Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Monday, March 2, 2015

It's All About Me

Due to circumstances outside my control I have even less time to post than in the past but I will do what I can.

So let's take a quick peek at the literary crimes against humanity committed by that little libertarian scamp named McMegan McArdle.

Ah, the blogosphere has been buzzing with trivia and trivial minds leap to add their two cents. (Or tuppence, as McArdle no doubt wishes she could get away with saying.)  There is a photo that might be this or might be that and everyone has an opinion. Little did you know, however,  that the real subject of universal interest is Megan McArdle. Don't believe me? Just listen.

My most trafficked post ever was this quickie, which I wrote while traveling, squatting on the floor of an airport with my laptop balanced on my knees. I think it took me 15 minutes, most of which was spent searching Google Books for evidence that Martin Luther King had actually given voice to a quotation that was, at that moment, going viral on Twitter and Facebook. He hadn’t, but the fake quote got millions of posts and retweets -- and every time someone posted or tweeted it, someone else replied with my skeptical take. Hello, Internet fame.

Needless to say, if you had asked me while I was sitting in the airport if you thought this post had a shot at being the most-trafficked thing I would ever write, I would have laughed. I have an interest in fake quotations, and I had a few minutes between flights, so I thought of it as a fun squib to share with my readers, not as a potential megahit. Also needless to say, I was wrong.

Needless to say! Although McArdle actually does seem eager to admit error, since the error exposed her enormous popularity and humility not her innumeracy, mendacity, avidity, or insensitivity, her usual "errors" in service of the class war her masters hired her to fight.

McArdle trots out a sociology study that validates her need for an authoritarian hierarchy.

We can theorize that there is some quality threshold, but beyond that, social effects take over: Knowing that someone else likes something makes you more interested in it, and so some combination of early rankings and random variation among the groups creates a unique outcome in each social network. It’s our old friend path dependence in viral form.

Knowing that someone else likes something might make you more interested in taking a look at something but it doesn't necessarily mean you are more interested in it than before, when the thing was less popular. It's our old friend herd mentality, slavishly followed by people who are terrified of going over their tribe's boundaries. Or, in McArdle's case, eager to lead the tribal elite as a elegant and erudite arbitrator of popular taste.

Post-hoc, of course, we construct all sorts of reasons that popular things are popular. But as Watts points out, what we’re often doing is not so much explaining the popularity as describing the attributes of the popular thing: The Mona Lisa is popular because it’s so, well, Mona Lisa-esque. And those explanations tend to leave out the more random elements -- like the fact that the Mona Lisa wasn’t that popular until it was stolen in a famous museum robbery.

It's so interesting when conservatives have thinky thoughts. The Mona Lisa is popular because the Mona Lisa is popular. Everyone knows that. But did you know this tidbit I heard on NPR that is contrary to popular thought?

Maybe there’s no particular reason that millions of us wanted to spend our Thursday evening playing with a wedding-themed optical illusion, except that we all ended up doing just that. And most of us enjoyed it, so maybe randomness is not the right word. Maybe we should call it “serendipity” and leave it at that.

 You can have your Mona Lisa smile. The McArdle word salad is a masterpiece in its own way.


Unknown said...

I love your takedowns of McArdle.

FWIW, the term "herd mentality" is, IMO, less useful than Rene Girard's "mimetic desire," which is more fundamental and has much more explanatory power. If you're not familiar with his work, I highly recommend it.

For myself, I found Gil Baillie's "Violence Unveiled: Humanity as the Crossroad" an even better intro, since he supplies a small "further reading" list, and the footnotes are rich in references to some of the many books written about Girard in the 40 years since his stunning hypotheses first hit the stage.

Susan of Texas said...

Thank you, and thanks for the reading recommendations.

Roger said...

For Megan, it's all about debase.

Kathy said...

millions of us wanted to spend our Thursday evening playing with a wedding-themed optical illusion

What is she talking about?

Unknown said...

"Wedding-themed illusion" was that Oscar dress thing, wasn't it.

Kathy said...

Oh, the exquisite pearl dress? Wow, I'd love to own one. Not wear it, just hang it on the wall and look at it. Or was arglebargle writing about that blue & black-lace dress that had people in a tizzy?

Funny how the more trivial the subject the more vehement the arguments! Maybe that explains religious warfare.

Clever Pseudonym said...

"Knowing that someone else likes something makes you more interested in it..."

No it doesn't, unless you live in a boring circle jerk.

And why would we pre-occupy ourselves talking about an unforgettable, glamorous dress when we can be reading the months-long trials of Megan McArdle registering her car?

Unknown said...

Clever Pseudonym: not according to Rene Girard. Mimetic desire, according to him, is a fundamental human characteristic. After all, from whom do we learn anything except from other human beings?

Bill Murray said...

Andre Orleans in Empire of Value expands the mimetic hypothesis into economics

Unknown said...

Bill Murray: Thank you so much! What a fantastic discovery for me as I dive ever deeper into Girard's work. (And, the fact that Orleans won a prize named after Ricoeur is a big plus!)

My main focus as a Quaker has been the religious implications of mimetic desire and scapegoating; how wonderful to be able to extend it to economics.