Why you really can’t trust the media: Claire Cain Miller and Farhad Manjoo get things wrong in the New York Times

In “The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think,” the New York Times‘s Claire Cain Miller repeats an unfortunate quote that is a joke but was taken out of context: “‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,’ Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.”* But Graham has already publicly observed that this is a joke. As the link shows he’s publicly stated as much. Thousands of people have already read the column, but yesterday morning I thought that it’s not too late to correct it for those yet to come. So I wrote to both Miller and to the corrections email address with a variant of this paragraph.

In response I got this:

Thanks for your email. I’m confident that most readers will understand that the line was tongue in cheek, however. The idea that a co-founder of Y Combinator could be persuaded to part with seed funding simply by dint of the solicitor’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt is, of course, preposterous. At any rate, there is nothing to “correct,” so to speak, as Mr. Graham did in fact say those words.

Best regards,

Louis Lucero II
Assistant to the Senior Editor for Standards
The New York Times

But that’s not real satisfying either: nothing in the original article to indicate that Miller meant the line tongue-in-cheek. Based on the surrounding material, it seems like she took it seriously. Here is the full paragraph:

Yet if someone like that came to a top venture capitalist’s office, he or she could very well be turned away. Start-up investors often accept pitches only from people they know, and rely heavily on gut feelings, intuition and what’s worked before. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.

I wrote back:

Thanks for your response, but it’s pernicious because Graham, as he explains at the link, does not actually think he can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, and his statement is part of the reason why he can’t, and why he doesn’t necessarily expect the next tech titan to look like Zuckerberg. One of the epistemological roles of humor is to say something but mean the opposite: have your read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? In addition to being a fantastic book, many sections deal with precisely this aspect of humor, and the role it plays in human discourse.

There’s actually a Wikipedia article on quoting out of context that’s both relevant here and helps explain why some reasonably famous people are becoming more cagey about speaking in public, in uncontrolled circumstances, or to the press.

To say that anyone even slightly familiar with Graham’s thought or writing—which is available publicly, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection (as most New York Times reporters have) will understand that the quote is absurd. Graham has probably done more to promote women in technology than anyone else. He wrote an entire essay, “Female Founders,” on this subject, which arose in part because he was “accused recently of believing things I don’t believe about women as programmers and startup founders. So I thought I’d explain what I actually do believe.” Miller didn’t bother reading that. She got it wrong, and it goes uncorrected. So this bogus quote that says the opposite of what Graham means is still going around.

Meanwhile, Farhad Manjoo wrote “As More Tech Start-Ups Stay Private, So Does the Money,” in which he cites various reasons why startups may stay private (“rooted in part in Wall Street’s skepticism of new tech stocks”) but misses a big one: Sarbanes-Oxley.** It’s almost impossible to read anything about the IPO market for tech companies without seeing a discussion of the costs of compliance (millions of dollars a year) and the other burdens with it.

I tweeted as much to him and he replied, “@seligerj a whole article about a complex issue and no mention of my pet interest that is just of many factors in the discussion!!!!??” Except it’s not a pet interest. It’s a major issue. Manjoo could have spent 30 seconds searching Google Scholar and an hour reading, and he’d conclude that SBO is really bad for the IPO market (and it encourages companies to go private). But why bother when a snarky Tweet will do? A snarky Tweet takes 10 seconds and real knowledge takes many hours. General problems with it are well-known. Not surprisingly, Paul Graham has written about those too. So has Peter Thiel in Zero to One. Ignoring it is not a minor issue: it’s like ignoring the role of hydrogen in water.

Manjoo’s article is at least a little better because his is a misleading oversight instead of an overt misquotation. But it’s still amazing not just for missing a vital issue in the first place but the response to having that issue pointed out.

If the articles were posted to random blogs or splogs I’d of course just ignore them, because the standards to which random blogs are held are quite low. But they were posted to the New York Times, which is actually much better than the rest of the media. That two writers could get so much so wrong in so short a space is distressing because of what that says not only about the Times but the rest of the media. I’m not even a domain expert here: I don’t work in the area and primarily find it a matter of intellectual curiosity.

This post is important because the Times is a huge megaphone. Policymakers who don’t know a lot about specific issues related to tech read and (mostly) trust it. While sophisticated readers or people who have been reading Graham for years might know the truth, most people don’t. A huge megaphone should be wielded carefully. Too often it isn’t.

Oddly, one of my earliest posts was about another howler in the New York Times. I’ve seen some since but yesterday’s batch was particularly notable. There are many good accounts of why you can’t trust the media—James Fallows gives one in Breaking the News and Ryan Holiday another in Trust Me, I’m Lying—but I’ve rarely seen two back-to-back examples as good as these. So good, in fact, that I want to post about them publicly both to inform others and for archive purposes: next time someone says, “What do you mean, you can’t trust even the New York Times?”, I’ll have examples of why ready to go.


* I’m not linking to the article because it’s terrible for many reasons, and I’d like to focus solely on the one cited, which is provably wrong.

** I’m not linking directly to this article either; The Hacker News thread about it is more informative than the article itself.

Paul Graham and the artist

Paul Graham’s new essay “Before the Startup” is as always fascinating, but Graham also says several things that apply to artists:

The way to come up with good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, turn your mind into the type that startup ideas form in without any conscious effort. In fact, so unconsciously that you don’t even realize at first that they’re startup ideas.

The same is true of ideas for novels, which often come from minute observations or moments or studies of character. They often don’t feel like novels at first: they feel like a situation (“What if a guy did this…”) and the full novel comes later. Artists often work at the margins.

He also writes in a footnote:

I did manage to think of a heuristic for detecting whether you have a taste for interesting ideas: whether you find known boring ideas intolerable. Could you endure studying literary theory, or working in middle management at a large company?

This may be why I and perhaps many other grad students find grad school worse as time goes on, and why MFA programs have been growing. Too many critics have ceased focusing not on how “to be an expert on your users and the problem you’re solving for them”—or, in this example, “readers” instead of “users”—and instead focus on straight forward careerism, which rarely seems to overlap with what people want to read.Paul Graham and the artist

Comment when you have something to say

By now it’s well-known that most Internet forums devolve over time, even when the people running the forum take concrete steps to avoid devolution. But the main problem is not necessarily the trolls who deliberately attempt to degrade the quality of the conversation. It’s low-quality comments that aren’t necessarily malicious or even mean-spirited but do reflect shallow knowledge. Not only that, but such comments are often designed to appeal to groupish belief or to raise the status of the commenter, rather than sharing information and asking genuine questions.

Kens offered this insightful observation on HN:

My theory (based on many years of Usenet) is that there are three basic types of online participants: “cocktail party”, “scientific conference”, and “debate team”. In “cocktail party”, the participants are having an entertaining conversation and sharing anecdotes. In “scientific conference”, the participants are trying to increase knowledge and solve problems. In “debate team”, the participants are trying to prove their point is right.

Unfortunately, the people in scientific conference mode attract the cocktail people, but the latter don’t tend to attract the former. Debate team-types tend to be attracted to both—they’re the people exhibiting groupish and status-based behavior. In HN land, I’m probably closer to cocktail mode people than the scientific conference mode people, though I want to act more like a conference person.

Still, it’s worth looking more carefully at what the scientific conference-mode means. I don’t think scientific conference means a literal presentation of new results, but I think it does mean that the people commenting are deeply informed, deeply curious, reasonably respectful, and work to speak from a position of knowledge, rather than ignorance, about a subject. In this sense I fit the scientific conference mode when I discuss a small but real number of issues related to teaching, urban planning / development, and grant writing / government practices. The second one relates least to my day-to-day life but is a personal interest about which I’ve read a fair amount. Towards this end, I suspect a lot of people could improve the quality of the conversation simply by not commenting.

I distill this general idea to a simple behavior heuristic that might be valuable to others: don’t comment unless you have a special, unusual, or well-informed viewpoint. Many of my comments link to books and/or articles I’ve read that elaborate on whatever point I’m making or trying to make (here’s one example, linking to Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and here’s another, citing Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City; in response to the second, someone even said, “I got these books simply because of this recommendation,” which makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside). Some of the ideas contained in the books or articles I cite might be wrong or badly argued, but at least I’m basing my comments on something specific rather than some general philosophical point. Too many people argue based on first principles or unsourced speculation. The latter isn’t always bad; for example, someone might work in a field and know something deep and important about it without having a link to a specific discussion of the idea being discussed.

Many of my comments that don’t link to books or articles still deal with specific issues in which I have above average expertise, knowledge, or experience. This comment discusses how I deal with a student who asks a question relating solely to his or her individual issue in a large group without sounding like a jerk (I think, anyway), this comment is about a specific product I’ve used (the Unicomp Customizer), and this comment is about specificity in writing and thinking. Again, I might be wrong, but in each case I’m writing based on experience.

You can find some exceptions to the principles I’ve discussed above. You should ask logical or reasonable follow-up questions, especially if you’d like more information (here’s one sample; here’s another.) Succinct is often beautiful. Focus on genuine questions, rather than challenging people because their beliefs don’t match yours.

You don’t always have to follow these rules—I don’t—but if you’re debating about whether you should post a comment, you should probably err on the side of silence and not intruding on other people’s time. Unfortunately, the kind of people who most need such internal self-restraint are probably also the ones least likely to use it, and I doubt anything can be done to solve this problem, which seems like a variant of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Despite all this, I don’t see a solution to the fundamental problems, at least beyond the person at the margin who might read this and change his or her behavior slightly.

In other words, one can appeal to community rules and norms, or resort to meta-posts (like this one).* Such an appeal shouldn’t be done too often, or a community will spend more time discussing its own rules and norms than it does discussing and reading the material that should be the purpose of its existence (I last wrote a post like this in January; that January post still seems relevant, but I feel like enough time has passed and that I’ve observed enough behavior to make this post relevant too). But perhaps the occasional reminder will, as I said, help at the margins.

Oh, and the other rule for commenting? When you’re done with substantive content, stop.


* Granted, these kinds of posts and comments can make a community deteriorate. For example, there are a set of overly long comments by jsprink_banned and josteink that fail to distinguish between an argument and how the argument is presented: I suspect they’re unhappy with the mod functions mostly because they haven’t focused on how an argument is delivered. Civility counts for a lot, at all levels of debate; see, for example, Tyler Cowen’s comments on civility and Paul Krugman (and his comments on the limits of binary, good versus evil thinking in general).

There are also comments like this, in which the poster argues from nothing, attempts to activate an anti-corporate ideology, and ignores the obvious, abundant evidence of the continued importance of firms. Alex-C, fortunately, did reply: “I almost can’t tell if this comment came from some sort of Markov text generator.” HN used to have many fewer of those kinds of comments, and when it did get those kinds of comments, they were much less likely to rise. It takes more effort than it should for me not to respond to them directly. Incidentally, the comment Alex-C was replying to meant to say something like this.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and what we’re really arguing about

There’s a fascinating moment in The Righteous Mind where Jonathan Haidt makes a point similar to one I wrote about earlier:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

Compare this to my December 2010 post “What people want and what they are: religious edition:”

. . . as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Haidt doesn’t use the word “signal,” but his idea of using moral claims to “justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to” is pretty close. This also describes why, over the past ten years, I’ve become a person much less invested in political, moral, or (many kinds of) intellectual arguments: most of those arguments aren’t really about their content, but about something else, below the surface, that doesn’t always bob up to the surface. Here’s Paul Graham on that idea in “What You Can’t Say:”

Most struggles, whatever they’re really about, will be cast as struggles between competing ideas. The English Reformation was at bottom a struggle for wealth and power, but it ended up being cast as a struggle to preserve the souls of Englishmen from the corrupting influence of Rome. It’s easier to get people to fight for an idea. And whichever side wins, their ideas will also be considered to have triumphed, as if God wanted to signal his agreement by selecting that side as the victor.

Most people seem to equate “winning” an argument in a lawyerly fashion with being intellectually right. This might be why lawyers have some of the reputation they do: they get paid primarily to construct arguments that may be specious, but that have to be convincing.

I also like to think that realizing how moral arguments really work makes me a better teacher: rather than fighting with students who bring up moral arguments, I try to ask them where their arguments come from and how they come to believe what they believe. In other words, I try to work at a higher level of abstraction—which is what Haidt is doing in The Righteous Mind.

One other point about Haidt: if you’re frustrated by “how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you,” imagine how you must act to them.

Why professors don't bother

When I was an undergrad, I noticed that professors were often reluctant to deeply engage with students; when I got students of my own, I realized why and wrote “How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring” to explain it. Since then, I’ve noticed one other facet of this general phenomenon: when I do engage, or spend a lot of time offering advice or guidance, students often ignore it—making me feel like I wasted my time. Paul Graham’s footnote in A Word to the Resourceful catalyzed this realization for me:

My feeling with the bad groups [of tech startup founders from Y Combinator] is that coming into office hours, they’ve already decided what they’re going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that’s what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don’t think it’s confusion or lack of understanding per se, it’s this internal process at work.

This happens with students too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English; she started with biochem but struggled in classes (which isn’t at all unusual in science classes). A friend majored in biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called “How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life” that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours detailing an array of issues, we sent the e-mail, and I got back a response saying. . . she’s going to go to law school and “become a judge.”

So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely “put through an internal process in” her head. (She’s not the only student to have done this, but she’s merely the most recent example.) Reading her response was painful because she has no ability to understand what being a lawyer or judge is actually like and no ability to project what she’s going to feel like or want in a couple of years, let alone ten, let alone twenty. She’s not alone in this: most people can’t anticipate what they’ll want in the future, and most of us can’t even remember what we were like in the past; we tend to imagine ourselves always having been more or less as we are now. That’s one of Daniel Gilbert’s remarkable insights in Stumbling on Happiness.

Now, I might be overwrought about this, and I might be wrong; one commenter said:

I’m not saying your student didn’t have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn’t mean that taking it is always the best course, it’s information to be weighed against all other advice and information.

This is certainly true, but I have’t gotten the sense that most students are doing this. My sense is that most are trying “to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions,” or they just “outright dismiss it and create a rationalization for doing so.” The worst part isn’t even that they’re doing so: the worst part is that they’re probably not even aware they’re doing it.

(Observing this phenomenon also makes me wonder about how much I listened when I was an undergrad or just out of college; I may have been no better than the student I’m describing above.)

There’s a second reason why I suspect professors don’t bother and build intellectual moats, and it relates to “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore;” someone in a Hacker News thread about it said, “Turns out mild loathing towards users isn’t unique to software.”

I suspect that, in retailing, 95% of the customers are fine, but that last 5% take up a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy, whether because they’re clueless or morons or mean or whatever. That’s how I think jaded teachers / professors develop: most students are okay, but that small percentage of “story” students create all kinds of artificial barriers and special exceptions and so on that make the teacher / professor not real pleasant. (I won’t defend the exact percentage of 95 and 5 in teaching, but I will say that the vast majority of students are okay and thus not terribly memorable, while the bad ones or the jerks are entirely too easy to recall.)

One jerk makes a vastly larger impression than twenty nice students, customers, or waiters. The jerk sticks in your mind as an example, and the more you build defenses against the jerk, the worse you’re going to react to the average, reasonable student, customer, or waiter, because you’re calibrating your defaults to dealing with the tiny minority who are jerks or irrational or irrationally demanding, when you should try to ignore those experiences with the jerk minority. If you don’t, you’re going to be overly brusque or defensive, corroding the quality of your teaching, selling, or life. The rules you make to deal with the jerks also apply to the normal, pleasant students or customers. Paul Graham discusses this at the scale of companies in The Other Half of “Artists Ship”:

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Over time, business and government accretes rules that are designed to prevent mistakes, but those rules themselves can eventually become so onerous that they stifle legitimately good ideas. As professors or other people with power and knowledge begin building defenses based on the 5%, a lot of the 95% are harmed too—which is unfortunate. I’m also not sure there’s anything that can be done about this at the institutional level, because the incentives point to the value of building a moat. But by reminding individuals of the cost of the moat, and implicitly telling students how to get over it, perhaps a few people will have a better overall experience.

EDIT: Here’s Graham on funding startups: “The reason we want to fund the most successful founders is that they’re the most fun to work with. It’s exhausting trying to pep up founders who aren’t really cut out for startups, whereas talking to the best founders is net energizing.” Replace “founder” with “student” and “startup” with your field, and the same thing applies. So if you’re a student, you want to at least look, and ideally be, energetic and resourceful.

Why professors don’t bother

When I was an undergrad, I noticed that professors were often reluctant to deeply engage with students; when I got students of my own, I realized why and wrote “How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring” to explain it. Since then, I’ve noticed one other facet of this general phenomenon: when I do engage, or spend a lot of time offering advice or guidance, students often ignore it—making me feel like I wasted my time. Paul Graham’s footnote in A Word to the Resourceful catalyzed this realization for me:

My feeling with the bad groups [of tech startup founders from Y Combinator] is that coming into office hours, they’ve already decided what they’re going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that’s what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don’t think it’s confusion or lack of understanding per se, it’s this internal process at work.

This happens with students too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English; she started with biochem but struggled in classes (which isn’t at all unusual in science classes). A friend majored in biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called “How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life” that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours detailing an array of issues, we sent the e-mail, and I got back a response saying. . . she’s going to go to law school and “become a judge.”

So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely “put through an internal process in” her head. (She’s not the only student to have done this, but she’s merely the most recent example.) Reading her response was painful because she has no ability to understand what being a lawyer or judge is actually like and no ability to project what she’s going to feel like or want in a couple of years, let alone ten, let alone twenty. She’s not alone in this: most people can’t anticipate what they’ll want in the future, and most of us can’t even remember what we were like in the past; we tend to imagine ourselves always having been more or less as we are now. That’s one of Daniel Gilbert’s remarkable insights in Stumbling on Happiness.

Now, I might be overwrought about this, and I might be wrong; one commenter said:

I’m not saying your student didn’t have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn’t mean that taking it is always the best course, it’s information to be weighed against all other advice and information.

This is certainly true, but I have’t gotten the sense that most students are doing this. My sense is that most are trying “to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions,” or they just “outright dismiss it and create a rationalization for doing so.” The worst part isn’t even that they’re doing so: the worst part is that they’re probably not even aware they’re doing it.

(Observing this phenomenon also makes me wonder about how much I listened when I was an undergrad or just out of college; I may have been no better than the student I’m describing above.)

There’s a second reason why I suspect professors don’t bother and build intellectual moats, and it relates to “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore;” someone in a Hacker News thread about it said, “Turns out mild loathing towards users isn’t unique to software.”

I suspect that, in retailing, 95% of the customers are fine, but that last 5% take up a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy, whether because they’re clueless or morons or mean or whatever. That’s how I think jaded teachers / professors develop: most students are okay, but that small percentage of “story” students create all kinds of artificial barriers and special exceptions and so on that make the teacher / professor not real pleasant. (I won’t defend the exact percentage of 95 and 5 in teaching, but I will say that the vast majority of students are okay and thus not terribly memorable, while the bad ones or the jerks are entirely too easy to recall.)

One jerk makes a vastly larger impression than twenty nice students, customers, or waiters. The jerk sticks in your mind as an example, and the more you build defenses against the jerk, the worse you’re going to react to the average, reasonable student, customer, or waiter, because you’re calibrating your defaults to dealing with the tiny minority who are jerks or irrational or irrationally demanding, when you should try to ignore those experiences with the jerk minority. If you don’t, you’re going to be overly brusque or defensive, corroding the quality of your teaching, selling, or life. The rules you make to deal with the jerks also apply to the normal, pleasant students or customers. Paul Graham discusses this at the scale of companies in The Other Half of “Artists Ship”:

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Over time, business and government accretes rules that are designed to prevent mistakes, but those rules themselves can eventually become so onerous that they stifle legitimately good ideas. As professors or other people with power and knowledge begin building defenses based on the 5%, a lot of the 95% are harmed too—which is unfortunate. I’m also not sure there’s anything that can be done about this at the institutional level, because the incentives point to the value of building a moat. But by reminding individuals of the cost of the moat, and implicitly telling students how to get over it, perhaps a few people will have a better overall experience.

EDIT: Here’s Graham on funding startups: “The reason we want to fund the most successful founders is that they’re the most fun to work with. It’s exhausting trying to pep up founders who aren’t really cut out for startups, whereas talking to the best founders is net energizing.” Replace “founder” with “student” and “startup” with your field, and the same thing applies. So if you’re a student, you want to at least look, and ideally be, energetic and resourceful.

Hilarity Ensues — Tucker Max

Laughter, the greatest testament some books can receive, can’t be directly quoted in a review. By the metric of “number of times I laughed out loud,” I gave many, many testaments to Hilarity Ensures.

Beneath that laughter, though, there’s actually a surprisingly amount of commentary about how to live and think about your life interwoven among escapades with drunk girls, drunk guys, at least one drunk dog (that I counted), existential despair, sexual elation, three-ways, success at getting in his or her pants, despair at not getting in his or her pants, angry bouncers, angry parents, angry girls, and boats.

For an example of “how to live and think about your life,” consider this overly long quote about law school, which I include in part because I went to law school for a year, for the same crappy reasons and one different reason that every other bright but unfocused 22-year-old grad goes (the only thing I did right was quit):

Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted. Once I actually arrived on campus, I realized that not only was the hardest part done, but everything else was a complete joke. The emperor had no clothes.

Going to class is a complete waste of time. The professors don’t care about teaching; they either ramble endlessly about meaningless shit, or they spend the whole time telling you how important they are. The students are no better; the ones constantly raising their hands to talk (they’re called ‘gunners’) are all pompous suck-ups, and add nothing of value to the conversation. . . . I would say that probably 90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job as a lawyer. Think about that—most of what you learn in class has no application anywhere outside of law school.

Hypocrisy comes from the school itself: because “90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job,” classes don’t matter; school should be tightly coupled with outcomes related to your life or job. When school and outcomes aren’t tightly coupled, the school is exploiting you, and schools are particularly good at this because they’re dealing primarily with unformed humans who haven’t yet acquired the analytical skills to realize what’s happening to them. I’m not sure if Max is a reader of scholarly monographs, but if he is, First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers would be a natural stocking stuffer. Law schools have positioned themselves as gatekeepers who extract resources from students in return for credentialing, rather than adding real value. If they did add sufficient value to convince the marketplace that lawyers with degrees are better than those without, they wouldn’t need legal means to restrict competition. Today, you can’t effectively read for the bar, take it, and become a lawyer on your own because other lawyers don’t want the competition and law schools want your money. You, like sheep, give it to them. So did I.

Max hates hypocrites: that’s the moral, if there is one, of much of his work, and especially of the Miss Vermont Story, concerning a bizarrely immature 23-year-old beauty pageant contestant who preaches abstinence and sobriety while practicing the exact opposite with Max. Out of a misguided sense of importance and vengeance, Katy Johnson / Miss Vermont’s mother orchestrates a dubious lawsuit whose only real outcome is a variation on the Streisand effect.

I identify with that story in particular, since I was a minor league hypocrite once:

This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

Hypocrisy ties more broadly into the girls who say one thing and do another. Though they’re mostly a source of bemusement in Hilarity Ensues, underneath the bemusement is a real critique: why lie, both to yourself and others, about what you really want? The question is mostly rhetorical, but there are answers, social conditioning being the most obvious. Max is aware of that conditioning:

The rules your parents teach you to live by are very different than the rules the world actually runs by. Most of the conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it’s a lie told to us by people who want to control us. It doesn’t help us, it helps them. Pretty much everything we’re told as children (and adults, really) by the established power structures in our lives are made-up fairytales used to reinforce that control. . . It makes sense if you think about it; the only way you can truly control people is to lie to them.

The “rules” are certainly different, although I’m not sure who the “us” and “them” are in the quoted paragraph. The lies we tell kids are real, and one reason for teenage alienation might be the slow, real discovery that much of what we’ve been told about decorum, success, and meaning are lies. Once implanted, those lies are hard to remove: “People will ignore a lot of reality in order to maintain their fantasies,” especially if those fantasies are comforting.

But Max is not advocating anarchy. He has a sense of anarchy’s consequences; in Mexico, “there is a flipside to no rules: The American safety net isn’t there to protect you from the consequences of your stupid decisions.” It’s an obvious point, yet I bet the million Max wannabes miss this insight, and miss the fact that pleasure has its pleasures and its price. In some ways Max is lucky: his own “stupid decisions” could’ve ended much worse. The “safety net” caught him. No cars hit him, he sustained no permanent physical injuries, and he didn’t encounter anyone murderously psychotic at a random bar. Lessons and memories remain, like those about how we absorb ideas when we grow up.

Lies are often propagated by parents because parents’ and kids’ interests diverge. The teenage girl having sex reaps the pleasure of the act, while her parents might end up paying much of the financial and emotional price of a pregnancy. So parents discourage sex, girls get mixed messages, most don’t have the intellectual capacity or inclination to sort truth from lie, and end up in the bizarrely bifurcated universe that provides fodder for jokes—in the United States, anyway, since “Canadians, especially French-Canadians, have a much healthier attitude towards sex than Americans,” an observation made in the context of a visit to a strip club in French-Canada.

The trick is discovering the lies. But even after discovery, most people appear to continue propagating them anyway, to their children, and want those lies propagated to their children. A surprisingly large number of potheads I knew in college became teachers, yet none to my knowledge would admit as much in a classroom. One friend teaches photography to high school students and, at the beginning of class, tells her students not to shoot nudes of people under 18, since that’s technically illegal, regardless of the central place of the nude in Western art. To her credit, she also adds this caveat: “And if you do anyway, don’t tell me.” It’s a subtle but effective dig at the powers-that-be.

The people who follow the straight path are often cursed by getting what they think they want, like law school and becoming a lawyer. Many who win such dubious victories come to rue them, like Max’s friend Hate, who “kept doing the ‘right’ thing, checking off all the boxes. . . and he kept getting fucked. All the while, the guy doing the wrong thing (me, for example) kept getting what he wanted. Sisyphus led a less futile existence than Hate: at least Sisyphus got in a workout” (notice, too, here the characteristic and characteristically hilarious allusion, recast into the modern language of the gym). Here, “right” and “wrong” are inverted: the real world is big and confusing, and one needs a strong bullshit to detector to make sense of it. If you don’t pay attention, these moments will slip by, like some of Max’s jokes: in one story, a groups of girls came over, and “one of them told me that she was afraid to try anal sex because of my first book. I told her I didn’t give a shit about her problems” (emphasis added).

Other moments involve the perfect allusion, as when a dominatrix plies her trade on Max at a party: “She was beating me with the type of anger usually reserved for people who owe money to Tony Soprano.” Or the apt analogy: “Whatever, we’re both naked and horny, and I’ve fucked way worse. No turning back now. When you try to jump a lake of fire you don’t take your foot off the gas once you’ve hit the ramp.” When you’re having sex with someone you compare to a lake of fire, you may want to reconsider your partner or quarry: but that’s also the sober, distant, far from the act person talking, not the person in the moment (the writer says, thinking back to his own dubious moments). Consider this, of Max’s friend Jerry: “He was not fucking her; he was jackhammering her so hard and fast, he was moving like one of those things that mixes paint at Home Depot.” I haven’t read so many creative sexual descriptions outside of Nicholson Baker. Or inside of Nicholson Baker, as the case may be. These metaphors create their own worlds, in James Wood’s sense in “The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville.”

The reaction to Max fascinates almost as much as Max’s writing itself: critics call his writing odious and worse (an example, from Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic: “He published his exploits in an unbelievably nasty little book called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. . . .” As someone who’s dated around enough to find the occasional nutcase, I find many of his stories too believable). Yet those critics don’t often go beyond name-calling and into close reading, and calling someone’s work “unbelievably nasty” makes it more intriguing, not less, especially because Literary history serves up innumerable examples of writers who thumb the day’s decorum and later come to be revered; obvious examples include Dreiser, for Sister Carrie, which now reads so tepidly and tediously that it’s tough to get through, or D.H. Lawrence for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, given its references to anal and class miscegenation, or James Joyce’s voyeurism and masturbation.

Now, just because past writers have defied conventional norms and later received literary recognition for that doesn’t mean the two have a causal relationship, or that anyone who defies norms will thereby gain later literary recognition. But I think the quality of Max’s writing sets him apart from other people writing about sex adventures online or off, and that’s what draws me. The style affects the content, and it’s that style that makes him broadly popular, and very much unlike his literary predecessors.

But Max doesn’t wrap himself in high-brow literary paraphernalia or pretensions. He does the opposite, and that’s what I think his critics hate, along with his honesty. Drape yourself in highbrow literary accouterments and you can write what you want; do the opposite and take tepid critical punishment, which is no doubt salved by fan adoration (given a choice between groupies and a sedate, smug, and positive New Yorker Review of Books essay, which would you choose? Me too).

I think aspect of critics’ dislike of Max’s honesty comes from a particular source: there’s still a large contingent of people who want to view women as non-carnal and basically preyed on and manipulated by men (see one example, which I wrote about, in “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more“). This kind of makes sense if you’re a parent trying to lie to yourself or protect your daughter or son—or at least make them compliant. Or religious and trying to do much the same, but it doesn’t make much sense if you’ve dated a fair number of women, or are female and honest, or pay more attention to behavior than to words.

The distaste for Max’s sexual politics is hard to square with Max’s legion of willing groupies, or even with his descriptions of his pre-fame hookups: it takes two or more people for sex, and the women say yes, even if many of them choose to douse themselves in alcohol first. The refutation of the belief that women are non-carnal victims is in the behavior of the women Max describes, not Max himself. Being angry at Max is shooting the messenger: if hot women regularly put out for gallant, polite men, I think his bad boy personality would morph quickly. Women’s revealed preferences, as shown by their love of Max (or your local bad boy), might be what bothers his critics.

If women themselves were collectively more honest, they’d simply say they go out and get hammered so they can hook up with guys. Instead, they often lie to themselves and others and say they’re just going out to “have a good time” or “hang out with their friends,” or any number of other rationalizations. That word, “honest,” appears with surprising frequency, especially as it relates to gender: In Mexico, “Girls wanted to fuck, and here, as opposed to America, they were honest about it.” Why aren’t girls honest in the first place? Because their parents don’t want them to be.

There are also moments where Max wonders: “I never understand why women think drama and bullshit are attractive to guys. They’re not. I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.” Here’s my guess: women don’t consciously think “drama and bullshit are attractive to guys,” but they like the attention drama and bullshit generate, especially among guys too committed, weak, or stupid to avoid or ignore it. Women engaged in vapid drama might say they want “Prince Charming” but be willing to compromise through the ministrations of whoever responds to their keening. Granted, lacking self-awareness is also a human trait more than a female one: on the side of straight men, I think about all the so-called “nice guys” who are “nice” not because they’re genuinely caring but because they think they can’t get laid acting otherwise anyway. Women often crave attention: look at the ones who go to bars to stroke desire and then ignore the desire they’ve stroked. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said that men go to bars to get laid, while women go to get attention and maybe get laid. That fits the behavioral patterns I’ve seen.

One of my students mentioned Tucker Max in the context of literary valuation in class a couple days ago, and he seemed to want to know if Max “counted” as a good writer, or something like that (students are weirdly attuned to perceived authority: many have wanted to know about Paul Graham’s background, for example, which is the kind of thing that interests me not at all—I only want to evaluate people based solely on their writing, not about aspects of their life tangential to their writing or the accuracy of their arguments).

It seems like students themselves are wary, at least in official discourse, of trying to decide for themselves who’s a “good” writer and who isn’t. They associate “goodness” with “approved” behavior. They probably have some sense of the critical edifice above them, canonizing some writers and ignoring others. I wish I could convince them to develop their own ideas of what counts, and how it does. That’s part of stepping out of the artificial school fishbowl and into the greater literary world, where the people who win big are the ones who reconceptualize what’s possible. Max did: he mentions the thousands of rejections he got from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and others when he started out. But he also had the good fortune to see his style evolve with the Internet.

The occasional dark threads appear too, as with mentions of depression, or a moment on a boat off the Alaskan coast:

At 7pm, the dark, empty deck of a crab boat is a strange place. It’s pitch black and there’s no land, no life, nothing whatsoever. It’s complete, barren, unforgiving void. It’s just plain disturbing. The water frothing beneath the sides of the boat is literally black. Dying that way—by falling in and freezing—must be horrific.

You can understand Moby-Dick by looking at the sea; Max is encountering an existential void. If he didn’t appear to be enjoying himself so much and if I were a dumber kind of critic, I’d say something about this standing for the heart of his soul.

This is the part where a lot of reviews and essays say something bad. I don’t have much. There are occasional oddities in language: “Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted.” Why “thing difficult” instead of “difficult thing?” Usually the adjective goes before the noun. I can’t think of any stylistic or content reason for the word order reversal, or why he used a semi-colon instead of a colon. I should probably also say something about how he interacts with women, but why bother? A friend’s Dad gave her this advice when she was 12 and periodically thereafter: men will treat you as badly as you let them. And is it “bad” to give someone what they want (again: think of revealed preferences)? In America, the answer tends towards “no.” Max gives readers what they want—humor, respite, philosophy—and, whatever his critics may protest, many women what they want. Everyone is happy, save those who don’t want to confront the reality on the ground of life.

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