In the late '60s there was the greening of America. In the early '70s there was the graying of America. My entry for the phrase that best describes what is happening in the United States today is the opinioning of America. By that I mean both the proliferation of public opinion polls and the compulsion many Americans have to state their opinions on a bewildering variety of subjects, from affirmative action to the government of Zimbabwe.
I'm sick of seeing opinions on bumper stickers and T-shirts, sick of hearing opinions at dinner parties and family reunions, sick indeed of hearing myself deliver an opinion.
That said, let me deliver my opinion on opinions. The opinioning of America, I contend, not only makes for tense and boring social gatherings; it also is bad for the health of the country.
For one thing, most people get their opinions second-hand. Since few people have the time or the inclination to study a question carefully, they glean their opinions from their favorite columnists. More often than not, the more vehement and earnest they are when they deliver an opinion, the less they know about the question--having studied it only in someone's column.
But doesn't it make sense to get one's opinions from columnists? After all, they do take more time than the average opinion-monger to study an issue in depth. According to Walter Lippmann, political columnists "do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do but has not the time or interest to do for himself." In short, political columnists furnish Americans with a diet of opinions that makes them healthy citizens, capable of arriving at sound judgments about those who govern them.
Most political columnists seem to be bright and decent people, but we should not buy Lippman's line that their opinions are more solidly grounded in knowledge than the opinions of the average citizen. No doubt, some of their opinions are, but many are not. Lippmann himself admitted that columnists, under the burden of writing two or three columns a week, often talk off the top of their heads. Writing to his editor at The New York Herald Tribune, Lippmann said: "I find I am increasingly dissatisfied with myself, increasingly aware that I do not deal thoroughly with issues that are too serious to be dealt with superficially, increasingly oppressed by the idea of expressing an opinion every forty-eight hours, increasingly dissatisfied with the sense that the product is superficial and second-rate." (Despite these misgivings, which Lippmann voiced only eight years after he had begun to write a column, he remained a columnist for the rest of his life.)
What then is the well-meaning citizen supposed to do? He can't trust columnists, but he does not really want to study the question of monetary policy or the MX missile in depth. The regimen I propose is simple: he should simply tell his friends and anyone else who asks him what he thinks about a particular issue: "I don't know." Which is not easy to do, because admitting ignorance is a sign that one is not public-spirited, that one does not care about what is going on in the world, that one is apathetic --even self-centered. One's self-respect, it seems, is closely connected with the need to appear to others-- and even to oneself--to be a concerned citizen.
But we need to fight the notion that being a good citizen means having opinions on everything. We need to resist those who play the game of being more public-spirited than thou --resist it because the desire to appear well informed on many issues often makes people very gullible.
Walter Bagehot said that the most essential mental quality for a free people is stupidity. By stupidity, Bagehot meant not plain dumbness but an ingrained skepticism, a disinclination to acquire many opinions, especially new opinions: "What we opprobriously call stupidity . . . is Nature's favorite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion. It enforces concentration; people who learn slowly, learn only what they must." Stupidity results in solid citizens, not volatile ones.
Should the ideal citizen, then, have no opinions? Of course not. Madison and Hamilton, the chief authors of "The Federalist," assumed Americans would take an interest in public questions, but they did not think it would be good for the country if they became preoccupied with innumerable public issues. An aroused citizenry--a citizenry given to holding forth on public issues--would make legislative compromise difficult. Only congressmen, deliberating about issues in a national legislature, were capable of forming sound opinions--that is, opinions in the national interest-on many matters of public policy.
Madison and Hamilton, of course, wrote before the age of public opinion polls. Nowadays, it seems that many congressmen pay too much attention to public opinion polls when trying to make up their minds on an issue. If the country is to be governed effectively, congressmen should ignore-or at least pay less attention to -such polls because what the polls reveal is not so much thought but instant reaction to a question. I urge, then, everyone to consider doing the following courageous and patriotic act: if a pollster solicits your opinion on a matter of public policy, tell him that you have none.