Saturday, August 07, 2004

O'Reilly Punks Krugman

Well, I just this second finished watching something that probably angered me more than anything I've seen since the re-count debacle of 2000--Paul Krugman vs. Bill O'Reilly on Tim Russert's show on CNBC. It's kind of funny given that I don't watch O'Reilly (though I have, of course, seen his show a few times, and seen him on C-Span, and so forth), but happened to see part of his show earlier this week. I saw part of one segment in which he actually disagreed with someone who was pushing some sort of obviously insane theory about Kerry, and I thought "hey, maybe this guy has more intellectual integrity than I thought." The next segment was a couple of porn starts pushing a book they had written about sex techniques or something like that, and it was humorous to watch O'Reilly trying to pretend that there was some actual issue on the table when, in fact and obviously this was nothing more than an opportunity to have some porn stars on his show and boost the ratings a bit by having them show some cleavage and talk about sex. (Note: I assure you that I have nothing against either cleavage or sex. In fact, both those things rank pretty high in my book. I just thought it was funny that O'Reilly tried to pretend that it was serious business.) Anyway, I went away thinking that O'Reilly wasn't quite as bad nor as dangerous as I previously thought.

Now I know better.

So here's Russert's show, with O'Reilly vs. Krugman. God, this is going to be a real slaughter I thought.

Sadly, I was right.

O'Reilly--rhetorically speaking--wiped the floor with Krugman (metaphorically speaking). Yes, of course Krugman had facts and reason on his side. Yes, of course he was right and O'Reilly was wrong on almost every point. And yes, of course, those are the things that really matter. But O'Reilly so thoroughly dominated the encounter rhetorically that no one but a current events junkie would realize that Krugman had come out ahead in all the important and substantive ways.

Now, I think that Krugman is great, and The Great Unravelling is great, and I think that when the history of this vile administration is finally written he will be remembered as one of those who most effectively spoke truth to power. But today was, sadly, not his finest moment. The sad fact of the matter seems to be that O'Reilly simply scared him early on in the exchange, and he never recovered. Early on, O'Reilly said something false about something Krugman had written, and Krugman unwisely said "that's a lie." He should, of course, merely said that it was false, since he obviously had no idea whether O'Reilly was lying or merely mistaken. O'Reilly responded energetically, and seemed to quickly--in the way of all bullies--ascertain that Krugman was somewhat intimidated. O'Reilly then raised his voice even more, started pointing at Krugman, and leaning in on him. Krugman responded by looking down and shrinking back. Dominance had been established, and it was all downhill from there.

From then on out, O'Reilly was, rhetorically speaking, in charge. He was leaning back and relaxed, making large gestures, looking Krugman in the eye, and sticking his finger in Krugman's face, while Krugman looked down, looked away, shuffled his papers, and even seemed to be actually shaking. Even worse, O'Reilly repeatedly--in essence--called Krugman a punk to his face. And Krugman mostly just took it. He made his points and he did his job intellectually speaking, but--and it really, really pains me to say this--he looked like a scared little kid. It was so, so, so very painful to watch. I almost couldn't make myself sit through it. Krugman did manage to stand up to O'Relly a bit from time to time, and that was heartening. But those were fleeting moments.

At the end of the program, Krugman did take a step towards redeeming himself by nailing O'Reilly in a lie. Krugman pointed out that O'Reilly said on his radio show that "Michael Moore...believes that we are an evil country." O'Reilly denied this, and challenged Krugman to produce a date for the show, which Krugman did. Then O'Reilly asked where he'd gotten the citation, and Krugman named some lefty source...Media Matters, perhaps. At this point, O'Reilly's low cunning served him well, and he began screaming and flailing his arms around about how leftist Media Matters was. Then, punking Krugman once more for good measure, he got in his face and started yelling at him over and over "do your own research! Why are you relying on other people for your own research! Do your own research!" Krugman, sadly, fell for the Red Herring and failed to point out that his methods of research weren't the issue--the issue was whether O'Reilly had said what he now denied that he had said.

Ugh. Thing is, I was almost madder at Krugman than I was at O'Reilly. How on Earth anyone could let a puffy, over-the-hill blowhard like that guy intimidate him is quite simply beyond me. And how anyone could let someone talk to him like that is beyond me. If O'Reilly--or anyone else--spoke to me like that--er, and if he were younger...and in better shape...and if I didn't know that he'd cry like a baby--I'd knock his freaking block off. He is merely a bully, and like all bullies he chooses his targets carefully. He bullies only civilized people who aren't used to--and so aren't psychologically prepared for--confrontations of that kind. What a pathetic coward that guy is.

One of Krugman's main disadvantages--and this was quite clear--was that he cared about the truth. O'Reilly simply sat there and made shit up. He made it up, said it loudly, repeated it over and over, and put on his how dare you question my integrity? mask when challenged about it. You could literally see Krugman sitting there thinking about objections, trying to stick to the truth, trying to be judicious about his claims and responses. All this, of course, put him at a severe rhetorical disadvantage.

So I shouldn't blame Krugman. He's a civilized fellow, an academician, and not a guy who even fancies himself a fighter, I'm sure. He was trying to do the right thing. But...did he really think that O'Reilly was going to take a swing at him right on Tim Russert? And even if he did, would that be so terribly frightening? I just don't understand...

One of the lessons of all of this is that being right does little good if you aren't courageous enough to stand up for what's right. Krugman was right, but he was easily cowed, and what should have been a resounding victory for him and a chance to spread the good word turned into a rout.

Little wonder that Kant thought that courage was the most important of all the virtues.

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