Tierney's gloss on why we should colonize Mars: "It is in going to new places and forming new societies that you come up with great ideas."
Maybe it's just the ghost of Julian Simon talking, but I decide that this is Tierney's most winning trait. Tierney sees his own writing as a Shackletonian process of exploration; his best columns read as gleeful journeys of intellectual or comic discovery. They're fueled by a rhapsodic libertarian ideology, a faith in progress and human abilities that could be called naive--or far worse. But even this has its good side. As the former Reason editor Virginia Postrel observes, at least Tierney's not a cranky libertarian of the sort who's constantly griping about taxes and big government. It simply doesn't fit his temperament.
For the record, the Times insists that Tierney is not their token conservative. Tierney came up through the Times working originally as a reporter; it's not as if he were recruited on an affirmative-action policy. John Landman, Tierney's Metro editor, objects when I inquire whether Tierney might be there to provide balance: "Now, if you're asking me, am I proud that John Tierney's part of the Metro Section, you bet your ass I am. But not 'cause of his ideology. 'Cause of his skill."
Tierney's closest equivalent is not William Safire, who was indeed brought onto the op-ed page for ideological balance, but Maureen Dowd, another Irish Catholic writer with a fondness for mockery. "The snotty style is in these days," observes New York University communications professor Todd Gitlin of the pair. Another journalist-media critic, former New York Daily News columnist Jim Sleeper (author of Liberal Racism), describes Tierney and Dowd as "safety valves"--outlets for dissent from the Times's liberal values. Sleeper stakes out political terrain somewhere between the Times editorial page and Tierney, whose writings he admires. For more steadfast liberals, however, the conservative columnists at the Times are less safety valves than emblems of the paper's shift away from its historic liberalism.