What time is it?

Policy made plain.
Sept. 12 2002 2:47 PM

What Time Is It?

There just isn't time for all the things it's time for.

"It's time to put sentiment aside," announced New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof one day last month. And who can disagree? Kristof's particular sermon was not about 9/11 or about invading Iraq but about whales, and his view may not be widely shared. (Go ahead and kill a few, he feels.) But on the larger point Kristof speaks for all of us in the business of manufacturing opinions. On all subjects, it is time to put sentiment aside.

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You may be thinking that it would have been nice to be alerted back when opinion-makers thought it was OK to wallow in sentiment, so that you could enjoy this opportunity before the time came to put sentiment aside. But there was no such opportunity. Sentiment belongs in a special category, along with partisan differences, of things that exist primarily to be put aside. When sentiment and partisan differences are put aside, there is room for goodwill and reason and common sense and maybe even a small refrigerator where cooler heads can prevail.

A check of articles in just four major newspapers during the three weeks or so since Kristof's declaration indicates that it is time for literally hundreds of different things, in the view of those who write for or are quoted in the news media. A few of these matters do seem time-sensitive. This may actually be an especially good moment to consider leaving a corporate board of directors or to discuss with a child what he or she is willing to eat for lunch at school. But most of the things it is said to be time for are more like democracy in Pakistan or reviving urban rivers: It is only time for them in the sense that it is never not time for them.

The dean of Stanford Law School, for example, says "it is time" for America "to hold true to its principles." Was there a time, in her view, when America should not have held true to its principles? By contrast not everyone will agree with the letter-writer to the Wall Street Journal who says, "It is time to bring the hierarchy in Rome to its knees to beg forgiveness from the rest of the world for its crimes against humanity." But our view on this subject is unlikely to turn on what time it is.

It may be logically pointless to insist that it's time for something you never think it's not time for, but the "time for" conceit serves various rhetorical purposes. It suggests that you are open-minded and deliberative. You are not saying that your opinion is always and obviously correct. You are saying that you have considered the various options and only now have reached your conclusion, which itself is only tentative and applicable at this point in time.

"It is time to concede that politicians will never understand" the world's major conflicts, writes a Times culture critic, who evidently thinks he does understand them. This might seem arrogant, but "it is time" suggests that he decided only lately and reluctantly that his view of geopolitics is superior to that of the politicians. That word "concede" is an especially elegant touch, though one may wonder who forced him to concede the superiority of his own opinion.

"It is time" gives you the credibility of a convert. You are not one of those folks who have always believed unquestioningly that Jews and Christians should "bury old suspicions and fears." Until now, you did not think that Americans should "practice what we preach"—or at least you did not feel strongly about it. But now, "it is time." Your opinion on this subject is fresh and strong.

Third, it creates a sense of urgency. Not merely do you hold a particular opinion, but this is the very moment when your view of things ought to prevail. Yesterday would have been too soon, and tomorrow may be too late. A strong sense of urgency can even help to disguise a certain flabbiness in the opinion itself. According to a Washington Post op-ed piece, "now is the time to create a Commission on Privacy, Personal Liberty and Homeland Security." A commission to study the matter is just about the lamest thing you can call for on any subject. But at least "it is time" gives an illusion of vitality.

But where will we find the time for all the things it is time for? Fear not. In recent weeks' newspapers, the list of things it is not or no longer time for is almost as long. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder says the time for "checkbook diplomacy" is over. Dear Abby says this is no time for feuding—though she also says it is time to face reality, which for most of us will eat up more time than we save by eschewing feuds. ALos Angeles Times economic correspondent says it is time for Americans to "drop their infatuation with unfettered markets," while half a dozen others add that it is not the time to raise taxes on business. As if, in their view, it ever could be that time.

With any luck, the time you spend doing the things it is time to start doing and the time you save by not doing things it is time to stop doing ought to be roughly equal. So, please continue to do everything the media tell you to do.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.