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Until the other day, I had no intention of buying Paul Krugman's new book, The Conscience of a Liberal. For several years now, I've been buying books, by writers such as Frank Rich and Al Franken, that express views that coincide fairly well with my own. Not long ago, I decided that this practice must stop. I was spending money and house room on books that I would never read, not because I found their arguments unpalatable but for quite the opposite reason: I am already singing in the choir. The decision was ironically timed because it seemed to preclude the purchase of Mr Krugman's book, even though I agree with no one quite so completely as I agree with him. I have yet to read a column in the Times with which I might take issue. As a result, I no longer read Mr Krugman's columns. Far from encouraging me by stimulating my sense of being in the right, because the wise Mr Krugman expresses my views so clearly, his columns have a depressing effect, because not nearly enough Americans do agree with him. Every time that he appears on the Op-Ed page is a reminder that, in a democracy, the right side can lose. And lose again. And lose nearly everything.
After the depredations of the Bush Administration, which have already inspired talk of future war crimes proceedings, we may find that we have all lost everything. Islamic opposition to the West, whether violent or rhetorical, has fed deeply on the insult of the incompetent American occupation of Iraq, among many other provocations of hatred. The global economy is at risk, inordinately dependent upon the good will and optimism of a handful of institutional investors. Great swathes of the public wealth of the United States - from airwaves to the environment - have been shoved into private duffle bags with the alacrity of anxious burglars. It is not that the future looks bleak, so much as that the present makes a bleak future seem inevitable. Against this sorry background, even Mr Krugman's rousing prose affords small comfort. To read it is to be reminded, obliquely but powerfully, of circumambient disaster.
Michael Tomasky changed my mind about The Conscience of a Liberal. In "The Partisan," a concisely favorable essay in The New York Review of Books, Mr Tomasky accomplishes the remarkable job of restoring immediate urgency to Mr Krugman's thought. Far from a Frankenstein-like stitching of old columns, Conscience is a fresh exposition of the causes of American inequality in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. It ends with an exhortation to revive, in public life, the values of the New Deal and to incarnate them in a health-care system that will bring this country into line with the rest of the developed world. But most all, Mr Krugman demonstrates that the root of the movement toward inequality has from the start been propelled not by greed, nor by "rugged individualism," but by covert racism. The "movement conservatives" against whom Mr Krugman implores us to form a redoubtable phalanx would rather see the United States dissolved altogether than share its benefits, its copious fecundity, with those whose skin is not white and whose heritage is not (Northern) European.
Allow me to excerpt the pith of Mr Tomasky's essay.
This story, of course, has been told many times with different emphases. Krugman's version is well worth reading, for two reasons. First, his embrace of the idea that politics rather than economics has created our present-day inequality gives us a sense of political agency. If politics created this mess, then better politics may be able to do something about it....
The second element of Krugman's account that gives it special value is its commitment to accurate history even when some fudging might be in order for the sake of political expediency. For example, it is in my recent experience not at all unusual to hear liberals say that, compared to Bush, Ronald Reagan wasn't really all that bad; this willingness to keep alive the image of Reagan as an avuncular and well-meaning sortówrong but not at all malevolentóis somehow seen, I think, as strengthening the case against Bush. It is the language of persuasion, intended to have a mollifying effect on people wary of Democrats.
But Krugman is unimpressed. He detests Reagan. He notes, more than once, that Reagan officially opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered in 1964, avowing his support for states' rights. (I suppose it's progress of a sort that such an act of reactionary symbolism seems inconceivable for a national candidate in today's America.)...
Krugman introduces the information about Reagan and the National Review as evidence for his argument, made at length in The Conscience of a Liberal, that modern movement conservatism is at its deepest core most fundamentally about, and built on, race. For example, comparing northern and southern states with similar characteristics, such as Massachusetts and Virginia, he writes that "in most though not all cases the more southerly, blacker state is far more conservative. It's hard not to conclude that race is the difference."
It is this shaming analysis that invigorates me. Arguments on behalf of (or against) better economic policies, better foreign policies, even better educational policies are not particularly useful right now, because no one has a good enough reason to force opponents to listen to them. But this country has already spilled too much blood in the pursuit (and in the denial) of racial equality not to see the fight through to the end. May there be no need for further blood! May, rather, movement conservatives be exposed as the shamelessly cynical rabble-rousers that they are. The title of Mr Tomasky's review is intended to remind us of Mr Krugman's conclusion that this is no time to accommodate or temporize on behalf of the people and institutions who want nothing less than the establishment of a permanently unequal America. The evaporation of the white middle class would be a small price to pay for the permanent sidelining of non-whites - if, indeed, it would be considered a price at all, and not a further benefit. Either way, however, it remains secondary and incidental to the racist objective.
The first New Deal, unfortunately, failed - because of the political reality of the time - to include non-white Americans on an equal footing. The attempt to correct that shortcoming may have been its undoing, but there is no denying that the attempt was just, or that we should renew it with vigor. Perhaps, in getting race right at last, we will drive back the incompetently crony-prone, insatiably greedy would-be plutocrats who have done so much, in the past fifty years, to denature the American Dream.
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press