Opinion

What I got wrong in 2014

A look back at a year's worth of opinions, highlighting two entries into the hall of shame

Talk might be cheap — but nothing is cheaper than an online opinion. Everyone has an opinion, and anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can blast it out to the world. If the opinion touches a nerve, expresses or distills a viewpoint better or more cleverly than anyone else's — and if it gets "liked" or retweeted enough times to go viral — then it might become an opinion that sets the national or even global elite conversation for a few hours or days.

In a world filled with amateur pundits pecking out their opinions on keyboards and touch screens for fun and for free, I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to get paid to write.

I haven't gone back through the archives of The Week to count up precisely how many columns I wrote in 2014, but it's probably somewhere between 150 and 170. That's a lot of opinions. Is it even conceivable that I would be proud of all of them?

I'm actually relieved that after all that writing, there are only two columns I would take back if I could.

The first was a column from February in which I made the ill-advised decision to name Lyndon Johnson "the worst modern president."

I stand by every criticism I make of Johnson in that column. Vietnam was a monumental mistake — arguably the worst foreign policy blunder in American history. In domestic politics, Johnson's decision to adopt a wildly inflated rhetoric ("war on poverty," "Great Society") and then design policies around those overly ambitious concepts did a lot to discredit liberalism and empower the right-wing populists who have dominated the Republican Party — and politics in America — ever since.

But as several intelligent critics pointed out in response to that column, Johnson's decisive role in bringing an end to Jim Crow in the American South deserved far more than a passing mention in a single sentence. That the function of this sentence was to dispense with the significance of the Civil Rights Act in order to strengthen my indictment of Johnson only made it more galling.

The fact is that Johnson's commitment to using the federal government to dismantle segregation, and his willingness to cajole, threaten, sweet talk, and twist the arms of senators and congressmen to get civil rights legislation passed, were indispensable. No one else could have done it. And that should have given me far more pause in issuing a global condemnation of his presidency.

I'd go further: The fact that I was willing to condemn Johnson's presidency so sweepingly is a sign that I'm sometimes less attuned to racial injustice in American history than I should be. (My subsequent columns on Ta-Nehisi Coates' extraordinary reparations essay and the events following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson were, in part, efforts to make up for that failing.)

The problem with my second embarrassing column was very different. Written in September, "Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea" suffered from a single fatal defect: the idea it attributed to libertarianism isn't really a libertarian idea at all. It's a debased, distorted, degraded version of a libertarian idea.

A column that pointed out how the controversial, contestable, but also sophisticated libertarian idea of "spontaneous order" became debased, distorted, and degraded could have been great. It could have showed how the idea — which has roots in John Locke, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek — has merged with unrelated currents in American culture (Paine's enthusiasm for beginning the world anew; Emersonian individualism; the myth of the self-made man) to become a comical ideology of anarcho-capitalism that shows up in various forms in our time, but that no intellectually serious libertarian espouses.

But I didn't write that column. Instead, I wrote a column in which I elided the distinction between the libertarian idea and its caricature. I should have known better. Indeed, in a few lines of the column, I showed that I did, writing that "careful readers of Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government and Smith's The Wealth of Nations will find much subtler views than the positions I've presented here."

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to solve the problem — not when the whole point of the column (driven home in its screaming headline) was to pin the unsubtle views onto libertarians, and not when I explicitly pinned them onto Hayek in a sloppy summary of his thought.

With a focused rewrite, I'm convinced I could have used 90 percent of the material in the published column for one that was much more careful and accurate — one that still made an important point about the dangers of believing (as too many Americas apparently do) that order can emerge spontaneously from social, cultural, and economic chaos.

But that wouldn't have been a column about libertarianism, as the column I actually wrote purported to be.

That's a pretty significant flaw, and it's one I regret.

The internet rewards glibness, especially when it comes to opinion. But for those glibly expressed opinions to be more than mere spouting off, they need to be informed, intelligent, smart. I pride myself on finding the right balance between shooting off my mouth and writing overly cautious academic treatises. Most of the time I think I succeed.

But not always. And certainly not the two times I got it wrong in 2014.

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