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« Countdown To Christmas (24) | Main | Fiorina: I've also seen the Whitey Tape and boy howdy is it explosive! »

On the sorry state of American fascism

Trigger warning: fans of The Wire may find some of what follows upsetting.

Jonathan Chait, whose ideological arc seems to be bending towards the Richard Cohen school of Self-Identified Liberals Who Actually Dislike All The Particular Things Liberals Stand For, continues to be terribly worried about the rampant plague of political correctness that is running riot on college campuses. In this week’s exciting installment he got to quote the president of the United States himself on the issue:

when I hear, for example, you know, folks on college campuses saying, “We’re not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas” - you know, I think that’s a recipe for dogmatism….Just out-argue ‘em, beat ‘em.

I’m not sure “threatened” is the right word. I don’t think it’s always, or even often, the case that protesters feel threatened. Nor do I think it’s the case that they refuse to listen to contrary ideas. It may in fact be something they’ve discussed over and over and over again, they’ve concluded that one side is right and the other is wrong, and they’re no longer interested in debating the issue. Sometimes you get to a point where you realize debate is useless, so you change tactics.

When I read jeremiads like Chait’s I think of torture. We were forced to have a debate about torture, remember? We tortured people, did the same things that we executed Japanese soldiers after WWII for doing, violated the Convention Against Torture - which according to the Constitution is the supreme law of the land - and no one has even been charged with anything.1 Yet when news of these war crimes broke we were told that torture was necessary to keep America safe, that it was effective, that it wasn’t really torture at all, and so on. Of course all of that is untrue, and even if it wasn’t we still are theoretically bound by the Convention. But we had a debate!

Well, not a debate so much. We got fed loads of bullshit, and after the fact were told that investigating torture would be criminalizing political differences, so bygones, let’s turn the page and move on.

Looking at that through Chait’s PC frame, let me tell you something. I reached a point where I lost interest in debating torture. I heard all I needed, regarded it as evil, and wanted its architects to only speak about it during sworn testimony from the Hague. And incidentally I was trying to “out-argue ‘em” on my lightly trafficked blog while its proponents were making their case from the corridors of power. That those who abhor PC culture have convinced themselves all debates take place on equal ground is, um, curious.

So if Dick Cheney or David Addington or any other morally depraved torture program ghouls were invited to speak at a local campus you can be damn sure I’d be trying to shut it down, not trying to debate or out-argue anyone.

The fact is, pretty much all of us have a line. We all have things that we consider beyond the bounds of civilized/serious discourse that we will not debate. If you sympathize with the prevailing view, it’s enough to just ignore the issue. This is particularly true if you’re fortunate enough to have a highly visible platform like a magazine column or a TV show. If you don’t sympathize with it, and don’t have a microphone and an amp - if all you’ve got is your voice - you’ll raise it.

Part of what’s happening now is the (sometimes loud and rude) discussion about what lines get drawn where. Ideologically, who stands to lose the most with that? Not those on the wrong side of the existing lines. They’ll keep being on the wrong side anyway. Not those on the right side of the proposed new line. They’re already right and will continue to be right if it moves. The ones who stand to lose the most are those who are on the right side of the existing line but will be on the wrong side of the new one.

I think that’s part of why Chait and others get so exercised about the very specific issue of protest on campus. If they were concerned about free speech in general they’d have been all over corporate America years ago on the many ways it stifles people. But I’m sure there’s some very compelling reason (presumably involving the sanctity of profits) that precludes them for taking up that particular First Amendment cause.

When Chait acknowledges “within the rule of American law, the p.c. left has limited power” he falls back to one of the weakest possible rhetorical defenses: the slippery slope. It’s the stuff of domino theories and ticking time bomb scenarios and smoking guns as mushroom clouds, it’s what causes the US foreign policy establishment to identify a new Hitler every 18 months or so, it’s what happens when you live your life afraid not of what is, or even what appears to be coming, but of what might one day happen.

The fact is, most things don’t snowball. Most sparks die, precious few catch and the ones that do catch almost never expand. Basing your argument on that, as Chait does, is almost laughably weak. I don’t expect the demands of a handful of college students to spread like wildfire throughout the institutional left - but even they it did, what would be the harm? The line would get moved. The things considered outside the bounds of civilized discourse would change. And once more: we all have those lines. We all have things we refuse to discuss. We’re just arguing about which things we currently have in that bucket that we shouldn’t, and which ones we don’t that we should.

One thing that’s historically been in that bucket is racism. We tend not to pay attention until there’s an explosion. I certainly don’t recall Jonathan Chait taking much of an interest in racial discrimination at Missouri (or any other college campus) until the MU football team took its stand. And even then, what does he choose to cover and to ignore? Does he look at the issues that led to the protest or even examine the proliferation of everyday racism that might lead to a volatile climate? Or does he just show up once the yelling starts and deplore the noise? Not that he has to do the former, but if he chooses not to it makes his thoughts on the latter terribly anemic. Chait draws his lines too.


Into all this comes David Simon, the TV writer. Simon somehow came across a few protester-sympathetic tweets from Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom and has been badgering them about it for the better part of a week. He considered attempts by activists to block an ESPN photographer from taking pictures to be fascistic, and was greatly disturbed they had a different view. (Just for the record, some protesters also made physical contact with and threatened violence to him, both of which are way over my own line.) Cottom pointed out in a series of tweets that Simon didn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word:

You seriously do not know what fascism is. Among many problems, that’s a big one. Had the police been called and they arrested the photog? Maybe. Had the military been sent in to squash media coverage? Closer. Screaming at a member of media in a public place among roughly equal actors in their relationship to the State? Not fascism.

But for Simon, any hint of nuance - that activists and a photographer for an enormous media conglomerate might be at cross purposes, that the students might have wanted to have some control over the story (all stories are controlled, it’s just a question of who does it) or that they might have had some justified suspicion over how their actions might be covered - all that was overwhelmed by the specter of jackbooted, goose stepping thugs brutally repressing an independent report.

It was perhaps inevitable then that Simon would triumphantly send a link of Chait’s essay to Cottom and Gay, though I don’t believe it was necessary to call them children in the process.2 Then they went back and forth for a while because those two ladies have the patience of saints, and they seemed to think Simon would tire of being a pompous twat at some point, which he didn’t, he just kept imperiously demanding that everyone agree with him, and it was a huge waste of time so I’m not linking to it, maybe someone made a Storfy but if you go looking for one please remember I told you in advance you would hate yourself for it.

Anyway, unfortunately for Chait and Simon the imminent New Left Totalitarianism is stubbornly refusing to materialize. Somehow the story about the photographer got out, high profile speakers that have their invitations canceled still manage to find outlets willing to share their thoughts, and the status quo is largely being preserved. If this is a revolution it’s a damned modest one.

So my message to my fellow proto-blackshirt comrades on campus is: step up your fucking game. All you’ve done so far is alarm some high strung white dudes with delicate sensibilities. At least Mussolini made the trains run on time.


NOTES

1. The non-prosecution of torture is a great example of how the Constitution isn’t in any way binding. When it tells us what we want, we pretend it compels us and show it great reverence. When it doesn’t, we ignore it. Same with the so-called rule of law. Plenty of laws were broken as part of the 2008 financial crisis but no one has even been charged. There’s no law, no Constitition, none of that high-minded claptrap. There are conventions we choose to follow, norms we choose to enforce, and nothing else.
(Back)

2. Part of the problem here is that Simon and Chait are a little too convinced of their rhetorical slickness. Chait compares the dread PC with Marxism, but when called on it he claims he was not calling it Marxist. Simon calls an action fascist but insists he didn’t call any person that. What, was it ambient fascism?

These two write for a living and are very clever with their wordplay, but most people are usually able to plainly understand their intent. You don’t invoke Marxism unless you want people to associate it with something. You don’t excitedly cc people a link on an issue you’ve disagreed on, declaring it to be grown up talk, without directly and unmistakably implying the recipients are not adults.

Chait and Simon seem to think that because they didn’t come right out and say those things - PC is Marxism! Roxanne and Tressie are children! - that they can both place the dots and have plausible deniability when readers connect them. Which then means getting bogged down in the charade of trying to get them to acknowledge the obvious, which they won’t because they are simply convinced that they put one over on their less sophisticated opponents, and before you know it you’ve lost a whole lot of time you’ll never get back arguing with a sophist.
(Back)

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