Overwrought overstatements on race: In our view, Jonathan Chait got dunked in the pond on Sunday’s Harris-Perry program.
For background, see yesterday’s post.
That said, we weren’t crazy about the piece for which the professors tore Chait up. Here’s some reasons why:
Chait wrote a cover piece for New York magazine about—well, what the heck was his piece about? It appears beneath these headlines:
The Color of His PresidencyFrom that, we’ll guess that some editor wasn’t real clear about what Chait said either.
Optimists hoped Obama would usher in a new age of racial harmony. Pessimists feared a surge in racial strife. Neither was right. But what happened instead has been even more invidious.
We thought Chait’s piece was fuzzy, unclear, unlike his usual work. Here are a few objections:
As he starts, Chait sketches a dystopian vision of life in these United States in the age of Obama. This is what he sees:
CHAIT (4/9/14): Every Obama supporter believes deep down, or sometimes right on the surface, that the furious opposition marshaled against the first black president is a reaction to his race. Likewise, every Obama opponent believes with equal fervor that this is not only false but a smear concocted willfully to silence them.Does anyone really believe that? Is it true that every Obama supporter thinks those things about the opposition to the president? Is it true that every Obama opponent “believes with equal fervor” in the “smear” Chait describes?
Of course it isn’t true! It isn’t true that every supporter and every opponent sees the scene as Chait describes.
Chait describes “a bitter, irreconcilable enmity” involving every supporter and every opponent. Our advice: Chait should go take a walk on this lovely spring afternoon.
He should speak to the people he meets. It just isn’t like that out there!
Journalists get to overstate, but it probably isn’t a great idea to overstate about race, our most serious topic. That said, Chair overstates throughout his brief introductory section, culminating in this:
CHAIT: A different, unexpected racial argument has taken shape. Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world. Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.In one way, we agree—we think there’s some very dumb talk about race occurring in certain precincts. But according to Chait, “liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years.” Meanwhile, “conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own.”
“Paranoia” is a strong term—and Chait then says that both groups are right in the beliefs he attributes to them! Question:
If someone is right in his view of the world, why would you call his view “paranoia?” And why is Chait so overwrought in his own view of the scene?
As we stated on Monday, we think Chait offers one important new observation in his much-discussed piece. He’s willing to cite some of the absurd race talk going on within his own tribe.
In our view, this whole piece could have been built around that important observation. Instead, Chait goes on a very long ramble, creating a great deal of confusion in the process.
What is the basic point of this piece? We have no clear idea. We never thought we’d agree with the claim that some liberal has engaged in “moral equivalence.” But that’s pretty much what Chait does in the paragraph we’ve quoted, where he makes puzzling overstatements about both tribal groups.
Do some conservatives sometimes “feel that racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs?” Presumably, yes.
That said, are conservatives “living in a paranoia” about this? Are all conservatives in that state?
We don’t know why you’d say that.
Cable liberals sometimes say the darnedest things about race. That would have been a very good topic for Chait, a liberal, to explore.
It’s also true that academics have made all sorts of claims about so-called “racial resentment” within the conservative world. Presumably, Chait could have built a piece around those claims, though the parts of his piece which explore that topic are very poorly explained.
We thought Chait’s was overwrought, unclear, unlike his usual work. If we had a cable show, we’d have lots of questions about it.
That said, it seems to us it makes better sense to ask Chait about his piece than to stage a Salem witch trial, which is what happened on Harris-Perry’s program.
On that show, Chait was banished to the stocks while a gang of professors carped about various things he had said. For the vast bulk of the televised trial, he wasn’t allowed to defend or explain his piece. Largely for that reason, the complaints by the irate professors were about as useful as is normally the case with the cries of angry mobs.
We were puzzled by Chait’s piece. On Friday, we’ll offer one final complaint.
Tomorrow, though, we’ll look at the things the professors said as they dunked Chait in the pond.
In some ways, we agree with the professors. They were puzzled by certain parts of Chait’s piece which we ourselves have discussed.
Example: When they grumbled among themselves, Harris-Perry started with Chait’s remarks about “paranoia,” a place where we might have started. But she had Chait locked up in the stocks. For that reason, he couldn’t explain what he wrote.
We’d say the discourse suffered from his banishment. Few commentators will be at their best with the accused in the stocks, when they’ve reached the point where they feel inclined to exercise such power.