In James Gleick’s book Chaos he writes about a paper titled Period Three Implies Chaos. Very roughly, the idea is that even seemingly simple systems can start behaving unpredictably by the third iteration. The responses to David Brooks’ column Tuesday makes it seem like there may be a similar phenomenon with political commentary. Writing about poverty, Brooks described “feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown.” The causes? “It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms” - norms which have been subverted by what he calls nonjudgmentalism.
Elizabeth Bruenig responded to Brooks, and on that point actually agreed: “if Brooks images that improving social norms is just a sliver of the solution, then he’s right,” but she also basically says, slow down there cowboy. Brooks breezes past the whole money and better policy part, Bruenig focuses on it. She doesn’t weigh in on norms (which is what a nonjudgmental approach would do), just puts them on the periphery.
The traditional conservative criticism of liberal antipoverty sentiment is that it exists in a haze of moral relativism. Hey man it’s all the same if a kid grows up in a stable two parent family or a single parent one with an endless, bewildering parade of shady partners. Bruenig specifically does not do that. She notes approvingly that poor people want to get married at the same rate as the rich, and otherwise notes the presence of sound values.
Bruenig isn’t saying that it’s all the same, just that Brooks’ prescription as a very small part of the solution. Exhorting lower income people to make good choices is fine, but won’t have nearly the impact that well designed programs will. She just points out that programs like SNAP and child allowances have an overall good effect on the very problems Brooks frets about. The biggest problems with them is that they are routinely demonized on the right as fostering dependency, and that conservative leaders have spent decades using singular or apocryphal stories about them as being characteristic of the programs as a whole.
So here’s where it stands at that point. Brooks: (mumble mumble policy money) we must focus on norms! (Perhaps not coincidentally, Brooks’ preferred approach doesn’t require us to do anything but talk.) Bruenig: Sure we do, but hey what was that first part again? At which point period three and chaos arrives in the form of Kevin Williamson. He begins with a variant of a long-running right wing talking point, that America has the richest poor in the world. Which even if it’s true doesn’t ameliorate the anxiety and uncertainty low income people swim about in like a fish in water.
He then goes on a vaguely creepy trip through Bruenig’s biography. Everything he links to is public, but as I read through his litany I thought, this dude is taking an unseemly interest in her. Your mileage may vary but it seemed a little off to me.
Amazingly, Williamson’s non-sequiturs are the strongest part of his post. When he tries to stay on topic he does even worse. He uses his own story of growing up poor as a rebuttal to Bruenig’s data, which is hardly persuasive. Lived experience is important of course, but extrapolating it to everyone is silly. It can be an effective rhetorical technique - witness the persistence of welfare queens and strapping young bucks in the conservative imagination - but if one is seriously trying to refute an argument based on data it’s incredibly weak.
He finishes by claiming, incorrectly, that she is making the case for moral relativism. Her point about moral compasses was that low income people report similar values and aspirations as other groups, not that every single poor person is a paragon of virtue. This seems to be a pretty simple point. If you are poor you will probably want similar things for yourself and your family as everyone else, but the fact of poverty itself will put you in a position to accept or tolerate circumstances you might not be obliged to otherwise. Staying with a less than ideal partner in order to have additional income or child care support, for instance.
Her point is that encouraging good decision making is a comparative drop in the bucket when measured against policies that make real resources available to low income people. If you’re going to devote, say, a New York Times op-ed to poverty, make exhortation the parenthetical aside and policy the focus of the piece, not the other way around. Doesn’t seem like a difficult concept to grasp, but Williamson misses it entirely.
Seeing the discussion fall apart so quickly - point, counterpoint, argle bargle - is a reason to put less stock in the idea of epistemic closure on the left. If this is the kind of dialogue on offer from the right, what benefit is there in engaging with it? National Review Online is one of the pre-eminent sites for conservative analysis, and this is an all too typical example of the quality of the work there. It doesn’t come across as a good faith effort to address the issue but as a quickly assembled grab bag of personal attacks and straw men. Steering clear of that is not an unwillingness to encounter contrary ideas as much as an unwillingness to engage with incipient madness.
As someone who hits for the privilege cycle (white, male and heterosexual) I have had many opportunities over the years to realize I’ve inadvertently offended someone. It’s always a bit of a shock - I thought I was being complimentary/helpful/sensitive! - but I think I’ve learned at least one useful lesson from these experiences: The best response is usually to shut up and listen.
That’s a tough thing to do, because the overwhelming impulse it to justify the offense, to let those offended know that none was intended, that my motive really was good and pure, and so on. Following that impulse is usually the best way to make a bad situation worse, though. The offended individuals usually aren’t much interested in hearing a strained rationalization (exasperated women call it mansplaining); usually they are more interested in being heard.
So when Patricia Arquette’s comments on Oscar night (“it’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve all fought for to fight for us now”) went over like a lead balloon among people of color, I really hoped those who initially applauded her comments would take a step back and reconsider. After all, white feminists have at times sidelined people of color. Prejudiced language periodically rears its ugly head to the present day, with examples both famous (Geraldine Ferraro) and infamous (Harriet Christian).
Christian’s language is particularly revealing. In the same short clip she disparages Barack Obama as an “inadequate black male” she also says: “it’s equality for all of us, it’s about time we all stood up for it.” She claims to be for equality for everyone, but that sentiment sure seems to rest comfortably with a pretty virulent racism. Perhaps people of color could be forgiven for picking up echoes of the former when hearing declarations of the latter.
Because here’s the thing. If you claim to be welcoming of everyone and interested in justice for all, it’s fair to look at how people are responding. In Arquette’s case, people of color had an extremely negative response. I had an extended discussion about that with Libby Spencer on Twitter, and the starting point was Libby’s belief that criticizing Arquette’s comments amounted to an attack on Arquette.
I thought of it much differently: if Arquette was making a call for solidarity with people of color, and they reacted negatively, then maybe that represented an excellent opportunity to shut up and listen to them - not to explain why they are misunderstanding her. Maybe they weren’t feeling an ally vibe because Arquette was not being a good ally. Maybe she wasn’t calling for mutual aid by demanding it of others. (Mutual aid is something one offers, not claims.)
Nicole Sandler went further, by turns wallowing in self-pity (“I feel as if I’m supposed to apologize for being born white, but even that wouldn’t satisfy the people who are excoriating me today…I’m apparently everything that’s wrong with the evil white woman”), belittling critics (who are “projecting their insecurities”) and essentially declaring America post-racial (“I am denying that I benefit from White Privilege”).
But cutting through the rhetorical clutter, her thesis still has that blind spot: “I always thought the issues we feminists fought for were inclusive of ALL women.” If that’s the case then why hasn’t a proportionate demographic slice of all women flocked to it? Why are there still such clear racial fault lines on the subject? It’s silly, almost trivial, to say one is welcoming of all people. Hell, even Rush Limbaugh says that. The proof is in the pudding.
Similarly, saying that Arquette was “using the phrase ALL WOMEN over and over again” doesn’t mean the message resonated with all women. The fact that so many women of color reacted negatively suggests that the burden is more on Arquette (and her defenders) to understand why that is - rather than on others to “reach out for clarification.” It’s not as though her words were cleverly edited or truncated. Everyone heard exactly what she said, fully in context.
Solidarity is a tough thing. It isn’t enough to say you’re inclusive, it’s also important to look around and see who’s actually included. Who’s drawn to it and who stays away. Arquette’s comments were tone deaf at best, and at worst were part of a long tradition of “wait your turn” activism that has an undertone of racial animus. Those repelled by her words may not have misunderstood her, and may in fact have understood her all too well. The unwillingness to reach out for clarification on that is the real missed opportunity.
NOTE: Much of this post concerns Jonathan Chait’s terrible judgment on the Iraq War. I understand the impulse to say: that was a long time ago, let’s move on already, what else ya got? But the Iraq War was the most important foreign policy issue of the last couple of decades, which means reputations deserve to be made or destroyed by it. You don’t get to screw up on something of that magnitude and then get what Charles Pierce called (in a slightly different context) a Great Mulligan. It should haunt you for as long as you are an analyst. Whiff on the biggest issue of a generation and expect to hear about it year after year. So yes, Iraq again. For those who got it wrong, always and forever Iraq.
Sam Pritchard has a great essay responding to Chait’s piece on political correctness. (Inclusiveness is a long-standing concern for Chait.) He addresses Chait’s wildly overheated rhetoric, the contradiction between demanding some ideas be logically engaged while summarily dismissing others, and the limits of civil discourse in changing people’s minds. He also writes about the ability of falsehood to persist in the popular imagination, noting (among other things) that “42% of Americans still believe we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
This bit of misinformation jumped out at me because it points back to Chait’s own enthusiastic support of the Iraq War. He was one of the leading voices on the left calling for the attack. He now invokes “the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.” How was he using reason back in 2002? Well for one, he wrote “we must eliminate Iraq’s nonconventional arsenal by any means at our disposal, including, if all else fails, war.” Which means everyone knew Iraq had WMDs right?
Actually, no. Scott Ritter didn’t think so. Mohamed El Baradei didn’t think so. Why were these experts not legitimate in his eyes? They actually had experience on the ground. For someone as concerned as Chait now is with opposing views being defined as illegitimate, he didn’t even bother to acknowledge (much less rebut) their arguments - which, just to be clear, were correct.
Chait could only muster withering contempt for the idea inspections and later write “it was very hard to know at the time.” It was only hard to know if one was heavily emotionally invested in supporting the Bush administration. If one took a more rational approach it was pretty easy. But faith in Iraq’s WMD program assumed, to coin a phrase, a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people.
There was excellent reason to believe Iraq likely didn’t have WMDs. Even if it did, did that justify launching a war? Again, looking at it rationally: of course not - and that too was easy to know at the time. (Keep in mind the WMD issue is just one of Chait’s intuition-based positions on Iraq. For brevity’s sake I won’t touch the claim that “the liberal concern for humanitarianism should not stand in the way” of war, wholesale absurdities like this, etc.)
Pushing the Bush administration’s line was not an intellectual exercise. Pierce (again) wrote that it “relied on journalistic convention and the soft agreements between gentlemen to peddle their poison,” and concludes: “it is still the most important thing to remember that there were people who got…it…right.” These things were knowable, provided one wanted to know them.
During the run-up to war America’s political and media elite were overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, pro-war (just ask Phil Donahue). I understand the worry one might have had about being fired or ostracized. I understand the psychic incentive to go along, to look extra hard for reasons to support the case for war, and conversely to give extra scrutiny to the case against it.
I know how tempting it was to blandly say “I don’t think you can argue that a regime change in Iraq won’t demonstrably and almost immediately improve the living conditions of the Iraqi people,” even though there wasn’t a scrap of evidence - beyond the wild imaginings of neocon warmongers and Iraqi exiles eyeing power - to support it. Not that I agree with it or excuse it, but I can certainly understand it. It’s entirely possible I’d have done the same thing.
But boy howdy it takes a special kind of cluelessness to happily surf a wave of propaganda that helps launch a war of aggression, and then ever again for the rest of your life talk about how you are a champion of Enlightenment thinking. Chait’s actual sins against rational discourse dwarf the ones he imagines in his opponents.
Jonathan Chait’s latest adventure in pointless contrarianism has already been wrestled to the ground and noogied, with Alex Pareene doing an especially delightful job. The short version is this. With the exception of the incident at the top of the article (about which: intimidation, violence and threats of violence are completely wrong) Chait catalogues some snarky behavior and petty grievances, then tries to blow it up into a threat to democracy.
As Angus Johnston pointed out, everything else that Chait objects to in his article is speech. He says he’s in the “solution to speech you don’t like is more speech” camp, then proceeds to lament people using more speech to prevent, say, Condoleezza Rice from having yet another opportunity to share her unique thoughts about things. Those who didn’t want their university to sponsor one of the architects of the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history had, in Chait’s view, an unwillingness to encounter contrary ideas. (Does he not know what the point of protest is?)
So while in theory Chait favors more speech for everyone, he doesn’t really like how it can work out in practice. Those he disagrees with are welcome to their more speech, but only on the condition that it is exercised in a way no one notices.
He traces this troubling development to the beginning of the political correctness movement in the early 90s. This is kind of funny because the title of his essay recalls a formulation conservatives loved to use back then - invoking the phrase as a way to endorse reactionary positions. (“Well, this may not be politically correct, but (insert antediluvian sentiment here).”)
Whatever the origin, lots of people can now broadcast their opinions on social media. Someone says something, then others respond. If the first thing said is provocative then there might be lots of responses, and those responses might be pointed. Chait is totally fine with that first thing, which makes sense considering he’s a professional instigator at a major media outlet. But that second thing? Why, it’s “swarms of jeering critics” (everyone to the cellar!)
Here’s another curiosity. Chait deplores mansplaining as “an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man,” but he uses his own all-purpose term of abuse to respond to Pareene. (It also violates Rule #1 for Contrarians. Bad form!) In Chait’s case it’s “ad hominem.” This is something I’ve observed more and more lately - writers using that phrase as an excuse to not address substantive criticism.
A great deal of online criticism has a mix of styles. Some combine insults and mockery (the dreaded ad hominem) with substantive critiques. To grab one random example of someone who favors this approach, consider Jonathan Chait. In just the last couple of weeks he has called James Inhofe primitive, the opinions of climate-science skeptics “bizarre ramblings,” the Republican Party “obviously unhinged” and senseless, and so on. He certainly likes his personal attacks, doesn’t he?
Which is fine, or can be anyway. Name calling can be an effective rhetorical technique. Making your opponent look foolish can help persuade others that your position is the right one. What you can’t do, though, at least not without looking like a thin skinned and pompous twit, is use ad hominems when it suits you and then recoil in priggish horror when they’re used against you. And that’s exactly what Chait does in his response - one which, hilariously, both uses and decries ad hominems in the same sentence.
I don’t think many people who dive in to the rough and tumble of social and political debate have an unwavering sense of propriety. Calls for civility usually come from those who are on the inside looking out. If you’re on the outside, your voice may be all you’ve got. Sometimes it takes being a little bit loud and colorful to get noticed. That goes both ways though. It’s fun when your preferred targets are on the receiving end of ridicule, not so much when you or your allies are. But if you’ve been dishing it out you damn well better be able to take it.
You don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to say, this piece has personal attacks and therefore should not be dignified with comment, then gleefully use personal attacks in your own writing. If you do, anyone who’s paying attention will understand the real reason for not responding: you’ve got nothing. That’s certainly how it looks in this case.