Circles Don’t Have Sides
Basic errors in geometry, written English in Times review of Jill Lepore’s “This America” push a reader beyond his breaking point.
BY PETE TOTHERO
LOOK, I KNOW airing criticisms of book reviews in the New York Times is too easy to bother doing for most of the mature literary people who read this fine magazine (odd blog), but something geometrically egregious occurred in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, and I cannot let it pass. If you learn nothing else from me—and you will learn nothing else from me—please just know this:
Circles don’t have sides.
I am forced to waste time this morning stressing this because in the highly esteemed and very important New York Times Book Review this weekend, in Michael Lind’s review of Jill Lepore’s This America, Lind makes the following claim:
Do you like that my screen shots are actually just bad photos I take of the newspaper sitting on my table? I know you do.
And hey, I’m just a guy reading the Times (in print, even!) on a Sunday morning, and I mostly read it for the business section, which I mostly read for laughs—so yeah, poesy is probably beyond me. But I try. I wade in and I try to understand and I try to play along. I’m picturing a circle. Lind cannot mean a coin, because if he meant a coin, he would have written “a coin.” But you can’t flip a circle. No legitimate math teacher says, “Now students, next let’s flip those circles and see what’s on the other side.” And yet Lind is speaking of “sides” of the circle.
A circle is the set of points equidistant from a fixed center in a two dimensional field. Circles do not have sides. Are you saying to yourself right now, But maybe the line that indicates the circle’s circumference, maybe that is a side? Maybe a circle has one side? Sure, fine, let us consult the Almighty:
People also search for triangle, quadrilateral, and any standards for writing or thinking in our contemporary media landscape. (By the way, if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole of whether a circle has zero sides or infinite sides, that is a totally valid rabbit hole and you are entirely welcome to go down it. If you come up with stars in your eyes shouting Circles have infinite sides! I will absolutely join you in laughing and dancing beneath the full moon while birds fly around us, chirping joyous birdsong and enfolding us in ribbons. I will also repeat—or sing, if you prefer—that my point stands: circles do not have two sides.)
I digress. In the moment of reading the review, I was trying to be generous as a reader, and I decided that maybe Mr. Lind had a petri dish kind of situation in his head—he’s trying to describe some idea-blobs floating in a circular petri dish, right? I’m reaching, but I have no choice, because Lind has written something wrong, and I have to do the extra work now of trying to find a way to make it right. So on one side of the petri dish maybe we have “thick identity” blobs. I’m having to expend unnecessary effort to work around Lind’s failed attempt at a geometry metaphor, but fine, so the guy didn’t pass geometry—he’s trying. I’ll meet him halfway.
Oh shit but now here he comes with the thickness. The circle has a “side of thick identity.” That side features illiberal nationalism and “illiberal multiculturalism or identity politics.” So when I, as a reader, have finally figured out that all Lind might be trying to say (or might be trying to say that Lepore says? If we wanted to know whether these categories are Lind’s or Lepore’s, well dear lord he doesn’t establish clarity on that point at all) is that there exist illiberal nationalists and illiberal multiculturalists, Lind simply cannot stop himself from adding “or identity politics,” to make sure he doesn’t complete a sentence without an error in it. Because does his use of “or” in “illiberal multiculturalism or identity politics” indicate he believes “identity politics” is a synonym of “multiculturalism”? But this cannot be, because “multiculturalism” and “identity politics” are not remotely the same thing. (KKK members, for instance, practice identity politics, but are obviously not multiculturalists.) So but then is Lind’s use of “or” between the two terms meant to indicate that multiculturalism and identity politics are two different categories? He cannot mean that either, though, because his previous use of the word “both” suggests he is describing only two blobs on the…thick side(?)…of his petri dish circle? But again, if the clause is conflating two things that are not the same, then it is—as with Lind’s claim about circles—just wrong. (Also: Why is one side thick and the other thin? Don’t even try. Eyes roll back. Brain implodes.)
Does the New York Times still employ editors? I ask not only because of the psychic pain I suffered trying to parse the above, but also because, later in the review, we get the second sentence in this paragraph:
Let me go ahead and assure you that the late Harry Jaffa and the so-called West Coast Straussians appear nowhere else in this review. They are never defined, described, or contextualized. I know who Leo Strauss is, but am I stupid because I don’t know who the late Harry Jaffa is? Also: why is the name-dropping necessary? Why can’t Lind just say that though Lepore is center-left, she asserts that American identity consists of a shared belief in the egalitarian ideals of the founding fathers, a somewhat conservative position?
I guess I can think of one reason he can’t just say that, which is: he has already established in the review that Lepore describes multiple varieties of American identity, not just one. So this sentence, too, is incorrect: Lepore doesn’t assert what American identity consists of, she argues what she feels a most accurate or most equitable form of American identity might be. And can you sense how, when stated that way, whether her position is liberal or conservative isn’t so easy to say? If one were to write that Lepore argues that the language used by the nation’s founders suggests a central value of equal rights regardless of background, would that be a conservative stance or a liberal stance? I think we would have to know more about what Jill Lepore is arguing. I think name-dropping West Coast Straussians and the late Harry Jaffa would not help. And if it does not help, then what is it doing there?
I’m going to spare you the rest of the psychic pain I suffered trying to read this, save one last sour cherry Lind drops in the final paragraph. If you’re into adopting a condescending tone while delivering thoughts so muddled that it’s obvious you have not earned the right to be condescending, but you appear to be entirely unaware of that, please enjoy this pearl:
Women, don’t you love it when a man has intoned from a great rhetorical height any number of incorrect or nonsensical things, but then ultimately concludes that though he finds you “thoughtful and passionate,” it’s gonna take a bit more than that to win him over? Syntactically, Lind believes that Lincoln was right: America = proposition. This is quite different from the idea that…America = proposition. Quite different, indeed. And the editors of this section of the newspaper appear to have been quite indifferent?
And if you would like to understand the difference between different and indifferent, allow me assist you: imagine two sides of a circle…