I am a few weeks late to this party, but I really enjoyed the liberal-on-liberal violence between 2 of my favorites, Jon Chait & Ta-Nehisi Coates. To quote Gawker, “they’ve thrown some damn good shade at each other.”
As Chait wrote in one of the early salvos:
The relationship between culture and poverty starkly divides not just liberals against conservatives, but also liberals against each other. Yet liberals rarely think through their disagreements publicly, even though — or perhaps because — they pit figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama against their own supporters.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an exception, having written a series of well-received columns (a year ago, a couple months ago, and then yesterday) objecting to President Obama’s regular habit of urging higher levels of personal responsibility in the black community.
Chait rose to the President’s defense, in the process recycling tropes about culture and black poverty:
The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.
TNC had clearly lost his patience with this particular theory, and seized on this passage. Not just seized on — ripped into ferociously and ran down the street dragging its mangled corpse for another 2300 words.
Like TNC, I love me some Jonathan Chait, which makes his response to Chait so much more powerful. For me as a white reader, 2 of the most instructive sentences of the whole exchange were from TNC:
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today… I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.
This is a profoundly bleak and fatalistic view. But it’s one I don’t dispute.
Chait seems to have been taken off-guard, and spent the next several rounds playing defense. And these rounds were several because, in addition to 95% of their politics, what these writers share is a passion for getting the last word in. TNC was not going to let Chait go easy and Chait was not going to just lie down and accept defeat. Thanks to the stubbornness of both men, we readers have been blessed with some really juicy prose.
Chait had kicked a hornet’s nest, and I understand why people are losing their shit over it. But by his April 6 post, “The Color of His Presidency,” he was offering a refreshingly nuanced take. Chait tried to dig into how many Republicans understand race in politics, without allowing himself to become an apologist for it:
(C)onservatives take the very real circumstance of their occasional victimization and run with it. They are not merely wounded by the real drumbeat of spurious accusations they endure; this is the only context in which they appear able to understand racism. One can read conservative news sites devotedly for years without coming across a non-ironic reference to racism as an extant social phenomenon, as opposed to a smear against them. Facts like the persistence of hiring discrimination… do not exist in this world.
As Chait observes, “Liberals experience the limits of historically determined analysis in other realms, like when the conversation changes to anti-Semitism”:
Here is an equally charged argument in which conservatives dwell on the deep, pernicious power of anti-Semitism hiding its ugly face beneath the veneer of legitimate criticism of Israel… The liberal understanding of anti-Semitism is an inversion of conservative thinking about race. Liberals recognize the existence of the malady and genuinely abhor it; they also understand it as mostly a distant, theoretical problem, and one defined primarily as a personal animosity rather than something that bleeds into politics. Their interest in the topic consists almost entirely of indignation against its use as slander to circumscribe the policy debate.
I also have to give Ross Douthat credit for being ballsy enough to walk into the cross-fire as a (white) Republican. While Douthat was as befuddled by this internal dispute as Democrats are by a Tea Party primary challenge to a conservative Republican incumbent, he offered a valuable perspective as an outsider:
I want to zero in on the question of proportion — that is, the relative weight that politicians and pundits place on cultural problems in low-income African-American communities specifically, as oppose to problems in low-income communities writ large. I think that issue is doing a lot of the work in Coates’ argument, and it seems crucial for thinking through its implications for debates about these issues…
If the only way to unravel a culture of poverty is to expand a government program, then of course the president’s rhetoric to black audiences is inappropriate, useless, insulting! But if that’s what’s at the bottom of things here, then I don’t feel like I just followed an debate between Jonathan Chait, racial optimist, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, racial pessimist; I feel like I just followed a debate between a liberal and a radical reductionist, from which nothing terribly illuminating was ever going to emerge.
Fortunately, as readers, we don’t have to choose a winner in Chait v. Coates. We can just savor the stellar writing, the bitter insights, and the sheer entertainment this episode yielded.