“You think I know f*** nothing?”

Toward the end of Nicholas Monsarrat’s World War II novel The Cruel Sea we find the frigate Saltash in charge of a convoy delivering supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk, far above the Arctic Circle. The Russians are suspicious and resentful of their British allies who, as they see it, have been shirking their fair share of the war effort – hunkering down behind the Channel, postponing their promised invasion of France, while the Red Army fights a desperate defensive war.

These resentments bubble over in a shouting match between First Lieutenant Lockhart and a Russian interpreter. The fight ends on a farcical note:

At the head of the gangway [the interpreter] turned, for a final blistering farewell.

“You English,” he said, in thunderous accents and with extraordinary venom, “think we know damn nothing – but I tell you we know damn all.”

For a novel published in 1951, The Cruel Sea is rather more forthright than I was expecting. Death and mutilation are unflinchingly described, and prostitution, abortion, and venereal disease come up for discussion – albeit in language much less salty than real-life seamen were likely to have used.

While overall this linguistic propriety scarcely handicaps the novel, it struck me that the scene with the Russian would have been more effective if Monsarrat had been permitted fuller access to the vernacular – as David Niven enjoyed, a quarter century later, when he used the exact same gag in his Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses. The title derives from a supposed incident on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay!” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language…you think I know fuck nothing…well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

It’s possible that Niven – who had no compunctions about rustling a stray anecdote and passing it off as his own – swiped this line from Monsarrat’s novel. It’s somewhat less likely (but still in the realm of possibility) that Michael Curtiz really was the originator of the “I know fuck all” gaffe, on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, and the punchline made its way across the Atlantic to Monsarrat’s ears.

Far likelier, the tale was floating around the British military during the war, and Monsarrat (Lt. Cdr., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) and Niven (Lt. Col., British Army) independently heard it and stored it away for later use.


I shouldn’t single David Niven out for scorn; he just happens to be associated with the most famous version of the anecdote. A Google search reveals that it’s been recycled any number of times, and the verbal flub attributed to any number of funny-talking foreigners.

(By the way, I mistakenly assumed that “fuck nothing / fuck all” was the “authentic” version, and “damn nothing / damn all” a weak-tea substitute; but the latter seems to be the one more commonly reported by speakers of British English.)

In this biography of Sidney Poitier, the quote is put in the mouth of Hungarian director Zoltan Korda.

In a British humour book called Funny Shaped Balls the setting is a football match between England and Scotland, overseen by an exasperated Hungarian referee.

In this article credit is given to yet another Hungarian, conductor Georg Solti

…However, the Rough Guide to Classical Music assigns it to conductor Ernest Ansermet, a French-speaking Swiss.

The line is spoken by an Arab officer in a 1967 British theatrical farce called Bang Bang Beirut (…which it somehow pleases me to see was being performed as recently as 2017, at a high school in Austin, Texas).

This old British sailor claims to have heard it in the sixties from a Calcutta dock supervisor with a “sing song Indian accent”.

In a recent memoir by an American Air Force veteran, it’s delivered by a German guard in a WWII POW camp…

…But that Yank airman was beaten to it by a one-legged RAF POW who got his version of the story into print way back in 1957.

…The “unnamed German POW camp guard” attribution seems to be the most frequent; I can’t link to them all. I will single out the commenter on this blog who mistakenly remembers the line occurring somewhere in The Great Escape.

Who knows where the anecdote originated. Its appearance in The Cruel Sea is the earliest I’ve found; however, that may simply be because much before 1951, “damn all” (let alone “fuck all”) would’ve been considered pretty racy. The joke may have circulated for many years, without leaving a trace on the printed language, before Monsarrat seized on it.


PS. Here’s a discussion of the origins of the expression “fuck all” and its variants, claiming that the horrific murder of the English girl Fanny Adams in 1867 inspired a morbid sailor’s joke comparing their unappetizing meat rations to the girl’s remains – later abbreviated to “sweet F.A.” – later misunderstood to denote “sweet fuck all”.

The Phrase Finder, however, claims that “fuck all” predates “Fanny Adams” and that the two phrases were conflated sometime between Fanny’s murder and World War I.

In a post last year that attempted to answer the question “Why read?” I quoted some other dubious David Niven anecdotes from Bring On The Empty Horses. On a related note, here’s Nevil Shute being told by the publishers of his first novel, in 1926, to replace every instance of the word “bloody” with “ruddy”.


Sergeant, erect that flagpole.

Early in Nicholas Monsarrat’s Second World War novel The Cruel Sea, newly commissioned Sub-Lieutenant Ferraby, serving on his first ship, is given an order he doesn’t understand:

“Single up to the stern-wire,” Bennett had said, and left it at that – though not forgetting to add, by way of farewell: “And if you get a wire round the screw, Christ help you!”

Ferraby wanders aft and looks despairingly at the mooring ropes leading off in various directions, not knowing how to proceed, sweating under the gaze of the old salts under his command. Then he has an inspiration:

He nodded to Tonbridge and said, simply:

“Single up to the stern-wire.”

Tonbridge said: “Aye aye, sir,” and then, to the nearest seamen: “Take off those wrappings,” and then, to the hands waiting on the jetty: “Cast off breast-rope and spring.” Men moved: the wires splashed in the water, and were hauled in: the moorings quickly simplified themselves, to one single rope running aft. It was easy as that.

Although relieved, Ferraby feels that he has “cheated” – disguising his ignorance by fobbing the responsibility onto his men. But perhaps he has actually demonstrated good military leadership. Steve Sailer, in his obit for his friend, the sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, shares a lesson he learned from the Korean War vet:

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.


Twelve years ago, in an essay inspired by the premise of Mike Judge’s barely-released movie Idiocracy, I summarized the climax of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s apocalyptic sci-fi classic Lucifer’s Hammer: “Ultimately the army of property rights and technological progress prevails in a bloody battle against the army of cannibalistic former welfare recipients.”


A while back I met up for coffee with an electrician friend who happened to be in my neighbourhood for work. Half an hour after we sat down, his work iPad beeped with a message from HQ. He apologized and gave the gadget his attention.

A minute later he chuckled. He noticed that he’d neglected to click “Save” in the program that logs his working hours, and as far as his iPad was aware he was still on the clock for that morning’s job. My friend didn’t correct his error. He seemed to think a little looseness about his hours was fair recompense for the various indignities his employers subject him to. Maybe he’s right.

There’s a useful word I picked up from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago – “tukhta”, Soviet-era slang meaning something like “padding”. This was a necessary adaptation for prisoners expected to meet quotas set by officials who had only the dimmest awareness of conditions in the Gulag:

[A]ll state work norms are the same: they are calculated not for real life on this earth, but for some kind of unearthly ideal on the moon. A human being dedicated, self-sacrificing, healthy, well nourished, and energetic is incapable of fulfilling these norms! And so what are you going to get out of a fagged-out, weak, hungry, and downtrodden convict?

To meet these impossible quotas, prison work foremen would claim fictitious output – ten percent more lumber than their teams had actually cut, say. Camp administrators were subject to the same quotas, so they’d go along with the fiction. Their higher-ups would pass along the tukhta, and so on, up to the top levels of government, who’d trumpet the unprecedented lumber yield as a triumph of socialist planning.

How were the gaps papered over? Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an educated prisoner named Vlasov, in charge of a logging camp in Siberia, who signed off on paperwork showing that during a particularly harsh winter his team had surpassed the quota by 25%, when in fact they’d fallen far short. When the missing timber was noticed, Vlasov pointed out to his supervisor that their fates were now bound together: if the discrepancy were exposed, Vlasov’s sentence could only be extended, while the supervisor, for his negligence, would be liable for a five-year term. Vlasov proposed a plan, to which the supervisor could only agree:

And the time came when the winter roads had all dissolved completely, and the summer logging trails were still impassable too. And at this point Vlasov brought the chief a detailed and watertight report for his signature, to be sent on to the administration higher-up. In it he proved that because of the highly successful timber-felling operations of the past winter it had been quite impossible to move 10,500 cubic yards out of the forests on the sledge trails. Neither could this timber be hauled out through the swampy forests. Next he gave estimates for the cost of a corduroy road to get the timber out, and he proved that the haulage would cost more than the timber was worth. So that in a year’s time, because the logs were going to be lying there in the swamp for a whole summer and autumn, they would be unsuitable for lumber and acceptable to any possible customer only for firewood. And the administration agreed with these literate conclusions, which they were not ashamed to show any other commission – and therefore the whole 10,500 cubic yards of timber were written off.

Eventually the whole Soviet economy was built on a shaky edifice of tukhta – but in the meantime, the prisoners met their quotas and received their scanty rations:

And so it was that the trees were felled, and eaten up, and written off – and stood once again erect and proud in their green coniferous garb. And in fact the state paid very reasonably for these dead cubic yards: a few hundred extra loaves of black, gluey, watery bread. The thousands of trees and the hundreds of lives which were saved were of no account on the profit-and-loss sheet.

It strikes me how the proponents of our artificially intelligent future are a bit like old-school communists in their mania for efficiency. For instance, my electrician friend is often called out to jobs in the furthest reaches of the Lower Mainland, more than an hour’s drive from his home base in Vancouver. Meanwhile competing companies are sending electricians in from Maple Ridge or Aldergrove to visit customers in Vancouver. A communist or a software engineer would say: how wasteful, all this driving to and fro! – as of course it is – and propose a central dispatching system, or a mobile app, that would match up customers with the nearest electrician, saving man-hours, reducing waiting time, conserving fuel, easing congestion, and so on.

The difference is that there’s a risk the software engineer can actually deliver on that promised efficiency – and then we discover that all the electrical work the city requires can be delivered by half as many electricians. In that case I’m not sure my friend, with his cavalier approach to timekeeping, would be among the ones to make the cut.

But I suspect humans will figure out ways to steal back a fair amount of the time the software manages to save. I hope so, because without a little tukhta there probably won’t be room in the workforce for slackers like my electrician friend – or me.


In 2016 I poked fun at pundit Andrew Coyne’s optimistic belief that workers displaced by robots would find new and better jobs. Earlier this year the descriptions of Russian peasant villages in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 made me think of modern suburban sprawl. And in 2010 I read The Gulag Archipelago and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was, surprisingly, pretty funny.

Aspects of the Novel and the limits of readers’ memories.

Midway through his famous discussion of “flat” versus “round” characters in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster asks us to:

Suppose that Louisa Musgrave had broken her neck on the Cobb.

Forster has been evaluating the roundness of Jane Austen’s characters, so we can deduce that an incident from one of Austen’s books is being referred to; and toward the end of the next sentence, that book is disclosed as Persuasion.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books mentioned in Aspects of the Novel, and Persuasion happens to be one of them. Thinking hard, I reconstructed the scene: an excitable girl demands that her gentleman friend “jump her down” from the harbour wall to the pavement below; she miscalculates her jump, the gentleman misses, and (Austen females having the approximate constitution of ninety-year-old rheumatics) she spends the next few chapters on death’s door.

Aspects of the Novel was originally delivered, in 1927, as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Forster was confident not only that his hearers would recognize the allusion to Louisa on the Cobb, but that they would process it rapidly enough to give their attention to the fairly involved sentence that follows. Was he realistically gauging his audience’s recall – here, and on the many other occasions in Aspects where he takes for granted what I would consider a remarkable level of intimacy with these books?

Obviously, modern folks would be intimate with a different set of books than a 1927 crowd. Jane Austen remains well-known, though not so well that “Louisa Musgrave on the Cobb” will ring many bells. Henry James is still read; Oliver Goldsmith, less so; George Meredith, not at all.

No-one would today pick Walter Scott as an example of a novelist with “a trivial mind and a heavy style” whose continued fame relies on “happy sentimental memories” of having encountered him before our judgement had matured. Maybe Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs occupy a cultural space today comparable to Walter Scott’s circa 1927 – middlebrow relics evoking a bygone era of freedom and adventure, with enough residual literary cred that teenage readers are willing to pretend they’re not bored to death by them. But I doubt that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are one-tenth as widely known to modern readers as Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood would have been to Forster’s audience.

Perhaps Tolkien is a closer modern parallel to Scott. But before Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations came out, I don’t recall the names Gandalf or Aragorn being known to anyone outside nerd circles. In fact, when I try and think of literary non-title characters famous enough that a modern Forster could confidently drop their names – Tom Joad, Scout Finch, Mr. Rochester – most of them are famous at least in part because of the movies.

The 21st century schmoe remembers as many fictional characters as a 1927 Cambridge lecture-goer, but the memory slots that would once have held the members of Fagin’s gang or the murderers of Julius Caesar have been filled instead with Mos Eisley background freaks and Hogwarts house-elves.


The Introduction to my edition of Aspects quotes two esteemed Cantabrigians who in their youth attended the talks upon which the book was based: theatre director George Rylands, who was charmed by Forster’s undogmatic appeal to “the Common Reader”; and the critic and generally acknowledged lemon-sucker F.R. Leavis, who was “astonished at the intellectual nullity” of Forster’s ideas, and dismissed his fawning audience as “sillier dons’ wives and their friends”. Forster himself, in his Author’s Note, all but begs forgiveness for his unrigorous tone.

At any rate, it seems he wasn’t trying to be obscure. I wonder whether a modern lecturer would make such breezy assumptions about the Common Reader’s cultural literacy. Or would it be safer to aim at the level of the dull students imagined by Kingsley Amis in a 1967 essay on the consequences of dumbing down the education system:

You will use up less of your allotted time, and thus enable yourself to cover that much more ground, if you can say “As Eliot wrote”, instead of “As Eliot wrote…What’s the trouble? Oh, sorry. As T.S. Eliot – ee ell eye oh tee – the poet, dramatist, playwright, that is, and critic wrote…” While the thicks get what they need, the bright people doodle. [1]

Put aside whether we modern readers are more shoddily educated than our great-grandparents. Even if we’d been equally well-schooled in literature, and spent as much of our recreation time reading, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of additional novels have appeared in the past ninety years. Granting that most of those novels were worthless and quickly forgotten, the pool of “important” novels from which to choose is enormously larger now than it was then.

Picture what it was like at the other end of literary history. Taking Aristotle to task for his comment in the Poetics that “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action”, Forster forgivingly mentions that Aristotle “had read few novels and no modern ones – the Odyssey but not Ulysses“.

(…Which contradicts Forster’s earlier definition of a novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”; but never mind, the Odyssey functions very much like a novel.)

Granting that the Odyssey and Iliad are novels – and that there then existed a handful of other verse epics, now lost – it was ordinary for a Greek gentleman of Aristotle’s time to have read one hundred percent of all the novels ever written in his language; and with a little more effort, that gentleman might familiarize himself with most extant plays, poetry, philosophy, and history as well. Thus it was easy to carry on a literary conversation with a fellow educated gentleman. You could be confident that when you mentioned Nausicaä doing her washing, or Hector’s frightening helmet, he’d get the reference.

By Forster’s day it was no longer possible, let alone desirable, for an educated Englishman to be familiar with every novel in his language. But avid readers had, of necessity, at least peeked into a broad sample of all the ones that mattered: there weren’t that many, and there wasn’t that much else to do. The odds of two people having read any given book were lower than in Aristotle’s day, but still high enough that Forster didn’t have to worry about the sillier dons’ wives losing the thread.

Forster in 1927 is nearer in time to us than he was to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe; let’s say chronologically he’s at roughly the two-thirds point in the 300-year history of the English novel. But if you imagine him standing alongside a row of all the books ever published, laid end to end in order of publication, he’s surprisingly close to the beginning of the row. Because the earliest books have been around longest, and have had more time to influence the ones that came after, their importance is disproportionate to their small number; and Forster has read most of the books that, even now, matter the most; which is why we can still read him with interest. But with every passing year, the likelihood decreases that a lecturer and his audience – or any two readers of similar taste and educational background – will have peeked into the same books. The Common Reader has less and less in common.

At some point, as the frontiers of the subject recede further and further beyond the horizon, it may become impractical to talk broadly about literature in the way that Forster in 1927 still could. In an empire so vast, a single obscure province – young adult sci-fi by British women authors, say – will be spacious enough that a reader need never leave it; and the critic who presumes to generalize will, like a foreign correspondent who claims familiarity with a place based on a couple days hanging out in the hotel bar, risk exposing the breadth of his ignorance.


1. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, in Amis’s collection What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions.

Just a few weeks ago I built a long, depressing essay around a passage from E.M. Forster’s collection Two Cheers For Democracy and his favourite word, muddle. I shared my embarrassingly belated first impressions of the Odyssey last year. My negative opinion of the critic F.R. Leavis comes mainly from some sarcastic remarks directed at him by Clive James, mentioned in my 2012 discussion of the entangled afterlives of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Faulty ventriloquism.

I hadn’t heard from Y. in over a month, and when he finally texted I was at the computer with headphones on. The next morning I noticed his texts. The last one said, “Well, I’m off to bed. Hope you’re not dead in a ditch or strung out on drugs.”

I texted back that I was fine and I hoped he wasn’t dead or strung out on drugs. He replied that he was alive, but as for “drugs”, that was a question of definitions.

Y. has tried every mind-altering substance known to chemistry, but after some scary experiments with fentanyl last year he had, as far as I was aware, limited himself to a few daily puffs of marijuana. Therefore I found his comment mildly ominous, but I declined to follow it up via text. I invited him for breakfast the following day.

He said that I’d have to come pick him up at a campground on the outskirts of town.

After a kung fu showdown with his landlord, Y. explained, he’d been obliged to abandon his ground-floor suite on short notice. Knowing about his money troubles, his past run-ins with his landlord, and his habitual difficulty suffering those he deemed to be fools – and discounting the hyperbole about the kung fu – I found this development all too unsurprising.

Still, his jaunty tone made me wary. “Can’t tell if you’re joking,” I texted, “but I’ll come get you wherever you are.”

He replied with the name of the campground and said to meet him “at the usual spot”.

The usual spot? I assumed he was under the mistaken impression I’d visited him at the campground last spring, the last time he’d wound up living in a tent. In any case we could figure it out when I arrived. I said I’d be there at 10.

I slept badly, worrying that I would have to put Y. up in my spare room again, as I did for six weeks last year. The next morning I checked my lease agreement to see what it said about long-term visitors, then texted that I was on my way.

The campground was a half-hour drive across the river to Surrey, an area I barely know. When I found it I pulled up next to the office and texted that I was there.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. It was a warm day; I got out of the car, removed my jacket, strolled in circles. I pictured Y. sprawled on his foam mattress, too zonked to tie his shoes, and wondered whether I’d have to cruise around looking for his tent. I realized my phone was ringing.

“Hey,” he said. “Where are you?”

“I’m by the office. Where are you?”

“In the back alley.”

“What back alley?”

“Behind my house.”

It took me a moment to assimilate this. Then I exploded. “Oh, very funny, jackass. What a goddamned hilarious prank.”

“Did you read all my texts?”

“Yes, I read all your goddamned texts.”

“I thought you could tell I was joking.”

It didn’t take me long to recover my temper. First off, I was relieved that Y. was okay, and that he wouldn’t be pitching his sleeping bag in my spare room.

If anything, I realized, the joke was on him: his real life was so chaotic that his leg-pulling had seemed entirely plausible to me. As I drove back to the city to pick him up, I wondered how much further he could have taken the gag. Would I have met him at a hobo encampment beside the railyard? Probably. In a syringe-strewn alley in the Downtown Eastside? Yup.

Here’s the thing. Y. and I have known each other since sixth grade – that’s 30 years. We’re the same age, same race, same social class, grew up in the same neighbourhood, and became friends in the first place because we share a similar sense of humour.

Despite all that, I still can’t reliably tell, reading his text messages, when he’s cracking a joke.


Midway through Kevin Williamson’s story in the Wall Street Journal about the Twitter mob that harried him out of his very brief gig at The Atlantic, he discusses an earlier incident of social media misrepresentation:

In 2014, I got a call from a friend who was disturbed by my public support for Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, who had gotten himself into trouble for some racist remarks. I had, at that time, never heard of Mr. Sterling, but there was a quote from me right there on Twitter: “‘Looks like the antiracist gestapo are already lacing up their jackboots for Donald Sterling,’ National Review’s Kevin Williamson commented.”

I mention that one mainly because I know the source of it: It was invented by Matt Bruenig, a left-wing blogger … That quote was not a distortion; it was not “taken out of context” or anything of the sort. It was a pure fabrication. (Mr. Bruenig says that the quote, produced in its entirety above, was intended as “satire.”)

You can sort of see how this would have felt like satire to Bruenig. As he saw it, any defense of Donald Sterling would be preposterous; to illustrate this, he put the defense in the mouth of the most preposterous person he could think of, right-wing commentator Kevin Williamson. His point was, This opinion is so far outside the bounds of good taste that only a Kevin Williamson could argue it. Here’s an analogous piece of satire:

“The people who write for National Review are so contemptible that the rules of fair play shouldn’t apply to them,” commented Matt Bruenig.

(Note: Matt Bruenig never said this.)

As for the comment that got Kevin Williamson fired – his four-year-old Twitter quip about having “hanging more in mind” as a penalty for women who had abortions – I’ve now read his own clarification, as well as those of several sympathetic social conservatives, and I still don’t really understand, if Williamson didn’t mean to be taken literally, what he did mean. He concedes that he was being “trollish and hostile” but still seems to think the remark made sense in the context where it occurred. It probably did, to those who already shared Williamson’s background, political orientation, and sense of humour; just as Bruenig’s satirical intentions must have been clear to those already on his wavelength; just as regular readers of Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams must have grokked what he was getting at when he wrote in 2011:

The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently.

I missed this controversy the first time around, but Adams brought it up again last week in a post devoted to swatting down media attempts to dismiss him as “far right” or “alt-right”. He elaborated:

What my devious critics cleverly leave out of the quote is the context of the blog post and the punchline of the joke. The context was about debates on important gender-related topics, and the punchline was “It’s just easier this way for everyone.”

He then devotes most of a paragraph to explaining this punchline which, even after reading the explanation multiple times, I still didn’t get.

However, unlike his critics who had only that isolated sentence to go on, I’d read enough of Adams’s writing that I thought I could draw a dotted line from his failed joke to the idea it vaguely gestured toward. Obviously Adams doesn’t think of women as naïfs whose precious utterances should, like those of children and the mentally handicapped, be exempted from the rigours of grown-up criticism; therefore his point must have been that it is society, not him, condescendingly demanding that women be protected that way.

A plausible interpretation…but a wrong one. Looking up the original post, Adams does appear to argue that women’s opinions should be exempted from criticism; or rather, that men’s rights activists (the intended targets of his barbs) should just back off and let women have their little perquisites.

Apparently I misread the joke as badly as Adams’s most hostile critics. But why should this be surprising? I don’t know Adams. I’ve never even seen him on TV, or listened to his podcast. If I have only a fifty-fifty chance of decoding my friend Y.’s dicey attempts at humour, what are the odds of decoding a total stranger?


My father died in 2013. I can’t ask him what he thinks about President Donald Trump or the prosecution of Bill Cosby or the new Avengers movie.

But I have a dummy that I talk to all the time. The dummy looks exactly like my father, though its face gets a bit blurrier every day. It speaks in my father’s voice, though sometimes I suspect it sounds more like old audio recordings than it does like the original.

There are other ways the dummy falls short. Sometimes when I ask it a question it just sits there. Sometimes it comes back with gibberish. But even when it seems lucid and reasonable, I can’t help wondering if my real father wouldn’t have found its answers ridiculous.

When I’ve finished interrogating the dummy, I put it back in the cupboard with the others. It’s a crowded cupboard. My grandparents are in there, dusty because I take them out so rarely, their answers being too vague to be of much value. My friend Y. is in there too, a far cruder dummy than my father’s. If I want to know what Y. thinks about a topic, I just ask the real-life version. But occasionally, when real-life Y. says something whose meaning I can’t make out, I haul out his dummy for clarification.

On the upper shelf is a jumble of unfinished dummies representing people I know only through the media. Trump and Cosby are up there, and the cast of the Avengers, and Scott Adams, and Kevin Williamson. There’s even a Matt Bruenig dummy, shapeless and faceless.

When one of those people is reported as having done or said something outrageous, I take down the corresponding dummy, hoist it onto my knee, and ask it for an explanation.

And here’s the funny part. If the dummy can’t give a convincing account, I get mad at the real person.


In the blog post linked above, Adams complains that his feminist critics have damaged his reputation and reduced his income by about a third. If true, I’m sure that was annoying, but Adams is a multi-millionaire; he could afford the hit. If anything, the incident seems to have liberated him to speak his mind about other issues, which I consider a net gain for society: I find his opinions, even the kooky ones, pretty interesting.

But a one-third hit to my income would leave me literally living on the street. I’m sure I’ve said things on this blog, joking or otherwise, that would be as likely to offend strangers as anything Adams has written. Unlike him, I’m a nobody. But I’ve seen my fellow nobodies roughed up over unpopular opinions, misunderstood jokes, or nothing at all. The list of unsayable things is constantly growing. Likewise the population of potential offendees. Every one of my old posts is still online and searchable. Every new post is another tuna can left open in a forest prowled by hungry bears.

Why, then, do I keep exposing my opinions? Why does anyone, given that the likelihood of contributing anything novel or constructive to the conversation is outweighed by the likelihood of being misunderstood, stirring up fury, and upping the general level of pointless noise?

I wrote a couple weeks back about my self-published high school newspaper, and how it was inspired in part by a yen for martyrdom; an attempt to prove my valour by provoking a reaction from the school administration. Maybe it’s a similar instinct that keeps me blogging now, despite the world’s indifference. Maybe deep down I want to stir up a mob, to liven things up, to prove that I matter. A pretty contemptible motivation.

But then, it would be easy to post a stream of outrageous comments, if outrage was all I really wanted. If some part of me seeks to be misinterpreted and martyred, another part of me really longs to be understood, to help carve out a colony of mutual trust amid the howling wilderness.

The colony would be a place for grown-ups to thoughtfully, respectfully, good-humouredly bounce around controversial ideas, without fear of triggering a bear attack. We wouldn’t expect to agree about everything: that would defeat the purpose. We wouldn’t ask anyone to refrain from joking, or from vigorously defending their opinions, or from saying things that might annoy their fellow colonists.

Such a colony couldn’t function without trust. We would have to trust, when we encountered speech that seemed hostile or belittling, that the speaker didn’t really intend to harm us. Rather than reacting with name-calling or threats of violence, we would…hmm? Yes, you in the back?

So when Kevin Williamson threatens to hang women who’ve had abortions, doesn’t that constitute a threat of violence?

Uh…well, he didn’t exactly threaten anyone, did he? He argued that abortion should be punished under the law as if it were homicide.

So if I argue that men who endanger women’s reproductive freedoms oughta be put up against a wall and shot, is that a threat of violence?

Fair question. I suppose I’d say there’s a difference between rhetoric and…hey, hey! Settle down, everybody! Let’s keep things civil around here! Yes, the gentleman in the third row…?

It seems to me that rather than a vague commitment to “trust” we need a speech code that spells out explicitly–

Oh yeah, jackass, and who gets to write the speech code?

Surely, as reasonable people, we could democratically decide–

Translation, you’re confident that your side has the numbers to–

Don’t puts words in my mouth, you goddamn–

Well don’t wag your finger in my face if you want to–

That was a threat! You all heard it!



Terror and nerd appeal.

When I was sixteen or so, my friends and I self-published a one-off student newspaper to protest, in the mildest and geekiest terms imaginable, censorship of our school’s annual talent show.

If I’d written the paper all by myself, it would have been far more scurrilous; but I enlisted my sober, university-bound friends, who subdued my rabble-rousingest instincts. The paper was anodyne. The administration I’d intended to provoke rightly considered the provocation beneath its notice.

Shortly afterward, I read in the local media that police were seeking a kid who’d been circulating his self-published newsletter at a local high school. Not me: this teen had printed instructions for making bombs. I recall feeling jealous that this heedless radical had succeeded in riling up the authorities where I’d failed.

To be clear, my desire for martyrdom was of the purely non-violent kind. But when a few years later and a thousand miles to the south two greasy, long-haired, trenchcoat-wearing teens pulled off one of the most famous acts of mass violence in American history, I felt an unwelcome pang of identification. Trenchcoats, long hair, and grease had been my exact look; I’d often joked with my nerdy friends about sparking an uprising against the popular kids; in social studies essays I’d quoted approvingly from New Left thinkers on the righteousness of armed revolt.

My information on the Black Panthers and the Weathermen came from books I found at the downtown library. If those books had inspired me to commit acts of terror, I suppose I might have pieced together a plan of attack by consulting the chemistry and military history sections. But to self-radicalize back then would’ve taken a lot of hard studying. Even if I’d gone to the school where that bomb-making pamphlet was passed around, even if by chance a copy had fallen into my hands, if I’d wanted an elaboration of the pamphleteer’s manifesto, or suggestions on whom to target with my bomb, there was nowhere else to go but back to the library.

Human nature hasn’t changed since the nineties. Young men are just as confused, as self-pitying, as full of indignant rage as ever. What’s changed is the technology that allows them to find a philosophical framework, and step-by-step instructions, for acting on their resentments.


I’d already written most of the above when I heard about Monday’s van attack in Toronto. Reading the perpetrator’s Facebook post about launching an “Incel Rebellion” to “overthrow all the Chads and Stacys”, I once again felt that unwelcome pang, having indulged in similarly absurdist sloganeering in my high school days.

I don’t mean that under different circumstances I might have wound up piloting a rental van down a crowded sidewalk – though who knows how my teenage morbidity might have evolved under the 21st century pressures of mood-altering pharmaceuticals and online immersion. But I might easily have been one of the trolls celebrating violence in what I believed to be a noble tradition of pitch-black humour. And if some mentally disturbed loner took my facetious posts for a plan of action…hey, it might as easily have been hidden messages from Taylor Swift that set the nutcase off, so my conscience is clear…

My assumption is that these acts of attention-seeking violence will only become more and more frequent. The perpetrators keep innovating cheaper and easier methods of mass destruction; every innovation, once introduced, becomes part of the permanent repertoire. If rental truck attacks continue, new restrictions will be placed on renting vehicles, and the attention-seekers will switch to something else.

Their professed motivations will mutate along similar lines. I doubt the cause of Involuntary Celibacy will ever really take off, because it asks its martyrs to immortalize their sexual hopelessness. To appeal to rage-filled nerds, a cause needs to sublimate that rage into something cool, sexy, and dangerous.

Some causes by definition have limited appeal. In western countries the allure of Islamic extremism was never going to extend much beyond the relatively tiny Muslim community; it’s been possible, barely, for authorities to contain it by keeping tabs on every Muslim who ever shopped online for a pressure cooker. By contrast, white nationalism and (in the United States) black radicalism have millions upon millions of potential recruits: far too many to monitor.

(Black radical terrorism hasn’t received much attention because we don’t really have a mental category for it yet, despite the surge of BLM-inspired attacks on cops a couple years back. But black culture is basically a machine for generating cool, sexy, and dangerous memes. The limiting factor is that any persuasive black radical meme will immediately be appropriated, and rendered uncool, by non-blacks.)

As yet, white nationalism hasn’t evolved a rhetoric as irresistible to white losers as Islamist propaganda has proven to be to Muslim losers. But there are tens of thousands of alt-right geeks out there, larkily churning out memes; eventually they might strike on the secret formula. I expect I’ll recognize it when it arrives: it will be something I would have found cool, sexy, and dangerous, as a sixteen-year-old loser.


In a similar vein of self-critical nostalgia, in March I shared the story of my cowardly interaction with a high school anti-Semite; in February I drew an unflattering parallel between my youthful stint as an indie newspaper editor and my current life as an obscure blogger; and way back in 2003 I gave a full account of that newspaper, “my lamest act of teenage rebellion”. (It appears that at age 27, embarrassingly, I still harboured a grudge against my high school vice-principal.)

Muddle and melancholy.

I told a friend recently that I was running out of things to write about. I have only a handful of non-trite ideas, I said, they’re not that hard to explain, and it’s a struggle to come up with new ways to express them.

One of the ideas I keep returning to is representativeness. Not in its narrow modern sense of balancing ethnic grievances, but as a vast and under-explored domain of epistemic muddle.

We base our opinions about the world partly on direct observation, but mostly on the news we receive – through conversation and gossip, through the media, and lately through social media, though these three sources are increasingly blending together. But the news that gets passed on is, by definition, newsworthy – which is practically synonymous with out-of-the-ordinary.

99.95% of Americans Went About Their Day Untroubled By Violence Or Controversy

…is not news. This is:

Illegal Immigrant Uber Driver Rapes Passenger, Skips Bail, Flees Country

So is this:

Black Guys Get Arrested For Loitering At Starbucks

Why do people get worked up about incidents of violence or injustice or gross idiocy? Because they believe those incidents to be representative, to have some meaning beyond “stuff happens”. If the Starbucks story had been written up as This One Philadelphia Coffee Shop Manager Is Weirdly Anal About Sharing The Bathroom Code, it would have gone nowhere. The story took off because people believe it’s about something more than one coffee shop and one manager.

It’s impossible to tell, based on a sampling of media accounts, necessarily skewed toward sensation and controversy, how representative a news event really is. Especially when what excites people isn’t the event itself, but how it suggests a whole category of events, which might or might not themselves attain the threshold of newsworthiness. “So what, I saw a white lady get arrested for loitering just last week” isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about the Starbucks story. If one could examine the records of everyone ever arrested for loitering in a Philadelphia Starbucks, or in any Starbucks, or in any public space, and prove that blacks had been treated fairly, it still wouldn’t change anyone’s mind – because the story isn’t solely about Philadelphia or Starbucks or loitering or even black people.

Nor will arguing that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans change anyone’s mind about the Uber rapist story: the outrage isn’t about law-abiding immigrants, but illegal immigrant criminals, or liberal judges’ coddling of illegal immigrant criminals, or the mainstream media’s suppression of stories about liberal judges’ coddling…and so on.

There are 325 million people in the United States; another 140 million or so in the wider Anglomediasphere. Every week, tens of thousands of them experience some kind of injustice. If all the injustices committed last week were ranked from most to least egregious, would either of these instances be in the top 1000? The top 10? I have no idea.

Suppose the Starbucks story turned out to be the number one injustice of the week. That would make it more newsworthy…but less representative.


Okay, maybe instead of freaking out over whatever tumbles down the media’s outrage-powered conveyor belt, we should conserve our outrage for statistically significant problems. But statistics can be gamed, deliberately or unconsciously, and few of us have the inclination, let alone the mathematical chops, to scrutinize the underlying data. No surprise, then, that shoddy but headline-grabbing statistics proliferate – more widely, I’m tempted to say, than sound ones, although once again, maybe I’ve been misled by an unrepresentative handful of outrageously bad studies.

Most areas of social science defy statistical analysis anyway, being based on fuzzy concepts like privilege or equality, or on legal terms whose definitions keep mutating, like obscenity or sexual assault. Rarely do the terms stay constant; rarely is there consistent collection of data across jurisdictions or time periods; rarely is it possible to count actual occurrences rather than just reports of those occurrences. Usually researchers are in much the same position as news consumers – building rickety edifices of speculation on a foundation of incomplete data. The more intellectually honest researchers acknowledge this, humbly unveil their squat little constructs timbered with ifs, maybes, and neverthelesses, and watch as the mob streams past to gawk at flashy towers of popsicle sticks and cellophane. Or so it appears, from the vantage point of my own shaky stepladder.

It was this Slate Star Codex post, in which Scott Alexander dissects the results of his recent reader survey on sexual harassment in different professions, that got me thinking along these lines again. (He alludes to immigrant crime rates in an aside.) Scott wonders whether the STEM fields report less harassment than others not because there’s less of it going on but because the kind of people who pursue STEM careers define harassment more narrowly than, say, people who go into the media. (He characterizes this as, basically, “STEM nerds are too oblivious to know when they’re being harassed” but it could equally be phrased as “media snowflakes think every awkward interaction constitutes harassment”.) But Scott recognizes that his blog’s relatively small female readership may be selected in ways that distort the survey results.

As I see it, while there are a handful of smart folks out there, like Scott Alexander, trying to build up little neighbourhoods of reason and goodwill, they’re isolated in a megalopolis of muddle that sprawls from horizon to horizon and becomes more rundown and anarchic every day. But do I see the cityscape accurately, or have I blundered into a cul-de-sac that I’m mistaking for the whole? And if the residents assure me that they’re very happy here – who am I to contradict them?

It’s a line of thought that leads to fatalism and inertia.


I recently marked this passage in a 1940 essay by E.M. Forster called “Does Culture Matter?” [1] Forster wonders whether the practical, forward-looking generation then coming into power with the decline of the old English aristocracy will have any use for the kind of culture he was raised to deem valuable. He thinks of his upstairs neighbour, who “judging by the noises through the floor … doesn’t want books, pictures, tunes, runes, anyhow doesn’t want the sorts which we recommend. Ought we to bother him?” And if we do, is there any likelihood the neighbour will be grateful?

It is tempting to do nothing. Don’t recommend culture. Assume that the future will have none, or will work out some form of it which we cannot expect to understand. … Out of date myself, I like out of date things, and am willing to pass out of focus in that company, inheritor of a mode of life which is wanted no more. Do you agree? Without bitterness, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, ourselves the last of their hangers-on. Drink the wine – no-one wants it, though it came from the vineyards of Greece, the gardens of Persia. Break the glass – no-one admires it, no-one cares any more about quality or form. Without bitterness and without conceit take your leave. Time happens to have tripped you up, and this is a matter neither for shame nor for pride. [2]

Forster eventually decides against lying down and letting the barbarians take over – but I’m not convinced that he’s convinced by his rallying conclusion. [3]

As I peer around at the shanties thick on every hillside, unable to see a way through the maze, unsure whether my own actions are adding to the confusion, like Forster I’m tempted to plop down in the shade with a glass of wine and let the future take care of itself. I’m descended from that vulgar upstairs neighbour, after all – provincial, uncultured, borderline illiterate, at least by Forster’s standards – and yet I’ve had a pretty comfortable time of it. It’s reasonable to suppose that the next generation will manage to extract about as much pleasure out of their debased pastimes as I have from mine. While I feel increasingly out-of-place in their world, a few sheltering nooks of the older world should survive as long as I do.

Of course, there’s a self-protective motive for staying engaged. The consequence of ceding the streets to the barbarians is that our nooks will be overrun all the faster, so that the youngest of the old fogeys may find themselves with no place to shelter. Likewise, if muddle-headed melancholics like me try to duck out of the ideological fray, there’s no guarantee that the true believers won’t trample us as they lunge for each other’s throats.

And yet…even as I type these words, I worry that my reflections, well-intended though they may be, will dishearten and enervate the few readers they manage to reach. Am I sapping our civilization’s fragile spirit? If I can’t stand up forthrightly for truth, any truth, mightn’t the responsible thing be to lie down and (metaphorically) die?


1. Of course, it’s reading Forster that has made me think of “muddle”, one of his favourite words.

2. “Does Culture Matter?” is in the 1951 collection Two Cheers For Democracy.

3. “[T]he higher pleasures,” Forster argues, “are not really wines or glasses at all. They rather resemble religion, and it is impossible to enjoy them without trying to hand them on. … What is needed in the cultural Gospel is to let one’s light so shine that men’s curiosity is aroused, and they ask why Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James, should cause such disproportionate pleasure.” And if our evangelism for these dry old names should fail, as seems likely, to ignite the upstairs neighbour’s curiosity? Forster changes the subject.