The fox and the hedgehogs

November 18, 1995|By Hal Piper

IF BOTH THE LIBERALS and the conservatives are mad at us, editors like to say, we must be doing something right. Not necessarily. Maybe we're doing everything wrong.

I've had both liberals and conservatives mad at me for as long as I've been editing the Opinion * Commentary, or op/ed, page of The Sun -- the one that is on the facing page to the editorials every day but Saturday.

One thing they do agree on, the liberals and conservatives. They say I print too many ''irresponsible'' articles. And they agree ''irresponsible'' doesn't just mean articles they don't happen to agree with. This is America, and everybody is entitled to an opinion, no matter how stupid.

But here is where liberals and conservatives diverge. Conservatives say an op/ed piece is irresponsible if they know it is wrong. Liberals say an op/ed piece is irresponsible if weaker minds might be persuaded by it.

Conservatives get mad when I print an article about (for example) Republican ''cuts'' in Medicare. That is irresponsible because Medicare spending will grow, not shrink, under the plan, though not as fast. That's restrained growth, not a ''cut,'' and since I must know this, it is manifest that I am an agent (or a dupe) of malignant liberalism.

Conservatives, in other words, don't believe that there can be divergent opinions, since a correct understanding of ''the facts'' must lead all sane minds to the identical conclusion.

Liberals don't get mad at ''irresponsible'' articles. They get sad. They would defend to the death anybody's right to say anything, no matter how idiotic, but that doesn't mean it should be put on the op/ed page. Imagine (for example) that someone opposes the relocation of poor city families to Baltimore County. To allow such a viewpoint to be read is irresponsible because foolish people might be swayed.

Liberals, in other words, don't believe the common folk can be trusted with democracy. It is wisest to superintend their opinions.

The stereotypes held by each side are thus reinforced: Liberals are soft-headed elitists. Conservatives are narrow-minded bigots.

What is the op/ed editor to do?

To begin with, I print very little that claims to speak for more than one person. Almost everything on a letterhead (Concerned Americans for Peace, Justice, Virtue) goes directly to the recycle bin. It isn't written to inform public understanding, but to distort it.

Pigs in a barrel

I look for writers who are struggling to refine their understanding. What makes Ellen Goodman a good columnist is that she will take on the hard cases, even when they challenge her assumptions. She rarely settles for the easy satisfaction of shooting chauvinist pigs in a barrel. She is always open to the possibility that there is more to learn about a subject.

It works both ways. George Will is not normally regarded as soft and cuddly, but over the years he has rethought his positions on such issues as term limits and taxes. No Democrat ever took such malicious delight as Mr. Will in savaging the Republican administration of George Bush.

I like columns that make readers think. Of course, not everyone wants to think. It's much more comfortable to rest on our certainties, and when they are unsettled, to accuse the op/ed editor of irresponsibility. Most of these complaints, I've noticed, are not about routine polemics that are easily scoffed at. ''Irresponsible'' articles are those that give you a sneaking fear that the other side may be onto something, for once.

In a famous essay the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished the fox, who knows many things superficially, from the hedgehog, who knows only one thing, but knows it very well.

The op/ed editor must be a fox who brings together subspecies of hedgehogs.

G9

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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