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Re: The Longitudinal Lesson Of Paul Krugman's "The Conscience Of A Liberal."

By       Message Lawrence Velvel       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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November 6, 2007

  Re:  The Longitudinal Lesson Of Paul Krugman’s “The Conscience Of A Liberal.”  

Dear Colleagues:


            I spent about ten days out of the country in mid and late October, after having read Paul Krugman’s The Conscience Of A Liberal.  (There was no cause and effect relationship.  One wonders, however, whether perhaps there should be.)  I did not read Krugman’s book with the painstaking care, the repetition, the note making, the eventual outline that are de rigueur when an author will be interviewed on the one hour long television program I host, Books Of Our Time.  Nor have I yet read the book with such care because for over a month neither Krugman, nor his office, nor his publisher have had the courtesy to respond one way or the other to repeated inquiries as to whether he would be willing to be interviewed on the program.  Someone once said of Woodrow Wilson that he loved humanity but hated people.  One too often tends to find this or analogies to it to be true of liberals.


            So, not having read the book painstakingly, I did not and do not now feel I know Krugman’s book even a third as well as it is my duty to know a book when the author will be interviewed on the program.  But I nonetheless know it well enough to believe that Krugman has explained where this country had been for a long period after the Civil War -- when the party of Lincoln and the idea of free labor morphed quickly and permanently, shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, into the party of oppressing fat cats; where the country had been from about 1932 until roughly the late 1960s; and what the country thereafter became and remains.  Krugman’s work, I believe, is roughly analogous to a map that show an entire nation when other maps had previously shown only individual cities, particular mountainous, individual rivers.  Krugman gives an overall picture timewise -- he has in a sense given us a longitudinal historical study -- of where this nation has been and is, and thereby makes it possible to know where we might want to go by understanding where we’ve been and are.

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            After returning to the States, I found that the Stanford historian David Kennedy had written a review of Krugman’s book for the October 21st New York Times Book Review.  The review was fairly savage -- as sometimes seems almost de rigueur for book reviews -- to the point where the Sunday Times Book Review of November 4th carried three letters castigating Kennedy, largely deservedly I should think.  (The historian Sean Wilentz said at the conclusion of his letter that “A reasonable person might conclude that Kennedy had his hatchet out for Krugman.  His attack did not do us historians and reviewers proud.”  Other letters treated Kennedy even more severely in my judgment.)


            Then, in the issue of The New York Review of Books dated November 22, Michael Tomasky, Editor of The Guardian’s American website, wrote a three page review of The Conscience of a Liberal.  To a greater extent than Kennedy’s, it detailed what Krugman has to say, and for this reason among others, it is, I think, a fairer review.  Indeed, as is true of many pieces in NYRB, it far more closely than most reviews elsewhere fulfills a main function for which many rely on reviews in the first place.  That is, it tells you a lot about what the author has to say.  This is quite an important function because even those who read books incessantly can read only a small percentage of the books they would like to read.  Too many reviews are too brief to fulfill the needed function.  As well, far too many, maybe even most, seem to be written on the premise that book reviews, like theater and music reviews, exist to give the review’s author a chance to show how waspishly clever he or she is in putting down, in cleverly making fun of or crapping on, whatever work (or actor or singer) happens to be the victim. 


            I am, as well, partly taken with, yet also partly put off by, another aspect of Tomasky’s piece.  Tomasky thinks Krugman is “a liberal polemicist.”  To call someone a polemicist is prejorative, for it indicates one sidedness, a failure to recognize opposing facts or arguments, overwrought writing, a screed.  (I suppose Tom Paine was a polemicist.)  On the other hand, Tomasky thinks it good that Krugman has become what Tomasky says is called “partisan” in Washington.  For

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. . . persuasion of people with very different views is at best of secondary interest to him.  What is of interest to him is describing things as he believes they are.


In Washington, this earns one the epithet -- as Washington prefers to think of it -- “partisan.”  But too many people who are also granted valuable journalistic space spent the early Bush years in denial about the evidence that was accumulating right before their eyes, whether about official lies, or executive overreach, or rampant class warfare waged on behalf of the richest one percent against the rest of us.  Mildly deploring some of these excesses while accepting others is what is meant by bipartisanship today, and Krugman is right to have none of it.  As a result he has left us a much more accurate record of the Bush years than, say, The Washington Post’s David S. Broder, or some of his more celebrated New York Times colleagues.


            It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog or this writer’s other works that for over 40 years I have often been accused, defacto, of being intemperate, or one sided, or polemical, or partisan, or tendentious, or some other word that indicates what these words indicate.  To the amazement (and consternation) of friends, colleagues and my wife, I reject all such characterizations.  For if you have considered the opposing facts and arguments, and reject them as being untrue, of lesser import, or (in the case of certain alleged facts, like WMDs in Iraq) nonexistent, it is not in my judgment intemperate, partisan, one sided, polemical, or tendentious to insist on the side you believe in. 


Why, then, do others feel differently?  Well, as terrible as it is to say, as arrogant as some (incorrectly in my judgment) will think it to say, my view is that most often people feel differently, as people’s views toward Krugman exemplified, because they are unaware of or refuse to recognize or fail to accept the facts and arguments contrary to their positions.  One is reminded of Sir Lewis Namier’s story (I believe his original surname was Bernstein) of coming back to college in England (Oxford or Cambridge, I think) after visiting his home in Mitteleuropa (Austria? Poland?) in the summer of 1914, and upon his return telling young Englishmen on campus that there would soon be a general European war because armies were massing across the border from his father’s lands.  The young Englishmen hooted at him because they were ignorant of rivalries and events in Mitteleuropa and were derisive of the idea that events there could involve England in a major European war.  One year later, those young Englishmen were mainly, or all, dead.  One is also reminded of the scene in the movie “Gettysburg” in which George Pickett vigorously denies the Darwinian theory that man could be descended from “a ape,” and as his trump argument asserts that maybe his opponent is descended from “a ape,” and maybe even he himself is descended from “a ape,” but nobody there would say that (the sainted) Robert E. Lee is descended from “a ape.” 


Ignorance, and unwillingness to accept facts or reasonable arguments, were in Pickett’s day and before, are now, and no doubt in future will be the major reason that people have and will reject the views of people like Krugman and will call persons like him polemicists, partisans, intemperate, tendentious or what have you -- even though he has so often been proven right in the fullness of time.  One is really not tendentious, intemperate, etc., unless one himself refuses to recognize facts or reasonable arguments rather than having thoughtfully rejected them as untrue or insufficient, and it is the rejecters of Krugman’s views who are all more likely to be polemical, partisan, tendentious, etc. even though the nearly always wrong conventional wisdom -- as exemplified in their own statements -- proclaims them moderates.   


If one wants additional proof of this, remember that Krugman’s dislike and intellectual fire are directed at George Bush and the Bushites, while fire is directed at Krugman by the people who hold Bushian views.  So, call Krugman, and those of us who hold similar views, a polemicist, or intemperate, or tendentious or whatever you like, but the chances are often pretty good that you are not correct, and this writer objects to the incorrect appellation. 

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            Which -- perhaps contradictorily – is not to say that Krugman is right about everything and has left out nothing which could oppose his views.  (It may have been Niels Bohr who said a great truth is an idea which is opposed by another great truth.)  I think there are some things Krugman should have paid more attention to, as will be mentioned below, but his book is nonetheless filled with truths, and, as said in the Hebrew prayer, is in part “a signpost before thine eyes.”  I shall discuss a few of his points, though this emphatically is not a book review and there is here no attempt, absolutely none, to describe all or even more than a very small fraction of the views in Krugman’s book.


            To me, the most major point Krugman makes is his “longitudinal” description of American history.  To put the matter very briefly, he says we had a long Gilded Age in which the rich got ever richer, the poor and the working class were tromped on and remained poor and lower class, and equity was largely unknown.  This Gilded Age ran, he says, up until the New Deal.


            During the New Deal and until about the late 1960s or early 1970s, we had a period of growing equality.  For various reasons -- the philosophy of the New Deal, the necessities of the War, the refusal of those who had been put down to stay down, taxation, etc., labor and the working class did better economically than before, the incomes and wealth of the superrich declined (taxation played a major role in this), electoral and civil rights burgeoned because political and civil rights followed in train of more widespread economic equality, and the general culture -- the prevailing ideas, the weltanschauung, call it what you will -- favored greater economic and political parity.

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.

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