Part 4—Paul Krugman, left on his own: In this morning’s New York Times, we get the latest weather report. According to a new study, global temperatures are higher than they’ve been in at least four thousand years:
GILLIS (3/8/13): Global temperatures are warmer than at any time in at least 4,000 years, scientists reported Thursday, and over the coming decades are likely to surpass levels not seen on the planet since before the last ice age.When we read this news report, we thought of Joe Nocera’s recent column. In that column, Nocera discussed climate change, focusing on the terrible shrillness of James Hansen, a leading climate scientist.
Previous research had extended back roughly 1,500 years, and suggested that the rapid temperature spike of the past century, believed to be a consequence of human activity, exceeded any warming episode during those years.
Several things were fairly clear in Nocera’s column. Nocera believes that climate is changing; that the change is caused by human activity; and that the change constitutes a threat to life on earth.
You’d think that a man who believed these things would want to urge others to be alarmed. But nothing seems to change the themes which control a familiar human activity, our modern imitation of journalism.
In that imitation of journalism, we always seem to return to the pursuit of those who are too shrill. That’s what happened late in the game when Joe Scarborough debated Paul Krugman last week, with moderator Charlie Rose sound asleep as he looked on.
Late in the game, Krugman snorted a bit at a familiar presentation. In reaction, Scarborough lowered the boom on two people Who Have Been Much Too Shrill:
SCARBOROUGH (3/5/13): You know, we have a generational crisis. In 1933, 1934 when FDR created Social Security, life expectancy was 62. You got your first check at 65. That’s a pretty good deal. Even a small government conservative liked that type of deal.At this point, Scarborough finished his claim about life expectancy in 1933—a misleading claim which has been a familiar part of the discourse over the past many years.
We’re growing, we’re living— You know, if you can just stop from saying, "Wow."
KRUGMAN: Sorry. I’ve stopped so many times.
SCARBOROUGH: Let me just finish—
KRUGMAN: I’m sorry, that was an involuntary reaction.
SCARBOROUGH: You and Al Gore need to talk about it because, again, this is a real problem. If people don’t agree with you 100 percent of the time, you talk about ad hominem attacks, you always feel like you have to take the cheap shop. So if I could just finish, I’d listen to you.
KRUGMAN: Go ahead.
Scarborough finished his familiar claim about life and death under FDR. But before the gentleman continued, the resentment boiled over. He complained that Krugman is condescending. And so too, of course, is Al Gore, who has nothing to so with this topic.
In Nocera’s recent column, Hansen found himself thrown in this stew. Nocera didn’t complain about the groups who deliberately disinform the public about climate change. He didn’t look for ways to build forums where this disinformation can be challenged.
Instead, he devoted his column to narrow complaints about recent activity by Hansen himself. Are the claims in the following passage correct? Like you, we have no idea, and we never will:
NOCERA (3/5/13): It is also important to acknowledge that Hansen has been a crucial figure in developing modern climate science. In 2009, Eileen Claussen, now the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told The New Yorker that Hansen was a “heroic” scientist who “faced all kinds of pressures politically.” Today, his body of work is one of the foundations upon which much climate science is built.Rather plainly, Nocera suggested that Hansen’s claim about 350 parts per million was totally out to lunch. (The point had already been exceeded!) According to Nocera, Hansen is so upset with the evils of oil companies that his science is crummy now too!
Yet what people hear from Hansen today is not so much his science but his broad, unscientific views on, say, the evils of oil companies. In 2008, he wrote a paper, the thesis of which was that runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million—a point it had already exceeded—unless it were quickly reduced. There are many climate change experts who disagree with this judgment—who believe that the 350 number is arbitrary and even meaningless. Yet an entire movement, 350.org, has been built around Hansen’s line in the sand.
Like you, we have no idea if Hansen was right on this point in 2008; almost surely, we never will. In this complaint, Nocera was off very deep in the weeds—and the weeds around him were growing fast, due to the warming climate.
You can read Nocera’s column yourself. For all we know, every claim he makes is correct—although, of course, they may not be. That said, we were struck by the focus he adopted in this rare attempt to discuss climate change.
Hansen may have been “a crucial figure in developing modern climate science.” He may even be a “hero,” as Claussen told the New Yorker. But in this rare column about climate change, Nocera devoted himself to tiny claims about ways in which Hansen may be wrong (although, of course, he may not be).
In our view, anybody with an ear can hear the narrative which is lurking here:
James Hansen has become shrill! What people hear from Hansen today is his broad, unscientific view on the evils of oil companies! The oil companies really aren’t evil! Why does he say such things?
If you have an ear for the discourse, you may be able to hear an echo. To Scarborough, Krugman and Gore are much too shrill. To Nocera, so is Hansen.
Is Hansen making bad political judgments at the present time? It’s possible, but in the vast sweep of climate change, why would it matter so much? Why would Nocera devote this very rare column on this topic to this side concern?
We can’t answer that question, of course. But angry complaints about The Shrill have driven our world for many years now. To our psychoanalytical ear, this standard complaint represents the anger of those who know that they themselves are staging imitations of journalistic life.
To our ear, this standard complaint also reflects the current rule of Power.
Have Krugman and Gore really been shrill, as Scarborough complained? They haven’t seemed that way to us. But then, we’ve noticed a second fact about these fellows:
Down through all these miserable years, these fellows have also been right.
Relentlessly, Gore’s information about climate change has turned out to be right, dating all the way back to his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance. And sure enough! In the years of our current economic collapse, Krugman has been persistently right in his predictions and analyses.
As Krugman keeps noting, the “experts” and the expert-fueled pundits have been persistently wrong. But within our imitation press corps, does anyone care about that?
In a rational world, being right makes you smart. In the imitation of life in which we live, being right makes you shrill. There’s no better way to get thrown down the stairs than to get some important matter right when Insider Washington is getting it wrong.
In this regard, we recommend Krugman’s column from last Friday, in which he explained, for the three millionth time, that the “experts” and the expert-fueled pundits have been persistently wrong about the economy, just as they were aggressively wrong in the run-up to war with Iraq.
In a rational world, pointing this out would make you a seer. In our imitation world, such conduct gets you called shrill. This happens because The Power Rules control our imitation of discourse.
Power invents the themes which dominate that imitation of discourse. To show you how deeply Power rules, consider the piece which sat at the top of last Sunday’s Outlook section.
The Outlook section in the Washington Post is very high-profile in Washington. Last Sunday, this were the headline which sat at the top of Outlook’s first page:
HEADLINES ATOP THE OUTLOOK SECTION (3/3/13):Don’t get us wrong: Naim isn’t a “conservative.” (Neither is Nocera.) We aren’t saying that any specific claim in his piece is wrong. (Though he writes in a slightly airy-fairy way about what “power” is. To read his piece, click this.)
Why the powerful seem so powerless
In politics, business and war, Moises Naim writes, being in charge isn’t what it used to be
That said, we were struck to see that headline atop Outlook’s front page. Does it seem to you that the powerful have never been so powerless? Does it seem to you that “being in charge in business” ain’t what it used to be?
Have you reviewed the tax rates and tax policies under which those powerless titans now function? Have you reviewed their incomes? The direction of those incomes? Beyond such petty material concerns, have you reviewed the way these plutocrats control the narratives which define our discourse—a discourse in which it doesn’t seem strange to claim, in a high-profile headline, that the powerful now seem quite powerless?
Decades ago, these powerless people introduced that piddle about life expectancy in 1933. They introduced all sorts of claims about tax policy—claims which have driven our discourse as folk like Nocera and Rose have looked on.
In the area of climate science, those powerless people have created the "think" tanks which have convinced half the country that climate change is a gigantic hoax. They have created the climate in which Nocera writes a column declaring that Hansen is shrill, while he ignores the larger, life-threatening themes about which Hansen is railing.
Go ahead—read Krugman’s column from last Friday. For the three millionth time, he told us that the “experts” are wrong—that they have been wrong for a very long time.
Even in the liberal world, very few people have taken up Krugman’s cry. And four days after that column appeared, Krugman engaged in the latest pseudo-debate with his fiery counterpart, Scarborough.
Basically, Charlie Rose just sat and stared as Scarborough mouthed Power’s key scripts. It didn’t matter all that much that Krugman was actually right. It didn’t even matter when Scarborough flatly agreed with the major proposal for which Krugman is constantly ridiculed.
Nothing matters but the scripts! And the scripts have been written by Power, an entity which doesn't seem powerless to us. Meanwhile, here's the key point:
In the imitation of life which adheres to these scripts, being right just makes you shrill.
The role played by Power in building that culture continues to go unexplored. This isn’t likely to change. Have you seen the nightly clowning on The One Liberal Channel?