The Corner

Jeremy Lin and the Element of Surprise

Upon first consideration, you might not think that Jeremy Lin, Bon Iver, and Rick Santorum have anything in common. Certainly you won’t find them in the same hot tub any time soon.

But each of the aforementioned newsmakers shares one common thread: They each assure the American public that the unexpected is still possible. In an era where technology has all but eradicated the element of surprise, it is comforting to know that things might still happen that we don’t see laid before us in a spreadsheet.

If technology has done anything, it has insulated us from the unexpected. No longer do music listeners have to be subjected to the horrors of not knowing what song will be played on the radio next — they can simply bring their own music with them wherever they go. Drivers are spared from having to see any neighborhoods they don’t want to see, as GPS systems tell them where to go. Never again will nervous young men open a front door and realize their blind date looks like John Madden; a simple Google-image search will do the trick.

But Lin, as pointed out by music writer Chuck Klosterman on Bill Simmons’ podcast, adroitly sidestepped the Moneyball era’s number-crunchers. No spreadsheet or shot chart could have told us how much horsepower was beating in his chest or how much his faith informed his belief in himself. (This is really the only thing Lin shares with Tim Tebow, despite the hordes of people wanting to lump the two together.) No formula derived by the league’s cognoscenti equaled “Linsanity.”

Indie-folk band Bon Iver saw a similarly unlikely rise to stardom. Four years ago, having split from his previous band, unknown singer Justin Vernon (who is essentially the band by himself) sat in his northern Wisconsin cottage, recording sensitive beard-folk songs about his recent split with his girlfriend. Those songs would garner Vernon intense critical acclaim and a rabid indie-music fan base, culminating in two Grammy awards last week for Bon Iver’s second full-length album. Vernon went from a guy tapping his foot on a wood floor to being impersonated by Justin Timberlake on SNL in a couple of years; hardly the blueprint for superstardom.

If politics suffers from anything, it isn’t a paucity of commentators who will tell you they can predict the course of an election. (Myself included.) Yet in December, Rick Santorum polled behind “undecided” in the Republican presidential primary race. Nobody was asking Santorum what his strategy for beating Obama was; people were asking who he would endorse when he dropped out. And while other GOP candidates immolated themselves, it is now Santorum that stands above the other “Not-Romneys,” poised to win Romney’s home state of Michigan.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We’ve been polled and Nate-Silvered to death. We have data. We have charts. We have 24-hour news telling us things like South Carolina always picks the GOP nominee. (Congratulations, President Gingrich!) And yet, the more information we have, the less we seem to know.

Granted, the three examples of the surprise element are fairly disparate. (Oddly, the people who are most likely to identify with Jeremy Lin — east coast Ivy Leaguers — are the most likely to loathe Santorum’s unapologetic social conservatism.)

But it goes to show that as much as we blowhards say we know everything, we really know nothing. As much as we like to quantify everything in a pie chart, the human element can be stronger than a mountain of data. And just when everyone has settled into “conventional wisdom,” along comes Linsanity, unleashing crossover dribbles and bad puns on the world.

Which is why I am holding out hope Natalie Portman will one day write me back telling me how much she loved the picture I drew of us riding a dolphin together. It can happen.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and a co-author of the Campaign Manager Survey.

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