Jonathan Chait, casualty of political correctness

Jonathan Chait is a professional Democrat writing for New York magazine. This means he makes a decent living excoriating, often well, Republican attacks on the president. It also means he’s obtuse, often horrifyingly so. In his defense, it’s often more irksome fending off attacks from people ostensibly on one’s own side than from the enemy; but there’s no reason why this quarrel with Ta-Nehisi Coates turned into the Battle of the Somme.

Internecine squabbles have the effect of airing pieties, exposing jargon behind which we hide specious or non-existent arguments, and forcing us to clarify positions. Alex Pareene exposes the mendacity of Chait’s bleating about the malevolence of political correctness. To me the term means an acknowledgment of thoughtlessness, a questioning of assumptions. I’m not blameless. It’s taken years to accept tremors in the canon. To study slave narratives alongside Mansfield Park isn’t to create an equivalence between them; it’s to suggest how a story meant for a handful of readers written by people responsible for the comforts of Austen’s characters can offer an additional gloss on the novel. While my experiences and education define me, there are many things in heaven and earth undreamt of in my philosophy. I need strangers to attack me. So long as they don’t succumb to jargon and doublespeak themselves, I don’t accuse them of bad faith.

Thanks to social media, men like Chait can no longer take for granted the assumptions undergirding their beliefs. This is hard for a man over thirty. Check out this passage:

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.) It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called “tone policing.” If you are accused of bias, or “called out,” reflection and apology are the only acceptable response — to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous. A white person or a man can achieve the status of “ally,” however, if he follows the rules of p.c. dialogue. A community, virtual or real, that adheres to the rules is deemed “safe.” The extensive terminology plays a crucial role, locking in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement impossible.

The clammy tone, reminiscent of All About Eve‘s Addison DeWitt explaining the difference between a theater producer making a buck versus taking a risk, is the first thing I noticed. The other oddity is the abjuring of responsibility for his words. Chait doesn’t have to explain why he was accused of bias — he’s Jonathan Chait, he’s liberal, he’s on their side. That’s the most pathetic inference I drew from this excerpt. Chait:

As we get to the end of Chait’s essay, we can tally up the casualties of political correctness. One anti-abortion protester was shoved and had her sign vandalized. A few millionaires were disinvited from college campuses, and performances of two plays were canceled. Various people feel disinclined to engage in online debates. Participants in a Facebook group had to deal with a Bad Thread. And a college student was fired from his school newspaper. That’s one person whose life was in any meaningful way made materially worse by the scourge of political correctness, in nearly 5,000 words of dire warnings about the philosophical threat posed by left-wing speech policing.

Jonathan Chait, fan of The New Republic of the nineties (a venal sin), supporter of the Iraq War (mortal sin), has himself made blinkered decisions, decisions of stupefying banality, stemming in part from membership in a claque of pre-Internet polemicists. In 2015 he’s asked to explain them. And he can’t handle it.

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