As the father of an 18-month-old, I sometimes find myself sitting in the sandbox watching my daughter stomp over to some other unsuspecting toddler and doing something breathtakingly anti-social -- snatching a bucket from some boy's hands or yoinking a toy out of the grasp of a kid she towers over. And a big part of parenting is walking over and saying, calmly but firmly, "No. We don't do that."
We don't do that. That's the motto of the socialization process, and we all - from the time we emerge from the womb - till our last breaths are ceaselessly being taught in obvious and subtle ways the rules of society, of what is and isn't tolerated, what is and what isn't done.
And this is, of course, necessary and vital. Observing social taboos, wanting to be respected and liked by our peers. In short, caring what other people think is, in some deep sense, the cornerstone of civilization. It is our default setting, and makes human flourishing possible. But there are many circumstances in life when caring too much about about the esteem of our peers, about what just "isn't done," is massively destructive.
There were many executives inside Enron who probably would have spoken up or called the Feds if they weren't so worried about destroying their relationships with their co-workers. There were many bankers and brokers during the housing bubble who went along with a massive Ponzi scheme because pointing out that it was all scam was something that, well, "we don't do."
And there are many reporters who have seen much more than they'll ever tell their readers because they do not want to invite recriminations or sanctions from their peers or their sources. They want to stay in everyone's good graces.
Certain people though, are able somehow to transcend our deep socialization when the circumstances call for it, they're able to recognize corruption or duplicity that others just accept in order to get along, and I have always had a special admiration for those people, who, when it matters are willing to proclaim loudly, even rudely. This is effed up.
Michael Hastings was that kind of person. The 33-year-old reporter and author died early Tuesday morning in a car wreck, a brutal, tragic loss that has robbed the world of an exemplary journalist, and singularly talented writer. He wrote detailed, diligent, riveting reportorial prose, that made things uncomfortable for politicians, flacks and officials of all kinds.
His blockbuster Rolling Stone article Runaway General about Stanley McChrystal painted a picture of a senior military leader who'd rolled his commander in chief and grown contemptuous of his civilian bosses. It led to McChrystal being canned and I think was a turning point for the Obama administration from doubling down in Afghanistan to getting out.
Of course, there was a backlash. See you, Michael, "We don't do that."
Now, some of those people who are willing to yell out that the 'Emperor Has No Clothes' turn out to be people you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with, some are just kind of jerks who are in the right place in the right time, people whose natural anti-social inclinations turn out to be useful and adaptive under certain circumstances but make them pretty tiresome otherwise.
But what was so amazing about Michael was that he wasn't that way. He liked to argue, he could be irascible, but he was also kind and generous and charming and earnest. And you got the sense in talking to him that he wanted to be liked. Which is what makes his body of work all that more remarkable.
Last night as I was sitting alone, processing his death, I thought about him writing up the first draft of that McChrystal article, knowing that publishing it would mean that the very important senior military officials he'd spent all that time with would hate him, would feel betrayed, that the White House would never trust him, that others in press corps would view him as violating an unwritten code that future sources would be less likely to talk to him.
I think of charming, likable Michael sitting alone in the cold light of his laptop staring at his computer, reading the draft one more time and knowing all of that was about to happen, and then I picture him clicking send.