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Print view: Krugman's description is factually wrong. What makes us wander this way?
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OBAMA IN BOSTON MEETS KRUGMAN! Krugman’s description is factually wrong. What makes us wander this way? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 14, 2011

The loss—and the duty—of citizens: We thought President Obama did a good job Wednesday night helping create a sense of community, focusing on the value of the people whose lives were lost.

To our ear, there has been a bit of a statistical oddness to this event. Gabrielle Giffords seems to be an especially sane and sensible member of Congress—despite the fact that she has been criticized for daring to be a “Blue Dog.” Somewhat similarly, Christina-Taylor Green seems to have been an unusual nine-year-old, from her date of birth on.

Several young people have emerged—young people who are remarkably poised and impressive. We think of Daniel Hernandez, age 20. And of Christin Gilmer, a remarkably impressive and poised young activist who organized a “counter-protest” to shield the Green family from the lunacy of the “Westboro Baptist Church,” who were threatening to bring their brand of public insanity to Christian-Taylor Green’s funeral. For the transcript of Gilmer’s discussion with Anderson Cooper, just click here—though you’ll miss her extraordinary sense of sanity, devotion and calm. (Gilmer: “It's about protecting this family and letting them grieve and show the compassion that our entire community has for them.”)

A federal judge was lost that day too. We were struck by Obama’s words about Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard:

OBAMA (1/12/11): Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard grew up in Tucson together about 70 years ago. They moved apart and started their own respective families, but after both were widowed, they found their way back here, to, as one of Mavy's daughters put it, "be boyfriend and girlfriend again."

When they weren't out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ.

Imagine—Tucson in 1940! Population: 35,000. Or so Wikipedia says.

If liberals want to create a saner conversation, we’d suggest that we focus on the notion of citizenship. If you want to persuade a person of something, it helps to connect your presentation to that person’s pre-existing values—values in which they have an investment. Most people have a (positive) sense of the value—and the duties—of citizenship.

What are a citizen’s duties? A citizen shouldn’t be hateful or violent, of course—but a citizen also shouldn’t be foolish. We’re all inclined to believe certain things. But we have a citizen’s duty to question our own inclinations—to make sure that we aren’t being utterly foolish in the ideas we advance?

A tremendous amount of damn-fool nonsense has defined our public discourse for the past several decades. Have you ever seen a major press organ introduce that concept into our discourse—introduce the notion that we citizens, who may end up believing various things, do have a citizen’s duty not to be flat-out foolish?

We’re all inclined to believe certain things—things which reinforce our instinctive world-view. Don’t we have an obligation to do better—to question our own inclinations? To follow Obama’s child-centric framing from Wednesday, let’s quote Laura Ingalls Wilder from September 1921: “In the light of experience and the test of the years, can you see how your mother might have been more to you, could have guided you better? Then be sure you are making the most of your privileges with the children who are looking to you for love and guidance.”

We’re all inclined to believe certain things—but don’t citizens have a duty to do better? Don’t citizens have a duty to avoid advancing ideas or beliefs which are utterly foolish? Of course, we liberals can’t impose this regime on The Other until we observe it ourselves.

OBAMA IN BOSTON MEETS KRUGMAN (permalink): Barack Obama got famous in Boston, in July 2004.

He spoke at the Democratic convention. With these words, a little-known senate candidate—“a skinny kid with a funny name”—became a much-praised public figure:

OBAMA (7/27/04): Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us—the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.

(Cheers, applause.)

There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America.

(Cheers, applause.)

The pundits— The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states—red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.

(Cheers, applause.)

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.

(Cheers, applause.)

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

(Cheers, applause.)

Those designations of “cheers, applause” come from the Federal News Service transcript.

What did Obama mean in these famous remarks about red states and blue states? Presumably, he meant something like this: We aren’t really a nation of two separate tribes. You can find many liberals in the “red” states, and many conservatives in the “blue” states. And he may have meant something like this: As individuals, most Americans aren’t pure blue or pure red.

Presumably, he may have meant something like this: The pundits who “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states” misunderstand these basic facts. They like to imagine a degree of division which doesn’t exist on the ground.

This morning, Paul Krugman became one of those pundits, in a column which is profoundly unwise and remarkably unintelligent. That said, the column is also highly instructive as we move forward from here.

Before reviewing that column, let’s say it again: In our opinion, Krugman has been our most valuable mainstream journalist over the past dozen years. When it comes to policy matters, he is the journalist we consult first. We’ve learned a great deal from his New York Times columns and from his books. (We especially recommend the economic history Krugman presented in The Conscience of a Liberal.)

We are extremely grateful to Krugman for his policy work. But this morning’s column is about politics, not policy. And this is the area where Krugman sometimes tends to fall short a small tad.

This morning, he fails in a ginormous way. This morning, Krugman describes the world Obama denied in his speech up in Boston.

“[W]e are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time,” Krugman says, at the start of his piece. As a general matter, that may well be true, of course. But when he describes the nature of that division, Krugman’s logic grossly fails in a familiar, destructive way. In the following passage, Krugman describes the state of the nation. As he does, he divides us into two warring camps, in a manner which has routinely issued in war:

KRUGMAN (1/14/11): What are the differences I’m talking about?

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state—a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net—morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

It’s true—there is no apparent “middle ground” between the two “views” described in this passage. But how many people in this country actually hold such views? For ourselves, we pretty much wouldn’t sign on to the (un-nuanced) view that “wealthy nation have an obligation to provide all citizens with essential care,” although we would support such a policy. Nor do we see the recent health reform law, which we supported, “as a moral outrage”—though we understand why people want “the right to spend their money as they choose.”

When it comes to national health care, is there a “middle ground between these views”—between those views as Krugman described them? We’d say there’s an obvious middle ground—and we’d guess that most citizens live there. But that’s also true when it comes to another major issue—though once again, Krugman claims there are two sides and two sides only:

KRUGMAN: [T]he question for now is what we can agree on given this deep national divide.

In a way, politics as a whole now resembles the longstanding politics of abortion—a subject that puts fundamental values at odds, in which each side believes that the other side is morally in the wrong. Almost 38 years have passed since Roe v. Wade, and this dispute is no closer to resolution.

Really? When it comes to abortion, does “each side believe that the other side is morally in the wrong?” Some people see the issue that way; some people do so quite starkly. But vast numbers of people have mixed views about the morality here—until you enter Krugman’s world, where the whole country seems to consist of two “sides,” each of which sees the other as “morally in the wrong.”

Whenever we read such descriptions, we think of various things we’ve read about the run-up to the Civil War.

In an excess of fairness, we might note that Krugman says he’s describing “American politics.” His description would be a bit more accurate if he limited himself to American party politics. Eventually, he talks about the two major parties; when he does, his “never the twain shall meet” description becomes a bit more accurate. But if he’s describing the world of the two major parties, he thereby disappears many of the people Obama described in Boston. Tens of millions of American adults don’t belong to either party. Tens of millions who do belong don’t ascribe to either of the warring views into which Krugman divides the world.

Krugman ends his column with sound advice. Despite our opposing moral views—within which there is “no middle ground”—we mustn’t resort to violence or to “eliminationist rhetoric.” (Has Krugman descended into the bunker? How many readers could even explain what that latter phrase means?) But Krugman’s portrait of the American landscape isn’t just vastly limited, and thereby inaccurate; it’s also quite dangerous. Before all wars, there are people who insist that there is no middle ground to be found. These people are caught in their own tribal fury—and they’re happy to insist that we all get dragged along

When their fury leads to war, many innocent people get hurt. Christina-Taylor Green was 9. Which “side” was she on?

Unless you parse his words with excessive care, Krugman’s description this morning is grossly inaccurate. That said, many people have succumbed to the loathing which makes the rest of the world go away in the manner of Krugman’s column—a type of airbrushing Obama challenged in his speech in Boston. These people believe that the nation consists of two warring sides, with no middle ground—with each side believing the other side is morally wrong. That really doesn’t describe this nation—but such a vision can lead to more error. Here’s Krugman, in a remarkable passage, describing how he will proceed from here:

KRUGMAN: Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

Regular readers know which side of that divide I’m on. In future columns I will no doubt spend a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy and logical fallacies of the “I earned it and I have the right to keep it” crowd. And I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.

Wow. If Krugman actually means what he says, he expects to “spend a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy and logical fallacies” of the other side. But when he sees such failures on his own side, he doesn’t plan to inform us!

Do we really need more of this ugly approach? Just last night, we saw Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz playing this same stupid game.

This game is ugly because it leads to war, even as facile profiteers stuff millions of dollars into their pants. Despite Krugman’s closing plea, his (inaccurate) description may tend to encourage the uber-committed to march us all off to war, as Jared Loughner did last weekend, killing innocents in the process. But then, careless people have always urged the rest of us on to war. At the end of the World War I, Wilfred Owen described the process—and bitterly criticized those who urged the persuadable on.

Owen himself had seen what happens when we buy into war:

OWEN (1918): If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Roughly: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.” In this country, the two “ardent” sides were once blue and gray. By 2004, Obama’s facile pundits had moved on to blue and red.

We’re very grateful to Columnist Krugman for the past twelve years of policy writing. For us, his work has been invaluable; we look forward to many more years of the same. But his portrait this morning is baldly inaccurate—and Owen describes where such pictures can lead when they’re bought by the ardent.

Given the way the ardent proceed, the next shot could be fired by those on “our side.” Krugman’s description is just plain wrong. What makes us blunder this way?