Abusive misrepresentation

I don’t find this Paul Krugman column on why professors don’t vote Republican especially convincing, since professors weren’t voting Republican even when fewer Republican politicians were staunch opponents of the scientific method. But Orin Kerr twists Krugman’s meaning completely out of shape, transforming a legitimate attack on the nutty positions taken by specified Republican officeholders into a character attack on “consevatives” generically.

No, Orin, Krugman doesn’t think you’re an religious fanatic or an obscurantist; he’s just explaining why so few people who think for a living share your willingness to vote for a party dominated by politicians who are religious fanatics or obscurantists, or who pretend to be that way to pander to those tendencies among the voters. I understand why you’d rather respond to your caricature of Krugman’s argument to the one he actually makes, but it’s not really very nice to pretend he was insulting you personally when he was actually attacking the leadership of your party.

Orwell called this tactic “abusive misrepresentation,” and disapproved of it.


Orin Kerr finds the above “odd and over the top,” and proceeds ignore the point of the post and address instead a completely different issue.

Yes, Krugman’s column shifts between explaining why conservatives mostly don’t become professors and explaining why professors, even those not liberal by inclination, might refuse to vote for the current crop of Yahoo Republicans. But Krugman never does what Kerr accuses him of doing, and what my post criticizes Kerr for saying that Krugman did: caricature conservatives in general — as opposed to conservative politicians — as a bunch of ignorant religious fanatics.

Krugman says nothing about conservatives as a group: he quotes several ultra-dumb statements from named Republican officeholders, and points out that obscurantism is now the official ideology of the dominant faction of God’s Own Party. Instead of denying what Krugman actually says, Kerr elects to be affronted by what Krugman didn’t say.

(Kerr then goes on to pretend that the residents of Cambridge and the Upper West Side have never met an actual conservative, and are therefore likely to believe the false image of conservatives that Kerr falsely attributes to Krugman.)

Really, the notion of conservatives — who control all three branches of the Federal government, more than half the statehouses, the military, the police forces, the vast bulk of the corporate sector, the fastest-growing religious denominations, and a growing chunk of the mass media — as a despised and persecuted minority would be funny, if its consequences weren’t so serious.

Kerr’s update says that he “mischaracterized” (his term) Krugman’s original piece in failing to distinguish the two arguments. So he did, but that’s a fairly trivial error, and not worth complaining about.

And in fact I didn’t complain about it. Instead, I accused Kerr of spreading ill-will by misstating the views of someone he disagreed with, in order to make his target look not merely silly but nasty, as someone so bigoted that he would recklessly insult millions of people.

If Kerr wants to suggest a better label for that tactic than “abusive misrepresentation,” I’m all ears. But call it what you will, it remains a very shabby practice.

Second update: Orin Kerr can’t figure out why I’m upset about his attempt to portray liberals, and Krugman in particular, as foolish bigots who think that all conservatives are obscurantist religious fanatics. Juan non-Volokh points to one sentence in which Krugman, having pointed to several conservative leaders by name, then makes a general remark about “conservatives,” as if that backed up Kerr’s original attribution of foolish bias to Krugman, and by extension to liberals generally.

(Juan also seems agree with David Brooks that not being able to name a favorite philosopher is some sort of badge of ignorance. Are philosophers really like flavors of ice cream, that each of us should have a “favorite”? Do I “prefer” Plato to Confucius? That’s a question that could be answered, it seems to me, only by someone who doensn’t really “get” the philosphic enterprise. And if Brooks really thinks that talking about “rights” isn’t philosophy, but talking about “the universal order” is, perhaps he ought to read a little more Locke and a little less Strauss.)

Final update Orin Kerr and I are in agreement: Paul Krugman’s piece was not a literary or analytic masterpiece, but it did not contain a slur on the intellectual capacity or integrity of conservatives as a class, as opposed to the some of the clowns who get elected under the “conservative” banner.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com