Politics & Policy

Does Anyone Have a Clue?

The truth about opinions.

I was glad to see Michael Ledeen, in The Corner recently, let loose with the following flash of candor, in re our president’s latest pick for a Supreme Court justice:

I used to be proud to call myself an intellectual, but I have learned that most of the time intellectuals are wrong. Hell, most everyone is wrong most of the time. So I am not impressed by George Will’s call for some sophisticated deep thinker for the S[upreme] C[ourt], and I do have some sympathy for the idea of a normal human being sitting alongside the deep thinkers.

Leaving aside the whole Supreme Court issue, Michael is voicing a thought I myself have rather frequently nowadays: The thought that I don’t know jack, that my opinions are no better than anyone else’s, and that the same thing is true of all the rest of those of us who flatter ourselves with the title of “opinion journalist.” “Everyone is wrong most of the time.” Yup, and that includes us bloviators.

Now that, of course, is a terrible thought to have, when you make your living by sounding off about the affairs of the day. It keeps coming back, though, no matter how hard I push it away. It came back just the other day, as I was reading that Parade magazinelet that comes with our Sunday newspaper. There was an article about the price of gas, under the title “How High Can It Go?” This is a thing I’ve been wondering myself, having just had my first ever $50 fill-up, and with winter heating bills coming up on the horizon. It was also a thing I felt pretty sure I ought to have an opinion about, just in case anyone asked. So I tucked in to the article…

…And ended up, as I do so often, with that Omar Khayyam feeling:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and saint, and heard great argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by the same door as in I went.

“No one knows how high oil prices can go,” the author (who rejoices in the highly improbable name of Lyric Wallwork Winik) tells us up front. Uh-oh. But then: “We need to take dire predictions about our oil future with a grain of salt.” Oh, good. But then again: “Many other analysts think rising prices are here to stay.” But on the other other hand: “Energy costs are a much smaller part of our overall economy than they were just a decade ago.” Blimey, talk about whiplash. Should I be worried, or not? And what about my readers, waiting like Milton’s hungry sheep for me to bring them some loud, clear opinion. Shall they not be fed?

One passage especially caught my eye in that piece: “As for Iraq, right now it can’t even refine enough oil to meet its own needs (the American military has to import fuel to run its vehicles). Significant Iraqi oil production is probably five years off, and we’ll have to buy it on the world market, like everyone else.” Hold on a minute: Didn’t I just hear some administration suit on the telly saying that Iraq is now up to full production with oil? The American military has to import fuel to run its vehicles. Yes, yes, I do understand that production and refining are quite different things, but my Parade pal Lyric Wallwork (hey, I too can get pretty lyrical about wallwork, since I mastered the techniques for handling sheetrock) was talking about production, too, wasn’t he? What’s going on here?

In the matter of Iraq, I am pretty sure nobody knows. Even people just back from the place don’t agree. I can tell you that with some confidence, at least. Any time I pass a comment about how things seem to go from bad to worse over there, I get a raft of impressive looking dot-mil emails from people in, or just out of, Iraq, saying that things are going swimmingly, and all those negative impressions I’m getting are just MSM anti-Bush fog. Thus bucked up, I’ll say something mildly optimistic, and in comes the other faction of dot-mils, equally impressively credentialed, telling me that I don’t know the half of it, that Iraqis all hate us, the terrorists are winning, etc. etc. Who’s right? Don’t ask me, I haven’t a clue. On large general principles, I think that nation-building in a place like Iraq is a colossal sure loser, and I base my commentary on that, but if I were to be proved wrong, I wouldn’t be much surprised.

And then take China, a place I really ought to be able to opine confidently about. I’ve been fascinated by China for 40 years, first went there in 1971, have returned numerous times for as much as a year at a stretch, and know an impressive amount about the history, literature, philosophy, language, folklore, politics, manners, and customs of the place. It’s my country-in-law, and I have a legion of Chinese relatives and friends, both inside and outside the Middle Kingdom, including several who (to borrow a figure from Wodehouse), if not exactly dissidents, are far from being sidents. So where is China going? How long will it take to get there? What’s likely to happen along the way? Don’t ask me, I haven’t the faintest. Niall Ferguson’s recent article on that country was done as well as that kind of thing can be done, but left me personally back in Omar Khayyam territory again. You could write out a sort of photographic-negative version of Niall’s piece, with every positive remark replaced by an equipotent negative one, and vice versa; it would make exactly as much sense, and have just as much chance of proving dazzlingly far-sighted.

Let’s face it, this whole opinion-journalism business is just a racket. Nobody knows squat about what’s happening, much less about what’s going to happen, and most of us some of the time, along with some of us most of the time, even have to struggle to come up with a wretched opinion.

Have things ever been any different? George Orwell, the great sage of the age just past, was very free with predictions, and every darned one of them turned out wrong. Not only did 1984 not much resemble Nineteen Eighty-Four, but even the offhand prognostications in his wartime diaries and essays were contradicted by events, often before the ink was dry on them:

Within a year, perhaps even within six months, if we are still unconquered, we shall see the rise of something that has never existed before, a specifically English Socialist movement. Hitherto there has been only the Labour Party…–The Lion and the Unicorn (December 1940).

Inside information isn’t worth diddly, either. Mostly it just leaves you feeling more confused. From time to time National Review gets a visit from some administration official, sent down to give us face time, show us our support is appreciated, and give us the feeling we’re getting a glimpse into the actual oily clanging engine room of national policymaking. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I never come out of those sessions thinking I’m any wiser. When you ask a real question, they never tell you anything, and from the ones–a clear majority–who are not very good actors, you get the distinct impression that it’s because they don’t know the answer. What are the survival prospects of the current regime in Pakistan? What, actually, can we do to prevent Iran getting nukes? Where is Osama bin Laden? Why can’t a Social Security card be swipe-verified, like a credit card? What happened to the line-item veto? To term limits? What’s the state of play in Iraq? Why won’t Turkey do anything to please us? Where is the price of oil headed? You might as well ask your Aunt Millie. These people don’t have any answers. Like us, they are clueless.

And so we stumble on through the murk, hearing X, Y, and Z from the first credentialed-up-to-the-nose-holes expert we meet, then hearing not-X, definitely-not-Y, and absolutely-no-way-Z from the second. Sometimes the only difference between one opinion journalist and another, or between your favorite opinion journalist on a good day and the same bloke on a bad day, is the airy confidence we can sometimes summon up while delivering our balderdash misinformed misprognostications. Still with me, reader? Trust me, you’re wasting your time.


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