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Why Everyone Needs an Arch-Nemesis

Without haters, who will be your motivators?

When conservative pundit William F. Buckley died in 2008 from emphysema and diabetes, his intellectual archrival Gore Vidal took it as an opportunity to piss on the dead man’s grave (figuratively speaking). Buckley was a drunk, fascist, ass-kissing liar, Vidal wrote in a remembrance published by TruthDig. The vitriol only continued from there, with Vidal calling Buckley a “dishonorable American,” “a hysterical queen” and reiterating his previous charge that Buckley was a “crypto-Nazi,” an allegation for which Buckley unsuccessfully sued Vidal in 1972.

It was the latest in a feud that started 40 years prior when ABC pitted Buckley and Vidal against one another for a series of 10 televised debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions, as chronicled in the recent documentary Best of Enemies. These type of political debate shows are produced ad nauseam now, but this was innovative shit for 1968. It vaulted ABC to No. 1 in the ratings for that political season, captured America’s budding Culture War and foreshadowed the trend of TV shows featuring white guys yelling over one another. And unlike the manufactured rivalries of today’s politics-media complex, these men genuinely despised each other. Their enemyship was legendary.

Some might think Vidal borderline sociopathic for having never forgiven Buckley. But Vidal’s ability to hold a grudge to the grave wasn’t a weakness. Rather, it was his greatest strength. For Vidal recognized the value of a powerful enemy.

Indifference doesn’t make for a sound nemesis relationship. A quality nemesis consumes your every waking thought. You stay awake at night plotting his demise, just as he does yours. You think of ways to hack into iPhone and publicize his most humiliating Tinder sexts. You wish you to destroy him in a game of pickup basketball, preferably while his family and girlfriend watch from the sidelines. It’s your fantasy that one day you’ll square off against him in a high-stakes game of espionage that calls upon all your mental and physical faculties, and that you’ll say something devilishly witty right before you ice that mother fucker for good. You don’t tolerate your archrival; it’s your life’s mission to crush him, and this, in turn, continuously motivates you to up your game.

I realize I’m hardly the first person to write on this subject. Chuck Klosterman’s 2007 Esquire essay, “The Importance of Being Hated,” is the definitive piece on the art of courting enemies. Klosterman makes a distinction between having a nemesis (someone whom you despise but begrudgingly like) and an archenemy — a person whose existence consumes you with bile and hatred.

If this distinction seems confusing, just ask your girlfriend to explain it in detail; women have always intuitively grasped the nemesis/archenemy dichotomy. Every woman I’ve ever known has had at least one close friend whose only purpose in life is to criticize her actions, compete for the attention of men, and drive her insane; very often, this is a woman’s best friend. Every woman also has a former friend (usually someone from high school with large breasts) whom she has loathed for years (and whom she will continue to loath with the intensity of a thousand suns, even if she sees her only once every ten years). This is her archenemy. Women intrinsically understand human dynamics, and this makes them unstoppable.

I must indeed have a lower emotional quotient than most women, because I can’t easily distinguish between a nemesis and an archenemy. My relationships are cleanly split into friends and foes.

The question becomes: Do you select a nemesis, or does your nemesis select you? The answer: Usually the latter, unless there is no nemesis present, and you’re forced to do the former.

Ask any of my high school friends whom my nemesis is, and they’ll wrongly answer Harold (not his real name). I somewhat understand this misunderstanding, as it was well-known throughout our high school days that, despite having many mutual friends, Harold and I didn’t much care for one another.

But there was a power imbalance in Harold and my un-friendship that prevented us from becoming nemeses: Whereas he hated me, I merely thought him an obnoxious, but ultimately harmless, bozo. Harold simply wasn’t nemesis material. He was loud, clownish and careless and tended to get on my nerves, but he lacked the intellect and cunning I looked for in a proper nemesis. And while he actively despised me, I was mostly indifferent about him, despite what my friends might have thought.

Importantly, you can’t be my nemesis unless I begrudgingly, secretly respect you.

Harold wasn’t alone in his failed attempts to make me his nemesis. He joins a laundry list of men who seemingly vied for the role, but ultimately fell short.

  • Bart: At 18, I had brief dalliance with the girl Bart thought he was still dating, and he unexpectedly showed up at my front door one night to confront me about it. Bart probably considered me his nemesis for this supposed transgression, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. He had graduated from our high school months earlier but didn’t go to college like the rest of us. So he ended up hanging out with all the current high school seniors all Wooderson-like (except no one really wanted him around). I kind of pitied Bart, which was the problem.
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  • Jared: Jared was the star running back for the powerhouse football program from several towns over, and a constant foil to my happiness throughout high school. He was short, blazingly fast (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, if memory serves), incredibly strong, nearly impossible to tackle and cocky as all hell. (Steroids? Maybe.) Jared scorched my team for more than 100 yards and three touchdowns in the first half my senior year, singlehandedly ruining our homecoming. I hated him because he was that much better than me and a constant reminder of my relative lack of athleticism. But I was little more than a minor nuisance in the highlight reel that was his life, which is why we never became nemeses — like any healthy relationship, a sound enemyship is based on reciprocity.
  • Derek: Derek made the mistake of falling for my ex-girlfriend, an offense I found unforgivable at the time. But our antipathy toward one another subsided after the woman we fought over cheated on him with one of his closest friends. He saw it as an opportunity for me and him to bond, and we quickly realized we were essentially the same person. I haven’t spoken with him in years.
  • Eaton: Eaton became my nemesis after he fucked me over on a story at the school newspaper, taking an idea I had and assigning it to another reporter on staff. I silently seethed about this throughout the remainder of my time there, and continued hating him after we both graduated. Then he moved to the sticks in Louisiana and I gradually forgot about him, and you can’t have a nemesis who’s not an active part of your life.
  • Hayden: Hayden suffered from the same self-righteous, shameless ass-kissing attitude Eaton did, only Hayden’s was within the confines of my already loathsome first job. He epitomized try-hard: He scoffed at my attempt to organize an office fantasy football league, skipped lunch everyday so he could run and spent his downtime glad-handing everyone. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who found Hayden repulsive, which was the problem. I don’t want to share my nemesis with others.

After I graduated college, I resented all my peers who were doing better than me professionally (i.e., all of my friends). But I was particularly bitter about the success of a particular student who graduated from the same program as me.

This person, my unspoken nemesis, suffered from a self-seriousness that I found exasperating to the point of nausea. He fancied outmoded headwear (read: fedoras), and he once declined to explain the significance of his new tattoo because it would take hours to give a comprehensive description. He was one of those people who didn’t recognize Twitter’s inherent silliness, and his writing was unbearably dry and/or maudlin.

Worse, he was hard-working and talented enough to land a newspaper reporting job right out of college. I considered his success a personal attack and used it to fuel my own entry into the field.

This is what makes having a nemesis so important: They’re conduits to self-improvement. It’s what makes an otherwise petty rivalry valuable. You long to eviscerate them, and in doing so, you push yourself further than you would have otherwise.

Other people might tell you it’s far more important (and healthier) to be intrinsically motivated and not constantly measure yourself against others. But that philosophy neglects the fortifying effects of healthy competition. People who think this way probably own lots of participation trophies.

Vidal understood this innately and courted enemies with a corresponding vigor. His public feuds with Buckley (and basically anyone who opposed him) furthered his career. Vidal was an unapologetic media whore — he’s famous for saying: “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television” — and he knew his enemies were a means to attracting attention. He owed his success to his dissenters, and he was his best self when he was operating on spite.

Which is why I stop short of saying I hate my nemesis. Because I need him in my life, even if his sole purpose is to throw me into a wild rage. There are some people in this world whom I wish would fall through an uncovered manhole, but I would never wish that upon my nemesis. My plans for him are far more sinister.

One day, when I’m CEO of a large media concern, I’m going to wage a hostile takeover against the media entity at which my nemesis works. Then, once I’m my nemesis’s boss, I’m going to fire him without severance and use his beloved desk as a footstool. And I’ll continue doing this with whatever company makes the mistake of giving my nemesis a paycheck, costs be damned.

My only worry is that I might one day lose this burning passion. In recent years, I’ve grown to appreciate my nemesis and his work ethic. And if this trend continues, I’ll soon like my nemesis, at which point I’ll no longer have someone to measure myself against, and my career will surely crumble.

Because as Vidal himself once said: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he recently wrote about Tinder driving him crazy.

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