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The New Know-Nothingism | The Nation

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The New Know-Nothingism

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Conservatives, and some not so conservatives, are testing out a new thesis in their effort to shut out ideas that make them uncomfortable: Any attempt to analyze the origins of a distasteful phenomenon is tantamount to endorsing it. Whether the problem is global terrorism or anti-Semitism, the message is the same. "It's bad. It must be condemned. That's all we need to know."

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The new Know-Nothings' target is the pugnacious economist/New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman. In a piece exploring the political roots of recent anti-Semitic remarks by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Krugman noted that Bush Administration policies had helped provide grist for Mahathir's scapegoating tactics, which derive from the complicated ethnic balancing act he must perform to stay in power and promote his nation's fragile prosperity. Nowhere in the column did Krugman, a Jew, even hint that Mahathir's words were remotely justified. Indeed, he called them "inexcusable" and has written quite critically of Mahathir in the past. But the mere idea that he thought it worthwhile to look into what might have caused such an outburst led immediately to hysterical calls for Krugman's head.

The nuttiest of these came from Donald Luskin of National Review, a publication with proud ties to Joe McCarthy, who went so far as to accuse Krugman of endorsing "anti-Semitism and tyranny." The charge was also picked up by the Anti-Defamation League, writers in Jewsweek, Newsday and a series of bloggers who fashion themselves a "Krugman Truth Squad."

None of the attacks can find anything objectionable in Krugman's writings about Jews or anti-Semitism. This is not a case, like that of The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook, of a writer having to apologize for saying something stupid and offensive, even if he didn't mean it. Rather, a number of these critics insist on a state of principled ignorance. Listen to James Klurfeld in Newsday: "I don't have the slightest insight into whether Mahathir really is an anti-Semite or was just posturing before the world for domestic political reasons. And I don't care. His motivation isn't important."

I received similar treatment recently when, on my Altercation weblog (www.Altercation.msnbc.com), I discussed the sources of anti-Jewish violence in France, committed almost exclusively by young Arabs. When I noted its obvious and unarguable relationship to Israeli foreign policy, I was pilloried for, as Condé Nast blogger and longtime magazine editor Jeff Jarvis termed it, "the moral mistake of the age: trying to rationalize hate crimes." It did not matter when Roger Cukierman, the senior leader of the French Jewish community, described these incidents as linked to the Middle East and specifically to the outbreak of the intifada. (He told American Jewish leaders then in the process of stoking anti-French hysteria on the issue to "mind their own business," according to the Forward.) The line was clear: "Explanation equals rationalization." Taken to its conclusion, it amounts to the repudiation of the scholarly study of Nazism, Stalinism and radical Islam, among other ideologies. "We're the good guys, period," this argument tells us. "What else do we need to know?"

It's no accident that it is mostly liberals who tend to inspire this bit of illogic, and nobody does it better than Krugman. The so-called Krugman Truth Squad, led by wannabe Ayatollah Andy Sullivan, succeeds in nothing so much as embarrassing itself with its small-minded obsessiveness about matters that the Princeton by way of Yale, MIT and Stanford economist clearly understands better than they do. Luskin all but gives the game away when he calls on the Times "to rein in America's most dangerous liberal pundit." (Reactionary anti-Krugmanites have a corollary on the extreme left, it must be added, in the person of Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, who last week added Krugman to Representative Bernie Sanders and the late Senator Paul Wellstone on his honor roll of right-wing deviationists.)

Krugman, who had been a mainstream economist for most of his professional life, was not radicalized by reading Marx, as some on the right would have it--and some on the left might wish. Rather he retained his commitment to moderately liberal public policy, only to be shocked by the malevolent "revolutionary" intent of the Bush Administration and its cronies to destroy the institutions that make life livable for all but the well-to-do. He is perhaps most critical of journalistic elites who are reluctant to acknowledge the radical nature of the Bush assault and end up either apologizing for or covering up its most egregious actions. "Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent," he writes, borrowing from, of all people, Henry Kissinger on Metternich, "they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework." Not since Anthony Lewis took up the cudgel of the antiwar movement against the Nixon Administration has a liberal pundit used such blunt language to expose the collective maliciousness and mendacity of official Washington, and it hardly comes as a surprise that those who inhabit that world don't like it. As Nietzsche notes, while people may desire "the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth" they are often "hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths." Hence, James Carville's observation to The Washington Monthly's Nick Confessore: "It is considered the appropriate thing to say at a dinner party that, while Krugman is very bright, he's just too relentless on Bush. Because to accept Krugman's facts as right makes the Washington press look like idiots."

By the way, Mahathir says George Bush was lying (again) when he claimed to have privately upbraided the PM. "All he said was that I regret today to have to use strong words against you," said Bush's anti-Semitic buddy. "He did not rebuke me at all and after that, we were walking practically hand in hand." The image of the President holding hands with Mahathir has yet to inspire much outrage among those currently crowing for Krugman's head. Say one thing for America's right-wing hypocrites: They know how to stick with their own.

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