For Andrew Sullivan, Impossible is Nothing

September 7, 2008

That Sarah Palin has not yet taken questions from the media is pretty astonishing. It would be astonishing for any vice-presidential candidate, and it’s especially astonishing considering how very little we know about her so far. There are a great number of questions she should be answering, on top of which – not to get too meta – there is the question of whether she is any good at answering difficult questions, that being a useful skill for someone in public office.

Under the circumstances, if you were someone who thought this state of affairs was unacceptable and wanted to make a big deal out of it, you would have a pretty easy time making your case in very strong – yet accurate – terms. This is the sort of situation that leads people to throw around phrases like “cannot be exaggerated” or “one cannot emphasize enough”.

But it takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that this sort of talk is always bullshit. It is very easy to exaggerate anything. Indeed, anything of the form “the importance of x cannot be exaggerated” contains its own refutation, providing an example of a way to exaggerate the importance of x, i.e. saying “the imporance of x cannot be exaggerated.”

Now, one might think that this is merely nitpicking, and that such statments are really a loose way of saying that something is so important that, as a practical matter, no one ever would overstate its importance. But that, too, is nonsense. On the matter at hand, Andrew Sullivan, the patron saint of hyperbole, has had no trouble overstating things. More generally, it seems to me that this locution gets things exactly backward: things that are more extreme are more – not less – likely to be exaggerated. In August, New Yorkers have a lot to say about how it’s hotter than, e.g. hell, which – if it has a truth value at all – is surely false; in the fall, no one has to reach for their book of implausible similes to describe how temperate the weather is.

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