Tomasky says Comey didn't fear Dems!


The long list hardy stops there:
Last Sunday, the New York Times did a long, front-page piece about James B. Comey's serial intrusions on last year's election.

The first such intrusion occurred on July 5, 2016; it included inaccurate and highly misleading statements about Clinton's behavior by the man who is most often referred to as "Comey the God." Two more intrusions occurred late in the campaign.

Why did Comey feel free to stage these intrusions? In this recent piece, the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky offers a key takeaway from the Times report.

According to Tomasky, Comey feared what Republicans would do if he didn't interefere. By way ofcontrast, he didn't fear what Dems would do if he did interfere:
TOMASKY (4/24/17): [H]ere’s another takeaway for you, and I haven’t seen anyone make this point, and it’s an important one: If the Times is to be believed—and stories like this one, based on 30 interviews, might get some facts wrong but are generally accurate in the gist of what they convey—Comey was often motivated by fear. Fear of how a certain group would react.

We see in three instances that he feared the wrath of the Republicans.
One, if he didn’t break precedent and speak harshly of Clinton while officially exonerating her last summer. So he spoke harshly. Two, if he didn’t announce in late October that the investigation was reopened. So he announced the investigation (which, as we learned too late, again amounted to nothing) was reopened.

And three, if the Republicans in Congress decided post-election to include him and the bureau in its inevitable Clinton witch hunts. So he beat them to the witch hunt.


We also see at least one instance in which he feared the anger of his own agents (again, with respect to speaking harshly of Clinton last summer. And we know...he had reason to fear them, as agents leaked freely to Rudy Giuliani, who then broadcast them on Fox News).

We even see one instance when he feared the Russians—he knew they had a certain pivotal document, and he was afraid at one point that they would leak it.

So fear of political fallout seems to have motivated almost everything he did. Kevin Drum made this point over the weekend.

But Drum didn’t emphasize what is to me the most telling thing, which is that there is one group Comey appears not to have feared at all: Democrats.


[N]owhere does the article say that Comey feared how Democrats would react if he raked Clinton over the rhetorical coals without bringing charges. Of course he didn’t! Democrats don’t scare anybody.
Comey feared almost everyone, Tomasky says. He especially feared Republican pushback if he didn't slime Clinton.

According to Tomasky, he didn't fear pushback from Democrats. And Tomasky says this made perfect sense. Democrats don't push back!

For ourselves, we don't know who James B. Comey feared. We have little faith in giant Times reports.

Sadly, we do know this. There's another group Comey had no reason to fear: liberal and pseudoliberal pundits!

Comey the God had no reason to fear our fiery liberal pundits! More specificaly, he had no reason to fear Tomasky himself, or Kevin Drum, who seconded Tomasky's assessment.

According to the Times report, Comey was spooked at one time by fury from the National Review. No such fury was coming at him from our hapless tribal weaklings over here on the "left."

After Tomasky's piece appeared, we reviewed the reactions from Tomasky and Drum after Comey's initial intrusion. Pretty much as we had remembered, the boys ran off and hid in the woods. On the Maddow Show, things were much worse.

Good God! The corporate world's most effective car salesman was enjoying a well-deserved vacation on the week of July 5. Steve Kornacki guest-hosted that week—and for two straight nights after Comey's intrusion, he strongly defended Comey's behavior and attacked Candidate Clinton.

Rachel returned, relaxed and refreshed, on Monday, July 11. She never mentioned Comey's name again until late October. There was exactly zero reaction from our tribe's number-one con man.

The children have behaved this way for the past twenty-five years. Back in the Clinton/Gore years, one generation rolled over and died. They've been replaced by the Maddows and them. Last summer, this new gang of careful corporate players carefully followed suit.

For twenty-five years, con men like Comey the God demonized Clinton, Gore, Clinton. People like Tomasky, Drum and Maddow persistently refused to fight, in much the way their predecessors had refused to fight before them.

For this reason, Candidate Clinton was fighting twenty-plus years of demonization as she entered the race. Mix that with her lousy campaign and we got the outcome our corporate children have been seeking for the past twenty-five years.

Rachel would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before she'd ever take the lead in challenging an establishment figure like Comey. She doesn't play it that way, and we're too dumb to notice. By last summer, Drum was feeding us the race-baiting bullshit our tribe so enjoys, thus hiding his failure to fight.

Go ahead—search the Web the way we did! You'll see Tomasky and Drum failing to go after Comey last summer. Even after Slate's Fred Kaplan detailed the bullshit in Comey's report, the 90-pound weaklings we love Over Here refused to go after the God.

(All through the fall of 2012, they had played the same cowardly game as Susan Rice was crazily slimed and the Benghazi story was born. The bullshit they enabled that year helped defeat Clinton last fall.)

It was all Comey's fault, one ardent pundit now cries. Look who's talking, our analysts typically say.

Final point: Comey's July 5 non-indictment indictment was full of bullshit and embellishment. By now, this basic fact has completely disappeared.

You've seen no one mention that fact in the wake of the Times report. The Times forgot to mention it too. This is precisely what it means to be James Comey the God.

No one is reminding you of that part of Comey's behavior, in part because no one discussed it in the first place. They were too busy telling you that The Others are racists and that Professor Wang was sure that Trump couldn't win.

Yay yay yay yay yay yay yay! Things were going well!

We're stupid and feeble and thoroughly hapless. On the brighter side, very good jobs at very good pay go to those who behave.

None of this will matter a whit. We've discussed this game since 1998. This con game will go on forever.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN: An early clip from the text-in-itself!


Part 4—The need to explain what you mean:
The alleged philosopher Jim Holt was off on a hero "quest."

He set himself on the hero quest at the start of his ridiculous book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. Inevitably, the book would be chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year.

Alas! The silliest newspaper in the land never doesn't do this!

What was this philosopher's quest? Inanely, he decided to jet around the upper-class world in search of three or four Einsteins. According to Holt, he would then "arrange them in the right order," settling a question with which he had struggled since he was maybe like ten.

Holt assumed that readers wouldn't notice the sheer absurdity of his plan. Correctly, he further seemed to assume that reviewers wouldn't note the nonsensical nature of his quest—further, that they wouldn't note the fact that he seemed to have embellished the televised conversation from which he'd drawn the inspiration for his quest.


Have we ever fact-checked a peculiar claim from a heralded book and found that it wasn't embellished? When we fact-checked the troubling incident at the start of Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent heartfelt letter to his son, we found that Coates was basically making it up. Long ago and far away, we'd had similar experiences fact-checking mammoth best-sellers by such redoubtable stars as Bernard Goldberg and Ann Coulter.

(Coulter had been praised in a New York Times review for the huge number of footnotes supporting her claims. Again and again and again and again, we found that the footnotes didn't check out.)

Coulter's footnotes were impressively numerous, but they didn't support the claims to which they'd been appended! When you draw back the curtain on modern elite journalistic culture, you find that basic thoughts like that don't occur to the pitiful souls who conduct their own quests at the New York Times, eventually leading to Donald J. Trump and his future war.

Whatever! In the case of the philosopher Holt, he decided to jet to the finest salons looking for three or four Einsteins. He described that quest on his book's page 11, as we explained in yesterday's award-winning effort.

Before reaching that point, Holt had already displayed the type of pseudo-philosophical flimflam which would suffuse his book. In the process, he convinced at least one young Princeton grad that his work was "over her head."

Briefly, then, let's turn to Holt's text-in-itself! In this way, we'll start to see what the New York Times takes to be deep thought.

We'll start at the top of page 8. Quickly, let's review:

As a teen, Holt abandoned the thought that God created the world. Why then do we have something rather than nothing? Decades later, Holt still wanted to know.

On page 7, he said how "unnerving" our world will be if we can't untangle that riddle. Atop page 8, he offered this:
HOLT (page 8): This dilemma has lurked in the suburbs of my mind ever since I first hit upon the mystery of being. And it has moved me to ponder just what "being" amounts to.
This dilemma had moved Holt "to ponder what 'being' amounts to." At moments like this, young journalists start thinking that work of this type is "over their heads."

Ideally, they shouldn't have that reaction. Ever so briefly, here's why:

Imagine that someone walks and offers you a question. This is what your interlocutor asks, using his hands to form scare quotes:

What does "being" amount to?

Imagine that someone poses that question. Almost surely, the obvious answer is this:

I don't get it. What do you mean?

The person who asks a question like that needs to explain what he means. It shouldn't be up to a young journalist to figure out what he meant.

In the end, the chances are good that a fellow like Holt won't be able to explain what he means. But it's very much up to him to explain. It isn't the job of a young Princeton grad to decipher his Delphic musings.

All through Holt's ridiculous book, Holt fails to explain what he means. He offers various Delphic thoughts and, because he's a "philosophical" made man, upper-end book reviewers give him extremely wide berth.

That doesn't mean he's saying things that make definable sense. Consider the first block of text, right there on page 8, where he takes us on a flight.

What does "being" amount to? After posing that riddle, Holt notes that philosophers since Descartes have tended to refer to two "ultimate constituents of reality"—basically, to matter and mind. ("Physical matter" and "consciousness," Holt also says on page 8.)

This is fairly basic stuff. Sadly, it leads to this:
HOLT (pages 8-9): If that's all there is to reality—matter-stuff and mind-stuff, with a web of causal relations between them—then the mystery of being looks hopeless indeed. But perhaps this dualistic ontology is too impoverished. I myself began to suspect as much when, following my teenage flirtation with existentialism, I became infatuated with pure mathematics. The sort of entities mathematicians spend their days pondering—not just numbers and circles, but n-dimensional manifolds and Galois systems and crystalline cohomologies—are nowhere found within the realm of space and time. They're clearly not material things. Nor do they seem to be mental. There is no way, for example, that the finite mind of a mathematician could contain an infinity of numbers. Then do mathematical entities really exist? Well, that depends on what you mean by "existence." Plato certainly thought they existed. In fact, he held that mathematical objects, being timeless and unchanging, were more real than the world of things we perceive with our senses. The same was true, he held, of abstract ideas like Goodness and Beauty. To Plato, such "Forms" constituted genuine reality. Everything else was mere appearance.

We might not want to go that far in revising our notion of reality. Goodness, Beauty, mathematical entities, logical laws: these are not quite something, the way mind-stuff and matter-stuff are. Yet they are not exactly nothing either. Might they somehow play a role in explaining why there is something rather than nothing?
Piddle-pure nonsense of this type pervades Holt's useless text. Unfortunately, it's the type of sophistry which makes journalists, young and old, imagine that Holt is working on a lofty plane.

Holt's text is full of formulations which badly need explaining. We'll offer some advice:

Try to ignore the way Holt mentions obscure "mathematical entities" like Galois systems. This is a form of name-dropping. Its basic function is to signal that you're out of your depth as you try to decipher this text.

Try not to be distracted! Let's note some of the claims in that passage which don't quite seem to make sense:

Numbers and circles "are nowhere found within the realm of space and time?"

In fact, numbers are found on every page in Holt's ridiculous book! Whatever it is he's trying to say, he hasn't explained it yet. There's no reason to think that he could explain if he decided to try.

"There is no way that the finite mind of a mathematician could contain an infinity of numbers?"

In what way does anyone's mind "contain" any numbers at all? How many numbers does the average mathematician's mind "contain?"

Does a mathematician's mind "contain" those numbers all the time, or only when she's working with the numbers in question? As a more general matter, do you have any idea what somebody means when he starts talking like this?

"Do mathematical entities really exist? Well, that depends on what you mean by 'existence.' "

It also depends on what you mean by "really," the pseudo-philosopher's favorite flimflam term. But since Holt is the one who's presenting this point, it's up to him to explain it.

(For the record, Holt has identified numbers as a type of "mathematical entity." As of this morning, we can report that such "entities" clearly exist on the front of every house on our block!)

"Do mathematical entities really exist? Plato certainly thought they existed."

Plato believed more crazy things than you could fit in a phone book. (More recently, Newton kept trying to turn lead into gold. He also believed in witchcraft.)

The various things Plato said form an important part of our impoverished intellectual history. But it's hard to know why you'd offer him as an expert witness, some 2500 years later.

The fog continues from there. Mathematical entities aren't quite something, the savant says. Yet they aren't exactly nothing either!

Might they somehow play a role in explaining why there's something rather than nothing? Holt is flirting with massive claptrap as he spreads this familiar old porridge around.

As he does, untutored journalists mistakenly think they're being exposed to "the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today," to conversations that go "over their heads." If you doubt that, just click here.

Those journalists are being exposed to nothing of the sort. Tomorrow, we'll show you more of Holt's world-class claptrap. Then, we'll show you his chapter 10, in which he ginormously buries his lede, while giving us an embarrassing look behind a cultural curtain.

Did Holt know he was doing that? As he conducted his search for his three or four Einsteins, there is no sign that he did.

Tomorrow: Two-thirds of mathematicians say...

Coming next week: Behind the curtain at the daily Times

BEHIND THE CURTAIN: The alleged philosopher's flimflam and quest!


Part 3—Hero of his own gong-show:
Perhaps it's time to define the nature of Jim Holt's actual quest.

His quest is explained in the first two pages of his Ten Best Books of 2012 book, "Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story." His quest adopts this form:

Holt was raised Catholic in rural Virginia. He was told by the nuns and the monks that God created the world.

As "a callow and would-be rebellious high school student," he "began to develop an interest in existentialism" in the 1970s. He was bowled over by Heidegger's presentation of the question, or perhaps the pseudo-question, Why is there something rather than nothing at all?

The explanation Holt had received from the nuns no longer seemed to work. Almost forty years later, he set out on a quest to write a book to examine this deepest question.

Did God create the world, and was God "self-caused?" The nuns told us that story too; we memorized the correct answers as part of Catechism class. As Holt notes on his second page, "It is a story still believed by a vast majority of Americans."

For ourselves, we got talked out of that story in (we think) ninth grade. Full disclosure:

Like many people who cease to believe that story, we don't think that we the humans are likely to provide an alternate answer to Holt's question, at least not any time soon.

Physicists can take us back to the Big Bang, but it has proven rather hard to explain things much beyond that. And when "philosophers" enter the scrum, the foolishness really gets started, as Holt demonstrates, again and again, all through his ridiculous book.

We don't think the three-year old preschoolers up the street could build a ladder to Mars. We also don't think that a person like Holt has any real chance to answer the question which has dogged him, or so he claims, since he became a rebellious teen, Heidegger and Sartre in hand.
so he
Forty years later, Holt set out to see if he could answer that question, or at least so he pretended. The result was a plainly ridiculous book of a rather familiar kind, a book larded with silly self-dramatization and obvious manifest bull-roar.

In other words, the type of book the New York Times adores! In the next dew weeks, we'll be peeking behind the curtain in an attempt to come to terms with this state of affairs.

Credit where due! When Dwight Darner reviewed Holt's book for the Times, we thought we saw green shoots of scorn pushing up through the ground.

Still and all, Holt was a "made man" within the journalistic elite, and Garner is employed within that guild. Perhaps for that reason, he was willing to describe Holt's basic account of his quest without noting how silly and absurd this premise actually is:
GARNER (8/2/12): Mr. Holt’s book was inspired partly by Martin Amis, who suggested in an interview that humanity is, in terms of discovering the algebra of existence, “at least five Einsteins away.”

This comment lights more than a few synapses in Mr. Holt’s mind. “Could any of those Einsteins be around today?” he wonders. “It was obviously not my place to aspire to be one of them. But if I could find one, or maybe two or three or even four of them, and then sort of arrange them in the right order...well, that would be an excellent quest.”

An excellent quest it mostly turns out to be.
It’s no spoiler to report that the author doesn’t return, like Ernest Hemingway with a marlin, with a unified theory of everything. “Why Does the World Exist?” is more about the nuances of the intellectual and moral hunt.
An excellent quest it (mostly) turns out to be? Scripted reviewer, please!

Holt does in fact describe that "quest" in his book's opening pages. As he does, we're introduced to the heroics which animate this ridiculous book—and we're asked to believe Holt has magic trombones for sale which basically play themselves.

For the record, Holt's book starts on page 3. The rumination shown below, concerning a search for the "algebra of being," arrives quite early on.

Trust us—nothing Holt writes before this passage helps us understand the term "algebra of being." The showy term is a type of flim-flam, of a type which litters this book:
HOLT (pages 10-11): How close are we to discovering such an algebra of being? The novelist Martin Amis was once asked by Bill Moyers in a television interview how he thought the universe might have popped into existence. “I'd say we're at least five Einsteins away from answering that question," Amis replied. His estimate seemed about right to me. But, I wondered, could any of those Einsteins be around today? It was obviously not my place to aspire to be one of them. But if I could find one, or maybe two or three or even four of them, and then sort of arrange them in the right order...well, that would be an excellent quest.

So that is what I set out to do.
My quest to find the beginnings of an answer to the question Why is there something rather than nothing? has had many promising leads. Some failed to pan out.
So begins Holt's "quest." Let's note how silly this is.

For starters, why the Sam Hill would Bill Moyers have popped that question to Amis?

We don't have the slightest idea how to answer that question. That said, if you work off things like published transcripts, this is the actual Q-and-A which actually seems to have transpired back in 2006:
MOYERS (7/28/06): What brought you to this PEN festival of writers on faith and reason? Because you're not a believer?

AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
At least on that occasion, that's what Moyers actually asked. And that's what Amis said in reply.

That exchange occurred in 2006. Seven years later, the Moyers site was still linking to the transcript of that program, while posting the videotape of that specific exchange. To convince yourself, click here.

Holt, who's extremely light on sourcing, provides no source for the exchange he describes. We're prepared to consider the possibility that it never occurred, at least not in this part of the multiverse.

Whatever! Holt's presentation does supply the tiny gist of what Amis actually said. That said, what Amis actually said is this:

Amis said that he doesn't think that three-year-olds could build a ladder to Mars. He also doesn't think that we the humans have anything like the ability to answer the kinds of questions Holt pretends to explore in his flimflam-laden book.

Amis said we're "eight Einsteins away." That's what his statement meant.

To Holt, Amis' statement seems to suggest something different. He cut "eight Einsteins" down to five, then handed his readers a hero quest—a hero quest starring himself and driven by servings of flimflam.

Charlatan, please! Einstein (1879-1955) is popularly considered the greatest physicist since Newton. Newton was born in 1643. In short, an Einstein, in the sense Amis meant, comes along every 236 years.

(Full disclosure: When Amis said we're eight Einsteins away, he wasn't suggesting that the eight Einsteins would show up all at once.)

Holt says that he himself couldn't aspire to be one of these Einsteins, thereby lodging the idea that he maybe possibly could. But he imagines that he might be able to find as many as four such people just by flying around on somebody's dime and talking to people he's heard of.

Humblebragging skillfully, Holt imagines himself discovering as many as four new Einsteins, within just a couple of years! After finding these four people, Holt was further planning to "arrange them in the right order."

Holt assumed that book reviewers would ignore the absurdity of this idea. Quite correctly, he assumed they would respectfully describe his "quest" as if it made some sort of sense.

"So that is what I set out to do," our humble hero says. In the rest of his page 11, he proceeds to describe three of the "promising leads" which actually "failed to pan out."

But alas! Even when his leads fail to pan out, Holt skillfully humblebrags in the course of describing the failures. This incessant elevation-of-self is basic to this style of flam, which is widely observed in "cable news" and within the types of silly books the New York Times adores.

At any rate, our humble hero assigns himself a quest. He plans to jet around the world in search of maybe four Einsteins.

What isn't explained is why we should think that he would be able to spot a new Einstein even if he stumbled upon one. He didn't even provide a source for his nugget anecdote, which he seems to have misrepresented and which doesn't seem to make sense. But somehow, he's going to find a string of Einsteins as he flounces about in the finer cafes—with time out for talking about his dead dog, "the best part of the book."

Holt seemed to feel sure that the New York Times wouldn't notice small matters like these. That they wouldn't mention a basic fact—again and again and again and again, his utterly silly and ludicrous text makes no earthly sense.

Tomorrow: On to the text-in-itself

People Comey the God had no reason to fear!


People like Tomasky and Drum, along with Kornacki and Maddow:
Last weekend, Kevin Drum wrote a long post about James B. Comey which struck us as oddly illogical.

Did James B. Comey's behavior last year tip the election to Donald J. Trump? That is surely quite possible.

On the other hand, the election tipped to Trump by a narrow margin in three states. In such a situation, many factors can be said to have possibly tipped the election to Trump. Examples:

It may be that Clinton would have won if Comey hadn't behaved as he did. But it's also possible that Clinton would have won, in spite of Comey, had she run a better campaign in some way.

Beyond that, it may be that Clinton would have won in spite of Comey absent the Russian invasion. Especially in a narrow race, any number of different factors may have tipped the campaign.

For some reason, Drum seems determined to fix Comey as the "decisive" cause of November's outcome. Absent further explanation, that doesn't exactly make sense. Neither does Drum's claim that Clinton probably ran an average campaign, not a bad campaign.

In truth, there is no objective way to say who ran a "bad" campaign. Drum chose several subjective measures, then used them to say that Clinton's campaign wasn't all that bad.

In this, his nugget explanation, he correctly says that Clinton outperformed one predictive model. This leads him to suggest that Clinton's campaign just wasn't all that bad:
DRUM : [T]hat got me curious: how do Clinton and her campaign compare to past elections? There's no way to measure this directly, but you can get an idea by comparing actual election outcomes to the predictions of a good fundamental model. So I hauled out Alan Abramowitz's model, which has a good track record, and looked at how winning candidates performed compared to the baseline of what the model predicted for them.


According to this, Hillary Clinton did way better than any winning candidate of the past three decades, outperforming her baseline by 2.4 percent. Without the Comey effect, she would have outperformed her baseline by a truly epic amount.

Now, was this because she ran a good campaign, or because she had an unusually bad opponent? There's no way to tell, of course. Donald Trump was certainly a bad candidate, but then again, no one thinks that Dole or Gore or Kerry or McCain were terrific candidates either.

Bottom line: we don't have any way of knowing for sure, and this is an inherently subjective question. But the evidence of the Abramowitz model certainly doesn't suggest that Hillary Clinton ran an unusually poor campaign or that she was an unusually poor candidate. Maybe she was, but aside from cherry-picked anecdotes and free-floating Hillary animus, there's not really a lot to support this view.
Drum acknowledges that this is a subjective question. Still and all, we're semi-gobsmacked by what he says about Candidate Trump in that passage.

Drum notes that Clinton outperformed the (necessarily crude) Abramowitz predictive model. He acknowledges that this may have happened because Clinton had "an unusually bad opponent" in Candidate Trump.

He goes on to say that Donald J. Trump "was certainly a bad candidate." But he says that Kerry and Gore and McCain were no great shakes themselves.

People! In a wide array of (subjective) ways, Donald J. Trump was the most god-awful candidate in our political history! At several points, he engaged in such bizarre extended behavior that people debated the possibility that he was trying to lose.

Judged by a somewhat objective measure, he currently has the lowest approval ratings of anyone elected president in the past three million years. By a fairly wide margin.

It has widely been said that a President Clinton would have horrible approval ratings now too. But it's a simple matter of fact that President Trump stands much lower than any elected candidate in the history of poling. This suggests the possibility that he was an historically horrible candidate.

Let's get clear on the way this works. If Candidate A runs a truly awful campaign, Candidate B can run a bad campaign and still outperform predictions. Is that what Candidate Clinton did? We don't see any real point in trying to figure that out.

We do see an unpleasant point in thinking about the Comey matter. Yesterday, Michael Tomasky wrote a piece about Comey's lack of fear of Democrats when he began his interventions last July. Drum links to, and agrees with, Tomasky here.

Comey staged the first of his intervention on July 5, 2016. Aside from Democrats, we can think of other people he had no need to fear when he made this fateful decision. They have names like Tomasky and Drum—and like Kornacki and Maddow.

A basic pattern has been acted out here, especially in Tomasky's piece and Drum's reaction to it. More of this misery tomorrow, with links to the silent past of our liberal intellectual leaders.

When Comey started down that road last July, Barney Fife would have known to nip it in the bud! Following Tomasky's line of reasoning, Comey may have understood that our big liberal stars were never going to do that.

At any rate, that's what happened. The same thing had happened again and again in the previous twenty-five years.

Long ago, Candidate Clinton got demonized in this way. The liberal silence, our lack of fight, politely persisted last summer.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Who the Sam Hill is Jim Holt?


Part 2—Stopped before reaching Kyoto:
Who the heck is best-selling author Jim Holt? By the norms of Internet information collection, it's remarkably hard to find out.

In this essay for New York Magazine, Holt revealed that, in the summer of 68, he, unlike Jackson Browne, was 13. This would mean that he was born in 1954 or 1955. You can work out his current age from there.


Based upon a few passages in his 2012 book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, it seems That Holt grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, the city of seven hills. Beyond that, his biographical profile is remarkably fuzzy.

We'd say the standard version of Holt's bio is offered in the blurb promoting his TED Talk. In its overview, TED also provides an upbeat account of Holt's book:
TED: In his 2012 book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt creates a narrative out of one of the biggest questions we can ask—and how modern scientists and philosophers are asking it. Can answers be found in many-worlds theory, in quantum mechanics, in a theology? Traveling around North America and Europe, he talks to physicists, including David Deutsch; philosophers, including Richard Swinburne; and the novelist John Updike. Why? Because as he tells Vanity Fair, "To me it’s the most sublime and awesome question in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry."

A longtime contributor to the New York Times, Slate and the New Yorker, Holt has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, humor, logic, truth and bullshit, among other topics. Holt studied mathematics at the University of Virginia, and was a faculty fellow in the philosophy department at Columbia. He is now at work on a book about free will, weakness of will, self-knowledge and happiness.
Holt has written on bullshit, among other topics. Let's fill out that basic bio:

It's often said that Holt got a master's degree in math at Virginia, then went to Columbia to study philosophy. That "faculty fellow" designation may mean that he was a graduate teaching assistant. We've seen no claim that he received a degree from Columbia, or that he was an actual faculty member.

Somewhat comically, TED quotes Holt's interview with Vanity Fair—an interview which paired him with a young English major one year out of college. As we noted yesterday, the young journalist started the session by telling Holt that she didn't have the first fucking idea what the Sam Hill he was talking about in his book. Holt pretended that this meant that he had "failed" in his book.

Somewhat cynically, we'd wonder if that young woman's statement didn't mean that Holt had actually succeeded in his basic mission. Leaving such speculations to others, we'll note that the Vanity Fair interview gives us some sense of who Holt may actually be.

As we all await Professor Trump's war, we'll also suggest that the interview may give us a tiny peek behind a significant cultural curtain. The foolishness behind that curtain has led us to our current degraded state.

In the summer of 2012, Vanity Fair had tasked Linda Christensen, one year out of Princeton, with interviewing the seer. As we noted yesterday, she quickly said she had no idea what the fuck Holt was talking about in his new book.

But uh-oh! Being well-mannered and well-employed, she quickly added words of mandated praise. In this initial back and forth, we're peeking behind a curtain:
CHRISTENSEN (7/16/12): Mr. Holt—I have to confess: a lot of this book was over my head.

HOLT: Oh no! That’s terrible. I’ve failed.

CHRISTENSEN: That’s not a total negative. It’s certainly an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments in cosmology, philosophy, physics, and mathematics—but why the fixation with being and nothingness?

HOLT: To me it’s the most sublime and awesome question in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry...
It wasn't Christensen's fault that she'd been handed this assignment, for which she had no apparent qualification. Indeed, having been handed this absurd task, she proceeded as best she could.

That said, we see an intriguing juxtaposition as the interview starts. His interlocutor told Jim Holt that she didn't have the first fucking idea what he was talking about. That much said, so what? She quickly added words of high reassurance:

"It’s certainly an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments in cosmology, philosophy, physics, and mathematics," the young scribe unknowingly said. This joined the introductory appraisal she had penned:

Jim Holt had "established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today," the young scribe had unknowingly said.

Stating the obvious, this young journalist had no way of knowing whether those judgments made sense. But so what? Having said the book was "over her head," she went on to praise its "complex arguments," having already certified its author's "invaluable" status.

This pattern is widely observed when people like Holt write books of this type. Journalists know they've been assigned to applaud, and so they proceed to do so. A standard group assessment thereby gathers steam.

Our view? Holt's book is, at heart, a giant pile of heavily self-referential bullroar. Again and again as we plow through its text, we're struck by the author's sophisticated humblebragging and by his truly spectacular nonsense.

The intellectual namedropping performed in the book has surely established world records. Other music men play this game, but Holt is a grand past master.

In 1988, Michael Kinsley described the 39-year-old Al Gore as "an old person's idea of a young person." In similar fashion, Holt's book might be seen as an untutored journalist's idea of "an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments" compiled by an "invaluable" guide.

(As we'll note before the week is done, Holt's is precisely the type of book the New York Times will inevitably name as one of the year's ten best. They crowned Holt's book in 2012, did the same thing last year.)

Good God, this book is awful! But before we look at a bit of its text, let's ponder the glimmerings we can glean from the rest of that Vanity Fair interview.

Poor Christensen! Having no idea what Holt's book was about, she was forced to engage in small talk about the process by which it had joined the great chain of being.

As TED tells us, Holt had "travel[ed] around North America and Europe," talking to physicists and philosophers in the course of compiling his book. Early on, Christensen briefly tried working with that:
CHRISTENSEN: How much of this scavenger hunt for answers had you planned out before you began research?

HOLT: In 2009, I thought the journey was going to end up in Kyoto. I ran out of traveling money, actually.


HOLT: It turns out that the Kyoto school of Buddhism makes Heidegger seem like Rush Limbaugh—it’s so rarified, I’ve never been able to understand it at all. I’ve been knocking my head against it for years.


CHRISTENSEN: But you didn’t end up working from there, in the end.

HOLT: I found the Café de Flore in Paris to be a very convenient base from which to operate. It’s where Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness and hung out with Simone de Beauvoir during the war, and Descartes is buried right across the square. And Leibniz, when he was in Paris, was also right across the street.
We're sparing you Holt's fuller thoughts on the Kyoto school. We're giving you the tiniest taste of the book's high culture foppishness, along with a taste of the nonstop intellectual namedropping to which we have alluded.

At the Café de Flore, Holt was operating right across the street from the place where Leibniz once had been! Concerning Holt's reference to "traveling money," this exchange raised a basic question for us about this piddlerich book:

Who in the world paid for all the hard traveling Holt performs in the book? For all the trips to Paris, and to Oxford and/or Cambridge? For all the fancy meals Holt describes himself consuming? Not to mention the bottles of wine!

Given the worthlessness of this book, why was there any money to fund this manifest nonsense? Presumably, we can feel blessed that the money ran out before Holt reached Kyoto. But given the glimpses Holt provides of his own background; given his relatively light prior output; we're curious how a high-livin' grab bag of nonsense like this ever got funded at all.

Christensen didn't ask. Instead, she proceeded to a standard question, triggering an incorrect answer:
CHRISTENSEN (continuing directly): Bone to pick: your list excludes women.

HOLT: It wasn’t meant to be that way! I was going to include a Harvard physicist who’s not only a woman but she’s extremely attractive. But then I alienated her by writing an insufficiently favorable review of a book of hers in the Times. So I never asked her—it would have been too gelid an atmosphere.
Poor Christensen! She tried to throw in a type of question which was standard even in 2012. For her trouble, she received a tone deaf remark about a Harvard physicist "who’s not only a woman but she’s extremely attractive."

Holt seems to refer to Harvard's Lisa Randall, high school classmate of Brian Greene. Given Holt's review of Randall's book, any such conversation would have been too "gelid," the VF scribe was told.

Christensen didn't complain. With the book's actual contents off limits, she took one more side trip:
CHRISTENSEN: The book is just as much a personal journey as it is one of science—what made you want to include autobiographical elements into your analysis?

HOLT: Of course, there was a certain amount of death intruded into the book—first of all, one of the philosophers almost killed me—but also my dog dies while I’m in Austin. It’s the best part of the book—it’s really sad. And then later, my mother dies towards the end, and it’s kind of tacky to exploit the death of one’s mother, but I saw not only a self but the self that engendered my own being flicker out of existence. Contemplating the question of why the world exists makes one contemplate the precariousness of one’s own existence.
"One of the philosophers almost killed me?" As we'll likely explain in a later installment, this is a humblebrag, of a type which pervades this book.

That said, Christensen gets credit for noticing the constant self-reference in this high philosophical work. The best part of his book concerns the death of his dog, the invaluable philosophe says. It was really sad.

Can that possibly be the best part of this deeply sophisticated book? Tomorrow, we'll look at some actual text from Holt's "detective story." We'll be peeking behind a cultural curtain as we take this step.

Tomorrow: Spectacular nonsense of the type the New York Times runs to reward