‘Tis better to flip than flop

As one who stands tall like a lighthouse in a storm, the waves beating futilely against my rock foundations, my literary lamp has always shone in regular intervals to keep simple mariners away from life’s shoals.

Ah, yes, even my critics concede that the message of this column is as consistent as a foghorn on a murky night, always sounding the same dreary note, over and over, until simple and complicated mariners alike cry out at last: "Why doesn’t he write something different? Why can’t he change his mind for once in his life?" That’s easy. Because I do not want to be accused of flip-flopping, which is among the worst things one can do in American public life, next to wearing a bad toupee.

This is somewhat strange. Americans are a people who often choose to change their jobs, their homes, their religions, their spouses, their noses, sometimes their breasts and often their political allegiances.

Yet if one of their elected representatives dares change his mind on an issue of the day, then woe be unto him. That hapless lawmaker then hobbles through life to the imagined sound of the eponymous piece of casual footwear much favored by beach-goers . . . flip, flop, flip, flop.

Oh the shame! This was Sen. John Kerry’s fate in the last presidential election. How dare he change his mind on the Iraq invasion in the light of new information? It was positively un-American.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. The American people are always changing their minds — they are fickleness personified. It stands to reason that their representatives be allowed to change their minds also, to the extent that they have one.

This was pointed out long ago by no less an authority than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century giant of American letters (and how his mail carrier complained about the sack of mail): "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

The second part of this quote is rarely mentioned, which is a shame because it is insightful. That hobgoblin of foolish consistency, Emerson went on, is "adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

As it happens, I can think of a little statesman who adores a foolish consistency. It seems pointless to name him now given that I have been a foghorn warning about him and we still landed on the rocks.

Between this little statesman and the divines who supported him, the flip-flop was firmly established in his reign as a terrible political offense. He rarely changed his mind, with the result that for 7 1/2 years we have not heard the dreadful flip, flop, flip, flop sound — just (ital) flop, flop, flop, flop. (endital)

Well today, I am going to change my mind. I am going to reject a foolish consistency in favor of a wise inconsistency. Hobgoblin be gone! Lighthouse of consistency that I am, I will embrace my inner flip-flop if it means doing something sensible. And I will give a pass to the presidential candidates if they wish to change their minds, too.

Actually, there has been a lot of that going on. Sen. Barack Obama, apostle of a different sort of politics, threw away his new hymnal and rejected public financing. Sen. John McCain changed his mind and is now for offshore drilling. There are other examples too, and each is accusing the other of flip-flopping. This has about as much credibility as Saucy Shirley criticizing Naughty Nellie for flip-flopping at a chastity symposium.

Personally, I don’t care that Obama has decided not to foolishly throw away his fund-raising advantage so that he can win. Neither do I fault McCain for changing his mind about offshore drilling if he thinks that people who like scenic oil rigs adorning their seascapes are an important constituency and the prospect of gas coming down in price in 20 years is irresistible.

Of course, if politicians constantly change their minds, if they are windsocks in a gale of issues, that is one thing. But changing minds about this issue or that issue while generally hewing to a broad philosophical outlook isn’t flip-flopping — it’s what adults called maturity.

It amazes me how a great nation has become so fixated on childish slogans — "cut and run," there’s another stupid one. In fact, the absurdity has reached such a level that these slogans cross-pollinate each other. To some confused minds, we can’t cut and run because that would be a flip-flop.

What the heck is wrong with leaders changing their minds when they encounter a changing world? The trouble is that "ideology" is too close to "idiocy" in the dictionary and some people have become confused.

 

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)

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