The Prevalence Of Humbug

In his latest piece, The Humbug Express, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addresses the imbalance between the right-wing media’s propaganda machine and that of the left wing.

He starts out by recalling the original humbugger, Charles Dickens’ immortal Ebenezer Scrooge.

I mean, consider the scene, early in the book, where Ebenezer Scrooge rightly refuses to contribute to a poverty relief fund. “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing,” he declares. Oh, wait. That wasn’t Scrooge. That was Newt Gingrich — last week. What Scrooge actually says is, “Are there no prisons?” But it’s pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, instead of praising Scrooge for his principled stand against the welfare state, Charles Dickens makes him out to be some kind of bad guy. How leftist is that?

As you can see, the fundamental issues of public policy haven’t changed since Victorian times. Still, some things are different. In particular, the production of humbug — which was still a somewhat amateurish craft when Dickens wrote — has now become a systematic, even industrial, process.

In particular, Krugman points to the widespread belief that a) government jobs have soared while private-sector jobs have shrunk, and b) there’s been an explosion in the number of federal regulators.

Krugman contends that both are wrong but rampant, the latter thanks to their continual reinforcement by politicians and think tanks. Then he asks:

[W]hy does it matter what some politicians and think tanks say? The answer is that there’s a well-developed right-wing media infrastructure in place to catapult the propaganda, as former President George W. Bush put it, to rapidly disseminate bogus analysis to a wide audience where it becomes part of what “everyone knows.” (There’s nothing comparable on the left, which has fallen far behind in the humbug race.)

Krugman concludes that, “Scrooge was right about the prevalence of humbug.”

Which got the hardworking staff to thinking about the essay with that name – The Prevalence of Humbug – by American philosopher Max Black. His definition:

HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.

In other words, it’s about what the speaker wants the listener to believe, not what the speaker actually believes himself.

Black concedes that humbug will always be with us, but we should try to call it out whenever possible, since it slowly erodes the good-faith assumption people reflexively bring to communication (i.e., that the speaker’s words reflect his true “thoughts, feelings, or attitudes”).

Max Black wrote his essay in 1980. Thirty years later, public discourse is all about bad-faith assumptions. Much to our detriment.

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