A Note on ‘Notes’

Letters for the March of Dimes arrive at the White House in 1938 (Library of Congress)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This past week The Atlantic announced a sensible new policy for engaging readers in our ongoing conversations. The news is explained here, and it amounts to a shift away from an open Comments section, and to a managed online Letters section.

To me this is welcome news, in that it finally brings my own personal practices into compliance with Official Magazine Policy. Over the decades of online writing for the magazine—yes, decades, since the debut of what was called Atlantic Unbound back during Bill Clinton’s first term—I’ve quoted reader mail as often and amply as I could manage, but never had open comments on my own articles or posts. (Every couple of years I explained the rationale, for instance here and here.)

I’ve greatly enjoyed, and continually learned from, the flow of mail from readers around the country and the world. When I went on a several-month book leave for a previous book, back in 2011, some of the writers who graciously appeared as guest bloggers in this space were ones I’d first gotten to know via reader mail.

The main challenge of moderating this kind of conversation has simply been volume. Since I do this strictly on my own, if I’m the middle of something else—like writing another book, or even writing a long article, or some organizational project that is a diversion from online life for a long period—the mail piles up and I don’t parse through it or share excerpts here. This has been true in spades over the past year, when for writing, organizational, and other reasons I’ve been away from online life for weeks at a time.

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So the new reader-mail era begins today, with these two practical implications:

  1. Please feel free to send mail directly to me, through any of the links this site has always made available. But by default I’ll ship most or all of it on to our skillful Letters editors, who can handle it more consistently than I’ve been able to. I may still do opportunistic Reader Mail items as circumstances dictate.
  2. Please note a change in real-name policy. My practice has been to assume that any incoming mail is eligible for quotation, unless stated otherwise—but that I would never use the sender’s real name, unless the sender specifically requests that I do. Our new letters policy emphasizes real-name use. You can see the details in the announcement and in this sample of what we’ve already published.

As a sayonara offering, and as a sample of the valuable mail that has piled up in the past month when I haven’t been able to quote it, after the jump you’ll see a letter from someone who has thought seriously about different sorts of “talent” and “genius,” and takes issue with my item last month, “How Actual Smart People Talk About Themselves.”

The reader writes:

I’ve thought about talent in two worlds: chess and academic philosophy.

In chess, Hou Yifan [JF note: the young Chinese player who has been women’s world champion, whom I have met and interviewed] is more of an outlier; the effects of Chinese culture, in which modesty is highly prized, should not be underestimated…. Magnus Carlsen doesn’t behave like Trump (who else does?!), but that his ego is enormous isn’t exactly a Norwegian state secret. Likewise with Garry Kasparov, and the late Bobby Fischer was a poster child for the Dunning-Kruger effect in realms outside of chess….

One can debate whether chess is a sport, but even if it’s not there are an awful lot of ways in which it is sports-like. Ego is one of them, and while there are competitors who are genuinely humble, a lot of them aren’t. Some hide it somewhat for the sake of propriety and sponsorship, while others don’t (again, in some cases, for the sake of sponsorship!). This is true in other realms as well, where the arrogance of entitlement is seemingly boundless. (Harvey Weinstein, anyone?)

Two of your examples struck me as counter-examples to your thesis: Roger Federer was arrogant about his tennis talent (I think he tried hard not to show it, but it would leak out in comments [JF: agree]) until Nadal started beating him on non-clay courts, followed by Djokovic knocking him down another notch. And Streep’s willingness to make public pronouncements on policy (in this she is far from alone, as Hollywood and Broadway are filled with offenders) is a lovely example of the D-K effect.

In the realm of philosophy, both sorts of behavior appear among elite philosophers. By the nature of the discipline one would expect a deep sense of humility and self-awareness, and in some cases that expectation is fulfilled. But not always, and plenty of truly great philosophers have been as arrogant as the day is long.

Now, I don’t think I’ve known anyone as cartoonishly over the top as Donald Trump. He is in a class by himself, but it’s also very much worth considering that a significant proportion of what he’s doing is shtick. Muhammad Ali (a sometimes but not always “charming” exception [calling Joe Frazier an “Uncle Tom” isn’t a high point]) and Ronda Rousey, for instance, both thrived on being heels. It was good for them both competitively and in building their brand. It’s a risky approach, but as it stakes out a space where few dare to tread it offers the chance to clean up if it works. For Trump, it has worked. (See for instance Scott Adams’s writings on Trump, including his recent book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.)

By the way, about the D-K effect, I’m not sure that Trump is guilty of it. What I mean is this: he says a lot of things to the effect that “I’m great at this, everyone says I’m brilliant at that,” but when we look at what he actually does he generally sticks to things where he has some competence: business and (especially) self-promotion. Of course Trump has a colossal ego, but the fact that he so openly shares his self-love with the world doesn’t by itself make him incompetent at what he does. [JF note: Yes, if “what he does” is show business. No, if it is governance.]

To summarize, there are lots of arrogant people at the top of any profession, some of whom hide it and some of whom don’t. And how one presents oneself is often (at least in part) a matter of persuasion rather than a reflection of one’s character, and while it’s usually a safe strategy to come across as humble, bombast can be effective.