“A foolish consistency,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson (1805–1882) in an essay on “Self-Reliance,” “is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines (clergy).”
Emerson rejected impulsive thinking justified by rehashed arguments. He bristled at predictable outcomes that crimped minds. The result Emerson favored? Smart inconsistency.
What’s “smart inconsistency”? It’s practiced by people open to fresh insights based on new information. They mentally turn-about. Adjusting to emerging needs, they don’t wander on paths choked by “foolish consistency.”
Not all inconsistency is the smart kind, of course. Slave-master Thomas Jefferson practiced foolish inconsistency. More than 100 slaves worked tobacco fields and did monotonous domestic chores at Monticello. Choosing to look the other way, Jefferson protected slavery, using slippery pro-and-con arguments, overlooking its barbarity, and downplaying its miseries. He seduced himself into living with slavery.
Early in his political career, Jefferson expressed strong opposition to slavery. In a deleted part of the Declaration of Independence — excised because at the Continental Congress Georgia and South Carolina delegations rejected emancipation — Jefferson excoriated slavery. He castigated “this execrable commerce ... this assemblage of horror,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberties.”
In the mid-1780s, however, Jefferson did an about-face. He filed down once sharp anti-slavery accusations. He turned mute. Historian Joyce Appleby crisply states how Jefferson practiced foolish inconsistency as he “backed away from attacking the institution (of slavery) as his power to do something about it increased.” The more plantation debts mounted, the less he railed against slavery. He owned slaves to pay bills.
Historian Henry Wiencek reveals Jefferson’s flip-flopping stances toward slavery. He pushed emancipation towards a distant horizon. Wiencek writes of “completely contradictory points he (Jefferson) advanced about slaves and slavery: the institution was evil, blacks had natural rights and slavery abrogated those rights; emancipation was desirable; emancipation was imminent;”
“(Yet, he also back-pedaled, saying) emancipation was impossible until a way could be found to exile the freed slaves; emancipation was impossible because slaves were incompetent; emancipation was just beyond the horizon but could not take place until the minds of white people were ‘ripened’ for it” (“Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” page 65, 2012). Obviously, Jefferson vacillated about emancipating slaves.
Contrast Jefferson’s foolish inconsistency with President Barack Obama’s strong inconsistency to meet twists and turns in dealing with Syria. He directs the ship of state like a nautical captain whose strong hand is on the rudder, hidden beneath rough, unpredictable waters.
“I’m not interested in style points (in dealing with Syria),” President Obama told his staff on Sept. 13. “I’m interested in results.”
A confident captain guides a ship to port, even though he sometimes tacks unconventionally. A ship captain and the president sail, using smart inconsistency as their compass.
Initially, the president favored arming rebels with small weapons. After the White House released information that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to slaughter 1,429 civilians, in violation of an almost century-old international ban, the president favored a limited military strike.
After mulling over this intervention on an Aug. 30 South Lawn walk, the president exercised strong inconsistency. He opted not to strike without a congressional OK.
Then, the president tacked again. He held back on further military strikes against Syria, after Russia demanded the Assad regime surrender its stockpiled chemical weapons and biological agents. Assad consented, amid reports that the Syrian army moved poisonous gas to hidden posts.
Critics chafe because the president sets a zig-zag course. They wrongly conclude the ship of state is lost at sea in dealing with Syria.
“This rudderless diplomacy,” howled Reince Priebus, “has embarrassed America on the world stage.”
As the Republican Party’s head, his mind is as muddled as the mixed metaphor he used.
Cohorts chide Obama for shrinking the U.S.’s role as a global cop, then lurching like a sinking ship from launching military strikes to concocting a deal on the fly with Russian President Vladimir Putin to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Dealing with Syria feels like being jostled on a ship’s deck.
President Obama, however, keeps foreign policy buoyant, using strong inconsistency. He practices Woodrow Wilson’s advice: “One cool judgment is worth a dozen hasty councils. The thing to do is supply light and not heat.”
The president proceeds slowly, measuring options and repudiating easy answers. He sifts through what’s camouflaged by the fog of war. He honors the biblical caution to “test everything” (I Thessalonians 5:21).
Isn’t diplomatic smart inconsistency, even though it baffles critics, a wise choice?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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