The Holocaust in the streets, one brass plate at a time


Above you see several so-called Stolpersteine — “stumbling stones” — in a sidewalk near my place in Berlin. The flowers and candles are from a neighbor, who regularly looks after the many, many stones in our street. Each one commemorates one victim of National Socialism who lived at the address where the stone is placed.

The Stolpersteine were among the first things I noticed when I moved to Berlin last year. There are about 40,000 of them now, all over Germany and in much of Europe. Every week many more are laid. No governments are involved. All this is a private art project, conceived by an intriguing artist, Gunter Demnig.

One of those now sponsoring such a stone is a friend of mine, Menasheh Fogel, a Jewish American living in Berlin. I tell Menasheh’s story, and a few of the many stories of the people he met, of the victims he learned about, of the artist behind the project, in the current issue of Intelligent Life, a sister publication of The Economist. You would make me happy by reading it.

I will let the piece speak for itself. But I just want to add two strands of thought here:

  1. one about the different style and voice of this piece, compared to my usual fare in The Economist, and 
  2. one about Germany’s style of remembrance generally.

My style in this piece

Way back in 2008, I mused here on this blog about the pros and cons of writing in the first person (which is completely banned at The Economist, but encouraged at Intelligent Life). I also told you about my efforts to find my own natural voice, because I was, of course, writing my book at the time, and was using this blog in part to loosen myself up after writing in my Economist voice during the day.

Well, writing this story transported me back to all that. It necessitated a completely different voice, and I discovered that I loved finding it. I wrote a first draft that was quite good and sent it off.


Then I had a great chat with the editor, Samantha Weinberg, who told me to “feature it up”. For example, she asked, again and again, for more quote. At The Economist we don’t quote much, and when we do, we use just the choicest bits of a quote, perhaps a single word, for maximum efficiency. But Samantha wanted everything. “Even the uhs and ers, the wrong syntax and dead ends?”, I asked. “Especially the uhs and ers and the wrong syntax,” she said. I went back to my notes and put all of it, or most of it, in. And lo, the piece was better.

And I put a bit of myself in, in the first person. Discreetly and sparingly, though. And lo, it was better again. (But more of me, and it would have started getting worse.)

I loved this process. For those among you who are editors, there are also lessons for you in Samantha’s style: she didn’t fiddle with my words; she just helped me to understand what changes were necessary. (Thanks, Samantha.)

The German style of remembrance

Yes, there is such a thing as a “German” style of remembrance, as I have concluded since moving back to this country last year.

It is to remember everywhere and all the time, never taking a break, never looking the other way but always at what happened before, and integrating all of it into a new present.

If you ever get the chance, for example, walk through the Bundestag in Berlin, in the old Reichstag building. A British architect, Sir Norman Foster, rebuilt it. As a signal and symbol of the new German political culture, he made it physically transparent on the inside (and it really is, as much as any large building can be). The entire edifice invites all those in it to remember and reflect, every day and all the time. For example, members of parliament, like journalists such as myself, walk every day past walls such as these:


You see the bullet hole? You see the graffiti? It’s the scrawlings of the young Russian soldiers after they took the building in 1945. Things like “Vladislav was here” and “Fuck all Germans”. The graffiti and bullet holes were not merely kept; they are emphasized.

(One of the staff at the Bundestag is working on a book about these graffiti. She’s found some of the — now old — Russians who wrote them, and they have amazing stories to tell.)

In the weeks since finishing my piece in Intelligent Life, I’ve got deeper into the subject. (This often happens to writers.) And I’m thinking of getting even deeper into it yet.

For example, I met up with Petra Merkel, a member of parliament, the lady in red in the picture below.

(Yes, Germany’s Bundestag has two Mrs Merkel, one named Angela and one named Petra. Both once married and divorced (different) Mr Merkels, but kept their name. Both are wonderfully down-to-earth. Petra says she occasionally gets mail for Angela by mistake. She enjoys being on the parliamentary committee that oversees the federal budget, proposed by the government the other Merkel heads, since “Merkel is watching Merkel.”)


Well, Mrs Merkel also sponsored a Stolperstein. And then she brought over the descendants of the victim, Paula Dienstag, from Israel to Berlin. In front of Mrs Merkel on the right is Yuval Doron, Mrs Dienstag’s grandson. Next to him are his two sons.

And that’s the other thing about remembrance done right: It never separates human beings, it always connects.

A timeless story: Plutarch > Böll > us

Heinrich Böll (click for credits)

Let’s have a few minutes of fun tracing the genealogy of a story to illustrate the concept of archetypes — the Jungian idea that we tell each other the same timeless stories again and again, in infinitely many variations.

(My book is based on that idea: namely, that we see ourselves in the stories of others, whether they lived 2,000 years ago or 2 years ago, or whether they lived at all.)

On pages 140-142 of Hannibal and Me, I tell two versions of a short story. (This is the very end of the chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, which is about the fiendish difficulty of telling ends from means in life and the consequences of getting it wrong, as I hinted in this post for the Harvard Business Review.)

So I end the chapter with this:

A few years ago, one of those chain-letter emails landed in my inbox. It told the story of a fisherman who was lying in the warm afternoon sun on a beautiful beach, with his pole propped up and his line cast out into the water. An energetic businessman walked by.

“You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman. “You should work harder.”

The fisherman looked up and good-naturedly asked, “And what would I get for that?”

The businessman replied that he would catch more fish, sell them for more money, save the surplus, and invest in a boat and nets, which would let him catch even more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Somewhat impatiently, the businessman explained that he could then reinvest the even greater surplus and buy more boats and hire staff, becoming a small business and catching ever more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Now the businessman lost it. “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you never have to work for a living again? You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach, just enjoying this sunset!”

The fisherman’s eyes lit up. “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

In the chapter, I then go on to tell another, and much, much older version of that story, which I’ll repeat in a minute. But here is what my cousin Bettina realized the other day as she was reading the above passage in my book: The story I was retelling from a chain email in fact derives from a short story by Heinrich Böll, the Nobel-Prize winning giant of postwar German literature.

Böll’s story, written in 1963, was titled:

Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral

I love that sardonic mock-bureaucratic tone. It translates into something like:

Anecdote for the Diminishment of the Work Ethic

Here is the German text, very simply and beautifully written. The Wikipedia page tells me that

The story, with its several adaptions, has been circulated widely on the Internet, and has been quoted in many books and scholarly papers. In one of the most popular versions, the tourist is an American (an MBA from Harvard in some versions), and the fisherman is Mexican.

Clearly, Böll’s story has a timeless kernel. So where might Böll himself have gotten the idea? (And by the way, he may not have realized where he got it, for we usually do not recall what influenced our ideas.)

Well, I think he got it from a story written about 2000 years ago about events more than 300 years before that. The author was Plutarch. The story was about Pyrrhus, the one who gave us “Pyrrhic Victories“.

You can compare it to the original here. But on page 141 of my book, I retell it this way (with anything in quotation marks directly sourced from Plutarch):

Pyrrhus was making preparations to invade Italy and attack Rome when Cineas struck up a conversation.

“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors,” said Cineas. “If God permits us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“But that’s obvious,” said Pyrrhus. “We will be ‘masters of all Italy’ with all its wealth.”

“And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?” asked Cineas.

“Sicily,” replied Pyrrhus without missing a beat. “A wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained.”

“But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?” asked Cineas.

“God grant us victory and success in that,” answered Pyrrhus, “and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach?” Once we have those, will anybody anywhere “dare to make further resistance?”

“None,” replied Cineas, which leaves us to “make an absolute conquest of Greece. And when all these are in our power, what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus smiled and said, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

“And what hinders us,” said Cineas, “from doing exactly that right now, without going through all these troubles?”

Pyrrhus suddenly looked “troubled” and had no answer. Then he went ahead and invaded Italy anyway — without success.

Genius through observation: Alexander & Bucephalus

The other day, I was reading to my kids from a children’s book about Alexander the Great, which caused much merriment and took much time because, as you would expect, I had to embellish every sentence with the real or the full story.

But honestly, what inadequate storytelling! Here is how that book delivered the famous anecdote about Alexander taming his horse Bucephalus:

There is a story about a black stallion that one day started running wildly through the courtyard. Five trainers chased it but were unable to mount it. All of a sudden the horse stopped short. Not a soul dared to approach except young Alexander, who moved swiftly, mounting and mastering the steed. Henceforth the proud horse belonged to Alexander and was called Bucephalos, which means “The One with the Head of an Ox.”

I had to intervene. So I closed the book and said, “OK, kids, here is what really happened, and it is much more interesting.” (And the next day, I checked my memory against Plutarch, as you can do here.)

The real story, and the lesson

Alexander was only 12 or 13 at the time, and he had quite a tense relationship with his father, a bit as Hannibal and Hamilcar later did, and as most successful sons and fathers do.

In any case, Alexander’s father, Philip, was given a splendid horse. But nobody could tame it, and everybody, including Philip, was making rather a fool of himself.

Alexander, meanwhile, was just watching. Really observing. Because that’s what the adults were not doing. They were too busy being brave to observe the horse.

And so Alexander noticed that the horse was not angry, and was not even fighting against the Macedonian men. No, the horse was afraid and panicking. It was scared of its own shadow.*

So Alexander stepped up and dared his dad to let him try to tame the horse. He looked precocious and arrogant, and the men had a good laugh.

Alexander then took the stallion by its bridle (much more gently than the painting above suggests) and turned him to face into the sun, so that their shadows were now behind them. At this, the stallion calmed down a bit. Alexander then (and I quote from Plutarch now), let

him go forward a little, still keeping the reins in his hands, and stroking him gently when he found him begin to grow eager and fiery, he let fall his upper garment softly, and with one nimble leap securely mounted him, and when he was seated, by little and little drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him.

Philip and his friends

all burst out into acclamations of applause; and his father shedding tears, it is said, for joy, kissed him as he came down from his horse, and in his transport said, ‘O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.’

So, you see, the story is really about Alexander’s finesse and, more, about his genius of observation. (And kids get that! They can handle the real story.)

In this sense, I believe Plutarch chose this anecdote for the same reason he chose the other famous vignette about Alexander: his untying of the Gordian Knot. As I argued in this post, that story, too, was proof of Alexander’s superior powers of observation. In that case, Alexander espied a simple solution to a complex situation.

But we can, as Plutarch would urge us to do, extend this much further. What made Alexander so great?

In his major battles, Alexander was usually the last to arrive at the battlefield. His enemy was already waiting, and had prepared his army for a particular battleplan. Alexander, by arriving late and keeping his mind supple, could observe that situation and infer his enemy’s plan, thereby devising his own, superior, plan on the fly.

In his administration of the conquered lands, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, he again observed the locals and their customs. He observed how they differed from Macedonian and Greek customs. And he observed how the Macedonians and Greeks were reacting to his observation. So Alexander ruled Egypt as a divine Pharaoh, the former Persian Empire as a Persian king, the Greek city states as a Philhellenic “first among equals”, and his own Macedonians as a brother in arms.

The man’s greatness — and the lesson in all these anecdotes — is found in his powers of observation.

Oh, and Bucephalus became Alexander’s beloved charger. When the stallion died from battle wounds (in what is today Pakistan), Alexander named a city after him, Bucephala, and died three years later.


* A famous autistic woman, Temple Grandin, has vividly described how cows and other animals, like autistic people, do sometimes get frightened by such things, whether a colored piece of plastic or a moving shadow.

My other posts about Alexander so far:

The story of Cicero, told well

I just devoured Robert Harris’s Imperium, the first book in what will be a trilogy of historical fiction, or fictional biography, about Cicero. I read it in a couple of sittings, hardly able to put it down. It may be the best way to learn about that great man and that fascinating time, a turning point in world history. I’ve just ordered the second book in the trilogy, and I can’t wait for the third to come out.

In terms of themes that show up a lot here on this blog:

  1. Storytelling: Wow. Harris has Cicero’s slave and confidante Tiro tell the story from his point of view, which works well. All the details of Roman life and of the characters (Crassus, Pompey, Caesar etc etc) come to life.
  2. The “impostors triumph and disaster”: Cicero embodies them (though not quite as perfectly as Hannibal and Scipio do, which is why I myself chose them to tell my own story. ;))
  3. The tension between mobs and elites, republican and democratic power sharing, what ought to be and what is.

Among other things.

In any case, if you like The Hannibal Blog, you’re likely to like not only Hannibal and Me in January but also Imperium right now.

Storytelling and invidualism

I’ve long described myself as a classical liberal on this blog, and I’ve tried on occasion to define what that means — for example, with this doodle (above). Its point was to locate the unit of analysis of liberals in the individual, not in any groups that individuals might belong to. That’s always made intuitive sense to me, and it still does.

So consider that Premise 1.

I’ve also expressed my appreciation of storytelling here over the years, with what has (to my surprise) turned out to be the longest-running thread on this blog. My intuition tells me that humans make sense of the world and of themselves through stories, that we form identity from narratives.

So consider that Premise 2.

I was therefore delighted to be disturbed by a suggestion that Premise 1 and Premise 2 might actually contradict each other. (Perhaps that’s the definition of ‘intellectual’: somebody who delights in seeing his contradictions uncovered, espying an opportunity to learn.)

The suggestion struck me, roughly, between minutes 5 and 10 of the lecture below, by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of philosophy. (I recommend the entire course, which covers some of my favourites, from Rawls to Aristotle and beyond, in a very entertaining way.)

In this segment, Sandel introduces the British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

  • MacIntyre also starts from the premise that identity (‘the self’) is a product of narrative (ie, my Premise 2).
  • But he then concludes that individualism (ie, my Premise 1) is impossible, because narrative necessarily leads to a communitarian identity.

Specifically, Randel quotes MacIntyre saying:

Man is … essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual. … We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, a citizen of this or that city. I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.

Hence what is good for me has to be the good for someone who inhabits these roles. I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation a variety of debts, inheritances, expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is, in part, what gives my life its moral particularity.

So: anti-individualist (and thus implicityly anti-liberal) and pro-communitarian. Right? Liberalism says: I am free and thus I am responsible for myself, but I don’t answer for parent, country, tribe, or history. MacIntyre says that is self-deception:

The contrast with the narrative view of the self is clear. For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships.

It’s made me think a lot. Watch the entire lecture. (But first, read this update regarding this post’s title.)

Two other takes on Socrates + a lesson

Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei – ‘this way’, or ‘follow me’.

Isn’t that a great little detail? When strung together densely in one single narrative, these details transport you to a place and a time, to Athens during the life of Socrates. Kudos to Bettany Hughes for achieving such intensity in The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life.

And oh, what an Athens it was. This is the Athens of aromas and stink; of sweat, blood and sperm; of tanners pissing on their hides and Adonises oiling themselves for war games; of parades, assemblies and battles; of sex, slavery and domesticity; of democratic group-think, individual liberty and massacre; of humanity at its highest and simultaneously its lowest; of strutting health and vile disease.

Regarding disease, for example, is it not obvious that a plague such as the one that fell on war-torn Athens during Socrates’ prime must have influenced the subsequent events and the worldview of Socrates and his compatriots?

[W]ithin a year the disease danced its way through the caged population of Athens and across the hot streets; 80,000 died. At a cautious estimate, at least one-third of the city was wiped out. It had started in 431 BC.

Imagine one third of Americans, 100 million, dying in one year from a plague.

But we also need the lighter moments. For example, that time (beloved by artists, as above and below) when Socrates’s wife doused him with piss:

Xanthippe, raging after one argument with her maddening philosopher spouse, pours the contents of a bedpan over Socrates’ head; ‘I always knew that rain would follow thunder,’ sighs the philosopher, resignedly mopping his brow.

So Hughes accomplished something big: She brought that world-historical character, Socrates, to life. It’s a scandal how dull ‘philosophers’ (as opposed to historians) usually make Socrates. We needed this ‘biography’. She makes reading about Socrates easy and fun and personal. That is what I tried to do with Hannibal and the other characters in my own book.

(And, by the way, a reminder: Don’t ever assume that a thread on The Hannibal Blog has ended just because it slumbers for a few months. Both the series on Socrates and that on the Great Thinkers will continue. I have big plans for them.)

Another recent book on Socrates and the great philosophers is Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. It tackles a selection of thinkers, one per chapter:

  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Diogenes
  • Aristotle
  • Seneca
  • Augustine
  • Montaigne
  • Descartes
  • Rousseau
  • Kant
  • Emerson
  • Nietzsche

Since three of my own favorites were on the list, I bought the book. (The three, each with his own tag here on The Hannibal Blog, are Socrates, Diogenes and Nietzsche.)

Miller, too, sets out to write a biography (as opposed to a philosophical essay). His conceit, if I may paraphrase it, is to examine the lives of those who examined their lives.

Put differently, he wants to see how various philosophers lived and whether they just ‘talked the talk or also walked the walk’. Did their lives reflect their love of wisdom (= philo-sophy), or where they hypocrites?

Socrates, in this exercise, comes off splendidly. He embodied the love of wisdom and lived accordingly, searching for the good and treasuring simplicity. From Miller:

Socrates prided himself on living plainly and “used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink; and that he was nearest to the gods when he had the fewest wants.” … Abjuring the material trappings of his class, he became notorious for his disdain of worldly goods. “Often when he looked at the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, ‘How many things I can do without!’ ” He took care to exercise regularly, but his appearance was shabby. He expressed no interest in seeing the world at large, leaving the city only to fulfill his military obligations.

And, of course, he died for his principles.

Diogenes, whom I admire so much for his extreme simplicity/freedom, arguably became the caricature of this Socratic lifestyle:

While Diogenes regarded Plato as a hypocrite, Plato saw Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad”—and by Plato’s standards, he certainly was.

Masturbating in public and living in a barrel can give you that kind of reputation.

Plato and Aristotle arguably started that other trend, that of the hypocrite philosopher, talking/writing sophisticated words while, one way or another, selling out in private life. By the time you get to Rousseau, the hypocrisy becomes hard to stomach (I’ll leave that for another post some day.)

Storytelling lesson: unity vs fragmentation

But that’s not what I was mainly pondering after reading these two books, one after the other. Instead, I was reflecting why one author succeeded in a big way, and the other possibly failed in a small way.

Hughes, in The Hemlock Cup, succeeded big. She tackled an intimidating subject (intimidating because Socrates is not exactly an under-covered subject) in an innovative way and rose to the challenge by presenting one single, unified tale, no part of which a committed reader would dare to omit or skip.

By contrast, Miller, in Examined Lives, put forth a list, then broke his narrative into discrete chapters for each person on the list.

There is a problem with such lists: Why this list, and not some other list? Why Augustine and not Aquinas? Why Descartes and not Spinoza? Why Montaigne and not Montesquieu? Et cetera.

The result is that the reader, as he progresses, is increasingly tempted to skip the chapters that don’t interest him to speed ahead to those chapters that do interest him. I confess that I did that. Life is short, and I was a bit bored on some pages.

A good author reins in his readers as a charioteer steers his horses. He has readers asking the questions he, the author, is asking, not some other question (such as: where is Hegel?).

What could Miller have done differently? He could have woven the various lives together so that each chapter was about a theme, not an philosopher, and the various philosophers that interest him reappear at the right places.

My choice

You should take this with a grain of salt, because I have a reason to be thinking such thoughts.

A few years ago, when I first contemplated the book I wanted to write, I also envisioned it as a collection of chapters about various individuals that interested me (around the theme of triumph and disaster being impostors). (Hannibal was to have one chapter, Scipio one, Einstein one, Roosevelt one, et cetera.)

When I pitched that to an agent, he suggested that a better (but also more challenging) book would thread the lives together into one unfolding story, so that readers would not be tempted to disassemble the book and cherry-pick among the chapters. That structure would also force me to do the hard work of actually teasing out the themes concealed in these lives.

I took that advice. You can soon (on January 5th) decide whether I succeeded at it or not. For now, I simply observe with fascination how other authors approach this choice.

False perception, false memory

The biggest social event of the year 1878 in Palo Alto, California, took place on a horse-breeding farm. Leland Stanford, former governor and co-founder of the all-powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, had retired and was indulging, here at the site where he would soon found Stanford University, in his passion, which was anything equestrian.

Stanford was, at a general level, an alpha male who trusted his own opinions. More specifically, when it came to horses, he considered himself “an expert”. So it was utterly clear to him that he, the expert, knew how horses galloped.

After all, all you had to do was look! And Stanford had looked, as had artists throughout all of human history. It was obvious that horses briefly “flew” by splaying their four legs in the air before alighting for the next leap. Like this:

So Stanford, as this account tells the tale, made contact with Eadward Muybridge, an eccentric Briton who had mastered the cutting-edge technology of the day, photography, and was able to take photos in rapid succession. Muybridge brought his kit to Palo Alto.

At Stanford’s invitation, large crowds turned out for the occasion. Muybridge was to document a galloping horse and thus prove common sense.

Eadweard Muybridge

Muybridge’s photos did nothing of the sort. Instead, they were shocking. For they disproved mankind’s common sense, thereby contradicting the direct observation of many generations.

You can see this disproof above, in the (deservedly famous) animation derived from the images. If you want to be sure, you can look at the stills in one of the other sequences:

During the only instant in the cycle when the horse is entirely in the air, its legs are actually tucked together, not splayed.

After Muybridge’s breakthrough, mankind thus had some adjusting to do, not least its painters:

Artists of the day were both thrilled and vexed, because the pictures “laid bare all the mistakes that sculptors and painters had made in their renderings of the various postures of the horse,” as French critic and poet Paul Valéry wrote decades later… Once Muybridge’s photos appeared, painters like Edgar Degas and Thomas Eakins began consulting them to make their work truer to life. Other artists took umbrage. Auguste Rodin thundered, “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.”

(Does Rodin’s reaction remind you of anything today?)

The general insight

The big point here is really that we should be less confident in (= more skeptical about — however you want to put it) our own opinions and grasp of reality. That’s because:

  • we tend to “see” what we want or expect to see (as Stanford did with his horses),
  • what we notice is determined by what we pay attention to (which is why distracted driving is so dangerous), and
  • we can only make sense of the world by interpreting it through stories we tell, and storytelling can be problematic.

In that sense, this post is a follow-up on

This topic seems to strike a chord with writers and journalists in particular. The other day, for instance, I was discussing it with Rob Guth, a friend of mine at the Wall Street Journal. Rob recently wrote great stuff about the surprising recollections of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (surprisingly negative about Bill Gates, in particular). As Rob got deeper and deeper into his research — meaning: as he “fact-checked” his sources’s memories of Microsoft’s early years — the “truth” became ever more elusive. Was so-and-so in the room all those years ago when such-and-such happened? A says Yes, he was. B says No. Suddenly A begins to doubt himself (re-narrating the story in his mind). And so on.

Journalists, of course, are not the only ones relying on the recollection or observations of others. Judges, lawyers and jurors do as well, to name just one particularly germane area.

Can you trust eyewitnesses?

In this article, Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor, and George Fisher, a law professor, suggest that eyewitnesses cannot always be trusted. (Since witnesses are at the heart of the adversarial legal system, this undermines our entire tradition of justice.)

As Tversky and Fisher say,

Several studies have been conducted on human memory and on subjects’ propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur. …

In particular,

Courts, lawyers and police officers are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses…

But even without such tricks,

The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory—thus introducing distortion from the beginning. … [W]itnesses can distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers. Rarely do we tell a story or recount events without a purpose. Every act of telling and retelling is tailored to a particular listener; we would not expect someone to listen to every detail of our morning commute, so we edit out extraneous material.

In fact, these studies show what Rob discovered during his interviews of sources for the Paul Allen story:

Once witnesses state facts in a particular way or identify a particular person as the perpetrator, they are unwilling or even unable—due to the reconstruction of their memory—to reconsider their initial understanding.

Tversky and Fisher conclude:

Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory—even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party…. Eyewitness testimony, then, is innately suspect.


It is not necessary for a witness to lie or be coaxed by prosecutorial error to inaccurately state the facts—the mere fault of being human results in distorted memory and inaccurate testimony.

My opinion about my opinion

Debate in progress

A while ago, I had a little email exchange with one of my editors in London (The Economist’s HQ). I had written an article and the question was whether or not I should also write a Leader (ie, an editorial). In other words, should The Economist, through my words, opine, and how exactly?

The editor wrote to me:

I was very intrigued by the idea, and there was a lot of interest in the meeting. The problem is the prescription. I think you’re inclined to [subject omitted]; but I’m not inclined to go as far as that….

As you see, I excised the actual topic of discussion, because it is utterly irrelevant to my point here. Here is what I replied:

I’ve actually (as usual) got no clear “prescriptions” in my mind at all. I just made up some stuff to pitch a Leader outline to you. I’m always surprised by how interested we at The Economist are in our own opinions. Personally, I’m 99% interested in understanding the problem, and quite flexible in the other 1%…

Because the editor and I know each other well, I knew my cavalier tone would not be misunderstood. (In the end, there was no space in that week for that Leader anyway.) But then I realized that my point was perhaps more fundamental. How so?

The searcher and the preacher as archetype

You know you’re in trouble when somebody begins a monologue with “There are two kinds of people…”. But we might indeed stipulate that, yes, there are two kinds of people: searchers and preachers. You might even consider them Jungian archetypes (about which we haven’t talked for a while).

The preacher:

  • This sort really, really cares what he or she believes (rather than knows).
  • It matters to him what his opinion is, and also what your opinion is. That is because, to preachers, individuals are defined by their opinions.
  • Whether the opinions are based on good information or bad, whether they conform to reality or not, whether they acknowledge or exclude good alternatives — all this is by no means irrelevant, but of at best minor interest to a preacher.

The searcher:

  • He might or might not be interested in his own opinions, because he is forever in the process of forming one. This process (essentially one of learning) is much more interesting than any opinion that might temporarily emerge from it.
  • The searcher is also, as Walt Whitman might say, aware of the internal contradictions in any given opinion and quite intrigued by them, in an almost flirtatious way.
  • Much more important is the search for good information and the discrimination against bad, and a proper understanding of all conceivable alternative views.
  • If the preacher secretly hopes to achieve consensus on a single “story”, the searcher always hopes that all “other stories” keep circulating simultaneously. (As in: the Single versus the Other Story.)

And yes, of course, we’re all a bit of both, but in different proportions. Personally, for once, I’m not that confused about what I am: a searcher.

Which is to say: I have lots of opinions, but the opinion I’m proudest of is my opinion about my opinions. Generally, I’m quite suspicious of them. I interrogate them, and they answer back. Fascinating conversations.

Quite a few of us at The Economist are, individually, searchers. And yet, The Economist itself, as a whole, is clearly in the preacher camp. An interesting point to ponder.

The threat of the other story

Ferdinand von Schirach

It is extremely difficult — well-nigh impossible — to hate, condemn, or dismiss other people after hearing — really, really hearing — their stories.

This might be one way of summarizing Verbrechen (Crime), a fantastic book I recently finished reading. (It took me only a couple of hours to read, that’s how good it is.)

The author is Ferdinand von Schirach, a criminal-defense lawyer in Berlin who has seen every sort of perversion and gore and weirdness there is. (I read the German version; the English translation is here.)

I won’t go into the stories he tells in his book. They’re short, full of suspense and wonder, and you might want to read the book and be surprised. Suffice it to say that I love this man’s voice. It is masculine and sparse, empathetic, slyly humorous at the right moments, forgiving but not indulgent.

But back to my opening sentence: This post is really about storytelling per se.

Well over a year ago, we discussed “the danger of the single story” — that danger being that incomplete storytelling about a person (ie, stereotyping) robs that person of his dignity.

But it occurred to me that there is also “the danger of the other story“.

That other story is the one that

  • challenges our worldview,
  • shakes our certainty about something,
  • makes us feel uncomfortable.

If we’re suing somebody, it’s that other person’s story. If we’re a certain kind of Turk, it’s the Armenian story. If we’re a rape victim, it’s the story of the one we (wrongly) accused of the rape to feel better. If we are…. (The list of examples goes on forever.)

What’s so “dangerous” about these stories? They destablize us. Once we’ve heard the other story, we have to revisit something, something that we do not want to revisit. Perhaps we have to withdraw a judgment. Perhaps we have to share empathy with somebody, when we really wanted it all to ourselves.

Consider my recent story about an extended family of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Somewhere in the middle of that longish piece, there were a few lines about a trailer that one of the families lived in,

… a trailer in Watsonville, just outside Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas. The trailer is dilapidated, but Ms Vega tends to it lovingly. By the door hangs a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. There is even a small television set. But the trailer has no air conditioning or heating. On this day, after a downpour, it smells musty….

Then one of the comments caught my eye. The commenter was upset by this detail of the trailer. Why? Because it was the other story. You see, he (or she) does want to talk about trailers. But it has to be his trailer story:

When poor native born Americans are forced to live in trailers, they are dismissed/ignored as trailer park trash. When poor illegals cross into the country to have babies and live in trailers, we write up their sob stories and talk about human suffering. If the author bothers to look, he’d see the tens of millions of wretched poor we already have in the US, living in urban ghettos, trailer parks, rural areas, reservations, their cars, even homeless. Where are their sob stories?

He didn’t actually mean “where are their sob stories?”. For those are everywhere, and the author (ie, me) has “bothered to look.” No, this commenter was really saying: “Why is the other story here instead?” Seeing this story makes it harder to maintain the identity he built on his story. He wanted the circle of empathy, the focus of storytelling, drawn around a tighter group. And so the other story is a threat. He would much prefer it not be told.

Risqué extension to politics and society

We can expand this discussion to reach for a more general insight. The difference between the two dangers — ie, the danger of the single story and the danger of the other story — has something to do with whom each threatens.

  • The single story, by stereotyping, threatens individual dignity. (Even if you stereotype a group, it is its individual members who suffer.)
  • The other story threatens group cohesion.

Now recall my own, personal and amateurish diagram of the political spectrum (which is no more than a doodle to comfort me in my confusion):

Concern for the individual is, on balance, a liberal instinct (if you use the correct definition of liberal).

Conservatives (in the classical, Burkian sense) are more concerned about group cohesion.

Now, based on my experience, there is a natural spectrum among people:

  • Some tend t0 emphasize the danger in the other story, and they tend to be conservative.
  • Others emphasize the danger in the single story, and they tend to be liberal.

The single story is more likely to be what Nietzsche would have called Apollonian: sanitized, reassuring, heroic, morally clear. It might involve flag-waving, or a triumph of the justice system, or our own fight against some outrageous wrong.

The other story is more likely to be messy, dark, weird, morally complicated. It might involve exceptions, outsiders, a failure of the justice system, or our own shortcomings.

(Obviously, nobody is exclusively in one camp or the other. But it is quite rare that a storyteller might give equal emphasis to the single and the other story, as Clint Eastwood did with his double take, one and two, of the battle of Iwo Jima.)

One interesting upshot to contemplate: This might explain why conservatives tend to win propaganda wars against liberals. (In America, for instance, Fox trounces whatever rivals pose as its left-wing analogue.) The reason is that the conservatives pick one single story and rally around it, telling and retelling it until the audience is numb. The liberals try, but fail, to agree on a single story to tell. They cannot help themselves and tell many, many other stories. The conservatives thus rally their troops around a single story; the liberals can’t even get anybody to stand in an orderly line for the battle.

This brings us back to my older thread about Socrates, and in particular why the Athenians felt they had to kill him. In this post, I reflected on how Socrates might have behaved in the famous Asch experiments (about conformism): he would have told the truth every time, thus compromising the coherence of the group. (Here is my somewhat dumbed-down piece in The Economist about this tension.)

In a nutshell: Conservative Athens could tolerate Socrates, who really personified the other story, as long as it was a stable polis. But once the polis came under threat (after losing the war against Sparta and the putsches by Spartan sympathizers), the emphasis shifted to group cohesion and other stories were deemed too dangerous.

If you want to expand your perspective even further, you might contemplate all of Western intellectual history as an awkward tension between the single and the other story: as you recall from this anatomical analogy, one side of the “body” is devoted to each.

Whatever you think about this, don’t jump to the conclusion that I worship one and condemn the other. The truth is that there is a certain masochism in telling other stories.

Which reminds me of something that Ferdinand von Schirach says in the prologue to his great book (and I translate):

I had an uncle who was a judge… [His stories] always began with him saying that “most things are complicated, and guilt is quite a thing.”

One day, after a long life, that uncle went to the woods and blasted his head off with a shotgun.