On the Inadequacies of Other People

Brielle had been telling us about one of her art-school friends. “But all she can talk about is, like, he was all like this, but I was like that, and he like did this, and he should have known better, and can you believe what an idiot he is. And after a while I just have to like tune her out.”

“Yes,” Mr. Magundi said, “it’s surprising how much we love to talk about the inadequacies of other people. While you’re on the streetcar, or walking down the street downtown, listen to the conversations around you, and you’ll be shocked by how many of them are about the failures of third parties not included in the conversation. And then imagine yourself as a stranger walking by this very streetcar stop at this very moment, and tell me what you hear.”

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On Pretending to Believe

“But they can’t possibly really believe that,” I said. “I know they’re not that stupid. So I think we have to ask, What are their real motives?”

Mr. Magundi shook his head a little sadly. “That’s the thing we always tell ourselves when we’re faced with the unaccountable obtuseness of the other side. We know for a fact that we are right and they are wrong, because we are sure the truth is blindingly obvious. So either they must be so stupid that they can’t think straight, or they must be only pretending to believe what they say they believe for the sake of some hidden motivation. We have hope for the stupid ones, because we may be able to explain the truth to them; but we can only conclude that the intelligent ones are actively evil.

“The existence of God is perfectly obvious to a Christian; the absence of God is perfectly obvious to an atheist. The inferiority of the female is so transparently clear to a fundamentalist Muslim that he knows no intelligent man can deny it; the wickedness of sequestering women is equally clear to an ordinary American. If anyone does deny these obvious truths, therefore, it must be from wicked and selfish motives. And that ought not to be allowed. People who preach falsehood ought to be stopped; they ought to be punished for allowing their wicked selfishness to prevail over truth.

“We get very angry about that kind of deliberate falsehood. And we can never admit to ourselves that it is not deliberate, because the alternative is simply too dreadful to think about: that intelligent people, having examined the very ideas we know to be correct, can come to different conclusions; and that it is possible, however remotely, that some of the very ideas we hold as most fundamentally important and immutably true are false.”

On Joe Paterno

“It just goes to show what happens when people care more about their own reputations than they do about children,” I was saying.

“I know nothing about Joe Paterno,” Mr. Magundi replied, “or about football for that matter, so I’ll just assume that, like most people in positions of great power, he is a monster of arrogance and irresponsibility. But when I look at the news reports and try to understand what he’s accused of doing, I have to admit that I’m pretty sure I would have done it myself.

“Already you’re looking at me with those big eyes and preparing your indignant replies, so let me explain what I mean, and then you can have at me. What Joe Paterno is accused of is not having done more than he had to do when an accusation against his subordinate was reported to him. He did not ignore the accusation, of course: it was his duty to report it to the school administration, and he did so. That administration received the report and decided to do nothing, and now has decided to fire Paterno for not having done enough. I hope the humor of that is not lost on you.

“But Paterno did not go to the police, and I know why not. The accusation was of a particular sort in which charge is equal to conviction and execution. A man accused of murder can be acquitted in court and go on to live a productive life, with many expressions of sympathy for the falsely accused. But a man accused of pedophilia is dead from that moment. Convicted or not, he will never be hired again by anyone. His property will be vandalized. His children will be pariahs at school. The chance that he will be murdered is not insignificant.

“So if your friend or associate is accused of that crime, what do you do? You must decide right now whether to kill him or not. There is a good chance that the accusations are true: in this case, everyone is certain that they were, though of course I should make the pro forma admission that nothing has been proved in court yet. Let us assume that they were true: the fact is that Paterno did not know that they were true. Faced with an accusation, but no proof, he did the thing that the law says he ought to do: he reported the matter to the school administration. And nothing more. Probably as a result of that decision, several more children were irreparably damaged.

“But if you want any explanation of why a man would be too much of a coward, if you want to call it that, to pursue the matter any further, do you need any more data than the spectacle before us now? Joe Paterno, who never violated any law and never abused a child, is ruined at the end of a long life, with no chance for redemption. Other men have been forced to resign their positions because they suggested that Paterno had done nothing wrong. You see how far the poison extends. It is not metaphorically but literally dangerous to say anything good about Joe Paterno, who did not molest children and did fulfill his legal obligations, but was not zealous enough for public opinion.

“And I repeat that I know nothing about Joe Paterno. He may be a snarling dragon of a man who beats puppies and deserves every kind of misfortune. But I also repeat that I would probably have been the same kind of coward that he was. And I make an even more shocking suggestion: I think you would have been, too.”

On Organized Crime

“They bring their gangs along with them,” Mr. Bates was saying. “That’s what worries me most.”

“Yes,” Mr. Magundi agreed, “it’s a regrettable truth that immigrant groups have always brought their criminal organizations with them from the old country. The Italians brought the Mafia; the Chinese brought the tongs; and the English brought industrial capitalism.”

On Supermarket Tabloids

“I was looking at those papers at the checkout counter last night,” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “I really don’t know how they get away with making stuff up about the president like that.”

“I don’t think it’s right to say they make stuff up,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Supermarket tabloids, at least when they touch on politics, deal in metaphor. Their target readers are—to be uncharitable but strictly accurate—sort of stupid. They have strong feelings, but they can’t articulate reasons for them. So the supermarket tabloids give them a metaphor that describes perfectly what they feel.

“In the waning days of the previous administration, the tabloid readers were sick of President Bush. They couldn’t say why, but they knew they were very angry with him. So the supermarket tabloids were full of stories about his marriage. His wife was going to divorce him within days of leaving the White House, because he had been unfaithful with a string of tawdry mistresses. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, true, but it was a metaphor that perfectly described the dissatisfaction of the tabloid readers: George W. Bush had been an unfaithful husband to America.

“Now the tabloid readers are dissatisfied with President Obama, so the tabloids give them a metaphor to describe how they feel: he’s not a real American at all, and he’s not a Christian—he’s a dirty foreign infidel who wants to sell our country to the terrorists. Once again, the facts are false, but as a metaphor the story perfectly describes what the tabloid readers are feeling. There’s a lot more truth in those crazy tabloids than we usually give them credit for—not truth about politics, but truth about the mind of Middle America.”

On ‘Bromance’

“It’s such an ugly word,” Mr. Bates was complaining. “I’d like to punch the next person who says ‘bromance.'”

“But I can see why someone invented it,” Mr Magundi said. “We used to have a word for a deep and selfless but not sexual love between two people. We called it ‘friendship,’ and we praised the love of one friend for another as one of the highest expressions of human nature. But we’ve simply lost the use of the word ‘friend.’ Partly it’s because of what I call social neoteny: we’ve become a culture of fifth-graders, who titter at the suggestion of anything involving ‘love’ and can’t resist making a smutty joke of it. And partly it’s because we’ve trivialized the meaning of the word ‘friend’: a ‘friend’ now can be any of the hundreds of people whose status updates appear on your Facebook page. Because we can’t grow up, and because we make everyone we know and don’t actively hate our ‘friend,’ we simply don’t have a word in English for a strong attachment between two men. And until someone comes up with a better word, ‘bromance’ will continue to infest our language, because it describes a phenomenon we often see but don’t have any other name for.”