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.