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Like the McCarthy era, except for everything

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

I thought I was done writing about Jonathan Chait’s efforts to stupid up America’s conversation on race last week, but clearly I underestimated the man. Over the weekend his publication went live with a long piece on the subject, and on his blog he continued to type words at critics.

Joe McCarthy - ColorizedHis responses first to Ta-Nehisi Coates and then Jamelle Bouie studiously avoid addressing their very pointed and direct criticism by basically saying, I’m not interested in that. He accused Coates of an “aggressive misreading” and dismisses Bouie’s argument as “I wish you had written your article on a different topic.”

I won’t go over Coates’ pieces again, but let’s look at two points from Bouie’s article. Near the start of his piece Chait writes: “If you set out to write a classic history of the Obama era, once you had described the historically significant fact of Obama’s election, race would almost disappear from the narrative.”

Bouie writes in his response:

If I were outlining a racial history of the Obama administration, it would begin with policy: A housing collapse that destroyed black Americans’ wealth; a health care law attacked as “reparations” and crippled by a neo-Calhounite doctrine of “state sovereignty”; a broad assault on voting rights and access to the polls, concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. Indeed, it would focus on the deep irony of the Obama era: That the first black president has presided over a declining status quo for many black Americans.

It doesn’t seem to me Bouie wishes Chait had written on a different topic. Yet Chait just ignores it and says Bouie simply doesn’t understand Chait’s writing (which is not at all condescending).

Here’s a second quote from Chait’s article, in looking at the political evolution of the right from overt racial appeals to more subtle ones: “Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.”

Again, Bouie responds on point:

Of course, it’s not accusing conservatives of “racism” to note that particular policies – say, tax cuts to defund the social safety net, or blocking the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act – have a disparate impact. That’s just reality. And it’s not tarring your opponents to note that race plays a huge part in building popular support for those policies. But again, for as much as this is interesting as a matter of political combat, it’s less important to telling the story of race in the Obama years than, for instance, the tremendous retrenchment of racial inequality during our five years of recession, recovery, and austerity.

Agree with Bouie or not, this isn’t him wishing Chait had written something different. It’s a direct response that would seem to demand a substantive answer. He’s still waiting. (And incidentally, it’s a bit strange that a political analyst of Chait’s standing is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of disparate impact.)

Maybe it’s for the best that Chait just skates past uncomfortable areas, because boy howdy does he go overboard in his comfort zone. In his magazine piece he raises the specter of Tail Gunner Joe: “The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the McCarthy years.” He elaborated on it again in his blog post:

The most problematic part of Kilgore’s argument is his recurrent phrase “objectively racist.” It consciously or unconsciously harkens back to a chilling Cold War-era line used by conservatives, who described their domestic opponents as “objectively pro-Communist.”

It’s hard to believe that Chait has such a miserably inadequate knowledge of the McCarthy era. Let’s compare and contrast it with the current debate on race, shall we?

COMPARE: In both cases people said mean things.

CONTRAST: Unlike the McCarthy era, this era does not have racism reviews for federal employees, under which they can be fired if there is reasonable doubt as to their level of racial animus. Unlike the McCarthy era, those who (will not) lose their jobs due to harboring racial animus do not have their future employment prospects permanently ruined. (If anything, the combination of wingnut welfare sinecures and fanatical rallying to martyrs for the cause make it more likely to prosper from such an event.)

Unlike the McCarthy era, the Justice Department does not have a Racist Activities Control Board that keeps tabs on those suspected of racism. There is not a maniacal FBI director obsessively tracking racists. There is not a House Committee on Racist Activities. There is not a blacklist (HAR!). There is not a Racist Registration Act or equivalent to the Smith Act.

There was a lot more than debates over communism going on during the McCarthy years, and for Chait to repeatedly invoke that era (no weaselspeak about only mentioning “debates,” thanks) in reference to the race debate is absurd.

Also, do you know what is interesting? He invokes the ominous use of the word “objectively,” but he reaches all the way back to the 50s to find it used for vilification. It’s been used that way more recently, though. In fact, it has been used that way since Chait became a political commentator, so there’s a chance he isn’t mortifyingly ignorant on that subject.

Back when we were getting our war on in Iraq, antiwar activists had it pretty rough. Andrew Sullivan famously called the BBC “objectively pro-Saddam,” for not being sufficiently pro-war. The insult was repeatedly hurled at those who didn’t cheer hard enough. Those who didn’t get with the program faced consequences. If one wanted to examine the politically charged environment around “objectively,” the Iraq war would seem to be a much better choice.

Of course, doing so would invite people to recall that Chait wrote the seminal prewar call to arms for liberals to support the war. Then when it turned into a disaster he wrote a dyspeptic “you hippies may have been right on this one but I will be vindicated in the long run!” column, and then, eventually, a churlish non-apology. (This arc of commentary is a reason to hope he never has a change of heart on race.)

In addition to non-responsive responses and ludicrous analogies he makes other odd choices, such as soliciting the opinion of Jonah Goldberg – author of Liberal Fascism – about the dangers of cavalier use of inflammatory language. Add it all up and it seems pretty clear Chait isn’t interested in dialog or encountering contrary facts. It looks instead like he is claiming to be sympathetic on the topic but writing from an indifferent-to-hostile perspective. In other words, trolling. Perhaps that is how his fututre contributions to the subject ought to be viewed.

In any event, it seems he’s eager to be done with all this race talk as he concludes the magazine piece: “The passing from the scene of the nation’s first black president in three years, and the near-certain election of its 44th nonblack one, will likely ease the mutual suspicion.” Bouie pointed out some very specific policy issues that would survive Obama’s presidency, but never mind. Chait is not interested in racism, as Michael Kranz quipped, but “racism” – endless theorizing on what racism means for white liberals and conservatives. And unlike the community Bouie wrote about, Chait can check out of his side of that, without consequences, whenever it suits him. It’s a nice luxury to have.

Picture from DonkeyHotey licensed under Creative Commons

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