FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2021
Then too, afternoon delight: On the one hand, we apologize on this rainy afternoon.
Michele Norris' modest proposal raised so many questions that we couldn't get to them all in the course of a week.
We do think her "pronoun shift" points in a very serious direction. In fairness, it only matters if you want democracy (such as it is) to win, and autocracy to lose.
We didn't discuss the best part of Norris' essay, the part in which she describes the shortcomings of Germany's ongoing attempt at Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung (her word).
We didn't discuss the howler she published in the Post a few months back, a giant howler which remains uncorrected. Such things happen quite routinely when journalistic and cultural stampedes take place.
We didn't even really explain why that "pronoun shift" matters so much. Basically, it comes down to this:
Do we intend to try to be one people, or do we intend to move ahead as an array of fundamentally separate identity groups? This nation's pursuit of the "one people" ideal has ebbed and flowed over the course of time. Under the stresses produced by the current wave of highly selective journalism, are we moving back away from pursuit of that ideal?
It seems that the answer is yes. People are free to construe our floundering nation's essence in whatever way they think makes sense, but we're going to guess that Vladimir Putin regards that as a win! Also, Donald J. Trump.
That said, afternoon delight:
We've returned, in the past few days, to the explanation we once called the worst explanation ever made or given. And yes, it's a phantom explanation. It makes exactly zero sense, but it seems that no one has ever noticed.
We first discussed this "worst explanation" when it appeared in a Nova retrospective about Einstein's theory of relativity, we think in 2015.
At that time, we didn't realize that Nova had cadged its presentation, step for step, from Einstein himself. Specifically, Nova cadged the explanation from the "Einstein made easy" book Einstein published for general readers, a book which first appeared in 1916.
Yes, it's true! Einstein penned this worst explanation ever. Also, it doesn't make sense!
In the past few days, we've been visiting this worst explanation as it appears in Walter Isaacson's 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. (See pages 122-125.)
In that book, Isaacson explains how an intellectual giant like Einstein could have created a book for general readers which, in fact, makes little sense. The secret is this:
While Einstein was the greatest physicist since Newton, he wasn't especially skilled when it came to popular writing. In the course of creating his book for general readers, he came up with a comically awful way of making sure that its presentations would be accessible to such regular folk.
Isaacson explains the comically awful method, apparently without spotting one of its results: One of the basic explanations Einstein offered in his "easy reader" book simply didn't make sense.
(Isaacson's account: Einstein decided to have his teen-aged niece read his manuscript to see if she understood it. In fact, she didn't understand, but she was too much in awe of her famous uncle to be willing to say so. She told him it all made sense to her. Publication followed.)
Einstein failed to explain that part of his work in a way which made actual sense; major journalists have failed to notice. This is the way of "phantom explanation," which is found all through our higher-end discourse.
It's a bit like the old joke from the Soviet Union:
"We pretend to work," a rueful Soviet laborer says, "and they pretend to pay us!"