Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jonathan Chait, Oppressor And Oppressed

Jonathan Chait, one of my least favorite columnists thanks to his willful obtuseness (especially in his coverage of Obamacare), recently wrote a long piece at New York on the subject of free speech. It's been widely praised (in libertarian circles, Matt Welch was one such), and in the limited sphere of his criticism of fellow liberals, with good reason. But as Sean Davis at The Federalist points out, Chait's insistence on tolerance pretty much ends once you get outside his ideological comfort zone. Alex Pareene spies some of the exact same problem from the other direction, writing that now
Chait, like many liberal commentators with his background, is used to writing off left-wing critics and reserving his real writerly firepower for (frequently deserving) right-wingers. That was, for years, how things worked at the center-left opinion journalism shops, because it was simply assumed that no one important—no one who really matters—took the opinions of people to the left of the center-left opinion shop seriously. That was a safe and largely correct assumption. But the destruction of the magazine industry and the growth of the open-forum internet have amplified formerly marginal voices. Now, in other words, writers of color can be just as condescending and dismissive of Chait as he always was toward the left. And he hates it.
I find Pareene's review of the exchange with Ta-Nehisi Coates to be much less satisfying; claiming he "embarrass[ed] himself" largely amounts to exactly the kind of dismissive and condescending attitude Chait condemns. (And Coates, for his part, is a man running out some very old ideas while he is running out of time; what do reparations for slavery mean to a Mexican immigrant forced to pay for them?) But the weirdest response so far has to be from Fredrik deBoer, who flat out calls Chait "a jerk who somehow manages to be both condescending and wounded" and then cites examples of exactly the kind of narrow-minded ideological beatdowns on offer from the modern left. This one, in particular,
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences. He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist. It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook. But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.
Yes, well. It's hard, reading that and his other examples, to understand how Chait "gets the basic nature of language policing wrong". Worse, since Chait appears to embrace a liberalism committed to free speech whose "glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph", this puts deBoer in the uncomfortable position of appearing to support speech codes. Chait's indifference to actual freedom of speech treads frequently in the gray area of criticism, i.e. the sort of thing Sarah Palin used to gripe about when she said dumb things and expected no one would notice, but with the stridency of critics who brook no heterodox opinions, it lives in another area code altogether. If you want free speech, support that. Criticism is what we have instead of censorship. And if the left is intellectually intolerant, if it has its secret codes of intersectionality and religious, gender and racial orthodoxy that none within its walls dare broach, perhaps it's worth examining why someone like Chait, who cites many of the same problems, should also get slammed as "a jerk" and "an asshole" by a fellow traveler merely for pointing that out.

Update: Elizabeth Nolan Brown has a nice roundup of more lefty reactions to the Chait piece. Unsurprisingly, neither Jezebel nor Vox were too pleased with it.
Chastising the "radical left" (or "radical feminists") for this sort of thing only muddies things up. It is very much mainstream liberalism, or at least one branch of it, taking up the p.c. mantle these days.

Similarly, I think it's a mistake to read this nouveau-p.c. cult as coming from academia. Sure, it shows up there frequently, but where are 18-year-olds taking their cultural cues from? It's not professors but media and online culture. As Sessions suggests, "the misguided excesses of the Social Media Left" are in very large part a product of "the dynamics of the Internet." In part, this means the way Twitter and Facebook incentivize certain sorts of attitudes and actions (in the vein Sanchez mentioned above). And in part, it's a product of the fact that "identity-based outrage is now one of the most reliable sources of clicks and Facebook shares" for the mainstream press.

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