Monday, December 22, 2008

Dangerously Right

The great English journalist, novelist, and wit, G.K. Chesterton once said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” By that he did not mean that mediocrity was acceptable. By no means. He was a man whose entire life and career was a testimony to excellence.

Chesterton was surely among the brightest minds of the twentieth century—a prolific journalist, best-selling novelist, insightful poet, popular debater, astute literary critic, grassroots reformer, and profound humorist. Recognized by friend and foe alike as one of the most perspicacious, epigrammatic, and jocose prose stylists in the entire literary canon, he is today the most quoted writer in the English language besides William Shakespeare. His remarkable output of books—more than a hundred published in his lifetime and half again that many afterward—covered an astonishing array of subjects from economics, art, history, biography, and social criticism to poetry, detective stories, philosophy, travel, and religion. His most amazing feat was not merely his vast output or wide range but the consistency and clarity of his thought, his uncanny ability to tie everything together. In the heart of nearly every paragraph he wrote was a jaw-dropping aphorism or a mind-boggling paradox that left readers shaking their heads in bemusement and wonder.

Still, he insisted, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” What he meant was simply, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing.” If a thing is worth doing, but for the lack of resources; it is still worth doing. If a thing is worth doing, but for the lack of popular support; it is still worth doing. If a thing is worth doing, but for the lack of practical experience, or the lack of adequate facilities, or the lack of sufficient funds, or the lack of anything other material advantage; it is still worth doing. If a thing is worth doing, it is simply worth doing. No matter what.

Of course, there is one little problem with such a philosophy: it is bound to get you into trouble. And lots of it. Guaranteed.

Indeed, anyone who acts on principle is sure to attract criticism. Anyone who determines to follow a course of action is going to meet with opposition. It doesn’t matter what the course of action is and it doesn’t matter what the decisions are. Any course of action and every decision is liable to come under fire. People can only argue with a stated position. Critics can only rail against actual programs. Opponents cannot oppose nothing. In the same way that they cannot fight something with nothing, they cannot fight nothing with something.

That means that if you want to remain in everyone’s good graces you’ll have to make sure to do nothing whatsoever, decide nothing whatsoever, and stand for nothing whatsoever. To not do the thing worth doing is always safer and more popular.

Of course, it is also wrong.

As Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed, “Better faithful than famous. Honor before prominence.” Likewise, James A. Garfield claimed, “It is a greater honor to be right than to be president—or popular, for statesmanship consists rather in removing causes than in punishing or evading results—thus, it is the rarest of qualities.” Both men would have wholeheartedly agreed with Chesterton’s maxim. And as a result, both men were reviled. Indeed, both men were ultimately shot down by assassins—Garfield succumbed to his wounds while Roosevelt survived.

Doing the right thing is dangerous. It is bound to rankle the ire of some. It is bound to enrage others. It is bound to provoke a ferocious reaction. It always has. It always will.


Hope said...

Thank you. As usual, your words are very encouraging.

Hope, a listener of history lecture tapes.

Ken Stoll said...

I love Chesterton and it sounds like I am not alone. I knew of your affection for him but did not realize he was second to Shakespeare when it comes to being cited.

Superb advice George. It's men like you who inspire the rest of us to take our own stand.