Professors in Nerdland object: Gene Lyons wrote his column this week about the Jonathan Chait show trial.
Then he did a Facebook post about how depressing the whole topic is.
We feel the same way. On the whole, we remain puzzled by Chait’s cover piece for New York magazine. But in our view, Sunday’s show trial represents a changing of the guard and a depressing addition to pseudo-liberal culture.
To review: Chait was denounced for a full six minutes before he was introduced. After a six-minute exchange with Melissa Harris-Perry, he was sent to the stocks.
For the next two segments, he was denounced by a hand-picked panel of professors. Harris-Perry devoted twenty-six minutes of air time to Chait’s piece. In that twenty-six minutes, Chait spoke 600 words.
Harris-Perry didn’t like Chait’s essay. That’s fine with us! We weren’t crazy about the piece ourselves. (To peruse Chait’s piece, click here.)
But below, you see the first question from Harris-Perry after Chait was banished to the stocks. She posed her question to Professor Metzl:
HARRIS-PERRY (4/13/14): And joining me now, Jelani Cobb, associate professor of the University of Connecticut; Jonathan Metzl, professor psychiatry at Vanderbilt University; Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Salamishah Tillet, associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.As we noted yesterday, we were puzzled by the passage where Chait used the term “paranoia” too. We were also puzzled by the passage where he says a certain political claim would be “completely insane.”
So Jonathan, I wanted to start with you because I found it interesting, the language of paranoia and of insanity that Mr. Chait often uses to talk about race, and mostly to talk about the difference between white liberals and white conservatives arguing about race. But this idea that, if you see race differently, it constitutes insanity or madness.
That said, does Chait “often use the language of paranoia and of insanity to talk about race?” We thought Harris-Perry was overstating a tad—and we thought it would have made more sense to ask Chait himself why he said what he did.
But alas! This was very much a show trial, and Chait had been banished to the stocks. Instead, Harris-Perry’s question went to Professor Metzl.
In reply, Professor Metzl said this:
METZL (continuing directly): Absolutely right. I have two points as a maybe jumping-off point for what I think is going to be a very fruitful conversation about this.Extemporaneous speech isn’t perfect. But do we all know that “the idea of paranoia itself is incredibly racialized?” Does that constitute an objection to what Chait said in his piece?
And one is that when I read that part of it, I almost fell off my chair because, of course, we know that when I researched my book, The Protest Psychosis, the idea of paranoia itself is incredibly racialized. It’s not just a standard symptom. And through the 1960s and 1970s, the moniker of “paranoia” was actually used to pathologize black protesters who were protesting against the U.S. government. So there’s a history of “paranoia” that I think is very important in the political sphere.
The second point I want to make, it’s slightly related, is that it’s not really true that—I mean, the hard part for me is that it’s not just that we have expanded conversation about race in this country. There are a million ways in which conversations about race have been frustratingly silenced. It’s hard—you know, there’s fewer minority students on college campus, defunding of research, social science research about race. And so in a way, having a black president ironically has made it more difficult to talk about race in the United States I think.
HARRIS-PERRY: So this first point that you made, about the notion that “paranoia” itself is not a race neutral term.
We’ll take a wild guess:
People use the terms “paranoid” and “paranoia” all the time, in literal and figurative senses. It occurs to almost no one that the term “paranoia” was incredibly racialized in the 1960s.
We don’t know if what Metzl said about the term’s past use is true. But no one has stopped using the term for that reason. Nor was Chait applying the term to any particular racial group. He said that liberals are paranoid about conservatives and vice versa.
What was Professor Metzl saying? Do you have any idea?
Was he saying that Chait shouldn’t have used the term in the way he did because of that history? The term “paranoia” is used all the time. Is everyone supposed to stop using the term because of things we all know from when he researched his book, which he named?
What was the point of Professor Metzl’s remark? Does anyone have any idea?
In a leading humble-brag, Harris-Perry routinely brands her show as coming from “Nerdland.” Pandering figures around the tribe echo this branding for her.
When Harris-Perry says she’s broadcasting from Nerdland, it’s her way of saying that her program is very smart. But go ahead—watch the Q-and-A she conducted with the professors.
(For her first segment, click here. For her second segment, click this.)
Do you see the professors saying things which strike you as especially smart? Exquisitely scripted, yes. But do you really see smart?
Professor Tillet also knew what the convict shouldn’t have said:
TILLET: I mean, there’s a couple of problems I had with the article, to add to Jelani’s point.We’ll be honest. We don’t exactly understand what Professor Tillet said.
The first I thought was offensive was using the language of “stop and frisk” to talk about the ways in which like MSNBC, for example, deals with issues of racial injustice, right?
So when I recently saw the Anita Hill documentary and was reminded of when Clarence Thomas uses the language of “high-tech lynching” to talk about the hearing that he’s experiencing, so I think just to use “stop and frisk” as a way of critiquing any institution for talking about racial injustice is problematic. But it also elides the realities of individuals who are experiencing state-sanctioned violence and harassment.
Chait used the term “stop and frisk” to mock the way people on MSNBC conduct political debate. This is what he said:
CHAIT (4/6/14): [M]any, 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.Chait used the term to mock ridiculous statements like O’Donnell’s. Apparently, Professor Tillet was saying he shouldn’t have done that.
Esquire columnist Charles Pierce has accused Times columnist David Brooks of criticizing Obama because he wants Obama to be an “anodyne black man” who would “lose, nobly, and then the country could go back to its rightful owners.” Timothy Noah, then at Slate, argued in 2008 that calling Obama “skinny” flirted with racism. (“When white people are invited to think about Obama’s physical appearance, the principal attribute they’re likely to dwell on is his dark skin. Consequently, any reference to Obama’s other physical attributes can’t help coming off as a coy walk around the barn.”) Though the term elitist has been attached to candidates of both parties for decades (and to John Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign), the writer David Shipler has called it racist when deployed against Obama. (“ ‘Elitist’ is another word for ‘arrogant,’ which is another word for ‘uppity,’ that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.”)
MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Obama for playing too much golf, Lawrence O’Donnell accused him of “trying to align...the lifestyle of Tiger Woods with Barack Obama.” (McConnell had not mentioned Tiger Woods; it was O’Donnell who made the leap.) After Arizona governor Jan Brewer confronted Obama at an airport tarmac, Jonathan Capehart concluded, “A lot of people saw it as her wagging her finger at this president who’s also black, who should not be there.” Martin Bashir hung a monologue around his contention that Republicans were using the initialism IRS as a code that meant “nigger.” Chris Matthews calls Republicans racist so often it is hard to even keep track.
Do you understand why he shouldn’t have done that? Does it start to seem like Chait should have all his work thoroughly screened by a group of professors, preferably in Nerdland?
Liberals should be warned, then warned again, against the presumption that this type of carping is smart. Quite often, the nation’s professors aren’t all that.
That can even be true in Nerdland.
Would it perhaps have made good sense to see what Chait what would have said about these objections? In show trials, the accused can’t speak.
Did you realize that, in Nerdland at least, the nation’s professors still tilt a bit toward conducting trials of this type?
We aren’t big fans of this piece by Chait. Still and all, on some occasions, it makes sense to let convicts speak.