I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Jonathan Chait's PC Hypocrisy

I notice the political blogosphere is all aTwitter [...] over Jon Chait's latest hectoring of people who dare to offend his sensibilities because they loudly object to not having his privilege. All the blogging megastars are weighing in: Digby, Atrios, Crooked Timber, Gawker, and so on.

For what it's worth, I think Digby (as usual) has the best take:
God knows there's a lot of moronic discourse on the internet and it's important to try to sort out trolls from serious critics. And nobody says that you are required to absorb whatever abuse any crank decides to lay on you. My wrecked comment section stays dormant because useful arguments have shifted to twitter and I don't need to spend my days trying to deal with the odd assortment of misogynists and malcontents who took up residence there and chased off all the normal people. But so-called "PC Police" are among those critics who are actually making a difference, even if it is uncomfortable and frustrating to be on the receiving end. My own response to being "called out" is often anger at first just like Chait. It's very hurtful and I'm human. But I've learned that when I feel that very particular kind of anger that comes from being attacked for my privilege, it is often a useful signal that I probably need to step back think a little harder about something.
Amen. I'd only add that part of becoming a grownup in the blogosphere -- even out here in the more obscure subregions -- is understanding that people will, indeed, actually read what you have to say and react to it. So you'd better thicken up your skin. It also helps if you know what the hell you're talking about.

Unfortunately, when it comes to education, Chait doesn't demonstrate this particular trait. As Dan Katz points out, Chait's takes on education policy are remarkable shallow. That's not at all unusual for neo-liberal pundits; Chait, however, has opted to cover his education ignorance with personal attacks. His favorite target? Diane Ravitch:
Paul Farhi profiles Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor turned education-reform activist, who is working to end strict teacher tenure protections. Naturally, this enrages teacher-union evangelist Diane Ravitch, who not only disagrees with Brown’s position, but expresses offense that anybody should listen to Brown at all:
“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”  
As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters ... I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.” 
Why, yes, that does sound rather sexist. Now, Ravitch suggests here that Brown’s analysis is so transparently illogical that perhaps only her looks can account for her views. Why, Ravitch wonders, would the elimination of a job protection help attract better teachers? Let me reveal, via the power of logic, how this can work. [emphasis mine]
You can continue reading and enjoy Chait's "logic" and use of high-quality research citations, such as the NY Daily News. Pundits like Chait desperately want to believe in things like the Merit Pay Fairy while ignoring actual empirical evidence about tenure. They point to Washington D.C. as an exemplar for teacher pay policy without acknowledging there is no evidence the policy actually improved student learning.

But what I want to highlight here is Chait's tut-tutting at Ravitch, who quite rightly points out that Campbell Brown has no experience or expertise in education policy. The only reason anyone listens to Brown is that she is a telegenic celebrity; does Chait deny this? Does he really believe Campbell Brown would be considered a credible voice on education policy if she wasn't a famous former broadcaster?

Golly, one might actually think that Chait was slamming Ravitch for engaging in non-P.C. speech. But that can't be right; after all, Chait just wrote the following:
The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” Goldberg wrote recently about people “who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism] — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” Former Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay told her, “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.” 

That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph. [emphasis]
And there you go: Jonathan Chait is against political correctness, with the exception of the times he chooses to engage in it.

I keep reading over and over again that the reformy side only wants to have a "civil" conversation. But it appears to me that they will happily abandon their scruples if it means scoring a cheap rhetorical point. It also seems as if their idea of a debate is that they get to go on TV and spout their incoherent nonsense without any challenge, while we on the other side have to adjust our "tone" and jump through their constantly shifting verbal hoops.

I wish I could tell you this was a phenomenon limited to this little world of edublogging -- but I know it isn't. Privileged voices always retreat back to their fainting couches when confronted by folks who become frustrated when their superior arguments and insights are ignored.

Heaven forbid the Jon Chaits of this world acknowledge that maybe they could learn something from the Diane Ravitches. Because it's so much easier to take a whiff of smelling salts than actually engage.

Mercy! All this self-contradiction has tuckered me out!

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