Monday, September 12, 2011

Krugman’s Civic Manners

“What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror.”
A lot of people were taken aback by these words from Paul Krugman (see e.g., Pejman Yousefzadeh). It wasn’t so much that he wrote them—Krugman and a lot of other liberals have been making substantially the same point publicly for years. It was the fact that he published them on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, when expressions of solidarity across the partisan divide are de rigueur. Krugman’s rant struck a lot of people who aren’t conservatives as a serious breach of civic etiquette. Even if they think Krugman’s right on the merits, most people think there was something uncouth about saying something like that out loud about fellow citizens on that particular day.

The point of etiquette in all its forms is to set the boundaries of polite society. We shun someone who belches at the dinner table, not because there’s anything wrong with belching on the gastro-intestinal merits, but because the right people try their best not to do it audibly at the dinner table. When they fail, they acknowledge the authority of the rules of etiquette by apologizing profusely.

The words “excuse me” or "I'm sorry" are a widely recognized signal that one is aware of, and wants to rectify, a breach of social convention. Saying them, whether one means them or not, is what accomplishes the rectification. By saying them, one tenders a claim to a place in polite society. The failure to say them, or worse, unawareness that they need saying, marks one as unfit to be received within it. Civic etiquette is a set of conventions that people ought to apply in their dealings with those who qualify as "right people" merely by virtue of being fellow citizens.

Nobody’s expecting an apology out of Krugman because he's militantly oblivious to civic etiquette.  He’s not someone like Ann Coulter who makes a living out of issuing political opinions calculated to push the boundaries of respectability. Coulter calls liberals “treasonous” or “demonic” with a sly wink in her eye. She’s depending on the rest of us honoring rules of civic etiquette assiduously enough for her to get our attention by breaching them.  We wouldn't respond to her provocations if we didn't take it for granted that she was saying things that, strictly speaking, shouldn't be said of fellow citizens.  In her own way, she’s affirming civic etiquette by ostentatiously making herself an exception to its rules and thereby marketing herself as a guilty pleasure.

Krugman’s not the sort to wink slyly or market himself as anybody’s guilty pleasure. Being a Nobel laureate and the most influential op-ed writer on the nation’s most influential newspaper, he apparently doesn’t think he has to apologize or explain. From all appearances, he never doubts that his place in polite society is secure and that his political opponents are the ones who, having belched at the dinner table by disagreeing with him on matters of state, owe him an apology. 

I'll leave it to you to decide what that says about Krugman and the New York Times.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Krugman is probably loving all the brouhaha his words have created. The fact that Donald Rumsfeld cancelled his NYT subscription publicly must have Krugman tickled pink.

Krugman is not worthy of even anyone's time or attention after he wrote those words. The fact that he would do such a thing is more than just civically impolite, it speaks volumes about his lack of character.

I live in NY. I thought the people on Flight 93 and the firemen and other rescue personnel were the heroes that day. I never thought Giuliani and Bush were heroes, but I did think they were leaders. Krugman either has no idea or chooses not to think how those men were tested that day and in the days to follow.

Krugman is a weak, small man who has no moral compass.
I too am cancelling my NYT subscription.