that principle consistently who would still feel, emotionally, like a good parent to you?)
posted by eviemath at 6:46 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


He hasn't SEEN his kids in a decade. And yeah, we don't know exactly why. But we know that he isn't currently contributing in any parental way at the moment. That's going to bring judgment, whether that's earned or unfortunate or what.

I see your points about our assumptions in general about parenting, and I agree. But this is one case we are talking about and it is obviously going to push people's buttons because the reason HE gives for it not working out is because of his philosophy.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:59 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Another thing this story illustrates: How stupid it is to have the wellbeing of kids depend utterly on their parents' money. I mean, for a moment let's take Johnston at his word - he was seeing a woman who really loved him and really wanted kids and, like many people, believed that their love and a child would be enough to change an aspect of their relationship. It would indeed drive her "crazy" when this guy still refused to use money - it would drive me absolutely wild with frustration because it is difficult to have a co-parent who can't even catch the bus.

Speaking as someone who is on the fringes of some odd milieux, it seems likely to me that Johnston's partner is not in fact a well-off woman with a nice, reliable car and comfortable living circumstances. When Johnston says, "I can't get to the kids without money and we don't have anywhere to have visits" that could easily be true - let's say that his partner lives with her parents or is herself precariously housed. Like, it can be hard to maintain visits when you're really poor even if you handle money and have an old car available, and it gets pretty frustrating if your co-parent can't show up even if he can't show up because his work schedule is precarious and his car breaks down.

I mean, it's also possible that Johnston is just a terrible father and would be a terrible father if he had the ability to teleport and lived in Baba Yaga's hut, but how much easier it would be to be a good father if, eg, transit were free and children were guaranteed a dignified and decent standard of living.
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on July 24 [15 favorites]


I can definitely see how his "everything just works out" attitude combined with his description or his relationship with his children and their mother and the inconsistencies in his world view (which isn't just a him thing, but a person thing) raises alarm bells. The way the article describes him reminds me of the people I've known who act like life just happens to them, and they frequently don't acknowledge the work other people have put in to making sure life happens (or their own role/ the role of their various privileges has in how things turned out). We of course aren't getting the full picture, but the picture we do see is what we have to work with.

He overdid it and found himself lying on his side behind a bush. “I was just pukey drunk,” he says. “It was embarrassing. And then it just hit me. Like, I've had enough of this. I'm not playing this game anymore. And I was done. I had no use for money.”

It's sort of interesting to me that his "I'm done" moment was after a bender. He wasn't done with partying, he was done with money. Like money in his pocket meant he'd be over-indulging, and I wonder if that was a conscious decision for him and the article doesn't address it, or if he also skips over that in his mind as well.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:42 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]


Are we sure that this guy's last purchase of "beer, cigarettes, pot" wasn't of, like, hundreds of tons of each?
It would be easy to live without money if you had an underground warehouse full of booze, smokes and weed.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:20 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


how much easier it would be to be a good father if, eg, transit were free and children were guaranteed a dignified and decent standard of living.
Where I live that is the basic reality. But we still have fabulous dads like Johnston, including one of my friends. I worry for the children, and I am afraid the prospects are not good. Obviously, I try to help, but the need here far transcends what I can provide, as a human being with her own issues.
posted by mumimor at 12:17 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I find it sort of weird to fall back on the whole "this guy doesn't believe his beliefs; although he's not a grifter, he has just made shit up because his life is hard" bit.

I both agree with you and also think this type of response can be part of a certain kind of useful reaction to people like Johnston. I mean, as a way to reach a worldview, making shit up because life is hard seems preferable to accepting shit powerful people tell me because it makes their lives easier. If I have to eat a shit sandwich, I guess I'd rather it was made with my own shit.
posted by howfar at 2:14 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


ghost phoneme: The way the article describes him reminds me of the people I've known who act like life just happens to them, and they frequently don't acknowledge the work other people have put in to making sure life happens

Yes, you hit it right on the head for me here. If his dentist friend decides to give him a set of dentures, that is not karma. It's not an abstract force of the universe making things easier for him. It's a friend devoting considerable time and resources to give him a valueable gift (one that many people on this world cannot afford or get gifted) and it should at least be acknowledged as such. That's what friends do.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:10 AM on July 25 [8 favorites]


Not interviewing his children's mother makes this article sexist. We have a guy just like him in Brazil: sweet eyes, placid demeanor, Big Truths about society and abandoned kids that are never mentioned.
Seems to be an ancient tradition stretching all the way to Gautama Buddha
posted by Tom-B at 6:32 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]


how much easier it would be to be a good father if, eg, transit were free and children were guaranteed a dignified and decent standard of living

He still would not be living with his kids or providing for them so I doubt how much he could be a "good father" when he’s given up caring for them. Regardless of the social and economic context, he still left. There are fathers who abandon their kids even in societies with good public transport and good welfare options! Support from the government is not meant to be a complete replacement for parental care.
posted by bitteschoen at 6:46 AM on July 26


There are farms which accept volunteer workers in exchange for a room and 3 meals a day, through the WWOOF organization for example. Many of them even have a lower number of hours, like 20-30 hours per week. No money is exchanged in either direction. For the able-bodied, this would be a great way to escape money entirely, for as long as the farm would keep you on (maybe years?)

But I don't think Johnston is interested in daily manual labor in exchange for sustenance. I think he fits best in a city, in areas with foot traffic, where he can demonstrate his abandonment of money as a kind of performance art. Maybe he's some sort of Diogenes. Perhaps he has opened some people's minds to the idea that there are other possibilities, other ways of life than the standard paths laid out by the systems most of us conform to. Society needs the outliers to remind us that we aren't as trapped as we think.
posted by TreeHugger at 8:12 AM on July 26 [2 favorites]


I do not know if Johnston is or is not a good father or would or would not be under different circumstances, and neither does anyone else commenting here. As Tom-B alluded to, we don't have all of the perspectives necessary to make that judgement. Which means that comments such as this
He still would not be living with his kids or providing for them so I doubt how much he could be a "good father" when he’s given up caring for them. Regardless of the social and economic context, he still left.
say more about our own assumptions than anything else. Some assumptions this comment appears to demonstrate:
  • Non-custodial parents after a divorce categorically cannot be good parents, regardless if the reason for the custodial setup is something like parents living very far apart - eg. one parent was from a different country, didn't have citizenship, and had to return to their home country (almost certainly not the case with Johnston (although I have specific reason to believe there is some international overlap between Canadians and Americans among the travellers who frequently sleep in Victoria parks, which might or might not be the demographic that Johnston's kids' mother falls into), but an example that might call into question the categorical assertion made, that folks without experience at the lower economic margins of society might still be able to understand and empathize with).
  • Being a good parent categorically requires contributing financially/materially to a child's life - eg. my previous example of a housewife mother in, say, a strict religious community who neither earns nor handles any of the household finances could not possibly be a good parent under this categorical statement.
  • Parents who have any physical or mental disability that limits their ability to either live with their kids (eg. post divorce/break-up from the other parent) or financially/materially provide for their kids are categorically correspondingly limited in the extend to which they can be good parents - hopefully I don't have to spell out the problematic ableism here.
  • There is also a bit of an implication between the lines in this comment that parents who don't live together are necessarily only partially good parents, which is not borne out by evidence from actual family outcomes.
And, as a reminder, we don't know if/that Johnston left his kids. He may have, but he also may not have - we don't have enough information to determine this.
posted by eviemath at 4:01 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Side note: WWOOFs aren't necessarily/generally a year-round housing option, and most of them that I know of do involve some monetary exchange. Labor law might otherwise view a WWOOF arrangement as akin to an unpaid internship, and there are more restrictions on that in Canada than in the US, as I understand it.
posted by eviemath at 4:06 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


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