Persisting in a Mistake is No Virtue

This piece ran in newspapers in mid-January, 2019


“To err is human.” So we all make mistakes. Then the challenge is to recognize and correct our mistakes.

Because it is painful to admit one’s failings, sometimes people simply fail – or refuse — to recognize that some previous choice they made was a mistake.

But sometimes people persist in the mistake even after they’ve recognized that they should have chosen differently.

# 1 A major example of this witnessed by my generation was how American leaders dealt with the war in Vietnam (both Presidents Johnson and Nixon).

LBJ eventually recognized that the war – which he had magnified into a test of American will and honor – was futile. LBJ wasn’t willing to change course because, as he apparently said, he didn’t want to be the first President to lose a war.

To spare himself that humiliation, he persisted in a war that ran for many more years, that cost many more thousands of lives, and that inflicted lasting divisions and ill feeling among Americans.

How much better for America had LBJ been willing to lead the nation honestly to find the best available way to stop making that mistake.

# 2) Nowadays, we can see “persisting in making a mistake” shown in equally grotesque fashion in the UK with Brexit.

Two and a half years ago, the British people – by a 52-48 margin – chose to terminate their membership in the European Union. Many of those Leave voters had bought a tale told by liars (and likely backed by Russia, which wants to harm Britain, and all other Western powers and liberal democracies).

The lies have since been exposed.  And it has come to the point that enough of the British people see that Brexit cannot be accomplished without doing some serious kind of damage—like losing 12% of GDP, undermining the hard-won peace in Ireland, and/or breaking the unity of the UK – that momentum has been building toward having a second referendum to see if Britain can stop making what a preponderance of the British people regard as a mistake.

But a great many of Britain’s political leaders have maintained that the ill-informed decision the people narrowly made in 2016 be carried out because “the will of the people must be respected.”

But many of those same leaders  — who demand that “the will of the people” expressed in the 2016 referendum be obeyed — did not have much regard for those people when they deceived them.

And meanwhile, many of the British leaders who know Brexit is a big mistake – like the current Prime Minister – nonetheless persist in that mistake, apparently pretending, for their own political reasons, that there’s a good solution possible.

But the kind of leadership willing to take personal risks for the good of the nation – by telling the people the truth they need to hear, i.e. that the nation needs to turn back from making a disastrous decision – has been in very short supply.

# 3 The major current example concerns those whose support has bolstered the power of the current President of the United States.

Regarding the Republicans in Congress, it has been reported repeatedly that they recognize that Donald Trump is unfit for the office to a degree that endangers the nation. But – to serve their own political interests – they persist in doing his bidding.

It is different with those millions of Americans who supported, elected, and continued to approve Donald Trump as President. The great majority of those people do not see their choice to make Donald Trump President of the United States as a big political mistake. (Even though it is inconceivable that any previous generation of Americans – were they to return to assess the whole conduct of this presidency – would have approved.)

The lies alone – seven or so a day during 2017, rising to fifteen per day in 2018 – should suffice to prove the unfitness of this man to lead the nation. (Basic truthfulness with the American people is such a fundamental requirement in an American President until now it didn’t need to be said that it is unacceptable to have a President who routinely tries to deceive the people.)

But lies are just one of the ways their President has been degrading America—not least by continually violating the norms that have long sustained America’s political culture, and by assaulting the rule of law.

Though the already-visible picture of Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency could hardly be more blatant, an avalanche of further revelations of the criminality and corruption of this leader will in all likelihood soon be coming.

Which raises the question: Will such additional damning information move Trump supporters from “won’t acknowledge the mistake” to “how can I help correct the mistake?”?

I have hope, but I am not hopeful.

The culture at the core of Trump’s base has some admirable qualities of character, but “persisting in mistakes” is one of its less desirable character traits.

However, while they aren’t usually very good at acknowledging mistakes and changing course, these are people for whom it is important to be righteous. And it is on that high value that conservative culture places on being on “the right side” that I place my hopes.

It is possible that, in our present dangerous political moment, the moral and spiritual aspiration that at least used to be part of the heart of American conservatism can provide the impetus for a kind of conversion – the moral and spiritual growth — that admitting a mistake can entail.

“I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”

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