Politics & Policy

A Harvard Professor’s Dishonest Attack

No, NR has not endorsed Tom Perkins’s views.

‘National Review endorses Tom Perkins position that whites and men should have more votes than blacks and women.” So wrote Professor Amitabh Chandra of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in response to a column, written by your obedient correspondent, that neither endorsed Mr. Perkins’s views nor made a single mention of whites, men, blacks, or women. And while I am admittedly personally irritated by the willful mischaracterization of my own views by a third-rate intellectual cheap-shot artist, there is a larger issue here: A self-governing people in a democratic republic requires a certain level of honesty and rigor from our public intellectuals, without which productive political discourse is rendered inert. Harboring intellectual dishonesty is bad for Harvard’s reputation, of course, but the more significant fact is that it is bad for self-government.

A little background: On Friday I wrote a column about Tom Perkins, a gazillionaire financier with a talent for annoying our would-be class warriors. Mr. Perkins, fresh from an ill-considered comparison between anti–“1 percent” invective in the United States and the social conditions that preceded Kristallnacht in Germany (a comparison I described as “an offense against both good taste and substance”), upped the rhetorical ante with this intentionally outrageous argument: “The Tom Perkins system is: You don’t get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes. But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?” Suffice it to say that Mr. Perkins’s provocative rhetoric had the desired effect. I noted that Mr. Perkins had a point — about taxes. We detest the idea that our relations with the state should be conditioned on income in one context, but we assume that this idea is the very foundation of justice in another. I challenged our progressive friends to articulate a principled position — not an argument from pragmatism, but from principle — under which one is not only self-evidently just but essential, while the other is self-evidently wicked. The point, conveniently communicated in the headline: “Our tax system is morally insane.”

When challenged to do the necessary cogitation to come up with that principled argument, Professor Chandra did the easy thing: cry “Racist!”

The column is linked to above for your inspection, and you will search it in vain for an endorsement of Mr. Perkins’s tongue-in-cheek voting scheme or any reference to race or sex. In fact, when I challenged Professor Chandra to point to the sentence in which I endorsed the views he attributes to me, he backed down.

But calling somebody a racist is a bell that cannot be unrung.

There were many Americans, myself among them, who believed, with woeful naïveté as it turns out, that the election of a black man to the highest office in the land would let some air out of the overinflated balloon that is American racial politics. Instead, the presence of a black man in the Oval Office has simply put a loaded rhetorical gun into the hand of every lightly educated Democratic hack and irresponsible political commentator across the fruited plain. I explored this at some length in an essay in the December 31 edition of National Review. If I may be forgiven for quoting myself:

As in the case of witchcraft, trials on charges of racism admit spectral evidence. Martin Bashir on the IRS scandal: “Republicans are using [it] as their latest weapon in the war against the black man. ‘IRS’ is the new ‘nigger.’” Touré on Mitt Romney’s vocabulary: “[He] said ‘anger’ twice. . . . I don’t say it lightly, but this is niggerization.” Jonathan Capehart: Mentioning that Obama went to Harvard is racist “because it insinuates that he took the place of someone else through affirmative action, that someone else being someone white.” Lawrence O’Donnell: “The Republican party is saying that the president of the United States has bosses, that the unions boss him around. Does that sound to you like they are trying to consciously or subconsciously deliver the racist message that, of course, of course a black man can’t be the real boss?” Janeane Garofalo: “Do you remember teabaggers? It was just so much easier when we could just call them racists. I just don’t know why we can’t call them racists, or functionally retarded adults. The functionally retarded adults, the racists — with their cries of, ‘I want my country back.’ You know what they’re really saying is, ‘I want my white guy back.’” Karen Finney on Herman Cain: “They like him because they think he’s a black man who knows his place.” Chris Matthews: “It’s the sense that the white race must rule . . . and they can’t stand the idea that a man who’s not white is president. That is real, that sense of racial superiority.” Etc., ad nauseam.

Words that I do not expect to write again: Janeane Garofalo is absolutely correct. It is “easier” — far easier — to “just call them racists.” “Racist” is practically a magic word in American political discourse, a two-syllable incantation for shutting down debate.

This is part of a programmatic strategy on the part of the Left. The Left has essentially given up argument as a means of persuasion, replacing it with disqualification. The strategy of disqualification — take it from a former teacher of rhetoric — is the ad hominem elevated to a grand scale. Never mind that it is a fallacy — it works. If you can reduce, e.g., Sarah Palin to the Tina Fey cartoon of Sarah Palin, you do not have to address her substantive arguments. The added benefit of this strategy is that one has the opportunity to bathe one’s self and one’s colleagues in a sense of moral and intellectual superiority, which, no matter how ill-gotten, is among the most exquisite of emotions. Thus a political movement full of people too ill-informed to know that Sarah Palin never uttered the words “I can see Russia from my house!” — that was Tina Fey — get to dismiss her as ignorant. The democratic spirit is not without a sense of irony.

Tarring somebody as a racist is the ultimate disqualification in American politics. (That is, incidentally, why every time somebody at this magazine writes something controversial, the opinion is ascribed not to Kevin D. Williamson or Charles C. W. Cooke but to National Review corporately — the idea being to disqualify not only the writer but the institution as well; National Review is a much more enticing target than I am individually.) It may cheapen the legacy of those who suffered under real racism, from slavery to Jim Crow, but it is a handy cudgel, and the low-minded among us have no scruple about swinging it at any opportunity.

The problem here is that Professor Chandra is not a television comedian like Bill Maher or a shut-in blogger for Media Matters. He is a professor at Harvard. I have often remarked that whatever one thinks of John Kennedy, he did not deserve to have such an embarrassing mess as that dysfunctional airport named after him. If Professor Chandra is an indicator — and he is — then President Kennedy is nonetheless better memorialized by one of those beaten-up baggage-claim carousels than he is by the institution at Harvard.

Professor Chandra’s argument, to the extent that there is one, is that because women and blacks typically have less income than men and whites, then that which serves the interests of higher-income people diminishes those of blacks and women. Even if I had endorsed Mr. Perkins’s views — which I did not — this would be a tendentious reading. I could as easily note that Professor Chandra receives a paycheck from an institution with a long and nasty history of anti-Semitism and is currently complicit in a campaign of gross discrimination against Asian Americans. But that would not in fact be a fair representation of the man or his interests. He’s not an anti-Semite; he’s a huckster.

Properly understood, Professor Chandra’s actions are not sloppiness — they are academic dishonesty. He is assiduous in ensuring that his name is always linked to Harvard’s, fortifying himself in borrowed prestige. The act of willfully, dishonestly, and maliciously misrepresenting another party’s position is the political-science equivalent of falsifying the data in a laboratory experiment in order to support one’s preferred hypothesis. We have a great deal of faith in the hard sciences because scientists do not generally falsify data. Political scientists do. Harvard, as it turns out, has a school policy on this sort of thing: “Plagiarism or falsification of research results will ordinarily result in a requirement to withdraw or expulsion.” But that is for lowly students. Professors apparently are held to a different standard. I made an inquiry with David Ellwood, the dean of the Kennedy School, as to whether this sort of shabby thing is up to the institution’s standards. So far, he has had nothing to say for himself, for the Kennedy School, or for Professor Chandra. I cannot imagine that he would.

I write this in part because I miss teaching my class at The King’s College and like to take the occasional opportunity for a bit of rhetorical analysis. But the more important consideration is that this kind of intellectual malpractice must be confronted squarely. I may not be able to shame such persons as Professor Chandra into amending their ways. In any case, those who financially support men such as Professor Chandra should know what they are paying for, and those who hire his students should know what they are getting.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.


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