Watch your language, Krugman and the Rest of “Us.”
Paul Krugman, a favorite of mine, in writing about the present currency crisis in the New York Times, August 30, 2013, brings to mind an old joke:
The Lone Ranger and his Indian friend Tonto are riding out in the wild west when they are about to be surrounded by a band of hostile-seeming Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says: “Tonto, I think we’re in trouble, we better get out of here.” Tonto looks at him and at the Indians and says, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ white man?”
Who does Krugman mean by we? Krugman’s headline is, “Why don’t we learn from financial crises?” He asks, about the current Indonesian currency crisis, “…should we be worried about Asia all over again?” The crises show “low little we learned from that crisis 16 years ago. We didn’t reform the financial industry…”
But who “we?” Sometimes he’s quite clear: He cites the Time magazine cover with Robert Rubin, then Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, his deputy, under the caption “The Committee to Saves the World.” Clearly it’s the 1%, saving “the World,”, that is, all the rest of us included, from disaster. Krugman is quite clear on his analysis about who’s responsible: he later, for instance, refers to the policy makers, talking of the International Monetary Fund. But the language he uses is slippery, and has subliminal meaning he doesn’t intend. When he asks why don’t “we” learn from the last crisis, who does he mean? Larry Summers and Robert Rubin are doing quite well in this crisis also; who didn’t learn? The 1% or the 99%?
When Krugman writes: ”…we’re actually doing much worse this time around.” he means the 99%; the 1% are doing quite well, looking at the profits of the banks, the stock market, the growing share of the national income the 1% are receiving. Using the “we” serves to implicitly avoid the question of responsibility, who has benefited and who lost, who made the decisions and who was subject to them. “We” didn’t reform the financial industry. “We didn’t”? You and me? No. The financial industry fought off the regulation. But the “we” makes it seem: “We’re” all in this together, one (1%) for all, and all (99%) for one. Implicitly and I believe unintentionally, the language used blames the victims as much as the perpetrators.
This failure to identify actors, to clarify who is doing what to whom, to highlight the conflicts of interest that underlie policy, ultimately to point out who’s on what side and what must politically be done, comes about just from the habit of using conventional terms without thinking about them, to accept dominant modes of speaking and describing without realizing the content they convey in ordinary discourse.
The same is true when the subjects of actions are not identified: “the more austerity fails, the more bloodletting is demanded.” It’s a policy that’s failing, not some particular persons nor groups who have the power to make policy that are failing – and failing whom? Not themselves. The 1% who make the policy are doing quite well by it, by and large they are hardly “failing.” “Deregulation went full speed ahead.,” Krugman writes of the past. By itself? Or did it get pushed, and if so, by whom, how.? “…huge inflows of foreign money [go] mainly to the private sector.’ By themselves, like water running downhill? Who’s sending it, who’s benefiting from the flow, who suffering, is not deliberately concealed; it just doesn’t rise to the surface, from the language.
When the slippery “we” is coupled with “learn,” the political implications become even clearer. “Why don’t ‘we’ ‘learn’ from financial crises?” “We” here might in fact mean everybody, although that’s actually not what Krugman means. But, whoever it is, is learning what’s required? If everyone accepted Krugman’s perceptive analysis of the crisis, would all of us be better off? Isn’t it rather that some, the 1%, understand very well, and mold the response to their own interests, and the rest, the 99%, even if they understood (and many certainly do, including most of Krugman’s readers, but are powerless to put their understanding into practice? Using the language of learning to describe the problem implicitly makes it one not of political conflict and conflict of interests, but one of education. Well, Krugman is a teacher; if your tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail; if your tool is teaching, every problem is one of learning. Krugman certainly knows better, but the language doesn’t reveal that.
This is not just stylistic nit-picking. It is language that depoliticizes what goes on in the world; it has to do with a political world-view. On the one side, one may see policy differences and conflicts of interest as parts of a learning process, in which all citizens participate in an effort to achieve a just result for all – a process where there is a real and all-inclusive “we.” Or one may see the world, or at least that is made up of different nations different classes, different genders, different interests, as one in which conflicts of interest are pervasive, in which power is widely sought, unevenly gained, constantly exercised by and on behalf of specific groups and individuals and at the expense of other specific groups of individuals. To the extent that language plays a role, consciously or not, the “we”-ing and references to actor-less actions implicitly supports the first world view, rather than the second. And that necessarily has implications for political thinking and action. In this case, it’s likely unintended, but unclear.
It should always be clear, even on a quick reading, who is doing what to whom.
Peter Marcuse September 3, 2013