Persistent Error


One of the thing that I now worry about more than I used to, given the news, is that everything that goes on in the world is within an order of magnitude the result of people spinning the wheel on a random process that allows folly to linger as orthodoxy just long enough to be embarrassing to our descendants—like bellbottoms or crocs. I mean, we got to the moon, and iPods exist, so it can’t be performative error-echos all the way down, right? Still, sometimes when it comes to efforts to order our lives together, it feels like every field of knowledge—law, economics, psychology, sociology—works this way.

This premise puts in serious question the lengths that I will go to be rigorous in my work, to be fair to my sources, to feel satisfied that my claims are backed up by relevant, substantial evidence. If winning ideas are drawn from a pot without any bias toward nuanced claims or good ideas or rigorous evidence, why do we bother doing what we do? It’s not just that maybe I could have been smoking this whole time if it doesn’t actually cause cancer, it’s more broadly a sense of “the worst are full of passionate intensity and the best/lack all conviction.”

Why be so fastidious about reading the bus schedule correctly, when all it means in practice is that, some person having convinced the bus driver that the schedule was wrong, we are sat in certainty that we got the time right, in a town the bus isn’t actually coming back to until after the Christmas holidays?



At the New York Review of books, Masha Gessen writes about Trump and the language of the autocrat. It’s a great essay about an important issue, but it seems to go astray in its diagnosis of the issue.

Trump also has a talent for using words in ways that make them mean nothing. Everyone is great and everything is tremendous. Any word can be given or taken away. NATO can be “obsolete” and then “no longer obsolete”—this challenges not only any shared understanding of the word “obsolete” but our shared experience of linear time.

And then there is Trump’s ability to take words and throw them into a pile that means nothing.

Here is an excerpt, chosen from many similar ones, from his interview with the AP about his first hundred days in office:

Number one, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the fifty-nine missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. [unintelligible] … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. [unintelligible] ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.

Here is a partial list of words that lose their meaning in this passage: “responsibility,” the number “fifty-nine” and the number “seventy-nine,” “death,” “people,” “risk,” “city,” “civilian,” “hamlet,” “decision,” “hard,” “normal,” “life,” the “United States.” Even the word “unintelligible,” inserted by the journalist, means nothing here, because how can something be unintelligible when uttered during a face-to-face interview?

This seems wrong to me. The words when used in these ways are not drained of meaning. They are not rendered meaningless. Words, when used these ways, are doing things, and those doings are part of the meaning. A bird that lands on a wire does not stop having wings. Someone who is pointing his fingers in opposite directions is still pointing. Catch a tire on your fish hook. You are still fishing, and you’ve still caught something. Ask yourself: why is Trump using these words, not others? ‘Responsibility’ is in the quote because it is supposed to be, and if Trump gets away with having it enter and exit sidewise, it is because people do not listen the way that we think: they hear buzz words connected by a frayed filament of grammar, and are thereby mollified, appeased, pacified. They fill in the blanks. The blanks do not work the way we think either. Yes, no, there is no propositional sense, no report. But a great deal is being communicated, and deliberately so, through connotation, association, subject-verb-object and Trump being the speaker.

We do not like it. But no one wants to eat a tire, either. And that does not make it correct to say that pappy caught nothing fishing, so we’re eating nothing for dinner. As Austin taught us, when we ask, mouth full of rubber, “is there any salt?” we expect more than just an account of what’s in the kitchen cupboard.


Andrew Sullivan is well known as the Catholic Republican who, because of his personal experiences, took on causes that were unpopular with other conservatives and thereby made himself somewhat of a cause celebre among American progressives. He deserves praise for the courage of standing against his tribe on principle, and he’s also a great writer. Nonetheless, I am always wary of his arguments, as they often derive from old-school, small-c conservative commitments to fundamental human […More] ‘ Tyrants ‘


Rod Macdonald was a brilliant mind, a warm, often generous mentor, and a charming man. One of the things he taught me is that, when you are smart, well-educated, charming in your own way—and, I suppose, if we are to be honest with our typology, when you are a man—avoiding hagiography, and by the same lights, preventing admiration from turning into discipleship, required finding ways to keep people at a distance, ways to compensate […More] ‘ Brats ‘

Neoliberalism in One Image

Now, the interesting question is whether those lines will keep falling, and what might rise in their place.



Update: For those who don’t know about google ngram. And for a more enlightening case study:

and especially:

Rule Thyself/Read Together

One of the unexplored concepts for a themed blog or tumblr or twitter account or…—anyway, a concept which lays fallow for reasons that will quickly be made clear—would have a title something like “read together.”

To explain: the upsides of being in my location in a global division of labour that nominally assigns me the task of reading books and articles, and writing down my thoughts about what I have said cannot be overstated. […More] ‘ Rule Thyself ‘

What we think they should want

I am informed by a colleague that in 1963, Arthur Laing, then Canada’s minister responsible for Indian policy, asserted that, “The prime condition in the progress of the Indian people … must be the development by themselves of a desire for the goals which we think they should want.”

Which we think they should want.

This is of course awful, an expression of the sentiment that makes it fair to describe the policy of […More] ‘ What we think they should want ‘