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Fallows and Cromwell

I've been catching up on Atlantic contributing editor James Fallows' weblog, and noticed the recurrence in recent posts of variations on the phrase "maybe it's just me, but..."

Now, usually when someone does that in public writing -- especially about contentious and polarized topics -- it's a little stroke of faux-humble snark. It signifies "Of course you, my readers, and all right-thinking people, agree with what I'm about to say."

But it seems to me that more often than not, Fallows means it, which is uncommon and admirable. He's a superlative reporter and hard-working writer. When you've invested that much in forming a conviction, and you're putting it out there in the hope of swaying others, it's natural to position it as the only conviction supportable by sweet reason. It's hard, it's unnatural,  to keep in mind that there may be a long road of persuasion ahead, that the rest of the world -- if it happens to be paying attention at all -- will take a while to Get It.

Maybe Fallows' "it's just me" is not an affectation or a tic, but a small intellectual (even spiritual) exercise to remind himself of that... sort of a vaccine against Pundits' Syndrome. Make it a habit, make an effort to mean it, and it could offer some modest protection against the temptations of crusade and fanaticism. Jacob Bronowski talked about that, standing in the ash fields of Auschwitz.

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell was trying to persuade the Scots Presbyterians to abandon their support of Charles II, and famously wrote to their governing synod: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." The line has a double edge, of course, because Cromwell was himself a man of such bulldozer conviction. But hey: we take our moments of clarity when we can get them, even when the motes in others' eyes are so much more obvious than the beams in our own.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2008 06:39 am (UTC)
If you can't square the circle, make do with humble pi
James Fallows wrote very persuasively about a Japan that, it turns out, didn't quite exist. I know -- I got here shortly after that mirage evaporated. They didn't eat our lunch (though they may yet eat Detroit's). They can hardly even eat their own lunch. Getting an entire nation wrong -- that's more than enough comeuppance for any pundit.

-michael turner
Jan. 20th, 2008 11:55 am (UTC)
Re: If you can't square the circle, make do with humble pi
Fallows has been pretty candid in retrospect about misreading Japan's situation, and is treading lightly enough for me these days in writing about China. I'll take him over the great majority of "Nation X: Myth or Menace?" journalists out there.
Apr. 27th, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC)
Re: If you can't square the circle, make do with humble pi
China: Menace
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )