Alex Massie

The Unconventional Problem of Conventional Wisdom

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An oldie but a goodie: Frank Foer's defence of Conventional Wisdom dates from 2001 but it still a jolly read:

Since 1980 the New York Times editorial page has published at least 38 columns condemning world hunger, 241 against South African apartheid, and 465 containing the phrase "conventional wisdom"--and never once did the Times mean it in a nice way... The New Republic has been even more hostile--savaging " conventional wisdom" in 352 articles since 1983 (and TNR comes out only once a week). The consensus against CW has grown so powerful that even CW's most distinguished purveyors now denounce their craft. In what can only be described as an advertisement against himself, The Washington Post's David Broder has implored readers to be "wary of conventional wisdom." The conventional wisdom, in short, is that conventional wisdom is wrong.

..."There's another way to measure the accuracy of CW--through its human incarnation, David Gergen. With his turkey chin and soporific baritone, Gergen isn't a flashy pundit. Unlike George Stephanopoulos or Bill Kristol, he never turns handsprings of counter-intuition. Unlike Paul Begala or Robert Novak, he never breaks into fisticuffs with ideological foes. Yet, like CW, his judgments are based on deep and wide experience. He has worked for four presidents, including Democrats and Republicans. He shares CW's proclivity for careful moderation...In fact, after scouring his public comments over the past six months, I couldn't find a single incorrect pronouncement. True, Gergen's assertions weren't terribly interesting or creative. But the rap against conventional wisdom isn't that it's boring, which it often is; it's that it's wrong." However:

On television, consensus-minded pundits--Gergen and a few others excepted--are considered too dull for the air. It's the argumentative ones--Chris Matthews, Sam Donaldson, Bill Press--who get invited back and even win their own shows. In print, the older bastions of elite opinion, like the New York Times editorial page, now refuse to endorse CW, preferring a contrarian pose. And then there's the Internet and the accelerated news cycle: It becomes harder for consensus to congeal around opinions when the pace of opinion journalism doesn't allow for the slightest prolonged rumination. Of course, you might say this criticism of punditry, television, and the Internet is banal. You might even call it trite or cliched. I say, damn straight it is.

If that was true in 2001 then it's all the more obviously the case in 2009. The media - in all its splendid manifestations - craves novelty and instantaneous analysis above all else. Pace and volume matter more than judiciousness and perspective. Now, in one sense, there's nothing wrong with quick, shoot-from-the-hip analysis and it's certainly a step forward that there's room for a thousand (and more!) blooming flowers in the blogosphere and that the entry requirements for admission to the punditocracy have been lowered. However, it's also the case that raucousness isn't quite enough. If nothing else, it needs something to play off.

And the problem is really that when everyone takes the contrarian view that Everything You Thought You Knew About X is Wrong then the chances are that, as Frank suggests, Everything You Read Will Also Be Wrong. (He notes the irony of  - counterintuitively! - defending the conventional wisdom in a magazine that thrives, nay is in large part defined, by its contrarianism.) Unfortunately all this means is that you end up with an awful lot of smart people trying to outsmart themselves. Fret not that a piece or an argument makes no sense, feel the novelty!

Nonetheless, much of the conventional wisdom on, say, George Bush in 2001, proved correct: he was a President of limited real political experience or, worse, curiosity. He was not a detail guy. He went with his gut. He was not inclined to listen to outside advice. But he was also affable, a President you could, conventionally, imagine having a beer with, chewing tobacco and shooting the breeze on your back porch. And so on.

Then again, sometimes the conventional wisdom really is conventionally wrong. It's ill-equipped to deal with circumstances that are genuinely new. And so the conventional wisdom got last year's Presidential campaign very wrong: CW said that Hillary would stroll to victory. CW said outsider, quasi-insurgent campaigns promise much but always fizzle. CW said all those young voters wouldn't turn out for Obama in Iowa. CW whispered that American might not be ready for a black President. CW insisted that Hillary had the greatest press management team in political history and the smartest strategists. CW deplored Obama's reluctance to throw heavy punches at Clinton. CW said that Jeremiah Wright would cripple Obama's campaign, not make it. CW said Bill Ayers might be a real problem too. CW never saw very much coming at all.

And it's not just in the USA neither. CW has been getting a pasting in Britain too. Remember how the CW claimed that Gordon Brown would benefit from the economy falling off a cliff? Everyone, including the Prime Minister himself, thought that an obvious truth. After all, it's no time for a novice! I mean, really. Why did people seriously believe this? I'll tell you why: because it was counterintuitive and anything that's counterintuitive is the new conventional wisdom. This makes pointing out the obvious - Gordon Brown is a disaster, Sarah Palin was a gamble placed at long-odds - becomes counter-counterintuitive. No wonder everyone is confused - especially when the CW keeps shifting all the time...

Sometimes it's tough out there for a pundit. We urgently need the CW to return to being the sturdy, dull, unchanging CW we were once able to rely upon, damnit. We need you, David Gergen.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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