Jesus Has a Lot of Explaining to Do!
Randy Cohen writes the weekly column “The Ethicist” for The New York Times Magazine, which appears under the title “Everyday Ethics” in newspapers nationwide. The author of Diary of a Flying Man, a collection of short stories, and Modest Proposals, a collection of letters, he has also won four Emmy awards, three as a writer for Late Night with David Letterman. Cohen was the original head writer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and is a frequent guest on Good Morning America. His work has appeared in Slate magazine, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and other publications. His most recent work is: The Good, The Bad & the Difference, a book based on his work as The Ethicist.
Cohen lives in New York City where we caught up with him on a cold, windy and rainy day, after accepting his gracious invitation to meet with him in his home on the Upper West Side. A devoutly secular person, he here offers opinions with which many, if not most, of our readers will disagree. But we think his perspective is helpful if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of how — right or wrong — the conversation about ethical issues in America is going these days.
HOMILETICS: So who appointed you as Solomon — or should we say Moses, or God — to render judgments about ethical actions?
COHEN: I can actually answer that! I know who appointed me God. It was the editor of The New York Times Magazine, who appointed me God. The column originated in—house. And they had about three or four people audition for the job, and we were each given three sample questions to answer. I don’t know who the other people were; the Times is spectacularly discreet and doesn’t want to embarrass anyone. Over the years, I gather the others seemed much more likely candidates than I — had strong philosophy backgrounds. I do not. I get the impression that some of them were academics. How they chose me, I don’t know. The ways of God and The New York Times are not for us mortals to probe. I assume that it’s literary and turn of mind, because there is no other explanation. I guess I make the questions interesting or approach them in such a way that seems fresh.
HOMILETICS: So there’s an advantage to not being an academic: It avoids the need to wade through Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant.
COHEN: I don’t think that was the kind of column they wanted. They weren’t looking for something with philosophical underpinnings. They simply wanted a conversation about how to do the right thing.
HOMILETICS: In your book, The Good, the Bad & the Difference, you note: “If all I had to do is write: ‘Always follow the rules; never lie,’ my job would be easy.” So ethics is not about following the rules?
COHEN: No, not necessarily. There are just and unjust rules. And a rule is different from a law. Some rules are simply imposed on you. In a democracy where the laws are putatively made by us — we’ve agreed to be governed by those who make our laws — the relationship becomes more complicated. You could make the case that in such a case you have more of a moral obligation to follow the law. But ethics is not just rule—following; it’s not even law—following.
HOMILETICS: But there are some ethicists/moralists whose system is a rule—based system. For example, Laura Schlessinger.
COHEN: I thought she was just a thug; I didn’t know she was an ethicist. I thought her job was to hurt people. I didn’t know she was considered an ethicist.
HOMILETICS: June O’Connor writes a “Dear June” column in Catholic Digest, and she was quoted as saying that Randy Cohen is a “consequentialist,” that is, someone who stresses the “impact our actions have on others while recognizing responsibilities to that awareness.” She also says that your ethics are “overtly, resolutely secular.”
COHEN: Well, both things are true! Although the second is a direct quote from me. Yes, I do approach this in terms of the central question being: “What are the effects of our actions on others?”
Ethics govern social transactions, unlike sin. There can be solitary sin. You can sit alone in your home and covet your neighbor’s ox. But that’s not unethical. If you’re going to be unethical, you have to leave your home and actually try to steal your neighbor’s ox. Ethics aren’t ethics until there’re other people involved.
HOMILETICS: The letters WWMD could stand for What Would Mom Do? Did you find that your mom is the source of a lot of your ethical thinking?
COHEN: I get the impression that this is a big part of where everyone’s ethics are located, if by that we mean that we’re very much shaped by the values of the families we grew up in and our mothers are the voice that articulates this. Also, the particular time and place you grew up. The religious training that people receive is the third influence. For nearly everyone, that’s the first exposure to organized moral thought, and even if you come to disagree with it in various ways, simply because it is the first time you’re confronted with organized moral thinking, it has a huge effect on everyone. I was raised in a Reform Jewish household. I haven’t been in a synagogue in 30 years except for a bar mitzvah or wedding. I am quite secular in life and in my approach to the column. I notice all the time ways in which my ideas of right and wrong are shaped by my upbringing.
HOMILETICS: What’s your fascination with Samuel Johnson, other than you enjoy reading dictionaries?
COHEN: Johnson the lexicographer is spectacular, but it’s Johnson the moralist who is such an unbelievably appealing figure. He manages to have this incredibly bleak view of the world, like it’s something more to be endured than to be enjoyed — and his own life was one of enormous difficulty and suffering. But at the same time, he was the most sociable, warm—hearted man you’d ever want to meet. He was never happier than when he was in conversation with other people. He had an enormous insight into the human heart. He was never doctrinaire, although he himself was quite a believing Christian, and lived most of his life in fear of damnation—this enormously good man. But his ethical decisions, while influenced by Christianity, were not simply the recitation of doctrine; he was very much aware of himself as a human being among other human beings and what a person can and cannot do.
HOMILETICS: Did you access Johnson primarily through Boswell?
COHEN: Yes, that was my first encounter. I hadn’t read the Life of Samuel Johnson until I was in my 30s. I just loved it! Since then, I’ve gone on to Boswell’s Diaries, and then to the essays, to the Rambler, and the Idler — great stuff. But Boswell is a better writer, more fun to read, but Johnson is the greater man.
HOMILETICS: What do we mean when we say that so—and—so is an ethical — or highly ethical — person. I guess there’s a difference between an ethical and highly ethical person —
COHEN: A sliding scale thing. What I mean by that is that he acts in accord with certain values I regard as profoundly moral — a constellation of values I try to honor: honesty, kindness, actions that tend to increase the supply of human happiness and human freedom, especially freedom of thought and expression. It is sometimes not possible to honor these values without coming into conflict with another. So, in my work, the task is to try to conceive of actions that will allow you to best do this. It’s a way of approaching ethics as a problem—solving enterprise — aspiring to be a better person as opposed to rule—following.
Again, late in life, I finally got around to reading the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights. It’s a fascinating thing to read, especially in light of what we’re talking about, in terms of rules or tools. They lay out fundamental principles that they could get every member of the United Nations to sign on to, even though their actual practices are different, but by avoiding rules, by avoiding the specificity and the narrowness of a set of laws — it’s not a law book approach on how to run a decent country, or how to be a good person. It establishes certain principles: a belief in equality, a belief in the fundamental dignity of all people. Broad principles. My own sense of the principles from which my ethics derive has an awful lot in common with that.
HOMILETICS: But a person isn’t ethical simply because he consistently adheres to his own sense of values and ethics.
COHEN: Oh no! I would argue, “To mine.” Because he adheres to my sense of ethics and values. While the way people behave differs from time to time and from place to place and many specifics about what is considered right or wrong varies culturally, it is possibly to articulate a sense of principles that you can get the most diverse people in any time and place to adhere to — which is why the U.N. declaration is so impressive.
HOMILETICS: Let me throw some names at you. George Bush.
COHEN: In a decent society, he’d be in jail. Like most Americans, I didn’t vote for him. I think he’s destroying the country. A liar, a scoundrel. His efforts are always in support of the wealthy, never in support of the weak. Someone who got our country into a war and has the blood of an awful lot of people on his hands. An appalling man. Little better than a coup d’état, in my opinion.
HOMILETICS: On a personal level—
COHEN: Oh, I don’t know him on a personal level. I’ve never met him. I speak only of him in his official capacity. I hear Hitler was very nice to Blondie, his dog, and was great fun at dinner parties. It’s a matter of indifference to me whether he’s a genial guy; on a personal level he may be a lovely man and I look forward to his return to private life so that he can be that lovely man, but as a public official, he — and I say “he” meaning that he symbolizes a group of people in power now who are systematically destroying what most Americans would regard as some of the most essential qualities of American life.
HOMILETICS: Bill Clinton?
COHEN: A pretty good president—
HOMILETICS: But an ethical person? You say George Bush isn’t —
COHEN: As a public official, yes —
HOMILETICS: That’s the only level at which you know him.
COHEN: I wouldn’t want to date either of these guys. I don’t think you get to be a man like that unless you have a lot of vanity and a lot of drive; they probably aren’t good dates. But as a public official; Clinton’s petty transgressions, as far as I can tell, had no effect on his practice or the way he did his job. It was trumped up into a horrible, major scandal, while Bush can destroy the environment, he can undo the entire New Deal, he can conjure up imaginary principles for not testifying before a committee that he appointed to get at fundamental truths about something of unimaginable importance to the country — these are not considered scandals. Clinton had an affair. Yes, well, I wouldn’t want to be married to him. He certainly should not have lied about that. But these are petty things that don’t affect the fate of the nation. Bush is a horrible man in ways of great consequence.
HOMILETICS: William Bennett.
COHEN: An interesting man. A sad man. You can picture him all alone in the darkest, least sociable corner of the casino pumping quarters, pulling that handle. He managed to find a form of gambling that is least sociable. Who cannot delight in the downfall of a hypocrite? If you can’t enjoy that, I don’t want to go drinking with you. That he’s a hypocrite seems undeniable, and the efforts of his supporters to pretend, “Well he didn’t actually say...” Well, how could he say, “Oh, yeah, I enjoyed that very much indeed.” Bennett has taken on another significance for me, more and more since I’ve been doing the column — a big shift in my thinking. When I began, what ethics concerned itself with essentially was individual rectitude, what a particular person did in a moment of crisis. This is very much the William Bennett approach to ethics. So that when you confront a homeless person you have to decide: Are you going to give them money? Are you not going to give them money? What criteria are you going to use? Are you going to give money to anyone who asks, to these people and not those people? And those are absolutely ethical decisions. But when I started the column and for a guy like Bennett, those are the only ethical implications of that encounter.
More and more now I see ethics as the practice of civic virtue. So the important question is not just what you do in that moment of crisis, but what you do when you get home? You have, in my view, an ethical obligation to write to the mayor, to write to your local representatives, to address the question of “Why is homelessness pervasive in my community?” Ethics is the practice of civic virtue above everything else. We’re social creatures, we have no meaning as isolated, atomized individuals. It’s incomprehensible. We only have meaning in our interactions with other people.
Now, Bennett takes the opposite approach. His approach to ethics overwhelmingly emphasizes individual rectitude. And what that mostly means is that he’s yelling at poor people and telling them not to steal bread. It’s hectoring, it’s scolding. In its emphasis on an individual as an isolated figure, it’s false. That’s not how people live. That’s not how their psyches are formed. That’s not how their emotional lives operate. It’s a false view of the world. But what’s really impressive is what a coldhearted view of the world it is. It has a tremendous emphasis on punishment as a way to change people’s behavior. He’s a mean, ramblin’, gamblin’ man.
HOMILETICS: But how do you really feel?
COHEN: The more I’ve done the job, the more I’ve come to think that if you take that approach to people, not only is it cruel, and not only is it false, but it’s ineffectual. You can’t get people to behave well, not large groups of people, for any length of time, by threatening to hit them with a stick, but if you put people in circumstances where it’s possible to be good, it’s absolutely inspiring how well they’ll behave. So ethics can be seen ecologically, that you can only understand people within the social structures in (or) where they operate, the kind of communities they live in, their relationships with their neighbors—those things are amenable to change.
There are cheap, easy examples — and of course I like cheap and easy examples, it’s how I keep my cushy job! [laughter]. Here in New York at 33rd and Broadway, it’s a big transportation hub. Penn Station’s right there. A lot of commuter trains stop there, a major subway stop. Thousands and thousands of people pouring out. People pouring out of Knicks games at Madison Square Garden, so they’re the people crying — and what everybody wants more than anything else is: They want a taxi.
And the most appalling episodes of violence I’ve seen since I’ve been here — and I’ve been in New York for 30 years — were committed there. People did just terrible things.
Then, about 10 years ago, someone — I guess, the Taxi and Limousine Commission — they did something very simple. They painted a yellow strip down the sidewalk and they stenciled two words on the sidewalk: Cab Line. It utterly transformed behavior there. It’s the most astonishing thing. Nearly everyone almost all the time simply waits in line. It’s magnificent. It’s never enforced — there are no “line” police there. But we changed the physical conditions and made it possible for people to behave, invited them to behave, and they do!
You can see it as a cause for despair, because there’s the question, “Well, why did they need the line?” But I see it as a cause for hope, that just by making even small changes in people’s circumstances, they really will rise to the occasion. And Bennett could stand there all day with his dice in his pocket, screaming at them all day and that wouldn’t have accomplished anything except to make him feel superior.
HOMILETICS: What questions do you get the most?
COHEN: “Do you tell?” is the big one. Do you need to report something? You, yourself, have done no wrong, but you’re aware of the wrongdoing of others. When do you have an obligation to come forward and report that?
HOMILETICS: And is the most frequent answer to keep your yap shut?
COHEN: Oh, no! Not at all! There’s advantage to not telling; there are times when that’s important. If you’re going to have a tolerant society, there’s something to minding your own business. And the law takes that point of view, too. Laws vary. I’m not a lawyer, but in most jurisdictions, most civilians have no obligation to report wrongdoing. I’m astonished to hear that! You witness a murder, you have absolutely no legal obligation to report it. The particular professions do, like doctors. They have a whole handful of them. If a doctor suspects child abuse, he has a legal obligation to come forward and report it.
HOMILETICS: Teachers as well.
COHEN: Yes, but most of us as regular “civilians” in most ordinary circumstances, don’t have that obligation. There are times when you do absolutely have such an obligation. The essential guideline is: You must come forward to report wrongdoing if doing so will thwart future wrongdoing that will harm another person. In my view you have an absolute, affirmative obligation to do that.
HOMILETICS: But if you see your married friend with another woman wrapped up in his arms, then what?
COHEN: Right. That’s a really hard one. You mess around with other people’s marriages at your peril. Every marriage is different. It’s the most intimate of relationships. Some people allow one another a tremendous amount of freedom. Some people demand monogamy. Everyone must know people who seem to be working really, really hard not to acknowledge what their partner is doing. It’s a choice they make. There’s lingerie — not theirs — draped over the doorknob and they never see it. They’ve chosen to do that. And to go and tell, and to toss a hand grenade in someone’s marriage like that, is to force a confrontation on them they didn’t want to have. It’s a really, really hard decision.
On the other hand, if you don’t tell, it’s even worse. You walk around feeling guilty that you’re now a co—conspirator with the adulterer. You’re helping to deceive the other person and doing them legitimate harm. It’s an impossible situation; ignorance is underrated in my view.
And my solution is based on the motor vehicle code of the State of New York — that moral doctrine. There’s a spot on our driver’s license where you have to check whether you want to be an organ donor or don’t want to be an organ donor. There should be something like that for infidelity. I want to know if my spouse is cheating; I don’t want to know. When your friend is in the other room, you slip the driver’s license in the face of the offended spouse and say, “Look ...” We’re assuming here you know the spouse. Friendship carries with it moral obligations. And the primary obligation is to serve the happiness and well—being of your friend. If you’re confident he or she would want to know, then you’re honor—bound to tell. They’re not going to be happy. This is not going to help your friendship, but I believe it’s a duty. I would tend to keep my mouth shut. I, myself, would rather know, by the way. But that is not by any means a universal view.
HOMILETICS: Let me throw some phrases at you. “How can it be wrong if it feels so right?”
COHEN: My approach to that is ultimately hedonistic. The reason for being good is to increase the supply of human happiness. What should result from our being good is not that sort of clenched—jawed pride in our own rectitude, but it should make for a world in which joy resounds, where people are filled with happiness with a capital H, that their lives are better. So that feeling good is ultimately the goal of all this, if we define feeling good in a broad way. But sometimes, as we all know, short—term happiness has long—term consequences, which is why we prefer to use cash machines instead of just robbing passersby. Feels good to have the 50 in the pocket, but when the cops come, and that guy is lying there bleeding on the street, or we’re bleeding on the street ....
HOMILETICS: So we’re feeling good, but as a consequence of what we did to feel good, others are feeling less good.
COHEN: Sure, our immediate emotional state over any 30 seconds is not all there is to know about the implications of our actions.
HOMILETICS: Another one: “What would Jesus do? Or drive?”
COHEN: Well, we know what Jesus would do. He would speak to the president who believes that God asked him to run for president. Jesus is the president’s favorite political writer. So I guess he’s read a lot of political books for the president who likes them so much. He would tell Mel Gibson to make movies. He’s responsible for a lot of stuff. I don’t know how he sleeps. He would come with the sword. It depends on whom you ask. As you know, my approach to all these things is secular, but I think that Jesus has a lot of explaining to do, at least for what’s been done in his name, and he seems to have a very flexible name, doesn’t he? I mean, how is he going to explain the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades — we could go on and on. His guys don’t have such a great record as a force for human kindness.
HOMILETICS: Teens are wearing or used to wear the WWJD wristband, as some sort of an ethical weathervane, how does this work?
COHEN: Well, it doesn’t work. And this is not true only of Christians, but it seems to be true of people who would describe themselves as true believers of any faith. They are able to justify actions that are appalling to outsiders by saying, “Well, these are the doctrines of my church. This is what my religion compels me to do.” The catalog of suffering brought on by that approach is quite a long one. What would Jesus do? Well, if you believe some of his adherents, he would do some pretty awful things. In our country, Jesus is apparently a right—wing Republican! John Ashcroft thinks that he is serving the dictates of his religion. Apparently Jesus thinks statues should be covered with cloth because the human body is embarrassing. Jesus is very anti—sex, apparently, even though for all of human history this has been a joyful thing that people seem to like. He’s got a lot of explaining to do.
HOMILETICS: “Everyone did that which was right in their own eyes.” A phrase from the Hebrew Scriptures, describing a period of religious and political chaos.
COHEN: Ethics, at least as I approach it, is meant to supply a reasoned answer to the question of what should I do now. It’s about our actions. It’s not whimsical. It’s not arbitrary. I am obliged to make a reasoned case. Here are fundamental principles that people of good will can be persuaded are sound, that, yes, we can embrace these principles, and that certain actions, then, flow from them. There’s nothing arbitrary about it. It’s not a sort of madcap, anarchic individualism. Quite the opposite. I believe certain fundamental principles will seem persuasive to all people in all times.
And certainly the opposite of what you’re getting at is no panacea either. Mussolini ran a very orderly country that wasn’t so great. There’s the quiet and order of the graveyard!
HOMILETICS: You’re not too impressed with the Ten Commandments as a pedagogical tool. Want to go off on a rant about that?
COHEN: Well, not a rant. I’m amused, not so much by the commandments themselves, but by the enthusiasm for this idea that comes up again and again in American life that the Ten Commandments are a fundamental moral tool and that they should be placed on the walls of schools.
Well, the first four have nothing whatever to do with human behavior. Those are the religious obligation ones: “I am the Lord thy God,” and so on. Those have nothing with the way we treat one another. It’s God the egomaniac. Me! Me! Me! And he only gets 10. I mean, it’s his choice, right? And the first four are about him. I mean, come on! He seems so insecure. Where’s his confidence? First of all, “No other gods before me.” That’s just wacky! Like, he’s God! If he’s not confident, what chance do we have? No wonder we’re insecure!
What’s also striking to me, growing up in a monotheistic culture, is that —“No other gods before me” — is plural. There’s no knock on having lots of gods. He’s as much as telling us to have a lot of gods. I think we’ve let him down. He gets to be number one. It’s like a Board of Directors. Where are the multiple gods among the people who believe in the Ten Commandments? They are failing. So that’s the first four. I don’t know what they mean to a third grader.
Among what’s left, there’s the one, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” You’d think that wouldn’t come up much in the fourth grade. What can they do? So we’ve eliminated five of them.
The big one: “Thou shalt not kill.” Thou shalt not murder. Like they need to be told. “All right, any of you kids not clear about the whole murdering thing. Let’s check what’s up on the wall.” It’s just so superfluous. The kids know that.
HOMILETICS: But there is value for children learning things that they may not immediately apply, but to learn the value, place, contribution, history. So even if the third—grader is in no danger of being an adulterer, he or she has an understanding —
COHEN: — Okay, that’s one, where there might be some ambiguity, she might think “affairs.” Okay, “I’ll get married.” Okay, I’ll grant that one might be useful. And “Honor thy father and mother.” That’s another one that might be useful because it declares a value, and by “father and mother” I think it can be read to mean “adults in authority.” The teachers love that one; keeps the kids from roughing them up.
HOMILETICS: So they highlight that one!
COHEN: Oh big, really, really big. The other thing that’s striking about it, too, is how many of them are written in the negative except for the religious duty ones. Aren’t all the rest in the negative, except for “Honor thy father and thy mother”? It’s interesting to me that’s it’s easier to tell people what they shouldn’t do. Here are these wicked things that you shouldn’t do, but it’s much, much harder to tell people how to live and how to be good. That’s really difficult if you want to codify behavior into rules. To list general principles of how we should treat one another is a much more difficult task. Besides, if you want to pull something from the great religious writings, I think you could do something better than the Ten Commandments, — if you insisted on wanting something Judeo—Christian to lay on kids. If you just wanted something really meaningful that children could be guided by, you could start with the Golden Rule. That I could see that people could have real enthusiasm for. You can apply that in increasingly sophisticated ways as you become more morally mature. But you can apply it right away. You’re a little kid. It’s something a kid can use that’s profoundly moral and that would articulate values that an incredibly diverse community of Americans would embrace. That’s a great place to start.
We’re kind of lucky here in America in some ways that in such a diverse culture we’ve had very few religious wars. A lot of religious conflict, but not open warfare. Other countries have not done as well. I’m in favor of things that encourage that. So the Golden Rule in the schools is great. The Ten Commandments? I don’t know.
HOMILETICS: It’s not the same thing to say that “He’s a very religious person,” and to say “He’s a very ethical person.”
COHEN: Oh, no.
HOMILETICS: Thus the phenomenon of the religious hypocrite.
COHEN: His co—religionists would say he was not a very religious person. He’s not an exemplar of the faith. He let the faith down. But I’m thinking more of things like — you can adhere to the dictates of your religion but that would not necessarily lead you to behaviors I would regard as ethical. For instance, many religions are wildly sexist. They do not embrace an egalitarian ideal. I mean, there hasn’t been a woman pope in years! If you’re an Orthodox Jew and you’re a woman, it’s a big “separate—but—equal” religion. Sit in a different spot. Islam is no better. These are the three major Western faiths and they do not embrace an egalitarian culture at all. They’re just sexist. So a very religious person in those terms, I would not regard as an ethical person.
HOMILETICS: Do you have an ethicist who’s your hero?
COHEN: Dr. Johnson!
HOMILETICS: Ever get called by Letterman to do a guest joke—writing gig?
COHEN: No, the show’s carrying on quite well without me. We were foot soldiers and he was the general. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. I was insanely lucky to get to work there. No, he does not suffer from the lack of my contribution.
HOMILETICS: Doesn’t he call you up to ask for guidance on an ethical question?
COHEN: No, my friends do! That’s seems completely nuts to me.
HOMILETICS: They see you now as a paragon of virtue?
COHEN: No, no, not a paragon of virtue. That’s in my contract that I needn’t be unusually good. My job is to discuss these things, not to personify them. I make no claims to unusual virtue. But they do see me now, many of them, as having insight into these questions, that they would not have given me credit for before I had this job. This is about the awesome power of The New York Times. They could’ve picked a cocker spaniel. Okay, you’re the Ethics Dog, and people would call the Dog. They would. People who’ve known me for decades, who wouldn’t have given 2 cents for my opinion.
HOMILETICS: What’s your take on the perception that people have of clergy today? Have we let people down as a professional class?
COHEN: Not really, because I have to say that I haven’t regarded you with particular respect. As I think is apparent, I’m a secular guy, and I think the historical effect of organized religion on American life through the history of this country is pretty checkered. There are many examples of the church as a force for good, but there are 10 times as many examples where it is not. So I have not seen the clergy as a particularly virtuous coterie of people. It’s always especially striking if a policeman breaks the law, or a clergyman is caught in a love nest. Again, we all love hypocrisy. It’s as entertaining as anything you might watch on TV. It hasn’t been a fall from grace for me, because, frankly, I didn’t see you guys as occupying a position of grace.
HOMILETICS: So how can we do our job better? What would be your word to us?
COHEN: I would feel presumptuous saying a word to you!
HOMILETICS: No, please. Take a word!
COHEN: No, it’s not for me to say. In my job, one of the things that lets me do it and not be paralyzed is to answer particular questions about behavior and not to judge the actor so much but to write about the action. But even there, when people write in, you can tell from the way they phrase the question, they often have a pretty good idea of what they should do, but they don’t know why. My job is to construct a reasoned case, to think through about why the action they already know is the right action, is the right action. That I’m supposed to help them see these questions in a fresh way, with new clarity.
The other thing that helps me do the job and that makes me reluctant to offer any grand advice for your colleagues, is that the column is constructed in the form of a conversation. These are really complicated questions — the fun ones. There’re hard, and I only have 600 words to do two. So my job is to oversimplify. And e—mail has changed everything. The minute the column comes out, I get e—mail from readers pointing out how wrong I got it. And the overwhelming majority of that mail is wonderfully generous in spirit. It’s written with this tone that we’re all in this together, we’re trying to sort out this fascinating question.
So I’m not this moral authority, unlike William Bennett. I’m sort of the discussion leader — maybe. I suggest, “Well, what do you think of it this way,” and then they write and say, “What have you done?!”