Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Jon Chait wades into it, with a column about the perils of political discourse that political correctness poses.  This has unleashed an avalanche of counterattacks on Chait - a white man - who, in the words of one critic, Chaitsplains things to people.  Amanda Marcotte levels one of the less strident criticism, as she admits that "there is a need" for this sort of article, but that Chait is a poor vessel for that argument and his argument is problematic anyway. I still found that Marcotte overlay emotions onto Chait's argument that I didn't see ("furious", "outrage") and that she generally agreed with his argument, but not the specifics.  She also lambastes him for not taking conservative versions of this to task.  Given that the article is about liberalism, I'm not sure why that's relevant.

John Hodgman wrote a Twitter essay that was pretty darned good, too.  Except that he gets into Gamergate, which was not on Chait's menu.  Gamergate is a pretty good example of a situation of what looks like speech becomes threats of violence.  What started as a debate ends up as a cesspool of threats and real-world peril.  Those that engaged in hateful speech are exactly what Chait complains about.

If I were to summarize Chait's argument, it would be thus:

Liberalism is an Enlightenment philosophy that believes in the free exchange of ideas.  Political Correctness is a radical philosophy that intends to remove certain aspects of the debate from public discourse entirely.

And I pretty much agree with him.  I can't speak to the specific instances of Hannah Rosin or the Binders of Women forum.  I was a part of the debate over the demolition of The New Republic, which was pretty much the same thing.  TNR produced some articles that people didn't like.  The Bell Curve was the most famous example and Marty Peretz's relentless war-cheerleading was another.  But the purpose of the Bell Curve, for instance, was to spark the debate.  The result was a wide-spread condemnation of Murray's work, but also wide-spread condemnation of TNR, and that condemnation prevailed unto this day.

The point of liberal discourse is to debate ideas freely and then apply reason to those ideas and see if they can withstand scrutiny.  The Bell Curve did not and does not meet the scrutiny of serious criticism.  From a liberal point of view, the article accomplished its goal: it brought an issue to the fore, had the debate and rejected it.  From the radical or PC point of view, publishing the article at all was an act of intellectual aggression against people of color.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a pretty scathing take on this.

Liberalism believes in gradual, evolutionary and progressive change.  Radicalism believes in immediate and fundamental change.  The PC impulse is basically radical.  Racism has to end now, so we are going to ban certain ideas or expressions in a hurry to change the culture.  That's how we get "the N Word".  And that's a great example of PC success, making that word essentially beyond the Pale for whites to use.

However, banning the word "nigger" has not ended racism. It has made a difference on the margins and made it harder to express outright racism publicly, but it hasn't done much to change people's minds.  The point of liberal discourse is that your mind must be simultaneously open and critical.  If you simply ban an idea - the fractured nature of poor African American families is a critical problem - then you can't engage with whatever comes out of that argument.  Yes, the fractured family is a process of centuries of racism, institutional discrimination and perverse incentives under the welfare system.  It isn't close to being entirely African American's fault.  But if we engage with it as a problem, then we can look for solutions.

The problem I have with PC culture is that it is inherently married to its grievances.  There is nothing wrong with grievance, and in the case of many groups of people, it's entirely justified.  But if grievance is all you care about, you do two things.  You cut yourself off from other people, and you find yourself constantly looking backwards and not forwards.

I'll use a non-American example.  In Northern Ireland, you have Republicans and Unionists.  Republicans were not always all Catholic, some of the earliest Republicans were Protestant.  But as Republican grievance married to sectarian grievance, for some the grievance became the point.  The Good Friday Peace Accords made an effort to end the cycle of grievance, but only to a point.  And there are plenty of people who are ready to reignite the powder keg because they remember every grievance.  I saw a sign on a pub in Belfast that said, "A country that keeps one eye on its past is wise, a country that keeps two eyes on its past is blind."  And to be a Protestant Unionist first, foremost and always is to cut yourself off from the potential for growth, compromise and progress.

As an educator, I am almost be definition a liberal.  Not in the cartoonish way Rush Limbaugh defines it, but in the belief that reasoned inquiry can enlighten and create a better future.  Recently, much has been made of the relative "liberalism" or tolerance of the Millennials.  I would argue that decades of inculcating the teachings of Martin Luther King every January has had a greater impact on this than anything.  If I heard a student using the word "fag" I would call them on it.  That's not appropriate.  But if I only called them out on it, I'm not sure what victory would be won.  Prohibition is not the same as learning.

In some ways this comes back to the speed of change that liberals and radicals want.  King said that the arch of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.  Malcolm X was less patient.  I'd argue that King was more successful, but that X wasn't entirely wrong.  In our hurry to create a better world, we can simply short-circuit the debate over issues and terms we find uncomfortable.

And we can get sucked into endless nontroversies and poutrages that do nothing but feed our own sense of grievance.  The phenomena of "mansplaining" that Chait is accused of is a real thing.  I've seen it, and I've done it.  Having the value of listening rather than lecturing explained to me was really important in my evolution as an adult and a husband.  I think engaging with that idea is really valuable.  But shouting down every instance of a man offering any opinion on women isn't helpful either.

The conflict between Liberals and Radicals - or the Left - isn't new.  It tore apart the Left-of-Center coalition in the '60s over issues of Vietnam and Civil Rights.  It punched great holes in that coalition in the '90s - Ralph Nader comes from the Radical camp.  And at the moment when a new electoral coalition of liberals and radicals could change the country, it's opening again.

The worst facet of the Tea Party is their fascination with ideological purity over practical concerns.  I worry about a similar problem on the left.  If you're far enough out there on the Left, then Obama might very well look as bad as Bush.  The Right, we know, is psychologically different from the Left. They are more bound to the past.  The Tea Party Reactionaries have essentially captured the GOP and conservatism in general.  The Radical Left can't "conquer" the Liberal Center, it can only fracture it.

If the Obama Coalition dies, it will be by suicide and not by murder.

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