CLARITY ISN'T US: Clarity is one of our lesser skills!


Job One is defining The Others: We recently had occasion to visit a large medical facility.

We entered a very large parking garage, so filled with cars at 8 A.M. that we had to snake up, up, up. From there, we proceeded to a truly overwhelming edifice—a gargantuan building which filled our heads with flashbacks to early Brasilia.

We wondered if it made good sense to overwhelm patients in this architectural manner. Mainly, we were amazed to think that we humans know how to design and construct such complex buildings at all.

As the week proceeded, we read about those Nord Stream pipelines, lying on the floor of the Baltic Sea. We read about the tons of concrete involved in their protection.


We humans are surprisingly good at building things! We say that we're surprisingly good because, in every other area, the most elementary type of clarity simply isn't us.

We build things with much more skill than we tend to reason. Consider the most recent offering from the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin.

Rubin used to be a reliably scripted conservative. She's now a reliably scripted Never Trumper. She's reliably one of Us.

We humans! When it comes to banging out tribal script, clarity isn't us! It isn't one of our leading skills. Defining the Others is!

We thought of that, as we often do these days, when reading Rubin's column. But before we look at what she wrote, briefly consider the text of the following statement:

“White Americans today are not responsible for discrimination against Black people in the past.” 

We'll ask two questions about that statement:

1) Do you agree with that statement? 

Also, perhaps more importantly:

2) How well do you understand what that statement means?

Readers, how well do you understand what that statement means? 

For obvious reasons, it's often said that people aren't responsible for the sins of their parents. In various contexts, the reason for that judgment will strike most people as obvious. It will seem easy to explain.

In various contexts, it's often said that we aren't responsible for the sins of our parents. But is that what is meant by the statement we've posted above? In practical terms here in the real world, what would that statement mean?

What does, or would, that statement mean? In our view, you're asking a very good question!

In response to your very good question, we're going to showcase a certain rumination, a type of rumination we unveiled in Sunday's award-winning post

We're going to show you the correct answer to a certain question. The correct answer goes like this:

QUESTION: Are White Americans living today responsible for discrimination against Black people in the past?

CORRECT ANSWER: I'm not sure what you mean.

"I'm not sure what you mean!" Again and again, then again and again, that turns out to be the correct answer to a wide array of questions (and statements) in a wide array of fields. 

Even more politely, "I'm not quite sure what you mean!" That answer challenges the questioner to be more precise about what he actually means—about what he's actually saying or asking.

It asks the questioner to traffic in clarity. And no, it isn't a dodge!

We offer this preamble in reaction to Rubin's new column. Her column appears beneath a mandated headline:

Just how racist is the MAGA movement? This survey measures it.

Happy days are here again! Rubin says she's found a survey which measures how racist a certain movement is. 

You'll know, without reading, what the survey has found. But who exactly is part of that movement? And how was their "racism" measured and/or defined?

In his own most recent essay, Ed Kilgore joins many analysts in describing the heightened state of tribal loathing in our contemporary politics. He quotes this passage from a recent column in the Washington Post:

KILGORE (9/28/22): In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck write that American politics has become more polarized and calcified. Events and the responses to them from politicians no longer have the ability to deeply and fundamentally reshape our politics or political coalitions. “Voters and leaders in the two major parties are not only more ideologically distant from each other but also more likely to describe each other in harsh terms,” they write.

We're dividing into warring groups and describing each other in harsh terms. This has been said again and again. Everybody knows this.

For better or worse, no one is much more scripted than Jennifer Rubin is. You always know what she's going to say. Tomorrow, we'll look at what she said in her recent column. 

Also coming, this latest from Blow. For today, we'll leave you with this:

Our species is good at building things—and at spotting Others.

Down through the millennia, clarity has rarely been our strong suit, even (or especially) at the highest academic levels. Job One has been defining The Others, a prelude to one of our wars.

Tomorrow: "72 percent"

Full disclosure, to set hearts at ease: This tendency won't be going away. It's all anthropology now!


  1. "Consider the most recent offering from the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin."

    Meh. Why would we consider her "offering", dear Bob, when we concluded a long time ago that this lady needs to be institutionalized and kept in a padded cell?

    ...and besides, the unfortunate lady-lunatic is published by Bezos Post; 'nuff said.


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  2. Democrats have been winning elections for decades by calling Republicans "racists". Rubin is an improvement: she only calls Trump-supporting Republican's "racists."

    1. Rubin isn't even a Democrat, David. She's just another conservative never-trumper in a long line of conservative never-trumpers who have been mortified by your party's abomination and are running for the lifeboat.

      Here's a suggestion, though I know you will ignore it. Stop fucking with black's voting franchise and then we can talk about how you're not a racist fascist prick.

    2. What a coincidence! Republicans have been racists for years -- ever since they stopped being Southern Democrats. But you are correct, David. There are certainly Republican racists besides those who support Trump.

    3. Conform or be cast out!

    4. The idea of conformity makes no sense when people are forming groups based on affinity. Why would anyone join a party if they didn’t agree with its platform?

      Of course, Republicans stopped having a platform when they became a cult of personality. Their main criterion for membership is loyalty to Dear Leader.

    5. Calling Republicans "racists" is liking calling Democrats " political".

  3. "As the week proceeded, we read about those Nord Stream pipelines, lying on the floor of the Baltic Sea. We read about the tons of concrete involved in their protection"

    The concrete is to protect the pipeline from the sea, not from sabotage.

    "We wondered if it made good sense to overwhelm patients in this architectural manner. "

    It costs more to build two smaller buildings than to build a single larger one.

    Somerby really sounds like a rube today. Does he not get out much?

    He went up up up because he was arriving at 8 am, when perhaps worker shifts were starting and the first appointments of the day were scheduled. If you plan a little better to avoid congestion, you can come slightly earlier and park on a lower floor, or come toward the end of the day when there will be empty spaces on lower floors as people finish their appts and go home.

    If Somerby has started seeing doctors for chronic conditions, he will learn how to better manage his visits. That doesn't make his experience anyone else's fault. Blaming the architects makes him sound especially silly today. Brasilia was opened in 1960. It wasn't particularly big, but it had the distinction of being planned from scratch and looking modernistic. It doesn't look modern any more.

    1. Lula might win the presidency of Brazil. Let's see if Bosonaro leaves office peacefully.

  4. "You'll know, without reading, what the survey has found. "

    Yes, that suggests that this is a stable characteristic across different forms of measurement (e.g., different surveys). If you get the same result across different ways of assessing a trait, it is more likely to exist as an independent entity (and not an artifact of the way a question is worded or a survey is constructed). This makes the assertion that a characteristic is true of people much more believable, not less so.

    artifact definition: "A result that seems to exist by the way it was measured but it does not truly show what was measured or give a clear picture as to what has been measured."

  5. "Tomorrow, we'll look at what she said in her recent column.

    Also coming, this latest from Blow. "

    Don't expect Somerby to talk about either of these tomorrow. He has already denigrated Rubin without any evidence or example, so he need not come back to talking about her. And Blow is always on the receiving end of some negative comment by Somerby. A favorite target. Did he say or do anything to deserve it? Somerby doesn't say and he may or may not return to tell us what is wrong with Blow, after today's assault (linking him with bad girl Rubin).

  6. Just for the record, there is no necessary connection between construction of buildings and political polarization. In my experience, construction workers tend to be less verbal than politicians, but YMMV. Somerby has built a bridge between the two, for no good reason at all, entirely out of air since he offers no explanation for why they are related at all. He even throws in the pipeline, when no one is saying concrete had anything to do with its sabotage.

    And then Somerby has the nerve to mention clarity! Just as he thinks there is something wrong with tall buidings, he seems to be suggesting that clarity will make racism disappear. He hints that racism is only found in questionnaires and not in real life. Or what is he hinting? It isn't very clear except it has to do with Brasilia apparently.

    1. Loose associations are a symptom of schizophrenia or frontal lobe damage.

    2. Or of a mind freed from conformity and black and white thinking...

    3. No, no one thinks that when they hear schizophrenic wird salad.

  7. “White Americans today are not responsible for discrimination against Black people in the past.”

    White Americans today are certainly responsible for making sure that discrimination against Black people in the past doesn't continue in the present.

    If everyone who read the quoted sentence understood what it meant, then it has communicated clearly even if it wasn't worded according to Somerby's preference.

    Is there any person reading that sentence who thought it referred to going back in a time machine to change what happened in the past? Of course not. Why? Because time machines do not exist and time operates in a linear fashion from past to present and not in any other direction. We all know these things and that constrains the possible ways in which the quoted sentence can be interpreted.

    Many communications are similarly constrained by common sense understandings of how the world works, so that they are interpreted similarly by all who read them, even though an excessively literal parsing might suggest alternative meanings. If no one ever takes those alternative meanings, they are not a problem for anyone in real life.

    Language is loose because people are usually speaking on the fly and stopping to perfect the construction of sentences would interfere with an ongoing conversation. The pragmatics of conversation are that we accord linguistic charity to others and only interrupt the flow of information when there is truly a confusion. There is none in what Somerby wrote about today. That sentence is clear enough for everyone's purposes.

    Somerby thinks it is clever to violate the pragmatics of language in order to point out specious problems. He perhaps thinks that when Wittgenstein did it, he was being clever, thus when Somerby does it 70 years later, it will make him sound "brilliant" too. Since then, theorists have explained why we can make grammatical and other errors during speech and in writing and still communicate well. Somerby was absent the day that was presented in whatever class he took, since he persists in this legalistic approach to construction of meaning. But people do not think that way.

    Is it a flaw of humanity that we do not use language as strictly as Somerby claims we should? Of course not. Flexibility is gained when strictness is sacrificed, as long as meaning is preserved, as it is in this quoted sentence.

    Somerby is displaying ignorance today, not proving that we otherize others (or whatever he thinks is wrong with distinguishing self and not-self and the other commonplaces of how we form social categories. A sociology class would have explained that to Somerby, but he thinks that is a human weakness too, when it isn't. It is a side-effect of thinking in abstracts and forming concepts.

    Some day maybe Somerby will read a cognitive psychology book, but I won't hold my breath. Until then, his complaints against humanity are the negative carping of a grumpy old man, and calling others "others" is not the reason why we have racism, nor the reason why racism is not a problem when it clearly still is. The reasons for racism are not linguistic -- they are economic and social. Language is not deterministic, it reflects what people do.

  8. When Somerby gets around to discussing Blow's recent column, I hope he keeps this in mind:

    "Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I’m simply saying this: He has targeted Black people, Black power and Black history."

    1. pssst…(Blow’s calling DeSantis a racist.)

    2. No, Blow says DeSantis is not being forthright about his racism. He is trying to have things both ways.

    3. So Blow is calling DeSantis a dishonest racist.

      Oh, that’s better.

    4. No, most people consider that worse, which is why Blow is talking about it. Somerby would rather discuss Blow than DeSantis. Blow isn’t running for anything but DeSantis is — which tells you Somerby’s motives.

    5. Yes, that is worse. I was correct that Blow was not forthright in saying that he wasn’t calling DeSantis a racist.

      The “that’s better” remark was obvious sarcasm. But you knew that.

    6. psst...Cesillyia, DeSantis IS a raging racist. Right wing ideology is defined by racism, among other oppressions. That is what they do, that is what they live for. Denying it only lessens your credibility.

    7. Which is worse, a sarcastic op-ed writer or a racist governor who pretends he is not racist?

    8. Anonymouse 8:52pm, well, I know you feel that way.

      I was just cluing in Anonymouse 11:43am that Blow was not being forthright in his statement that he was not calling DeSantis a racist.

      Turned out she already knew that. She wasn’t being forthright either.

    9. Anonymouse 9:51pm, what’s worse is your murdering the pizza delivery boy.

    10. With Ron DeSantis it is difficult to differentiate between a racist or someone who knows that playing the game a certain way plays to that base. Ron DeSantis is, if nothing else, a phoney. After Hurricane Sandy, this asshole and 66 other members of the house voted against disbursing FEMA funds to FEMA insured victims - rightful claimants- arguing that first budget cuts would need to be made to neutralize the cost. Tea partier. Today of course is different. It is now time for FEMA to immediately start writing checks without even considering oversight, as specifically stated in his press conference. Yeah, descent is could possibly be a racist but he is definitely a disingenuous two faced asshole.

    11. Ok that is pitiful. DeSantis auto corrected to decent.

    12. The Universe is trying to tell you something.

    13. The idea that a Republican isn't a racist, is the stupidest thing you'll read on the internet today.

    14. Actually autocorrected to descent, so yeah, the Universe is correct.

  9. "Tomorrow: "72 percent"

    Does Somerby think he has communicated anything whatsoever with this?

    1. Hi, I'm from tomorrow, turns out that is describing the degree to which Somerby is racism denier.

      Btw, according to some high level physicists, like Aharonov and Lev Vaidman, the future can in fact affect the past.

  10. Rubin's column is behind a paywall and he doesn't quote anything from her, showing how scripted she is (for better or worse). That makes it difficult for readers to understand why he is smearing her (he does consider "scripted" to be a bad thing, based on his feelings about narrative). If he is going to smear someone, he should provide evidence.

    In fact, Blow is a good model to follow for providing evidence. His column, linked by Somerby, includes a series of incidents that suggest DeSantis is OK with people who engage in racist behavior. Blow builds a case with examples. Then he doesn't call DeSantis a racist. He suggests DeSantis is comfortable with racist people doing racist things, never speaks out about racism, but has promoted legislation to forbid others from talking about race in ways that might be anti-racist. He builds a case.

    Somerby never builds a case. He smears and runs.


  11. There is bad Bob Somerby, and then there is BAD
    Bob Somerby. The latter is today's gruel.
    Clearly Rubin is writing about the racist element in the
    far right people who support Donald Trump. Bob, who has
    been oddly traumatized by his ancestors link to the
    Confederacy, is driven a little nuts by this. Yes, most
    people understand that people should not be held
    responsible for things their parents did. At the same
    time, most reasonable people feel America owes black
    people some amends (and admit some have been made
    in the last fifty or so years.) Why does Bob need this
    as a preamble to explore what Rubin is saying?
    This may have very little to do with Rubin's case
    against Trump. Would, say, the Central Park Five case
    illustrate Trump is at least a dunce on the subject of
    race as he is on everything else? Bob would never be
    interested in exploring this. But he never tells us today
    what his problem with Rubin is, other than She cannot
    be reasonable because She was once a
    Next Bob is borrowing Trump's own
    childish derision here (never Trumper) but we will never get him to
    point to areas where he IS with Trump. For him the
    glib insanity defense is always good enough
    for Donald.
    Mostly we need to address Bob's insult
    "reliably scripted." I guess what Bob means by
    this is you can predictably know what the writer is
    going to say on a subject before they weigh in.
    Here, only all caps will do: COULD THAT BE
    So it's a very empty insult. It's also bullshit.
    Very few moderate conservatives have openly come
    forward to condemn Trump, in all his cheap hood glory.
    Our own David in Ca posted for years here as a
    decent, reasonable person who believed in economic
    conservative, It's now apparent to all he is a dirty old
    bastard who just likes pushing people around.
    Whatever. Most of his party went the same way.
    I couldn't have said for sure Bob would adapt this
    insanity defense for Trump. We might have thought
    better of him, that the better Angels of his nature
    were not in fact cheap whores.
    Still, if anyone has stuck to script in the Trump
    era, obviously, it's Bob.

    1. Habermann says Trump bragged about never using a toilet in the White House that Obama had used. Then he said "you know what I mean". That sounds pretty racist to me. He also defended his father on housing violations involving refusal to rent to black tenants. And there are things he has said at his rallies. His support for white supremacists says it too. Trump is not a kind, decent person, even by Somerby's standards.

    2. "... even by Somerby's standards."