Whatever happened to being wrong?
Have you noticed that no one ever admits to being at fault or in error anymore? “To err is Human; to Forgive, Divine.” That’s what Alexander Pope wrote three hundred years ago.
A few years later, Robert Burns advised his self-righteous fellow-countrymen, whom he called the “unco guid,” to “gently scan your brother Man,/Still gentler sister Woman;/Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,/To step aside is human.”
But if the 18th century poets were agreed on the fallibility of what they, perhaps fallibly, called “Mankind,” it is a lesson our ideological age has somehow managed to unlearn. No more do we gently scan our brother Man (our sister Man may be a different matter); and the cancel culture’s declining to forgive is not the least of its beefs with the Divine.
Actually, there’s no mystery about this. The whole attraction of today’s reigning ideology to a certain kind of mind is that it presupposes that, so long as you stick rigidly to it, you can never be wrong. That’s because the ideology, like Marxism from which it is derived, can never be wrong.
It is not, to use Karl Popper’s terminology, “falsifiable,” as all truly scientific propositions must be.
I take it that this is why a writer for the British website UnHerd recently wrote: “Don’t let your beliefs become your identity.”
Your beliefs, that is, can be wrong, as everybody’s are from time to time, but you’ll never be able to recognize the fact, or learn from it, if you identify yourself with them. That gives you too big a stake in their wrongness, when they’re wrong, ever to retreat from it. To do so would be, in some sense, to annihilate your self.
President Joe Biden may not know much about how to be president, or commander-in-chief, but he knows everything there is to know about being Joe Biden. And the main thing he knows about being Joe Biden is that Joe Biden is never wrong. In that, he’s just like every other cancel-happy culture warrior: right, in his own conceit at least, by definition.
That’s what comes of identifying yourself with your beliefs—something that it is particularly foolish for a president to do.
For when you’re the president, and when even some of your media sycophants cannot any longer hide from the fact that you were wrong about something, you’re probably going to find that people in general stop looking at you as the leader of the free world and start seeing you instead as someone, so out of touch with reality as still to believe that you were not wrong after all.
As recently as July 8 our President said, in justification of his decision to pull American forces out of Afghanistan, that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Then, five weeks later when the Taliban were, precisely, “overrunning everything and owning the whole country” he spoke as if nothing had changed and there was still time for a deal to be struck between the Afghan government, with the help of American air support, and the Taliban.
“I think they’re beginning to realize they’ve got to come together politically at the top,” he said. “But we’re going to continue to keep our commitment [for air support]. But I do not regret my decision.”
Even The Washington Post couldn’t help noticing, when Biden said “I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me,” that “the vast majority of what Biden said before then, though, pointed anything but inward.”
He blamed the Afghans, and their leaders, and (inevitably) he blamed Donald Trump. But for himself, like the man in the “My Way” song, his regrets, if any, were “too few to mention.”
One consequence of being so wrapped up in yourself is that you lose the capacity, if you ever had it, of seeing yourself as others see you—another desideratum of the poet Burns, by the way.
Biden appeared to have forgotten that he was the president of the United States, called on to react on behalf of the country as a whole to a national humiliation. Instead, by responding only as a self-justifying partisan, he showed that he was incapable of such presidential largeness of mind.
But then again, if he had been so capable, the disaster might not have happened in the first place.
He wasn’t wrong, in other words, in thinking that there was blame enough to go around, even though much of it belonged to our military, foreign policy and intelligence establishments. But these swamp-creatures were as busy as he was in justifying themselves—usually in their time-honored fashion of anonymous leaks to the media—and were not mentioned by the president.
The wrongness, rather, came in his thinking, like a hack politician, that the only thing that mattered about the national and international disaster was somehow avoiding any blame for it himself.
More than one commentator thought to cite the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the effect that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Recently, when The Wall Street Journal quoted Secretary Gates’s remark, the latter wrote a letter to the editor claiming that, “While it is certainly fair to quote my criticisms of Joe Biden’s record on national security, fairness requires me to note for the record that those comments written in 2014 also noted that Mr. Biden was a man of genuine integrity and character”—in contrast, that is, to none other than Donald Trump.
I’m not sure Alexander Pope or Robert Burns would agree that the President’s response to such an egregious failure as the loss of Afghanistan to troglodyte theocrats was that of a man of genuine integrity and character.
Indeed, Gates, as a long-time member in good standing of the foreign policy and defense establishment that must bear some of the responsibility for 20 years of failure in Afghanistan, might want to think about taking some of that responsibility on himself before pronouncing so authoritatively on the subject of who is right and who is wrong, who is fit and who is unfit, and who has character and integrity and who does not.
That’s something that the American people should be left to judge on the basis of their leaders’ actions, rather than their words. And I think we can now begin to guess which way their judgement is going to go.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for The American Spectator and the media critic for The New Criterion.