Friday, October 12, 2007

The Caution That Is Humility

By Drew

At NRO, Peter Robinson offers this excerpt from Norman Podhoretz's new book, World War IV, pp. 191-192:

I repeatedly blasted [Reagan] for one betrayal after another: for reacting tepidly to the suppression (yes, by the evil empire) of the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland; for permitting his ambassadors behind the Iron Curtain to distance themselves from the genuinely democratic dissidents in those countries while cultivating the "reformist" proponents of "Communism with a human face"..; for cutting and running when Hezbollah...blew up a barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen; for trading arms for hostages with Iran; for entering into arms control agreements with the Soviet Union....

Rereading those pieces, I was amazed to discover that they were right in almost every detail even though they were dead wrong about the ultimate effect. For what these acts of Reagan's turned out to be was a series of prudential tactics within an overall strategy that in the end succeeded in attaining its great objective.

Now, there's a lot of meat in this, and you don't even have to be interested in politics (or the history of the Cold War) to appreciate it. Robinson calls Podhoretz's words those of "an honest man," for admitting that he was "dead wrong," and that's a large part of it, but there's more to it than that as well. Podhoretz' words are humbling words for us all, and provide a cautionary message, a reminder of the principle that we might not, in fact, know it all.

Too often nowadays we're so eagar to jump the gun, pull the trigger, leap to conclusions. If A, therefore, B. I'm sure I would have been one of those young conservatives who found fault with Reagan, who criticized his betrayal of conservative principles, or who at least exorciated his advisers to "let Reagan be Reagan." And yet, as Podhoretz points out, things turned out pretty well.

Nowhere is this trait of leaping more apparent than with those who have a gift for communication and (sometimes) a felicity for thought. And, of course, this speaks most strongly to the blogosphere. Someone makes a statement, and within an hour a thousand bloggers have leaped down his throat. Over the next few days the number increases exponentially. Pretty soon everyone has a different bleak scenario to describe the disaster that awaits as a result of this grave misstep. Call it what you want - instant analysis used to be a favorite way of putting it. But it often comes from people who don't have all the facts, who aren't in a position to make decisions, who don't have access to "the big picture." This applies all the way down the line, from popes and presidents to football coaches.

One of the problems with micro-managing arguments like this is that often you lose track of this larger picture. You're fired with your passion, with a righteous belief in what you're saying, and a fearlessness in saying it. How many times do we state an opinion with a total disregard for those who may disagree with us? We might even preface the statement with one of those "In my opinion" comments that is often code for "this is the way it is."

And that's why, I suppose, we try to take the high road here at Our Word, to try to keep the discussions civil, to avoid the kind of personal attacks that often seem to walk hand-in-hand with opinion nowadays.

That doesn't mean that we should stop commenting - far from it. A healthy discussion (emphasis on the word healthy, and you could add civil to it) is a great, not to say necessary, thing. And often this type of discussion will force those in charge to defend their positions, to provide the rationale that can infuse their supporters with confidence and give their critics something to chew on. That's the kind of thing great leaders do.

We probably can all think back to a time when we leapt to a conclusion that, in retrospect, appears foolish. And at the time we were probably as dogmatic and confident (not to say arrogant) as we could be in expressing that opinion. Sometimes it turns out we were right. But the rest of the time... There are a couple of writers out there - a blogger and a political commentator - who stand pretty much on the opposite sides of the Giuliani candidacy. Every time I read the commentator, who supports Guiliani, I come away more determined than ever to oppose him. When I read the blogger, who despises what Guiliani stands for, I start to think that Rudy might not be such a bad choice after all. I hope I never have that effect on people who read me.

So ultimately what do we learn from Podhoretz' words? The values of temperance, prudence, patience, humility. The need to avoid a rush to judgement, to parse our words carefully, to admit that we might not know it all and to avoid acting as if we do, to offer our criticisms in a constructive rather than destructive way. Those are wise lessons indeed, and those who heed them are made all the wiser.

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