On Jonathan Chait, Fredrik deBoer, and Political Correctness: A Facebook Comment/Essay

I wrote this an hour or so ago to a Facebook friend named Harry. I did not mean to. The grammatical and spelling errors will serve as proof until I get around to fixing them.

“Suppose Harry, that I wanted to convene a center-left pow-wow of sorts. A discussion group, or book club, or even a class explicitly or implicitly put together to cater to those on the center-left. Suppose then that one day an individual comes to my pow-wow and, in our weekly round of introductions to each other, this individual says something to the effect of, “Hello. My name is ___________. I, like you, believe that things should be done to alleviate poverty and want in the United States. I also happen to believe that the state does not have the right to collect income taxes. No, I haven’t studied economics or policy at all. I don’t really even read the news. I dunno. I just sorta kinda believe it. But don’t worry about it. I’m one of you.”

There are, I think, two approaches I could take in response to the presence of this person. One would be to spend time, over the course of a few months or a year or however long it would take to try to get this person to assimilate to the views of the wider group. You’d print out articles. Explain to him how income taxes came about in America and the Constitutional precedents used to justify their existence. You’d engage him in philosophical discussions about the role of government. At the end of it all, he might not come around. But he also might. And so I might decide to put in that effort.

The second approach would be to say to this person, “No, sorry. What you believe is actually fundamentally different from what I believe in a number of ways. You don’t belong.” Suppose I took this approach, but was quite mean about it. I might mock or ridicule this person for their ignorance. I might make a show of indignation. “What you believe would lead to the ruin of all we hold dear in this country, and you’re morally bankrupt for thinking it.” This would almost certainly lead this person to abandon the idea that they might be on the center-left. And, unbeknownst to me, center-leftism might lose one more potential advocate. This would be sad.

It would not, though, be sad enough to merit inclusion in a 3,000+ word New York Magazine feature as an indication of the collapse of American liberalism. I do not think Jonathan Chait would have been paid very much to argue that the conversion of people with libertarian tendencies to center-leftism is central to the future of center-leftism as an ideology. Taking the second approach would certainly lose the center-left a few allies. Or many. I do not think very many people, though, would be worked up about it. The second approach, in fact, is taken by many people of many ideologies at many colleges on issues of domestic and foreign policy every day. No one really cares. And to the extent that certain people might actually care, no one, I think, would be truly worked up about it enough to excoriate me for it in a profanity laden blog post.

There is something about identity politics that is different to people like Chait and deBoer. It is not immediately obvious why that should be. The gap between someone who believes gender differences are innate and someone who doesn’t is about as wide, I think, as the gap between someone who thinks income taxes shouldn’t exist and someone who thinks that they should. In one area, Chait thinks that choosing not to extend a hand is reprehensible. I have a hard time believing Chait – who has earned a living being mean to people on the center-right and right for longer than I have been alive – would believe the same about the other.

Ideology *is* groupthink. Always. There are boundaries to the realm of acceptable beliefs within ideolgical groups. Lines that, once crossed, put you outside of that group. This is something that we accept without much thought when it comes to matters of rote policy. But whenever identity politics and social politics are discussed broadly, there is an insistence from people on the center-left that the left should build and maintain bridges. That center-leftists would be natural partners of the left on social issues if the left would only realize it and be less mean. Chait and deBoer are smart enough to know that socialists and people who think that capital gains taxes should be raised are not the same and want very different things at the end of the day, no matter how politically convenient their marriage might be on certain fronts. They understand that socialists and center-leftists can and do have ferocious fights about such things. They are okay with this. But for some reason, they are appalled that people who believe men and women are not different refuse the friendship of people that do.

This is because deBoer and Chait believe that disagreements on identity politics are frivolous and unimportant. They take issues of race and gender less seriously than rote policy. Both are too cowardly to say this. But that disdain drips from every word they write about so-called p.c. culture. Fredrik deBoer does not think believing there are innate differences between men and women is that big of a deal. Gender-neutral pronouns probably annoy Jonathan Chait. But the institutions that they emerged from and the young people that inhabit them (and the new outlets of opinion journalism) increasingly disagree. They have new and energetic competitors from the left – both ideologically and professionally. And sometimes these competitors say things that hurt. Chait and deBoer are losing ground on the basis of issues they consider trivial in the wider scheme of things. And they hate it.

They’ve chosen to respond by insisting that the expanding gap on identity and social politics between them and a now-p.c. minded left isn’t very much of a gap at all. That the substantive differences between Jonathan Chait and Jezebel are dwarfed by differences in tone and temperament. This is not, I suspect, actually true. But it is convenient. It is their way of trying to wheedle their way back in to the positions of ideological authority they are used to without engaging their p.c. opponents in substantive debates they suspect they might lose or offend people by participating in.

Here’s the bottom line: Center-leftists like Jonathan Chait and I do not have the right to insist to leftists that we are their friends. That is for leftists to decide. They are reevaluating our relationship with them. In their review of our 100+ years of history with them, they may well decide that in spite of the incremental progress we’ve made together on social issues, the partnership has fallen short. We want, at the end of the day, either different things or the same things delivered at different paces. For Chait to insist, from his perch at a mainstream cultural publication – with all the clout and authority he’s been granted (and I’m speaking purely in terms of the acceptability of his politics; his race and gender, to many, make all this even more risible) – that he knows what the left wants and that those things really happen to be the same thing that he, Jonathan Chait, and all the center-left want and that the left can’t be taken seriously until they are willing to dilute their beliefs enough to welcome back Jonathan Chait et al into the fold…this is naked, undiluted arrogance. The left is capable of expanding without my help and the help of Jonathan Chait and Fredrik deBoer. They are doing so now by taking up the concerns of constituencies marginalized and excluded by the institutions that Jonathan Chait owes his livelihood to. Constituencies that include many who believe that the center-left has insufficiently represented their interests. It is not surprising, or interesting, or offensive to me that the p.c. left has decided that it has little time for people like me, and Jonathan Chait, and the rest of the center-left. Or that college students can be pedantic assholes about their beliefs. But Chait has a writing gig at New York Magazine. And I do not. So.”