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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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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