On Reflection, I Might Not Be Absolutely Right About Everything

What I got wrong in 2011

If progress is defined as making the same mistake less often, or making new mistakes of a higher caliber, then by that one narrow measure this column was slightly better than it was last year. Or at least slightly less awful. A review of the past 12 months’ output turns up only a couple of real wincers.

One of those is from a piece on transportation early in 2011, when I wrote that “drivers pay 98 percent of the cost of roadways through gasoline taxes.” There is much disagreement about how much automobile travel is actually subsidized, and you can get into a lively debate about Table HF-10 from the Federal Highway Administration’s annual report on highway statistics if you want to.

I don’t. So I will simply quote Randall O’Toole, a transportation wonk for the Cato Institute who is nobody’s idea of a shill for Amtrak. He says about 12 percent of highway spending comes from property, income, sales, and other taxes. Advocates for rail would put the number even higher. Whatever the right figure is, mine was wrong.

I also wrote, just a couple of weeks ago, that “you can’t get a whole lot more Democratic than FairfaxCounty.” This is certainly open to debate. Barack Obama’s 60 percent in Fairfax pales in comparison to the 79 percent he got in Richmond, the 88 percent he got in Petersburg, and the 93 percent he got in D.C. I’m not sure precisely what “a whole lot” means, which is why I used the phrase, but I’m willing to stipulate that in some jurisdictions, you can indeed get a whole lot more Democratic than Fairfax.

Of course one can still get all the facts right and still be woefully wrong. You could, say, write a long profile of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il describing his love for American movies, his appreciation of basketball and his fear of flying, and leave the impression that he was a swell guy all around. This would be wrong, since it glosses over the fact his totalitarian state violated just about every individual right and notion of human decency one can think of.

To the readers who throw up a little in their mouths every time they read one of these columns, this is surely the greater type of offense. For example, I wrote two pieces that had nothing good to say about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many people think the movement is the noblest thing to come along since Mother Teresa. One of us is wrong, and it could be me.

Having nothing good to say about someone is another way to be wrong, and I was guilty on that score a few times this year. I don’t like personal attacks and try to write about issues and policies rather than individuals, but sometimes it’s hard to separate the two, since individuals are the ones whose actions produce the issues and policies discussed.

Yet another way to be wrong is to ride certain hobbyhorses too much, to the detriment of important issues that deserve more ink. I probably did some of that, too.

It is likeways possible to be wrong about abstract considerations, which in turn makes you wrong about particular subjects. Perhaps a belief in individual liberty is entirely misplaced. If so, then at least half of this year’s diatribes should have gone straight to the shredder. (But I’ll defend to the death the column condemning journalism’s overuse of “iconic”!) Learned Hand was onto something when he said the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right.

On the other – er, hand – you can’t be so unsure that you wind up devoid of all judgment. Shortly after 9/11 Alison Hornstein, a young woman at Yale, wrote in Newsweek about how her classmates, steeped in multiculturalism and moral relativism, seemed incapable of saying that murdering thousands of innocent people in a terrorist attack is simply, indisputably wrong.

More recently a group of students in Canada were shown photos of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan girl who was mutilated by her own family because she fled an abusive marriage. Viewing the ragged, gaping hole where her nose used to be, the students responded by saying, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay,” and “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

As NYU’s Paul Boghossian has pointed out, this sort of moral relativism is actually moral nihilism: “While ‘Eating beef is wrong’ is clearly a normative statement, ‘Eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus’ is just a descriptive remark that carries no normative import whatsoever.” Once you abandon the notion of absolute right and wrong, you abandon the possibility of right and wrong altogether.

Still, there are right and wrong ways to talk about what’s right and what’s wrong. In Bird by Bird, novelist Ann Lamott writes that we don’t always have to slash with the sword of truth; we can also point with it. Here’s hoping next year’s columns do more pointing and less slashing, and that I can be as gentle with other people’s mistakes as I am with my own.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.

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  • Tim||

    In Bird by Bird, novelist Ann Lamott writes that we don’t always have to slash with the sword of truth; we can also point with it.

    You can also cut through this tin can and still slice a tomato!

  • Sparky||

    I hear it can also convince a warlock lord that he is not, in fact, immortal.

  • Sudden||

    So can an arrow to the knee...

  • cw||

    By the nine (whoops, I mean, by the eight), ain't that the quote of the century.

  • Jumbie||

    It can make Prince Humperdink sit his ass down real quick.

  • Spencer||


  • Jeff P.||

    Have you been touched by God? Has proximity to his divine presence left your skin looking older and more weathered? Try Oil of Olay...
    Now you can get close to God without looking like you do...

  • Apatheist||

    Criticism of Paul has officially hit rock bottom:


    Every one of his statements is accurate and true. Apparently:

    1. Believing people who got AIDs from their own lifestyle have themselves to blame and that either way they should pay for their own care is anti-AIDs victims.

    2. Believing we have rights as individuals and not as special interest groups is anti-minority rights.

    3. Believing that sexual harassers are immoral but nobody has a right to a job is anti-harassment victims.

    Whatever you think about the handling of the newsletter thing they were going to try and smear him as a bigot and racist either way.

  • anon||

    You don't understand; if you're not part of the collective on either side you're a racist bigot. It doesn't matter if you want people to be accountable for their own actions as an individual.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Wait, you mean that if I have anonymous gay sex with hundreds of men I might catch something? Someone's got to be held accountable!

  • Brandon||

    You could also catch something from anonymous straight sex with hundreds of women. No need to be a bigot.

  • DK||

    Much less likely. 1.7% chance per receptive anal encounter. 0.6% chance per insertive anal encounter. 0.1% chance per receptive vaginal encounter. 0.05% chance per insertive vaginal encounter.

  • DK||

    In other words, anal sex is about 100 times riskier than vaginal sex.

  • DK||

    Math...Make that 10 times.

  • Ewwww||

    And you get poop on your thingy too!!

  • mad libertarian guy||

    It took you this long to figure that out?

    He has an R after his name; to liberals that R doesn't stand for Team RED.

  • Michael||

    Returning again and again to the of concept of "liberty,"...

    Wow. Savor the rich contempt for any concept that is not entirely lockstep with progressive ideology packed into that particular set of quotation marks.

  • first||

    With her unique young innocent beauty, perfect shape and proportions Jula is one very special treat! Just turned 18 this student of architecture, is an absolute stunner with delicate features and hair like a lion’s mane.

    Jula has a great career in front of her and Petter Hegre tips her to be the girl most likely to be crowned Miss Ukraine some day in the future. With her kind and calm personality, Jula is a photographer’s dream – a girl with the looks, the body and the right attitude. With an enjoyment of all things aesthetically pleasing Jula’s primary interest is fashion.

    Beautiful in many ways Jula is a young girl who melts hearts wherever she goes.


  • ||

    I don't feel wrong about everything as much as I feel that I am born out of time.

    I don't hate people automatically because of the amount of melanin in thier skin.

    I don't care about one's sexual preferences.

    I should be able to go about anywhere on the planet as I please, without papers.

    My government should spend less than what it takes in.

    I enjoy getting high and don't feel the slightest bit of shame for enjoying some good bud and Pink Floyd.

    I don't care if or what god one believes in.

    I hate violence but accede, reluctantly, to its necessity. Like when someone is attacking me, my family, or my friends... not imminently, like now.

    If I am not harming someone, then the government should leave me alone.

    Whether these are epistemic certainties or mere preferences of mine [a point, per David Hume, that I will concede], I intuit that if I were born a couple of thousand of years down the road, I wouldn't be a freak for entertaining these notions.

    Good night [for me anyway]. See you next year.

  • The Marxism of the Right||

    Human beings have a propensity for turning half-truths into overarching doctrines that purport to explain everything, and the academy is the natural locus for doctrinaire thinking of this sort. In this regard, today’s libertarianism is not unlike the old Marxism. It starts with an insight into the way the world works, and some of its adherents take the part for the whole. The old Marxists were right to think that transformations in the means of production have far-reaching consequences. They erred, however, when they jumped to the conclusion that these developments can be made to explain everything. Today’s libertarians are right when they argue that central planning cannot work, that the free market is a mechanism for collecting and distributing information, and that the pretense to “rational administration” is madness. When they assert that recessions are a natural and welcome consequence of the business cycle and that attempts to interfere with this process have a tendency to backfire and produce severe and prolonged downturns, they are on the mark.

    When, however, they extend their theory of the spontaneous emergence of order from the economic sphere to foreign affairs, they make a mistake quite similar to the one that the old Marxists made. I have attended small academic conferences in which I have heard libertarians earnestly argue that we, not the Germans or the Japanese, are at fault for our involvement in World War I and World War II. I found these discussions, as I found my interchanges with the old Marxists, stimulating in the extreme. Those who make these arguments are often quite intelligent. They are also doctrinaire to the point of madness. When you are a hammer, everything that you encounter looks like a nail.

  • Brandon||

    So, some people blame America for WWI and WWII, therefore we must continue to maintain military bases in 100 other countries and invade a new one every other year?

  • The Left||

    Thank you for not pointing out the idiocy of marxism of the left. Nice to know your one sided.

  • The Left||

    you're (sorry, the sight of George Soros buggering you threw me off for a second...might want to wipe that off your chin, cause I think hes done)

  • Spencer||

    Since I'm assuming you've never been a hammer, what is the basis for your assumption that everything looks like a nail to them?

    Also, having been hammered before, I can say that NOT everything looks nailable.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    ****ing squirrels. Anon-bots can get through, but I type three workds and now I'm spam.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||


  • Doktor Kapitalism||


    Paul just behind Romney in Iowa, Santorum is (hopefully) maxing out.

  • jacob||

    Thanks for the update. Even more refreshing is that Newt continues to slide.

  • Ice Nine||

    That damn idiot Hinkle is so wrong about how to treat assholes that are wrong! He must be a real moron.

  • Cytotoxic||


    Keep slashing Hinkle!

  • ||

    "On the other – er, hand – you can’t be so unsure that you wind up devoid of all judgment. Shortly after 9/11 Alison Hornstein, a young woman at Yale, wrote in Newsweek about how her classmates, steeped in multiculturalism and moral relativism, seemed incapable of saying that murdering thousands of innocent people in a terrorist attack is simply, indisputably wrong."

    One of the most enfuriating, gut-wrenchingly disgusting things I've ever personally had to live through on more than one occasion was having a large group screaming "you yanks got what you deserved in 9/11", "the more dead yanks, the better", and "it's awesome how you yank cunts got done in in 9/11" while menacing us.

    I'll take dipshit moral relativist college students over that shit any day of the week.

  • The Marxism of the Right||

    So...one of the worst things in your life was attending a Ron Paul rally, then? He pretty much agrees with that sentiment.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Wrong. Paul knows that bin Laden declared war on the USA because we built a base in Saudi Arabia. Did you know that? Had we left Kuwait to the mercy of Iraq, 9/11 may never have happened.

  • Cytotoxic||

    OBL had started forming his little hate fest in the late '80s. Jihadism had been around a lot longer than that. The bases in SA were just a stated justification.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Sure, they've been slitting throats for many years, but bin Laden declared war in response to our building a base on land he considered sacred. Not saying for a second that 9/11 was our fault, just the reason that was given for declaring war. Not to mention Clinton's non-response to al Qaeda's attacks on Americans for 8 years.

  • ||

    So fuck OBL and what he doesn't like. Maybe the proper tactic IS to build bases wherever we're invited to build 'em.

  • Incredulous||

    Can you provide any substantiation for your statement?

    Arguing that US foreign policy provides incentive for people to attack the US is very different from arguing that murdering thousands of people was somehow deserved or "you yanks got what you deserved in 9/11."

  • ||

    I may have been wrong not to call the Occupy "movement" the Stupefy movement earlier than I did. I gave it too much benefit of the doubt.

  • ||

    Same here, only with the Tea Partay.

  • ||

    One poll I saw said that Santorum was leading in Iowa among self-identified TEA Party members. Not by much, but leading at 20%. What in the motherfucking fuck is that about?

  • ||

    They're insane? Felt sorry for him because of the Yummy Tears thread?

  • ||

    Just like the OWSers, the TEAP had supporters on here howling because we didn't love the TEAP. And the Paulettes scream because we don't love their savior at levels suggested by the central planning committee. And we get strafed by the Anti-Paulettes for not hating Ron because he doesn't want to murder children with drone strikes to fight an open-ended war against an abstract concept.

    And when we resist taking sides that we know will betray us, they call us irrelevant.

    Fuck election season. Not a pox on both houses, a pox on every house, apartment, condo, duplex, tent, yurt, lean-to, tepee, hostel and group home there is.

  • Brandon||

    What do you mean "We," kemosabe?

  • ||

    "We" are the ones that are leery of taking sides. And weary of people who do and attack us for not doing likewise.

  • ||

    That one, too, though I never really had high hopes.

  • There is no "we"||

    Actually, the notion that we should not "judge other cultures" is one of the most dogmatically culture-specific claims one can possibly make.

    It is a claim unique to uber-modern, uber-Western uber-leftist culture.

    No other culture in the history of the planet has even suggested that any moral principle requires cross-cultural "tolerance" of something that strikes one as morally repugnant as the mutilation of that girl strikes us.

    Certainly the members of the "culture" that cut that girl's nose from her face have not the slightest compunction about judging, conquering, crushing and subjugating any other "culture" they might encounter which offends their sensibilities to any degree.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    In Bird by Bird, novelist Ann Lamott writes that we don’t always have to slash with the sword of truth; we can also point with it.

    The "imperial presidency" does both, but sometimes not for truth.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    I thought this column was supposed to be about stuff that you got wrong, A. Barton, not stuff other people got wrong. But I guess after acknowledging two errors involving percentages, your capacity for moral honesty was exhausted. Well, maybe next year you can get through three gut-wrenching percentile confessions. Here's hoping!

  • ||

    You guys should have put the Moses portrayed by Mel Brooks in History of the World Part 1.

  • ||

    "a normative statement"...normative...normative, I must slip that into a conversation one day, it might just clinch the argument

  • first||

    Her name may mean goddess in Greek but it is German and American blood that Thea has running through her veins. And don’t be fooled by her fragile appearance - this 21-year-old powerhouse has will power and determination in spades!

    Described by Petter Hegre as ‘An iron will in a small body’ Thea takes her health seriously, and is what you may call something of a fitness fanatic. An Olympic champion in self-discipline - sports, green tea and red wine are her recipe for a healthy mind and body. She also follows a strictly no-carbohydrates diet to keep her figure lean and toned!

    Hegre met Thea during a dinner party in Cape Town and with her fine features and super-toned body immediately spotted her potential as a model. The rest, as they say is history…

    With her stunning looks, vibrant personality and her steely determination, Thea is certain to succeed in whatever she puts her mind to!


  • first||

    Meeting Mia for her first ever full frontal nude sessions proved to be a happy experience for both model and photographer.

    At the photo session in Paris, Mia proved herself to be perfect model material. Not only does this playful and sexy young woman have a superb body – with a particularly amazing ass - she also has the brains too.

    Mia recently moved to Budapest and is studying Public Management. She has plans to open her own model agency and experience in front of the camera is certain to help this ambitious girl on her way.

    Mia is gorgeous, polite and full of personality. She is the kind of girl you could easily fall in love with. She has the tiniest of appetites... but like many girls Mia just loves chocolate!

    With brains and beauty this girl is definitely headed for the top!



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