Why Jonathan Chait always makes me twitch


I don’t read Chait enough to diagnose why I don’t care for him — his vaguely liberal views always make me too queasy to think hard enough about what he’s saying, which is a good warning sign. But Alex Pareene does read him carefully and gets specific about what’s annoying. It’s not just that he’s always complaining about “free speech” on campus and how colleges are starting to wise up to the conservative scam of booking controversial assholes, it’s that he always favors avoiding calling out the bad guys.

In the course of defending his piece on Twitter, he has effectively made it clear that he thinks it’s inappropriate to label any person or cause “white supremacist” unless the targets of the label have openly embraced it. He has suggested that a political tendency can’t be “white supremacist” without vocal anti-Semitism, which is silly in the American context—as Ali Gharib points out, Judah P. Benjamin, perhaps the most prominent Jewish politician in the country at that time, served in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s cabinet. Chait has argued that Rep. Steve King, who has explicitly argued that “somebody else’s babies” pose a “demographic” threat to “our civilization,” is merely “edging closer” to white supremacy.

So I’m safe from criticism by Chait if I make Nazi salutes, advocate putting brown people into camps, sloganeer about white genocide, and quote The Bell Curve to say that some races are inferior, as long as I don’t say, “I’m a white supremacist”? Good to know. I wouldn’t want to get on Chait’s bad side.

Something that is well-known to people who’ve read Chait for years, but may not be apparent to those who just think of him as a standard-issue center-left pundit who is sort of clueless about race, is that he is engaged in a pretty specific political project: Ensuring that you and people like you don’t gain control of his party.

I say “you” because his conception of the left almost certainly includes you. He is not merely against Jill Stein voters and unreconstructed Trotskyites and Quaker pacifists. He means basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996. If you support a less militaristic foreign policy, if you believe the Democratic Party should do more to dismantle structural racism and create a more equitable distribution of wealth, if you think Steve fucking King is a white supremacist, Chait is opposed to you nearly as staunchly as he is opposed to Paul Ryan.

I’m not one of those people who has read Chait for years, so it’s good to have that flaw pinned down in the dissecting tray for me. But is Pareene right? I want to see Chait’s own words. So he quotes him defending Joe Lieberman in 2006. Joe Lieberman! Jesus.

In the end, though, I can’t quite root for Lieberman to lose his primary. What’s holding me back is that the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman’s sins. It’s a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent. Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them.

This is Chaitism distilled: They may be right—about Joe Lieberman, about the Iraq War, about the racism of the conservative movement—but they are right for the wrong reasons, and we cannot let them gain a foothold.

Yeesh. At least now I can go back to not reading Jonathan Chait with a clear conscience.

Comments

  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    He is not merely against Jill Stein voters and unreconstructed Trotskyites and Quaker pacifists. He means basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996. If you support a less militaristic foreign policy, if you believe the Democratic Party should do more to dismantle structural racism and create a more equitable distribution of wealth, if you think Steve fucking King is a white supremacist, Chait is opposed to you nearly as staunchly as he is opposed to Paul Ryan.

    So Chiat isn’t concerned about justice or progress. He thinks we’ve come as far as we can in society. What he really wants is quiet.

  2. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    You know, I do understand the terror that centrist Democrats have of drifting too far to the left. The division in 1968 delivered the Southern Democrats to the Rethugs and Nixon to the Whitehouse.

    And despite all the skulduggery from the Rethugs (Cambodia, Laos–real war crimes, Watergate and all the rest), the American people still saw fit to give the reins of gummint to no less a looney than Saint Ronnie, who promptly picked up the skulduggery where Nixon had left off and one-upped him by creating a shadow State department to carry out foreign policy unsanctioned by any elected official other than the Pres.

    Clinton at least got re-elected in 1996, so many Dems, despairing of ever wielding power again, hailed him as a “new Democrat” and a savior of the party. And they could easily see Al Gore’s defeat as resulting from him being “too far to the left”.

    Obama–a centrist (hell, did you really think that the first black President could be a bomb thrower?) got there in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012, and they can always blame Clinton’s loss in 2016 on Bernie.

    The thing is that this isn’t 1968 or 1980 or even 2008. It’s 2020–which I am going to call “the year of seeing clearly,” and what the country NEEDS now is not a centrist. What the country needs is someone who can keep the country one of, by and for the people, rather than of, by and for capital. If we don’t take the country back soon, it won’t be worth saving.

  3. says

    “They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent.”

    I don’t see this is an outright lie but massively dishonest framing. It’s the trend of referrnng to any inconvenient body of evidence as an opinion (climate change ideology, transgender ideology, etc.) and therefore either stalling all progress on the issue or relieving people of the responsibility of having to come to a conclusion. It’s the “nihilism as intellectualism” stuff that I’ve been scribbling about for some little while now.

  4. says

    Here, let me show you the single line that tells you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with Johnathon Chait’s politics:

    “Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad…”

    Didja catch that? The “fanatical left” is waging a jihad against Lieberman. A Muslim holy war. weird terminology? Not if you consider that Chait’s core political philosophy is Zionism. And however that ideology started out, today it is a reactionary, anti-left, nakedly white supremacist ethnonationalist ideology.

    So kinda natural that Chait would love to redefine white supremacism so that he and all the screaming white supremacists who love Israel are excluded from the term. Also natural he would loathe the left, and cast them as “fanatics waging a jihad,” since Zionism tends to cast leftists as “useful idiots” for Muslim extremists, because of a supposed shared desire to “destroy Israel.” Also as a proponent of a violent ethnonationalist ideology, the idea of the left being anti-war (especially anti-war when we’re at war with Muslim-majority states) is abhorrent to him.

    At the end of the day, Chait is an authortarian and a suprmeacist who genuinely believes, like fellow supremacist Ann Coulter, that we should “invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity” – and that the left, in their resistance to such an idea, also needs to be dismissed, if not outright purged.

  5. mcfrank0 says

    There’s only one thing about this article that bugged me: it’s from 2017.

    Of late, I’ve noticed an almost studied recirculation of older posts and articles. Quite frequently (although not totally in this case) these older posts tend to “outrage bait”.

    This article is most likely an even truer assessment of Chait today, but, since no one mentioned it, I’d thought I’d bring it up.

    [This is sort of a pet peeve of mine this week — yesterday six articles in a row in my Facebook feed were between 5 years and 6 months old and I wonder WHY these mini hornet nests are being stirred up.]

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