Monday, June 11, 2012

Let Me Be Clear

Today I happened to read two unrelated opinion pieces, one by Paul Krugman of the New York Times and the other by Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast, that use a similar phrase. As a rhetorical pivot, they write, respectively, "Just to be clear..." and “Let me be clear…”

It seems to me that this kind of construct has become increasingly common, and I have the sense that Krugman employs it a lot. The strange thing is that Krugman usually writes pretty clearly, in my view, at least in relation to his rather complex subject of macroeconomics and certainly with respect to his erudition. (Ph.D. and Nobel in economics and all that.) When he falls back on a phrase such as “just to be clear,” then, it’s not so much a cover for his lack of prior clarity as it is a sign that he may lack faith in the intelligence of his audience. Or maybe he’s just being defensive. Krugman, after all, has become a favorite whipping boy of conservatives.

In any event, in today’s column he argues that the bailout of Spain’s banks is just another example of policy makers ignoring those who have truly been hurt by economic events of the past few years: regular folks. He opens by saying that yet "another bank bailout" in response to the European crisis is "starting to feel like a comedy routine." Then he writes, “let me be clear,” and in this new bid for clarity reminds readers that he’s not against the bank bailout per se; he just doesn’t think it goes far enough, policy-wise.

In Beinart’s case, he opens his essay, “Trying to Kill Bashar al-Assad Not So Radical Given U.S. Security Interests” (is that a headline or a master's thesis?!), with the words, “Let me propose an unpleasant thought experiment.” He goes on for six paragraphs sketching out an argument for killing Assad. Then, to open his seventh and penultimate paragraph, he writes: “Let me be clear: I’m not proposing that we try to kill Assad…”

Perhaps readers are so dumb that they can’t discern the ironic tone of an argument that sets itself up as an “unpleasant thought experiment.” Perhaps, given the size of their platforms, both of these guys get so much mail from idiots that they feel compelled to cover their flanks three-quarters into their arguments.

After all, a phrase that begins, “Let me,” is a kind of exhortation. Please, reader, indulge me for the sake of those who are slower than you. Still…

Just to be clear, let me be clear. If you write the piece clearly enough to begin with, there’s no need ever to use a phrase, that includes the words, “be clear."