Advancing a Free Society

The Worst Op-eds in History: A Preliminary Ranking

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My day job as an historian of contemporary affairs obliges me to keep up with op-eds, those snippits of opinion unburdened by the perspective of time or the weight of information. True, they do not pretend to be more than snapshots of the passing scene. But they also have a larger revelatory value, as vivid displays of the impressive ability of experts to get things wrong.

A few caveats:

My examples come from the mainstream media, and thus reflect a liberal rather than a conservative bent. I’m ready to believe that comparable instances of opinion gone haywire can be found on the other side of the ideological divide.

To select the worst examples of the op-ed genre is no easy matter. These are my standards: (1) The author must be highly regarded--or at least highly regard himself--as an informed commentator on his topic. (2) The author must have gotten an important thing wrong in a spectacular way. (3) There must be no glimmer of awareness, either in the offending piece or in the author’s follow-up response, that modification or qualification might be called for.

I should point out that my examples date from 2009-2010. This is not because these were exceptional--so to speak, vintage--years for opinion gone off the tracks. I certainly do not mean to imply that there were fewer execrable op-eds before then, or since, or are likely to be in years to come. This is, as I say, merely a preliminary ranking. I will be delighted to cede pre-eminence to those who come up with even more noxious specimens.

So: the envelopes, please.

First, in chronological order, is Roger Cohen’s February 23, 2009 New York Timesitem, “What Iran’s Jews Say.” As Abraham Lincoln observed of Roger [another Roger!] Taney’sDred Scott decision, this is an “astonisher.”

Cohen visited with the Jews of the Iranian city of Esfahan and found that they (and other Iranian Jews) live, work, and worship “in relative tranquility.” Of course their number has dwindled a bit over the years: from about 100,000 in 1948 to “perhaps 25,000” (or perhaps less) in 2009. He finds this to be a tribute to tolerance, compared to the near-complete disappearance of the 800,000 Jews who once lived in Arab countries.

Cohen has “a bias toward facts over words,” and the operative fact, he finds, is “Iranian civility toward Jews.” Admittedly there are deviations: the regime’s stated readiness to rid the world of Israel and its not inconsiderable Jewish population, or the 1999 “trumped-up” charges that a group of Iranian Jews spied for Israel, or the fact that no Muslim can vote for a Jew.

But countering these unpleasant “facts” is his belief that “one way to look at Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force.” In short: to understand all is to forgive all. In shorter short: Lenin’s “useful idiot” is alive and well in the hallowed hallways of the New York Times.

Fareed Zakaria offered another insight into the Iran scene on May 23, 2009, when he informed his Newsweek readers that “They May Not Want the Bomb.” While “the regime wants to be a nuclear power,” he concludes that it “could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program.” The evidence? Senior officials have “repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons.” Even more, president Ahmadinejad cites Ayatollah Khomeini, he of blessed memory, to the effect that nuclear weapons are “un-Islamic.” And Khomeini’s successor Ayatollah Khamenei is reported to hold that they are “immoral.”

Besides, many of the regime’s leaders have bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland: not the behavior of fanatics hell-bent on nuclear war. And while Iran ”is certainly not a democracy,” neither is it “a monolithic dictatorship.” So: not to worry. All that is needed is that uranium enrichment in Iran proceed “under the control of an international consortium.” Voice-of-reason Zakaria concludes: “Why not try this before launching the next Mideast war?”

Two-plus years later, even the International Atomic Energy Agency has abandoned its previously robust doubts as to the Iranians’ nuclear weapon intentions. Zakaria would be well-advised to thoroughly Windex his crystal ball.

Finally, there is Paul Krugman’s “Learning from Europe,” from the Times of January 11, 2010. Here the noblest Nobelist of them all sets right benighted conservatives who fear that we are on the road to European-style social democracy. Their “wailing and rending of garments” is, he assures us, unsupported by reality. And what is that reality? “Europe is an economic success, and that success shows that social democracy works.”

As with Zakaria’s Iranian nuclear fantasy, Krugman’s European social democracy fantasy has not gained credibility with the passage of time. There is an international consensus on the Iranians’ nuclear intentions, and the lyrics of ”Kumbaya” do not quite convey what that is. Nor would Europe’s leaders, or its people, share Krugman’s content with their social democracy-economic mix. The Greater West European Co-Prosperity Sphere is creaking at most of its joints.

Op-eds (including this one) should be taken with a grain of salt. My profession has taught me that writing about the past is, in historian Charles Beard’s words, like dragging a cat across a Brussels carpet. Figuring out the present, as these instances richly demonstrate, is not a bit easier. As for the future: fuggedaboutit.