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Reflections on Paul Krugman's THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) November 10, 2010 -- Because I have enjoyed reading Paul Krugman's columns in the NEW YORK TIMES about the Obama administration, I decided to read his book THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL (2007; paperback 2009). His title is clearly designed as a play on Barry Goldwater's book titled THE CONSCIENCE OF A CONSERVATIVE.

A word is in order about the use of the term "conscience" in each book title. Aristotle's RHETORIC has long been one of my favorite works. In it he identifies three appeals that the orator in civic debate uses: (1) logos (reason), (2) pathos (emotion), and (3) ethos. Ethos refers to the speaker's self-conscious attempt to construct and project his credentials and credibility. This self-conscious construct is usually in turn pitted against the alleged lack of credentials and credibility of the opposition. For example, self-described conservatives like Goldwater see themselves as the good guys versus the bad guys, the liberals. Conversely, for liberals like Krugman, liberals are the good guys versus the bad guys, movement conservatives. When Krugman and Goldwater each write about their consciences, they are each building an ethos, a way to establish their credentials and credibility.

Civic debate will probably continue to involve all three of these appeals for the understandable reason that civic debate involves trying to move people to political action based on reasoning that does not involve certitudes but probabilities. As a result of the fact that political debate involves probabilities, there will always be further debate about possible course corrections. Now, President Obama, for example, excels at appeals to logos and ethos, but he's not so good at pathos. By contrast, movement conservatives excel at pathos and ethos, but they are not so good at logos, to put it mildly.

Because political emotion (Aristotle's pathos) is needed to turn out the vote, I would like to call your attention to Barbara Koziak's RETRIEVING POLITICAL EMOTION: THUMOS, ARISTOTLE, AND GENDER (2000). Pathos is also known as political emotion. When Koziak refers in her title to retrieving political emotion, she does not mean to say that political emotion has been lost from our political discourse. But she does mean to say that political emotion has been lost from our theory about political discourse, as though political discourse were supposed to be nothing but logos, a non-emotional exchange of thoughts.

Like the Greek term ethos, the Greek term thumos is not easy to translate and explain in English. Thumos is usually rendered as the spirited part of the human psyche, as in our expression fighting spirit. In civic debate, appeals to pathos are designed to move us to action, which involves activating the thumos part of the human psyche. When politicians succeed at turning out the vote, they have succeeded at activating the thumos part of the human psyche.

As to my conscience and my ethos, it has been formed over the years by the Roman Catholic culture and education I received, even though I am not a practicing Catholic now. As a child and during my teenage years, I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, which was my mother's hometown. As you might expect, I was for Senator John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960, and so was everybody else that I knew. Looking back today on the first twenty years of my life, it seems to me that everybody I knew was a Democrat, including members of my father's family back in Ossining, New York (where I was born in 1944). But I had heard that there were Republicans in the world somewhere because President Eisenhower was one and Richard Nixon, JFK's opponent, was another.

If I understand Krugman's book correctly, he is a liberal in the way that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a liberal, as was JFK. When I was growing up, that's what everybody around me meant by being a Democrat.

As I've intimated above, Catholics by and large (William F. Buckley, Jr., being an exception) were part of the Democratic party when I was growing up and supported JFK in 1960. Because health care is a special interest of Krugman's today, I wonder if he is aware that the Catholics bishops in the United States were on record as supporting universal health care for about ninety years before the Obama administration and Congress managed to pass a form of health care recently.

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However, as is well known, the Catholic bishops made a hard right turn in response to the Supreme Count ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973 that legalized abortion, but this turn to the right did not stop them from advocating universal health care, even though it did motivate them to make sure that no public funding would go to funding abortions (which I myself do not think is right). As is well known, the Catholic bishops still like to denounce abortion. At the urging of the Catholic bishops, how many Catholics have voted for Republican candidates over the years based on the single issue of abortion?

Yes, of course Krugman is correct when he says, "The lessons learned by Republicans about how to exploit cultural backlash would serve movement conservatives well in future decades, even as the sources of backlash shifted from hippies and crime to abortion and gay marriage" (page 99). However, as a man of conscience, Krugman does not seem to understand how the abortion issue is a matter of conscience for those people who are concerned about abortion.

Because I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, I myself was not "bowled over" by Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas (2004), as Krugman says he was (page 177). On the contrary, I thought it was a superficial satirical work, not a book that I would ever be bowled over by or even take seriously.

In Krugman's various comments about the religious right and the Christian right and value voters (pages 161, 190-92, 196, 211-12), he does not seem to acknowledge that these different people are motivated at least in part by matters of conscience, as he himself is motivated at least in part by matters of conscience. By virtue of the title of his book, he has acknowledged that Goldwater invoked his conservative conscience. But how about acknowledging that the religious-type conservative people about whom he is writing in his book are moved and guided by their consciences, even if their consciences strike him as conservative consciences as distinct from his own liberal conscience? Once we recognize and acknowledge the role of conscience in guiding different political positions, then we will have clarified why debate about certain political issues such as abortion will be hard for politicians and columnists and others to undertake. Furthermore, many of antiabortion voters are not motivated by typical Republican interests in big business. For example, many Catholic antiabortion voters, but not all, who vote for Republicans do so as a way to express their antiabortion anguish, which is to say as a way to express their consciences. Just as there are conscientious objectors to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so too there are conscientious objectors to legalized abortion.

In the 1968 election, people who were conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam had no choice but to vote for one candidate or the other who both supported the war in Vietnam. Today conscientious objectors to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq find themselves faced with two major political parties who refuse to end those wars.

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But conscientious objectors to legalized abortion think that the Republican party today will fight to bring legalized abortion to an end, or else to legally limit it. In this way, the conscientious objectors to legalized abortion hope that one major political party today will work in their favor. But are liberals today prepared to mount a defense of legalized abortion? We'll see.

Even so, I agree with Krugman about "movement conservatism's genius at exploiting emotional issues" (page 177). Emotional issues obviously involve emotions or pathos in Aristotle's terminology.

Nevertheless, I want to comment on the following statement that Krugman makes: "What really happened in the sixties was that Republicans learned how to exploit emerging cultural resentments and fears to win elections" (page 82). Resentment and fears would be further examples of emotions or pathos in Aristotle's terminology.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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Paul Krugman's book THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL ca... by Thomas Farrell on Thursday, Nov 11, 2010 at 7:28:58 AM