Belle-ing the Chait

So Jonathan Chait has responded to his critics, sort of. The core claim:

The story’s critics have repeated their claim that I am personally upset so often, they have come to take it as an obvious fact. (“It’s understandable that Chait, and the many others who agree with him,” writes Amanda Taub faux-sympathetically, “find it so upsetting to be on the receiving end of what he refers to as ‘P.C.’ criticism.”) … If there were a single sentence in the story expressing self-pity, it would be widely quoted by the critics, but no such line can be found. (Belle Waring, unable to find any quotes substantiating her characterization of my views, actually goes so far as to invent her own quotes that supposedly describe my thinking.) Nor is such a sentiment hidden, lurking somewhere outside the text. I don’t feel victimized in any way by political correctness or (as some have alleged, in one strange variant of the charge) by new media, which has been a boon to me. I feel, with regard to my career and my place in American society, things have never been better. The response partly reflects the p.c. culture’s inability to evaluate arguments about identity as abstract arguments rather than reflections of the author’s own identity.

Well, I dunno. There’s a reason, which Chait oddly fails to mention, why Belle and others thought there might be a distinct personal edge to his suggestion that a white guy accused of bias couldn’t get a fair hearing. Here’s that reason:

it’s also impossible for even the most careful writer to survive the method Coates is applying here, which is that of a hostile prosecutor combing the evidence for every shred of possible guilt. … More perplexing to me, Coates devotes a huge amount of space expounding upon the premise that, as he puts it, I “believe ‘black culture’ and ‘a culture of poverty’ are somehow interchangeable.” … I was clarifying that Obama (and Bill Cosby) see the culture of poverty as a part of the problem of poverty, as opposed to its entirety, as Ryan sees it, and also opposed to zero percent of the problem, as Coates sees it. … Now, Coates was also accusing Obama and Cosby of blaming “black culture.” I considered this a rhetorical cheap shot. … I didn’t bother pointing out the cheap shot. So now Coates has written thousands of words assailing me for quoting his own line in disagreement … The reaction I’ve seen online to this debate suggests a lot of readers on both sides investing a great deal of broader meanings into it — identity, authenticity, yet another endless iteration of the meta question of How We Talk About Race. I have no interest in playing a role in that drama.

It’s certainly theoretically conceivable that Jonathan Chait is capable of completely compartmentalizing his mental life to keep his personal circumstances entirely separate from his intellectual output. Perhaps there was absolutely no connection between his obvious bitterness and anger a few months back at having been accused of racial insensitivity by a prominent African-American writer and critic, and last week’s indictment of a culture where:

If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. (Here one might find oneself accused of man/white/straightsplaining.)

If so, God bless him. I certainly couldn’t maintain that level of disinterestedness myself, and don’t think I’d even try. But even if he’s telling the truth, the piece is at best an exercise in trolling.

When Chait says:

the story … in the print edition, asked, “Can a white male liberal critique the country’s current political-correctness craze (which, by the way, hurts liberals most)? We’re sure you’ll let us know.” This was my editors’ playful way to provocatively anticipate the firestorm the piece would set off.

I read the phrase “playful way to provocatively anticipate the firestorm” as an unsubtle euphemism for “calculated strategy to turn the troll-dial from 10 to 11.” This was a piece that Chait’s editors (and, one presumes, Chait) knew would get an outraged reaction, and presumably wanted to get an outraged reaction. In other words, it was an exercise in trolling.

I’ve long been of the opinion that Jonathan Chait is a very talented troll of the second magnitude. Now Chait isn’t just a troll (his book on American politics is very good and provides useful information), but much of his day-to-day work is trolling both left and right. This isn’t meant as a hit on him. Not only is there a great deal of potential heuristic benefit to good, competent trolling (Socrates’ eironeia is no more and no less than trolling turned to philosophical purposes) but the work of cognitive psychologists like Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest that trolling is ubiquitous. Our human capacity to reason has evolved not to figure out the truth, but to win arguments. In an America that wasn’t so painfully fixated on sincerity of argument, Chait’s trolling abilities would be rightly celebrated.

The desire to troll explains the structure of the piece – a string of claims (1990s-political-correctness-leads-to-crazy-feminists-on-campus-today-leads-to-people-being-horrible-on-Twitter), which seem to add up to a coherent whole, if you don’t read carefully, but don’t add up if you do. To understand this structure, it’s worth consulting that universally acknowledged expert on trolling, our own Daniel Davies on contrarianism:

The other point of contrarianism is that, if it’s well done, you assemble a whole load of points which are individually uncontroversial (or at least, solidly substantiated) and put them together to support a conclusion which is surprising and counterintuitive. In other words, the aim of the thing is the overall impression you give.

and even more, this very interesting post on the heuristic value of trolling. In particular:

here’s an example of a strategy a Troll once described : you take a sensitive topic (like the ban on minarets or the latest problem with Macintosh OS), and you build an argument around it. The conclusion of your argument is blatantly absurd, but every premise is correct, except one. The trick is to hide that wrong premise under an intricate discussion. You know that people will be so hasty to resist your conclusion that they will start by attacking the true premises. You have prepared a violent rebuttal for each objection, and you know that, since you are right on those points, some objective debaters might side with you, which will divide the discussion group (a crucial step).

So what’s the “blatantly absurd” premise that’s been buried here? I think that the pivot you need to pay attention to can be found in these lines.

Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

So what are Chait’s claims? As I read them: (1) The left has exerted “hegemonic control” over academia for two decades (Chait purports to document this by spatchcocking a jumble of incidents from the 1990s through to today together). (2) Social media has created a new space for this “far left,” which “has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones,” to flourish. (3) Therefore, Catherine MacKinnon and all those other people who annoyed and terrified me back when I was an undergraduate are having their revenge, twenty-five years later! Social media has allowed the forces of political correctness to assume “a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular,” “philosophically threatening” the foundations of liberal politics.

If you look at these claims at all carefully, they’re obviously untrue. The political correctness panic of the 1990s was the product of a brief moment when it might have looked to a careless observer as though English departments, cultural studies and “Theory” did enjoy cultural hegemony on campuses, and were likely to do so for some time. This was a temporary and conjoint product of the grandiose claims of some cultural studies people, and the attacks of their enemies on the right (and to a lesser extent in other bits of the academy), which made Theory look much bigger and more important than it actually was. I imagine that the arguments were fun (a lot of my own blogging is the result of my frustrated desire to have been writing for Lingua Franca back in the day), but they didn’t last for long, or make much of a lasting impression. Even Alan Sokal has acknowledged in retrospect that postmodernists were pretty harmless compared to the true forces of irrationalist lunacy which were then gathering strength in less fashionable precincts of intellectual life.

Put differently, the way that college life sort-of looked the last time that Jonathan Chait was paying any attention to it is very different from the way that it looks today. English and cultural studies departments don’t have unquestioned hegemony on campus. They’re embattled, and seeing their funding cut. The last fifteen years have been wretched ones for most freshly minted humanities Ph.D.s – dismal job prospects, with little prospect of tenure or anything even resembling a comfortable middle class existence. University administrations are largely indifferent to the siren call of post modernism and (except where serious scandal is threatened), feminist issues on campus. In contrast, they are exquisitely sensitive to the interests of funders (whether it be the state, large donors, or both) and members of their boards of trustees, very few of whom are concerned with combating racial and sexual injustice.

In fairness to Chait, there was a recent incident when a professor was refused employment, on the purported justification that “[w]hat we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” The person who got the boot was, of course, Steven Salaita (Chait similarly fails to mention the efforts by New York state legislators to punish Brooklyn College because its political science department passively sponsored leftwing anti-Israel speakers). Who you agree or disagree with in the Salaita affair is irrelevant to the point it amply illustrates; power on campus does not rest with leftwing culture studies people, or even with professors as a body. It’s the administration (responsive to politicians, to the rich, and to the influential) that calls the shots.

The turn of the cultural left to Twitter is a reflection of its weakness on university campuses, not its strength. Today’s intra-left fights over cultural identity are not the birth pangs of a dangerous new radical left elite of cultural enforcers. They’re the product of anger and economic powerlessness, the unanticipated result of the hollowing out of humanities on university campuses, and the parlous state of intellectual journalism. The lack of real money and job prospects is leading many young writers and academics to turn to online publishing. This is in turn leading to an (unsustainable) proliferation of cultural commentary, some of it unreadable, but much of it sharp and interesting. Much of this commentary is understandably driven by spleen. Impoverished freelancers and adjunct intellectuals, scraping out a living from commuter teaching and dead end jobs, are angry when they look at the comfortable positions that a previous generation of humanities intellectuals had, and that they never will. They won’t ever have good jobs. They do have Twitter. But that’s nearly all that they do have or are likely to have any time soon.

Which is why Chait’s argument is, at best, trolling. We’re not seeing the creation of a “towering presence” of far left cultural hegemony, any more than we were threatened in 2007 by McGovernized Daily Kos readers, with their “paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage,” frogmarching misfortunate liberals like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias into lockstep on their Long March into the radicalist abyss. Instead, we’re seeing the continued weakening of the cultural left on campus, and a turn towards Twitter and online media because, basically, that’s what they’ve got. Chait has cobbled together a variety of disconnected observations into a superficially plausible thesis that’s calculated to annoy a lot of people. On the micro level, the individual bits hold true – if you’re a feminist writer, or if you’re in a cultural theory department, you probably feel the heat of some of these debates. But the Grand Threat to Our Liberal Way of Life (see also David Frum’s unintentionally funny ‘bitch slap’ article on the Pussification of the American Liberal) is nonsense.

Considered as trolling, it’s a very creditable performance. Not connoisseur’s trolling – it doesn’t quite produce that baffled sense of ‘but where is the argument wrong??’ that truly great trolling does, but it’s certainly been quite effective at getting the punters out, myself included. Think Michael Bay and Transformers: Age of Extinction, not Mike Leigh and Mr. Turner. If the piece were intended as serious journalism, of course, it would be a quite different story. Still, I think it’s only fair to give Chait the benefit of the doubt.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.