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I’m Sorry I Wasn’t More Wrong

I wanted to follow my colleague Daniel Larison‘s admirable example in pointing out his own failures of punditry, so I just made my way through my last year of blog posts in search of seriously bad calls.

Here’s what I learned:

  • I didn’t write nearly as many posts about film, theater or books as in retrospect I ought to have. When I’m in the groove of writing these things, they go more quickly and I feel I learn more about the works in question by writing about them. So whether my few, dedicated readers actually like reading them, I should write more of them – for my own sake.
  • When I write posts that attempt to reason their way all around a question, they tend to be very long and convoluted. Heck, there’s stuff I wrote this past year that even I had to reread a couple of times to see what I was up to. I could benefit from working harder to make complex arguments more succinct or, if I can’t make them more succinct, to give them a more formal internal structure.
  • I have been paying a really stupid amount of attention to the GOP primaries. I mean, seriously – who really cares? Do I? I thought I was over politics-as-sport. Guess not.
  • I have not been wrong enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I have always been right. I’m saying that I haven’t been wrong enough. And, generally, that’s been because I haven’t been willing to prognosticate as a pundit ought.

Oh, I made some predictions that didn’t pan out. I thought, when he entered the race (which was technically still 2014), that Jeb Bush would become the dominant figure in the GOP primary contest. And, when Scott Walker entered the race, I thought he would give Bush the most serious run for his money. Obviously, both predictions were wildly off-base. But I don’t really fault myself for making what I think most people at the time would have considered smart-money bets. Sometimes, the shortest-odds horses lose. Indeed, they lose most of the time – otherwise there wouldn’t be horse races.

And it’s not that I never say what I think about this or that political development. Sometimes I did – I supported the Iran deal, for example – and I may well have been wrong, just not on a time scale that allows for proper scoring yet. But in general I have a habit of trying to understand, and elucidate, all sides of an argument that I flatter myself by thinking is a sign of depth and sophistication, when it may actually be a sign of something far less flattering.

Here is a good example of the kind of post that emerges from that habit. The Saudi war in Yemen is monstrous, and American support for that war is appalling. Back in April, I wrote a post that, in passing, acknowledges that the war is disastrous – not just in humanitarian terms but in strategic terms as well. But I then quickly move on to an explanation of why we are supporting it anyway. By the end of the post, I imagine most readers have sunk into a kind of depressed resignation: this is bad policy, but it’s the kind of policy you’d expect given our prior commitments and our current diplomatic situation, so what are you going to do?

Well, once you’ve sunk into a state of depressed resignation, not much, I imagine. And that’s not a stance that I particularly want to encourage.

I hold pretty firmly these days to the proposition that while pundits have tried to change the world in various ways, the point is to understand it. But there is understanding that leads to clearer thinking, and better decisions, and there is understanding that leads away from decision-making altogether. And I fear I have been promoting too much of the latter kind of understanding.

This is related, I believe, to a reluctance on my part to make the kind of predictions that inevitably lead pundits to find themselves with egg on their faces. The war in Libya went much worse than I thought it would. The war in Yemen has lasted longer and is proving much more catastrophic than I thought it would be. I opposed both wars – but I “understood” why they were happening. I rather suspect that that “understanding” got in the way of my fully appreciating how badly they could go.

So these are my blogging resolutions for the new year:

  • Write more about movies, theater and books.
  • Write shorter bits or, when the bits are long, work harder to structure them formally so that the whole argument is clearer.
  • Write a smaller proportion of posts about the Presidential election.
  • Be wrong more. Or, at least, take the risk of being wrong by taking the time to figure out what I really think, bottom line, about an issue, and then saying it.

We’ll see how well I do.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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