In Boston, a Foolish Consistency of Little Minds

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Orthodoxy tends to make people lazy, stale, and stupid.

I thought we all understood that by now. Empires die of ossification, bureaucracy, sclerosis of the mind and expired assumptions. We have recent examples.

The editors of the Boston Globe seem not to have grasped this. The Globe — not only on its editorial page but also in its news columns — is an abscess of smug, unexamined left-wing assumption, which is just as unhealthy as smug, unexamined right-wing assumption. Both are a form of intellectual corruption — or maybe just narcolepsy. The Globe neither challenges itself nor surprises its readers. Its sclerotic liberalism trudges along, like the Volga boatman, dreaming its own dreams.

Until a little while ago, the one surprise the Globe had to offer on its op-ed page was the conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby, a thoughtful man whose own orthodoxy at least went against the drearily predictable grain of the paper. But now the Globe has suspended Jacoby, without pay, for four months. The suspension lasts — what a coincidence! — until just after the elections in November.

Jacoby's offense was no offense — or an error so nugatory as to demand no more than a one-sentence explanation. Jacoby wrote a patriotic Fourth of July column in which he discussed facts and legends, long circulated on the Internet and elsewhere, regarding the travails endured by men who had signed the Declaration of Independence. This material, all in the public domain, had been previously circulated by people such as Rush Limbaugh and Paul Harvey. Jacoby undertook to correct some of the facts. In an e-mailed version of his column, sent to 100 friends and associates, he made it clear the material at hand was much-circulated boilerplate. In his printed Globe column, he did not make that fact clear. The Globe's fastidious editors might have suggested that Jacoby run a line below his next column saying, oh, by the way, I should have mentioned that a lot of this speculation on the Founders has been circulated previously; in any case, I undertook to correct some of the mistakes in the material.

I once wrote an essay for TIME in which, without attribution, I referred to "the hobgoblin of little minds." I had at least a dozen people write to me and say, "You plagiarist! Ralph Waldo Emerson said, 'consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'" I wrote back and said, "Gee, I assumed the reader would know the Emerson line. Suppose I'd written 'To be or not to be.' Would I need the attribution to Shakespeare?" Jacoby's offense is a little like that.

The Globe's ineptitude in handling its columnists and their sins, real or imagined, reminds me of the vicious incompetence of the novice Clinton White House in dealing with its candidates for attorney general. First, there was Zoe Baird, with her untaxed-nanny problem. The Clintons showed her the door and brought in Judge Kimba Wood for an audition. Wood did have similar domestic help, but unlike Baird, had meticulously followed the law in paying taxes. The difference between Baird and Wood was the difference between a person who disobeyed the law and one who obeyed it. In other words, there was no problem. But the slovenly Clinton people, spooked by the hue and cry from those who only saw wealthy women with nannies, threw Wood overboard anyway. And brought in the exemplary Janet Reno, over whom the liberal orthodoxy gushed and gushed, even after Waco burned down.

Now, the Boston Globe has a problematic history with columnists of late. Two of them — Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle — have been obliged to leave for very real offenses. Jeff Jacoby is the Kimba Wood here. He has been forced to leave (without pay, for four months) for wholly spurious reasons.

I wonder when it is going to occur to the bosses of the New York Times, which owns the Boston Globe, that it may be time for a change in management up there.