The Corner


The Most Exquisite Translators

Ezra Klein during an interview in the White House, January 6, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Ezra Klein defends Sarah Jeong from her critics — specifically from Jonah — and in so doing illustrates a core progressive pathology: The overuse of what Nicholas Shackel, a British professor of Philosophy, has termed the “motte and bailey” argument. (For those interested in an expansive explanation, there’s a good summary of this here, but essentially it involves making expansive claims about a topic or ideology when you’re not being questioned, and then claiming under closer examination that your more extreme views “just mean” something innocuous.) In Klein’s estimation, when Jeong writes “#CancelWhitePeople,” or  or “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men,” what she’s actually saying is that “it would be nice if the world sucked less.” Indeed, it is only the lack of context that has caused irritation among her critics. Specifically, Klein explains that:

“On social justice Twitter, the term means something closer to ‘the dominant power structure and culture’ than it does to actual white people.” 

This, Klein proposes, should be obvious. But it’s not, because of the “context collapse” that is so common online. That’s why, when you make Klein’s substitutions, her tweets make, er, more sense:

“Eating dinner in Rockridge = listening to [the dominant power structure and culture] talk about Game of Thrones / watching them eat ramen with a fork”

oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to [the dominant power structure and culture]

This tendency — to retreat into banal generalizations or into marginal definitions that are merely asserted as universal — is rife on the modern American Left. It is by this process that the absurd hypersensitivity and proto-authoritarian speech-policing that is inherent to “political correctness” is transformed into “I just think people should be civil to each other,” and by this process that some of feminism’s more outlandish opinions are transmuted under fire into “I just mean we should treat men and women equally.” Klein knows full well that there are only a few people in the United States who object to the idea that “it would be nice if the world sucked less,” but an awful lot of people who object to the broad-based racial disdain on display from Jeong — yes, even when that disdain comes from a minority and is aimed at the racial group that is deemed a synonym for the “dominant power structure and culture.” And so he redefines the debate onto the ground he wants to fight on, rather than the ground that he has been given.

Or, at least, he does when the person being criticized belongs on his side of the aisle. When they do not, the opposite process obtains, and even the blandest of statements are mutated into egregious dog whistles that only he and his friends can discern. In both cases, the implication is clear: That nobody could possibly mean what they said, and that that the Voxes of the world are needed to serve as the most exquisite among translators.

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