When a Heap Is Not a Heap, and Other News


On the Shelf

Tailings from a gold mill abandoned in the 1930s.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year is post-truth, and if I have to tell you why this is good and smart and funny, well then you can crawl right back into your hidey-hole, young man. Being a dictionary, they’ve provided a definition for the adjective: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” And a history: “Post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine. Reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich lamented that ‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.’ ”
  • In China, meanwhile, the word on the lips of officialdom is comrade. President Xi Jinping would like to bring the term—tongzhi, in Chineseback in vogue for the ninety million members of the Communist Party; it went out of fashion during the eighties, as Westernizing influences swept in. But there’s a problem, as Amy Qin reports: “Among gay men, however, tongzhi became a term of affection and solidarity and eventually a catchall label for sexual minorities. A gay and lesbian film festival held annually in Hong Kong has been called the Hong Kong Comrade Film Festival since 1989. And the Beijing center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people calls itself the Beijing Tongzhi Zhongxin—or the Beijing Comrade Center. Even Google has caught on. Enter the characters for tongzhi guanxi—literally ‘comrade relationship’—into its translator, and it gives you ‘gay relationship.’ ” 

  • In our “post-truth” world we’d do well to remain aware of the paradox of vagueness, which has only been troubling us for several millennia. Timothy Williamson recalls the ancient thought experiment: “Imagine a heap of sand. You carefully remove one grain. Is there still a heap? The obvious answer is: yes. Removing one grain doesn’t turn a heap into no heap. That principle can be applied again as you remove another grain, and then another … After each removal, there’s still a heap, according to the principle. But there were only finitely many grains to start with, so eventually you get down to a heap with just three grains, then a heap with just two grains, a heap with just one grain, and finally a heap with no grains at all. But that’s ridiculous. There must be something wrong with the principle. Sometimes, removing one grain does turn a heap into no heap. But that seems ridiculous, too. How can one grain make so much difference? That ancient puzzle is called the sorites paradox, from the Greek word for heap.”
  • Mark Greif urges us not just to inveigh against normalizing Trump, but to accept that in this scenario the presidency may have no practical use, and that we should do without it: “Reading historical parallels, I feel it is far better to overreact at a moment that sets up the means for tyranny, than not to react. Better to seize hold of the abnormal, than turn violation into the normal. It is always better not to seat tyrants, not to have an inauguration, not to make it that far, than to try to undo things once a tyrant has hold of the levers of violence. The important thing with a tyrant is not to seat him at all—even at the expense of unfairness to an individual who might have become better than his word. Having seen the slogan and heard the chant, ‘Not My President,’ I feel the slogan should instead be ‘No President.’ Not only is Trump no president in attitudes and beliefs, but in effect we should decide we do not have a president, through the paradox of the legitimate election of an illegitimate officeholder. In fact, for America to learn if it can get along without a president, in 2016, might be the most valuable thing we could do.