When faced with the opportunity to read a New Republic cover story called “In Defense of Conventional Wisdom,” my natural instinct was to look for a plugged-in toaster and a bathtub full of water. But, I read it anyway, partly because my friend Frank Foer wrote it and partly because, now with Al Gore out of the picture, The New Republic is once again preferable to painful electrocution.
Anyway, Frank’s piece is actually quite good. He makes a fairly convincing argument that the conventional wisdom is usually right. What is conventional wisdom (CW)? Well, it’s essentially the safe bet. It’s what David Broder predicts will happen. CW is the majority consensus of the official chattering class.
Frank’s right when he says that the CW is usually accurate, but he’s talking about a specific kind of conventional wisdom. Will George Bush’s tax plan pass? Well if the conventional wisdom says, “probably,” then it probably will. Can Hillary Clinton put the pardon scandals behind her? Well the conventional wisdom says “yes, but it will require a lot of hard constituent-services pandering and maybe even further separation from Bill.” Will Jesse Jackson survive his current troubles? Well, the CW magic eight ball says “definitely so.”
Foer offers a really interesting bit of history about whence today’s fashionable animus toward the conventional wisdom comes. The New Left, through its easy Marxism and even easier asininity, bought into the idea that the governing consensus of American society was oppressive, exploitative, and evil. C. Wright Mills’s talk about the “power elite” and Noam Chomsky’s concept of “manufactured consent” championed the idea that the conventional wisdom was really just Oz’s curtain hiding the machinery of wealthy white male tyranny.
“In the New Left’s view,” writes Foer, “the media functioned as the conspiracy’s Ministry of Information, shamelessly shilling for greedy corporate bosses and the racist military-industrial complex, The System–CW implied a vast, nameless, faceless conspiracy.”
When baby-boomers weaned on the ideology of the New Left became the new power elite, they maintained their aversion to the conventional wisdom even though they are now its chief purveyors. So Richard Cohen, David Broder and other indispensable metronomes of the CW beat feel perfectly comfortable bashing and mocking the very consent they manufacture.
The CW Is Eeeevil, Don’t Touch It!
But there’s something missing from Foer’s analysis, something very important. It’s fine — and accurate — to say that the conventional wisdom tends to be right when you’re playing the handicapper’s game. Who’s surprised to learn that people who spend every day at the racetrack are better handicapping winners and losers than novices?
But politics isn’t just a horse race.
Indeed, there’s another kind of conventional wisdom that Foer largely ignores, the conventional wisdom about ideas. And here the conventional wisdom’s track record is a lot worse. For years the conventional wisdom in Washington said that getting rid of various welfare entitlements would result in our cities turning into new Calcuttas. It was accepted that there was nothing wrong with single motherhood. It was taken for granted that if you put people in huge public-housing complexes they will treat government-owned property with the same respect they’d treat their own.
The beat droned on: The population bomb would force us to eat Soylent Green and live in dresser drawers. Global warming would melt the North Pole. From the racial bias of the SATs to the idea that gun control stops crime while prisons don’t, to the always just-around-the corner triumph of the Japanese economic juggernaut, the conventional wisdom has been wrong — embarrassingly wrong, lose-all-of-your-money-at-the-track-and-wash windshields-in-the-parking-lot wrong.
The really pernicious influence of New Left values is not that poor David Broder cannot take his rightful pride of ownership in the conventional wisdom, it’s that a whole slew of bogus left-wing assumptions have been bought up by the elite who in turn seek to impose it on reality. Today, if a politician opposes Head Start he will be vilified as being anti-child, even though there’s scant evidence that Head Start does any good in the long run. But the New Left believes that we are all born tabulae rasae; if the state can just intervene in time everybody can be not just equal but the same.
The New Left was right, CW does protect the interests of those who fashion it. For example, Foer lauds the wisdom of David Gergen as a handicapper of all things political. Indeed, Gergen is good at predicting and advising about political things. But Gergen represents exactly what is wrong with the conventionally wise’s approach to policy. He’s a difference-splitter. If one side is asking for a billion dollars for some ludicrous program and the other side wants to cancel it outright, Gergen comes up with the brilliant idea of offering $500 million, so everybody’s a little bit happy. This is the wisdom found in cutting babies in half. It is the essence of me-too Republicanism and Clintonian triangulation, and, I sometimes fear, compassionate conservatism.
It should not surprise us that Gergen believed in détente rather than confrontation. He famously opposed Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech because he feared it would upset not just the Soviets but the cookie-pushers at the State Department.
This points to the real cynicism of conventional wisdom. It says that everyone with power must be at least a little bit right so let’s make everybody at least a little bit happy. Don’t stomp on anyone’s proposal too hard because they might be in a position to stomp back on yours down the road. This blurring between the vested interests of policy advocates and the benefits of the actual policies advocated is what keeps so many bad ideas alive for so long. The Soviet Union cannot be defeated. Welfare cannot be reformed. Social Security cannot be privatized. There is no eschatology in the Church of conventional wisdom, just an enduring faith in liberal suppositions and an unshakable belief in the legitimacy of power.
George Orwell wrote, “Power-worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue.” He was referring to Western intellectuals and journalists who had consistently reversed their predictions of who would win or lose the war to correspond with the latest Allied or Nazi victory. But the principle is just as true today on the domestic front. Haven’t you noticed how the high priests of conventional wisdom always saw at least two sides to everything Bill Clinton did, until he lost power. Then, all of a sudden, his last acts were “indefensible” and “incomprehensible.” If he’d pardoned Marc Rich in early 1996 with a full term ahead of him, do you really think the Washington Post would be so outraged? I don’t.
So on Friday I announced that the National Review Online Flying Monkey T-shirts had finally arrived. The immediate and swift response from the market?
“What the hell are you talking about?”
When you think about it, it’s not an unreasonable question. Dozens of people wanted to know why we were selling apparel with depictions of chimps taking flight. Were there soaring simians in God and Man at Yale? Is this some veiled commentary on the current state of the creationist debate? Was your webmaster sniffing toner cartridges again?
This points to an ongoing challenge. NRO has picked up a lot of new readers, which is great. Also, some long-time readers are too high on huffed hairspray to catch everything going on. Someday I will do a full FAQ for new readers. But for right now, let me tell you what a Flying Monkey (as opposed to the cheese-eating-surrender variety) is.
Well, you are a flying monkey. Okay, not the plural you. But you the person for whom I imagine I’m writing this column; you the guy who sends me three paragraphs on what the most Rousseauian line from Silence of the Lambs was; you, the gal who explains to me why my dog shouldn’t be opposed to Bulgarian nationalism; you the pop-culture-drenched dilettantes and intellectual jacks-of-all-trades-but-masters-of-none who know how Kirk won the Kobiashi Maru but are also curious about Augustine’s City of God.
Flying monkeys are the people who keep me on my toes, much like Robert Reich at a urinal. You are scattered — like the Nockian Remnant or perhaps like so many Junior Mints you’re too tired to pick out of the carpet — across the United States and the world. You dwell in veal-pen cubicles and home offices, on military bases and oil derricks. Some of you are not quite conservatives, others are not quite geeks; but you hang out at NRO, if only for the slice of cantaloupe at the end.
The phrase “flying monkey” — originally from the Wizard of Oz of course — has been a term of art for loyal readers of this column and NRO for a long time. Just search for “Flying Monkey” in our search engine if you don’t believe me. I didn’t come up the phrase; NR’s associate publisher, Jack Fowler, did. We use it as a term of affection and I hope you will take it in that spirit. If you don’t, I’m sure I’ll hear about it.