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Was This the Worst Article Written for the Old New Republic in the Decade of the 2000s?

Weekend Reading: Henry Farrell: Belle-ing the Chait

Henry Farrell: Belle-ing the Chait: "When [Jonathan] Chait says:

the story… in the print edition, asked, ‘Can a white male liberal critique the country’s current political-correctness craze (which, by the way, hurts liberals most)? We’re sure you’ll let us know.’ This was my editors’ playful way to provocatively anticipate the firestorm the piece would set off.

I read the phrase ‘playful way to provocatively anticipate the firestorm’ as an unsubtle euphemism for ‘calculated strategy to turn the troll-dial from 10 to 11.’ This was a piece that Chait’s editors (and, one presumes, Chait) knew would get an outraged reaction, and presumably wanted to get an outraged reaction. In other words, it was an exercise in trolling.

I’ve long been of the opinion that Jonathan Chait is a very talented troll... not just a troll... but much of his day-to-day work is trolling both left and right. This isn’t meant as a hit.... Not only is there a great deal of potential heuristic benefit to good, competent trolling (Socrates’ eironeia is no more and no less than trolling turned to philosophical purposes) but the work of cognitive psychologists like Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest that trolling is ubiquitous. Our human capacity to reason has evolved not to figure out the truth, but to win arguments.... The desire to troll explains the structure of the piece--a string of claims (1990s-political-correctness-leads-to-crazy-feminists-on-campus-today-leads-to-people-being-horrible-on-Twitter), which seem to add up to a coherent whole, if you don’t read carefully, but don’t add up if you do. To understand this structure... consulting that universally acknowledged expert on trolling... Daniel Davies....

Contrarianism... well done.... assemble[s] a whole load of points... individually uncontroversial... to support a conclusion which is surprising and counterintuitive.... The aim... is the overall impression...

and even more, this very interesting post on the heuristic value of trolling. In particular....

Take a sensitive topic (like the ban on minarets or the latest problem with Macintosh OS), and... build an argument.... The conclusion of your argument is blatantly absurd, but every premise is correct, except one. The trick is to hide that wrong premise under an intricate discussion. You know that people will be so hasty to resist your conclusion that they will start by attacking the true premises. You have prepared a violent rebuttal for each objection... since you are right on those points, some objective debaters might side with you, which will divide the discussion group (a crucial step).

So what’s the ‘blatantly absurd’ premise that’s been buried here?...

Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

So what are Chait’s claims? As I read them:

  1. The left has exerted ‘hegemonic control’ over academia for two decades (Chait purports to document this by spatchcocking a jumble of incidents from the 1990s through to today together).

  2. Social media has created a new space for this ‘far left,’ which ‘has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones,’ to flourish.

  3. Therefore, Catherine MacKinnon and all those other people who annoyed and terrified me back when I was an undergraduate are having their revenge, twenty-five years later! Social media has allowed the forces of political correctness to assume ‘a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular,’ ‘philosophically threatening’ the foundations of liberal politics.

If you look at these claims at all carefully, they’re obviously untrue.... Even Alan Sokal has acknowledged in retrospect that postmodernists were pretty harmless compared to the true forces of irrationalist lunacy which were then gathering strength in less fashionable precincts.... The way that college life sort-of looked the last time that Jonathan Chait was paying any attention to it is very different from the way that it looks today.... University administrations are largely indifferent to the siren call of post modernism and (except where serious scandal is threatened), feminist issues on campus. In contrast, they are exquisitely sensitive to the interests of funders.... There was a recent incident when a professor was refused employment, on the purported justification that ‘[w]hat we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.’ The person who got the boot was, of course, Steven Salaita.... The turn of the cultural left to Twitter is a reflection of its weakness on university campuses, not its strength. Today’s intra-left fights over cultural identity are not the birth pangs of a dangerous new radical left elite of cultural enforcers. They’re the product of anger and economic powerlessness, the unanticipated result of the hollowing out of humanities on university campuses, and the parlous state of intellectual journalism.... Impoverished freelancers and adjunct intellectuals, scraping out a living from commuter teaching and dead end jobs, are angry when they look at the comfortable positions that a previous generation of humanities intellectuals had, and that they never will. They won’t ever have good jobs. They do have Twitter. But that’s nearly all that they do have or are likely to have any time soon. Which is why Chait’s argument is, at best, trolling. We’re not seeing the creation of a ‘towering presence’ of far left cultural hegemony, any more than we were threatened in 2007 by McGovernized Daily Kos readers, with their ‘paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage,’ frogmarching misfortunate liberals like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias into lockstep on their Long March into the radicalist abyss. Instead, we’re seeing the continued weakening of the cultural left on campus, and a turn towards Twitter and online media because, basically, that’s what they’ve got....

Considered as trolling, it’s a very creditable performance.... If the piece were intended as serious journalism, of course, it would be a quite different story. Still, I think it’s only fair to give Chait the benefit of the doubt.