I Dunno: Confessions of a Know-it-All Columnist
By W. James Antle
Itís my general policy to answer all
reader e-mail, unless utterly insane or obscenely abusive Ė and I must admit
that I reply to a high percentage of missives in those categories as well. Recently, in one of those futile but lengthy exchanges that
occasionally ensue as a result of this practice, my exasperated virtual sparring
partner concluded by pronouncing me a ďknow-it-all.Ē
My initial reaction was to harrumph
dismissively. But I eventually
began to wonder if my reader had a point. Looking
over the breadth of topics Iíve written about in just the past few months, I
can at least see where somebody who tries to sound off authoritatively on so
many different things will eventually start to come across as a bit of a
Lacking knowledge or, more precisely, not
being conversant enough in some current issue to have arrived at a deeply held
position is something of an occupational hazard for political columnists.
Newspaper op-ed page denizens, magazine scribes, upstart web columnists and the
more widely visited pixel-stained oracles among the blogosphere are all expected
to turn around a detailed, comprehensive opinion on the latest political news
item in short order and defend it fiercely against the folly of their peers who
have come down on the other side.
This, of course, is not always possible to
do in a way that truly does justice to the complexities of the matter at hand.
The truth is that even the most knowledgeable are experts on just a
handful of subjects and have reasonably informed opinions on a few others.
When forced to deal with areas outside of these parameters, pundits may
rely on shortcuts Ė the most popular of which is to just automatically side
with their preferred political party and offer a more eloquent variation of its
Since this tends to produce unsatisfactory
commentary, maybe it would be better if pundits occasionally admitted that they
donít really know the answer to that dayís vexing political question and
invited their readers to check back during the next news cycle.
In that spirit, let me compile a few examples of hot subjects that I
greet with a shrug and an ďI dunno.Ē
I donít know who is going to win the
presidential election: In January, I predicted that George W. Bush was in a
strong position to win reelection. Readers
have been asking me ever since for an update.
It seems like every few months, Bushís standing goes through cycles
that range from an appearance of invincibility to one where he looks like heís
dead meat on Election Day. For the
past two or three months heís been in dead-meat cycle, but who knows if
thatís where heíll still be in November.
The national conventions are just beginning and this election cycle is
The polls are also all over the place.
Part of me is inclined to say that if John Kerry hasnít been able to
break into a comfortable lead after the failure to turn up WMD, Fallujah, Abu
Ghraib, this nonsense about postponing the election, serious questions about our
intelligence capabilities and picking John Edwards as his running mate, heís
just not up to the challenge of defeating a sitting president.
But Bushís numbers are likely to be worse than they currently look once
you factor in that undecided voters tend to break 2 or 3 to 1 for the challenger
against the incumbent.
And thatís just the uncertainty of the
constitutionally irrelevant popular vote. A
few days ago, I read a report showing Bush badly trailing Kerry in projected
electoral votes; sitting at this computer and launching AOL, I see an AP tally
suggesting that Bush is ahead.
In any event, I was spectacularly wrong
about the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
I thought that Howard Dean was likely to get the nod, Kerry would drop
out after a dismal showing in the New Hampshire primary, and Wesley Clark, Joe
Lieberman or Dick Gephardt would emerge as strong contenders when terrified
establishment Democrats began frantically trying to stop the Dean juggernaut.
Having been so off-base before, who am I to be making predictions about
I donít know whom Iím even going to
vote for in the presidential election: I
know this is heresy, but Iíve finally gotten fed up with Bush. Not only was he content to stand idly by while the federal
budget careens out of control, he had the audacity to toss a brand new
prescription-drugs entitlement on top of this steaming pile of profligacy. The
Iraq adventure has frustrated all my best hopes and confirmed all my worst fears
about reckless interventionism in the Middle East. Our borders are still wide open and instead of rectifying the
situation, this administration is standing at the gate dangling a proposed
guest-workers program as an enticement to untold numbers of new illegal
Bush is okay on most of the perennial issues
Ė taxes, abortion, judicial appointments Ė even if he isnít as bold as
Iíd like him to be. But on the
salient issues of our day that get right down to our integrity as a culture and
nation-state, he remains too paralyzed by political correctness to be much
better than the Democrats. Most of
all, Bush has failed to hold anyone accountable for our numerous intelligence
failures or much anything else that has gone wrong during his watch Ė so
shouldnít he be held accountable?
I must hasten to add that I will certainly
not be voting for Kerry, who I disagree with on virtually every issue. I write all this as a resident of a hopelessly blue state.
Should I choose to do so, I can find some third-party candidate to vote
for in order to voice my dissatisfaction with Bush without objectively helping
the Democrats. If I lived in a
swing state, this item might not be here. Many of my conservative brethren would nevertheless still
counsel me to pull the lever for Bush out of concern for the war on terror,
which brings me to my next item.
I donít know if any of the major-party
approaches to the war on terror will work: I have already mentioned that I
oppose the war in Iraq, and Iím not especially eager for a war in Iran. But I donít think Kerryís approach to terrorism, which
basically amounts to funding first-responders so we can clean up after the
terrorists have blown things up or apprehending terrorists and relying on the
criminal-justice system to deal with them, will work either.
The left sees terrorism as a problem of
Americans not spending enough on foreign aid abroad and security boondoggles at
home; the right seems to be groping toward a Cold War with radical Islam.
Iím not entirely persuaded by either framing of the issue. Whatís my
alternative? Aside from keeping the
Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, strikes against al-Qaeda and tightening our
immigration system, I donít know.
I donít know what the outcome of the
marriage debate will be: I have written a great deal about the need to resist
the redefinition of marriage, but I have no idea whether it will do any good.
On the one hand, all societies need an institution that fulfills the role
that traditional marriage currently performs Ė bringing men and women together
to raise the next generation of children. On
the other, proponents of same-sex marriage have arguments with more emotional
force on their side, especially in the context of a nonjudgmental culture that
sees any recognition of difference as being inherently discriminatory.
Author and scholar J. Budziszewski argues in
his book The Things We Canít Not Know that since sexual complementarity
is rooted in the natural law written on the human heart, the procreative purpose
of marriage and its dependence on men and women joined as husbands and wives is
self-evident. While there might be
something to this, John Derbyshire also seems to be on to something with his
observation that the nature of marriage is best internalized while young and not
thought about much afterward. The
fact that weíre having this debate at all may itself be a sign that
traditionalists have lost.
Politically, the problem is compounded by
the civil-rights analogy. Whatever its factual merits (and I think itís a
false analogy for all sorts of reasons), officeholders aspiring to political
longevity are not going to be eager to cast votes that may later be interpreted
as putting them on the wrong side of the civil-rights struggle of their time.
Finally, I donít know how to continue
cataloging important issues Iím uncertain about without this column exceeding
2,000 words: So I suppose this small sampling of difficult, hotly debated
issues I donít know the answer to will have to suffice for now. But overall, I think this was a worthwhile exercise.
Those of us who are in the opinion journalism racket need to be kept
The main question that remains is whether anyone will decide to actually read this article all the way through. The answer, of course, is obvious: I dunno.
Back to column