By now you’ve probably heard that Jonathan Chait has written an article for New York magazine decrying modern liberalism for becoming little more than a series of Twitter-based convulsions of outrage. You may have heard that he has a point there. Or maybe you heard it was an argument against Political Correctness—a dragon from 1991 who has reared up wearing a crop top, ‘70s jeans and 14-hole Doc Marten’s, and is taking the pain of her infected belly-button piercing out on others in inappropriate ways—and the reign of terror this dread P.C. has engendered in liberal academia. Or maybe you heard that a previously moderately well-regarded author has gone to the #slatepitch side of the Force. Or, perhaps, that Jonathan Chait has a skin so thin that he cries when someone gets the butter knife out of the drawer anywhere within six blocks of his apartment, and is also so allergic to his own tears that he then needs to use his EpiPen and ARE YOU HAPPY NOW BLACK FEMINISTS1/1//! Unfortunately for Jonathan Chait, modern liberalism, the state of the publishing industry, feminism, concerns about racial equality, the extent to which previously marginalized voices can now pipe up and be heard in critical discourse, and all of us, it’s actually that last thing.
But what about his maybe having a point? The thing is, Chait has about 75% of perhaps two points, but the wheat/arsenic-laced chaff ratio is bad. Very bad. How so? The article is actually about how his feelings got hurt by people who say mean things on the internet—in the sense that this is the actual motive for writing it. ‘They claim to be too sensitive to take criticism or even hear discussion of sensitive topics, and that shuts down debate!’ whines sensitive man whose feelings have been hurt by criticism from the internet. ‘They are destroying our political project and they won’t even listen to my
concern trolling crucial critique because I am…a white man!’ [Faints on couch.] How did New York Magazine tease this article? “Can a white, liberal man critique a culture of political correctness?” Spoiler alert: YES.
Chait claims that modern liberalism has devolved into outrage farming Saturnalia. Hierarchies have been inverted and whoever can claim membership of the most marginalized group automatically wins every debate. “I’m a queer Latino. I win the internet.” “Not so fast! I’m a black trans woman. Hahahah look upon my works ye mighty and despair! I have so much actual power right now, compared to some chump straight white guy who pens 2500 word hymns to objectivity in New York magazine! It is literally impossible to overstate how many physical resources I control now, and to what degree society is being molded by black trans women like myself!” If you re-frame this more charitably you can get most of a point in there somewhere, probably. There is some element of pulling rank in questions about privilege.
The second thing on which he might have a point is campus culture. He claims that professors are cowering in fear, unwilling to express banal views lest they be given an intellectual beat-down, some horrible pile-on where their words get re-tweeted a million times as evidence of rape culture, or something. This sounds…dubious to me. Also, however much political conservatives like to claim that universities are the vanguard of inevitable social changes (for good or ill) the fact is that campuses are strange, insular places that don’t have a very big impact on society outside them. But could well-intentioned political correctness ever run amok on some college campus and have it be the case that for six years it was a weird place to be? OK sure maybe.
[UPDATE: commenter JM Hatch reminds me that Chait cites examples of straight-up vandalism in which people’s signs were torn from their hands b/c they expressed the wrong views. This, plus the dude in the opening para, merits one full argumentative point.]
What about the rest of Chait’s article? Reader, it’s bullshit. But why is it the way it is? Well, last year Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehesi Coates got into an extended, very polite, back and forth in which Chait was offering up a bland yet poisonous Moynihan-report “black people suffer from cultural problems” line and Coates was just not having any of it. At all. Coates won the argument. Handily. But good friend and former colleague Andrew Sullivan saw things elsewise. It caused him to lament how Ta-Nehesi had just taken that Trayvon Martin stuff too personally and had gotten to be all negative, had taken, indeed, a “recent turn toward profound gloom.” It even caused Andrew Sullivan to do something so breathtaking that I have never really recovered my composure with regards to him. Via the passive snark of a reader, Sullivan’s page boasted an approving comparison between Coates and Bell Curve author Charles Murray.
“I know Ta-Nehisi would fume at any comparison of him to Charles Murray, but “intractable” and “until this country passes into the dust” are two sides of the same coin – a coin sharing a bleak, unchanging view of race relations, with white oppression and black inferiority the permanent state of things.”
Yes. It said that. On Sullivan’s blog. You can just, sort of, go pour yourself a tumbler of gin or something, I’ll be right here.
Anyway, this leads me to the second well-spring of Jonathan Chait’s whining about “Political Correctness gone mad,” or, as I like to call it, “people criticizing me forcefully, in such a way as to call my liberal bona fides into question, and pretty much just calling me racist, when actually I was only adjacent to racists, and people should look into these things more carefully before they say something that might hurt someone’s feelings.” And that is the shutting down last year of the storied magazine The New Republic, aka “The Even The Liberal.” When the magazine folded, Jonathan Chait wanted everyone to dab at their eyes with folded, clean linen handkerchiefs and mourn the death of A Higher Journalistic Calling. Instead, many writers reminded people that Marty Peretz more or less called for genocide against the Palestinians, whom he regularly called animals and savages, every issue. Every issue tho. Also, remember The Bell Curve? Remember how then-editor Andrew Sullivan pushed that to the forefront of American political discourse more or less single-handedly, and then claimed that the vigorous debate about the book was retroactive justification for the choice, and proved that Murray was one of the most prominent social scientists of his day, rather than the racist loon he was? Remember how the magazine never retracted its articles, howsoever much people offered statistical debunking of every kind, which would have offered the magazine a graceful exit on scientific and internal consistency grounds, not just “wow that was a bunch of racist tripe we published” grounds? Ta-Nehisi Coates was at the forefront of those chronicling the unlamentable history of The “E.T.L” New Republic. So Chait didn’t get the glorious send-off he wanted. He got a lot of fully deserved hits coming his way. So what lesson has he learned from this? That people should stop saying mean things about him on Twitter, and that the fact that you might ever hear a trans woman’s voice loud and clear in the noise of public intellectual life means somebody is letting those bitches get way too loud. Letting them talk just because of who they are. Letting queerness count for something. Letting being disabled count for something. Letting someone’s being politically weak and historically silenced be a reason for others on the left to react with, “hey, let’s be quiet for a minute and see what this person has to say.”
98% of what people angrily claim is “Political Correctness” is just manners. Politeness. If something I were saying at a dinner party offended another guest and my host explained why, I would stop saying that thing, in all likelihood. I myself used to call things “retarded” all the time when I was a kid, and I carried it into adulthood, and then people on the internet made it clear that they found this hurtful and demeaning, so I stopped. I explained to my children, I have a left-over bad habit in that I will occasionally call something retarded and it’s not an appropriate thing to say; will you please correct me when I do it? Thinking about what I wanted my children to say helped me here. Likewise, although I don’t know that I said anything particularly unpleasant about it ever, I was comparatively ignorant about issues facing trans people until some years back. Does this make me angry because the word “cisgender” exists now? No, because I’m not an asshole. Jezebel has very recently promoted its former commenter sub-blog to a whole site, ROYGBIV, and I recommend it highly. (It’s intended for LGBTQ issues in general but the woman who was the former author and now (I imagine) edits is trans. Check out this article for why individual unisex bathrooms are crucial for her safety as a trans person.) I read but don’t comment, because I don’t have anything that valuable to offer there, and other people do. Is this killing me? No. Chait brings the hot take: “Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing.” Yes. That’s correct, Jon. Can we help you out any more here? I’m sorry your point maps so perfectly onto mysteriously huffy conservative complaints about ‘why can black people say nigger and I can’t? No fair,’ but you made your bed and you can just lie right down in that. Oh god, re-reading I see I haven’t addressed like 12 other weaksauce points, such as that outrage farming is a moneymaker (that’s why everyone’s always hiring queer disabled minority men to…wait, WTF?) And also the complaining about trigger warnings AAAAAGH. Just don’t read Shakesville, no one’s making you! Chait says SCIENCE has proved trigger warnings don’t work and people should be re-exposed to traumatic things. I, personally, have wanted and needed trigger warnings at various times. I’m a rape survivor who can normally read about rapes just fine. Sometimes I realize I shouldn’t have clicked through on an article about Congo, but since that happens to everyone who reads the article… But at times in the past when I was actively depressed I have wanted John to tell me in advance about a book, whether there’s rape in it or not, and then I won’t read it right then. My home did not suddenly become a den of feminist groupthink in which John was forbidden to speak. I just maybe didn’t read this one graphic novel until a year later one time. Seriously, fuck right the fuck off, Chait.