What's an Opinion Worth?

Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. -- Jesus

My daughters Shanice and Jasmine have asked me over the years: how do you write your column? And my son, Sean Jr., I pray, will one day raise the same question. I'll leave the technical details aside and instead tell you about the framework I use.

Your grandmother tells me I never did crawl before I learned to stand on my own two feet. I just up and started walking -- no running -- at 10 months old. It wasn't until I had become a full-fledged member of the upright that I began to experience the joy of groveling around on my hands and knees. And that's pretty much been the story of my life, up to this point (minus the diapers, though not the groveling).

So it shouldn't surprise you to know, I started writing this column two or three years before the Irish luck in my first name landed me a job as a reporter. It usually works the other way around. Reporter first. Then, if you're lucky, a column.

I'm sure there's some psychological/developmental hang-ups spawned by my hurry-up-and-wait DNA but there are advantages to being impatiently ambitious -- one being: it can go a long way in convincing someone to actually pay you to write, which is no small feat considering that every literate human being on earth can communicate through the written word, on some level.

Even though I disagree deep in my bones with just about every non-baseball related column George Will has ever written, he's the one who led me to column-writing. One day I saw him being interviewed on C-Span and he said something like: "I have the best job in the world. I get paid to read, write and talk to people."

I said to myself: that is the best job in the world! I should do that. And I did. In my case, I wanted to play the role of witch-doctor confronting the Anti-Intellectual (AI) virus ravaging this country and to help develop the atrophied muscle of human empathy concerning "the least of these among us," to borrow Jesus' words.

If you choose to step into the ring -- and writin' is fightin' -- watch out for the anti-intellectual virus, as seen in the un-scientific opinion of those who equate evolution with creationism while arguing against the scientific consensus on global warming.

A strain of the AI virus young people are particularly susceptible to contracting I call the one-opinion-is-as-good-as-the-next disease. It attacks the mind's eye, misleading its victim into thinking that all opinions are created equal. There are knee-jerk opinions, which you can hear all day long on right wing radio, and then there are informed opinions. The virus also attacks the mind's ear.

To the afflicted, this all sounds "elitist." But there's three guiding principles that will help you separate the wheat from the chaff. The first principle of sound opinion: intellectual honesty. It's not about being "objective." It's about the honest pursuit of truth, with a bias toward the voiceless and powerless, affirming the values explicitly laid out by Joseph Pulitzer himself (and implicit in biblical ethics) while acknowledging the inherent worth of informed dissenting opinions.

The second principle was laid down by libertarian philosopher J.S. Mill: "he who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that."

Opinions that have not gone through the purging fire of the best opposing arguments are entitled to be expressed but there's no obligation to give them much credence. Those kind of dime-a-dozen opinions is what the old saying refers to: Just like assholes, everyone's got one and they all stink.

The third, and I think, most important principle is contained in the African proverb: to ask well is to know much, which reminds me of another symptom of the AI virus as diagnosed by social critic Neil Postman: kids go into to schools as questions marks and come out as periods. The questions are more important than the answers. Questions can direct the mind's eye to unexplored territory.

Besides, in a standard column of about 700 words, give or take, that leaves about enough room to superficially regurgitate conventional wisdom, which is why this whole business structurally favors conservatism. To properly critique the status quo, or lay out a progressive vision, requires more room than newspaper columns (and talking head news shows) provide.

Columnists who expect to change people's minds are destined for frustration and feelings of failure. About the best you can do with limited column space is turn easy answers into more difficult questions. Try to up folks thinking game; not seek converts. And this is true whether you're raising questions about why there's a difference between the public reaction to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady having a child out of wedlock and the perennial hue and cry coming from white commentators about black athletes fathering "illegitimate" kids, or asking why Iraq war supporters don't just come out the closet and say 'I'm for genocide,' given the historical fact that, short of mass slaughter, there is no military solution to guerrilla insurgencies, as the new U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said last week.

Even if you don't end up writing columns, these principles will pay off for you when you become adults. Now, you may be wondering why I would write a column addressing my children directly and not the "general reader?"

I got the idea from the late Oakland Tribune owner, Robert Maynard, whose son, Dave, was a Skyline High School homey of mine. Maynard published a book of columns entitled Letters to My Children. Since, in my opinion, our "baby boomer" leaders and their parents' generation are hopeless, and since we're the ones who will be left with the mess they've made, while we wait for them to hit the nursing home, writing letters to the children seems a worthy pursuit.

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