Politics & Policy

Are You Certain About That?

Disbelief.

Have you heard the news? Belief is bad.

Pick up an eggheady book review, an essay in Time magazine, or listen to a thumb-suck session on National Public Radio for very long and you’ll soon hear someone explain that real conviction — dogmatism! — is dangerous.

#ad#Andrew Sullivan, in his new book The Conservative Soul, declares a jihad on certainty, by which he means the certainty of fundamentalist “Christianists” — the allusion to Islamists is deliberate. The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait proclaims that liberalism is the anti-dogmatic ideology. Sam Harris, a leading proselytizer for atheism, has declared a one-man crusade on religious certainty. Intellectual historian J.P. Diggins writes in the latest issue of The American Interest that there’s a war afoot for “the soul of the American Republic” between the forces of skepticism and infallibility. And so on.

Much of this stems from the popularity of Bush hatred these days. Bush’s alleged “messianic certainty” — to use Sen. Barack Obama’s words — is dangerous and evil in the eyes of supposedly meek and nuanced liberals.

The rot, not surprisingly, has reached Hollywood. For example, in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas caved to the fashionable anti-absolutism that comes with Bush hatred by having a young Obi-Wan Kenobi proclaim, “Only a Sith lord deals in absolutes!” Translation: Only evil people see the world as black-and-white. This signaled that Lucas’s descent into hackery was complete, since it was Lucas himself who originally explained that the entire universe is divided into light and dark sides.

Longtime New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis captured the thought nicely a few years ago when he said that a primary lesson of his entire career was that “certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.”

Whenever I hear people say such things, I like to ask them, “Are you sure about that?” When they say yes, which they always do, I follow up by asking, “No, no: Are you really, really certain that certainty is bad?” At some point even the irony-deficient get the joke.

But they still don’t understand that the joke is on them. Virtually every hero in human history has been driven by certainty, by the courage of their convictions. Sir Thomas More and Socrates chose certain death, pun intended, over uncertain life. Martin Luther King Jr. — to pick liberalism’s most iconic hero — was hardly plagued with doubt about the rightness of his cause. A Rosa Parks charged with today’s reigning moral imperative not to be too sure of herself might not have sat at the front of the bus. An FDR certain that certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity might have declined to declare total war on Nazism for fear of becoming as bad as his enemy.

The fact is that unless you know where you stand, it’s unlikely you’ll have the courage to understand where someone else is coming from.

Obviously, there’s more than a grain of truth to the view that closed-mindedness is bad. Immunity to new facts and a smug confidence that you couldn’t possibly be wrong are serious character flaws and the source of grave mistakes. Yes, of course, dogmatism can be very bad, if the dogma in question is bad. But, as Chesterton teaches, a dogmatic conviction can also be morally praiseworthy and socially valuable. If you doubt that, let us now commence the war on the certainty that murder is wrong, that racism is bad and that a parent’s love should be unconditional.

This ultimately is my problem with the anti-certainty chorus: They aren’t offended by conviction per se, but by convictions they do not hold. Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that “hell is other people.” Well, for the new “liberal” champions of skepticism and philosophical humility, hell is the certainty of other people.

“Closed-minded” has come to mean “people who disagree with me.” (This is a corollary to the popular tendency of defining “diversity” as a bunch of people who look different but think alike). So, for example, pro-lifers have an unshakable “dogmatic” and “faith-based” certainty that abortion is wrong. But, we are told, pro-choicers are merely open-minded realists. People who are certain gay marriage is good are “enlightened” people, while those whose convictions point elsewhere are zealots.

In other words, certainty has become code among the intellectual priesthood for people and ideas that can be dismissed out of hand. That’s what is so offensive about this fashionable nonsense: It breeds the very closed-mindedness it pretends to fight.

(C) 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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