Monday, February 2, 2015

Not a Very Accurate Thing to Say: A Response to Jonathan Chait

There's an article by the journalist Jonathan Chait that's gaining a decent bit of attention lately, entitled "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say." It's already gotten a fair bit of criticism (not all of which I agree with), but I thought I'd throw in my two cents on it anyway. To be honest, upon first seeing it, I thought it might be something I'd end up agreeing with—I'm no fan of political correctness, and I think it's one of the most annoying tendencies within the modern left. However, it became clear after not too long that this article was not some well-thought-out critique of political correctness so much as an attack on viewpoints Chait doesn't like by strawman and by associating them with legitimate stupidity which isn't directly related to them in any meaningful fashion. Per the usual, I'll pick the article apart here.

The article starts out decently enough, talking about a recent incident where a student journalist was harassed and fired because of a piece he published satirizing PC culture, and an incident in 1992 when a group of angry radical feminists stole a videotape from another feminist who had an exhibition documenting the lives of sex workers who viewed their profession as empowering. Correctly, Chait views both of these incidents as PC stupidity run amok. However, it's shortly after this that Chait begins to reveal how this article is ultimately his own stupidity run amok, as he claims that the "theory animating both attacks turns out to be a durable one, with deep roots in the political left."

Next, Chait complains about the criticism of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons:
On Twitter, “Je Suis Charlie,” a slogan heralding free speech, was briefly one of the most popular news hashtags in history. But soon came the reactions (“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie”) from those on the left accusing the newspaper of racism and those on the right identifying the cartoons as hate speech. Many media companies, including the New York Times, have declined to publish the cartoons the terrorists deemed offensive, a stance that has attracted strident criticism from some readers. These sudden, dramatic expressions of anguish against insensitivity and oversensitivity come at a moment when large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness.
This is something I'm happy Chait gave the opportunity to address—while I've already attacked the New Atheist response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I haven't very much discussed the actual cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. The truth is, not only do you not have to be a supporter of political correctness to condemn them; if you honestly see nothing wrong with some of the cartoons, I wonder if there's not something wrong with you. How about this one, making light of peaceful protestors killed by the Egyptian government (the text reads, "The Qur'an is shit—it doesn't stop bullets")? Yeah, hilarious. There's an entire letter that's now surfaced, written (before the shooting) by Olivier Cyran, who once worked at Charlie Hebdo, attacking their increasing obsession with mocking and degrading Muslims. The magazine quotes Bernard Maris (a journalist that was killed in the attack) as writing:
Show your breasts, Amina [a member of FEMEN who posed topless], show your genitals to all those bearded retards who hang around on porno sites, to all the desert pigs who preach morality at home and pay for escorts in foreign palaces, and dream of seeing you stoned to death after raping you... Your nude body is of an absolute purity, compared to their jellabas and repugnant niqabs.
Nothing Islamophobic about that. (Oh, I forgot, I'm not supposed to criticize him because he was killed. Whoops.)

Chait's next examples of political correctness gone awry are not much better; he cites the petition to revoke the invitation to Bill Maher to give UC Berkeley's commencement speech (an issue I've already addressed), glibly noting that Bill Maher has criticized Islam "along with nearly all the other major world religions." The fact that Bill Maher has explicitly singled out Islam and that his criticisms of it are particularly problematic is conveniently overlooked (though, as I said before, I don't support the petition).

Similarly, "protesters at Smith College demanded the cancellation of a commencement address by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, blaming the organization for 'imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.'" So the protestors didn't want the commencement speech given by the managing director of an organization that routinely exploits and harms third-world countries, who herself champions the disastrous European austerity measures? Can't imagine why, seems like a great pick to me.

In the same vein,
Rutgers protesters scared away Condoleezza Rice; others at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam; and those at Haverford successfully protested ­former Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was disqualified by an episode in which the school’s police used force against Occupy protesters.
What's shocking is not that these figures were "blocked" by protestors but that the universities would even consider them as commencement speakers: Rice avidly backed the US invasion of Iraq, a major war crime; Hirsi Ali said that the West needs to fight a war against Islam, using military force if necessary; Birgeneau sided with police who brutalized nonviolent protestors on his campus. Are we honestly supposed to feel bad that they were scared off?

Chait then goes on to cite a number of other examples of what he views as PC craziness, which I mostly agree are genuinely stupid. In fact, I agreed so substantially that I wasn't sure that the article would actually be worth responding to—that is, until, it got to the latter bit of it. There, the things he says begin to become so absurd that it's quite a task to demonstrate how wrong they are—the best way is to simply look at them bit by bit.
The right wing in the United States is unusually strong compared with other industrialized democracies, and it has spent two generations turning liberal into a feared buzzword with radical connotations. This long propaganda campaign has implanted the misperception — not only among conservatives but even many liberals — that liberals and “the left” stand for the same things.
This part is actually true, and I find it quite annoying for reasons very unlike Chait's. I find it very annoying that my ideology is constantly grouped in with those whose views I strongly dislike (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, etc.)  as "leftism." Likewise, I find it incredibly annoying that the right wing actually believes liberal hacks like these are "left-wing" in any sense; and I find it equally irritating that it's popular among some mainstream Democrats to fancy themselves as somehow being far-left just because they hate Republicans.
It is true that liberals and leftists both want to make society more economically and socially egalitarian. But liberals still hold to the classic Enlightenment political tradition that cherishes individuals rights, freedom of expression, and the protection of a kind of free political marketplace. (So, for that matter, do most conservatives.)
Uh-huh. Let's look at the three claims this paragraph makes, in effect: Claim A: "liberals still hold to the classic Enlightenment political tradition that cherishes individuals rights..." If by liberals you mean mainstream liberals like Chait, this could hardly be less true. Chait is yet another Obama apologist, willing to overlook or endorse minor issues pertaining to individual rights under the president such as his expanded drone strikes (so much for the right to a fair trial), expanded NSA spying (so much for the fourth amendment), and role in keeping a Yemeni journalist in prison on bogus charges (and there goes freedom of the press). This sort of thing is all too typical of mainstream liberals, who often continue to hail the greatness of Obama in spite of his blatantly problematic (to put it politely) legacy.

Claim B: "most conservatives" also "hold to the classic Enlightenment political tradition." Even more absurd, considering that Obama's worst policies have often been too mild for many conservatives. American conservatism is largely American liberalism minus the few shreds of humanity that that ideology has. To say it defends individual rights or holds to Enlightenment values is laughable.

There's also an implicit third claim: leftists don't "hold to the classic Enlightenment political tradition that cherishes individuals rights, freedom of expression, and the protection of a kind of free political marketplace." I guess someone should tell that to Noam Chomsky, one of the most renowned leftists on Earth, who has consistently defended individual rights, freedom of expression, and a "free political marketplace" (whatever that means) from attacks on them by liberals and conservatives, and who cites Enlightenment principles as the core of his anarchist philosophy.

It gets better next:
The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents — you know, the old line often misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — as hopelessly na├»ve. If you maintain equal political rights for the oppressive capitalists and their proletarian victims, this will simply keep in place society’s unequal power relations. Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to.
This overlooks the minor fact that Marx wrote an entire work defending freedom of the press and attacking censorship and that prominent Marxists throughout history, such as Rosa Luxemburg, have defended "freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly...the free battle of opinions." It's a bit telling that Chait neither quotes nor cites anything to back up his claim. Why complicate an idiotically contrived narrative with actual facts, though?
The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones. “The liberal view,” wrote MacKinnon 30 years ago, “is that abstract categories — like speech or equality — define systems. Every time you strengthen free speech in one place, you strengthen it everywhere. Strengthening the free speech of the Klan strengthens the free speech of Blacks.” She deemed this nonsensical: “It equates substantive powerlessness with substantive power and calls treating these the same, ‘equality.’ ”
The idea that strengthening the free speech of the Klan strengthens the free speech of blacks is, in fact, nonsensical. Of course, if you genuinely believe in free speech, you have to support it for even abhorrent groups like the Klan; but it's odd that Chait should choose this view from MacKinnon to illustrate the "problems" with the far left. Furthermore, what right does MacKinnon have to represent the far left? By no means is every radical leftist a radical feminist, like MacKinnon--in fact, while many of the radical feminists I know of hold far-left viewpoints, not that many of the radical leftists I know of are radical feminists.

Skipping ahead a bit, we get this paragraph:
Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.
I have a longstanding distaste for political correctness, but the idea that the "p.c. left" is more "philosophically threatening" than conservatism (or the psychotic ideology that we refer to today in the United States when we use that word) is unfathomably stupid. Let's have a brief refresher of the "accomplishments" of Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of American conservatism:
  • support for the South African apartheid regime, whose military aggression killed 1.5 million people in neighboring countries
  • support for IMF "structural adjustment programs" which led to the deaths of an estimated 6 million children under five per year
  • funding of South American terrorists who reportedly raped, murdered, and tortured civilians
  • weakening of unions and the middle class at home in the United States 
  • policies that helped pave the way for the surveillance state we have today
And the movement that venerates this man as some kind of American hero is supposedly embracing a less damaging philosophy than the "p.c. left" because the latter tend be whiny and oversensitive. A bit of a stretch.
Chait then launches into a discussion of a professor of feminist studies who encountered young pro-life activists and, after they refused to take down their sign, "snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the [protestors] on the way." Supposedly this event and the fact that there were people who defended it is some damning indication of the evils of the far left and the danger of political correctness. While the incident and the defense of it are deplorable, somehow the fact that there are people in the US government who still defend the illegal invasion and occupation of a country that posed no threat to us seems a tad more pressing.

Chait goes on to discuss how the PC movement of the 1990's was vanquished because, thankfully, Bill Clinton came along to rescue us from it and return us to the world of genuine, good liberalism instead of politically correct leftism. Yes, thank God that Bill Clinton could save us from political correctness. True, he did end up bombing a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan and killing maybe tens of thousands for no decent reason, but isn't that a minor issue compared to the menace of political correctness?

After a couple paragraphs vacillating between whether political correctness will or won't be vanquished again in the near future, Chait wraps up with this:
That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.
Yes, nevermind the small fact that social freedoms for blacks, Jews, gays, and women were advocated for by far-leftists well before American liberalism did anything to address their situation. In Chait's mind, apparently, you have to abide by what he considers American liberalism (singing the praises of Clinton and Obama, essentially) or you must be a member of the "p.c. left." So Hunter S. Thompson, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, and Gore Vidal are apparently either nonexistent, members of the "p.c. left" (despite holding ideas not even vaguely resembling the ones Chait describes), or actually mainstream liberals (despite detesting the ideology Chait espouses).

Ultimately, this is either Chait's attempt to smear leftism in order to deflect its criticism of mainstream liberalism, or Chait is really just too ignorant to know the complete stupidity of his claims about leftism. Neither says anything good about him as a journalist. But, in spite of his mendacious claims about their ideology, major far-left figures both today and throughout history would eagerly defend his right to publish this article. That fact, of course, defeats his arguments far more effectively than any kind of censorship ever could.

Note: The claim that the structural adjustment programs led to the deaths of six million children under five per year was slightly reworded for greater accuracy and the hyperlink was directed to a more reliable source. I also qualified the claim about Clinton's bombing killing tens of thousands as the number is unknown.

No comments:

Post a Comment