Chad posts this interesting comment from Chuck Klosterman IV:

It strikes me that every wrongheaded sentiment in society ultimately derives from the culture of inherent, unconditional rightness. As I grow older, I find myself less prone to have an opinion about anything, and to distrust just about everyone who does. Whenever I meet someone who openly identifies themselves as a Republican of a Democrat, my immediate thought is always, Well, this person might be interesting, but they’ll never say anything about politics that’s remotely useful to me. I refuse to discuss abortion with anyone who is pro-life or pro-choice; I refuse to discuss affirmative action with any unemployed white guy or any unemployed black guy. All the world’s stupidest people are either zealots or atheists. If you want to truly deduce how intelligent someone is, just ask this person how they feel about any issue that doesn’t have an answer; the more certainty they express, the less sense they have. This is because certainty only comes from dogma

The comment thread is enraged. The line about atheists got various people hacked off, which is to be expected I suppose. The thing is, if you just read the passage, Chuck and Chad are pretty much making sense. Dogmatism is bad, and anyone who denies that atheists can be dogmatic just isn’t paying attention.

The other canard of the comment thread is the idea that moderation is somehow an abdication of choice.

But Kevin Drum offers us an example today of how moderation and a rejection of dogma can be valuable. Responding to a frivolous Op-Ed by Sebastian Mallaby, Drum explains:

When every single moderate Dem starts attacking Wal-Mart, maybe nobody’s betraying any principles at all. Instead, maybe they’ve figured out something that Mallaby hasn’t: it’s not the 80s anymore and things have changed.

What Klosterman is arguing for is not an abdication of responsibility to choose right from wrong, but a refusal to take sides for solely dogmatic reasons. A few decades ago WalMart’s merits and dangers were more clearly balanced, and a nuanced thinker had an excuse to let market forces have their way. That option has evaporated with the continued pattern of evidence: WalMart’s abuse of workers, their atrocious pay, they way they destroy local businesses and local economies, their parasitic reliance on public assistance to maintain low prices and low wages.

Confronted with new empirical evidence, people changed their minds. And that’s what ought to happen. Arguing with a dogmatic opponent of abortion, or a dogmatic opponent of theism, won’t get you any new insights.

One of the points I tried to make in my article the other day about rainforests and my posts about drought is that one doesn’t have to establish absolute contrasts between development and the environment. There are dogmatists on each side who will tell you otherwise, but looking for a way to use market forces to induce good behavior is probably the best way to save the world. And you can’t find those sorts of solutions by staying in one corner.

Yes, I’m progressive, liberal, and Democratic. I’m proudly pro-choice. But that’s not how I introduce myself to new people. I introduce myself by saying what I think and why I think that. They’ll figure out who I voted for when the time comes, but meanwhile we’ll both learn a little about how other people see complex issues, and maybe both find some benefit in that.


  1. #1 quitter
    August 30, 2006

    Eh, sounds like contrarianism/iconoclasm to me. The inability to trust any group movement period, simply because a group of people does it. It seems to dismiss the possibility (however unlikely) that a majority of people are right about something.

    Don’t get me wrong, a safe position to take on most things is to reject the majority-held view since the majority of humans are total idiots. But that doesn’t mean every movement is by necessity dogmatic. Every collaboration of more than one person isn’t acting in some kind of mindless zombie state. Sometimes, people get together and get pissed for legitimate reasons. Walmart is a good reason to get pissed. It destroyed the town I lived in, I’ll never shop there again.

  2. #2 Thomas Nephew
    August 30, 2006

    Personally, I think Klosterman was ranting at best. The ‘affirmative action’ sentence gives it away: it’s not dogmatism that bothers Klosterman, it’s the notion that you may have something of actual value riding on the debate.

    It’s worth mentioning that the whole pseudo-deep-thought Klosterman sequence pops up out of the almost-nowhere of some fairly pedestrian musings about the Olympics. When you find yourself writing about how stupid and empty something is (eg, home team rooting/Olympics gold medal standings/the like), you may have the uncomfortable epiphany that the only thing stupider than that is having to write about it. Klosterman just gave in to the temptation to generalize his disdain for a picayune thing to a wider, more satisfying target: anybody caring about anything.

  3. #3 Josh
    August 30, 2006

    I don’t read Klosterman as rejecting consensus, I read him as rejecting absolutism. There’s a difference between saying “X is wrong because Y,” and saying “X is wrong.” The latter is “inherent, unconditional rightness,” the former is conditional and evidence driven. That’s good, and Klosterman isn’t showing any beef with that.

  4. #4 Flex
    August 31, 2006

    Yet, Josh, how many people stop listening at, “X is wrong” and don’t hear the “… because Y.”?

    I notice that for a lot of the more divisive topics, people stop listening once ‘X’ is refered to as ‘wrong’.

    I think some people may be unjustly charaterized as dogmatic even though explaination is lost on the listener.



  5. #5 Josh
    August 31, 2006

    I know what you mean, but I don’t read that to be what Klosterman is about. Maybe I’m misreading.

    I would also say that even an explanation can be dogmatic. Saying “abortion is wrong because it’s murder” just dogmatically assumes that any fetus is morally identical to fully developed human being. It’s a dogmatic claim, and one that no amount of arguing will ever change anyone’s view on.

  6. #6 Jonny
    September 4, 2006

    I think if you were a regular reader of Klosterman, Thomas, you would recognize that finding broader meaning in “picayune things” is his whole schtick. In nearly everything he writes, he attempts to understand “important” cultural phenomenon through the lens of “low culture.” He may not always draw the right conclusions, but I don’t think the epiphany comment is fair. As a pop culture critic, he undoubtedly had this epiphany years ago, writing for his college paper. He has made a career out of NOT just writing about empty pop fads.

  7. #7 Thomas Nephew
    September 5, 2006

    I don’t doubt finding broader meaning in “picayune things” is Klosterman’s whole shtick. It’s a familiar shtick; it’s just that IMO it’s not generally a terrifically productive one: see, for another example, Lileks. You get where you were headed all along anyway, with the exercise pleasantly disguised as a pearl clever you has extracted from the messy oyster of life.

    I mainly suggest that in this case it gave the writer license, subconsciously or not, to think all strong-opinion-having is generally as empty as his/her own efforts often may be. Again, I point to the affirmative action sentence, in which the discussants he refuses to talk with are neither zealots, atheists, nor any other stripe of purported extremist or fanatic. That in turn makes makes me think he’s more of a gasbag wanting to get to 1000 words than anything else. Great work if you can get it.

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