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Careful With That Inference:

Folks, I'm glad you like reading the blog, and find my posts worth closely scrutinizing -- but there really is no need to overread between the lines. A commenter on an earlier post writes:

What's with the literary quotes today? Employing the maxims of implicature, we can infer that Eugene is trying to convey some relevant message. The analogy seems to be that we Americans are too unwilling to defend ourselves today.

So, Professor: is the mssage "we should be cheering the latest illegal NSA program" or "we should invade Iran"?

The commenter, I'm afraid, is inferring what I am not implying. I started reading Rebecca West's chapter because I liked the "It was good to take up one's courage again" quote that someone had posted on another blog months ago; and it did seem linked to the posts about courage, which were in turn triggered by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali story. I blogged the first set of quotes because of the link to courage. I blogged the second quote because I ran across it in the same reading session, because it struck me as eloquent and moving, and because I am pretty interested in history. I had hoped that my readers would be moved by it as I was -- always a good reason, I think, to pass along quotes.

But if you absolutely must try to infer some deeper message -- and, I stress again, I'm flattered that you'd want to, but I don't see why you should -- consider the possibility that, contrary to the (often accurate) stereotype of Americans, not all of my messages are about Americans.

Perhaps the West quote is apt about certain aspects of European society today; we've all heard things said that suggest it might be. Or perhaps not. If you as a reader find that resonance, great. If not, you might just find the quote moving as a commentary on a trait that sometimes arises in human nature, for instance in the era or eras about which West was writing.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Careful With That Inference:
  2. "The Idea of Self-Preservation Was as Jealously
Lev:
Suggested reading sort of along a similar line:

While Europe Slept, by Bruce Bawer, an American multilingual europhilic gay man who is very very angry by the end of the book.
5.12.2006 6:06pm
Michael R (mail):
But if you absolutely must try to infer some deeper message -- and, I stress again, I'm flattered that you'd want to, but I don't see why you should -- consider the possibility that, contrary to the (often accurate) stereotype of Americans, not all of my messages are about Americans.

a) You're seriously surprised that readers might react to an extensive quote on an oft-political blog as implying something of a political nature? Seriously? It was my *first* reaction. Also, I got here via Instapundit. I also wonder why *he* linked the quote, since he did not state a reason.
b) You really think it's an American thing to assume that a writer making an allusion about a society would probably be making an allusion about his own society? That seems pretty natural to me, not specifically American. I would assume that if a writer of a large country wanted to specifically comment on the society of other cultures, that writer would do something to indicate he was doing so, and not simply expect the readers to make the jump themselves.
5.12.2006 6:16pm
Robert Racansky:
I'm waiting for the movie version of The E. Volokh Code.

How does one adapt a blog to the big screen?

And which actor should play Eugene?
5.12.2006 6:21pm
Lev:
Steve Buscemi
5.12.2006 6:27pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Michael R.: You misread my post; I suggested that the commenter assumed I was being the stereotypical American, and was commenting about America. I didn't suggest that the commenter's own comment was stereotypically American.

As to why one might think twice about drawing such an inference, recall that this was a follow-up to the earlier West quote, which was directly linked to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali court decision thread -- a thread that was all about something happening in Holland, not in America.
5.12.2006 6:30pm
SLS 1L:
We are currently in the middle of a "global war on terror." The war's supporters frequently describe our enemies in this war as Nazi-like both in their degree of evil and in the extent of the threat they pose. Political commenters sometimes describe Islamic terrorists as even more dangerous than the Nazis were, and it is very common to see them described as a serious threat to the very existence of the United States.

The Administration is proposing that we go to war with Iran as part of the GWOT, and supporters of war have repeatedly analogized proposals for the use of diplomacy instead of force as akin to the Neville Chaimberlain's failure to oppose Hitler at Munich.

In this factual and rhetorical context, is it unreasonable for commenters to read a post about absence of the courage necessary for national "self-preservation" among the British after World War I as a comment about the war on terror? This is a political blog, you are a party-line Republican who generally supports the President on national security, and the quote was offered largely without much by way of commentary.
5.12.2006 6:34pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Hey, SLS 1L, you can read it as you like. Quotes like West's can mean different things to different readers. Your guess about my meaning wasn't quite right -- but you actually don't have to guess about my meaning (though you're free to do so if you want to).
5.12.2006 6:53pm
Raw_Data (mail):
I thought that quote from West was (obviously) a comment on the Hirsi affair.
5.12.2006 7:08pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I'm waiting for the movie version of The E. Volokh Code.

How does one adapt a blog to the big screen?

And which actor should play Eugene?


Don Knotts?
5.12.2006 7:10pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Cruel! Cruel!
5.12.2006 7:18pm
DK:
As applied to the Hirsi story, the Rebecca West quote is dead wrong. Modern American colleges try very hard to indoctrinate students in the need to defend minorities, multiculturalism, and the oppressed of all sorts, and to be ready at a moment's notice to refight the '60's all over again. (And I'm not talking David Horowitz here; just look at the colleges' self-proclaimed educational goals of social awareness; and I agree with many of the goals they proclaim).

The questions we should be asking are why that indoctrination is so unsuccessful, and why it has difficulty applying to situations like Hirsi's.
5.12.2006 7:24pm
MDJD2B (mail):
I'm waiting for the movie version of The E. Volokh Code.

How does one adapt a blog to the big screen?

And which actor should play Eugene?


Is Peter Ustinov dead? :)
5.12.2006 7:36pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
I would've said Jeff Daniels, although I'm thinking of the Something Wild Daniels rather than the older one of today.
5.12.2006 7:47pm
reneviht (mail) (www):

I'm waiting for the movie version of The E. Volokh Code.

How does one adapt a blog to the big screen?

And which actor should play Eugene?


People, you're thinking inside the box. Expand your horizons a bit, and the perfect candidate becomes obvious.
5.12.2006 7:54pm
Gordo:
Professor Volokh (and everyone else) - I hope you take the time to read all of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and not just the final chapter. The book is a masterpiece. And I say that even though parts of it are an outdated travelogue and other parts are too much of an apologia for Serbia.

Read it all. You have just read the tip of the iceberg.
5.12.2006 8:53pm
Sasha (mail):
You have just read the tip of the iceberg.

The rest of the book is more romainian?
5.12.2006 9:21pm
R:
Lettuce plese just stick to subject, Sasha.
5.12.2006 9:30pm
Glenn B (mail):
Professor Volokh, this is yet another example—one in a long line—of you utilizing an extraordinarily disingenuous rhetorical technique. You quote something, or make an argument, and then when people express dismay at the *obvious* implications, you insist that, no no, people should read your posts plainly, without looking for subtexts. One such example--out of many-- is the series of posts about "those people in America who support the insurgency." This statement tied into a long history of rightwing assaults on the left for being "traitorous"--as evidenced several times in the comment section on this very blog--yet you insisted that you are specifically condemning only those people who really do support the insurgency.

Now, you have a post in which you reference the British struggle against Nazism in a very specific manner. This is in the context of pro-war commentator's making numerous comparisons to world war II, specifically praising Churchill's backbone in opposing the Nazi's, with the concomitant implication that we today lack the backbone necessary to make a similar stand against today's evil (because of, take your pick, the media, the left, the ACLU, our lack of ruthlessness, academia, etc); they even call their great evil "Islamofascism," SPECIFICALLY invoking a comparison to WWII. I mean, hell, a few days ago you even commented about the "dark days ahead."

Either you are astonishingly tonedeaf to your prose's barely concealed subtexts--something I doubt, given your obvious intelligence--or you are just being coy. Neither alternative, I fear, says much for your intellectual honesty.
5.12.2006 10:13pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Well, Glenn B, I guess you'd just better start reading more intellectually honest people's blogs instead of mine. And when I find a quote that I find moving, I'll just post it, with very little concern for what you might think of it.
5.12.2006 10:16pm
Glenn B (mail):
Do you actually have a response, or just a glib dodge?

The irony here is that, about a week ago, Belle Waring and the folks over at Crooked Timber got their hackles up over your post about "illegal touching," accusing you of using essentially the same rhetorical manuver that I described above. I actually came to your defense, believing them to have read far too much into it. Good to see you substantiating that defense...
5.12.2006 10:23pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Mr. B, for you, no response. But in case others for some reason have some interest in our exchange, I hadn't expected my readers to make the rather ill-founded mistake that SLS 1L, and apparently Glenn B, made.

I had started by commenting on what struck me as a bad response by the Dutch court -- and some Dutch neighbors -- to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali matter. I then linked that to the Rebecca West quotes that were related to courage (my first Rebecca West post). Having read more of the Rebecca West epilogue, I saw this other quote that struck me as quite interesting, and posted that, too.

I had thought that: (1) The blog's readers would understand that I sometimes find some quotes to be moving and worth passing along, and pass them along, for their eloquence and aptness on their own terms (West was writing, after all, about 1920s and 1930s England, not the 2000s). (2) If the readers really wanted to find some deeper meaning, they wouldn't assume that I was referring to America is a nation -- we're a not very pacifistic bunch, on balance -- but rather to a broader pacifist attitude that is not very common in America but that has been said to be somewhat more common in Europe.

The thought that someone would somehow mistakenly infer that I meant that "we Americans" as a nation are unwilling to defend ourselves -- contrary to the evidence that we have been quite willing to do that -- seriously didn't even cross more mind. Some readers (I have evidence of two) apparently made such a mistake. I hope the rest of our readers forgive me for not planning to adjust my blogging plans in light of that mistake.
5.12.2006 10:40pm
frankcross (mail):
Why not just take blog posts at face value? I can see how in dealing with a person, in business say, one would look for hidden meanings. But in a blog, what's the point?

I figure there are two possibilities. A) there is no intended subtext -- in this case, you are unfair to the author by implying one. B) there is an intended subtext -- in this case you are subverting the author by ignoring it and proceeding naively. It seems to me that this is the dominant strategy.
5.12.2006 10:59pm
Glenn B (mail):
"seriously didn't even cross more mind"

So we are going to go with the tone deaf option? That quote, in this context, keys into very specific rhetorical tropes. Words have meaning, and part of that meaning is determined by what other people are saying.
5.12.2006 11:00pm
R:
Glenn, I'm curious to know what you (and anyone else) believe Eugene's motivation for intellectual dishonesty might be. When his intention is to draw a parallel from one subject to another he generally does so without any coaxing. Why would he lieabout his intention? Because he thinks his argument will have greater impact if done subliminally?

As far as the "tone deaf" thing, he acknowledged that others might find deeper meaning in the passage pertaining to current world affairs. Or do you mean that he was somehow unaware of his own intentions?
5.12.2006 11:18pm
Raw_Data (mail):
Glenn B.
I will repeat myself.
It was obvious that EV was referring to the Hirsi eviction.
It is not credible to me that you could have missed that.

So you must have another agenda.
What else could explain a deliberate mis-reading of a text?
Derrida street theatre?
What is it?
5.12.2006 11:39pm
Glenn B (mail):
"It was obvious that EV was referring to the Hirsi eviction.
It is not credible to me that you could have missed that. "

Oh, I don't deny that he was referring to the Hirsi eviction. My problem was with the way in which he generalized on the sly. BTW, Derrida street theater is a great phrase, does it have a specific origin?

"he acknowledged that others might find deeper meaning in the passage pertaining to current world affairs."

The "might" is awfully slippery and is at the heart of my objection.
5.13.2006 12:12am
Raw_Data (mail):
"Derrida street theater."

I just made it up.

It seemed to describe your deliberate -- it seemed to me -- attempt to transform EV's clarity into ambiguity and confusion.
5.13.2006 12:35am
Raw_Data (mail):
I should have written:

"I just made it up in your honor, Glenn B."
5.13.2006 12:46am
Patrick:
The title of this post, and subsequent debate, cry out for this Pink Floyd reference. With my luck, someone beat me to it years ago.
5.13.2006 1:22am
SLS 1L:
Professor: When I first read the post, I thought there was some chance it was about Hirsi, then noticed that it was specifically not given that tag. Since it (a) invoked a whole mess of rhetorical tropes associated with the GWOT in today's political discourse and (b) didn't reference Hirsi in any way, I concluded that it was about the GWOT.

I, unlike some of the other posters here, am not interested in accusing you of intellectual dishonesty. But I think my interpretation of what you wrote was the most reasonable interpretation from the point of view of an objective observer. And even if your interpretation is more reasonable, mine was a reasonable interpretation that does not involve some arcane search for hidden meanings, just an ordinary unpacking of unsatated implications.

The thought that someone would somehow mistakenly infer that I meant that "we Americans" as a nation are unwilling to defend ourselves -- contrary to the evidence that we have been quite willing to do that -- seriously didn't even cross more mind.
I had taken you to be saying: something along the lines of "Deciding not to attack Iran [or rejecting the recently revealed NSA program] would mean that we are not willing to fight for self-preservation." It's not at all implausible that someone would say such a thing. Imagine the following, written following a rejection in Congress of a declaratoion of war on Iran: "We have sent a message to the terrorists: you have won. Americans have lost the will to fight even for our own safety."
5.13.2006 2:15am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Hey, Prof. Volokh: As long as I am free to chide you on your very rare failings in grammar or terminology, I will always consider your sometimes subtle inferences beyond reproach. ;)
5.13.2006 3:32am
Glenn B (mail):
There has undeniably been a consistant rhetorical strategy on the part of pro-war commentators to draw explicit parallels between World War II and the War on Terror. One of the most important objectives of this strategy has been to argue that, like in World War II, resolute opposition to this evil(as in Churchill) is neccesary lest we be overrun(as in France.)

Given this rhetorical climate, your post *unquestionably* invokes such comparisons. Whether this was intended or not does not change this fact.

Furthermore, I would like to point out that, regarding the Walt+Mearshimer paper, plenty of people on this blog were looking out like hawks for exactly this type of rhetoric--and rightfully so.
5.13.2006 4:21am
Anonymous Koward:
There has undeniably been a consistant rhetorical strategy on the part of pro-war commentators to draw explicit parallels between World War II and the War on Terror.

Like this?
5.13.2006 9:42am
Raw_Data (mail):
Glenn B.

Why do you conflate opposition to the war in Iraq with the "war" on Islamofascism? i.e. one can -- moi, for example -- think that the the Iraq war was stupid and against our interests etc etc in part precisely because it interfered with and distracted us from fighting Islamofascism. Frankly, you can't listen to what GW Bush says on these matters -- and he doesn't say much, in fact, which will ever illuminate why he got us into this mess.

Yes, there are parallels between WW2 and its struggle against German fascism and the current one against Islamofascism. Are they perfectly parallel? Of course not. But we do face a very very serious threat and poo-pooing as a right-wing fantasy will not make it go away. It hasn't and has been abround for decades at this point.

(The Derrida Street Theater game will lose its humor if you keep doing it.)
5.13.2006 10:33am
mariner (mail):
Professor,

I didn't know about West's work and probably would not have found it on my own.

I'll just thank you for posting on it, and try not to worry too much about inferences. ;)
5.13.2006 4:21pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I don't think E.V. is a party-line Republican and I don't think he's intellectually dishonest.

But I think SLS 1L and Glen B. are certainly right that in this context, it's hardly surprising that folks would hear a passage on this blog in this time period equating disapproval of using military force with moral cowardice as relating to the U.S. and Iraq and/or Iran. As they have both pointed out, it's a standard rhetorical device for war proponents to analogize to WWII, with opponents being Chamberlain-esque appeasers who lack moral courage, etc. [I often suggest that war proponents and opponents should agree that the former should eschew analogies to WWII and the latter should eschew analogies to Vietnam, but nobody seems to have taken me up on that].

I'm absolutely willing to believe E.V. when he says that's not what he intended. And it's always good to remind Americans that people aren't always talking about Americans. But I'm not sure it's hard to understand why people took him a certain why.
5.14.2006 3:05pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
R. West is a great writer. "Train of Powder" is political observations. "The New Meaning of Treason" goes from Lord Haw-Haw to Profume.

She has the gift--or trick--of providing frequent insights which are on point and the kind of thing "I would have thought of in another minute." Except "I" would probably not.

This being Mothers' Day, I recall a piece from Black Lamb. She and her group are touring an isolated cemetery from one of the Balkans' frequent wars. The soldiers taking care of the cemetery say it's good duty, in the daytime. At night, when the dead guys are crying for their mothers, it's a different story. So are the soldiers putting the tourists on? Could a tape recorder hear "Something"? Or are the soldiers, scions of an ancient, poorly-educated, warlike culture the only ones who hear?
5.15.2006 12:47am