William Kristol’s op-eds defending the Iraq War and Jonathan Chait’s articles on political correctness share a common flaw … and yes, that flaw is about “identity politics.” (More)

Backtalk, Part II: The Chait Effect

This week Morning Feature considers the right wing’s periodic outrage over “political correctness.” Yesterday we began with Kirsten Powers’ new book The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech. Today we review Jonathan Chait’s complaints about “identity politics.” Tomorrow we’ll conclude with actual attempts at censorship, and distinguish that from organized disagreement.

“Americans will come to the view….”

On Wednesday, William Kristol defended the Iraq War in the USA Today, beginning:

We were right to invade Iraq in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein, and to complete the job we should have finished in 1991.

Even with the absence of caches of weapons of mass destruction, and the mistakes we made in failing to send enough troops at first and to provide security from the beginning for the Iraqi people, we were right to persevere through several difficult years. We were able to bring the war to a reasonably successful conclusion in 2008.

He then blames the ongoing carnage in Iraq on President Obama, and concludes:

If [there is “a serious discussion of our policy options going forward”], I’m convinced Americans will come to the view that there’s no alternative to American world leadership, and that such leadership must be backed by the threat of military strength and the willingness, in the right time and circumstances, to use it.

Note the active players in this analysis: “We were right” and “Americans will come to the view.”

It’s not just Kristol. Last week Jeb Bush’s stumbles seemed to portend what Josh Marshall called “a watershed moment in the country’s reckoning with the strategic blunder [and] self-inflicted catastrophe of the Iraq War.”

Again, note the active players: “the country’s reckoning” “self-inflicted catastrophe.”

The debate was influenced by poll results that show a majority of Americans think the Iraq War was not worth the cost. But I haven’t seen any pundits or politicians mention this poll:

Question: Do you think that the Iraqi people are better off/worse off than they were before the American forces entered their country?

Iraqis: Better (30%), Worse (42%), Same (23%), Not Sure (6%)
Americans: Better (39%), Worse (18%), Same (30%), Not Sure (14%)

Yes, there are public opinion polls in Iraq. The Iraqi people are active players too. And in debating the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, shouldn’t “our country’s reckoning” consider whether Iraqis think “we were right?”

“Casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended”

Debating the Iraq War without considering the voices of Iraqis is an example of what psychologist Derald Sue termed microaggressions:

They’re something very specific: the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.

This is how psychologist Derald W. Sue, who’s written two books on microaggressions, defines the term: “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

I’m sure William Kristol is among the 39% of Americans who believe the Iraq War was good for the Iraqi people (he mentions their security) and I doubt Josh Marshall intended to exclude Iraqis in his choice of the phrases “the country’s reckoning” and “self-inflicted catastrophe.” But by framing the Iraq War in terms of American opinions and interests, we marginalize the Iraqi people. We are the grammatical subjects, the active players. If we mention the Iraqis at all, it is as grammatical objects, the acted-upon.

“Inability to evaluate arguments about identity as abstract arguments”

Of course Kristol and Marshall are Americans. They write from (very different) American perspectives, for American audiences. That fact doesn’t excuse the omission of Iraqi voices, but it does help explain that omission. And I’m confident that – had an Iraqi written them to say “You left out our views on the U.S. invasion and occupation!” – neither Marshall nor Kristol would dismiss that complaint as “political correctness.”

Indeed both would probably admit that they wrote from American perspectives, for American audiences. Both would likely agree that the U.S. debate about the Iraq War should include Iraqi opinions, if only to cite polls. Both might even agree that “Did the war leave Iraq better or worse?” is a question that only Iraqis can answer.

With that in mind, consider the core of Jonathan Chait’s initial article about political correctness:

If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. (Here one might find oneself accused of man/white/straightsplaining.) It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called “tone policing.” If you are accused of bias, or “called out,” reflection and apology are the only acceptable response – to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous. A white person or a man can achieve the status of “ally,” however, if he follows the rules of p.c. dialogue. A community, virtual or real, that adheres to the rules is deemed “safe.” The extensive terminology plays a crucial role, locking in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement impossible.

Chait follows up in a subsequent article:

The response partly reflects the p.c. culture’s inability to evaluate arguments about identity as abstract arguments rather than reflections of the author’s own identity.

And again in a third article:

My essay describes p.c. ideology as a form of Marxist thought, substituting race and gender identities for economic ones, and assigning political rights on the basis of class identity rather than individuality.

I’d argue that the historical record of Marxist regimes is an unambiguous disaster. Marxist regimes have failed everywhere they have been tried – not because of external pressure or the idiosyncratic personal failures of their leaders but flaws inherent in its ideological structure. Marxists are very good at crushing critics of their policies, but rather bad at devising the policies themselves. Those two facts are not unrelated. The construction of effective policy requires internal reasoning, not the automatic identification of all criticism as the representation of a privileged class.

In other words, Chait argues that we should “evaluate arguments about identity as abstract arguments” and no one’s view should be dismissed solely “on the basis of class identity.”

“The problem with identity politics”

Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder states it more directly:

The problem with identity politics – in this particular manifestation, anyway – is that it assumes that just because a person claims a certain identity label, that person is necessarily empowered to be judge and jury on all issues pertaining to that category. The truth is, identity grants experience (and experience should be valued to a point); but it does not automatically grant wisdom, critical distance, or indeed, unassailable righteousness. To forget this is to turn individual people who possess a range of intelligences, backgrounds, self-interests, and flaws into two-dimensional avatars for the condition of humanity in which they happen to share. And, by corollary, to assert that it is impossible on some fundamental level for those who don’t share that condition to ever relate or speak to that person as merely another human being with ideas and opinions.

That logic is real, it is ridiculous, and it is truly tiresome. It deserves all the criticism it gets.

Actually, it’s not ridiculous. Just as “Did the war leave Iraq better or worse?” is a question that only Iraqis can answer, “Does this leave [insert group here] better or worse” is a question that only those in that group can answer.

When Iraqis – or women, people of color, LGBTs, people with disabilities, etc. – say “That’s not helping!” … the privileged commentator’s first response should not be to “defend his intentions” or “request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner.” Instead, the first response should be to listen.

Vox’s Amanda Taub explains:

Look at Chait’s own examples. Trans women who protest definitions of “women” as “people with vaginas” aren’t merely bellyaching about terminology – they’re people on the margins of a group making legitimate demands for inclusion. Women of color who point out the many ways in which white feminists overlook issues that affect minority women aren’t engaging in race-based arguments just for the fun of it, they’re pointing out that the feminist movement had promised to protect their interests, but was in fact ignoring them.
Discrimination and safety are serious matters that actually do affect people’s ability to participate in public discussion – yes, even more so than the degree to which people in positions of privilege have to hear arguments they dislike. Writing them off as frivolous disputes over what is or isn’t “politically correct” makes those problems much harder to address.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be told you lack the life experience to debate an issue with someone who lives that issue every day. But sometimes our best contribution to a debate … is to listen and learn.


Happy Friday!