Belmont Club

Copts and Robbers

CNN reports a mass shooting in Egypt. ” A policeman fatally shot a Christian man and wounded five other Christians Tuesday in an attack on a train in Egypt, officials said.”

The gunman walked up and down the length of the train, then walked back to two groups of people who were seated near each other and were both Coptic Christians, she told a reporter at the Good Shepherd Hospital in Samalut, where she was being treated for gunshot wounds to the leg and the chest.

The man said in Arabic, “There is no God but God,” and opened fire, she said.

Would it be justified, as Paul Krugman did, to say: ‘we know why’? In the case of the recent shooting in Arizona Krugman knew exactly where the hate came from. The Economist quotes Krugman as saying:

But violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate. … Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

Not that she actually said anything like what Krugman thought she said. Powerline provides the exact context of the quote because it was spoken on their radio show. Bachman said, “I’m going to have materials for people when they leave. I want people armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back.”

But who cares? The real message in the reactions of Paul Krugman or the New York Times is that certain entities will never let the facts get in the way of their preconceptions. They’re on the phone but it isn’t connected. They’re reading the words but the page is blank. Not only that, but maybe they’re convinced that is the way it really ought to be.

Of course Krugman and the NYT would probably accuse their ideological enemies of the same blindness.  In a mirror imaging sort of analysis they might conclude it is the conservatives who are oblivious of the facts. From their point of view every conclusion reached by the other side is inverted. It is their opponents who have taken leave of their senses, their opponents who have no grasp of the facts. What seems fair to conclude, whichever side you take, is what we have is a failure to communicate.

The classic reasons for a communication breakdown are the development of  completely separate languages and vocabularies, an inability to agree upon the facts — or even what should constitute the facts — and a shutdown in communications channels between the two sides.  Although everybody seems to speak English, in reality they have no words in common. If you map the connections between blog sites, a picture of two distinct universes emerges: a conservative and a liberal blogosphere with only a sparse collection of links between them.

Ne'er the Twain Shall Meet

This makes Krugman easier to understand; he simply can’t hear you.   And he doesn’t care to hear you. As Pauline Kael famously said when she read that Richard Nixon had won by a landslide in 1972: who could have possibly voted for him? “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know.”  It was an honest expression of ignorance, on par with the reply by British aristocrat to a man who approached her saying he had nothing to eat, that there was a good restaurant over there.  People who live in “rather special” worlds which are disjoint from their opposites may see that as a desirable state of affairs. They have worked all their life for the privilege of not being able to understand the other. And they’re not about to start now.

When two sides grow too far apart the mode of communication between them changes from conversation to negotiation.  While conversation is a form of communication between friends, negotiation is a communications mode between adversaries. Indeed negotiations are predicated on conscious separateness. You don’t negotiate with yourself.  As applied to the Krugman situation (and also to the Copts) it means that the other side can be made to modify his behavior (but not necessarily his views) purely on the basis of rewards and punishment.

And that is exactly what seems to be happening to Krugman and the NYT in the Gifford case. The significance of the WSJ and Economist articles (in the links above) criticizing them for witchhunting is not that the arguments will persuade them, but rather that they will hurt them; and thereby modify their behavior. It is not that either Krugman or the NYT will think differently next time around, just that they’ll be a little more careful.  The storm that has broken on their heads, the humiliation they have had to endure, will count for more than right or wrong.

It’s a sad commentary on human nature.  Machiavelli observed that it was better to be feared than to be loved.  “Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” On the next occasion Krugman may be forced to hold his tongue even if he happens to be correct, and forced to behave properly for all the wrong reasons since he would not conduct himself well for all the right ones.


Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” print edition
Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” Kindle Edition”