The Corner

Love Me, I’m a Liberal

After reading Kevin’s biting opinion, let me offer a dissenting concurrence of sorts in the case of Jonathan Chait v. Internet. I’ve had my spats with Chait over the years and I agree he is hardly immune to the temptation of grabbing the nearest weapon to hand in an argument. On many occasions he’s jumped to the conclusion that his political opponents to the right are racist because, well, just because. And I think Kevin makes an excellent point when he writes:

Jonathan Chait’s recent critique of political correctness insists that the phenomenon has undergone a resurgence. It hasn’t; contrary to Chait’s characterization, it never went away. The difference is that it is now being used as a cudgel against white liberals such as Jonathan Chait, who had previously enjoyed a measure of immunity. Chait is in roughly the same position as Lena Dunham, who is so obviously confused by feminists who insist that she, a spoiled white Manhattan princess of progressivism, has little to contribute to the discussion of the situation of women who do not come from such rarefied circumstances. 

Where my concurrence turns into dissent is on the attitude we should bring toward Chait’s grudging and selective epiphany. If, for the sake of argument, Chait was completely wrong until now, this article demonstrates he’s at least a little less wrong. That’s progress. Most intellectual awakenings happen in pieces. Most converts to conservatism do so because of a specific realization or event. For instance, there’s nothing about the 9/11 attacks in themselves that should make a liberal embrace low taxes or school choice, but I’ve met countless people who became conservatives because of that wake-up call. Similarly, I’ve met some people who became full-spectrum liberals because of the Iraq war or because they just liked Barack Obama or cared so much about gay marriage. Again, it shouldn’t work like that, but it often does. When Commentary started to move rightward on foreign policy, National Review ran an editorial headlined “Come on in the Water’s Fine.” (I’m quoting from memory).

Now, before you think I’m high, let me say that I don’t think Chait will ever, ever, be a conservative. But that doesn’t mean he can’t become less wrong over time. If he wants to fight the identity-politics Left on his own side, I say good for him (and, in fairness, he’s picked some laudable fights to his left before). I have the same attitude toward Alan Dershowitz and (to a lesser extent) Bill Maher when it comes to national security and radical Islam.

That said, I very much doubt this will become a long-term cause for Chait. It’s just too hard to swim against that tide. There’s a story many establishment liberals like to tell about themselves and their allegedly rich tradition of battling the illiberal Left. The problem is that it’s usually just that — a story. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, establishment liberalism was pulled leftward because it couldn’t stand being vilified and mocked by the radical Left. College administrators appeased rioters at Cornell and liberal politicians rhetorically sided with rioters in the cities. Phil Och’s “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” drew blood.

Peter Beinart wrote glowingly about anti-Communist liberals in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And it’s true a few Truman-era liberals fought a very good fight back when Communists were trying to take over the Democratic party (and the country). But Beinart’s use of that tale is instructive. He invoked it to make the case that liberals “and only liberals” could fight “Islamic totalitarianism.” Moreover, he wanted to use the example of mid-century hard line anti-Communist liberalism as an inspiration for a similar purge of liberals who are soft on Islamic totalitarianism. That was all in 2006. Today, apres fizzle, that Peter Beinart is nowhere to be found. He wanted a war of “hards” against “softs.” Not only did the softs win, he seems to have switched sides. 

Maybe Chait is of stronger stuff. Maybe he can withstand being unfairly called a racist and sexist because he refuses to buy into the agenda of those who would use such accusations to silence dissenters from their agenda. If he does, I say again, good for him. And, if in seeing the intellectual bankruptcy in such accusations when hurled at him he realizes they are very often equally bankrupt when hurled at his opponents to the right, that would be even better. 

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