In what has become a famous passage, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” My view of this matter, which is of course the correct one, is that GKC wasn’t in fact encountering people who were modest but rather people who wished to be polite. And in such circumstances “Of course I may be wrong” is easy to say — whether you believe it or not.
Our moment is not a polite one, so rarely do I encounter even the pro forma I-may-be-wrong kind of statement. All of our politicians evidently believe that the problems they want to solve have simple solutions, solutions to which only the stupid or wicked could be blind. Whatever it is, they have an infallible plan for that. And partisans and pundits follow in the politicians’ train. (Though perhaps the politicians occupy the caboose rather than the engine.)
What’s missing in our whole political discourse is something that Edmund Burke understood: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.” Prudence is therefore required, and discernment, and a wise balancing of acts and policies, and an awareness of how often the best-laid plans go awry. “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.”
Politicians and pundits alike believe that it’s in their interest not to know this; and it may well be the that the series of echo-chambers that many of us live in have ensured that they genuinely don’t know it. You get the sense when you listen to Bernie Sanders that he hasn’t reflected on views other than his own in at least half-a-century. He just waits for the other person to stop talking and resumes his habitual harangue. And in this he’s not unusual. Any regular reader of any major political columnist can predict that pundit’s views on any subject — and can probably anticipate the details of how those views will be expressed.
Ross Douthat is the unpundit. You know the general tendency of his thought, of course, but you don’t know what he’s going to emphasize at any given time. That’s because he’s the most temperamentally Burkean of our political writers, always aware that “the nature of man is intricate” and that “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.” This makes him self-reflective and self-doubting to a remarkable degree. For instance, in his new book The Decadent Society, Douthat argues that our society is far more likely to continue a long slide into acedia than to suffer a cataclysm. Then, having made that argument, he concludes:
I think it is precisely the history-as-morality-play element in all these narratives that makes me skeptical that the catastrophe will come, or that it will come in the semipredictable high temperatures plus population imbalances plus migration equals fatal political and economic crisis that this chapter has described. But perhaps that is my own fatal participation in decadence at work — the extent to which, as a member of a decadent American conservatism, I have imbibed too much climate change skepticism over the years, and the extent to which, as a member of a decadent society, I cannot lift my eyes to see the truth: that “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” is already written on the wall.
The interesting thing about this, to me, is that Douthat doesn’t just say “I may be wrong” but says “If I am wrong, then here are the likely reasons.” Which suggests that he has actually thought it over. Again: the unpundit.
There are basically three stages to Douthat’s argument in The Decadent Society, and three corresponding levels of confidence.
- He is quite confident that our society has descended into a decadent period.
- He is pretty confident that he knows the primary causes of this decadence.
- He is unsure how, or even if, we might at some point emerge from our decadent state.
This distribution of confidence seems about right to me.
I think everything about this book is worthy of serious consideration and debate, but I find myself meditating especially on an idea that Douthat raises near the end:
But I would be a poor Christian if I did not conclude by noting that no civilization — not ours, not any — has thrived without a confidence that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it. If we have lost that confidence in our own age, if the liberal dream of progress no less than its Christian antecedent has succumbed to a corrosive skepticism, then perhaps it is because we have reached the end of our own capacities at this stage of our history, and we need something else, something extra, that really can come only from outside our present frame of reference. “Fill the earth and subdue it,” runs one of the earliest admonitions ever given to humanity. Well, we have done so, or come close; maybe it does not fall to us to determine what comes next.
Note the diffidence: perhaps, maybe. I can’t help thinking that this is how a conservative keeps a job at the New York Times — a more assertive character wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place, and if he had gotten it, wouldn’t have kept it — but any speculation about divine interference in human plans has to be tentative to be worthy of our attention. It’s something I hope to be discussing with some intelligent people in the coming months: What might religious revival in America look like? “Mentally modest” as always, I have to admit that I’m not sure, but I’ll say this: Given the choice between the most likely options and decadence, I’ll take decadence.
UPDATE: Just after posting this, I came across Farhad Manjoo’s new column, which says:
Now, I’ve been a pundit for a long time, and I learned early on not to sweat being occasionally wrong about the future. I figure if I’m not wrong sometimes, I’m probably thinking too small. What I do regret about my virus column, though, is its dripping certainty. I wasn’t just pooh-poohing the virus’s threat; using the history of two other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, as my guide, I all but guaranteed that this one, too, would more or less fizzle out.
In retrospect, my analytical mistake is obvious, and it’s a type of error that has become all too common across media, especially commentary on television and Twitter. My mistake was that I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected “black swan” event that upends historical expectation.
A projection of certainty is often a crucial part of commentary; nobody wants to listen to a wishy-washy pundit. But I worry that unwarranted certainty, and an under-appreciation of the unknown, might be our collective downfall, because it blinds us to a new dynamic governing humanity: The world is getting more complicated, and therefore less predictable.
Maybe. Or maybe it’s been too complicated for us all along, but we took great pains not to admit it.