The eternal shortcomings of show trials!


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.

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.
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.”

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.

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.

METZL: Absolutely.
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?

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.

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.
We’ll be honest. We don’t exactly understand what Professor Tillet said.

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.


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.
Chait used the term to mock ridiculous statements like O’Donnell’s. Apparently, Professor Tillet was saying he shouldn’t have done that.

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.


  1. Chait is writing a column as a political analyst. He is not just a guy on the street having an ordinary conversation. I think it is OK to subject his language to analysis on that basis. People who were around in the 60s do know about the attribution of paranoia to African Americans as a clinical symptom intended to invalidate their concerns. In fact, African Americans do score higher on paranoia scales intended to measure that aspect of personality, because of their life experiences as targets of discrimination. It is an example of the misuse of such tests that their legitimate life experiences cause them to be misclassified. (Artists similarly score high on psychoticism scales despite being clinically normal.) People who know something about African American experience know about this. Chait is presuming to write about race in America. He should know or he should pass his draft by someone who does to identify problematic statements. Otherwise he will suffer grief like this -- and I don't agree that it is trumped up.

    Chait's metaphor about stop and frisk is an apt description of the phenomenon he is describing because it captures the idea that unjustified suspicion is being focused on an innocuous person (or remark). He may have used that phrase because it was primed by the topic of race and thus came to mind more readily. It is racially tinged because race is the basis for the stop and frisk targeting. I don't think it is derogatory, so I'm not sure why there were objections to it. I wouldn't have said it and it did catch my attention when I first read the excerpt. I don't think the statements of the professors were particularly obscure on that point.

    If you want a professor to explain something fully, I think you must allocate more than the sound bites available on most of these shows.


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  2. This has been one of my biggest pet peeves with my fellow dems/liberals: The hilariously wrong idea that a) Obama has been attacked more than any other president, and b) That it's because he's black.

    Much of this seems to be due to the influx of newly-awakened political minds at the time Obama began to run for President or at some point during the preceding Bush years. If they had been around for the CLINTON presidency, they would know that point A is definitely not the case, and since Clinton is *white* that point B obviously isn't true either.

    But calling people racists has become the left's favorite past time and that conduct has been very, very damaging to progressive causes and social justice.

    1. So it's OK to force the first black president to become the first president forced to prove his citizenship post-election, to waive Confederate flags at the White House, to show up at "rallies" with all manner of blatantly racist signs aimed at Obama, and that's all fine because mean things were said about Bill Clinton.

      That's my pet peeve with people with their heads so far up Somerby's ass that they can only regurgitate the shit he's feeding them.

    2. It is no more okay to question Obama's birth certificate than it was to question whether Clinton had Vince Foster murdered.

      Confederate flags have been waved at every Democrat President. Plenty of horrible signs were waived at Clinton and Carter. None of it is fine, but none of it is unique to Obama.

    3. Reasonable and honest people who lived through and were politically aware in both the Clinton and Obama eras should conclude that, if anything, Obama has been treated much BETTER than Clinton, by the GOP and the press alike (especially the latter). In fact IMHO Obama has endured the most positive treatment accorded a Democratic president since Kennedy.

    4. Just to add:

      Wake me up when Obama has been accused by prominent figures on the right or in the press of fathering illegitimate children, being a drug smuggler, a serial rapist, or even a serial murderer.

      Or actually been impeached.

    5. Right. It's OK for Newt Gingrich to link Obama's foreign policy to Kenyan anti-colonialism because Gingrich also did mean things to Clinton.

    6. Yawn .... You woke me up for that?!?

  3. Bob demonstrates once again how difficult it is to have a serious discussion about race when any and every allegation of racism is instantly dismissed by a man who grew up white and privileged.

    1. Bob demonstrates once again how difficult it is to have a serious discussion about race when any and every idea on racism is instantly dismissed by SJW's because the speaker is a white male who by definition cannot understand these matters.

    2. White males are perfectly capable of understanding.

      White males who routinely dismiss any and all discussion of racism as "there they go throwing around the R-word again" are not.

      I do note, however, that at least this time, those who tried to take the opposite side of Somerby in a discussion of racism are not linked to the Salem witch trials.

      Somerby commenters get results!

  4. Perfect, Bob. Thanks.

    1. I like the way he turned four sentences in the end of an article into the only thing Lyons wrote.

  5. Melissa Harris-Perry is truly a scary person, we have a professor here who I would be afraid to take any class from just in case I happened to say a word with which she did not agree. I cannot imagine such a person teaching, the prejudiced talk show is bad enough.

  6. Philosopher King of the Openminded Literalism denounces Showtrials in Nerdland. Liberalworld will be a better place.



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