Let’s have a word. Maybe more than a word.
This could get heavy. If you’ve just spent four hours scrolling through your facebook feed or chortling at lolcatz, you might need to transition slowly.
[insert slow transition here]
Intellectual modesty — the principle that none of us knows all, should ceaselessly hunt for a diversity of thought, and accept that our well-constructed opinions may change — is a precious, rare voice that is easily drowned out by talking heads and committed ideologues. What’s even rarer is to see that voice walking the walk.
Andrew Sullivan is a conservative, Catholic, gay Brit who lives in Provincetown and is a prolific blogger. After leaving his Tory/Thatcher-ite roots in England and moving to the States, he became an advocate of conservative American principles, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, as the Bush administration ramped up their overreach, control, and objectionable stance on torture, Sullivan relied on a cultivated blog community and his commitment to first principles to re-evaluate his fundamental moorings.
In the end, Sullivan became a vocal critic of the war, Republican largesse during the Bush Administration, and many other core “conservative” ideals — before that was popular. His conversion meant that this former darling of right was now very much charting his own course, since the left wouldn’t exactly welcome him with open arms.
Knowingly alienating oneself from one’s core supporters, while being well-aware that it is likely to leave one isolated and without a real constituency, is a commendable act which requires courage. Courage is also required to publicly repudiate one’s prior, emphatically advocated positions.
Course corrections are hard. They’re especially hard when you’ve spent your life articulating, defending and marinating in a particular philosophy. When your bedrock shifts, one’s natural reaction is to grip tighter. But then, as Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Keynes may be a paradigmatic liberal, but that sentiment is the crux of conservatism. In The Conservative Soul, Sullivan writes, “The defining characteristic of the conservative is that he knows what he doesn’t know.” Or she, but let’s not split hairs.
Such intellectual modesty isn’t the sole province of conservatives, however. It’s a foundational principle of a well-balanced person. David Brooks writes in The Social Animal, “People with this disposition believe that wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance.” He continues:
“The knowledge of how little we know and can know. [It] is an attitude toward life. This attitude is built on the awareness that we don’t know ourselves… We are our own deepest mystery.”
As humans, we’re prone to sticking to our guns, even in the face of game-changing facts. We rationalize away all kinds of stuff that undermines our position without realizing what we’re doing. We shy away from nuance, we settle for simplicity and, like a moth to flame, gravitate towards choosing sides because not having an answer feels uncomfortable.
In this context, Sullivan argues in The Conservative Soul that today’s strain of conservatism — he wrote the book in 2006 — is really fundamentalism. Brooks again:
The fundamentalist, Sullivan continues, is hostile to pluralism, feels alienated from society, surrenders to authority and is untroubled by doubt. “The fundamentalist does not tolerate a diversity of views. There is one truth; and all other pretenders are threats to it, or contradict it.”
Enter doubt: real, uncomfortable, honest.
Sullivan has almost a ferocious commitment to doubt, to revisiting first principles, and to acknowledging his errors. From the biggies — abandoning the Bush ship — to the smaller changes — reconsidering his support of Ron Paul — Sullivan certainly walks the walk. Evy day. Here’s a Dish reader on his recent take(s) on the State of the Union:
I love watching your process. I was very pissed off at you last night for the totality of your dismissal…now I’m touched and awed by “After Some Sleep”, as I was after you walked back your Ron Paul endorsement (elements of which had troubled me), by your relentless drive for honesty and the blessing of your humility…To go from tantrum to scolding to a cathartic and mature admission that there is room for error and a middle ground, I feel like I am part of a living, growing, evolving entity.
Intellectual modesty is a rich personal guiding principle. But at some point, you have to put pen to paper and get boots on the ground. So how do you put it into practice? What does it mean for policy making? Can you really govern on doubt?
More on that later…