The Corner

Krugman and ‘Condescension’

Paul Krugman has some thoughts about right-leaning poor whites: “One thing you hear — I get it a lot — is that liberals are condescending snobs who don’t respect these people.” (“These people”?) “But if you want to see incredible condescension, dismissing white poverty as a moral failing, read what conservatives have to say.” This followed by a link to my report from Eastern Kentucky a few years back.

This is classic Krugman, kind of awesome in its reliable way. It combines the trademark black-hats/white-hats childishness of his column — his endless insistence “I know you are but what am I?” — with a really amusing exercise in obliviousness that you couldn’t come up with intentionally if you tried: “I’m not condescending. You benighted hillbillies are just too stupid to know who it is who is really condescending to you.”

Well-played, professor. Well-played.

There’s been a great deal of criticism of my Kentucky story, but in all of it no one has so much as suggested that it is wrong in any particular detail, only that they object to its tone or, in the case of Chauncey DeVega, that National Review was so unspeakably, deviously cynical as to dispatch a black reporter to cleverly transfer stereotypes about poor urban blacks to poor rural whites.

But I wonder whether Professor Krugman has given much thought to what “condescension” actually means, or to the actual moral failings that are behind so much of the dysfunction in the communities I have written about (and, though it really should not matter to the work, from which I come)? It is, after all, Krugman and like-minded progressives who believe that these people (“these people”) have no moral agency of their own, that their lives are simply collections of inexplicable things that happen to them like the weather, a sediment of incident. Of course economics is a factor — but so is biography, something that we callous judgmental types attend to in a way squeamish academics cannot quite manage to do in their sterile, arm’s-length analyses.

The heroin addicts I interviewed in Alabama were mainly young white men from middle-class backgrounds. None of them seemed to believe that addiction was just something that happened to him. If anything, the sense of shame about what they had done to their own lives seemed to be an important motivation for their recoveries. “These people” are real people, and the thing about real people is that you do not respect or decline to respect them categorically, as an abstraction. Real people have to be judged one at a time.

Real people live in the real world; “these people” live in the imagination of Professor Krugman, alongside a curious definition of “condescension.”