Jonathan Chait says look out look out

I was going to mumble about Jonathan Chait’s much-discussed lament about “political correctness” but then I got caught up in my own laments about football mania. Now that I’ve got most of that off my chest, I want to say a little about what I think is both banal and wrong about Chait’s piece.

Here’s one banal and wrong place.

The recent mass murder of the staff members of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was met with immediate and unreserved fury and grief across the full range of the American political system. But while outrage at the violent act briefly united our generally quarrelsome political culture, the quarreling quickly resumed over deeper fissures. Were the slain satirists martyrs at the hands of religious fanaticism, or bullying spokesmen of privilege? Can the offensiveness of an idea be determined objectively, or only by recourse to the identity of the person taking offense?

You can tell you’re supposed to curl a lip in disdain at the last clause, and that’s why I think it’s wrong, indeed fatuous. Of course “identity” can make a difference to whether one finds a particular “idea” offensive or not. What a damn silly question. The “idea” that women are kind of stupid is particularly “offensive” (except that’s the wrong word) to women. The idea that black people should be stopped and frisked as often as possible is particularly “offensive” to black people. If that’s “political correctness”…then deal with it. He wants us to say no; he wants us to say all ideas can be evaluated independently of thoughts about the identity of the evaluater. Well guess what: that’s easy for him.

Another fatuity:

After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned.

Oh please. What he means is, he wasn’t noticing it so much after the early 90s, and now he is again. He doesn’t know it was in remission all that time. What Jonathan Chait notices isn’t necessarily the same as what is.

There’s a flat-out mistake:

At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma.

That’s not the point about microaggressions at all. Nobody thinks they cause “searing trauma” – that’s what the “micro” means. The point is that they add up; the point is drip drip drip; the point is hostile environment. He doesn’t even know what it is that he’s lamenting.

And then there’s his mindless certainty that this is just a lefty thing.

Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.

As if the right never does that? As if the right doesn’t do everything it can to redefine terms to its liking? Death tax, right to life, pre-born child, family values, sanctity of marriage, tax and spend?

And then there’s the way he ignores huge swathes of reality.

…the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

It also makes money. Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity.

Here’s a news flash – stories about race and gender bias can come from people who think race and gender bias is good, and from people who think concerns about race and gender bias are bad. They can come from racists and anti-feminists. They can and they do. If he thinks “p.c.” is riding some huge wave of success – again, that may be because he doesn’t know, because he’s insulated. He’s not a target of racists or anti-feminists. He can afford to worry about the onslaught of “p.c.”

There’s a good deal more dreck, but frankly I’m getting bored. He’s not an interesting writer. But there’s one place where he contradicts himself from one paragraph to the next, and I can’t tell what he wants to say. See if you can parse it.

Political correctness appeals to liberals because it claims to represent a more authentic and strident opposition to their shared enemy of race and gender bias. And of course liberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every facet of American life. Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do.

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

See what I mean? Race and gender biases need to be fought, but political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal of a free political marketplace. Ok, so…what? Fight the biases, or don’t fight them? I can’t tell what he thinks he means.

Maybe it’s my gender biases playing up.


  1. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Chait’s article is really pathetic. It reads like it was written by someone who can’t understand why the response from the left on hearing the collapse of the New Republic was ‘thank goodness’. Which of course it was.

    The article in short is basically ‘Katherine MacKinnon said some nasty bullying stuff in the 90s and here are some anecdotes about some undergrad students being obnoxious at various universities I have heard lately, this must constitute a trend’.

    Yep, MacKinnon was an authoritarian leftist whose lifelong project to construct a Marxist theory of feminism kind of lost all relevance over two decades ago. I personally have a great deal of respect for Marx the man, but even he couldn’t stand Marxists in his own day, ‘all I know is I am not a Marxist’.

    But really, is the biggest threat to free speech in the US really a bunch of lefties allegedly saying nasty things or the angry white men who run round waving guns in peoples faces while they are making their political points? Remember the gun nuts who turned up in the car park of a mothers against guns meetup armed with automatic weapons?

    The most prolific practitioner of political correctness these days is of course Faux News. Telling people what to think and reacting with phony outrage at purported infractions is their entire schtick.

  2. mildlymagnificent says

    See if you can parse it.

    Incoherent is the only word I can come up with. I can’t even tell what he wants to say. Unless it turns out that preferring a modicum of decorum in social interactions has now become “threatening”, philosophically or otherwise .

  3. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    MM, what he means is:

    How dare you bastards call out the racism of the New Republic! Bastards! Politically Correct Bastards! Bastards! Bastards!

  4. says

    When you know winter storms happen, should you not be concerned about snowflakes coming down? Each one, after all, is so small. Certainly they should be ignored.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    The language of evasion and euphemism is entrenched in this society. Whining about ‘PC’ is only addressing the way the Left paralyses itself.

    There is scarcely a pernicious movement or attitude that doesn’t come with at least SOME language policing.

    Politically Correct was originally a Communist euphemism for ‘toeing the line for whatever Moscow wants this week.’ We need a broader term for the kind of nice-making evasion that allows someone like David Duke to ‘pass’ for a legitimate political figure merely by leaving his white-sheet at home and not saying ‘nigger’ in his speeches.

  6. screechymonkey says


    See if you can parse it.

    I think I can. The key is how Chait links political correctness to fighting bias

    Political correctness appeals to liberals because it claims to represent a more authentic and strident opposition to their shared enemy of race and gender bias. . . . . Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with some level of consciousness

    (emphasis added) I think Chait’s unstated (at least in this excerpt) premise is that political correctness’s “claim” of being a more authentic and strident opposition to bias is false in some way. I can’t tell whether he means it isn’t authentic or strident, or isn’t truly in opposition to bias, or what.

    Or perhaps he’s trying to say that the claim is true, and that p.c. is an authentic and strident opposition to bias, but the drawbacks (the undemocratic threat to bedrock liberal principles or whatever) outweigh the utility, and so we must content ourselves with less authentic and strident forms of opposing bias.

    It’s… not a model of clear writing. It’s hard to read this as anything other than Chait expressing his bitterness that people have criticized him and/or people he likes. One gets the feeling that he was this close to mentioning voting for Obama and his many black friends, but thought better of it….

  7. says

    I look forward to Chait’s 5000 word piece in Tulsa Magazine about this oppressive Writerly Correctness in which people who favor both clarity and interestingness in writing have the gall to try to impose their tastes on everyone else, even including former writers for The New Republic.

  8. says

    Chait is just further asserting The New Republic’s role as the crossing guard of American Liberalism. Walk don’t run. Make sure the rich white liberal intelligentsia aren’t discommoded by the shifting expectations and responsibilities that come with actually listening to people.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *