OP-EDS

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December 2, 2008

Advisory alert

The only advice worth taking might be to not take any advice at all

Writing columns for a newspaper is a pastime fraught with considerable limitations. Speaking with the ambition of a generalist and the word count of a 60-second infomercial makes it hard to compete with the specialists out there who would easily undercut your message if they had the will to condescend and share your benighted media platform.

You might hop over this stumbling block by weaving folk wisdom or pop banter into your argument or just by making a laugh of the whole thing and providing the print media with a few shards of much-needed good humor. At stake is the question of function: What should an opinion piece provide for its (imagined) audience—information and insight or just bathroom entertainment?

This irresolvable ambiguity of purpose congeals in varying mixtures of information and entertainment, a point that reveals the relative daring of the columnist to stake out a genuine position, or the unique conventions of the publication. “Dear Abby” boggles the mind, for it isn’t always clear that Abby’s almanac of good advice is particularly advisable; and if it’s only for entertainment’s sake, it’s anybody’s guess why the reading public would prefer the conceits and revelations of a newspaper sage to the juicy feature article of a front-rack tabloid.

If relationship advice is still fodder for amateur interpretation because the mysteries of love have eluded scientific appraisal, there are certainly other topics where rationalization and professionalization have monopolized the authoritative angle for a chosen few. For instance, our country’s economy is flushing down the toilet, but you’d never know it if you read the Maroon from front to back, issue to issue. Our University’s brightest lights in economics can hardly offer a convincing way forward, so how can a dim-witted Maroon columnist begin to conceive of making a contribution to such an issue that creeps off the margins of comprehension, such monumental problems almost ineffable in complexity?

Or perhaps this crisis of confidence, this laying waste of economic expertise by the obdurate reality of Wall Street indicators, is precisely the kind of providential opening in which the columnist can add his generalist wisdom, his perverse mix of entertainment and insight.

As the mysteries of capital work wonders on the smug confidence of economic experts and the Fed gives up on rational choice to throw the die in search of aleatory serendipity, the traditional outlets of expert advice, like Business Week, have only one kind of advice to give: Don’t look for advice.

In such circumstances, traders, businesspeople, and regular Joe Six-Packs are flocking to psychics and soothsayers, astrologers and diviners. With the volatility of the markets trumpeting the end of an era of bread-and-butter investment sensibility, even less adventurous Americans are feeling their blood pressure pitch as money starts to disappear into oblivion. Psychics are lying in wait, noting how “[p]eople will entertain the irrational when what they consider rational collapses” and that many are looking for “someone not just to entertain them, but to enlighten them,” as different psychics quoted by The New York Times suggested. On this emergent terrain, the magical clairvoyance expected of number-crunching, Ph.D.–trained experts seems to have disappeared into thin air, opening a claim for an alternative class of predictive professionals.

Perhaps there’s some room for the newspaper columnist to pitch in and offer some words of advice in these times. The great mysteries of the market deserve mysterious answers. Since most people can’t afford to consult with mystics in person and can’t find the time to dial their pay-per-minute numbers, the next best bet may very well be the editorial section of the toll-free college newspaper.

In a time when expertise can hardly fix our problems, there should be no shortage of alternative opinions to help keep us even-keeled and forward-looking. If the rationalities that normally structure our decisions have suddenly lost much of their plausibility, there is still no reason why the higher values to which we normally aspire should lose any of their splendor. As our institution faces undeniably difficult choices for action in maintaining and promoting its ends, the columnist can and should provide reminders of hope and words of caution, imploring us to examine the assumptions with which we react to the changing world. And the rationale? Any advice is better than no advice at all. At least it keeps the options on the table, ludicrous and all.

Marshall Knudson is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology.