Via Mark Thoma’s economics blog, which I don’t usually read, by way of a couple of predecessor links. Language Log and the Krugman blog are both pretty much always worth reading. And what Paul Krugman is talking about is not just minor “sloppiness,” but a serious problem with the substance of the piece. And Mark Liberman’s tireless work to demonstrate that David Brooks doesn’t know how to handle scientific research is always educational. Nevertheless, . . .
I’d submit that: Sloppiness is not actually the root of all evil. A belief that it is leads not to nirvana, but to the kind of sociopathy that peppers people with e-mails, telling them about their misplaced commas, typos, forgotten links to things that are easily Googled, misascribed dates of events that are common knowledge, use of internal project names that were obsoleted a whole three weeks ago by now . . . all in the belief that these little mistakes are necessarily signs of a larger mindlessness. It’s a form of intellectual Calvinism: a belief that the only true human being is flawless, unimpeachable and capable of handling whatever’s dished out, whether because he’s in possession of the energy required to answer potentially infinite numbers of critics and still get his work done, or because others can find no reason to dish.
By no means am I defending the New Republic piece that was at the center of this kerfuffle. In fact, given the belief that sloppiness is at the root of all evil, I’ve no doubt that in a month’s time or so, the e-mail senders will be peppering anyone who dares to write on the subject with queries as to why they’d ignored Michael Kinsley’s supposedly stunning argument.
UPDATE: I just noticed the similarity of part of what I wrote here to a well-known passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram,” which I happened to already have right here, so I’ll quote from it:
“For Emerson, only a certain very rare species of person is fit to stand the gaze of millions. It is not your normal, hardworking, quietly desperate species of American. The man who can stand the megagaze is a walking imago, a certain type of transcendent semihuman who, in Emerson’s phrase, ‘carries the holiday in his eye.’ The Emersonian holiday that television actors’ eyes carry is the promise of a vacation from human self-consciousness. Not worrying about how you come across. A total unallergy to gazes. It is contemporarily heroic. It is frightening and strong.”This isn’t entirely the same thing. You could make a mash-up of the two, say, by equating being gazed at with being criticized, and by equating worrying about the opinion of others with being aware of being in the wrong. But on the other hand, you could say that the Calvinist hero is actually more self-conscious than the man Wallace considers who, perhaps sociopathically, ignores the opinions of others because they might point out a flaw. I don’t think Wallace’s position had quite solidified by the time he wrote this essay, but I think he’s probably not assuming that the Emersonian imago will never by criticized by anybody.