Jonathan Chait, May 2006
Even if there are no hippies in a story, Chait will invent them.
I can't quite root for Lieberman to lose his primary. What's holding me back is that the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman's sins. It's a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent.
Former New Republic
and current New York Magazine
writer Jonathan Chait has been embroiled in a series of debates on race these past few weeks. The first involved a dispute with Ta Nehisi Coates
. In an interesting turn of events, Chait authored a cover story
for New York Magazine
shortly after Coates' piece was published. Yes, Chait's article is about the president and race. To say it is a muddled work is to be charitable. It has been refuted in a number of quarters effectively on the discussion of race (and I'll take my stab too below the fold.) But I do think there is an aspect of the article that does not come from failings or insights on race—it is Chait's inveterate impulse to "hippie punch." In the quote that ledes this post, I choose what to me was the most remarkable example of Chait's knee jerk tendency to hippie punch—his support for Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Connecticut Senate race based solely on his antipathy for those of us who opposed Lieberman. (Indeed Chait wrote a very strong indictment of Lieberman before succumbing to his animus to the anti-Lieberman forces.)
In his latest New York Magazine article, Chait laments—while chiding "both sides"— that:
Race has saturated everything as perhaps never before. Hardly a day goes by without a volley and counter-volley of accusations of racial insensitivity and racial hypersensitivity. And even when the red and blue tribes are not waging their endless war of mutual victimization, the subject of race courses through everything else: debt, health care, unemployment. Whereas the great themes of the Bush years revolved around foreign policy and a cultural divide over what or who constituted “real” America, the Obama years have been defined by a bitter disagreement over the size of government, which quickly reduces to an argument over whether the recipients of big-government largesse deserve it. There is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America.
I think that Chait's muddle of an article largely stems from this "hippie-punching" reflex, truly exemplified by his support of Lieberman. For in discussing his article, Chait himself wrote on twitter
that "race is deeply embedded in American and especially conservatism." Makes you wonder what we are arguing about. But motives are motives and arguments are to be tested on their own merits. I'll do that on the flip by considering Chait's article in some detail.
Let's start with the first sentence of Chait's self described "thesis"—"Race has saturated everything as perhaps never before." Think what Chait is saying here: that more than say, the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or Jim Crow Laws, or Brown v. Board, or the Montgomery boycott, or Bull Connor, or the March on Washington, or the Civil Rights laws, or the integration fights, now is the time when "race has saturated everything like never before." He can't really mean that. Chait's outrageously hyperbolic sentence, in a piece that purports to argue for "nuance," is more than just supremely ironic. It is revealing of two things—(1) the impulse to punch hippies must first place them in this setting, and (2) a seeming inability to understand how all that has come before in our history has created our present.
Ironically, in a later blog post, Chait, like Woody Allen pulling out Marshall McCluhan in Annie Hall, attempts to use President Barack Obama's statements to support his own thesis:
Three months ago, President Obama gave an interview to David Remnick, who asked him about the role race has played in public opinion during his presidency. When I read Obama’s reply, I winced:
"There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”
Why did I wince? Because at the time, I was deep into work on what became this week’s cover story, and here was Obama, in a highly prominent forum, stating what was already my thesis.
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history ...” [Armando's emphasis]
That may be Chait's thesis, which, in case you did not notice, is a pretty unremarkable one, even if the president also shared it. But that's really not what he wrote in his article.
Instead what Chait chose to do was create straw hippies that he could punch. Here is an example:
[H]ere is the point where, for all its breadth and analytic power, the liberal racial analysis collapses onto itself. It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.
Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.
One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen. This achievement has run headlong into an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination. If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism, and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.
The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the McCarthy years. It defies rational resolution in part because it is about secret motives and concealed evil.
Here is where Chait invents his hippies to punch—the "racial liberals" who see racism behind every Republican policy. But any person who fairly views liberal critiques of Republican policies knows this is simply a false straw man.
Take the most prominent progressive politician to emerge in the last years, Elizabeth Warren. Her critiques of Wall Street are class appeals. These are not indictments on racial grounds, but on class grounds.
Or consider other prominent points on which "liberals" or "hippies" take vehement issue with Republicans—women's rights, privacy rights, economic rights. Surely Chait does not mean to argue that the most prominent liberal critique on these issues is racial? The phrase is "War on Women," not "War on Women of Color."
How about climate change? Is the Republican denial regarding the science on climate change ascribed to Republican racism? Of course not.
What then could possibly be Chait's point? Let's look at some of his examples where he argues "liberals" have overreached in ascribing race consideration to Republican actions. Chait writes:
On September 9, 2009, the president delivered a State of the Union–style speech on health care before Congress. [...] At one point, Obama assured the audience that his health-care law would not cover illegal immigrants. (This was true.) Joe Wilson, the Republican representing South Carolina’s Second District, screamed, “You lie!”
Over the next few days, several liberals stated what many more believed. “I think it’s based on racism,” offered Jimmy Carter at a public forum. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.” [. . .] It is certainly true that screaming a rebuke to a black president is the sort of thing a racist Republican would do. On the other hand, it’s also the sort of thing a rude or drunk or angry or unusually partisan Republican would do.
Chait then presents this test: "One way to isolate the independent variable, and thus to separate out the racism in the outburst, is to compare the treatment of Obama with that of the last Democratic president. Obama has never been called 'boy' by a major Republican figure, but Bill Clinton was, by Emmett Tyrrell, editor of the American Spectator and author of a presidential biography titled 'Boy Clinton.'"
But that's not what Joe Wilson did. Joe Wilson did something that, at least to my memory, had never happened before—he yelled that the president of the United States was a liar in the middle of an address to a joint session of Congress. Surely it is not completely unreasonable to think that the fact that Obama is African American might have contributed to this.
Chait posits that:
Yet many, many liberals believe that only race can explain the ferocity of Republican opposition to Obama. It thus follows that anything Republicans say about Obama that could be explained by racism is probably racism. And since racists wouldn’t like anything Obama does, that renders just about any criticism of Obama—which is to say, nearly everything Republicans say about Obama—presumptively racist.
"Many liberals" stands in for "some say" for Chait. I suppose "many liberals" may say that, but who? Who believes what Chait is saying? Precisely no one I know. Chait turns the reasonable proposition that the level
of vitriol that is directed at the president is increased in some cases because of his race into "they hate him ONLY because he is black." You see, Chait needs his hippies to punch.
Consider another of Chait's examples:
Bill O’Reilly’s aggressive (and aggressively dumb) Super Bowl interview with the president included the question “Why do you feel it’s necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity?” Salon’s Joan Walsh asserted, “O’Reilly and Ailes and their viewers see this president as unqualified and ungrateful, an affirmative-action baby who won’t thank us for all we’ve done for him and his cohort. The question was, of course, deeply condescending and borderline racist.” Yes, it’s possible that O’Reilly implied that the United States afforded Obama special opportunity owing to the color of his skin. But it’s at least as possible, and consistent with O’Reilly’s beliefs, that he merely believes the United States offers everybody opportunity.
Really? Chait pretends we are unfamiliar with Bill O' Reilly. But even then he concedes that Walsh's opinion is "possible." What is his objection then, to judging O'Reilly based on his consistent pattern of behavior? This is hippie-punching at its worst.
Chait becomes so enamored of his hippie-punching that he slides into offensive language himself. He writes:
MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation.
Really? Stop and frisk? As Joan Walsh put it
See what he did with that “stop-and-frisk” reference? In case you’ve missed it, police departments in some cities have been accused of infringing the civil rights of blacks and Latinos by physically stopping them, and invasively frisking them, with little and sometimes no evidence of wrongdoing. It’s kind of a big deal to civil rights liberals, of every race. So Chait tweaks them by accusing MSNBC of stopping and frisking conservatives “ideologically” – as in metaphorically and without consequence, which technically means not stopping and frisking them at all.
If you liked that comparison, you’re going to love the whole piece.
Most notable is that Chait ignores one of the most blatantly racist episodes of the Obama presidency, the Republican-led insistence (and refusal of mainstream Republicans to denounce it) that Obama was born in Kenya. He ignores it, I imagine, because to discuss it would undermine almost in toto his hippie-punching efforts. It was so blatant a racist episode that to acknowledge it would undercut all of his hippie-punching work.
And indeed, Chait, to preserve his "both sides do it" credentials, devotes a good deal of space demonstrating that in fact a good deal of what Republicans do is, at the least, racially tinged.
But to enable his punching of the "racial liberal" hippies, Chait constructs strawmen, distorts arguments and is frankly, fundamentally dishonest. To the degree that Chait makes valid points, they are so obvious and pedestrian as to be facile.
Recently, Atrios tweeted:
expecting that a lot of the eventheliberals who got a bit more liberal post-bush will revert to form
In this episode, I see Chait reverting to form.
POST SCRIPT: While Chait's work was not, in my estimation, a worthy discussion of the issue of race in our country, it did spawn some very good essays on the subject. If there is a preference for discussing those works, rather than my exposition on Chait's hippie punching, I think that would be a worthy discussion.