Opportunity Cost of Certitude

Whether you once liked them or never liked them, their decision to walk away was jarring.

This year, several high-profile writers have left left-leaning publications after running afoul of what they describe as a pervasive culture of censoriousnessgroupthink and intellectual-risk aversion.

The one that nailed it for me was Matt Yglesias, who started as a blogger and wrote for such intellectual sinkholes as ThinkProgress, which made Ian Millhiser cry when it died a brutal but necessary death. The irony was that Millhiser got a new gig at Vox, the site co-founded by Yglesias. The very site Yglesias left, offering an unduly kind parting explanation.

“The people making the media are young college graduates in big cities, and that kind of politics makes a lot of sense to them,” he said. “And we keep seeing that older people, and working-class people of all races and ethnicities, just don’t share that entire worldview. It’s important to me to be in a position to step outside that dynamic … That was challenging as someone who was a founder of a media outlet but not a manager of it.”

There was a time when Matt would spout the usual routine progressive orthodoxy. Did the left pass him by or did he just grow up? Or did he know better all along but go along with the crowd for the “likes” and clicks? Beats me. He’s still very liberal, if not progressive-adjacent, but that’s not nearly radical enough to avoid being an outcast.

What, today, is leftism, at least when it comes to intellectual life? Not what it used to be. Once it was predominantly liberal, albeit with radical fringes. Now it is predominantly progressive, or woke, with centrist liberals in dissent. Once it was irreverent. Now it is pious. Once it believed that truth was best discovered by engaging opposing points of view. Now it believes that truth can be established by eliminating them. Once it cared about process. Now it is obsessed with outcomes. Once it understood, with Walt Whitman, that we contain multitudes. Now it is into dualities: We are privileged or powerless, white or of color, racist or anti-racist, oppressor or oppressed.

Bret Stephens calls it a “factory of certitudes,” which is certainly correct, but inadequate. There is nothing, per se, wrong with certitude if it’s correct. But it’s not just that we’re facing a group of pious, smug, vicious children who view the world in absolutes, but that they’re simplistic and narcissistic, a toxic combination.

But worse than making it dull, the purge (or self-purge) of contrarians has made the new left blind.

While the intellectual drain may make for boredom, it has a pragmatic impact as well. As regular readers here are aware, I’ve spent years highlighting problems and failings in the legal system, from police abuse to racism, from doctrinal disasters to junk science. Two things animated my approach. The first was harsh realism, that the root cause of problems was almost invariably messy, complex and involved, to some extent, the choices of the “victims” of problems.

This angered my more empathetic pals, for whom “victim blaming” was heresy, even though the victims did as much as possible to make their situation as risky and difficult as possible. My pointing this out wasn’t intended to be contrarian or piss off the passionate, but to find a better way of addressing problems. If you lie to yourself about the cause of problems, you lie to yourself about their solutions. If your car gets stolen and you left the keys in the ignition, you might not be responsible for a thief’s actions, but you’re still a fool.

The second was tolerance for ambiguity, a character trait of competent and sane criminal defense lawyers. Our desire to find solutions notwithstanding, sometimes there is no fix. There are better choices and worse choices, but no answer. And even our better choices will end up falling short of our hopes because human beings have an astounding ability to find ever new and imaginative ways of mucking up their lives and worlds.

And then, there is the omnipresent fact of “unintended consequences,” many of which are readily foreseen, if only one cares to look. Others come at us from a direction no one ever considered. Nature is cruel that way.

The woke have figured out a way around all this troublesome complexity. They reduce problems to simplistic absurdities and, when someone has the audacity to point this out, they swarm together to defend their orthodoxy and bandage the offense to their souls of disapproval.

They shout slogans. They march. They scream and kick and punch. Sometimes they burn. They make demands, which they try to spin and pretend aren’t childish and ridiculous, until the people for whom they purport to speak have grown so disgusted with them that they walk away.

The apparent inability of many on the left to entertain the thought that decent human beings might have voted for Trump for sensible reasons — to take one example, the unemployment rate reached record lows before the pandemic hit — amounts to an epic failure to see their fellow Americans with understanding, much less with empathy. It repels the 73 million Trump voters who cannot see anything of themselves in media caricatures of them as fragile, bigoted, greedy and somewhat stupid white people.

For a brief and shining moment, there was a consensus across the nation that there are problems with the law, with police, with racism, with opportunity. And instead of facing the harsh reality of those problems, which includes the concerns of those “fragile, bigoted, greedy and somewhat stupid white people,” and trying our best to hash out the choices we could all live with and best worked to make America a “more perfect” nation, we endured a battle of simplistic children screaming in angry self-indulgence.

The people who saw the complexity that the simplistic children couldn’t got tired of the dullness and walked away. We might not have been able to “fix” everything, but we could have improved many things. Instead, no one was saved.

11 thoughts on “Opportunity Cost of Certitude

  1. Curtis

    What a field day for the heat.
    A thousand people in the street
    Singin’ songs and a-carryin’ signs
    Mostly say “Hooray for our side”

  2. Steve King

    I copied some of this to my “stuff smart people say folder.”

    The wokerati have an ideology which mean you don’t have to think (because your thought leaders have done that for you) and you just have to have “feelz” and scream loudly. Throw in the moral superiority and it is tough thing to crack.

    Those who can identify and deal with reality in the long run will come out ahead. The problem is the damage the ideologues will do in the meantime.

    To paraphrase Dr. Sowell; “It isn’t why Johnny can’t read. Its why Johnny can’t think.”

    Give yourself a tummy rub.

    1. SHG Post author

      Will they come out ahead? They have in the past, and I believe they will again, but what happens to a generation lost in space? Eventually, they will have to assume some responsibility for fixing the world and not just burning it down.

      1. MGould

        You sneaked a Paul Simon into today’s other post, and a Don McLean here. Have you been doing this all along and I just never noticed?

  3. Casey Bell

    Yglesius’s summation of the current state of leftism’s intellectual life is spot on.

    So was your summation : “The people who saw the complexity that the simplistic children couldn’t got tired of the dullness and walked away. We might not have been able to “fix” everything, but we could have improved many things. Instead, no one was saved.”

    I would add that there are many “simplistic” members on the right (MAGA hat wearing,
    America First, Love it or Leave it”, etc) as well as the left. I’m not trying to “both-sides” things here. I’m simply saying that political passion is always the hottest and most irrational on the fringes. Those who recognize that reality is nuanced and complex tend to fall somewhere in between.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not both siding to point out the obvious, but there isn’t a huge cohort of critical theory Ph.D.s contending that they are the smartest, the best educated and on the right side of history. Almost by definition, the MAGA crowd is simplistic or they wouldn’t be the MAGA crowd. But then, they don’t wear their degrees on their sleeve and make word salad arguments for a brave new world.

  4. B. McLeod

    It is ironic that dullards who mindlessly parrot off-the-rack dogma have become referred to as “woke.” They are at best one rung up from somnambulant pod people.

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