The Campaign Spot

9/11, Paul Krugman, and 15 Years Worth of Harsh Surprises

The Anchoress tries to make sense of Paul Krugman’s foul message on the 9/11 anniversary.

Perhaps what we’re seeing with Krugman is merely a high-profile manifestation of a widespread phenomenon in recent years, and perhaps much of our national recent history. Krugman has had his faith shaken, and he’s reacting by lashing out at familiar enemies. He looks out his window and sees the world is not as it should be, and he concludes it must be the fault of those who he has opposed and denounced all along.

In Time’s 2009 cover piece on Glenn Beck, David Von Drehle wrote, “The old American mind-set that Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style” — the sense that Masons or the railroads or the Pope or the guys in black helicopters are in league to destroy the country — is aflame again, fanned from both right and left.”

I observed after that piece that the outbursts of Joe Wilson, Kanye West, and Serena Williams spurred a thousand columns, blog posts, and web comments observing that  America seems angrier, ruder, more intemperate today. Before then, it was the town hall meetings and tea parties. Our media elites look at it all and lament the return of “paranoia.”

Perhaps. But our national mood isn’t quite so simple as anger or paranoia; it’s a low-flame that’s been burning for a while, spurred by disturbingly regular moments when millions of ordinary Americans feel like the ground has fallen out underneath their feet, and the unthinkable has occurred.

Think back to about fourteen or fifteen years ago, and everything you thought you knew at that moment.

You knew no president would be so reckless that he would get caught having sex with an intern in the Oval Office.

You may have worried about your kid’s safety at school, but you knew two alienated teenagers couldn’t turn their rage into a massacre.

You “knew” that the winner of the presidential election was the candidate who got the most votes.

You knew absentee ballots get counted, whether or not the race was close or not. You knew a vote was a vote, and “dimpled chad” was the kid in your child’s kindergarten class photo.

When you looked out at the New York City skyline, you knew it would look the same the next day.

If you knew were Afghanistan was, you knew those loons beating women and blowing up Buddhas were bad news, but they were on the other side of the world and you had a lot more closer to home to worry about.

You knew the only thing being sent through the mail that could kill you came from the Unabomber. You knew that if deadly poison ever came through the mail, it wouldn’t be coming from a government scientist.

You knew a giant company like Enron with a big corporate headquarters and commercials couldn’t be a big scam. After all, serious professional economists like Paul Krugman worked for them as consultants.

You knew that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You knew that when the United States sent its troops into harm’s way, it knew the mission and how it would accomplish it.

You knew that American soldiers didn’t humiliate their prisoners for fun, and didn’t take pictures of it.

You knew that you could trust priests.

You knew that you’d never see a breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.

You knew that television news anchors checked out their sources before reporting a huge story right before an election. You knew that if an anchor got it wrong, other news media would jump all over them, and the defining mission of figuring out the truth wouldn’t be left to a bunch of no-names working in their pajamas.

You knew hurricanes could get pretty rough, but you figured every big Gulf Coast city was ready for them.

You knew that governors didn’t sleep with hookers, at least not the ones who started their careers as prosecutors busting prostitution rings.

You knew the value of your house would almost always go up each year, some years a little, some years a lot.

You knew gas prices went up and went down, but that you would probably never pay more than three bucks a gallon.

You knew not to drink the water in Mexico, but that food here in America – tomatoes, jalapenos, peanut butter, ground beef – was always safe.

You knew the Cold War was over, the days of Russian troops marching across borders and occupying parts of other countries were long gone.

You knew the markets could bounce around, but that nobody talked about them collapsing and another Depression descending upon us. Your money was safe in institutions like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, you spent your paycheck on gadgets at Circuit City and the Sharper Image, furniture from Bombay Company, books from Borders and toys from KB Toys, and the Big Three in Detroit would always keep making cars. The last thing you would ever see would be the big guys on Wall Street going to Washington and begging the federal government for cash.

You knew that recessions usually ended within a year; they didn’t drag on, with high unemployment, year after year after year…

You figured you could pick up your copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, or the Christian Science Monitor every day until you died and never see those events in the headlines. It was about as likely as a federally-funded community group offering assistance to child prostitution rings.

The past fifteen years have been one rude awakening after another, where one unspoken assumption after another kept getting smacked around by a bipolar furious reality.

In light of this, perhaps it’s less surprising that Americans turned to a new, untested figure to lead the country in 2008; we learned the hard way that some of those who we thought were tested, trustworthy, and reliable turned out to be just the opposite. But it’s also less surprising that Americans aren’t willing to take grand promises of health care reforms on faith, or believe that further investments of time, effort, blood and treasure will eventually build a stable Afghanistan. Negotiations with Iran, raising the debt ceiling, a sweeping overhaul of regulations covering financial institutions, the umpteenth federal “jobs plan” – day after day, we’re asked by our leaders to trust them, on matters large and small.

Americans are scared, but it’s a different fear than post-9/11. Looking back, that fear was almost reassuring; our enemy had a face and the potential victim-hood of everyone we passed on street bound us in momentary brotherhood. The guy who ordinarily irritated us with the loud radio became our temporary ally. Every night before bed, we could look around, see everyone laying themselves down where they had the night before, and feel a sense of victory for the forces of order, safety, and domestic tranquility.

Today we’re not merely fearful but beleaguered. We’ve been pummeled by years of being forced to recalculate who we trust and what we know to be true. We’re experiencing dual crises of trust and authority. It’s not that every person and institution we encounter is dishonest, corrupt, reckless, or malicious. But we’ve encountered just enough on a grand scale this decade and a half to create doubt about everyone else.

It’s better than worrying about whether your bus or train or office will blow up, but we’re now on guard from ubiquitous sleeper agents of incompetence: the guy down the street who buys a house he can’t afford and abandons it, the SEC agent who ignores the warning signs on Bernie Madoff, the broker who is caught off guard by a market crash, the congressman who thinks economic recovery is one make-work project in his district away.

Perhaps, as 2012 approaches, what Americans really yearn for is a leader who they can look at and conclude, deep in their bones, “I trust that person.”


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