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All Our Righteousness

January 17, 2011

In this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. I am not alien.

The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it.

Thomas Merton When the Trees Say Nothing.

Paul Krugman, the economist, writes in the New York Times of January 14th, “A Tale of Two Moralities.” Two moralities, really?

Straightaway, Mr. Krugman with imperial wisdom uses the words, ever -so-casually, ‘The Truth Is…’  I suggest that anyone writing in the New York Times using those words, unless they are giving the racing results, is either disingenuous or delusional. For as John Giorno rightly says “It doesn’t matter how perfectly correct, or amazing the clarity. Everything you think is deluded.” Everything you think is deluded by your perspective. Yours,  mine and Krugman’s. Perspective is distortion. Any painter can tell you that.

Krugman may understand economics on the Nobel Prize level, but he doesn’t seem to understand the difference between morality and perspective. It is the difference between sin and opinion.

Writing in response to  President Obama’s call for ‘[expanding] our moral imaginations’ Krugman immediately dismisses it by locking  the  discussion into the familiar bi-polar framework of a ‘Tale of Two Moralities’.

According to Krugman, by all means we should listen to one another, but when we do we will find how far apart our two ‘moralities’ are. No, Mr. Krugman, that is what you will find when what you call listening is actually a process of deconstruction for the preconceived purpose of defaming your opponent or self-aggrandizement, or both. By conflating morality with perspective, Krugman commits the common sin of elite liberalism; moral superiority.

Even in his delineation of the political differences Krugman cannot escape the confines of his own perspective. He describes the great divide thus:

“One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.”

This is not about policies, says Krugman, it’s about differences in the ‘moral imaginations’ of the contestants. “Regular readers” says Krugman “know which side of that divide I’m on.” Clearly Mr. Krugman implies that he is on the morally superior side of that divide and therefore by logical extension the other side is immoral or at least morally inferior. So let us ask ourselves and Mr. Krugman directly; do we believe we are morally superior to our political opponents?

But even if we clarify that we’re talking about perspective and not morality, in framing the debate so, Krugman cannot see that there are other possibilities that do not conform strictly to either his view or the view of his opponents.

Perhaps another view might be one that looks like this:

  1. Government is in the business of protecting the wealth of the economy by guaranteeing social stability, whether through providing security that ensures the basics of survival of a willing workforce, or, failing that, through police repression. Same as it ever was. It is not in the business of providing for the poor or unhealthy because that’s the morally right thing to do, it does so (or should) for the sake of social stability. That’s why they call it Social Security, not Individual Security. Organizations, be they governments or corporations or what-have-you, do not operate under the rules of morality.  They operate under the rules of power and economics.
  2. People don’t want government, they want services. (John Cage)
  3. When people perceive that this contract of governance and taxation-for-services is not working for them, they rightly call the process of taxation theft and the process of governance tyranny.

In this view, which looks a lot like what’s going on all around us whether you’re on the Right or Left, there are not two moralities at odds, there are two, and only two, perspectives at odds on the stage of political theater. Those perspectives are generally being crafted and peddled by ‘thought-leaders’ who make their living and promote their brands through the hallowed institutions of the media which tell us who the enemy is, who the hero is, who the actors are, what the plot is, and what the plot development is likely to be, depending on their customer base.

Everyone says what they do is right,” quoting Giorno again. Krugman is entitled to his belief in the moral superiority of Keynesian Liberalism (which is not based on morality at all).  That’s fine, it’s just more media thought-leadership. But it has nothing to do with people’s reality of unemployment and foreclosures, war and disempowerment from control over their lives.

However, couching real life complexity as a tale of two moralities? Pure arrogance.

*** All graphics by Thomas Merton, from “A Catch of Letters” by Thomas Merton and Robert Lax.

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