8.3.03

In Defense of Indecision

I forget who said that famous thing that's now ingrained in the brain of almost every educated American, namely: it's a sin not to take sides on the urgent questions of the moment. It's a sin not to know where you stand and speak out. It's a sin to waver and waffle. Indecision is immoral--starting with the failure to vote, ending with, well, nothing.

In crossfire country, the bigger the issue, the worse it is not to have made up your mind. (Actually, I think the general acceptance of this idea is related to the rise of the blog.) We've even extrapolated the argument to condemn moderates, difference-splitters, and those who see complexity in genuinely complex moral situations. Society often considers them all worthless agnostics.

But is that true in a world with infinite information, infinite interpretations of that information, and infinite speculation about the implications of one choice or the other? Do we all have to be Andrew Sullivan?

Part of the problem here is that it's hard in this world to know what it means to be moral these days if you live a decent life and try not to harm people. The world is just too damn complicated. We know too much. But liberals, and I guess all decent people, naturally wonder, "Would I have been an abolitionist or an apologist? A moral pioneer or a sheep?" And even the abolitionists break down between those who talk and those who do. Would I have been an organizer or a carper or a flunky?

Look. It's good to be right... it's bad to be wrong... it's comparatively gutless to hedge. Fine. Certainty is seductive. And I grant that leaders have an obligation to pick a path and follow it--that's why they're called leaders. But what about us poor rabble? Not every major moment in history is clear, either in the moment or in later historical analysis. Not every crossroads is occupied by masses who could later be viewed as Hitler's willing executioners or the Swiss.

The fact is, sometimes moral bravado is rash. And sometimes getting caught up in theory and discussion isn't, well, French--but actually reasonable if the facts and arguments on both sides are persuasive. Again, I grant that for leaders this is a recipe for confusion and inaction and therefore untenable. But for those who shape and form public opinion, fence-sitting shouldn't always feel so uncomfortable. Chronic fence-sitting, yes. I don't trust people who always tie themselves into knots on every question. But what's wrong with periodic paralysis when the stuff gets tough?

Assume for a minute that it's objectively true that Saddam is an imminent threat and France, Germany and Russia are essentially indulging in criminal appeasement. Indecision is bad--but it's less bad than fanaticism on the wrong side.

World affairs aren't sports. Yes, it's hard to have respect for a guy who won't arbitrarily pick a team to go all the way and stick with his pick. But the certainty and confidence fetish goes too far. When lives are at stake, the principles and the facts can line up easily on either side, and fanatics on either side are regularly discrediting their cause with irrational arguments that make healthy contrarians suspicious, we'd be wise not to dismiss those who are genuinely, honestly vexed. Sometimes that's what the human mind is for--not to decide, but to think.

Oh, and I think I remember now where the idea comes from: Dante.

Music and Protest

The former Cat Stevens (re)records two war protest songs. Why are peace songs considered cool and songs about conflict not? Might any non-country singer conceivably support military force and set it to a melody?