Politics & Policy

The Gospel According to Me

An open mind is a dangerous thing.

People keep asking me what my book is about. Even when I don’t stab a ballpoint pen in their foreheads, I don’t always have the best answer. Or, I should say, I don’t always have the same answer. That’s because I’m learning a lot. Indeed, I’m also learning that writing a book means being open to stuff that doesn’t always confirm your preconceived notions. As Thoreau noted, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” So, sometimes, you just have to deal with the evidence you have. But the reverse happens too. Sometimes you discover you were even more right than you thought.

For example: More than ever before, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of dogma. Now, in the past I’ve written what could, I suppose, be called odes to dogma (see, for example, “An Ode to Dogma“). But while reading all of this super-cheery stuff about Nazis, Fascists, Bolsheviks, and the rest, I’ve become even more convinced that dogma is the indispensable ingredient for civilization and liberty.

This should sound ironic or odd in today’s culture, which cannot distinguish between dogma, ideology, or just plain old certainty, but knows for sure that all three are bad. Indeed, “dogmatism” has an almost entirely negative connotation, meaning at best “unthinking” adherence to ideas, usually bad ones, or even outright bigotry. Pragmatism, on the other hand, is the only philosophical school with a corresponding adjective in daily political life that enjoys an unequivocally positive connotation (hat tip to James Nichols). The philosophy of pragmatism, Papini famously remarked, is to do without philosophy. In fact, ever since the end of the 19th century, what we today call liberalism has been at war with “preconceived” ideas of all kinds. William James in America and Nietzsche and Sorel in Europe championed the notion that “willing” something to be true was all it took for something to be true. And anything that can be willed into being can be unwilled.

Anyway, still suffering from the hangover of their ideas, we even see certainty as a trait of the lowbrow, a habit of those unwilling or unable to understand the perspective of others. The most famous–and actually quite funny–example was offered by the New York Times’s Anthony Lewis a few years ago. While the war in Afghanistan was still raging and the rubble at Ground Zero was still smoldering, Lewis gave a fascinating interview to the Times. Asked if he’d drawn any “big conclusion” over his long career as the paper’s “most consistently liberal voice” (their words), Lewis responded that “certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.”

Now, in many respects, this is the intellectual equivalent of some of the stunts on Fear Factor: It’s impressive precisely because of the audacity of its stupidity.

This is freshman-year forensics, but that’s really all that is necessary for the task. If certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity, one presumes Lewis isn’t that certain he’s right–for certainty is the sun to the intellectual’s Icarus wings, according to Lewis. Therefore (to take just one example), one assumes the most decent people were those who were the least–or certainly not the most–sure that Nazism should be defeated. And, one should ask, why was Lewis the Times’s most consistently liberal voice, if certainty is the enemy of decency? Would not a man opposed to certainty find himself changing his mind from time to time?

And this is where my renewed faith in dogma comes from. Without getting too deep in the weeds, dogmas are simply values or principles that cannot be proven, but that we accept as true or divinely decreed (and therefore true). Chesterton and Hayek explain to us that the right dogma is just as liberating–if not more so–as bad dogma is oppressive. For example, you could never be a first baseman on a baseball team unless everyone else, on both teams, accepted any number of dogmas uncritically. Everyone would have to agree that it’s worthwhile to play the game in the first place. Everyone would have to accept that the umpire’s decisions are final. Everyone would have to accept that the rules were clear and applied to both sides equally. Everyone would have to agree that cheating is both wrong and deserving of punishment when found out. And so on.

Now, I would wager that very few baseball players can give you very articulate and knowledgeable explanations of why these things are all so. But I would also bet that most baseball players are certain these things are true nevertheless. In Anthony Lewis’s world, these people are enemies of decency and humanity. But in reality it is exactly the opposite. Without an unthinking agreement to play by the rules, you could have five first basemen all squabbling over the bag. You could have ties settled by fistfights. Indeed, you could have horrendous bloodshed. As Hayek noted, society’s adherence to traditional morality guarantees the most fundamental freedom: freedom from getting your ass walloped by everybody else. (Okay, I’m paraphrasing).

Since all that might sound silly, let’s look instead at the real world and the issues dear to the hearts of folks like Lewis. As an advocate of moderate censorship, let me reveal something I’ve discovered. A great many people can’t explain why censorship is bad, but they just “know” it is. I disagree with them, but they make my point. Most Americans don’t cherish free speech because they have highly developed, well-thought-out opinions about the role of free speech in society. They’re just certain that free speech is important, dogmatically so. And truth be told, while I think there’s more room to compromise on this point that the First Amendment voluptuaries do, I would certainly rather live in a society that took free speech as a fundamental good than one that didn’t.

Or take all of the table-pounding about Abu Ghraib and the so-called torture memos. In a world where “certainty” is the enemy of decency and humanity, how could Lewis be so certain that torture is wrong? (I don’t know that he is, but that’s the way I’m betting, and he makes such a good stand-in for liberals generally). Just a few years ago, newspapers and magazines were full of carefully reasoned arguments in favor of torture in limited circumstances. Alan Dershowitz even championed the idea of obtaining “torture warrants.”

Today, we’re getting shovelfuls of platitudes about how, if we become torturers, we will be no better than those we are fighting. It’s a nice flowery argument, and one with more than a kernel of truth to it. But at the same time, if we pulled out the fingernails of every single member of al Qaeda, we wouldn’t magically become a society where women have to wear burkas, homosexuals are crushed to death, and statues are blown up. In other words, the certainty we’re now hearing from enlightened liberals that torture is manifestly wrong stems not so much from critical thinking or empirical evidence (France did not become an evil regime at home because it tortured Algerians abroad, for example), but from good old-fashioned dogmatism. A man who says torture is wrong in a “ticking time bomb” case isn’t a man bereft of dogmatic certainty, but one weighed down by it.

Now, I picked torture and censorship precisely because they’re the sorts of issues those who decry certainty are certain about. And that’s my point. Those who say they dislike dogma–or “certainty”–tend to be liars, hypocrites, or simply wrong. What they really dislike is the dogma of those they disagree with.

How does this all relate to my book? Well, that’s easy. A society that was certain, certain beyond all certainty, that putting its citizens in death camps was wrong, would never put people in death camps. Such things are only possible when you’re open to new ideas.


1. If you didn’t see Nick Schulz’s excellent piece on torture, click here.

2. The Goldberg family may need to move out for a long time. If anybody knows about some great house-sitting, house-renting opportunities (by which I mean values) in the greater D.C. area, please drop me a line. Dogs and babies must be permitted (“particularly dogs!” quoth Cosmo).

3. Yes, the G-File will be addressing book-related themes quite a bit this summer as the writing and the responses help me think things through. If you don’t like it, there’s always my syndicated column, or crack.


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