My Name is Joel Mathis. And I Am Wrong.
Dear Readers, the holiday season is upon us, and this seems as good a time as any to tell you: I’m wrong.
I’m wrong about some stuff, certainly. More often wrong than I’d like to admit, most likely. Most of the time? I hope not, but then again, I wouldn’t be a very good judge of that would I? What I know is this: I write three columns a week for Philly Mag, plus another for McClatchy-Tribune News Service — most of it about politics, but some more broadly about culture — and, well, that’s 200 or more times a year I try to convince somebody that I’m right about something. We’re not even counting the number of times I get into arguments on Facebook.
Nobody bats a thousand, right?
It sometimes seems to me, however, that our politics might be much improved if all of us — those who practice it, those who comment on it — could just admit error, or even the possibility of it, a bit more often.
Let’s back up. I got to thinking about the way we do punditry this week after conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks returned to the paper after a several-month break. The lesson of his sabbatical, he said, was that many of us spend too much time thinking about — and trying to derive our self-worth from — politics.
I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun.
He’s right, I think. And his comments got me thinking about what those who are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it spend our time doing: Drawing lines, mostly, building rhetorical forts, then defending those positions to the very death, all without reflecting much or often — after the position has been articulated — about whether the position is or remains worth defending. There’s no real humility in the business; every now and again, a politician can pull off a simulation, but that’s about as close as it comes.
A decade ago, a whole generation of pundits told us to go to war in Iraq. Most of them were on the right, but more than a few — including New York Times editor Bill Keller and current Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart — came from the left. They were wrong about so many things: Iraq didn’t have WMDs. Saddam Hussein wasn’t palling around with Osama bin Laden. The war lasted longer, was more expensive, and more bloody than they predicted. America’s strategic position in the Middle East did not improve.
The pundits advocating war in Iraq, then, were wrong. Almost nobody lost a job for that failure, and most of those pundits — blogger Andrew Sullivan is a notable exception — have failed to even acknowledge that reality differed almost 100 percent from their predictions. These days, many of those very wrong pundits — Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard always leads this parade — are now urging America on a course to war in Iran.
Not that pundits, really, are any worse than the rest of us. As the Boston Globe announced a few years ago: “Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite.” Studies show that when we’re confronted with facts that show they’re wrong, humans tend to hew ever more tightly to their mistaken beliefs. Generally speaking, people are unpersuadable.
Which could mean that all of this — democracy itself, but also my 200-odd attempts to persuade you I’m right — are just extended exercises in masturbation.
It seems that democratic politics only makes sense if some significant portion of us remain persuadable — that is, if we don’t hold our original opinions too tightly, or if we conscientiously allow for the possibility that new facts and information (or even a moment’s reflection) could and should alter our point of view. And it seems that I can best ask that of readers only if I demonstrate it myself.
• I was wrong to believe that the Democratic Party is the party of civil liberties. President Obama signs orders to assassinate American citizens based — as best as has been publicly documented — on a “due process” roughly as deep and complex as his own gut. He has presided over an expansion and continuation of NSA spying activity that, in essence, leaves Americans with no functioning right to privacy. I’m not sure, at this moment, what to do with this change of opinion.
• I was wrong to contradict Seth Adam Smith’s rules for marriage — he was the “It’s Not About You!” guy — by formulating my own. In truth, there are probably as many different ways to do a successful marriage as there are successful marriages. I probably could’ve used a little more humility there.
• I think I was wrong to give Miley Cyrus a hard time about her newly liberated moment in the sun. (And truthfully, it was her acapella performance of “We Can’t Stop” with the Roots and Jimmy Fallon that made me reconsider, reading it less of an ode to being dumb, 20, and indestructable and more of an ode to implicitly knowing how short that moment is.) I’m not wrong to suggest that it’s easy — maybe too easy — to draw attention by strutting your sexual stuff; I suspect I was, however, much too curmudgeonly in articulating that.
This, of course, probably barely scratches the surface of things I’ve been wrong about. (It’s possible I’ve been wrong about Bill Marimow. It’s possible I’ve been wrong to be tough on Mayor Nutter. It’s possible I’ve been wrong about Obamacare. I’m not sure yet; time will tell.) What’s more, knowing that I’m wrong sometimes won’t preclude me being wrong again
But I suspect that displays of humility, done often enough and publicly enough, might have a salutary effect on the public discourse. (It’s possible I’m wrong about that: It’s difficult to imagine a universe in which Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly feel incentivized to admit to doubts or error.) So I volunteer to go first. My name is Joel Mathis. And I’m wrong.