Noted Wise Old Man Robert A. Heinlein observed that the most essential survival skill may be knowing to rub blue mud in one’s navel when everyone else does. But if the blue mud turns out to be poisonous, it may well be counterproductive over the long term.
More directly, it is often difficult to resist fashionable ideas, particularly when they are romanticized ideas that, as my dad would have said, “blow sunshine up your skirt.” For example, over the weekend a friend of mine spoke of a moral arc that bends, however slowly, towards goodness — which might in some ways be the position of some intellectually honest Progressives, giving them something toward which they can progress. It might be pretty to think so, but I remain dubious; indeed, I tend to think efforts to hurry the bend of the arc lead to terrible consequences more often than not. For this and similar aspects of my tragic view of humanity, the Mad Dog goodnaturedly chides me from time to time as the voice of doom.
I’m led to think of all this because of an article I read this morning. At National Review Online, John O’Sullivan mentions that the punditocracy often argues for a position because it appears to be the cool thing to do, rather than because the position is borne out by any resemblance to reality. Conservatives in particular are urged to shed their stodgy images and abandon principles in the name of seeming optimistic or forward-looking.
He cites a British example:
[Andrew Cooper] argued there that it was culturally obtuse and politically risky for the Tory party to argue in favor of the traditional family in a society that included so many single parents. Politically risky? Fair enough. One should always handle such topics sensitively and intelligently, with a view to avoiding any stigmatization of those who fall short of an ideal. But culturally obtuse? The evidence is unambiguous that single parenthood is worse for children than a family that includes two parents. Are we not to notice this, not to point it out, not to ensure that it influences social policy, because it might wound those who don’t live in such families? If so, then we are sacrificing the life chances of innumerable children on the altar of sensitivity. Surely that goes too far.
Likewise, I’ve heard it said that Chief Justice Roberts cast the deciding vote in the recent Obamacare case so that SCotUS would appear evenhanded and curry the favor of an elite class. Not being a mindreader, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that such an idea can gain credence says something about the power of the desire to appear a certain way to one’s peers.
Journalists and opinion writers often claim that their duty is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” However, they should also beware of the comfort of being seen as sensitive or optimistic, particularly when the alternative entails seeing things as they really are. That comfort, like the poisonous blue mud I mentioned earlier, may itself prove to be an affliction.