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William Raspberry

All the Nuance That's Fit to Print

By William Raspberry
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page A19

Those behind the ideology-driven rush to privatize everything from prisons to Social Security, I said in a recent column, ought to slow down a bit and admit the obvious: Private isn't necessarily better.

You'd be surprised (though I wasn't) by the number of e-mailers who thought I'd said public is always better.

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Now, some of these correspondents, I grant you, were simply engaging in the old politician's trick of translating a question they don't like into one they do -- and then whacking it over the fence.

But at least some of them really had trouble seeing any difference between the position I took and the position they lambasted.

I mention it now not to defend what I said, but to bemoan a trend that I fear is sweeping the political landscape. Call it the death of nuance or, as I think of it, the all-or-nothing syndrome.

Let me be honest and say I sense that it's coming more from the political right than from the left. Maybe that's because I first noticed it shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when President Bush told a joint session of Congress: "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Obviously those weren't the only possibilities, so why would the president say what he said? The only answer I could come up with was that he distrusts nuance -- sees it as vacillating and weak.

Now, of course, the all-or-nothing syndrome infects our assessment of the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Some of us point to the recent elections (or to new schools and hospitals or favorable op-ed articles written by Iraqis) and say it proves the Bush policy succeeded. Others look at the continuing resistance, the body counts and the trouble our armed forces have in meeting their recruiting goals and call it proof that the policy is failing.

But don't you have to call it one way or the other?

Well, maybe not. Isn't it possible that some things in Iraq may come out far better than those who opposed the war expected -- and that some things may turn out far worse than those who advocated the war predicted?

To acknowledge that, by the way, is not to say that the decision to launch the war was a tossup.

My criticism of the Bush administration's decision is that the president didn't do what investment advisers keep telling us to do. He didn't diversify. Instead, he bet way too much of America's resources (and its future) on a single roll of the dice. If it had been a perfect toss -- if "shock and awe" had killed the Iraqi will to resist, if the weapons of mass destruction had been found, if Iraqi children had strewn the paths of American tanks with flowers, if the Iraqis had leapt at the chance to have an American-style democracy -- Bush would be a genius today, and I'd be an idiot.

But it wasn't a perfect toss, and it's not unreasonable to say he would have been better off spreading the risk -- both among approaches and among more of our allies.

The same thing is true with regard to most of life's difficulties. It is seldom economic development or the environment, self-reliance or community help, diet or exercise, but both things together. There could even be a place for private investment in Social Security, if anyone can figure out how to get there without jeopardizing the old-age income guarantees.

One of the things that makes black progress so hard is our insistence on seeing our difficulties as stemming either from outside forces or from our own bad choices. Is it so hard to figure out that it's both?

Some of the blame for the death of nuance must be laid to the mindless divisiveness of those cable news outlets that treat politics as a blood sport. It's hard to acknowledge that the other guy maybe has a point when he is determined to prove to the world that you have no point whatsoever. Nuance starts to sound wimpy.

But all or nothing at all is a pretty good path to: nothing at all.

willrasp@washpost.com


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