Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Yes, Ta-Nehisi Coates, it's good to be right

The Twittersphere -- at least, my Twittersphere -- is widely commending Ta-Nehisi Coates' tribute to Andrew Sullivan.  I can sort of see why -- it captures what Andrew himself has often presented as his core virtue -- but it also seems to me to be based on a perverse premise.
Back when I started blogging, there was an annoying premium on "public smartness" and "being right" among pundits, journalists, and writers. Likely, there is still one today. The need to be publicly smart and constantly right originates both in the writer's ego and in the expectation of incurious readers. The writer gets the psychic reward of praise—"Such and such is really smart" or "Such and such was 'right' on Libya." And the incurious reader gets to believe that there is some order in the world, that there is a stable of learned (mostly) men who will decipher the words of God for them. The incurious readers is not so much looking for writers, as prophets.

And Andrew has never been a prophet, so much as a joyous heretic. Andrew taught me that you do not have to pretend to be smarter than you are. And when you have made the error of pretending to be smarter, or when you simply have been wrong, you can say so and you can say it straight—without self-apology, without self-justifying garnish, without "if I have offended." And there is a large body of deeply curious readers who accept this, who want this, who do not so much expect you to be right, as they expect you to be honest. When I read Andrew, I generally thought he was dedicated to the work of being honest. I did not think he was always honest. I don't think anyone can be. But I thought he held "honesty" as a standard—something can't be said of the large number of charlatans in this business.

Honesty demands not just that you accept your errors, but that your errors are integral to developing a rigorous sense of study. I have found this to be true in, well, just about everything in life. But it was from Andrew that I learned to apply it in this particular form of writing. I am indebted to him. And I will miss him—no matter how much I think he's wrong, no matter the future of blogging.
Of course it's true that anyone who makes a sustained attempt to understand anything that requires interpretation and analysis is going to be wrong a good deal of the time. Of course it's a virtue, and an all too rare one, to acknowledge one's errors and examine what went wrong -- an exercise that Sullivan has probably encouraged more writers to undertake.

But it's also true that some people -- and some writers about public affairs and public policy -- are far more able to uncover, absorb and analyze pertinent information than others, and that those whose reporting or research and analysis proves cogent rightly accrue more authority than those whose doesn't. That is, if you're going to publicly write about the causes of various trends and ills in human society, and about actions and policies that are likely (or not) to promote the general welfare, it's good to be right.  And for a reader, it makes sense to accord ever more trust and attention (authority) to those who have proved to be right on the big stuff more often than not -- those whose theories have been borne out, whose forecasts have been validated or at least can be seen in retrospect to have been rationally grounded, whose warnings have proved on point. It would be insane not to.

Some learned writers -- and skilled reporters -- decipher not "the words of God," but, say, what's effective and what's not effective in public health programs, or whether heads of state act on the perceived "credibility" of other heads of state, or whether a common currency for nations lacking political union is likely to work out well, or whether eating locally produced food inhibits global warming, or whether Israeli settlements in occupied territory violate international law. That's why I read them. I develop my own "stable" over time and I assess on a continuing basis who belongs in it.

Coates is in part a literary writer, and here he's writing about writers' personas, not their level of expertise -- I get that, though I gather he'd also argue that it's a mistake to divorce the writer's voice or self-expression from any knowledge proffered. Personality is a huge part of why we read the writers we read, and of whether we trust them, or the ways or degree to which we trust them.  But knowledge counts too. Counts more, in matters of public policy.

Intellectual honesty is an essential condition of good blogging (and writing, and debate, and policymaking). It's not an end in itself.

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