"And I was right, of course.”
--Paul Krugman, July 4
There is nothing more terrifying, for a writer, or at least for this writer, than running into someone you have criticized in print. Paul Krugman has now made the prospect even more frightening by posting on his blog an item crudely entitled, “I’m Gonna Haul Out The Next Guy Who Calls Me ‘Crude’ And Punch Him In The Kisser.” This was in response to an article in the Economist that didn’t actually call him crude. It merely accused him of practicing something it called “crude Keynesianism.” But that was enough to set him off. “I’ve done plenty of intertemporal optimizing in my time,” the Nobel Prize economist added pugnaciously, as if anyone had suggested that he hadn’t. I certainly would not volunteer to go mano-a-mano with Krugman in an intertemporal optimizing tournament. Nevertheless, it’s a bit disappointing to learn that Krugman can dish it out, but can’t take it. The Economist piece even ended up supporting Krugman’s side of the current argument about stimulus versus fiscal discipline.
(In brief: Krugman’s side believes that the economy is fragile and still needs the stimulus of massive government deficits. This is not the time to worry about paying down the debt. The other side thinks that “Lord, make me thrifty—but not yet” is a prayer unlikely to be answered.)
But today’s sermon is about something much more important than the future of the world economy. It’s about what to do when you, as a writer, run into people who didn’t like what you wrote about them. The real risk in a situation like this is not of a nice Hawaiian punch. It’s much worse: excruciating embarrassment. This is on my mind because my Atlantic colleague Jim Fallows discusses it in a recent posting. And also because it happened to me last week. (OK,OK, it was Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek.) Fallows has a simple solution. He says that you shouldn’t write anything about anybody that you would be reluctant to say to their face. He says he was taught this by Ralph Nader. But it’s an impossibly high standard. It requires either too much tact or too much courage.
Social interaction depends crucially on people not saying what’s on their minds. (God, you’re ugly. Where did you get that hideous tie? I hate your last book/new husband/lasagna.) People who insist on telling the truth about these things are jerks and boors. People who routinely lie about them are slick and oily. The only sensible thing is to avoid the subject. But if you’ve written about it, your mere presence in the room brings the subject up. Yet not to write about these subjects is no solution. There are important things that need to be said but don’t need to be said in the presence of those who might not care for them.
Therefore, young writers, ignore Fallows's advice. Write about what you think is important. Write the truth. And if you see someone coming you’d just as soon not run into, feel free to run away instead.
"And I was right, of course.”