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I dunno: Confessions of a know-it-all columnist

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 26, 2004

It's my general policy to answer all reader e-mail, unless utterly insane or obscenely abusive – and I must admit that I reply to a high percentage of missives in those categories as well. Recently, in one of those futile but lengthy exchanges that occasionally ensue as a result of this practice, my exasperated virtual sparring partner concluded by pronouncing me a "know-it-all."

My initial reaction was to harrumph dismissively. But I eventually began to wonder if my reader had a point. Looking over the breadth of topics I've written about in just the past few months, I can at least see where somebody who tries to sound off authoritatively on so many different things will eventually start to come across as a bit of a know-it-all.

Lacking knowledge or, more precisely, not being conversant enough in some current issue to have arrived at a deeply held position is something of an occupational hazard for political columnists. Newspaper op-ed page denizens, magazine scribes, upstart web columnists and the more widely visited pixel-stained oracles among the blogosphere are all expected to turn around a detailed, comprehensive opinion on the latest political news item in short order and defend it fiercely against the folly of their peers who have come down on the other side.

This, of course, is not always possible to do in a way that truly does justice to the complexities of the matter at hand. The truth is that even the most knowledgeable are experts on just a handful of subjects and have reasonably informed opinions on a few others. When forced to deal with areas outside of these parameters, pundits may rely on shortcuts – the most popular of which is to just automatically side with their preferred political party and offer a more eloquent variation of its talking points.

Since this tends to produce unsatisfactory commentary, maybe it would be better if pundits occasionally admitted that they don't really know the answer to that day's vexing political question and invited their readers to check back during the next news cycle. In that spirit, let me compile a few examples of hot subjects that I greet with a shrug and an "I dunno."

I don't know who is going to win the presidential election: In January, I predicted that George W. Bush was in a strong position to win reelection. Readers have been asking me ever since for an update. It seems like every few months, Bush's standing goes through cycles that range from an appearance of invincibility to one where he looks like he's dead meat on Election Day. For the past two or three months he's been in dead-meat cycle, but who knows if that's where he'll still be in November. The national conventions are just beginning and this election cycle is still young.

The polls are also all over the place. Part of me is inclined to say that if John Kerry hasn't been able to break into a comfortable lead after the failure to turn up WMD, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, this nonsense about postponing the election, serious questions about our intelligence capabilities and picking John Edwards as his running mate, he's just not up to the challenge of defeating a sitting president. But Bush's numbers are likely to be worse than they currently look once you factor in that undecided voters tend to break 2 or 3 to 1 for the challenger against the incumbent.

And that's just the uncertainty of the constitutionally irrelevant popular vote. A few days ago, I read a report showing Bush badly trailing Kerry in projected electoral votes; sitting at this computer and launching AOL, I see an AP tally suggesting that Bush is ahead.

In any event, I was spectacularly wrong about the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. I thought that Howard Dean was likely to get the nod, Kerry would drop out after a dismal showing in the New Hampshire primary, and Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman or Dick Gephardt would emerge as strong contenders when terrified establishment Democrats began frantically trying to stop the Dean juggernaut. Having been so off-base before, who am I to be making predictions about November?

I don't know whom I'm even going to vote for in the presidential election: I know this is heresy, but I've finally gotten fed up with Bush. Not only was he content to stand idly by while the federal budget careens out of control, he had the audacity to toss a brand new prescription-drugs entitlement on top of this steaming pile of profligacy. The Iraq adventure has frustrated all my best hopes and confirmed all my worst fears about reckless interventionism in the Middle East. Our borders are still wide open and instead of rectifying the situation, this administration is standing at the gate dangling a proposed guest-workers program as an enticement to untold numbers of new illegal immigrants.

Bush is okay on most of the perennial issues – taxes, abortion, judicial appointments – even if he isn't as bold as I'd like him to be. But on the salient issues of our day that get right down to our integrity as a culture and nation-state, he remains too paralyzed by political correctness to be much better than the Democrats. Most of all, Bush has failed to hold anyone accountable for our numerous intelligence failures or much anything else that has gone wrong during his watch – so shouldn't he be held accountable?

I must hasten to add that I will certainly not be voting for Kerry, who I disagree with on virtually every issue. I write all this as a resident of a hopelessly blue state. Should I choose to do so, I can find some third-party candidate to vote for in order to voice my dissatisfaction with Bush without objectively helping the Democrats. If I lived in a swing state, this item might not be here. Many of my conservative brethren would nevertheless still counsel me to pull the lever for Bush out of concern for the war on terror, which brings me to my next item.

I don't know if any of the major-party approaches to the war on terror will work: I have already mentioned that I oppose the war in Iraq, and I'm not especially eager for a war in Iran. But I don't think Kerry's approach to terrorism, which basically amounts to funding first-responders so we can clean up after the terrorists have blown things up or apprehending terrorists and relying on the criminal-justice system to deal with them, will work either.

The left sees terrorism as a problem of Americans not spending enough on foreign aid abroad and security boondoggles at home; the right seems to be groping toward a Cold War with radical Islam. I'm not entirely persuaded by either framing of the issue. What's my alternative? Aside from keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, strikes against al-Qaeda and tightening our immigration system, I don't know.

I don't know what the outcome of the marriage debate will be: I have written a great deal about the need to resist the redefinition of marriage, but I have no idea whether it will do any good. On the one hand, all societies need an institution that fulfills the role that traditional marriage currently performs – bringing men and women together to raise the next generation of children. On the other, proponents of same-sex marriage have arguments with more emotional force on their side, especially in the context of a nonjudgmental culture that sees any recognition of difference as being inherently discriminatory.

Author and scholar J. Budziszewski argues in his book The Things We Can't Not Know that since sexual complementarity is rooted in the natural law written on the human heart, the procreative purpose of marriage and its dependence on men and women joined as husbands and wives is self-evident. While there might be something to this, John Derbyshire also seems to be on to something with his observation that the nature of marriage is best internalized while young and not thought about much afterward. The fact that we're having this debate at all may itself be a sign that traditionalists have lost.

Politically, the problem is compounded by the civil-rights analogy. Whatever its factual merits (and I think it's a false analogy for all sorts of reasons), officeholders aspiring to political longevity are not going to be eager to cast votes that may later be interpreted as putting them on the wrong side of the civil-rights struggle of their time.

Finally, I don't know how to continue cataloging important issues I'm uncertain about without this column exceeding 2,000 words: So I suppose this small sampling of difficult, hotly debated issues I don't know the answer to will have to suffice for now. But overall, I think this was a worthwhile exercise. Those of us who are in the opinion journalism racket need to be kept honest, too.

The main question that remains is whether anyone will decide to actually read this article all the way through. The answer, of course, is obvious: I dunno.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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