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David Foster Wallace on 9-11, Terrorism
September 12, 2010 2:20 PM   Subscribe

"Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price?" In 2007 David Foster Wallace invited readers to a series of thought experiments in a short piece.

Today is the two year anniversary of his death. Yesterday was a better known anniversary of another tragedy.
posted by fantodstic (92 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety?

See how he buries the word "stupid" in this sentence without saying it outright?

When we lost him, we lost one of our best.
posted by felix betachat at 2:38 PM on September 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


Those are either the best or worst footnotes I've ever seen -- the trappings of such precision in the service of such sloppiness!
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:45 PM on September 12, 2010


When we lost him, we lost one of our best.

Great, one of our best committed suicide. Doesn't say much for the rest of us.
posted by nomadicink at 2:46 PM on September 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


You would need to offset that 40,000 by the lives that have been saved by cars, e.g. by rushing someone to the hospital.

Society has collectively decided that, yes, the fatalities from automobile accidents are "worth it." You can disagree with that judgment, but the judgment has implicitly been made.

And this is not equivalent to terrorism. Cars confer benefits while raising risks. When you decide to ride in a car when you could have walked, you're deciding that the benefit outweighs the risk (putting aside the risk of being hit by a car as a pedestrian).

Terrorism is different. Unlike cars, it provides no benefit, only costs. That's why we judge cars differently than terrorism.

I understand that the essay has a different point, and I'm not criticizing the essay. I just think it's important to be clear about why we have these seemingly disparate reactions.

(By the way, this goes against my personal interests and feelings. I'm much more worried about being killed by a car than by terrorists. None of my friends or family members have been killed by terrorists; one of my family members has been killed by a car. So on a visceral level, I'm more disturbed by the lethality of cars than terrorism. But on an analytical level, I don't consider them equivalent.)
posted by John Cohen at 2:47 PM on September 12, 2010 [10 favorites]


Terrorism is different. Unlike cars, it provides no benefit, only costs. That's why we judge cars differently than terrorism.

That's not the analogy, though. Cars aren't like terrorism in this piece. The analogy is:

Car Crashes : Cars :: Terrorism : Free Society
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:50 PM on September 12, 2010 [18 favorites]


I know, but that's my analogy. Did you notice the second-to-last paragraph of my comment?
posted by John Cohen at 2:51 PM on September 12, 2010


Doesn't say much for the rest of us.

Um, agreed? My guess is that if more of us were forced--as DFW was--to look clear-eyed at the bullshit that passes for truth in this society, there'd be a lot more bodies swinging in closets.
posted by felix betachat at 2:51 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Terrorism is different. Unlike cars, it provides no benefit, only costs. That's why we judge cars differently than terrorism.

The article isn't asking us to consider that terrorism is worth its costs, but that the policies and culture that (putatively) make a free society the target of terrorism are worth the cost.
posted by Elsa at 2:52 PM on September 12, 2010


So we're supposed to respect the fictional author's misleading analogy (should have worked for fox news) because....he's dead or something?

It's not taking into consideration what JC said above. And thats huge.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:54 PM on September 12, 2010


"Sacrifices on the altar of freedom?" Only if American 'freedom' were really the proximal cause of the attacks.

Why did 9/11 happen? Nine years on, how many Americans know the answer to this question?
posted by 7-7 at 2:55 PM on September 12, 2010


And: I read your comment in full. I'm pointing out that, in this analogy, terrorism is not the thing that is asked to confer benefits; a free society is both the thing asked to confer the benefit and the benefit.
posted by Elsa at 2:57 PM on September 12, 2010


Um, agreed? My guess is that if more of us were forced--as DFW was--to look clear-eyed at the bullshit that passes for truth in this society, there'd be a lot more bodies swinging in closets.

Oh come now. You think Wallace killed himself out of despair over the state of society? Can you really believe that?
posted by Mister_A at 3:01 PM on September 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


And: I read your comment in full. I'm pointing out that, in this analogy, terrorism is not the thing that is asked to confer benefits; a free society is both the thing asked to confer the benefit and the benefit.

I understand. For the third time: that's why I explicitly said I was not criticizing the essay and I realize he was making a different point than my point. I think I'm allowed to make a tangential comment.

But now I'll criticize the essay. It's misleading to compare "cars" to a "free society" in the terrorism context. He seems to be only thinking about restrictions on liberty that are meant to fight terrorism, as if we don't restrict people's liberty with respect to cars. Liberty with respect to cars is massively restricted. It's illegal to drive drunk or without a license. You can't get a license till you're 16. Your license can be suspended or revoked. You have to pass a test to get a license. You have to follow the rules of the road -- go the speed the government tells you, in the direction the government tells you. If a police officer tells you to stop driving and pull over, you must do it. There are laws about airbags and seatbelts. And so on.

Of course, there will still be car crashes, but there's an enormous amount of government regulation and police power brought to bear on car drivers in an attempt to minimize car crashes. And government also brings enormous power to bear in an attempt to minimize terrorism. We can complain that this means we're not a "free society," but the public would never accept a laissez-faire approach to cars or terrorism.
posted by John Cohen at 3:08 PM on September 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think the piece is trite and obvious and is no less so for having been written by a dead guy with good prose style. Can someone in this thread please articulate why they think the argument being made here is in any way original? (Without the smug references to "sheeple," please. That just borders on self-parody.)
posted by nasreddin at 3:09 PM on September 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


You think Wallace killed himself out of despair over the state of society? Can you really believe that?

That isn't what I said. I suggested his clarity of vision contributed both to his brilliance and to his sickness. If you allow that depression has an etiology which is both environmental and physiological, then this is hardly a controversial (or sentimental) thing to say.
posted by felix betachat at 3:09 PM on September 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


Oh come now. You think Wallace killed himself out of despair over the state of society? Can you really believe that?

Truly. Wallace suffered from long-term depression borne of myriad personal issues.
posted by mediocritease at 3:10 PM on September 12, 2010


Woops. Apologies. Felix explained himself. And well.
posted by mediocritease at 3:15 PM on September 12, 2010


I suggested his clarity of vision contributed both to his brilliance and to his sickness. If you allow that depression has an etiology which is both environmental and physiological, then this is hardly a controversial (or sentimental) thing to say.

Yeah, let's romanticize depression and suicide and call it "clarity of vision." WAKE UP AND KILL YOURSELVES, SHEEPLE!
posted by nasreddin at 3:17 PM on September 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think, John, the notion is that certain fundamentals of the 'American idea' - such as supporting democracy and freedom for everyone - makes us targets when those ideas step on the toes of fascistic governments or repressive religious institutions. When we hand over the keys and sacrifice personal privacy in exchange for safety, we're really letting go of that idea of freedom for all. It becomes freedom for those who don't do anything to shake the boat, who answer every question at customs, who are just fine with random government searches and no because they apparently have nothing to hide...
posted by kaibutsu at 3:20 PM on September 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, let's romanticize depression and suicide and call it "clarity of vision." WAKE UP AND KILL YOURSELVES, SHEEPLE!

Clarity of vision is a bit grandiose and maybe not entirely accurate, but it still points to something that is common among intelligent people afflicted with depression, namely, they think too much.
posted by mediocritease at 3:21 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Depressive realism
posted by Rumple at 3:21 PM on September 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


You would need to offset that 40,000 by the lives that have been saved by cars, e.g. by rushing someone to the hospital.

Would that all social cost/benefit analysis were that quantitative and straightforward. Problem is, as we've slowly discovered, costs are too often hidden, shifted and/or impossible to objectively quantify. Also, a vast majority of the people have neither the inclination nor the capacity for critical thinking or quantitative / statistical analysis.

Fortunately, we have benevolent, unbiased politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats to sort it all out for us.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:21 PM on September 12, 2010


Let's not make Wallace a martyr, OK? He was a brilliant writer who died, tragically, by his own hand. But not BECAUSE he was so brilliant or clear-eyed or whatever.
posted by Mister_A at 3:22 PM on September 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


There sure is a lot of whistling past the graveyard in this thread...
posted by felix betachat at 3:26 PM on September 12, 2010


He was a brilliant writer who died, tragically, by his own hand. But not BECAUSE he was so brilliant or clear-eyed or whatever.

I agree. It's possible there's a link, but often romanticized talk like that bothers me. It always swirls around figures like Van Gogh ("His madness led to his beautiful paintings!") when really Van Gogh did his best work when he was well, and his periods of depressing were incredibly disruptive to his work. I think it's often too easy to link depression and "great quality figure had here". In some cases it might make sense but often it seems like weaving a narrative where one maybe should not.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:27 PM on September 12, 2010 [15 favorites]


Here are some problems with the article:

1) It makes the assumption that the terrorist attacks were a side effect of having a "free society," rather than a pretty predictable consequence of America's imperial ambitions in the Middle East. This turns geopolitical problems into cultural problems and feeds into the right-wing narrative about "Islamofascism."

2) It demands a "public debate" without any clear definition or sense of what that means. What's a public debate? Is it Congress? Elections? Town halls? Is it the Tea Party? Is it random crank senior citizens writing letters to the editor? There's no such thing as "public debate" because society isn't the liberal-fantasy ideal of a well-informed civic-minded populace coming together to make decisions. Modern societies, whether democratic or socialist or theocratic, are governed by a complicated bundle of interest groups held together by ideologies and strategic interests. Nowhere is there room for the kind of unrestricted debate Wallace seems to want.

Both of these problems are symptomatic of a lack of depth, I think, and it's sad to see so many people falling all over him.
posted by nasreddin at 3:28 PM on September 12, 2010 [17 favorites]


Both of these problems are symptomatic of a lack of depth, I think, and it's sad to see so many people falling all over him.

It would be crazy to discount the man's truly brilliant body of work over one problematic article.
posted by mediocritease at 3:30 PM on September 12, 2010


It would be crazy to discount the man's truly brilliant body of work over one problematic article.

I should have said "all over this article." The fact is, plenty of writers aren't especially deep thinkers, and I don't think Wallace's printed output is an exception. That doesn't mean he isn't a great writer, it just means we have to look to other people for our political ideas, which seems reasonable.
posted by nasreddin at 3:33 PM on September 12, 2010


It makes the assumption that the terrorist attacks were a side effect of having a "free society," rather than a pretty predictable consequence of America's imperial ambitions in the Middle East. This turns geopolitical problems into cultural problems and feeds into the right-wing narrative about "Islamofascism."

No, it makes the assumption that an inability to fully protect against every terrorist attack is a side effect of a free society. In a free society the government can't take the necessary security measures to prevent all terrorism, and some attacks getting through is the cost of a free society.

I could protect myself from drunk drivers by never leaving my apartment. Exposing myself to the risk of being killed by a drunk driver is a price I pay for moving about generally. This doesn't say anything about how I contribute to drunk driving.
posted by fatbird at 3:39 PM on September 12, 2010 [8 favorites]


You would need to offset that 40,000 by the lives that have been saved by cars, e.g. by rushing someone to the hospital.

..and the world population would not be what it is today without the ICE and fossil fuels, for better or worse, most of us owe our very existence to it, including perhaps DFW.

A better thought expirment today is can we afford to continue burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) since they are now known to be an existential threat caused by global warming (not to mention habitat destruction and general pollution).
posted by stbalbach at 3:40 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let's remember that DFW was not a mentally healthy dude. Throughout his entire adult life he struggled with severe, crippling depression. He did not look down the chasm of modern life and, seeing nothing but darkness, shuffle off the mortal coil. He was ill and his illness claimed his life. Let's not romanticize this in order to fuel our own pity parties.
posted by GilloD at 3:42 PM on September 12, 2010


Is it possible that I'm too distracted by the style to engage with the substance? What's the point of all the rhetorical questions?
posted by voltairemodern at 3:43 PM on September 12, 2010


No, it makes the assumption that an inability to fully protect against every terrorist attack is a side effect of a free society. In a free society the government can't take the necessary security measures to prevent all terrorism, and some attacks getting through is the cost of a free society.

In that case, the article says very little--because even authoritarian societies aren't all that good at preventing terror. To take a recent example, the reach of the police and security services in Russia is far more extensive (at least in theory) than in the United States, especially in the North Caucasus region, and yet there are brutal terrorist attacks in Russia on a regular basis.
posted by nasreddin at 3:43 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fact is, plenty of writers aren't especially deep thinkers, and I don't think Wallace's printed output is an exception.

I think it's necessary at this point to define "deep thinker."

In the meantime, I would direct you to this.
posted by mediocritease at 3:44 PM on September 12, 2010


Some of what is in this thread answers the question Mr. Wallace posed, and it doesn't make us look very good.

"A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one!"
-- Alexander Hamilton
posted by Xoebe at 3:49 PM on September 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


In that case, the article says very little--because even authoritarian societies aren't all that good at preventing terror. To take a recent example, the reach of the police and security services in Russia is far more extensive (at least in theory) than in the United States, especially in the North Caucasus region, and yet there are brutal terrorist attacks in Russia on a regular basis.

I agree, but I think so would Wallace, since he's arguing against sacrificing liberty for security, by biting the bullet. Rather than offer up (again) the "security is illusory" side of the argument, he's pushing the side that says that terrorism is not special, and we accept much higher body counts for other (arguably less important) aspects of our society. This side of the argument is under-served because the emotional weight of the issue is on "ZOMG SAVE US FROM TERRISTS!"
posted by fatbird at 3:49 PM on September 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


Granted, the article I linked has little to do with politics, but I think it's evidence of the depth of the man's thought.
posted by mediocritease at 3:49 PM on September 12, 2010


I think it's necessary at this point to define "deep thinker."

In the meantime, I would direct you to this.


Well, it's necessarily a subjective concept, but for me it implies a real desire and ability to unpack received ideas. I see a lot of clever things in his books, and some thoughtful reflections on the human condition, but nothing I would consider especially deep. (I don't think that's what he was aiming for, anyway.)

And that usage essay is one of the most superficial and maddening things he ever wrote. I've always enjoyed languagehat's takedown of it.
posted by nasreddin at 3:49 PM on September 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I agree, but I think so would Wallace, since he's arguing against sacrificing liberty for security, by biting the bullet. Rather than offer up (again) the "security is illusory" side of the argument, he's pushing the side that says that terrorism is not special, and we accept much higher body counts for other (arguably less important) aspects of our society. This side of the argument is under-served because the emotional weight of the issue is on "ZOMG SAVE US FROM TERRISTS!"

Seconding fatbird.
posted by mediocritease at 3:51 PM on September 12, 2010


Hmm...I'll have to read the languagehat article and follow up.
posted by mediocritease at 3:51 PM on September 12, 2010


When I was a little kid I wondered why cars could go faster than 55 mph (the top speed limit at the time). Then I started driving.

That said, I don't agree that you have to take into account people who are saved by cars going faster than the limit. It would be a simple matter to set up a 911 button that would let your car go faster but would also call the police down on your ass. Hell, Onstar could probably do it with a firmware update or slightly more hardware.

As soon as image processing is fast enough I expect to be reading a book while jetting to work at 200 mph... unless I die in a car wreck first.
posted by Huck500 at 3:53 PM on September 12, 2010


On preview, the languagehat articles seems a little petty. And I don't think it paints DFW's essay as superficial as it does perhaps teeming with technical issues. But I admit, I only read the first couple of paragraphs. I think it's still clear that Wallace meets your criteria for deep thought.
posted by mediocritease at 4:00 PM on September 12, 2010


Deep here is not necessarily synonymous with profound.
posted by mediocritease at 4:00 PM on September 12, 2010


The automobile deaths bit reminded me of Larry Niven's "Flash Crowd", where instant teleportation became available, but would randomly fail occasionally -- the failure instantly killing the transportee. The imagined society shrugged and said, "That's unavoidable, the risk is worth it."
posted by Several Unnamed Sources at 4:06 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it's still clear that Wallace meets your criteria for deep thought.

Far from it. The essay is a bloated, empty defense of a received idea, no matter how many pretentious trimmings it's dressed up with. And it's hardly petty on languagehat's part to point out errors in usage when that very usage is serving as the grounds for Wallace's "ethos" (in the rhetorical sense) throughout the essay.
posted by nasreddin at 4:08 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can someone in this thread please articulate why they think the argument being made here is in any way original?

Can I articulate why I don't care that it's not original? I came up with the same argument and same analogy independently, and I'd be surprised if a thousand other people hadn't done the same, and it's not important who among us was first.

Originality is overrated. I'd rather read an essay by the thousandth mathematician who explained why rational numbers aren't denumerable than read one by the very first crank who disagreed.
posted by roystgnr at 4:15 PM on September 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


The problem with this article is that it assumes that the restrictions on freedom that followed 9/11 were meant to protect us from terrorism. My opinion was that 9/11 was used as an excuse to institute police powers that certain (bipartisan) factions had wanted for quite some time, and that rather than protecting us, they endanger us.

Of course, that assumption is an effective rhetorical trick on the readers of The Atlantic, so I can excuse it.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 4:18 PM on September 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


when that very usage is serving as the grounds for Wallace's "ethos" (in the rhetorical sense) throughout the essay.

I always felt the essay in its entirety was a little more tongue-in-cheek than a supremely critical evaluation of language both colloquial and proper. It's really kind of schizophrenic, it seems. And it may strike you as bloated, but I genuinely think that's just how his mind worked. Again, "deep" does not necessarily mean profound. More often than not I take "deep" to mean "thorough," or at least, "at length."
posted by mediocritease at 4:22 PM on September 12, 2010


My opinion was that 9/11 was used as an excuse to institute police powers that certain (bipartisan) factions had wanted for quite some time, and that rather than protecting us, they endanger us.

To be fair, I think a large portion of the population believed that these measures were taken to ensure some level of security. Whether or not Wallace believed it himself, he chose to appeal to the people from that position. It's likelier to sway opinion than to get on a soapbox and yell "YOUR GOVERNMENT IS BETRAYING YOU."
posted by mediocritease at 4:26 PM on September 12, 2010


The problem with this article is that it assumes that the restrictions on freedom that followed 9/11 were meant to protect us from terrorism...

I hear you, but I think the point is a little more basic — Wallace was saying that ASSUMING all this crap was true and would actually help (giving the Bush Admin. the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the merits), shouldn't we, even in this best-case scenario, have had a public debate on this trade-off of liberty for security? That is, taking the administration at its word that these measures would increase security, we STILL should have debated whether that increased security was worth the price.
posted by Mister_A at 4:30 PM on September 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


What John Cohen said, really. The regulations and restrictions upon driving are far broader and more intrusive than the post-9/11 anti-terrorism security measures, although I do have to say that the former have a pretty thorough culture of cost-benefit analysis around them, while once it got beyond "no box-cutters through security, and lock the cockpit doors," the post-9/11 security regime has not exactly been characterized by clear thinking.
posted by MattD at 4:36 PM on September 12, 2010


John Cohen wins.
posted by anniecat at 4:42 PM on September 12, 2010


Here's a more revealing mind experiment for you: what would have happened if the towers had not fallen?

Would be we waging war in Afghanistan? Would the Bush Administration have been able to twist our fear into public will for the Iraq War? Would we be arguing about whether or not Muslims can build a community center a few blocks from the WTC site? Sure, maybe some desperate nutcases would be screaming on the sidelines, but I think by and large, we would have seen more measured responses from everyone.

Instead, in response to the murder of 3,000 of our citizens, we've sacrificed 6,000 coalition troops, killed at least a hundred thousand muslims, displaced at least two million more, thrown our most vital civil liberties out the window, and are on the way to spending a few trillion dollars if you count interest.

I just find it hard to believe that people still wonder if we overreacted. It seems obvious to me that our response to 9/11 had far more to do with our national ego than it did with our concerns that a few psychopaths really represent an existential threat to our way of life.
posted by notion at 4:50 PM on September 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


Statistically speaking, everything is dangerous. If we eliminate all of the things that could cause harm, we would eliminate most of the enjoyment and substance of being human.

We should seek to minimize risk, not eliminate it.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:58 PM on September 12, 2010


This thread got derailed at least 4 different times.

I think the point he is making is straight forward.

We can accept 40,000 per year deaths in exchange for the utility of the automobile.

Why can't we accept 3000 deaths in exchange for living in a society that is unencumbered with the privacy losses, (yes they are reading your overseas communications) restrictions on free travel, and all the other stuff that came about within the last 10 years?

As to whether DFW is a solid, good, great or profound thinker, I would leave that to the judgment of those who have read and listened to the better part of the body of his work.
posted by mygoditsbob at 5:18 PM on September 12, 2010 [13 favorites]


My opinion was that 9/11 was used as an excuse to institute police powers that certain (bipartisan) factions had wanted for quite some time, and that rather than protecting us, they endanger us.

Which is why I maintain that, at this point in our history, "gridlock" is the optimal outcome when Congress is in session.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:10 PM on September 12, 2010


What would future generations think?

I grew up in the 20th century, where we were taught in school that previous generations were ignorant savages for burning witches, among various other mayhem and mythologies.

Our current generation tolerates car-driving death and mayhem.
posted by ovvl at 6:50 PM on September 12, 2010


Our current generation tolerates car-driving death and mayhem.

Because there is an element of volition. The mind of the independent driver thinks that I can think for myself, and by free will freely overcome the next obstacle, like a drunk driver swerving into his lane...
posted by ovvl at 6:56 PM on September 12, 2010


Our current generation tolerates car-driving death and mayhem.

And horrendous cruelty to (certain) animals and (certain) humans.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:38 PM on September 12, 2010


You think Wallace killed himself out of despair over the state of society? Can you really believe that?

Pretty much. His personal life was fine. He truly despaired about society so much (read his graduation speech or any of his fiction or non-fiction and you can see it plainly) that he killed himself. Yes, I believe that.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:40 PM on September 12, 2010


His personal life was fine.

According to Foster's father, he killed himself after a course of shock treatment that seemed to render his previously effective anti-depressant, phenelzine, totally ineffective. I don't doubt his despair at the general run of society, but to pretend that deep clinical depression wasn't the major factor is to over-romanticize his genius and its end.
posted by fatbird at 8:49 PM on September 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've always enjoyed languagehat's takedown of it.

I hadn't seen that before. That's a fun takedown to read. I have never been a fan of DFW's writing, though I can appreciate how much it spoke to many people. Still, it's fun to read a piece like that.
posted by Forktine at 10:00 PM on September 12, 2010


Why analogize deaths from terrorism to those from driving cars, when you can attribute the former to the latter?

The attacks of 9/11 were attributable to our foreign policy, which was driven by our addiction to the oil needed to fuel our vehicles.

Now how much are we looking the other way when it comes to all of the risks and consequences of driving cars in general?

On top of this many people are purchasing the biggest, gas guzzling SUVs (half the fuel efficiency means twice the money to Iran and Saudi Arabia to fund terrorism!) in part because they are more lethal to other drivers. Granted, that's usually expressed in the more selfish terms of safety* to the SUV driver, not the increased likelihood of killing that family of four in the other car. The notion is that the bigger car 'wins' in a collision (and indeed you're something like 3.5 times more likely to be killed in an accident if you are hit by an SUV than a sedan). So in that sense, higher lethality to other drivers is one of the selling points of SUVs.

Now how much are we looking the other way when it comes to all of the risks and consequences of driving SUVs in particular?

(*I believe, but am having trouble finding concise and consistent evidence, that when you factor in rollovers, lower safety standards and factors that contribute to accidents like poorer handling, slower stopping, etc. SUVs are more dangerous to their occupants than sedans).
posted by Davenhill at 10:27 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sometimes, when a man writes "Just Asking", he is just asking.
posted by vidur at 11:08 PM on September 12, 2010


"No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium. "

Dan Gilbert's essay If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming gives a psychological answer to Wallace's question of why we care about some threats more than others.
posted by wanderingstan at 11:28 PM on September 12, 2010


Here's a more revealing mind experiment for you: what would have happened if the towers had not fallen?

Would be we waging war in Afghanistan? Would the Bush Administration have been able to twist our fear into public will for the Iraq War?


Most likely not in Afghanistan, but Cheney's faction had been pushing for a war against Iraq ever since the first one. If they didn't have this opportunity, they would have found another.

Islamophobia didn't start with 9/11, it just got juiced up, sort of like how Red-baiting didn't start with the Reichstag fire, it just got juiced up.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:29 PM on September 12, 2010


Most likely not in Afghanistan, but Cheney's faction had been pushing for a war against Iraq ever since the first one. If they didn't have this opportunity, they would have found another.

The Iraq War was a pretty tough sell as it was. I'm not sure they could have found a better opportunity.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:59 AM on September 13, 2010


Great, one of our best committed suicide. Doesn't say much for the rest of us.

I don't think 'one of our best' fits the case well either. But, in the man's defense, it wasn't just a momentary thing. According to WP he was on anti-depressants for 20 years and tried to quit. When that failed, he tried electroshock, and then the old meds wouldn't work any more. (Shows how valuable that medieval technology is.)
posted by Twang at 3:40 AM on September 13, 2010


This is the worst thread I've ever read.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:32 AM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Close. We just need one mention of Hitler, one more derail and we have the archetypal thread.
posted by mygoditsbob at 6:31 AM on September 13, 2010


I wouldn't say the worst ever, but I'm with you in spirit, shakespeherian. What a bunch of irrelevant drivel.
posted by rusty at 6:47 AM on September 13, 2010


Hitler himself could not write a more distressing thread.
posted by COBRA! at 7:03 AM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah, Socrates. Alor on danse...
posted by elpapacito at 8:32 AM on September 13, 2010


Why did 9/11 happen? Nine years on, how many Americans know the answer to this question?

For what it's worth, at some point I got caught watching a number of biographical profiles of various leaders of al Qaeda. They would at some point all arrive at the same place:

"Then he spent five years in a Saudi prison being beaten and tortured."

From which they would emerge radicalized.
posted by Trochanter at 8:51 AM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


And it's hardly petty on languagehat's part to point out errors in usage when that very usage is serving as the grounds for Wallace's "ethos" (in the rhetorical sense) throughout the essay.

Having never taken a debate class or read Aristotle's Rhetoric I had to look up what you meant by "'ethos' (in the rhetorical sense)." The Wikipedia article says:

"There are three categories of ethos.

phronesis - practical skills & wisdom
arete - virtue, goodness
eunoia - goodwill towards the audience"

And it also says "Completely dismissing an argument based on any of the above violations of ethos is a formal fallacy, rendering the dismissal of the argument invalid." The above violation referring to "The speaker has no expertise."

I don't think DFW claimed in that essay that he was some kind of expert on usage and that's why you should believe his essay. I think the point of the whole SNOOT thing is just that he is saying that he takes a strong interest in usage and that's why he is so fascinated by Garner's handling of the Prescriptivist v. Descriptivist debate in the Dictionary of Modern American Usage.
posted by ekroh at 9:40 AM on September 13, 2010


I've always been a little confused by languagehat's takedown because it seems to be predicated on Wallace's essay being an argument for prescriptivism, which I don't think it is.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:50 AM on September 13, 2010


Perspective On 9/11 And The Invasions Of Iraq & Afghanistan
posted by homunculus at 9:55 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I fear that there is some problem evinced by the discussion here. The analogy offered by DFW makes the following correspondences:

Car = civil freedoms

Car crash deaths = terrorism deaths

Elimination of cars to prevent deaths = restriction of civil freedoms to prevent deaths

The question he poses is why we were immediately willing to restrict civil freedoms to prevent terrorism-related deaths, when we are not willing to give up cars to prevent deaths. Note that terrorism is not the correspondent to cars here, civil freedoms are. This is a legitimate question, but with a difficult to obtain answer.

Clearly, no formal cost-benefit analysis of either question has ever been done, and we, as a society, rarely do such analyses except for business decisions and, occasionally, for health-related decisions. It would be useful to have the discussion on both issues. Should we invest more (and how much more should we invest) in preventing traffic deaths and other collateral costs of automobile travel (e.g., the many more maimed)? Should we increase or lessen restrictions made on civil liberties putatively to lower the risk of terrorist attacks in the US? Original or not, these are useful questions to ask, it seems to me.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:27 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


So we're supposed to respect the fictional author's misleading analogy...

Wallace was an author of (among other things) fiction, but he himself was very real.
posted by rusty at 10:44 AM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Expecting a normal DFW piece, I read the intro and then spent a good five minutes looking for the rest of the essay and getting angry at the Atlantic for not showing it to me.
posted by dust of the stars at 2:06 PM on September 13, 2010


So we're supposed to respect the fictional author's misleading analogy...

Wallace was an author of (among other things) fiction, but he himself was very real.


Yeah, that ticked me off. He wrote a considerable amount of non-fiction. Aside from that confusing arguable misuse of the word 'fictional'.
posted by kingbenny at 2:48 PM on September 13, 2010


Wallace was an author of (among other things) fiction, but he himself was very real.

Yes, yes yes. Here's a handy guide, kids, that you can cut out and keep in your wallet.

-----------------------------------
Nathan Zuckerman = fictional author
Philip Roth = author of fiction
-----------------------------------

Please consult and analogize as appropriate.
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:12 PM on September 13, 2010


ekron, probably best to have a little critical thinking when reading Wikipedia.

Whoever wrote that sentence (without a cite mind you) doesn't know what they are talking about.

A formal fallacy is based on a logical structure of the argument. Informal fallacies -- like ad hominem -- are based on truth content. So the wiki article is incorrect.

Also, there is a difference between attacking ethos and fallacious argument, again showing that the article is incorrect. The former is a matter of rhetorical composition, and the latter of logic. If someone is using some manner of ethos to win over their audience, then attacking that appeal is a legitimate tactic to lessen the appeal, as rhetorical combat is about persuasion, not truth.

So in this case nasreddin's usage is correct. Wikipedia is wrong.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 4:07 AM on September 14, 2010


ugh, I mean ekroh.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 4:08 AM on September 14, 2010


I am a bit surprised by how few people here are prepared to address the question that DFW asked.

To a simple Australian it seems like the sort of question that should be vigourously debated by decent, thinking people everywhere. I'd assumed to this point that MeFites were a subset of such a group.

There's been lots of tangential discussion, much of which, I'm not embarrassed to admit, is going right over my head. But there hasn't much discussion about whether some civilians being killed is a worthwhile trade off in order to live in a free society.

It's an argument which appeals to me. And I haven't read anything on this page which has convinced me otherwise.
posted by puffmoike at 7:51 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am a bit surprised by how few people here are prepared to address the question that DFW asked.

I am. I addressed it on 9/11/01. I briefly imagined a magical america-prime where our leaders would declare the attacks to be an isolated and lucky strike by a very small enemy, and then lead a collected international force to arrest and try the alleged perpetrators.

Then I also hoped that people would realize that the occasional deaths of civilians are inevitable in a free society, and yes, rather insignificant compared to the myriad ways in which we inflict death upon ourselves and our planet every day.

Just another in a long, long series of disappointments.

what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Many of us would accept that trade-off, especially if the effects of terror attacks are as minimal as they have been.

A much more important and fundamental question to me is: why are the lives of Americans worth more than the lives of foreigners? If they are not, how do you explain the American military policy illustrated by homunculus' link?
posted by mrgrimm at 9:20 AM on September 14, 2010


But there hasn't much discussion about whether some civilians being killed is a worthwhile trade off in order to live in a free society.

I think it is a bad tradeoff to yield our freedoms for a heightened sense of security. That said, the most difficult part of this conundrum for most people is, I believe, the unknowability of the benefit coupled with ignorance of the value of the freedoms themselves. If I let the government snoop in email or telephone calls, or allow them to search homes and vehicles arbitrarily, just how much does that lower the chances of what seems a fairly rare occurrence? Regarding the cost, as someone pointed out upthread, many people basically feel they have nothing to hide and so don't feel any loss from eavesdropping, invasive searches and questioning, or surveillance. They, of course, may come to a point in their life at some time where the right not to consent to such abrogations becomes important, but for now they don't recognize the need. The unknowns and unrecognized impacts make the general discussion problematic without further education as to how rights function to ensure larger freedoms and how giving them up will or won't decrease the likelihood of a terrorist attack.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:17 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it is a bad tradeoff to yield our freedoms for a heightened sense of security.

The worst part of it is that we don't even get that heightened sense of security, since the people who find freedom inconvenient need to keep us frightened so we won't question the deal.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:32 PM on September 14, 2010


Olly -- Like I said, I don't have any experience with formal rhetoric. Thanks for chiming in. Still I think my point stands that DFW never claimed to be an authoritative source on usage, and that wasn't the point of the article anyway. As shakespeherian says above, the essay was not about getting everyone to follow the same set of rules, but rather about how usage authority can be established in the wake of the prescriptivist v. descriptivist wars.
posted by ekroh at 7:01 PM on September 14, 2010


In other DFW news, The Pale King will be out on April 15, 2011
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:59 AM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


And in yet more DFW news, his archive is now open for research at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
posted by ekroh at 7:18 AM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Pale King will be out on April 15, 2011

I love DFW and I will read it, but I expect to be bored.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:56 AM on September 15, 2010


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