Alex Massie Alex Massie

The Unconventional Problem of Conventional Wisdom

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.

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